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The nanny as protector and tormentor in horror, from The Omen to Bly Manor

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Nov 3, 2020, 8:25 PM EST (Updated)

Hiring a nanny to look after your children is an exercise in finding not only a suitable candidate but also someone who can be trusted. A Mary Poppins figure with a bottomless bag of helpful treats and activities is not in the cards for every parent. Unlike babysitters, who are often the target of a killer in a horror, the nanny is often portrayed as an insidious force. She is not a teenager hired to cover the occasional date night; rather, her presence is long-term. While not always the case, this is often a live-in position, making her both the hired help and a member of the extended family.

Existing in a space between mother, stepmother, and nurse, this archetype covers the spectrum between monster and victim. A gendered role — mannies typically only exist in comedy — it follows the pattern of women in horror who are either the victim or an aggressor who has suffered a loss of their own. It is rare for a female killer to act out evil intentions; likely, she has been pushed toward this path by a personal tragedy. The Satan-serving Mrs. Baylock in The Omen is the rare exception to this rule, whereas The Hand That Rocks the Cradle could have written the playbook on terrifying nannies with a personal ax to grind.

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Inviting a new person into your home is daunting, particularly when it is someone you have to entrust your child with. Basing your pick off recommendations, a glowing resumé, and even desperation can lead to a bad fit. Psychological horror dials up the fear factor by emphasizing the uncertainty and the ability to hide any potential dangers — this goes both ways, as the nanny might be the one at risk.

Inviting another woman into your home can also heighten insecurities, whether physical attributes, youth, or their ability to soothe the child. Concerns about bonding with the infant can run parallel to the fear she might do harm. The husband sleeping with the nanny is a common trope in storytelling (and a real-life cliché), so a younger woman's presence can exacerbate worries about attractiveness or anxieties about sexual prowess — especially after giving birth. In other cases, the nanny is a fierce protector who will do anything for the children, particularly if the parents are out of the picture. Horror takes all of these attributes into consideration, which is why the nanny is not placed into one narrative box. From Leanne in Servant, whose motives and background are unclear, to Dani doing everything in her power as the au pair to the Wingrave children in The Haunting of Bly Manor, the hired help can be a force for good, evil, or an ambiguous middle ground.

Credit: 20th Century Fox/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"Look at me, Damien! It's all for you!" yells the soon-to-be-departed young nanny Holly before she steps to her very public death at Damien's fifth birthday party in The Omen. The seemingly out-of-nowhere suicide occurs after she locks eyes with a Hellhound that has been sent to watch over the Antichrist. Before this moment, Holly had been attentive with the child to the point of envy for Damien's mother Katherine. A flicker of resentment toward the young woman occurs while she is having her photo taken with the child. Katherine will likely regret being so dismissive of the nanny, as her replacement not only is far more opinionated but also possesses a murderous streak.

Mrs. Baylock rocks up the day after Holly's death, and the nanny who appears out of nowhere is seen as a saving grace at first — when she should be a cause for concern. Mary Poppins has a lot to answer for when it comes to trusting strangers who appear at the seeming right time. First, Mrs. Baylock exerts her authority over Katherine when she tells her that Damien should be at the park playing, not a church wedding. His mother wins this argument — however, his tantrum means they don't enter the religious venue — but Mrs. Baylock's agenda isn't predicated on child psychology. In truth, she is an apostate of Hell sent to protect the Antichrist. She is a danger not to Damien but to everyone who stands in his path. This is why she lets him ride his tricycle into the chair his mother is standing on, causing her to fall from a great height. When this doesn't kill her, Mrs. Baylock finishes the job off at the hospital.

Credit: 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

Satan isn't behind every new childcare hire. Sometimes the nanny is like an extra member of the family. A year after the release of Mary Poppins, Bette Davis appeared in Hammer Horror's final black-and-white movie, The Nanny. Starring in the titular role, Davis is the trusted hired help who has been with the Fane family for over two decades. After the death of Susy Fane in the bath, her brother Joey is sent to a reform school because it is assumed he killed her out of jealousy. When he returns home, he is still exhibiting signs of disruption, but his behavior is caused by fear, as he knows Nanny is the real culprit — her neglect caused Susy's accidental death. Nanny's mind wasn't on the task as her daughter had just died from an illegal abortion (in England this procedure became legal in 1967) and the doctor who pronounced her dead was lacking any bedside manner or empathy: "You were too busy looking after other people's children, not enough time to spare for your own."

