Celine Dion once famously said, “I’d like to dedicate this next song to all of the parents and all the children of the world” — to which a not-quite-as-famous YouTuber famously responded, “All the parents + all of the children of the world = fucking everybody.” Yes, one of the most fundamental facts of life — or at least life pre-singularity or pre-making-people-out-of-carrots or whatever the future has in store — is that everyone is a child and most people are parents. It is the universality of these familial absolutes, perhaps, that makes “the fam” such good fuel for horror in film, even in films that wouldn’t necessarily be categorized as “horror.”
In fact, there’s such a bounty of films depicting inter-family horrors — second to nurturing, horror might be what they do best — that organizing a filmic family trauma reunion (aka listicle) seems quite a Freudian headache. For this reason, I’ve decided to break down the most stomach-churning family relationships onscreen into slightly more digestible groups.
In so doing, I’ve noticed some patterns: the evil mother, for example, is a camp plaything and is perhaps the most pervasive trope in family horror. Because the mother is still viewed as the primary nurturer (on a cultural level), filmmakers are wont to turn the mother’s influence into monstrous manipulation. Paternal horror likewise exists in droves, as does that of the evil infant. The horrific auntie is also a thing, and while I’m still searching for the horrific cinematic second-cousin-once-removed, I’m sure it’s out there. So, as you shudderingly prepare for the holiday season, hollowing pumpkins of their guts, butt-plugging turkeys with wet, seasoned bread, hanging frosted cookies from dead pine trees, make sure to stop and think about how thankful you are that, while perhaps you have to endure the horrors of holiday-prep in order to spend time with the fam, at least your father (probably) isn’t hand-crafting a Christmas gift of a new face made out of other people’s faces, and at least your gynecologist twin probably won’t be (literally) eviscerating you.
Beware: there are some spoilers ahead. Also beware: this is disgusting.
Drop Dead Gorgeous (dir. Michael Patrick Jann)
I figure it’s best to start out light. Gladys Leeman, the devout-Christian murderess played by Kirstie Alley, would do literally anything and kill literally anyone to seal her daughter Becky’s win in the Mount Rose American Teen Princess Pageant. And while nobody sympathizes with the equally conniving Becky, she’s unaware, it seems, of the extremes to which her mother will go to live vicariously.
Pink Flamingos (dir. John Waters)
The horror is all around in this film, passed down from generation to generation. There’s so much to unpack, apart from the most famously referenced scene of mother/son oral sex (I mean, who can blame them for getting caught up in the heat of the moment while licking all of the furniture in a rival “filthy” family’s home in an exhilarating act of revenge?). There’s also the poultry fetish that seems to have skipped Divine’s generation — passed down from Edie, the egg-obsessed, girdle-rocking grandmother in a crib to her grandson Crackers, who likes having sex with women with a live chicken placed between their naked bodies. So I guess John Waters wants us to know the egg came first?
Serial Mom (dir. John Waters)
I’d be remiss to only include one John Waters film. While Serial Mom came after Waters’ early phase of unbridled filth, his camp portraiture of murderous mothers hadn’t dulled. The film’s title is pretty self-explanatory, and it thankfully doesn’t do much else besides show Kathleen Turner threatening people by saying “pussy willows” and proceeding to murder them (for such small missteps as chastising her son for not rewinding a video or wearing white after labor day). Her best weapon? A leg of lamb. Clearly Waters, at this point, was over the whole poultry-horror thing.
Ma Mère (dir. Christophe Honoré)
This one’s a doozy. Neither campy nor grounded in drama that’s worth its many traumas, this piece of New French Extremist sadism (based on a Georges Bataille novel) sees Isabelle Huppert’s mother character convincing her friend to deflower her 17-year-old son, then involving him in a plethora of increasingly perverse sexual scenarios, the last of which is both incestuous and deadly; let’s just say that both the director and the surviving character end the film with a heavy, masturbatory hand.
The Piano Teacher (dir. Michael Haneke)
Oh, look! Isabelle Huppert must like starring in disturbing psychosexual films! Who knew?! She also gets with a 17-year-old in this movie, but this one’s not her son. Based on the novel by Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek, The Piano Teacher shows how Huppert’s character Erika has been traumatized by her mother’s overbearing nature and total encroachment on her private life; they still live together and sleep in the same bed.
