Warning: This post includes MAJOR Hereditary spoilers. Proceed with caution.
As I previously stated , the mythical mothers in cinema history have the tendency to be represented as these selfless individuals who are capable of putting everyone else before them and who would do everything for their families, specially for their children.
What’s really dangerous of this portrayal is not the very idea of selflessness, but the assumption that motherhood is inherent to all women and, even worse, that it constitutes the definition of womanhood.
With this trope, movies are telling us that women need to be mothers in order to fulfill their purpose, that women need to be mothers to feel complete and that there’s really nothing else for them to do in this world but to deliver babies .
From rom-coms to dramas, movies go out of their way trying to beatify their mothers’ purpose on their stories. But there’s actually one genre that has been subverting this trope all along: horror movies.
I’m talking about horror movies, not their suitable cousin, slasher movies, where the mother figure is commonly the first one that is willing to die, literally, for her family at any time, as she is always available for screenwritters to use as cannon fodder in order to increase the body count to up the movie stakes.
Unlike these films, recent horror movies, like The Babadook (2014) or Good Night Mommy (2015), have helped to change the ways cinema represents their mothers by portraying flawed maternal figures that are tired of the inherent responsability that comes with motherhood and are acting on it in sadistic and vicious ways. Everything but mother-like.
Fortunately, the wonderful jaw-dropping Hereditary (2018), falls right into this place, too. Specially when it tries to unpack the trials and tribulations behind the difficult relationship between its protagonist Annie, her mother Ellen, and with her children, Charlie and Peter.
From the very beginning of the movie, Annie lays it all for us at her mother’s funeral: she really loved her, but their relationship was complicated and really difficult to process, Ellen had her secrets and was a really secretive person whose husband died young at the hands of a mental disease and a son who went mad blaming her for placing the voices in his head. Clearly, she did not embraced the stereotypical idea of motherhood.
Later we discover that not only did she offered up all her family —specially her grandchildren— as a sacrifice to bring back a demon from hell, but that her first attempt involved using her husband and son as a mean to achieve her goal, but eventually failed.
With Ellen, the movie paints a character that goes against everything the mother trope stands for. She is someone who’s purpose goes beyond her inherent motherhood and a cult leader who also happens to have children. She is the antithesis of the selfless mother: the selfish woman; that’s what happens when a mother stops thinking about her children and starts thinking about herself.
In fact, not only does she has a particular aim whose very process involves putting herself and her cult interests first and foremost before their family and their well being, but she carries along with it without even considering it or flinching. Ellen’s purpose on earth is clearly not putting their children first, as society expects her to do. She sees her kids as tools to find meaning to her life, not the meaning itself.
Ellen, as a character, is easy to portray because her motivations are clear and directly comes from a subverted trope. Annie, on the other hand, is a more complicated, and nuanced, individual. She tries to act like an overbearing mom with Charlie, her younger daughter, but the ghost of her mother, and her consequential heritage, lingers with her.
Annie loves her children, but she also knows —on a subconscious level— that there’s something wrong with them. Charlie represents the first embodiment of the demon her grandma is trying to bring back to earth, while Peter is the masculine body that later will be used as a vessel for the same demon to occupate.
Annie’s character represents perfectly the dichotomy of the selfless mother/selfish woman on a conscious/unconscius level as a criticism against the expectations that society has towards women. A mother know on a conscious level that her selflessness must be part of her daily «job» but, on an unconscious level, she will always try to fight back all these ideas bestowed upon on her, by separating the idea of motherhood from her very own construction of womanhood.
We learn, as the movie goes on, that Charlie was Annie’s mother favorite child as she always wanted to fed her since she was a little baby; that was the main reason why Annie smothered her so much, to kept her away from her.
Annie also didn’t want to have Peter, her oldest son, as she even tried to abort him on a failed attempt. She also tried to kill both of her children on a sleepwalking night by showering them on kerosene and lightning a match before walking up.
Annie is overbearing and smothering with her children on a conscious level because it’s the only way she understands how a mother should behave, but she is also selfish, on a unconscious level, by doing what it has to be done for the sake of her family and against her mother’s wishes, by trying to get rid of the evil her children will become in the future.
The great thing about Hereditary is that, not only does it give us the opportunity to get excited about an inteligent horror movie with nuanced symbolisms to talk about, but it also offers a great way to understand the stereotype behind motherhood and the different ways that some women are capable of carrying along in order to break this mold in numerous and fulfilling ways.