Grace (2009), directed by Paul Solet, was a film about mothers – that much could not be any clearer. From the beginning, we see that Madeline had a deep desire to become a mother, and as I was watching the film, I had a feeling that it was going to play on this desire to come up with something twisted. After all, portraying women, particularly mothers, as scary or monstrous, is not really new in film. We see examples of monstrous mothers in movies like Coraline (2009), or the more recent The Babadook (2014), and definitely in Psycho (1960), one of the movies that probably popularized this trope.
In Grace, we see the strangeness of motherhood and how mothers can be scary particularly in the two mothers we see in the film, Madeline and Vivian. We see here Kristeva’s concept of abjection, or that which does not “respect borders, positions, rules,” and “disturbs identity, system, order.” (Creed, 2002) Both Madeline and Vivian do these things that are seen as threatening to what is normal or acceptable because of what motherhood meant to them. They do whatever it takes for them to maintain their identities as mothers.
For example, even after the car accident, Madeline still wanted to keep her child in her womb, even if she was sure to have a stillbirth. When she delivers the stillbirth, she wills Grace to life – something that does not follow the laws of nature. In being an abjection, Madeline has also created another abjection in Grace, a baby that is only satiated by blood and shows signs of death and waste like attracting flies and expelling bodily fluids. Despite this, being a mother and protecting her child was still of the utmost importance to Madeline, so we see her going through extraordinary lengths to do so – feeding Grace with blood to the point of looking anemic and getting her breasts chewed off, turning back on her vegan lifestyle and feeding Grace with animal blood, and Madeline also kills Dr. Sohn so that she could keep her baby.
On the other hand, we also see in the character of Vivian a desperate attempt to maintain the identity of being a mother. From the beginning of the movie, we already see that she had an overbearing and controlling attitude towards her son, even if he was already an adult. She would tell him everything that he had to do like a mother would to a child, and she was constantly overstepping boundaries. After Michael’s death, she tried hard to replace the loss she felt by projecting her desire of wanting to be a mother again onto other things – things that may be considered disordered as well. She berates her husband and tells him to clean his room, she develops a breastfeeding fetish, and she tries to take Grace for herself, even to the point of plotting against Madeline, literally stealing the baby, and striking Madeline with a hammer.
Given these, viewers would be led to think that there is something irrational and potentially dangerous about maternal instincts, and that mothers do outrageous things because they are mothers. This “Monster Mother” stereotype is in line with the way patriarchal society views women and attaches certain attributes to them because they are abjections.
The concept of the “monstrous-feminine” or what makes the woman terrifying (Creed, 2002) in horror movies relates with how society views women as strange. In Grace, we see women’s biological difference from men highlighted as what sets them apart from what is “normal” (read: male). Given that the reproductive system of women and their ability to become mothers is seen from a male point of view, the biological difference of women as being capable of motherhood becomes central to their identity, as it distinguishes them from men, but because they are different from men, this also results in their othering, and their being seen as inferior. With the patriarchy being dominant in society and being the one that lays down the law, what then does it make of maternal authority? Enter the concept of the monstrous-feminine. If we look at how the male characters in Grace were treated by the mother characters in the film, most especially with Vivian, we see that mothers become threatening when they reverse the order of society and take away the agency of the male. When they refuse to let go of their identities as mothers, they enter into a power struggle with the patriarchy that seeks to separate itself from them as soon as they can make independent choices without a mother’s protection and guidance. This goes back to the idea of abjection. For paternal law, it is abnormal for mothers to keep holding power over men, so overbearing mothers can only be monstrous.
In the end, even if the movie was named after the baby, Grace was a film that was more about the mothers in it. The film presented a darker picture as to the depths women would go to for their maternal instincts, but at the same time, it was also a thought provoking film that would make us think again about the things we belief about motherhood.
Barbara Creed, “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine.” Horror, The Film Reader (Routledge, 2002)