Female monsters: My mother made me this way

19 May 2012

Scariest female monster ever? Patty McCormack as The Bad Seed

When I started this Mini-Marathon of Cult Horror Movies featuring Female Monsters, I was pretty sure I’d be seeing a lot of cheesy films as I explored the dirty underworld of how filmmakers associated women with monstrousness. But the subject matter has taken over — the more I explore, the more seriously I view these films’ underlying themes. Oh sure, it’s all fun and games to talk about the Bitchez From Outer Space subgroup, or those Crazy Science Experiment Ladies (The Wasp Woman, Mesa of Lost Women, etc.), or about how these films invariably show women doing the Evil Sexy Dance of Death to lure men to their doom. But then I uncovered this rich vein of My Mother Made Me a Monster films.

Curiously, these are undeniably better films than the aforementioned cheese. (Why? Please send answers!) Rather than imagine Sex In Space or answer questions about what would happen if you injected women with wasp venom, Mother/Monster films raise questions about whether nature is destiny — whether an evil mother inevitably produces demonic qualities in her child, and whether even a good mother is to blame for producing a monster. From Cat People (1942) to The Bad Seed (1956) and eventually Carrie (1976), a whole genre of cult horror films swirl around mother-hating or mother’s guilt to produce an exceptionally riveting set of questions.

*****

The most claustrophobic of all cult films is surely The Bad Seed, 95% of which takes place in that awful middle-class 1950s apartment inhabited by the Penmarks and their super-perfect 8-yr-old daughter Rhoda (Patty McCormack). Rhoda’s pigtails are always neat, her shoes never scuffed, and her dresses always as girly as possible.

Let this be a lesson to all of you who complain that your daughters are slobs: thank your lucky stars, for it doubtless means your daughters are normal.

Is Rhoda just a nasty little piece of work? Oh no, friends. She is a bad seed (or, in the parlance of our day, a psychopath). She acts all sweet and treacly, but then get her on the topic of why she didn’t win the school medal for penmanship, and you see a little monster come through. So much of a monster, in fact, that she murders the prizewinner, takes his medal for herself, and expresses no remorse.

Told through the eyes of Rhoda’s mother Christine (Nancy Kelly), we find ourselves trapped in that insidious, nightmare-inducing space of that apartment (yes, this was originally a stage play) — sympathizing with and yet infuriated by Christine’s passivity and mother love for a monster of epic proportions.

Christine’s suspicions about her daughter lead her to delve into her own past. She has always suspected she was adopted — and after pressing hard on her father, she learns the truth: her own mother was a psychotic murderer, and only by fluke did the 2-yr-old Christine end up with loving adoptive parents. But this means, of course, that unwittingly she has given birth to a Bad Seed (and that it’s genetic). Now that she knows she’s responsible for passing this gene along to her daughter, what will Christine do about it? If someone is to be punished, is it the mother or the psychotic, manipulative child?

Needless to say, The Bad Seed could be paired with We Need to Talk About Kevin for one of the most disturbing double features ever. (Who would come to such a double feature?) These films also seem to confirm the notion that even very young children can be psychopaths (that recent NY Times article even discusses the fact that the public inevitably blames mothers for having psychotic children).

*****

A similar set of questions undergirds Jacques Tourneur’s excellent Cat People, which might be the best horror qua noir film ever. It all starts out so innocently, with guileless Oliver flirting with that fetching girl at the zoo. She turns out to be Irena (Simone Simon), a Serbian immigrant and fashion designer who harbors an eccentric fascination for the big cats in their cages — even more eccentric than most, considering that we find out that her drawings show the panthers speared through the heart with a sword.

Fast forward to love and marriage (and I mean fast), and suddenly we have a problem: Irena fears she has inherited the evil taint of her Serbian village’s devil-worshiping past, and that she is a Cat Person. Is it possible? or is it all in her pretty little head? Naturally, Oliver is inclined to believe the latter, and signs her up for visits to psychiatrist Dr. Judd.

But Irena doubts the answer is so simple. She’s haunted by fears and dreams. What about the fact that her father died so young, so mysteriously — and that they accused her mother of being a Cat Person, responsible for his death?

She’s always kept people at a distance, but breaks down her defenses because she loves Oliver so much. Still, on their wedding night, as she sits in the restaurant with a wedding party, a strange, ominous-looking woman (with the best 1940s up-do) stares at her from across the room. “Look at that woman,” says one of her guests. “She looks like a cat,” another guest responds. The woman approaches and speaks to Irena, repeatedly, in Serbian. Irena crosses herself and looks terrified.

