Motherhood depicted in film is replete with meaning, symbolic to the core.
Mothers depicted in movies are frequently an opportunity to explore the psychiatric component of parenting. The fears and traumas of motherhood are common themes in thrillers and horror films, ever reminding us that not all is ideal in pregnancy, delivery, and motherhood.
Warning: Contains spoilers.
Rhoda is a superficially charming but demanding and manipulative child. She is adopted by Colonel Kenneth and his wife Christine. After the death by drowning of Rhoda’s classmate Claude, Christine begins to suspect of her own daughter being involved. Rhoda was jealous that Claude won a medal in a competition she thought she deserved. Christine eventually finds out her adoptive daughter had inherited “the bad seed.” The film reflects on the biological inheritance of conduct disorder in children. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bad_Seed_(1956_film)
The film set the precedent for all the slash killer sagas in the following decades. The psycho-killer here is Norman Bates, a middle aged socially awkward man who allegedly lives with his mother at a house next to Bates Motel. When confronted with a sexual object, Norman’s mother breaks into reality as a brutal Superego to violently annihilate her son’s desired sexual object. Later in the film. we learn more details about the relationship between Norman Bates and his mother. We never know if Mrs Bates was actually good or bad in real life, but we certainly learn that Norman had introjected his mother as a bad object. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psycho_(1960_film)
Newlyweds Rosemary and Guy move to their new apartment in New York City’s Dakota Apartments. They are hoping to conceive soon. In the meantime, there is something strange about their neighbors, the Castevets. One night, Rosemary is given a psychedelic substance at the building’s party. In a dream like fashion, she appears to copulate with Satan while the Castevets and other guests observe while naked. The next day her husband convinces her that everything was a bad dream, but Rosemary starts to see more evidence that she had been victimized. Her husband appears to ignore her claims while focused on his recent professional success. From a psychiatric viewpoint, the motion picture depicts psychiatric symptoms that may occur in pregnancy. Anxiety, mood symptoms, and even psychosis-like delusions or persecution paranoia may occur during pregnancy. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0063522/
Regan, an innocent girl in her early teens, lives in Georgetown with her mother Chris, a famous actress. Regan’s parents are separated and there is still a lot of conflict between them, something Regan seems to resent. One day, Regan begins to talk about her new friend she’s playing with named Captain Howdy. Soon, she begins to have behavioral symptoms, seizures, and agitation. Neurologists are unable to find a cause and Regan does not improve on the methylphenidate and chlorpromazine prescribed by the psychiatrist. The team concludes she might be a victim of demonic possession. The story allows for reflection about the implications that a negative divorce may have on a child. Chris is very busy with her career as an actress and the father is no longer in the picture. Regan is the only child, and her emotional needs are neglected by her parents. Behavior changes, anxiety, depression, oppositional defiance, and functional neurological disorder symptoms can certainly result from a complicated divorce. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Exorcist_(film)
The horror genre B movie ended up becoming a cult film. A 3-film saga ensued and a remake in 2009followed. According to the story, Lenore and her husband Frank are happy they are about to deliver after years of oral contraception. Unfortunately, Lenore delivers a grossly deformed child with fangs and claws. The gynecologist tries to suffocate the baby, but he is able to defend himself, kill the staff at the delivery room, and escape. The baby attempts to return to his parent’s home while killing anyone he encounters on his way. The pharmaceutical company suspects that the child’s malformation is related to the contraceptive and attempts to hide it to prevent a public scandal. Frank collaborates with the authorities to catch the newborn serial killer. In contrast, Lenore’s maternal instinct drives her to protect her newborn. The film was released after the Thalidomide’s scandal with phocomelia. Thalidomide had not been tested in pregnant animals during the patenting process but was used for morning sickness in pregnancy. About 10,000 children were born with malformed limbs. The movie describes the fear of pharmacological drugs and their consequences when taken during pregnancy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It%27s_Alive_(1974_film)
Before making Superman (1978), the director started his career in the horror industry. Robert is an American diplomat in Rome who after losing their child to stillbirth accepts the offer by a priest of another child. Allegedly, the mother had died during delivery. Robert keeps this a secret from his wife Katherine who believes Damien is their biological son. Damien soon has symptoms of conduct disorder such as disrespect of the rules, sadistic behaviors, lack of empathy, and an especial aberration for Catholic symbols. The film allows for cathartic relief of a mother’s fear of being unable to connect with one’s child and feeling estranged from them. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075005/
Moral dilemmas about mothers and their children have been depicted in literature since the times of Solomon. Here, Sophie is forced to make a terrible choice. A Nazi at a concentration camp tells her to save 1 of her 2 children or having both of them executed. Not cooperating with the Nazi could be ethically justified for the higher goal. However, this seems impossible for a mother. In philosophy, choosing between 2 children is seen as a symmetrical moral dilemma. Nonetheless, the children have a different gender. From a gender studies viewpoint, Sophie’s dilemma may not be seen as symmetrical. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophie%27s_Choice_(film)
Aliens are hostile extraterrestrial beings that threaten any species they encounter. Lieutenant Ripley is the Hegelian heroine that can save the human race. Aliens are parasites that need a host in order to fully develop. While still coping from her first alien encounter, Lieutenant Ripley agrees to go to a colony in an attempt exterminate the aliens. Once there, she finds no one but a traumatized little girl named Newt. Ripley now has an additional and more personal mission—to save the girl from the aliens. This can be seen as an example of a successful story of fostering of a child. On another note, aliens could be interpreted as fear of a foreign object in your body. In real life, this fear comes across in infectious and parasitic diseases, or cancer. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0090605/
