Tuesday, March 27, 2012

CinemArchetype #9: The Devouring Mother

It's amazing--though not surprising--how relatively hard it is to find strong 'Devouring Mother' archetypes in cinema -- they abound in Greek myth, eastern religions, fairy tales, and in the great works of Tennessee Williams, Hitchcock, David Lynch, and Italians, but patriarchal forces have been at work declawing the devouring all-powerful chthonic mother since the dark ones of Rome first weeded Mrs. God (Asherah) out of the bible (she does show up in the 'forbidden gospels'); in modern American Hollywood we like our moms saintly and pasteurized -- the Dee Wallace of ET and the Jo Beth Williams of Poltergeist--the decent MILFs out making lemonade and s'mores while the menfolk hunt demons and collect gold skulls--or not at all. I mention those two Spielberg productions since I'd blame him more than most for this decline, the reduction of the myth to a 16 year old boy's hero journey, with moms staying home on shore while the boys go out on the boat. What Spielberg never sees is that the boat may be boy's town, but the ocean is mom's purview; she's the shark, and she's coming to eat you up! The fake shark may have been named Bruce, but if JAWS is a myth at all the shark MUST be a female. There is no such mention, as if females don't devour the world in every natural hierarchy order except man's.

Maybe that's why there are so few cinematic devouring moms outside the aforementioned rarefied realms, no one's ever dared depict the Seven Deadly Sins as anything but women (the shadow side of the nine muses), they bring writer's block and torpor just as they bring inspiration. sometimes they bring sandwiches. Sometimes you are their sandwich. You are just so much clay to them; they're just happy to remold you into a tree as leave you as the rock you wish. They are beyond deadly, literally--for they are what lies beyond even death, the fallopian interdimensional gateway between the bardos and the time-space reality of dharma; they are that which our fear fears. Even writing this post I felt a knot tie in my stomach, a sense of creeping dread overtake me... mother! Mother, get back! Her apron string hydra tentacles doth st--

1. Katharine Hepburn as Violent Venable - Suddenly Last Summer (1959)
 Violet: “The dinosaurs are vegetarian… that’s why they became extinct. They were just too gentle for their size. And then the carnivorous creatures, the ones that eat flesh...the killers… inherited the earth. But then they always do, don’t they?” (my 9/9 entry Acid's Greatest #14 Suddenly Last Summer)
 2.a. Diane Ladd as Lula's mom in Wild at Heart (1990)
A camp parody of herself, Diane Ladd's over-the-top performance as Lula's mom takes the typical histrionics to the level of surrealist burlesque. The lipstick covered face above is a very disturbing image, the rich 'flushed vaginal' signifier brought far past its boundaries, creating a flood zone red hole; her whole face becomes a giant octopus mouth. 
2.b. Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest (1981)
"There is no other more terrifying than "Mommy dearest." It is she who carries the hidden, secret, and dark, and anything that devours, illuminated through the writings of Carl Jung, myth, and fairy tales, as these are the very dynamics that impact and affect us in our personal lives and relationships." - Course desc. for "Mother Dearest / Mommy Dearest ", C.G. Jung Foundation

3. Jessica Tandy - Lydia Brenner - The Birds (1963)

She's not directly responsible for the bird attacks, but the implications are that Lydia Brenner, the possessive mom of bachelor #1 at Bodega Bay, has somehow summoned the bird attacks from her elemental unconscious--the way Dr. Morphius summons his Monster from the Id in Forbidden Planet, for example--in an outburst of primal, Oedipal jealousy. It's all conveyed wordlessly in her body language, the withering glances she shoots Melanie, her nagging passive aggressive hounding of Mitch over Melanie's scandalous Roman swimming incident hint at the general level of sublimated incestuous frustration involved in their relationship (the difference between Mitch and Norman Bates is of course Mitch shrugs her off with a laugh); the stresses of the repeated bird attacks compel Lydia's better, maternal nature and she begins to warm up to Melanie, but as a result never regains her status with the arcane elemental devouring forces that drive the birds. She can't be the Kali goddess of a million claws and nurturing at the same time.  Once the birds thoroughly assault Melanie she becomes just another child in Lydia's care and there's nothing really left for Lydia to fear as far as alpha female status, so the birds give them a pass.