Savage Grace (dir. Tom Kalin)
A seeming English-language rehashing of the clinical, psychoanalytic cruelties of “New French Extremity” films, Savage Grace features another mother/son relationship whose unsustainable sexual nature leads to violence.
Black Swan (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
Similar to The Piano Teacher, Black Swan features a stereotypically overbearing stage mother (played by Barbara Hershey) who still lives with her classically talented adult daughter. Also like The Piano Teacher, it suggests that the protagonist’s (Nina’s) repressed sexuality — which manifests itself in weird acts of climactic self-harm — is all a result of the mother’s smothering and sexually abusive tendencies, all of which, in Black Swan, culminate in a rather disturbing sequence in which all of the portraits Nina’s mother has painted of her come to life and cacophonously parrot Hershey’s creepy catch-phrase, “Sweet girl.”
The Manchurian Candidate (1962) (dir. John Frankenheimer)
This film features one of the most evil cinematic mamas, whose power hunger far outweighs her sense of maternal responsibility, though both commingle in a rather unsettling fashion. This movie hyperbolizes the meaning of parental influence, with Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Eleanor Iselin’s literal hypnosis of her son turning him into a killing machine.
Mother (dir. Bong Joon-Ho)
Mother looks so sad and friendly! Mother looks like she’s just trying to make it through her later years by dancing on a parched grassy plain! Mother would never, say, murder a man and burn his house down to cover up her son’s crimes! This mother also sleeps in the same bed as her son — I’m starting to wonder if perhaps at the bottom of all these cautionary tales about bed-sharing lies a secret advertising scheme funded by, say, Sleepy’s or Bed Bath and Beyond?
Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
I mean, does this really need much more explaining than the worth-a-thousand-words photo featured above? While Norma Bates bears many similarities to the aforementioned mamas (having raised her son Norman with VERY sex-negative values and generally unhealthy ideas about women and having taught him to worship her and only her), there’s one key difference: she is very, very mummified.
Carrie (dir. Brian de Palma)
Jigoku (dir. Nobuo Nakagawa)
In Jigoku (Japanese for “Hell”), the mother of a gang leader plots an elaborate revenge after her son is killed in a drunken hit-and-run. Said revenge happens to involve the murder not only of the perpetrators, but also of all invitees at a party, and ultimately suicide.
Sybil (dir. Daniel Petrie)
Sybil’s mother’s abuse has shattered her identity: hidden somewhere among her many personalities is Peggy, the little girl and personality who Sybil most desperately avoids, who bears the weight of all of Sybil’s mother’s horrors on her nonexistent shoulders.
Freaky Friday (dir. Mark Waters)
This is perhaps the most horrific scenario of all — what if, one morning, you woke up as your mother? And what if your mother woke up as you? It throws a whole other layer of weirdness into the mix knowing that we’re talking about Lindsay Lohan. And, if we’re continuing to analyze the recurring trends of mommy-horror, we must wonder if the childhood trauma depicted herein might have something to do with the star’s behavior, and whether it was by some Sybil-esque fragmentation-of-self implemented to help her cope with the traumas of this one very freaky Friday that she came to say “yes” to roles in later horrors, i.e. Liz and Dick and The Canyons.
Antichrist (dir. Lars von Trier)
Antichrist really brings to light the idea of “mommy horror” being a trope that’s sensationalized by male directors, but surely Von Trier knew that. Partially because he hired a “Misogyny Consultant” (it’s baffling that anyone would have thought Von Trier would have credited someone for helping his film be more misogynistic, as much of the film’s symbolism has to do with witch hunts/gynocide, and that’s obviously what this person was hired for), the film resulted in critical outrage. Of course, John Waters, aforementioned proponent of mommy horror, dubbed it one of the best films of 2009, saying, “If Ingmar Bergman had committed suicide, gone to hell, and come back to earth to direct an exploitation/art film for drive-ins, this is the movie he would have made.” Watching this film about a couple destroying each other after the defenestrating death of their son, the audience is left to ponder whether Gainsbourg’s “She” character actually brought about the tragedy through evidence that she made him wear his boots on the wrong feet.
