A few years ago, on Mother’s Day, my little sister and mother went to a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror masterpiece Psycho at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When I heard they did this, I loved it — I loved imagining the two of them celebrating their mother/daughter dynamic by watching one of the all-time great mom-based horror movies of all time.
I can’t resist telling the rest of the story. The next year, a local public radio station was doing a retrospective on Psycho, and my sister heard it on the radio and called in to talk about how fun it was to see the movie on Mother’s Day. As it turns out, my mother was already on hold with the radio station, having called in for the same reason (you can listen starting at the 11 minute-mark on that link if you’re curious).
Now, it’s possible this wonderful little coincidence says more about my weird family than it does about Mother’s Day more broadly, but I do think movies have a unique way of taking our ideas and making them gigantic and strange. It just might be the case that diving into some of the wildest, spookiest movie moms ever is one of the best ways to celebrate a holiday about mothers. What I’m saying is: I think maybe my sister and my mom were onto something. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the most terrifying movies you can watch on Mother’s Day.
We’ll start with the one that kicked this whole idea off. Psycho was a phenomenon when it came out in 1960, and somehow it still holds up all these years later. The movie centers around a man named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who is the proprietor of Bates Motel. He lives behind the motel in a big, spooky-looking house, ostensibly with his mother, but as we will learn, things in the Bates house are not really what they seem.
Perkins’ performance as Norman — a seemingly kind man overwhelmed by the force of his overbearing mother — is totally harrowing, but the movie is such a fun horror experience all the way through. One of the best things about Psycho is the way the movie changes once you’ve already seen it. Part of what makes it a great movie to rewatch, again and again, is the way the revelation of the ending alters the feeling of everything that came before. When you’ve already seen it, you get to be in on the secret.
Maybe it’s strange to say this about a movie in which, famously, a bucket of pig’s blood gets dumped on the main character, but Piper Laurie’s performance as Carrie’s mom, Margaret White, is the most terrifying thing in this film. Carrie is the story of a girl in high school (Sissy Spacek) who’s dealing with the dueling horrors of being bullied at school and being basically imprisoned and abused at home by her religious-fanatic mother.
Part of what I love about this movie is all the mother-figures gone wrong. Carrie’s gym teacher wants to help her, but only ends up making things worse. One of her bullies decides to start trying to look out for her, but all of those plans lead to disaster. But mostly, it’s Carrie’s actual mother who forces Carrie to bottle everything up. When that bottle explodes, it’s one of the great cathartic moments in movie history.
Another classic of the mother/daughter thriller genre, Strait-Jacket is a story of murder and trauma across generations. Joan Crawford — whose own story of motherhood was horrifyingly portrayed in 1981’s Mommie Dearest — plays Lucy, a woman who murders her cheating husband and his lover with an ax. After being declared criminally insane, she spends 20 years institutionalized and then gets out and goes to live on a farm with her brother, sister-in-law and daughter, Carol (Diane Baker).
Based on a book by Robert Bloch, who also wrote Psycho, you can tell this movie is going to be pretty over the top because the poster for it says “Strait-Jacket vividly depicts ax murders!” It absolutely lives up to that promise. Most famous for Crawford’s over-the-top portrayal of a woman losing her mind, it’s also another one of those classic thrillers in which everything is not as it seems.
This James Cameron-directed sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien takes the series in a more action-thriller sort of direction, but the plot of this film is all about feelings of motherhood. Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley returns — reluctantly and alongside a group of marines — to investigate a colony where she believes alien eggs still exist. Lots of exciting stuff happens, but the most important is that she finds and rescues a young girl named Newt (Carrie Henn).
The Ripley/Newt relationship is really sweet in the face of so much horror and terror and gore. Somehow, Aliens takes its exploration of the themes of motherhood even further, though. The group ultimately has to deal with the alien queen — a truly terrifying monster trying to protect her offspring, just as Ripley is trying to protect Newt. It’s these feelings of familial bonds and deep, preternatural kinds of caring for each other that gives Aliens the feel of a story that has greater stakes than Alien, even if both are undeniably great movies.
This 2009 film from Bong Joon-ho — the astouningly great director of films like Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006), and, most famously, Parasite (2019) — is a subtle homage to Hitchcock’s Psycho in many ways. Mother stars South Korean actress Kim Hye-ja as the unnamed main character, a widow who is extremely overprotective of her son, Do-joon, played by the actor Won Bin. After Do-joon is accused of murdering a local girl, his mother sets about trying to prove his innocence.
Mother is about problems of perception — what we’re willing to believe versus what’s actually true. The movie goes at that complicated theme with Bong Joon-ho’s characteristically unique combination of comedy, horror, drama and incredible visual style. He’s one of the best directors working at the moment, and this movie explores motherhood more interestingly — and troublingly — than just about any other movie I can think of.
Serial Mom (1994)
We’ll wrap up with John Waters’ 1994 dark comedy in which Kathleen Turner plays Beverly Sutphin, a suburban housewife who’s secretly a serial killer, murdering people who fall short of her strict moral standards. Turner plays Beverly with a matter-of-fact kind of glee, in many ways veering away from the kind of campiness Waters’ films are famous for indulging. The story itself is pure satire though — at her trial, Beverly discredits every witness, and is acquitted on all charges.
This movie also has a lot of fun with references, too. John Waters himself steps in, uncredited, to provide the voice of real-life serial killer Ted Bundy, and, at one point, the video store where Beverly’s son Chip (Matthew Lillard) works plays Strait-Jacket on a TV. I’ll leave it to you to decide what you think John Waters is saying about motherhood, America and everything else in Serial Mom, but I promise you’ll have a lot of terrifying fun along the way.