Women are ingrained to be nurturers in our society and our lives: selfless mothers who cater to the whims of their children and husbands, unburdened by ambition, methodical in comfort, passionate and caring. Even within feminist circles, to be a woman is to be soft and understanding. Your sharp tongue came with parameters, limitations on how to retort only when in defense of care, and is admonished when too abrasive. In the 1600s America, when women failed to uphold these expectations, they were thought to be witches and became outcasts and monstrous, and were eventually burned at the stake. Today, monstrous women, and in particular, mothers who become monsters, take different shapes and forms, conforming just enough to be hidden in plain sight. Hazel Cills writes in an essay: “Feminine horror is strongest when at its most deeply human and complicated, depicting women who don’t earn your empathy just through their comparative innocence to a villain.”
The cultural ramifications in the way women deal and come back from trauma, especially the kind of trauma that affects women in the majority, is noticeable. Anger binds us. We feel it in our bones and fingertips. Vivian Gornick writes in Fierce Attachments about how she and her mother were often “raging at each other”, walking across New York City in an angry daze, but always together, never apart. Women are sometimes mothers, and mothers are sometimes monsters. It seems unnatural until it does. We hear of stories where young new mothers throw away their babies, gasp in horror, but never offer support to struggling single moms. We rail about abortion and the thoughtlessness of killing an innocent baby with no voice but leave thousands of unwanted children alone or without thinking of the repercussions and health of the mothers or children.
In Prevenge (Alice Lowe, 2016), a particular scene showed Alice, who is wild with fear and anger, snapping, “I’m not grieving, I’m gestating,” and it’s a calculated admission after she spends the whole of the film hunting down and killing people without mercy or empathy because her unborn baby told her to. It’s obvious — the split between grief and pregnancy in a situation where a new mother can’t grasp on either her past or her future — but the film showed the mechanical way she went about absolving herself because it was in the best interest of her child; you can feel the sense of loss in the silence, in the muted rage in the reds throughout the film. The opening shot of Alice is just her sitting miserable in a dreary garden, resigned to her assignments, but the ending scene is a different type of resignation; she has given birth to a healthy baby girl, but her daughter is no longer communicating with her, silent and needy, and she becomes so lost and overwhelmed, she leaves the hospital to go visit the cliff where her husband died. It’s supposed to be the culmination of her grief throughout, a way to find closure and healing, but ultimately Alice finishes her revenge like the vengeful spirits in Crime Without Passion (1934), a film she obsessively watches throughout.
Grief had transformed Alice into something unthinkable, hideous and tempting. Was my own mother that way? Even two weeks ago, when my family feared that my mother was suffering a stroke and my sister and I pleaded and begged with her to let us drive her to the hospital, she refused, shrouded in the grief of my father and her own stubbornness that she was resilient and unshakeable. She refused until we called for an ambulance, her distress only confounded with five EMTs patching heart monitors on her and checking her blood pressure. She was confused, even aside from the stroke symptoms, at the idea of going out of her way to a place she never found comfort in, especially now. I want to believe the disorientation was just from the stroke, but a part of me knows that my mother is just terrified of death, having seen its ugly realities, gray in the sunlight and red at night.
I remember one morning on the way to work, my mother gave me a small glimpse that she may have been sexually assaulted at one point, said a small phrase that I can’t remember enough for it to hold any significant meaning, but I remember it was seven in the morning and my heart stuttered, and she was abnormally quiet. The car was quiet and the windows were fogged up with dew and all I could hear was the blood rushing in my ears, as she got out of the car without my sister and I engaging further. That was also the last time she ever mentioned it again.
Alice’s unborn baby in Prevenge spins a monologue in one scene when she enters an office for a job interview about how women can be “the coldest, the most merciless, the most ruthless” (Alice later goes on to kill the woman who turns her down for the job because she’s pregnant), and the film puts a constant emphasis on how women and babies — perceived in the world as amiable and wavering — are calculating even if driven by emotion and misery.
Even when women monsters are usually spurred by loss and hurt, their reactions never seem justified. In the first half of Riverdale’s first season, Alice Cooper is the most uncompromising in a set of parents in the television show of irresponsible and abusive parents. She bullies Betty into submission, creating a diagram of the Perfect Daughter in her head, then vocally berating Betty until she breaks any rebellious streak and returns dutifully to her mother’s side. Betty didn’t live to the expectations Alice expects, as the season goes on, it becomes horrifying to watch Alice transform into an ugly menace when the truth of the Cooper’s first daughter, Polly, was locked away because she stubbornly fell in love in high school and got pregnant.
It’s fitting, then, that Betty turns into a coarser and harsher version of herself when she finds out, It feeds her double persona, coined Dark Betty, and she visibly changes character through dress (black wig coiffed in a bob, deep red lipstick, and black lace lingerie). Like Alice in Prevenge and even Betty’s mother before her, Betty becomes engulfed with grief, transposed with aggression, completely unlike her calm and caring self before. She is that darkness, and is overwrought with revenge and justice, with little residual concern for anyone that wasn’t in her scope. Betty pushes a football player — who is known for sexual harassment at their high school — into a boiling hot tub with her high heel in one swift motion, losing herself until she’s yelled at to stop. She had become a monster just like her mother and eventually feared her own body and mind.