4. Terri Hatcher (voice) - 'Other Mother'- Coraline (2009)
"A wrinkle in the argument is that both parents are not equally to blame for Coraline's plight; rather, since she is the dominant figure in the family, it is mostly the mother's fault. Thus, in Coraline's real world, her father (John Hodgman) casually refers to his wife (also Hatcher) as "the boss," and as another sign of her power, she gets to do her writing on a modern laptop while the father is relegated to what looks like a computer from the early 1990s. The power structure is even more pronounced in the other world, where the other father (also Hodgman) turns out to be only a manipulated lackey of the sinister other mother, who grows in size as the film progresses to emphasize her authority over the other world. To further condemn motherhood, Selick falls back upon a commonplace analogy between black widow spiders and domineering women — found nowhere in the book — making the other mother increasingly resemble a spider and even at one point having her try to trap Coraline within a gigantic spider web."--Gary Westfahl, Mommy Dreariest (Locus Online 2/9)
5. Charlize Theron in Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) / Marlene (1984)

This film hasn't even been released yet but can you really go wrong with Charlize Theron as the evil queen out to devour Kristen Stewart so her condescending mirror will get off her damned back? Having gone the Monster route and exposed the fragile talons of the narcissist alcoholic in Young Adult (2011), it's a safe bet her evil queen will be a great addition to the burgeoning canon of roles that show her to be one of Hollywood's rare few hotties with enough distance from her own 'type' to critique it. The very fact that she plays these kinds of unsympathetic roles shows her bravery; she is 'not that' for the very clear fact she's dared play it.

 In AA or outside of it I've indirectly known three of my friend's mothers who were drop dead MILF-gorgeous: they were their husband's second wives, soon clinging to their own fading beauty through a regimen of personal trainers, malnutrition, tennis, bitchery, and endless mirror-mirror primping. If the stepdaughter is fairer than she, this stepmom will often refuse to put the dad on the phone, refuse to even let the hot daughter see the dad (who is too drunk to answer or come to the door).

Another example would be Marlene Dietrich and her daughter Maria Riva, and much as I love Miss D. her German rigidity and witheringly stringent criticism suffocates Maximilian Schell's 1984 documentary Marlene, reminding why I try not to read too much about my favorite icons, lest the cease to be so. At any rate the real Marlene is very German, and reminds me of my old German grandfather, which might be why I find the 'real' Marlene so suffocating, my grandfather's burnt potato pancakes were so taste bud-deadening and austere they aged me before my time.

6. Ms. Bates - Psycho (1960)

Norman's mom is such a badass she doesn't even have to be alive to create all sorts of magic mayhem in Hitchcock's most iconic masterwork. Whether possessing her dummy son like a master ventriloquist or shocking visitors with her super tight facelift, Mrs. Bates brooks no mirror-mirror nonsense or women prettier and younger than herself. Look at her resigned, sublime expression in the photo above. And so thin! 

7. Ursula - the Little Mermaid   (1989) / Barbara Hershey: The Black Swan (2011)
Ursula: "Now, here's the deal. I will make you a potion that will turn you into a human for three days. Got that? *Three* days. Now listen, this is important. Before the sun sets on the third day, you've got to get dear ol' princey to fall in love with you. That is, he's got to kiss you. Not just any kiss - the kiss of true love. If he does kiss you before the sun sets on the third day, you'll remain human, permanently, but - if he doesn't, you turn back into a mermaid, and - you belong to me!"
Isolated from its context in the plot, the quote above could serve as the edict facing every girl in the pre-feminist era, wherein you had a limited time to 'be human' and try and score a husband. If you failed you became an old maid and lived at home under mom's thumb for the rest of your life. While not officially Ariel's mother, Ursula fits the bill of the archetypal devouring mother, wicked stepmother, etc. hoping her daughter will fail to get a husband so she'll have to stay home and mom can order her around while putting her big fat tentacles up and eating bon bons. As part of the archetypal underwater family, Ursula is the outcast abject feminine energy that both defines and devours. Feminists might criticize this duality--the mom rejected from her own house-- but we shouldn't forget that the devouring mother as a figure of abject evil does occupy a valued critical function. If mom didn't assume the mask of the monster her kids might never want to leave the nest.

Therefore, a good mom knows at some point to appear a 'bad' mom. After all, A child's desire to avoid the terror of the first day of school must not be indulged. If the mom relents and lets the child's tears and pleading sway her even for a few moment she risks becoming a bad mom by refusing to appear as one.  In their mythic archetypalization, the sheltering apron strings of the overly protective mother become kraken tentacles that can never be escaped without bravery and sometimes force. The longer you postpone escaping her the more evil she must become... until at last she has no choice but to pull you back into her kraken's tooth-lined vaginal gullet for re-absorption.  Of course Ursula is an archetype of just this gullet so she sabotages the process of Ariel's romance with prince Erich via acts of cockblocking and demoralization --the "no boy will ask you out unless you lose some weight, but you never will because you are weak, but cheer up because I brought home our favorite kind of cake!" soul crusher.

