One Bad Mother by Paul Lonardo


Where would any of us be without our mothers? They bear us, rear us, nurture us, and protect us from harm. They make us who we are. For all their sacrifices and pain, however, when things go wrong, it’s mothers who get blamed.

Horror is rife with mothers who have gone a little far in their efforts to provide everything their children need to survive and thrive in an often cold and careless world.

As unabashed consumers of horror, this Mother’s Day let’s have some fun determining which mom most deserves being crowned All-Time Worst Mother of Horror. This dishonor is not just a recognition of the mom who is the most evil, twisted, or malicious, but one who stands apart from the other bad moms of horror, a mother who has had the greatest impact on the genre, terrifying readers and film audiences alike, all while inspiring their progeny to commit the most shocking and memorable acts of murder and mayhem.

Which horror moms come to mind when you consider who might be the worst of the worst? There really is no wrong answer, and having said that, I wanted to go through my short list of contenders which I compiled from my own personal favorites.

There have been some truly terrifying films featuring awful mommies in more recent years, such as Goodnight MommyMama, and Hereditary, but for this list, I’m only going to consider the most iconic.

And the nominees are:

Margaret White, Carrie’s mother, is the real monster in Stephen King’s debut novel and the subsequent film adaptations. The form of control that Margaret exerts on her vulnerable daughter is diabolical. The persistent emotional and physical abuse that Margaret meters out to Carrie is difficult to witness, let alone understand, but in Margaret’s mind, everything she is doing is to protect Carrie from the cruel and evil world she sees all around. Margaret doesn’t see the twisted irony that she has created a world for her daughter that is far more cruel and evil than the one outside their front door. Throw in the additional personal crisis that Carrie is entering womanhood, with all the sexual curiosity and insecurities that go along with this stage of life, and this mother-daughter relationship is powder keg waiting to erupt.

Carrie’s psychic powers are what she ultimately uses to free herself from her mother’s cruelty and mistreatment. Tragically, not only does Carrie kill her mother but, unable to control her rage, she ends up killing more than two hundred people along with herself. No mother is perfect, but Margaret’s mothering skills clearly leave a lot to be desired. That’s a high body count for anyone. Even Ted Bundy’s mother might have said, ‘At least my sone didn’t kill two hundred people.’

Mama Firefly from House of 1,000 Corpses, Rob Zombie’s homage to classic horror films, is just one of many disturbing characters in this 2003 horror flick, but Karen Black’s portrayal of the matriarch of a demented, murderous family is unforgettable. The family members’ interactions with each other and their victims is a train wreck you just can’t look away from. Black has given some great performances in other horror classics, including Trilogy of Terror and especially Burnt Offerings, still one of my favorite movies for its chilling atmosphere and all-around creep factor. As Mama Firefly, she rules over her family and all their sinister doings. She is the mother of Rufus, Tiny, and Baby Firefly, who was fathered by Captain Spaulding, and is the adoptive mother of the psychotic Otis. Talk about a cursed bloodline. With her sinister and seductive smile, she and Baby are the bait used to capture their unsuspecting victims, trapping them in a house of horrors they will never escape. How proud Mama Firefly must be.

Ruth Chandler from Jack Ketchum’s 1989 novel, The Girl Next Door is a character in a horrific story that still haunts me. While inspired by a true crime incident, the fictitious mother in The Girl Next Door takes evil to another level. Perhaps what makes her so disturbing is that it’s easier to imagine this kind of ‘monster’ rather than someone like Mama Firefly or even Margaret White. The very title, The Girl Next Door, and the contemporary setting lull you into a false sense of security. Then Ketchum hits you with someone like Ruth Chandler, who starts out doing something rather altruistic, taking in her two nieces, Meg and Susan (who is disabled) after the girl’s parents are killed in an automobile accident. Ruth’s three sons, Willie, Ralphie, and Donny are borderline delinquents to varying degrees, who only need a little push to cross the line. They end up getting a healthy shove from their mother.

Ruth is a permissive mother who allows her the young boys to smoke cigarettes and drink beer in her presence. As the story progresses, however, Ruth displays a much more vile and sadistic side, at first depriving the girls of food, privacy, and basic freedoms, soon degenerating into all manners of abuse and torture. In these acts of depravity, Ruth encourages her sons to participate, making her character all the more offensive. She is not just a wicked woman, she is the worst kind of mother imaginable.