“What did that woman say to you, darling?” Oliver asks after the woman leaves. “She greeted me,” Irena replies. “She called me sister.”

One of the many things Irena learned growing up was that she must avoid growing angry or jealous, for those heightened emotions will bring out the evil inside her. Let’s pause for a moment to let that sink in: if she gets jealous or angry, she becomes a murderous, vengeful panther who stalks and kills those responsible. This makes Bitchez From Space look mild in comparison.

So Irena determines the best response is to keep Oliver at a distance: they sleep separately. Which places such pressure on the marriage that Irena begins to suspect — correctly — that Oliver and his work pal Alice have fallen in love with each other. When Irena sees the two of them together in a restaurant late one night, she knows the truth — and thus begins some terrific horror/noir sequences in which Alice is hunted by a big cat through lonely city streets, and Irena is haunted by (animated) dreams of cats staring at her, surrounding her. It’s all so distressing that we see her, crying by herself at her alienation in the bath.

There’s so much to say about this film — about the confusion over the protagonist (Oliver is decidedly not sympathetic; both Irena and Alice are, yet they wind up in a cat-and-mouse game against one another), the beautiful filming, that terrific animated sequence of cats:

But let’s stay focused on the My Mother Made Me a Monster theme, which obtains throughout this film and becomes even more prominent in the (weak) sequel, Curse of the Cat People (1944), which is all about fraught relationships between mothers and daughters. No wonder Irena fears sex and love with Oliver: it makes a woman unpredictable, dangerous, even one as sweet as Irena. No wonder that in the sequel, mothers and daughters are far more at war.

*****

And finally there’s Carrie, based on the Stephen King novel, a film that encapsulates so much of the horror of pubescence and high school that I’m tempted to term King a genius. The opening sequence alone is a brilliant piece of horror/ porn all packaged up in a wrapper of female trouble. A pointedly anodyne musak tune plays while the opening credits move us through a high school girls’ locker room as the girls dress and horse around. As we gradually move toward more full-frontal nudity and the steam of the showers, we find Carrie (Sissy Spacek) luxuriating alone in the hot water, all soft-focus and slow motion — eyes closed, hand running a bar of soap all over herself slowly, pleasurably.

Then she starts to bleed — she’s started her period — but not knowing anything about menstruation, she starts to scream and beg the other girls for help. Being typically unsympathetic high school girls, they taunt her, smack at her, and throw tampons at her until she cowers, naked, bloody, and dripping, in a corner of the shower.

When she gets home, she tries explain to her domineering, religious fanatic of a mother (Piper Laurie), “Why didn’t you tell me, Mamma?” Her mother hits her over the head with a biblical tract and has only one thing to say:

Mamma, reading aloud: And God made Eve from the rib of Adam. And Eve was weak and loosed the raven on the world. And the raven was called sin. Say it: the raven was called sin! 
Carrie: Why didn’t you tell me, Mamma? 
Mamma: Say it. [hits Carrie in the face with her tract] The raven was called sin. [hit her again]
Carrie: No, Mamma. [gets hit yet again, finally relents] And the raven was called sin! 
Mamma: And the first sin was intercourse. The first sin was intercourse. 
Carrie: I didn’t sin, Mamma. 
Mamma: Say it. [hits her again
Carrie: I didn’t sin, Mamma! 
Mamma: The first sin was intercourse. The first sin was intercourse. The first sin was intercourse. 
Carrie: And the first sin was intercourse! Mamma, I was so scared. I thought I was dying. And the girls, they all laughed at me and threw things at me, Mamma. 
Mamma hits her again: And Eve was weak! say it! 
Carrie: No! 
Mamma: Eve was weak! 
Carrie: No! 
Mamma: Eve was weak! Say it, woman! 
Carrie: No! 
Mamma: Say it! 
Carrie: Eve was weak, Eve was weak. 
Mamma: And the Lord visited Eve with the curse, and the curse was the curse of blood! 
Carrie: You should have told me, Mamma! You should have told me! 
Mamma kneels down and takes Carrie’s hand: Oh, Lord! Help this sinning woman see the sin of her days and ways. Show her that if she had remained sinless, this curse of blood would never have come on her! 