We see it too, to a Tee- in Hershey's stage mom in The Black Swan, i.e. she gets this horrifyingly ornate cake to celebrate Nina's winning the lead in the ballet, only to threaten to throw it away if her daughter doesn't eat it, against her own will, and continues to cockblock her even from masturbation or going out with her first friend ever.


8. Sarah Polley - Splice (2009)
The mad scientist genre has finally found its most worthy villain, a female scientist who, like Mommy Dearest herself, figures out a way to get around the messy laws of adoption and child protective services so she can torture, control, manage and stifle her daughter to her heart's content. Forget it Jake, it's science. There's no animal or human rights for a being that's neither, so making such a being is the devouring mother's dream. Dr. Frankenstein-ish Sarah Polley even uses her own DNA--and some scorpion and other creature DNA-- to create Dren (above). Just as Frankenstein's monster had to be hid from the fearful peasantry, Dren must be hidden due to nervous scientific bans on the use of human DNA in research projects. What's shocking is Sarah Polley's progressively cruel treatment of Dren, treating her like a mutant Children in the Attic character, locking her up in the barn, taking away her kitty, refusing to let her fly, run, swim, or crawl free.

With her bald head and alien eyes Dren's a bit like Britney Spears or Sinead O'Connor. The latter as we may recall got flak by drawing attention to the innate cold cruelty towards children perpetrated by organized human power, in her case Catholicism, but is there a difference?

9.  "The Queen" and Ripley #8 -  Aliens, Alien: Resurrection.
If Ripley’s identity involves breaking down boundaries, then she must somehow integrate her own internal dualism. As argued by Janice Hocker Rushing, one important element in that dualism is that Ripley and the Alien Queen in Aliens represent different aspects of the Mother/Goddess archetype.  According to C.G. Jung, the Mother archetype can be either the loving mother (nurturing, wise, and spiritual) or the terrible mother (devouring, seducing, dark, and inescapable). With Aliens, Rushing shows that Ripley and the Alien Queen represent the Good Mother and the Bad Mother respectively, but the problem is that the film does nothing to heal this maternal dualism. For Rushing, Aliens perpetuates the divide between the two mothers by pitting Ripley against the Alien Queen, a confrontation that only furthers patriarchal domination. Their reintegration (in Resurrection) would mean accepting both as part of us all—something the previous Alien films have denied. - Kile M. Ortigo (I’m a Stranger Here Myself”: Forced Individuation in Alien Resurrection, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture,Vol. 17, 2007)

The main moment of idiocy for Ripley in Aliens comes at the climax, torching the queen's eggs in the hive, nulling their quid pro quo hostage release deal, and why bother, since the whole area is just moments from nuclear destruction, and she let you live so you wouldn't, which makes you a rat? Why bother risking your life just to shoot your hostages in a Hiroshima apartment complex the morning of June 5, 1945? That kind of petty vindictiveness sets up the final anti-climax and indeed serves no other discernible purpose except as a moment of vengeful spite that betrays Ripley as her own brand of Kali chthonic devouring I AM LEGEND nightmare to this rival species; Ripley becomes the boogeywoman in bedtime stories told to alien children while they sleep nervously in astronaut tummies.

10. The 3 Mothers - Suspiria, Inferno
"... simultaneously nurturing and devouring, the Great Mother can also be personified in dreams by houses, a particularly provocative association in light of the entire notion of the houses of the three mothers (repositories of their filthy secrets, etc.) ... Inferno easily surpasses Suspiria in this respect, adding Jung's notions to a web of allusion that encompasses De Quincey's refined 19th century opium dreams and the psychedelic hallucinations of sixties pop designs, itself a melange of past styles, made bigger and brighter, and weirder by turn..."- Maitland McDonagh, (Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, p. 146-7)
The long eerie corridors of horror movie haunted houses have long since been analyzed as representing the Freudian birth canal -the horror/misery of light/life through the exit door, the horrific unknown of death back where you started, or vice versa --but which is which? In the bizarre homes of the three mothers it's a little different, the "psychedelic hallucination" aspect of the architecture refracts the Freudian into new realms so that the sheer foreignness of the lighting schemes, the art nouveau windows, the absence of hard rigid lines, makes even standing still in an empty hallway a new kind of movement-based nightmare. In Argento's corridor there is no entrance or exit, no life or death, just a feeling of eternal, inescapable dread. The breadcrumb trail doesn't lead to a way out, it just finally reveals you are swallowed. If you do escape, you need to make your way off the film set itself, and out on a plane back to Hollywood before Dario can dump any more maggots in your hair. 