One critic who remarked of the 2007 film version, calling it, ‘The kind of a movie that makes you wish you could rinse your brain in bleach to wash all traces of it from your memory,’ pretty much sums it up. The book’s vivid descriptions of the physical mutilations were somehow even more unsettling.

Not everyone might immediately recognize the name Norma Spool Bates, and that might be because you never actually see this bad mother of horror, at least not alive (until 1990’s Psycho IV: The Beginning). She is better known simply as Norman Bates’ mother, and you know her handiwork from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic, Psycho. Oedipus didn’t have anything on Norman Bates, who has some serious mommy issues of his own. His unhealthy fixation with his mother causes us to wonder just what this woman did to her son when she was alive to turn him into such a sexually charged deviant and impulse killer.

When it is revealed that Mrs. Bates, raising Norman as a widow, was cruel and domineering, not permitting him to develop any kind of social life away from her, and teaching him that sexual activity as evil, while at the same time, as the novel insinuates, possibly engaging in an incestuous relationship with her son, it’s no wonder Norman developed psychological issues and murderous tendencies.

Just as his mother dominated Norman when she was alive, after he kills her and takes on her identity, the ‘mother’ identity becomes so dominant over time that he’s no longer able to separate his own persona from hers. Norman actually becomes his mother, at least in his mind. The murderous acts depicted in Psycho, believed to have been committed by his mother throughout the film, in the end turn out to have been committed by Norman dressed as his mother. This was a twist ending that shocked movie goers in 1960. Psycho’s depiction of violence and the taboo sexual subject matter (more so in Robert Bloch’s novel than in the movie), while tame by today’s standards, was unprecedented for its time.

In Psycho, even though Mrs. Bates is not portrayed on screen (she is just a voice and corpse), the impact that she had on her son, and indeed on the entire horror genre, is what makes her perhaps the most memorable and terrifying mother of all time.

I might add that there has always been some discussion about whether Psycho is a legit horror movie or a thriller. There’s no reason it can’t be both and still make it on this list. When it comes to horror, there is often a crossover with other genres, but when a movie makes you avoid lonely roadside motels and has you showering with one eye open, there’s no question you’ve crossed over into true horror.

As an iconic bad mother, Norma Bates is hard to beat. The only rival I see who could take the All-Time crown out of her cold dead fingers is Pamela Vorhees.

As all our readers doubtlessly know, the Friday the 13th franchise is all about Jason and his trademark hockey mask, machete at his side. But this juggernaut of body count was not born to kill. He was nurtured, and mommy taught him well. She was not afraid to get her hands bloody after 11-year-old Jason drowned in Camp Crystal Lake in 1957. The two camp counselors responsible for looking after the mentally handicapped and physically deformed boy were not around because they were busy doing what teenagers did before they had iPhones, they were having sex. Pamela Vorhees, who herself worked as a cook at the campground, blamed the negligent counselors and vowed revenge.

Of course, that’s all backstory. Friday the 13th opens with the two counselors responsible for Jason’s drowning being murdered at Camp Crystal Lake the following year, in 1958. The film then jumps to 1979, when Camp Crystal Lake is getting a makeover so it can reopen for the first time since the killings and other setbacks that kept it shut down for twenty years. Pamela returns as well, slashing seven more teens to death before she is decapitated by the lone survivor, Alice Hardy.

Her death gives rise to a legend.

Jason, having somehow survived ‘drowning’ and living alone in the nearby woods all this time, witnesses the death of his mother and is driven to carry on her legacy of retribution and carnage. A true mother-son blood bond.

A mother’s unwavering love for her child, taken to a homicidal extreme, is what spawned Jason Vorhees and catapulted him from a popular horror movie villain to the status of true cultural icon. For that, Pamela Vorhees is my queen of bad horror moms.

Why mother Vorhees and her son didn’t just reunite in the interval between slayings at the campground, when Jason was living in the woods and Pamela was working to ensure that Camp Crystal Lake stayed uninhabited, is a question for another time.


To all mothers out there, Happy Mother’s Day!

Published 5/12/24