Mommie Dearest (dir. Frank Perry)
Ah, yes. We come to the paragon of the genre. While she may not have gone quite as far in her abuses as some of the other mothers in this list, the dictatorship Joan Crawford (here depicted by Faye Dunaway) made of her home amounts to one of the most frightening depictions of motherhood in film, with her infamous overreaction to the usage of wire hangers being the defining moment in despicable onscreen (not to mention real-life) motherhood.
Star Wars (dir. George Lucas) (and, by association, Austin Powers)
From the photos above, you might think Rogaine the antidote to the world’s paternal evils. But it’s not. Really, the cure, at least as Star Wars would have you think, is Force unleashed by the evil Emperor, which makes your son writhe in pain, a sight that shatters your decades-old bond to the dark side. And as Austin Powers would have you think, the cure is never making another sequel after the pile of comedic dandruff that was Goldmember.
Eyes Without a Face (dir. Georges Franju)
Well, this is an upsetting one. Christiane, a young woman (played by Edith Scob) whose face was disfigured in a car accident, has a rather devoted father. Indeed, her successful-surgeon daddy has his assistant Louise lure young women to his mansion so he can peel their faces off and stick the flesh-masks on his daughter. Eventually, his daughter gets tired of the ritual of face-sticking, and, feeling sorry for all of the women who unwittingly lost their faces for her, turns against her father.
The Celebration (dir. Thomas Vinterberg)
Another classic tale of sexual abuse — here juxtaposed against the celebration of the abusive patriarch’s 60th birthday.
Almost EVERY Todd Solondz Movie
Just about every Todd Solondz film involves some form of child molestation or another. In the oh-so-twisted Happiness and Life During Wartime duo, patriarch Bill Maplewood is your regular rapist-pedophile daddy; while he may victimize his son’s classmates, Bill swears to him that he’d always refrain from doing anything to him, and would relegate his desire to mere masturbation.
Mum and Dad (dir. Steven Sheil)
I mean, really. This one’s just too much. It features the “Dad” character punishing his daughter by making her kiss the severed head of a man her mother suffocated with bubble wrap. There’s so much more, but I just can’t bring myself to write about it.
Frailty (dir. Bill Paxton)
In Frailty, Bill Paxton’s directorial debut, the father figure referred to as “Dad” (played by Paxton) enlists his sons to help him rid the world of a list of demons an angel has passed on to him. Of course, these “demons” are just people. While one of his sons is totally on board to slay these “demons” with the family axe, euphemistically named Otis, the other son is not so down, and gets locked in a basement until he nearly starves.
The Shining (dir. Stanley Kubrick)
It seemed fitting that, considering the assortment of dangerous objects (axe, baseball bat, the terrifying words “Heeeere’s Johnny”) with which Jack Nicholson’s possessed daddy character, Jack, pursues his “loved” ones, this film should make its way onto this list.
Sitcom (dir. François Ozon)
In Sitcom — a title satirizing the wholesome sitcom-ish portrayal of the nuclear family — the patriarch brings home a white rat one day. The white rat’s presence somehow brings all of the latent familial psychosexual weirdness to the surface, culminating in the father’s startling metamorphosis.
Taxidermia (dir. György Pálfi)
The horror insinuated here differs a bit from that of the previous films — Taxidermia traces a family tree of repugnance across three generations of utterly disgusting men, suggesting the inescapability of heredity. The first has sex with pig-corpses, the second is a competitive eater who turns into the thing featured above, and the third is an all-too-devoted (take what you will from that) taxidermist.
My Stepmother Is an Alien (dir. Richard Benjamin)
Gotcha! You just narrow-mindedly ASSUMED that a movie about an alien stepmother would be about all of the ills that befall the family on which she step(mother)s. But the alien stepmother in question is actually quite lovely! Her name is Celeste, she looks like Kim Basinger, she can read a book merely by placing her hand inside it, and she’s a dear. Her handbag, however, contains a weird tentacled thing, and is evil. But there wasn’t room for a category of Stepmother’s Purse Horror.
All Iterations of Snow White, esp. Snow White: A Tale of Terror
You know the story. Snow White’s stepmother really sucks. Her vanity is boundless, and when a talking mirror tells her that her stepdaughter Snow White is the fairest in the land, she gets pissed, and goes (evilly) apple picking upstate.
