When I was in high school, a super sweet Aerosmith song entitled “Jaded” was released. Yeah, you’ve probably heard it. I used to watch the music video for it in the morning before school, back in the nostalgic, bygone days when MTV used to play (gasp) music videos. (Since I don’t have cable right now, I have no idea what they play, but last I checked, music videos had taken a back seat to painfully terrible reality TV). The Aerosmith song “Jaded,” comes to mind now, though, because I just saw a movie that I should have found genuinely frightening (on the whole, I’d say it was a good movie) but part of what I saw was just another less-than colorful, archetypal addition to the horror pantheon. Today, Michael and I sat down to watch Mama, directed by Guillermo Del Toro, and while the movie was well-made and fun to watch, I was much less afraid than I thought I would be, and the film reminded me of other horror classics. Perhaps I am jaded, because that film should have scared me, but it didn’t.
The premise of Mama is probably the most unnerving component of the story. After a man snaps and murders his wife and two business partners, he kidnaps his two daughters, drives off a cliff with them in the car, and ends up in an obscure cabin in the middle of the woods. (The fact that they escape virtually unscathed from their cliff-diving is a miraculous feat that I tried not to question too much). The man points a gun at his oldest daughter, Victoria, (who is only three or four) while she stares out the window, but before he can pull the trigger, a spectral figure swoops down, grabs him, and presumably kills him. The girls live on their own – but, of course, not really on their own – in a cabin in the woods for five years before they’re found. When they are found – their uncle has been spending a fortune for five years to maintain rescue efforts – their social and verbal skills are compromised, but they keep saying “Mama,” and the viewer glimpses footage of them playing with a mysterious force, before, finally, glimpsing “Mama,” the possessive, sinewy female ghost with glowing yellow eyes who wants the girls for herself. At first, “Mama” is terrifying to behold, but by the end of the film I’d glimpsed her long enough to see her as a pretty typical horror ghost.
We learn that “Mama” is a sympathetic character, who died during an escape from a psychiatric institution with her baby, but lost the baby. After I saw that portion of the film, I couldn’t stop thinking of The Woman in Black, a film that terrified me the first time I saw it, even though I’ve (oddly enough) never written about it on this site. The Woman in Black, like “Mama” is a simultaneously unnerving, malevolent, but sympathetic female ghost who was separated from her child in life because of psychiatric issues and haunts the earth, angst-ridden, in death, looking for the lost child. While “Mama,” however, covets two little girls, to a pathologically obsessive degree (and seems to love them in a warped, sometimes destructive, ghostly way) the Woman in Black is responsible for the death of myriad children. Still, between these two female ghosts, the similarities were more distinct than the differences. I had to do a google check, but the first incarnation of The Woman in Black was released in 2012, a year before Mama. I can’t claim that the writers of Mama were cognizant of the similarities (although The Woman in Black was a well-known film), but Mama seemed less original given its striking parallel to The Woman in Black. (Fun fact: Their scores are nearly identical to one another on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes).
And still, films like Mama and The Woman in Black show an interesting trend toward inverting the beauty and joy supposedly inherent in maternity. I’ve written before about the popularity of the female ghost in contemporary horror, and potential reasons for her prominence. But I think this analysis can be extended in a few directions, and one is looking at the female ghost in a maternal light. Why do we see more “angry mother” ghosts looking for their children? On the one hand, the back story works well for a haunting. If ghosts are the emotionally discombobulated residue of a person who was too grief-stricken and unpacified at his or her time of death to pass on, then the loss of a child would be a primary reason to linger belligerently around on this earth. But the relationship between “Mama” and the two girls in the movie is notably unsettling, making maternity less a beautiful phenomenon and more a troubling aberration while (in both films under comparison) rendering any semblance of a father figure insignificant. I’m not condemning or condoning this pattern, but as society’s views on gender change, perhaps films like The Woman in Black and Mama reflect our fear of losing a “maternal norm.” If, because of same-sex marriage, single moms, working moms, and that insidious trend we call feminism (I joke, as I’m quite a fan of feminism), people are afraid that something sacred and stable is being compromised, then perhaps we’re seeing a cinematic backlash. I’m NOT saying something is being compromised, only that these films reflect social fear. The mother-child bond might, as such, face more unusual and uncomfortable representation in pop culture. Maybe these women longing for their lost children are, to take it a step further, a society subconsciously longing for something it perceives is lost, a lost image of what once was, the glistening and always glorified past, even if that image never represented reality. Maybe we are all obsessive mothers yearning for our lost babies – the elusive yesterday, spread into nothingness and oblivion like so many grains of sand. (Such simultaneously irrational but explicable fear of change and progress can explain both insidious maternal ghosts and the fact that almost half our population thinks it would be somehow rational or beneficial to vote for Donald Trump).
The analysis above may sound far-fetched, but it’s worth considering. And if you don’t grant the symbolism inherent in a ghost-mom yearning for her lost child, you can at least grant that there’s a trend in horror toward depicting unnaturally possessive women. Diana’s ghost in Lights Out epitomizes this norm (I write about her here), along with the Woman in Black and Mama. Possessiveness in life often drives these women to so-called ghost-hood, and possessiveness in death spurs them forward and drives their insidious hauntings and killings. You know how in relationships, women are sometimes stereotyped as being clingy, needy, and possessive? Well, the trend translates to horror cinema, too. We women. We just latch onto something, and raise hell (in the most literal way possible, in these films) until we get what we want (at which point, sometimes, we continue to raise hell). At least, so the depiction suggests.
In short, Mama didn’t really scare me, but I still enjoyed the movie, and I am absolutely fascinated by Guillermo Del Toro as a director. I saw his more recent Crimson Peak before Mama, and in both instances I was intrigued to see what he does with the concept of a female ghost and how he conceives of a frightening apparition. Based on Mama and Crimson Peak, his worlds are creatively dark and invitingly gothic. Mama even develops the relationship between a counter-culture female rock-band member and the aforementioned, lost-then-found girls, adding a warm, familial dimension and element of growth and hope to Del Toro’s work. I googled Guillermo Del Toro online, and I found that he actually has art work collections of malevolent fantasy beings. He’s the type of guy who sketches monsters in his spare time. And, of course, that’s the type of guy you want directing the horror movie you rent on Saturday night. Mama may not have been an endlessly terrifying romp through hell, but it was a dark, intriguing story with glimpses of light, and a pretty cool-looking (if not completely terrifying) ghost. This one will be interesting to the seasoned horror veteran, and terrifying to the faint of heart.