The situation spirals (as it tends to) in this psychological thriller, pitting Nanny against the young boy. Other acts of harm and deaths follow in a bid to cover up the original accident, which she claims isn't to keep her out of prison. Reputation is everything ("I'm not thinking of myself. I'm thinking of all the other nannies. People must trust us!"). While it is hard to believe this is the case, Nanny spent her whole adult life in this role, and upholding the status of her profession is all she has left.

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Trust is vital, a notion that is effectively picked apart in the 1992 thriller The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. After a gynecologist is accused of sexually assaulting patients, he dies by suicide to avoid arrest. The stress contributes to his wife going into premature labor in which she loses the baby and has an emergency hysterectomy. Rather than holding her now-deceased husband accountable, she vows revenge against the woman who first reported the assault and led to multiple other accusers. Committing to a long drawn-out plan, she changes her name to Peyton Flanders and becomes the new nanny to the Bartel family. Claire is blissfully unaware she has hired the widow of the man who assaulted her — an internet search would make this plot obsolete in 2020 — and Peyton gets to work destroying her idyllic family.

Using tactics that are most mothers' greatest nanny-related fears, she breastfeeds the child so it then rejects Claire and goes about gaslighting her, as well as attempting to turn her older daughter against her. An attempt to seduce Peyton's husband fails, but she removes vital medication, putting Claire at physical risk. She destroys anyone who threatens to reveal her true identity, and the movie is a cautionary tale about properly checking the credentials of the person you are employing.

Credit: Apple TV+

The same could be said about the employment of Leanne on the recent Apple+ series Servant. The 10-part first season is a tightly coiled mystery with a number of twists revealed along the way — this should come as no surprise with M. Night Shyamalan as an executive producer and director. Rather than offering up one parental nightmare, this thriller is a cornucopia of fears brought to life. When 18-year-old Leanne arrives at the Turner home to take on the role of baby Jericho's live-in nanny, she is not put off when she finds out that rather than an actual baby, a doll lies in the crib. This is no toy, but a lifelike reborn doll used in an attempt to help mother Dorothy come to terms with the death of her child. Matters become stranger when a real baby is discovered in the crib by husband Sean and the whole charade enters a new phase.

Convinced that Leanne had something to do with the switch, Sean drills a hole in her bedroom wall and sets up a hidden camera. Dorothy's brother quips about seeing her naked, but this is not a case of a nanny becoming an object of lust. When he pays for an investigator to do a background check on Leanne, each new turn reveals another disturbing piece of information. But she is good with the baby and she is good with his wife, so Sean's desire to get rid of her diminishes. Servant is incredibly effective in how it makes the viewer question everyone and everything, using the impressive Philadelphia townhouse space like a hard-to-escape spiderweb. Religion plays a part in this narrative, which includes a dangerous cult — Season 2 has just started shooting.

Credit: Eike Schroter/Netflix

Another house that is maze-like is Bly Manor. In the original Henry James Turn of the Screw novella, the newly employed governess is plagued by visions of ghosts who may or may not be real. Her attempt to save Miles and Flora goes awry, resulting in the death of the older child. Switching the outdated title for that of au pair, Dani is a teacher running away from a painful past in The Haunting of Bly Manor. Unfortunately, this post is a perilous one that sees her locked in a wardrobe by the children and witnessing spirits of former employees. Unlike the other nannies discussed, Dani's motives are never questioned nor is she seen as a threat. Perhaps because the parents are deceased, so she isn't disrupting the status quo. She is not a symbol of the mother's lost youth or freedom. The only people she is usurping are the dead and she makes a huge sacrifice to save the Wingrave siblings.

A nanny is hired to help parents with childcare, but even though this is meant to reduce the burden this extra hand can also lead to a complex array of negative feelings for the mother. Sometimes these anxieties relate to outward appearances but it goes much deeper than that. In the same way that the nurse figure has been twisted into a monstrous archetype, the au pair has the potential to bring out someone's inner monster. The conflicting parameters in being part of the family while also an outsider ensures horror has nanny inspiration in abundance — just make sure to check the details on the resumé are real.

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