Science of Scares: Villainous Mothers

2017/05/12 00:29:31 +00:00 | Margee Kerr

Mother's Day is this Sunday, May 14th, which means it’s a perfect time to give thanks to all the mothers who are known as some of the best horror movie villains. Whether they were murderous themselves, like Mrs. Voorhees, or provided the necessary seeds, like Norma Bates, horror just wouldn’t be the same without some seriously off-script (developmentally speaking) mothers.

Before we get to horrific human mothers, though, it’s important to point out that in the animal kingdom, infanticide (killing offspring within their first year of life) and neglect is actually pretty common, and many times it’s an issue of resource allocation. If you were lucky enough to have hamsters growing up (or friends with hamsters, in my case), you may have witnessed this in horror firsthand: the mother hamster not only killing, but likely consuming one or more of her litter. While beyond disturbing, especially for a young kid who still believes in the Easter Bunny, the mother is acting on good instinct. If she knows she can’t provide sufficient sustenance to all her pups, she’ll sacrifice one (or more) for the benefit and survival of the whole.

Another cause is fear and stress: If the mother is in a dangerous environment, she may neglect, or even abandon, her young (Perry and Sullivan 2014). Humans aren’t hamsters, and thankfully we have these amazing brains that allow us to question our instincts and actions rationally, but not all mothers do.

Warning, this gets pretty dark. I mean, we are talking about perhaps the worst form of betrayal. Mothers are the one person in the world that are supposed to love and protect us no matter what, so what happens when they don’t?

There’s a long, long history of studying the impact mothers have on their offspring—lots of which was horribly off-base. For example, the theory that “refrigerator mothers,” or mothers that didn’t fit the American (read 1950s white male) idea of maternal love, were responsible for their child's autism or schizophrenia (Jack 2014). But, mothers do have a massive influence on their children. In fact, some research suggests that learning what kind of attachment a child had in their first years of life can explain, and predict, just what kind of adult, partner, and parent (or villain) they become (Holmes 1996). Psychologists can determine this using one of my favorite experiments called the “Strange Situation” (don’t try this at home—seriously, your friends will not think it’s a “fun little experiment,” and definitely don’t involve a clown).

Mary Ainsworth developed the Strange Situation in 1967. It involves putting a child (between 12 to 18 months old) through various configurations of being in a room with their mother, a stranger, both, or all alone (for some reason, in my mind the stranger is always dressed like a clown). The researcher then observes how the child reacts in each scenario, with a focus on how they approach or avoid their mother and the stranger. Based on their behavior, kids are classified as having a secure attachment (Alex P. Keaton, Family Ties), ambivalent attachment (Norman Bates, Psycho), or avoidant attachment (Patrick Bateman, American Psycho).

While this experiment looks at how the child engages with the mother and stranger, it’s also a measure of the mother’s parenting style—are they nurturing or distant? As mothers like Margaret White (Carrie), Mrs. Loomis (Scream 2), and pretty much every mother in a V.C. Andrews novel (such as Flowers in the Attic) teach us, not all mothers are full of cinnamon and spice and everything nice. But what makes mothers so toxic?

To find out, let’s go back to animals, because let's be honest, talking about real, abusive mothers is the worst. New neurobiological research looking at attachment and fear learning in rats offers some intriguing theories. First, maternal rodents are actually entirely responsible for the emotional regulation (well, the rat equivalent of emotions, meaning hormone and neurotransmitter modulation) of their pups in their first few weeks of life. Rat pups are born blind, but they have a keen sense of smell that allows them to identify their caregiver (interestingly, it doesn’t have to be their biological mother, it just has to be a rat that smells like their bio-mom). They associate the scent of their caregiver with her actions, like touching and nursing. This means the mother’s scent can cause physiological changes in the pup to help it regulate stress and threats until their tiny brains have developed enough to learn and adapt on their own.

The problems start, however, when it’s the mother who is the threat. Pups need their caregiver to survive, very literally. So, when it’s the mother who is abusive, positive acts like touching and feeding and negative acts like being stepped on become associated to the mother's scent. This produces some paradoxical consequences later in life, namely the tendency for “negative” stimuli to elicit feelings of comfort and safety. For humans, this would introduce some serious cognitive dissonance: how can you need and not like the same person (to put it mildly?), and not just any person, but your mother?

Indeed, caregivers that are abusive or neglectful disrupt normal development in the pups’ brains in unique ways, leading to lifelong consequences, namely lots of maladaptive behaviors. In rats, this shows up as doing counterintuitive things in the presence of a predator’s scent, like moving their pups closer to the threat and spending less time hiding in a shelter.

Again, humans aren’t rats, but we can learn a lot about the underlying neurobiological mechanisms that may be getting messed up when our primary caregiver goes off script. This means all hope is not lost. We can develop more therapeutic interventions that capitalize on these findings, so that one day the only place we’ll find villainous mothers, and their killer kids, is on the big screen.

Holmes, Jeremy. 1996. Attachment, Intimacy, Autonomy: Using Attachment Theory in Adult Psychotherapy. Rowman & Littlefield.

Jack, Jordynn. 2014. Autism and Gender: From Refrigerator Mothers to Computer Geeks. University of Illinois Press.

Perry, Rosemarie, and Regina M. Sullivan. 2014. “Neurobiology of Attachment to an Abusive Caregiver: Short-Term Benefits and Long-Term Costs.” Developmental Psychobiology 56 (8): 1626–34.