The other day, while glancing through the list of available films at theaters, I noticed two horror films, Ouija and Incarnate. Both were about supernatural terrors that befall single mothers and their children. The other horror film I’d seen this year, The Conjuring 2, was also about a single mother whose house and children become possessed. The TV show “Stranger Things” features a single mother whose child mysteriously vanishes, but might be in the light bulbs. All my favorite suspense and horror films seem to feature single mothers: The Sixth Sense. The Others. The Ring .
Why so many single mothers? I wondered. Having become a young single mother myself at the age of twenty, I found myself reflecting on possible similarities between my own experiences and the ones represented in popular horror films. First, there is the state of apartness these mothers live in; the moms in horror films are always isolated, sexually repressed, and overworked. Their neurotic predicaments and “otherness” make them perfect subjects for eerie on-screen tension. Nicole Kidman’s character in The Others , Grace, is a single mother whose isolation is extreme: Her husband goes missing in the war and she is left in a mansion alone with her two children, both who have an allergy to light. The enforced isolation drives her mad.
I can certainly relate. Once my daughter was born, I lost all my friends. They were bohemians and artists and intellectuals; the practical troubles that come along with a child were too mundane for them. Other mothers, the ones I met in the park or at daycare, didn’t want to have anything to do with me, either, because we weren’t of the same class. I could not afford to be their neighbor. I moved into a small apartment in a building filled with oddballs, and with only my daughter for company, I felt completely alone. Sometimes, at night, in the eerie gloom of the apartment, I was quite certain there was someone standing behind the curtains, watching me.
There’s a scene in The Others where we see Nicole Kidman in her slip and garter belt on the side of the bed, tingling with repressed, potent desire. Single mothers in horror films are often portrayed as sexy, perhaps because there is something taboo about the sexuality of mothers. And many people just assume that single mothers are sexually available— here is someone, they seem to believe, who will have irresponsible sex! Once I started walking around the city with a little girl in tow, many men thought it was fine to hit on me. Horns honked, garbage men whistled at me (they said the most romantic things!), the ice-cream truck driver blew kisses at me, the butcher winked as he handed me a wrapped-up salami.
I never managed to date anyone who was a keeper. In films, having bad taste in men is often the cause of one’s single mother status to begin with. The mother in The Lost Boys has such poor romantic judgment that she ends up going on a date with the king of the vampires. Many of the exes of the women in horror films are handsome, but immature; the jeans-clad father in Dark Waters is always chain-smoking and leaning against his car as he criticizes Jennifer Connelly’s character. My own daughter’s father, who always wore a jean jacket under a leather jacket, fit this type exactly. He was one of those men who was adored in high school, and then completely fell apart after because he could no longer get by on his good looks and affable personality. He liked to do things like smoke while pondering the sky, and he always had a new and elaborate money-making scheme that he never actually implemented. Every time I asked him for child support money, he launched into an explanation of his latest “plan.” We didn’t even know where he was for years at a time.
I always struggled with identifying myself primarily as a “mother,” because that role doesn’t make you any money, and I needed money to support and raise my daughter on my own. The single mothers in horror films are often seen as derelict by those around them because they are so preoccupied with their jobs and their lives outside the home. In the Australian horror film The Babadook , Essie Davis’s single mother character struggles with her hatred of her maternal role; she feels it overwhelms and imprisons her. In one scene, she is surrounded by another group of mothers who look down upon her.
As for me, I felt I could never fully devote myself to my daughter because I was an aspiring writer, constantly scribbling in notebooks. Once I was writing on the beach underneath a crooked umbrella, and when I looked up, my daughter was nowhere in sight. I found her ten minutes later, deep in conversation with a six-year-old boy. The distracted or neglectful single mother is a constant in horror films; for example, Toni Collette’s character in The Sixth Sense is always losing track of her son. Every time she pauses to have a conversation, he climbs into a closet where the ghosts of some turn-of-the-century murderers live. He manages to develop an intense relationship with Bruce Willis’s ghost without his mother ever noticing.
Children of single mothers in films often assume a great deal of responsibility. The forces of evil are after them, so they have to become creepy little self-sufficient adults. There is something a little Edwardian about many of them: They seem to hail from a past era, one in which children were not monitored all day. When they were allowed to be sad. When childhood and tragedy were inextricably bound.
My daughter looked, in many ways, like a typical child from a horror film. She had long blonde hair, and she was skinny. I dressed her in odd dresses I got for free at the Mission. She had a long wool black coat and small lace-up leather boots, and carried a white pet mouse in her pocket. She looked like an Edward Gorey child, and she was always getting into Edward Gorey-esque entanglements — like the time she drank a glass of turpentine, or the time she almost chopped off her fingers, or the time she was chased down the street by stray dogs.
And, like many children in horror films, my daughter drew obsessively. The pale, serious little boy in The Ring is a consummate artist. Drawing is something that children do on their own, and it represents solitary reflection. It’s also a convenient narrative device in horror films, as the children draw the spectral creatures that have appeared before them. (Much of the oeuvre of the boy in The Ring consists of girls in dresses buried under the ground.) My daughter once drew a family portrait of me, her father, and the dog, and in the corner of the page was a drawing of a boy and a girl, both with black hair. Underneath she had written: the twins.
“Who are the twins!” I yelled. My daughter looked at me and shrugged. I slowly turned and gazed around the room, as if I might spot “the twins” somewhere.
It’s true that our home always looked as though a poltergeist had had its way with it: plates on the floor, clothes in the bathtub, shoes in the hallway. Not a single one of our utensils matched. I dragged in Victorian furniture from the dump. In horror movies, a house is another representation of the family unit; what these films seem to posit is that a woman at the head of a household, outside the patriarchal structure, causes mayhem, upset, and squalor. In “Stranger Things,” the house belonging to single mother Joyce Byers (played by Winona Ryder) refuses to channel incoming phone calls from the outside world and begins to conduct electricity in a mad way—as though Ryder’s character is so neurotic that even the electrical wiring goes ballistic. When men are neurotic, it’s often viewed as a symptom of an intelligent mind. Women in horror movies, on the other hand, can’t handle too much thinking: It drives them insane.
But then there’s an extraordinary scene in “Stranger Things” that seems to suggest otherwise. Joyce has purchased a pile of Christmas lights so that her missing son can communicate with her by blinking and extinguishing the lights. She holds the wound-up lights in a giant ball in her hands, and watches in wonder as they begin to twinkle and glow. It’s a beautiful image that manages to capture both the dark imagination and the solitary, brilliant inner life of her mind.
Would we have half the stories we have in our culture without all the single mothers piling their kids into cars in the middle of the night and driving them across the state line? For my daughter and me, our favorite memories from her childhood are all the wild things we did together, all the little adventures that probably wouldn’t have happened if we’d had to answer to someone else. We ate hamburgers on park benches. We went to lectures on frogs at the museum. We went to the amusement park on a school night.
Perhaps horror is an ideal genre to capture and illuminate some of the challenges and joys of being a single mother. I know that many of these portrayals somehow speak more to me than all the plucky moms on sitcoms or decades-old dramas. There can be something fragile, untenable, even a little mad-making about trying to raise a child on your own. But I also think it made me resilient, resourceful, if a little unconventional at times.
At the end of a horror film, things usually calm down. At the end of the day, single moms and their children survive together. As a young, single parent, in my own hectic way, I taught my daughter that a woman can come up against the darkness and fight demons all on her own. If ever a faceless creature emerges from your bedroom wall, trust me, you want a single mother fighting on your side.