Pan’s Labyrinth (dir. Guillermo del Toro)
The stepfather in Pan’s Labyrinth is a killing machine and a personification of the Fascist regime that was to come in Post-Civil War Spain — a captain with no mercy for Republican rebels and, as it turns out, for stepdaughters who just want to believe in lush fairy kingdoms.
Being John Malkovich (dir. Spike Jonze)
The familial lines are very much blurred in this film. With people using John Malkovich’s brain as a thoroughfare to their greatest desires, flopping in and out of the veteran actor’s consciousness for just enough time to have sex with Catherine Keener, it’s hard to say whether the baby that John Malkovich’s body has with Keener’s character Maxine also belongs to John Cusack’s Craig or Cameron Diaz’s Lotte (who both copulate with Keener while wearing the Malkovich-shell). At the end of the film, we hear Craig’s voice speaking from inside the head of his (maybe kinda sorta) daughter, trapped somewhere inside her brain, longing after his (maybe kinda sorta) baby mama.
The Stepfather (dir. Joseph Ruben)
This one’s a shoo-in. The moral of the film? If you hate your stepfather and think he’s an evil creep, and your psychiatrist tells you to not hate him because he’s not an evil creep, you should probably keep hating him, because he’s probably an evil creep.
Beetlejuice (dir. Tim Burton)
Catherine O’Hara plays Delia, the imposing stepmother character/Manhattanite sculptor who’s miserable in the country. And while she, herself, is a high-strung nightmare, the horrors she causes come more from her hideous sculpture and flair for gaudy decoration, transforming an idyllic country home into a porn parody of the Whitney Museum.
The Skin I Live In (dir. Pedro Almodovar)
In this — Almodovar’s first excursion into sci-fi/body horror territory, influenced by Eyes Without a Face — Antonio Banderas’ mad surgeon character has an equally mad illegitimate brother who dresses as a tiger and attempts to rape the subject of his experiments (who, herself, MIGHT have a bit of a sex-offending history). Let’s just say this doesn’t go over well with Banderas’ character.
The Virgin Suicides (dir. Sofia Coppola)
The film (like the book it’s based on) doesn’t really provide answers about the strange mob mentality of the five sisters who all commit suicide within a year of each other, but instead suggests a combination of the contagion of familial influence, coupled with the dehumanizing magnifying glass their neighborhood has puts them under — while still maintaining their distance — after the first daughter’s suicide.
Dead Ringers (dir. David Cronenberg)
In Dead Ringers, whose tagline was “Two Bodies. Two Minds. One Soul,” twin gynecologists (already terrifying) played by Jeremy Irons have a setup wherein one seduces their patients, and then they switch off, engaging them, without their knowledge, in a strange love triangle. When one of them becomes attached to a patient, their brotherly equilibrium goes askew, and they fall into terrible depression, which can, of course, only be reversed by the disembowelment of one twin.
Cries and Whispers (dir. Ingmar Bergman)
When two sisters are brought together to “comfort” their sister who’s dying of cancer, a subtler portrait of sibling rivalry and the bitterness that can envelop a family throughout the years arises (subtler, at least, than most of these other films). There are cries, there are whispers.
Sisters (dir. Brian de Palma)
They used to be conjoined twins! Now, they’re two separate murderers!
Melancholia (dir. Lars Von Trier)
Melancholia might seem to be a movie about a rogue planet that’s on a (very loopy and unpredictable) collision course with Earth. But since the planet is given the name “Melancholia,” and since we never see the macro-impact of this planet’s world-destruction (but rather experience it solely within one household), and since Lars Von Trier has spoken about this film being about his battle with depression, the planet Melancholia seems like a rather rotund metaphoric manifestation of one sister’s implacable sadness, and that sadness’ devastating effect on the rest of her family.