11. Naomi Watts as Rachel - Ring 2  (2005)
Not quite as bad as some of the reviews make it out, Hideo Nakata's Ring 2 is too waterlogged (are the Japanese intrinsically hydrophobic? A result of their island upbringing?) to frighten, as About.com's Rebecca Murray notes " I don’t find water all that scary. And I definitely didn’t find water cascading from a bathroom ceiling or seeping out from under a bathroom door particularly terrifying."

But one thing is scary: an over-protective single mom funneling her anxiety into her son, using his safety as an excuse to shut out the world and in the process becoming the very thing she seeks to protect him from, i.e. a paranoid schizophrenic (think Viggo in The Road). There's a moment in the hospital where the doctors and nurses survey Rachel's unstable paranoia and her son's wounds, suspect she may be abusive, and suddenly the film comes to life. Nakata forgets about telling his dull ghost story and brings us a chilling example of how a mother's surplus of protective instinct can cause her to become the very danger she's trying to protect her child/children from. Rachel's only salvation is to focus that laser beam of toxic attention away from her son and towards the demon video installation artist Samara, thus attacking media itself (by 'entering' the TV), and adopting Samara even unto the abyss.

12. Old Lady in room 237 -- The Shining (1980)
In her mutability from beautiful young spirit to terrifying old crone, the phantom of room 237 represents a feminine prism of decay: the young, desirable woman gone old and decrepit, worm-ridden and crumbling into putrification. This usually happens over a period of many decades so her husband doesn't notice, but since room 237 exists outside space and linear time her withering occurs in the blink of an eye (like Bowman's rapid aging in a similarly sacred tiled chamber at the end of 2001).

Under Kubrick's cold gaze, phantom 237's devouring aspect becomes a magnetic lure; standing outside of space time, melding into the eerie drones of Gy├Ârgi Ligeti, one can sense the slow revolution of the earth under the floorboards of the Overlook -- on its axis and around the sun and forward through space all at once--like a slow steady inexorable countdown. In other words, when one moves into a dimension outside time one's reality becomes a slow melting 'clockwork' --the difference between dream and reality are erased, and the old lady advancing towards you can't be escaped --she is the only escape route, Kali, the devourer; the same Donner party cannibal who brought you into the world slowly sucks you back in through the same inexorable orifice. SEE ALSO: (Pupils in the Bathroom Mirror)

In closing, hail hail - Kali!


  1. Great example with Lula's Momma from Wild at Heart, she was really trying to control Lula's life. That scene with the red lipstick is pure Lynch genius at work there...she comes off as somewhat of a monster in that scene where she is trying to seduce Sailor in the bathroom.

    I would at one more domineering mothers to that list: Niegels mom in Peter Jackson's DEAD ALIVE, she literally turns into a monster and actually eats Nigel in one scene! If thats not symbolic of a domineering mother I dont know what is!

    Great article.

  2. Oh and another one I remember is the evil mother in Mirrormask, the one on the fantasy world that the little girl escapes to.

  3. thanks for these, Space Monkey M.D.! I couldn't get very far into Dead Alive before I had to throw up, so I've never seen the whole thing (Or meet the Feebles either, though I respect it). As for Mirrormask, another I've not seen. Should I?

  4. If you like Neil Gaiman's writing and Dave McKean's art you should. It plays out a lot like Pan's Labyrinth, Labyrinth, The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland...the young girl lost in dream land. Visually it's stunning, thematically it's complex, at times it might feel a bit slow, but I remember enjoying it. It certainly has its moments, the mother figure in Mirrormask is kind of like the mother figure in Coraline, with an evil counter part in the dream world. At the very least its worth a watch, the visuals are really out there.

  5. I think you'll definetly enjoy the 'trippy' nature of the film, its one of those films where you can just trip out on those visuals...I know you'll enjoy that!

  6. Another example: Kyra Sedgwick in Loverboy.

  7. August 6th, not June 5th. June 5th was the Berlin Declaration.

  8. You could go back to Bette Davis' controlling, spiteful, destructive mother in "Now, Voyager" as well.

  9. Ah, how could you forget Piper Laurie in Carrie? The ultimate devouring mother! Great post. :)

    1. she's represented on the top image alongside the Venus Flytrap and Ripley in Alien Resurrection. She's definitely of the type

    2. There she is! How could I have missed her?

  10. Everything, Everythibg is a perfect example released in 2017


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