This article contains spoilers for “The Lodge.”
Poisoning, verbal abuse, neglect, decapitation by piano wire: These are just a few of the sins committed by mothers in horror movies. Whether harming their children or raising monsters of their own, these women eschew maternal expectation so thoroughly as to harm humanity. The anti-mothering in movies like “Psycho,” “Carrie,” “Antichrist” and “Hereditary” is so blatant it borders on sacrilege — no accident, as each of these movies deals in zealotry as well as maternal abuse.
“The Lodge” (now in theaters), from the “Goodnight Mommy” directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, and “Swallow” (March 6), from Carlo Mirabella-Davis, present more complex takes on spurned motherhood. In both films, the central mother figures are unprepared for their new roles — what’s more, in a disturbing blow to the patriarchal nuclear family, these women are ambivalent about motherhood itself. But as the films’ many terrors unfold, it seems they were right to be reluctant.
“The Lodge” centers on Grace (Riley Keough) and her soon-to-be stepchildren Mia (Lia McHugh) and Aiden (Jaeden Martell). The children are scarred by their mother’s recent suicide, partially driven by the revelation that her husband intends to marry his mistress, Grace. At the same time, Grace is recovering from her childhood in a Waco-meets-Heaven’s Gate death cult.
Young and awkward, Grace does her best to win over her fiancé’s children. But Mia and Aiden, determined not to let this woman replace their mother, set out to exploit Grace’s trauma when the three are forced together for Christmas in their family vacation home. The results are gut-wrenching, as an addled Grace turns on her juvenile charges. Although one woman gets the most screen time, “The Lodge” is really about three mother figures: the children’s dead mom, the Virgin Mary (via a foreboding portrait in the dining room) and Grace. A martyr, a saint and — at least in the children’s eyes — a harlot.
So go three popular sexist tropes, with mothers — stereotypically sexless figures — usually falling into martyrdom or sainthood. In horror movies, where social comforts are upended for maximum disturbance, this idealism curdles into (often literal) demonization. In the Lars von Trier movie “Antichrist,” the mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg) does not prevent her child’s fatal fall, portending her psychotic attempts to kill her husband in a forest called Eden. Ellen, the dead matriarch and closet occultist of Ari Aster’s “Hereditary,” invites a malevolent spirit to puppeteer her daughter and granddaughter, thus leading to the end of her entire family. Then there’s Margaret White, the mother of Carrie, and Norma Bates, the mother of Norman, two obsessive, sexually obsessed Christian parents who smother their children to a fault. As Sady Doyle writes in her book “Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers,” “At the heart of horror is a bad mother; the familiar and terrible vision of a woman corrupting the world, unleashing her own flaws upon it through her monstrous children.”
“The Lodge” finds Grace struggling against a mother and father from her own past, in the form of the Virgin Mary and the priest who led her former cult (played, quite unsettlingly, by Riley Keough’s real-life father, Danny). But unlike other horror mothers, Grace’s upbringing does not make her fundamentally violent, nor does she instigate the violence between herself and the children. Instead, Aiden and Mia put Grace through grueling emotional and physical torture, hiding her food, belongings and psychiatric medication and playing tapes of her old priest until they eventually trigger her cult programming.
There is no unending maternal love to save these three, as in horror films like “Bird Box” or “The Conjuring.” Instead, “The Lodge” implies what other horror films are usually too afraid to say: Motherhood, with all its sacrifice and crushing expectation, might not be worth it for everyone.
That message is likely familiar to fans of “Rosemary’s Baby,” though the film’s protagonist eventually accepts the malevolent force that invades her home (and uterus). Recent takes on the reluctant or terrified mother include “The Babadook,” Jennifer Kent’s debut feature about a mother troubled both by her misbehaving son and a demonic force, “Prevenge,” Alice Lowe’s slasher about a pregnant woman whose fetus compels her to kill, and “Swallow,” about Hunter Conrad (Haley Bennett), a dutiful housewife who, once she learns she is pregnant, begins compulsively swallowing dangerous inanimate objects.
Hunter appears to have a charmed life. Wide-eyed and bubbly, she spends her days homemaking and playing games on her cellphone. She was a retail worker who bagged a rich man. Bearing his child is just another privilege, like en suite bathrooms or the latest iPhone. Her pregnancy gifts her life with purpose. Still, she swallows a thumbtack well before her second trimester.
Determined to produce an heir, her domineering in-laws shuttle her off to therapy to uproot the compulsion. There, placidly smiling, she reveals a family trauma that disassembles any preconceived notions about the film’s relationship to gender, motherhood or even Hunter herself. She’s no twit, and her destructive behavior — inspired by that of Mirabella-Davis’s own grandmother, who was lobotomized for a hand-washing compulsion — becomes a savvy and tragic bid to retain her selfhood. What little independence she has as a wife can be distilled into the moments she steals to swallow objects, her private world as small as the tray on which she places a marble, an earring, a battery.
“The Lodge” and “Swallow” are so effectively disturbing because there are few Freudian terrors more primal than that of the mother figure who turns on her children, or the woman who violently rejects the very idea of maternity.
Grace and Hunter are not demons but martyrs, sacrificed to the feminine ideal of motherhood despite their independent desires. The disobedient mother is a horror trope because, as an idealized figure, she has so far to fall, and so many means by which to do so. In comedies like “Bad Moms,” unruly mothers use cursing and alcohol. In chillers like “The Lodge” and “Swallow,” they guzzle safety pins and play Russian roulette.