The Horror of Motherly Love

This Sunday, May 12, is Mother’s Day. Sadly, my mom lives several hours away in North Carolina; but we chat every Sunday and I always send her a gift (though it’ll be late this year — sorry Mom).

Ahead of the holiday, I found myself reflecting on how most of my love stories fall into two categories: romantic (however twisted it may be), or familial between a mother and her daughter. The titular stories in my two collections, “The Crow’s Gift” and “Wither,” both focus on relationships between the main female protagonist and her mother. “Wither” goes one step further and includes Mother Nature — and the destructive relationship that can occur between her and her children.

sharp objects
Left to right: Amma, Camille, and Adora from Sharp Objects.

Without Condition is my first story to examine both motherly love and romantic love. While the focus is largely on Cara and her boyfriend, my first inkling of the story was rooted in the relationship between Cara and her mother. It was her mother’s unconditional love for her, even in the face of horrendous activities, that helped me think of the rest of the plot (not to mention the title).

I once read a study that claimed the bond between a mother and her daughter is the strongest possible bond between any parent-child pairing. While I can’t say that for sure, there is certainly something special about the way a woman is bonded to her mother in ways we don’t see with her father, or don’t see between a mother and her son. It’s something special to witness when it’s good, and something terrify to witness when it’s broken or abusive.

Carrie touched on this perfectly. The terror doesn’t lie in Carrie’s powers, nor just in the way she’s bullied; but in the power and influence Margaret White has over her daughter. As evil and tormented as she is, you still see their bond and the fact that Mrs. White truly worries about her. I think of in the movie, when Carrie shatters the mirror; and Margaret stops playing the piano and says in her most normal, concerned voice, “Carrie?” She’s worried her daughter is hurt, even as she calls her sinful. It almost makes it all the scarier when Margaret comes for Carrie with a knife in the climax.

margaret white
Also, this scene is just creepy AF.

I also think that the TV show Riverdale has done an excellent exploration of mothers and daughters in the fraught connection between Betty and Alice. Season 3 has been a little uneven, but the show has quietly shown how hard it is for a daughter to sever a tie with her mother, and how that tie — even when dangerous — may be the least dangerous option she has. Alice has joined a cult called The Farm, a group that Betty wants no part of; even if it means losing a connection to her mom. Out of desperation, Betty turns to her jailed serial killer father instead of her cult-worshiping mother, but when her father is (purportedly) free, he comes for her and tries to kill her (this post was written on May 7, and it’s possible revelations in later episodes may dispute these facts, because that’s what Riverdale does and that’s one of the reasons I love it in all its messy glory). Betty gives in to her mother for safety, and she’s embraced. She may still be in danger, but she’s with her mother; and with her mother, the feeling of safety is stronger and perhaps more real. This could be to Betty’s advantage or her detriment — only time will tell.

A final story that delved into this in spectacularly creepy fashion is Sharp Objects (which I also wrote about when the HBO adaptation aired last summer). Here, you have three female bonds: mother, daughter, and sister; none of whom can abandon the other completely despite the misdeeds of each. It also shows the darker side of a mother’s desire to feel needed, and how her daughter will nearly die to fill that need.

Betty and Alice Cooper
Betty and Alice Cooper.

The bond between a mother and daughter can make for excellent dark fiction when done well. I’m less interested in “crazy mom/rebel daughter” narratives, and more the stories of daughters who can’t leave their mothers behind, or vice versa; despite their dark deeds. The bond is strong, even when it’s frayed — maybe even the strongest of all. But that isn’t always a good thing.

I hope that those of you with good bonds, though, have a wonderful Mother’s Day. And, I want to wish the happiest of Mother’s Days to my mom. Thanks for reading my work, supporting me, and being an all-around gem.

3 thoughts on “The Horror of Motherly Love

  1. Excellent essay. I love De Palma’s “Carrie” and never really considered those aspects of the mother-daughter theme beyond the surface.

    While we’re discussing horror, I also thought “Hereditary” and its depiction of the mother-daughter cycle of emotional abuse was a brilliant way to frame the supernatural threat that pounces in the movie’s third act.

    Thanks, Sonora!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! And yes, Hereditary is a great example. I wasn’t impressed with the third act, but I did think the cycle of mother-daughter trauma and abuse was a strong point in the film.

      Like

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