They Fuck You Up: Parents in Horror Films

Steven Sheil on the new movie Mom & Dad, his own film of the same name, and why horror movies about parents are so effective.

As a parent, you are beset by fears. Irrational terrors plague your thoughts, push you toward dark imaginings, so that you find yourself standing in your underwear at 2 a.m. looking down into your baby’s cot and checking that yes, they’re still breathing. Or running down the aisles of a supermarket, your brow slick with cold sweat, trying to keep the tremor out of your voice as you call out the name of your three-year-old whose hand you were holding right up until you had to take your wallet out and who, in an instant, disappeared from view to find the toy section. But one of the most fundamental, deep-set and pervasive fears mothers and fathers have for their children stems not from the outside world, but from the heart of the parental relationship itself – namely, What if I fuck them up?

It’s a fear which often manifests itself in horror films featuring parental relationships – the latest example being the newly released Mom & Dad (above) from writer-director Brian Taylor, which features Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair as the titular parents seeking to brutally murder their own children. There’s a moment about halfway through the film where a TV talking-head expert (played by Scottish comic-writing legend Grant Morrison) explains that the filicidal hysteria gripping the nation could stem from someone discovering a way to reverse “the natural hardwired human impulse to protect our young.” It’s shortly followed by the disturbing image of a mob of new fathers pressed up against the window of a maternity ward, faces thick with murderous intent as they stare at the helpless, swaddled newborns on the other side of the glass. This moment – one of a number throughout the movie – feels inherently transgressive, an upsetting of natural order that positions the helpless and wholly vulnerable at the mercy of those supposed to protect them.

A few years into being a father, I made my own horror film about parenthood. Mum & Dad (no relation to Taylor’s film) riffed on murderous family horror films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Frightmare, but was also, in part, an examination of the possibility of perversion of the parent-child contract. I had a toxic quote from Margaret Thatcher in my head (“There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”) and I was imagining the consequence of that idea – if there are no societal norms to abide by, if each family were able to set their own moral compass, then what would happen when you had parents who saw their children not as vulnerable beings to be cared for, but as possessions to be used, abused and discarded? I tried to create a nightmare version of a parental relationship, but one that also felt uncomfortably plausible.

Mum & Dad

The idea of parents as evil, murderous, insane or even just as a toxic and malignant influence has a long history in horror. Sometimes it’s a joint pairing, as in Bob Balaban’s black comedy Parents (1989), about the cannibal instincts lurking beneath the surface of 1950s suburbia, or Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs (1991), featuring the twisted, incestuous “Mommy” and “Daddy” who keep their “adopted” (aka stolen) children locked in the cellar.

Beyond the killer couple, the list of deranged, toxic and dangerous mothers in horror movies is a long one – from Psycho’s Mother Bates, through the likes of Sheila Keith’s glorious power-drill-wielding Dorothy Yates in Frightmare (1974), to Piper Laurie’s Mrs White in Carrie (1976) – wherein the idea of the traditionally nurturing relationship between mother and child becomes something malevolent and insidious, imprinting madness and violence on their offspring. Murderous horror movie fathers are less frequent, but still prevalent, most notably (and iconically) in The Shining (1980), though Terry O’Quinn’s serial family-annihilator in The Stepfather (1987) and Bill Paxton’s fanatically religious and terrifyingly delusional dad from Frailty (2001) also deserve a mention.

Through all of these films, much of the horror stems from the transgressing of the parent-child relationship – the people whose main role is to keep children safe becoming the greatest danger to them. And it may not be just in physical terms, but also in psychological and emotional terms – parents can not only kill, they can also abuse and manipulate, brutalize and indoctrinate, they can twist and deform their children to breaking point and beyond. And if horror movies reflect and amplify our greatest fears, then this continued prevalence of bad parents in horror shows how fundamental a concern this is. The fear that we will, wittingly or unwittingly, hurt our children, is so strong precisely because we know and keenly feel how vulnerable they are.