A few days ago, in a weird argument with my mother at the rehab center where she was recovering, she became inflamed over something I said or did and said unkindly, “You’re the reason I got this stroke,” an accusation she has implied before. It wasn’t shocking, except that it was, the idea that I had caused her enough stress and strife that it made oxygen stop going to her brain. In that brief moment, I felt that the air was still and I could hear the traffic blistering clear. Nothing else. I knew my mother was still talking, but for those ten seconds, I just heard my breathing and the phrase over and over, slowly came back to myself and wheeled her back to her room, attempting to flee immediately.
My mother never intended to be sharply abusive either, but like most trauma, it was trickled down to her from her own mother, like a generational trinket that can be carried in her pocket, weighing her down until she became irritated, unwanted and uncaring and ultimately useless. She was consistently mad (or rather, Mad; madness consumed her speech and movements) and the older she became and the more people she lost (her mother, her sister, her brother, her husband), the harsher she became. More volatile. More uncaring. Madder. She didn’t cry, but she threw things; she threw her phone on the floor, a plate on the table. She bit me, and I still remember the indent of her teeth in my flesh, dulled after a year, but present when I press hard into my skin.
She said she wish she never had me, words stuck bitterly in her throat and across her face as if she was presently reliving the displeasure of my birth. She hit and screamed. She was paranoid of everyone, even the dog. Everyone had it out for her, anxious and impossible. Mad. She called countless people every day, retelling some story in a twisted way to garner sympathy and understanding because the world seemed unsympathetic to her. She later became furious when we explained in frustration how we didn’t want her to retell any personal information to other people, enraged that her children could blame her for something she supposedly didn’t even do. Mad. She threw more utensils, books, or sandals. She called me nothing, over and over, every moment she could. Cold. Merciless. Relentless. Mad.
My mother’s journey with trauma and motherhood reminds me Martine in Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat. Trauma is effectively swept to the corners in Haitian households, whispered conspiratorially, and mania blamed on evil spirits. Women became monsters because our communities didn’t allow us to become human, so we became the spirits of our folklore and of the earth. Daughters are dismissed by mothers, wives are dismissed by husbands. We had to become mad or else we would suffer, dismissed by an inability to speak. Martine implements the “testing” ritual on Sophie, a process to check the virginity of young women and a leftover piece of Martine’s own trauma, and her daughter rejects it and her, embedding her mother’s trauma in her own body. Sophie becomes unable to be the dutiful wife to her husband, and she blames Martine because she has become her. When Martine later dies, Sophie is transformed with grief, beats her experiences in a cane field, for herself and for her mother. She never makes sense of her mother’s actions, but she understands why her mother became Mad, why it was important to not sit on any sideline. She beat that Canefield and mourners watched to the side as she let the demons exit her hands and onto the ground.
There have been many women-centered horror films in recent years that have garnered critical acclaim which has also helped project the genre forward. The Babadook (2014), A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014), and Jennifer’s Body (2009) all have women who become monsters in ways that are irredeemable. They are cruel, and despite an outside reason that drives them into Madness, for much of the film before revelation, we are certain it’s her nature, the way she walks or speaks or breathes. These women are cold because they lose sight of themselves as women. That will-they-or-won’t-they juxtaposition is a constant. Trauma is usually always in the background, an unsettling companion. Amelia in The Babadook is a widow attempting to raise her six-year-old son, a product of her grief as her husband dies on the way to take Amelia to the hospital to deliver their child. She sees her husband in Sam, and something that should hopefully bring mother and son together, alienates them instead, especially since Sam begins to display erratic behaviors himself.
Amelia is different than the others in a similar fashion as Alice is — each taken over by a presence, a Madness (Alice’s baby and the Babadook possessing Amelia) — but the destruction of themselves and their family is epidemic and nearly fatal. The Babadook monster found Amelia vulnerable because she was. She couldn’t trust Sam, but she also couldn’t trust herself, and she took it out on everything and everyone, almost relishing destruction and death at her hands.
I haven’t forgiven my mother for her Madness, despite it plaguing our every interaction and every time she looks at me. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” the saying goes and I’m hoping that moving far away from her for an extended amount of time will remind her of any type of affection she feels for me as her daughter. Or does she see her own unavoidable end in my eyes or my father’s smile in the curve of my smile? Does she long for my resilience, my own brand of Mad, when she sometimes gives up from the disorder? Did she mean to become a monster? Did any of the women who has, want to? Were they just glad not to be seen and sought after just to do as they please? Monstrous women aren’t necessarily happy, but they are efficient and feel needed in a society and world that harbors chaos. They’re just Mad. Mad at circumstances and privileges that do not have, but instead of letting uncertainty gridlock their lives, these women let it motivate them, compel them towards a finite end, no matter the outcome. They chase it down with a fervor and demand attention, and we’re finally listening.