Then, of course, her mother locks her in a closet with the most terrifying Jesus-on-the-cross figure ever. I mean, come on — is this not the creepiest horror scene you can imagine? And this is long before the pig’s blood starts flying!

The film never tells us whether having to deal with such an insane mother was the trigger that initiated Carrie’s gift of telekinesis. But it’s clear that Carrie’s extreme social withdrawal is the result of such mothering. She’s so withdrawn that the other kids at school find her an easy joke, a target. Her mother keeps her so naive that she doesn’t know about menstruation, after all.

And her mother displays a fear of men and an antipathy to sex that colors everything her daughter does. When Carrie decides to go to the prom with hunky Tommy (William Katt), her mother prays desperately, ecstatically, in that awful attic room while Carrie makes her own dress.

“I should have killed myself when he put it in me,” Carrie’s mother says late in the film, as she explains that Carrie is the product of her own sin. Does it matter that this comes from the fevered imagination of a crazy woman? What we do know is that Carrie and her mother ultimately go down together, locked in a strange reverse-maternal embrace, as the creepy eyes of the Jesus figurine look on.

*****

My mother made me a monster. It’s a theme that has been the source of much cheesier filmic material than in these three films (see for example She-Wolf of London [1946] and Cobra Woman [1944]) but isn’t this theme more interesting when done well?

I think it’s appropriate that I end this Mini-Marathon of Cult Horror Movies about Female Monsters on this note — after watching three films that problematize femininity via that scary mother-daughter bond, via questions about nature, nurture, Jesus and the Devil. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that when Hollywood created female monsters, its writers and directors tried to work out their own crazy, stereotyped and contradictory ideas about women along the way.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling awfully grateful for the mother I have — a woman I’m going to see tomorrow, and who’s promised yet another couple of days of relaxation in her beautiful garden. And I’m going to remind her how lucky she is to have a daughter who had a messy room for all those years.

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13 Responses to “Female monsters: My mother made me this way”

  1. JB Says:

    I’m so glad that you got so much from Cat People, but I’m sad to hear you find the sequel weak. I guess it isn’t quite as juicy with regards to its probing of the debilitating bi-products of marriage, female psychology or socio-sexual imprisonment, but I find it to be a heartbreaking portrait of childhood fantasy (the mailbox tree!) and yet another of Lewton’s odes to the consolations of death… Come to think of it, I do actually find it comments quite insightfully on marriage, the lingering longing for impossible love in the midst of ostensible domestic bliss, the repression of unmanageable desire… Anyway, thanks for reminding me of some of the reasons why I so adore those Lewton horror films. You seen I Walked With a Zombie?

    • Didion Says:

      I liked so much of the setup for Curse of the Cat People, but the follow-through wasn’t so good. The film seemed more eager to smooth over the scary/horror edges of everything it invoked. A little girl whose rich imagination brings Irena back from the dead as a ghost? Yes! but only a friendly ghost. Amy’s new best friend is a crazy old woman with an evil-looking daughter who just happens to be the real-life Cat Woman from the first film? Yes oh yes! Except she turns out to be just a harried woman whose crazy mother has disowned her.

      The problem is really simply that the first film was so good, and this one had so much of the same cast…maybe they couldn’t follow through on some of the scarier potentialities of the plot (Amy becomes a Cat Woman early? Amy was sent to punish her parents Oliver and Alice? She’s guided by the scary haunted house ladies down the street?). Maybe because they ran up against social anxieties about turning a 7-yr-old into a monster? (Mores that clearly dropped away by 1956 in time for The Bad Seed.)

      Anyway. Not a terrible film…just disappointing in contrast to the first one.

  2. Briznecko Says:

    Firstly, I have to say I love you. I’ve been searching for a good blog that deals with films (esp classic films!) from a feminist perspective. The classic film blogosphere is…well, yeah.

    Anyways! I sadly haven’t seen these films, I’m still working through the silent era. However, I think it’s interesting to compare this idea of “My Mother Made Me this Way” with female children and male children. In the case of The Bad Seed and Cat People the evil/monster of these female characters is inherantly tied to their biology. They inherited that trait (and specifically from their maternal side!), which implies this type of evil/monster is elemental to womanliness. It only takes the right prompting to “bring it out,” i.e. the jealousy of Irena in Cat People. Another example I can think of is House on Haunted Hill when Norma is manipulated into “hysteria” by Annabelle and Dr. Trent and shoots Vincent Price’s character.

