What are horror movies saying about single moms?
In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock released a movie about a single mother. Or rather, a man, raised by his mother and consequently mad because of it. "He was already dangerously disturbed, had been ever since his father died," explains Norman Bates' psychiatrist at the end of the seminal thriller "Psycho." "His mother was a clinging, demanding woman, and for years the two of them lived as if there was no one else in the world."
In a time when father figures were seen as essential to the nuclear family, Norma Bates, one of the earliest and most famous single mother's in horror films, was considered a cautionary tale. She played out the two biggest myths of the time: single moms are too close to their sons, and without a father, a boy will go 'mad.'
Since the '60s single moms have been incorporated into the fear genre, and not by accident. Culture critic Monica Nolan calls showing success in single motherhood, a Hollywood taboo. "A massive amount of energy is spent to prove that single parenthood is not good enough, even as an ever-increasing number of women parent on their own," writes Nolan in her 2003 essay, Mother Inferior.
Despite the blood, guts and nudity, the horror genre's message has mostly been a conservative one. Virgins live the longest, killers are driven mad by sexual perversion. Single mothers are portrayed somewhere in the middle, the link between the hero and the villain. They're responsible for triggering the evil events that follow, even if they're not the actual evil-doer.
In the '70s, the decade of legalized abortion, child support acts and women's lib, the pervasive fear was that the change in family values meant a shift in morality. No coincidence, the decade bore some deeply religious fright-flicks. In William Peter Blatty's "The Exorcist," Chris McNeil, played by Ellen Burstyn, is a financially independent atheist divorcing her husband and raising a child alone. The story suggests her emancipated lifestyle--and her propensity towards science and medicine--is a flag waiving the devil in the direction of her daughter. It takes a priestly father figure--actually two--to save her daughter from the devil.
"Things have definitely improved since the 1970s, when Burstyn in "The Exorcist" and Piper Laurie in "Carrie" were the standard-bearers of horror moms," says New York Daily News film critic, Joe Neumaier. "The former is guilty by her very situation, the latter is a religious freak who provokes her telekinetic daughter into a deathly confrontation."
By the '80s, the societal stigma of single moms shifted to the financial. "There was a public perception that, to a great extent, poverty in the United States had been created by the high divorce rate," writes child support legal researcher Roger Gay. "This incredible but persistent view, which sprang from what has become known as the political 'feminization of poverty' has been discredited, but has not been liberated from the frame of government policy." So what does Chucky have to do with it? The plastic star of the 1988 film "Child's Play" plays right into the myth that single moms are poor--so poor they buy their kids psycho-killing toys, just to avoid paying retail. While the image of a loving, caring working mother, played by Catherine Hicks, is an improvement from Carrie's mom, the image of a one-parent household is still portrayed as a nightmare.
By the early 2000's the American horror genre turned to Japan for inspiration. Both "The Ring" and "Dark Water," are remakes of Japanese horror films featuring single mothers fighting off evil spirits. They may reflect more of an anxiety about single motherhood in Japan than state-side. As Japan's recession took its toll and divorce rates increased in the late nineties, so did poverty levels for single mothers.
More recently, horror movie moms have strayed from being portrayed as victims or mad-women, and fallen into the category of clueless or neglectful. Examples can be found in "Let Me In" and "Jennifer's Body." "Think of the mother in the 'Twilight' films, off with her new baseball-player husband and not around to help Bella through her vampire-or-werewolf issues," adds Neumaier. These days, single moms are stigmatized as selfish for juggling career, romance and parenthood. Remember Bill O' Reilly's recent suggestion that Jennifer Aniston and the world's single moms are "glamorizing single parenthood?" The false fear is that moms, especially those who conceive later in life, aren't really "there" for their kids.
But one horror movie this year made an encouraging step in the right direction: "Piranha." Seriously. Despite it being a movie designed for teenage boys-- gratuitous female nudity, hot girls with nerdy guys, a Joe Francis knock-off-- the 3D gore-fest presents a single mom in a powerful, independent light. Elisabeth Shue, is straight out of a James Cameron movie, as the devoted mom, town sheriff and movie heroine. Not only does she protect her children, she saves the entire town (except for the few hundred that were chewed to pieces.) She's also a romantic lead. There's an implied romance between her and a geeky, but well-meaning scientist, as there often is with single moms in horror films. "The Ring," "Child's Play," even "The Exorcist" toy with the idea that all this torture will eventually restore the male figure to the nuclear family. Even if he's a spiritual figure. But that doesn't happen in this movie. Shue's single mom is just fine raising three kids and keeping them safe from sea creatures on her own, thank you very much.