Steven Sheil during his first weeks of parenthood

The day after my daughter was born, we stepped out from the hospital into the biting February air, her in a carrycot in my hand and – like an echo of the opening of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, when Jessica Harper steps out from the airport terminal into the storm-lashed world beyond – it was like the whole atmosphere of the world changed around us. Thoughts and emotions barely kept in check over the previous couple of days of labor, birth and recovery now surged to the surface. In amongst them, a palpable, bone-deep fear. Leaving the hospital, with its doctors, nurses, midwives, medicines and machines, all the architecture of care, meant that from now on we were on our own. It was up to us to provide everything that our daughter might need, and everything bad that could happen to her would be up to us to prevent. It was as though, in an instant, our sensitivity to the dangers of the outside world increased a thousandfold. When a being relies on you entirely for their continued survival, it creates an immense sense of responsibility, one which can easy be overwhelming. Thoughts crowd in about how your lack of care might harm your child – they could fall from your arms while you hold them, the food you give them could make them ill, you could roll over and crush them in your sleep. They could drown in the bath while your attention is diverted, or fall down the stairs, or run out into the street, or be savaged by a dog. They could fall out of a window, fall onto a knife, stick a pencil up their nose, lick an electrical socket, slip on ice, start a fire …

The first weeks of a child’s life are where their vulnerability and helplessness are most keenly felt by parents, and six weeks in I experienced a moment which crystallized this. Our daughter was not feeding properly and not putting on weight. Our midwife told us that it was most likely due to our daughter having a tongue-tie – where the strip of skin connecting the baby’s tongue to the floor of their mouth is shorter than usual. The fix for this was for us to visit our local hospital and have the doctor there snip the skin to allow for greater movement. I volunteered to go with my daughter into the consulting room, where the doctor told me to lay my six-week-old daughter down on my thighs, and to gently clamp her head between my knees, eyes looking up at me. The nurse then held my daughter’s mouth open and her tongue raised while the doctor reached in with a pair of very long surgical scissors to make the cut. Sitting there, with her tiny, helpless body held by mine, watching this impossibly sharp piece of surgical steel being lowered into her mouth, knowing that any movement I made, any spasm of reaction, could see those scissors slip, was scary and stressful, and something I’d never anticipated having to be responsible for. But that’s the contract that parenthood makes – the parent keeps the child from harm, the parent protects.

But even if you manage to actively prevent the everyday dangers that surround your child, there’s still the accompanying fear that is harder to guard against, the fear that kicks in during the unguarded moments, when you’re no longer actively parenting, but passively being yourself – the fear that you, and who you are, and what you are unconsciously teaching them about the world, about relationships, about how to be – will fuck them up. It’s a fear that comes up every time – though you both always pledged not to, though you know that it’s affecting them in ways that probably won’t know for years or maybe decades – you argue in front of your child. Or when, after a long day dealing with the other aspects of your world – work, money, friendships, family – you snap at them for asking a simple question, one that you may have answered 30 times before, but which you also know and acknowledge is just your job as a parent to answer because how else do they learn anything but which you don’t answer anyway, because right now you just want some quiet for two bloody minutes. It’s the fear that no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, you’ll never avoid hurting them in some way or other.

Horror films take these fears and amplify them. If creating horror is often about asking yourself, “What is the worst thing that could happen?,” then the fear that you could hurt your child comes high on that list. From the likes of the operatically neglectful Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg in the opening sequence of of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), making love while their child climbs out of a window, to the troubled, exhausted Amelia (Essie Davis) in The Babadook (2014), whose possession by a spirit from a children’s book turns her maternal instinct into a homicidal one, horror continually examines the breaking of the unspoken contract between parent and child – the absenting, negation or perversion of the role of caregiver. In doing so, it makes us aware of just how careful we have to be as parents, and just how much of a world of damage it’s possible to inflict on our children if we aren’t.

Steven Sheil is a screenwriter and director. His first feature, Mum & Dad, was released in 2008 and was described by Total Film as “one of the defining British horrors of its generation.” His second feature, the 2012 action-horror Dead Mine, was shot in Indonesia and starred an international cast. HBO Asia’s first original production, the film is distributed in the U.K. by eOne. He is also the co-writer of psychological drama Gozo, co-written and directed by Miranda Bowen for Bishop Films and due for release in 2016. He also works as a cinematographer, primarily with his wife, the artist and documentarian Jeanie Finlay, and is the co-director of the Mayhem Film Festival, based at Broadway Cinema in Nottingham, U.K.