The following is excerpted from Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy, and the Fear of Female Power, on sale now. Copyright Sady Doyle 2019. Courtsey of Melville House.
The archetypal slashers were often bad, sticky mothers who kept their children freakishly attached.
Think of Margaret White, the abusive, fundamentalist mother of telekinetic Carrie, wandering through the house shouting Scripture and waving a butcher knife. Or think of Margaret’s fellow sex-hater Pamela Voorhees, who spends the first Friday the 13th movie stabbing and torturing her way through a whole camp’s worth of counselors in order to avenge her son Jason’s death at the hands of negligent, horny teens.
Pamela is not just close to Jason, she somehow is Jason; though he is dead, she cradles him in her body, like a pregnant woman carrying her fetus. He emanates from her as a childish voice during the murders—“kill her, Mommy, kill her!” Their inseparability cuts both ways: later, when Jason is somewhat improbably revealed to be both alive and a giant, adult mutant with a hockey mask, Pamela becomes the dead/alive possessing force, appearing in hallucinations to urge him on to more killing.
Both Margaret and Pamela are based on an earlier monster—Norma Bates, mother of Norman, the disastrously troubling psychosexual presence at the root of Psycho. Hitchcock and author Robert Bloch, with all the renowned sensitivity of white men in the mid-1950s, translated Augusta Gein’s tragic life and death into the tale of a shrieking, razor-voiced harridan (“Nor-MANNN!!”) whose deep religiosity manifests primarily as a single-minded commitment to cock-blocking her son at all times. At the first hint that Norman might be capable of a relationship, Norma wanders into his prospective girlfriends’ hotel rooms with a butcher knife and a grudge.
Although, of course, she doesn’t. The twist ending of Psycho has reached “Luke, I am your father” levels of spoilage by this point, but we are in fact meant to be surprised that Norma is dead, and has been from the beginning of the story. Her memory is harbored in her son’s body (aided by the fact that her corpse is harbored in his basement) and leaps out in the form of an alternate personality when he feels threatened. Norma’s maternal power is so all-consuming that her son can never quite disentangle himself from it: “He was never all Norman,” a psychologist tells us, “but he was often only Mother.”
Women are meant to completely efface themselves in motherhood; to live for, and in, and through their children. But this means that a bad child infects the mother with his own sins, and vice versa. In these stories, a woman who raises a monster is that monster. He would not exist, on any level, if not for her. In the real world, mothers are endlessly blamed for any and every bad decision made by their children: “Hitler’s mother gave birth to Hitler, and Stalin’s mother to Stalin,” anti-feminist pundit Jordan Peterson writes in his manifesto 12 Rules for Life. “Perhaps the importance of their motherly duties, and of their relationship with their children, was not properly stressed.”
It seems highly unlikely that any mother operating within patriarchy has not received sufficiently stressful messaging about her “duties.” But the bad mother is patriarchy’s saving throw, its ultimate loophole: by moving the blame for male violence back one generation, it makes guilty parties out of the women who are its victims.
After a life of being violently warped and scarred by patriarchy, women are given the responsibility of recreating patriarchy, by raising their sons to hold dominion over the world and women. We are also given the blame for everything that may go wrong. Stalin and Stalin’s mom, Ed and Augusta, Norma and Norman: we blame mothers, not men, for the violence that male domination has unleashed on the world.