    By comparison, there is Norman Bates in Psycho driven to murder by his fanatic (and dead) mother. The evil/monster in him developed from the rearing of his fanatical mother-it is not inherant to his nature as it is in the female charachters discussed in to OP. Perhaps this is similar to Carrie, but I think an important difference is she developed telepathic abilities that could arguably be inherant within her-and the right circumstances brought them out. I cannot say for sure since I have not seen Carrie, but possible?

    Anyways, great post!

  3. Briznecko Says:

    Damn. Italics fail.

    • Didion Says:

      Dear Briznecko, many thanks — and, weirdly, I tried to fix your italics and got strange messages from WordPress. NO idea why it all came out like this.

      I’ve got to think more about the question of whether there’s a comparable category of male monsters made so by their mothers. First off comes to mind the wonderful, wonderful The Manchurian Candidate (1959), in which Angela Lansbury truly is the scariest of all monster-making mothers. But I wonder if other readers have good ideas too?

      I hate to admit it’s been YEARS since I saw Psycho — and as I remember it, he was a weird psychopath with a thing for his mother, but it wasn’t clear that his mother had made him that evil. Or am I wrong?

      Many thanks for commenting! and do, please please please, let me know if you can think of other titles in this vein.

  4. RP Says:

    White Heat comes to mind as a classic example (re. the mother-created male monster).

    And yes, Rhoda Penmark is definitely the scariest female movie monster ever. Btw, the Bad Seed was actually a novel (by William March) before it was a play. The book, believe it or not, is even creepier than the movie. March apparently never really recovered from his horrific experiences in WWI, which may help to explain why his writing is so dark.

    • Didion Says:

      Oh, fascinating! It hadn’t occurred to me that this might be the result of war trauma; I hadn’t done any reading on March, but assumed this work had resulted from new thinking about psychology/psychopathy in the 1940s & 50s.

      It’s so interesting that March would have bundled up the psychopathic qualities — lack of moral judgment/ remorse/ empathy, propensity to lie, etc. — in the bundle of a sweet-looking blonde girl. And oh, what an acting job that little Patty McCormack does in this role. Makes me wonder whether she ever got work again (she did).

  5. raymondbille Says:

    Excellent analysis! I had been looking for a feminist perspective on The Bad Seed, and I’m glad to have finally found one!

    And this may sound weird but what I really liked about the review is that you never mentioned anything about hair color. It seems like whenever someone writes a movie/tv review, if an actor has blonde hair, for some bizarre reason the reviewer always just HAS to mention the hair color when describing them. No one ever seems to do that with brunette or redheaded people. It’s always been very strange to me. Although you appeared to do it in one of the comments on here. But oh well.

  6. raymondbille Says:

    Excellent analysis! I had been looking for a review of the Bad Seed from a feminist perspective, and I’m very happy to have finally found one!

    And this may sound a little weird, but what I also really liked about this was that throughout the review you never mentioned anything about hair color. It seems that whenever someone writes a review about movies/tv, if an actor/character has blonde hair, they always just HAVE to mention that when they are describing them. I’ve never seen that done for brunettes or redheads. It’s always been very strange to me. Although you appeared to have done that on one of the comments on here. But oh well. I still really enjoyed this! 🙂

    • Didion Says:

      Many thanks, RaymondBille!

      So interesting about hair color… because now that you mention it, I think I tend to mention hair color a lot more than I need to. Maybe not here, but in other posts.

      Hair is a strange thing. It seems to convey so much more than it ought to. But why blonde rather than brown hair? I’m thinking about this now.


  7. Wow, nice to see some historical horror I’ve never seen before. These days, though, there’s always the tendency to make the women in movies, even the monsters, into sex objects.

  8. Peter Says:

    Man, Carrie’s mum didn’t know bupkiss about what she claimed to be her own faith. The original sin was disobedience, and just what did she think God meant by “be fruitful and multiply?”

    Of course I think the real ignorance was on Stephen King’s side.

    • Karen Kelleher Says:

      I am assuming that Crazy people probably are not going to be a reliable source for correctly reciting Bible Scripture. They usually don’t know what day it is, or when they ate last.
      And maybe, just maybe, Mr. King was shooting for that scenario so he would not have to do Biblical research..? IDK,, just a thought.


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