The Horror of Motherhood: The Psychology Behind How Mothers Watch Horror Films

The Horror of Motherhood: The Psychology Behind How Mothers Watch Horror Films

Horrorific content by jessicagomez on May 09th, 2020 | Horror News |

I was eight weeks pregnant when the week of Halloween arrived. My husband asked me what horror movies were on the docket, referring to the lineup of films I force him to watch with me from morning through night each Halloween. I avoided the question at first, but he sensed something was amiss, and began asking why we hadn’t been watching them every day of the month like we had every other year. I finally admitted that I didn’t want to watch any horror movies that year, at all. And for me, that was a problem - not just because I write about horror movies as a job, but because something I once loved was now too upsetting and anxiety-inducing to enjoy.

My friend had a similar response. When she was eight months pregnant, we saw Sinister in the theater. My horror-loving comrade was so shaken that it was the last horror movie she’s ever seen. So what is it that makes new mothers view horror so differently, and why doesn’t it have the same effect on men?

The answer may lie within the horror movies themselves. Interestingly, most pregnancy or child-related horror movies were written and directed by men. The Unborn, It’s Alive, The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, and at the most extreme, The Brood - all have a common theme; the child is some type of monster with malicious intent. Perhaps it’s a deep-rooted fear that a child could become evil under their care, and they are afraid of screwing up as a parent. Or maybe for some it goes even deeper than that, that a child represents a burden, the death of their freedom as a selfish person, and for some, that’s the scariest part of parenthood.

As a mother, these films don’t make me nearly as uneasy as movies where children are harmed or die, because protecting my child is my number one priority, and that feeling transfers, even in fictional films. Movies that I used to find creepy but entertaining are now deemed unwatchable, and the reason lies in science. A study found that the grey matter in the brains of many pregnant mothers diminishes in several areas, heightening emotional intelligence, and can last for years after giving birth. This makes for better attachment with their children and can contribute to more caring mothering. As a moviegoer, it can heighten our viewing experience; we feel more deeply for the characters, and theoretically, care more about their outcomes. But for those of us who love horror movies - and even true crime - it means that some story arcs can feel especially brutal. I’ve always been an extremely empathetic person, but now, the emotional response is biological, setting off silent alarm bells in my consciousness. 

Pregnant women and new mothers are scared of the world that their babies are entering, and women understand the primal instinct to defend and protect their children. Just look at Pollyanna McIntosh’s Darlin’, or Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. Not to say that men can’t understand a mother’s devotion; take Mrs. Voorhees seeking vengeance on Jason’s tormentors in Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th, or Paul Solet’s Grace, a harrowing look at PTSD in which a mother, unable to come to terms with her baby being stillborn, kills just to feed her “child”. And Ari Aster got the gut-wrenching reaction to the loss of a child exactly right in Hereditary. But a child being lured to their death, like Georgie in It, or a woman being stalked by someone trying to steal her unborn child like in Inside, is enough to make my stomach churn for days.

Such is the plight of mothers. We sacrifice our bodies and our minds for our children, and sometimes that even means we can’t enjoy all the kinds of horror we used to anymore. As more women step into the realm to write and direct horror films, expect to see a shift in the direction of horror and motherhood to tell the stories that truly scare us.

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