Through a Glass Darkly (dir. Ingmar Bergman)
Similar to Melancholia, this film about a family at the point of collapse takes place in isolation from society. It similarly depicts the unraveling of a family as they try to cope with — and likely exacerbate — their daughter’s mental illness. During the film, it’s insinuated that Karin instigates an inappropriate relationship with her brother. Then, of course, a giant spider “with the eyes of God” tries to penetrate her.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (dir. Robert Aldrich)
Perhaps the most classic, and most classically cited, film about horrific sibling rivalry. In What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, Joan Crawford’s (who appears earlier on this list as a real-life horrific family member) Blanche and her former child-star and family-favorite sister Jane (played by Bette Davis) live together, unpacking and perpetuating their history of petty-jealousy-manifested-as-attempted violence.
Fat Girl (dir. Catherine Breillat)
In weight-obsessed France, two sisters go on vacation with their mother. The younger girl, let’s say the “slightly weightier” sister, is beginning to have sexual fantasies, and her thinner, beautiful and adored sister engages in a sexual intercourse with a local boy with her sister in the room. As we become more and more aware of how downtrodden the “fat girl” is, we also start to wonder whether she might harbor some darker fantasies about her family…
We Need to Talk About Kevin (dir. Lynne Ramsay)
Perhaps due to the total arbitrariness of child-rearing, or perhaps due to some subtle bad mothering (or her desire to have not even had a child), Tilda Swinton’s Eva Khatchadourian is plunged into an 18-year nightmare by her psychopathic son, whose sole life goal seems to be the destruction of everything Eva creates.
Rosemary’s Baby (dir. Roman Polanski)
You know the story. A woman given some smelly herbs by geriatric busybodies who also happen to be Satan worshipers, gets pregnant with Satan’s baby. Ultimately, the baby itself isn’t quite as terrifying as Ruth Gordon’s chirpy New York accent, steeped as it is in pure evil.
Benny’s Video (dir. Michael Haneke)
Of course there had to be another Michael Haneke film on this list. A master of callous deconstructions of family relationships, Haneke here depicts a boy whose negligent parents have parented him more with the teachings of assorted screens than with valuable lessons humans teach other humans. A lover of video games and pig-slaughtering videos, young Benny has a hard time differentiating — and is indeed too dehumanized to even feel the desire to differentiate — between reality and the worlds behind his screens. And this leads him to do a very messed-up thing with a captive bolt pistol (yes, the same animal-slaughtering mechanism used by Benicio del Toro in No Country for Old Men).
Violette Nozière (dir. Claude Chabrol)
This film is based on a real-life, frenzied French news story from 1933 about a teen who convinces her parents that she got syphilis from them, convinces them to take “medicine” for it, and poisons them. Perhaps this is why the French have so often appeared on this list.
The Brood (dir. David Cronenberg)
The best way to win a child-custody battle, suggests this film, is with the help of a brood of murderous dwarf children.
Arsenic and Old Lace (dir. Frank Capra)
This one may be a comedic breath of fresh air, but it still involves two (arguably adorable) aunties poisoning lonely older men while Cary Grant’s Mortimer Brewster tries to keep his charmingly homicidal family in check.
James and the Giant Peach (dir. Henry Selick)
It should just be a given that you should never let Joanna Lumley take care of your kids — between this and Ab Fab, there’s really no reason any child character should have to endure more of her hilarious foulness. Unless, like James, they’re orphaned, and only given the option of being stuck with her (and her other evil sister, who we care less about because she’s not Joanna Lumley) for eternity, or shrinking, becoming claymation, and living inside a peach. Honestly, the latter doesn’t sound so great (though it does sound better — and surprisingly less insect-riddled — than some of the New York real estate I’ve seen), but clearly James seems to enjoy himself in the fruit.
House (dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi)
A cautionary tale about using family members’ houses for parties. When Gorgeous invite her six friends to her aunt’s house, one of them ends up beheaded, one is eaten by household lighting, one is attacked by mattresses, and much, much more.
The Good Son (dir. Joseph Ruben)
Based on the novel by respected author Ian McEwan (?!), this film is about a boy, played by Elijah Wood, whose parents die. He then has to live with his psychopathic cousin (I mean, the kid tries to push his mother over the edge of a cliff, and also grows up to do weird things with pizza), played by the unknown child actor pictured above.
Rabid Grannies (dir. Emmanuel Kervyn)
They’re grannies! They’re cannibals! The dentures will help them… be cannibals! This is the end of this post!