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Piper Laurie as Margaret White, Carrie (1976)

The monstrous mothers of Stephen King

Contributed by
Jun 21, 2019

If there is one thing for which Stephen King is known to excel, it is his ability to remind us of the horrors of being a child. Many of his protagonists, from the children of IT to poor Carrie White to Selena Claiborne and beyond, are children who are turned loose into a world that is trying desperately to destroy them. In King’s novels, the collective adult tendency to gloss over and refuse to acknowledge many disturbing truths that are still fresh and horrifying to children is easily as much a villain as even his most terrible monsters. Many of his villains specifically embody the secret threats to children that adults choose not to see.

What is more terrifying to a kid than a monstrous mother? Against such a woman, there would be no defense. Maybe that’s why there are so many evil moms across Stephen King’s many decades' worth of novels, and why they are some of the scariest monsters in horror history.

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Julianne Moore as Margaret White in Carrie (2013) / Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing

Margaret White

The monstrous mothers of King date back to his first novel, 1974's Carrie. Carrie’s malicious mom, Margaret White, has made the journey from book to film to remake more or less conceptually intact. A widow turned religious zealot, Margaret is plagued by regressive views on sexuality. Throughout the book, Carrie’s difficulties can always be traced back to her mother’s instability and abuse, along with the Christian fundamentalist upbringing that leaves Carrie hopelessly unable to cope with regular social interactions.

Carrie is unquestionably the victim of the story in all its forms, but she isn’t really the protagonist either, as that role is fulfilled by the mostly innocent bystander, Sue Snell. It’s just as well, because so much of the novel is about the extensive victimization of Carrie and reading it from a first-person perspective would likely be intense and too erratic for a solid narrative. Yet even as so many people in Carrie’s life hurt her, there is no doubt that it is Margaret who causes her the greatest pain. Having never healed from the rape that resulted in Carrie’s birth, she convinced herself that her daughter was demonic before the novel ever began, and she uses that belief to justify truly unbelievable levels of cruelty against her own child.

The novel works under no pretension that women are in any way intrinsically kinder or softer than men. Not only is Carrie’s treatment at school truly inhumane, but she is also terrorized at home, and her teachers turn a blind eye to it all. Even Sue, the well-meaning narrator, completely fails to help Carrie or even fully recognize the extent of her trauma until it is much too late. Carrie is a complicated book, and there are a lot of ways to interpret it, but there are some basic universal truths. One of the most central is that Carrie is a girl who truly never stood a chance because her very foundation was built by someone who wanted to destroy her.

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Sheila Moore as Sonia Kaspbrak in IT / Credit: Warner Bros.

Sonia Kaspbrak

Much of the 1986 novel IT is a study in what the world looks like through the eyes of young kids and the way secret childhood traumas return to us throughout our lives. We see the world extensively through each character’s eyes in both childhood and adult forms, when they reopen wounds from the things that happened to them in their youth. Even well-meaning parents emerge as being unintentionally villainous as they refuse to share important truths that could help give the children the proper tools to protect themselves.

Among these parents there is Sonia Kaspbrak, the mother of Eddie Kaspbrak. Eddie is described as being a small, sickly child who eventually grows up to bear a passing resemblance to actor Anthony Perkins. Sonia is regarded simply as being “overprotective” of her son in the beginning, and Eddie has a disturbingly mean-spirited list of descriptives by which he refers to her. As the novel advances, we realize that his many illnesses and allergies have been inventions by a woman seeking to manipulate her child into staying close to her. By the end, it is discovered that she has been giving Eddie placebos for years and keeping him intentionally convinced of his own frailty. This gives us an unsettling fictional mirror image to the very real disorder known as Munchausen's by proxy, in which parents are known to deprive their children of food and nutrients and/or exaggerate illnesses to garner attention and sympathy for themselves.

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Alice Krige as Mary Brady in Sleepwalkers / Credit: Columbia Pictures

Mary Brady

1992's Sleepwalkers grants us one of the more memorable evil moms of genre. Mary Brady and her son Charles are shapeshifters with the ability to feed off of the energy of others. They are generally human in appearance but can shapeshift into werecats known as Sleepwalkers. Though Charles feigns interest in a young woman named Tanya, most of his affections are directed toward his mother.

Unlike most of the rest of the moms on this list, Mary isn’t so much victimizing Charles as existing in an extremely creepy romantic relationship with him in which they both regularly commit murder. It’s not easy to sympathize with Charles, but suffice it to say, he didn’t have a super strong moral upbringing.

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Shirley Knight as Gramma in Mercy (2014) / Credit: Universal Pictures

Gramma

A short story from 1985's Skeleton Crew brings us into body horror as a young boy is forced by circumstance to stay home and care for his ailing grandmother while his mother is away. Though the later film version of the story, Mercy, would significantly humanize and give sympathy to the character of Gramma, the short story is brutal and unforgiving in its description. The boy resists contact with her at all costs but is eventually forced to confront the fact that he’s trapped in the house with a powerful witch who wants nothing more than to drag him to hell with her.

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Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance in The Shining / Credit: Warner Bros.

Not the monster mamas

Of course, not every mother who appears in a Stephen King novel is a monster. Though King himself disliked the 1980 film version of Wendy Torrance and considered her "one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film," both film and book versions of The Shining give us a character who would do anything to protect her son. The novel Cujo introduced us to Donna Trenton, who puts her life on the line multiple times to save her child from the killer dog. In Pet Sematary, it is Rachel Creed who in vain tries to dissuade her husband Louis from the dark path he undergoes in resurrecting their child. Finally, in Dolores Claiborne, we are given a complicated study on the nature of motherhood, and how even the most dedicated and loving mothers can seem villainous to the children they have desperately tried to protect from the horrors of life.

It is a fact of life that many of us have complicated feelings about our mothers, and likewise do moms feel all kinds of ways about their offspring. It’s no surprise that these relationships run the gamut of human experience, beyond and back. Still, there is perhaps no more horrifying thing to imagine than a mother gone wrong, one given complete control and using it to gaslight, manipulate, or even try to kill her own kids. The monstrous mothers of Stephen King certainly have real-world counterparts, but even as characters on the page, they are more than capable of getting under our skin.

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