After being sexually assaulted by her gynecologist, Claire, with the encouragement of her husband, reports him to the authorities. Her initiative prompts other women to accuse him, too. The obstetrician dies by suicide before being arrested. Months later, the child’s nanny seems to have a malevolent plan to destroy Claire’s family. The story shows the fear of revenge a woman can go through after reporting their perpetrator. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0104389/
Lynn is a single mother who worries about her son’s social skills. In addition, Cole has a secret he did not share with his mom. He believes he sees dead people. One day he encounters Malcolm, a reputed child psychologist with whom he gradually begins to open up. The film portrays an example of a positive outcome in a relationship between a child and his therapist. From a dynamic viewpoint, Malcolm can be seen as the father figure Cole needs to face his fears and overcome anxiety. After that, Cole will be able to grow closer to his mother. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0167404/
Grace is a devout religious woman who lives with her 2 children in an English mansion after World War II. The family’s father died in combat. The children have a rare medical condition that makes them photosensitive. As a result, they have to live in isolation. One day, the children start to play with a ghost child named Victor. Later, the audience is surprised by a twist ending. Amenábar’s masterpiece draws from forensic psychiatry, maternal filicide-suicide. According to Susan Hatters Friedman, MD and colleagues, filicide-suicide tend to be more common in younger women with lower socioeconomic status and unwanted pregnancies. Filicide-suicide carry particular challenges, since, for obvious reasons, it is not possible to interview the mother and explore the nature of her homicidal behavior. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Others_(2001_film)
See: Hatters Friedman S, Hrouda DR, Holden CE, Noffsinger SG, Resnick PJ. Filicide-suicide: common factors in parents who kill their children and themselves. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 2005;33(4):496-504.
Devastated after their third failed attempt to have a child, Kate and John decide to adopt Esther, a 9-year-old girl from Eastern Europe. Kate notices antisocial behaviors in their adoptive child. In addition, Kate is recovering from alcohol use disorder. Esther manipulates her and makes her feel Kate is the one who has a problem. Kate will have to investigate on her own to find out the true identity of their adoptive daughter. Following a number of news releases about the poor condition of children in orphanages in Eastern Europe, the film reflects on the fear in society of negative consequences that may come when adopting a child from another country. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orphan_(2009_film)
Renai and Josh just had their second child. In one of the first scenes, Renai is playing with their first-born Dalton when interrupted by the cry of his new sister. Renaihas to abandon Dalton to attend her daughter. Dalton is at the crucial Freudian’s phallic stage of development. After his mother leaves him, Dalton falls and enter a functional neurotic catatonic state that has no medical explanation. From this new state of consciousness, Dalton seems to somehow be able to send demonic ghosts that attack his sibling. This narrative could be understood as a case of sibling rivalry in the midst of his own Oedipal crisis. When a new child is born, the older sibling often fears abandonment, and may well display anxiety, conduct changes and even hostile behaviors towards the newborn. Once Dalton is reassured that his parents will continue to be love him, symptoms may remit. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1591095/
Early in his development, Kevin seems to be different from other children. He is mood dysregulated as well as poorly attached to his mother Eva. Kevin’s dad, Franklin, appears unaware or in denial. When the family’s second child is born, Kevin becomes jealous and resentful. Kevin’s sadistic behaviors increase in intensity over time. His potential to cause harm goes beyond Eva’s expectations. Kevin has a severe form of conduct disorder. This condition may occur despite no family history of antisocial personality disorder and even with a healthy and supportive upbringing. To this date, there is not a clearly effective psychiatric treatment for these conditions. Eva will have to face an unimaginably horrible experience. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1242460/
Amelia and her son Sam are grieving the loss of the family’s father who died in a car accident while driving Amelia to the hospital during her labor. Years later, Sam starts to believe there is a monster in his room called the Babadook. Children under significant psychological stress often report viewing monsters. Psychiatrists must be careful to not confuse it with psychosis. Psychotherapy is the most recommended treatment for these clinical scenarios. The Babadook is the result of a grief reaction. Together, Amelia and Sam learn to accept the loss and its consequences. Their coping strategies have some parallels with acceptance and commitment psychotherapy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Babadook
La Llorona is a ghost that mourns her children who died by drowning; in turn, she takes children away from their mothers. The movie describes a mother’s fear of losing their children. In the past, mortality was high in youth, and it was common to lose one’s children to epidemics, wars and other causes. In the Hispanic community, this type of fear is metaphorically captured in the legend of La Llorona and remains in their collective unconscious. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4913966/
Netflix’s recent production is tough to watch but a masterpiece. Martha and Sean are a young Boston couple expecting their first child. The couple agree to go into labor and have the baby at their home. Things don’t go as expected. The couple will face one of the most stressful situations humans can go through. The film reflects on the traumatic experiences that can take place in delivery. https://www.netflix.com/title/81128745