Why Maternal Anxiety Makes For Great Horror Movies

Narges Rashidi and Bobby Naderi in Under the Shadow. Vertical Entertainment

Horror has never been short on the formidable mother figures. Consider Diane Freeling venturing into another dimension to yank her daughter Carol Anne back into the world of the living in Poltergeist, Ripley heading back into Xenomorph Queen hell to retrieve Newt in Aliens, Rachel frantically searching for solutions to save her son Aidan from a VHS-enabled curse in The Ring, and, hell, Pamela Voorhees in Friday the 13th — all women willing to go to extreme lengths on behalf of children.

On the flip side, there are the tyrants and termagants, the moms-as-villains keeping one sensible heel on their kids’ throats — Psycho’s Norma Bates, eating her son up from the inside; Carrie’s Margaret White, with her warped ideas about sin; Dead Alive’s Vera Cosgrove, literally pulling Lionel back into her womb; and Black Swan’s Erica Sayers, pouring all her thwarted dancer’s dreams into her daughter.

And then there’s Amelia (Essie Davis) in The Babadook and her sister in shared delusions and spectral intruders, Shideh (Narges Rashidi), in the excellent new film Under the Shadow, heroes in mom-centric horror who manage to be a bit of both of these archetypes. They’re protectors as well as demons — loving their kids but also feeling so worn out and smothered by their needs that they’re poised to snap. They are, in other words, human, which is the stuff of horror only when measured against ingrained, hard-to-shake ideas about motherhood as a state that should be effortless and instinctive. Women should want to spend all of their time with their children; it should be enough for them, even when it’s not.

Under the Shadow, which is written and directed by Babak Anvari, has recently arrived in theaters, two years after Jennifer Kent’s 2014 breakout The Babadook; they’re a pair of claustrophobic stories about a woman and her child, and the dark thing that may or may not be haunting them.

Under the Shadow takes place a few decades and a few thousand miles away from the present-day Australia in which Amelia and Sam (Noah Wiseman) live in The Babadook. But the two movies fit together like a minor key chord, resonating off each other in their themes of love and loneliness and the flutters of rancor that can lurk in the most devoted of motherly hearts. They could inaugurate their own compelling mini-genre devoted to a particularly pointed sort of maternal anxiety, one in which the protagonists are caught between a drive to shelter their children and a sense that their own identities are getting eroded by motherhood.

It’s not that Under the Shadow’s Shideh is a reluctant wife and mother. She’s married to Iraj (Bobby Naderi), who she fights with but clearly loves. And she adores their child, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), a saucer-eyed little girl fond of staging tea parties with her doll, Kimia. They’re a family of three who’ve carved out an urbane middle-class life in a Tehran apartment decorated in nostalgically hideous, period-appropriate earth tones.

But Shideh had dreams of also becoming a doctor, ones she was on the way to fulfilling when the 1979 Iranian Revolution put everything on hold. She got married, had Dorsa, and when the movie begins, some years later, she’s told that she can’t resume her studies, because she’s been blackballed under the new Islamic regime due to her political record. “I suggest you find a new goal in life,” a university official coolly tells her.

It’s the ’80s in Iran, and you can feel Shideh’s horizons narrowing in ways that go beyond how she’s been consigned to being a housewife — in how impatiently she puts on a headscarf before allowing a repairman inside, or how she draws the curtains before slipping a Jane Fonda aerobics tape into the family’s forbidden VCR for her home workout. Whatever idealism she harbored about the future of the country has been replaced by a reality of religious conservatism that obviously doesn’t reflect her hopes.

Meanwhile, bombs are falling over the city, an unexploded missile even lodging itself in the roof of the family’s apartment building, the country in the midst of a war with Iraq that consumes most of the decade and that leads to Iraj being drafted away. When Shideh is left alone with their daughter, her restless personal dissatisfaction and the national anxiety converge with Dorsa’s conviction that she’s being haunted by a djinn, a creature out of Islamic mythology, who means the family ill. It’s the djinn, Dorsa’s certain, who’s making her sick and who’s stolen Kimia, and as tensions grow in the house, Shideh is torn between frustration with her child and the suspicion that she may be onto something.

It’s no coincidence that in both Under the Shadow and The Babadook, horror comes creeping in by way of children’s tales that seep into adult awareness rather than the other way around. All of the terrors plaguing Amelia’s troubled son Sam at the start of The Babadook seem to congeal into a ghoulish pop-up book that just appears one day, giving his fears a focus while seemingly being created by them. In Under the Shadow, a boy who’s new to the building tells Dorsa about the djinn after being sent to live with relatives when his own parents are killed in an air raid; the connection between an attack from above and malevolent mystical beings lodges itself in Dorsa’s head until she’s sure djinn have spirited Kimia away upstairs in the bombed-out apartment.

For Amelia and Shideh, no scary story itself will ever be as alarming as the practical possibility of something keeping their kids up at night. These films are odes to the giddy vulnerability of exhaustion as much as they are about the supernatural, how these already worn-down parents trudge onward with less and less sleep, opening them up to ideas they know are irrational in the light of day.

Amelia stares, terrified, at the dark corners of her shadowy room at night, and Shideh envisions the cracks in the living room ceiling opening up under pressure from something meaning ill, as if they’re succumbing to their children’s nightmares, sanity slowly slipping away. Isolation only escalates the hauntings, or the shared psychosis. Amelia is a widow whose connection to her remaining family splinters thanks to Sam’s acting out, leaving the pair to spiral down into reclusive instability. Shideh is separated from her husband by national service — when he calls, the lines are so bad he’s barely audible — and she and Dorsa find their building rapidly emptying out due to the attacks, as their neighbors head for safer climes.

And yet, time to themselves is a denied luxury. The Babadook makes a dark joke out of how Amelia’s attempt to take advantage of a rare moment alone to eke out a solo orgasm gets interrupted by a scared Sam jumping into her bed. In Under the Shadow, Shideh demands that before Iraj leaves, he tell her if he believes her desire to go back to school makes her a bad mother. The dread these movies summon and simmer isn’t just about harm coming to children, but about not being good at motherhood, about missing something fundamental, about, in their darkest moments, the potential to be the thing that harms.

Both Under the Shadow’s and The Babadook’s characters are also terrorized by pieces of clothing, which sounds funny but in practice is thoroughly eerie, especially given the connection the items have to the dead. Amelia’s late husband’s empty suits give form to the Babadook, and the patterned curtain in a photo of Shideh’s recently passed mother makes an appearance as a phantasmal chador.

The familiar, shabbily domestic turns ominous — scaring the women in the comfort of their own homes, with the comforts of their own homes, maybe, but also highlighting how personal these breakdowns are, colored by loss. Amelia has her grief as well as a sense of abandonment due to the death of her spouse. Shideh grapples with feelings of having failed to live up to her mother’s expectations, ones she’ll now never be able to fulfill. The stuff of their bereavement becomes the stuff of their fear.

And also, the stuff of their resentment. The Babadook may be an entity representing Amelia’s depression and mourning, but one of the movie’s most provocative suggestions is that, whether she remembers or not, she may actually be the one who created the book that so frightens Sam — she, who used to write, who “did some kids’ stuff.” And, while Shideh tears the apartment apart trying to find Kimia, who Dorsa insists they can’t leave the city without, Under the Shadow hints that perhaps Shideh is the one who took the doll in the first place, in some unconscious act of spite against the daughter with whom she’s been left, when she once entertained more expansive plans for herself.

Like The Babadook, Under the Shadow is scary, the cultural specificity of its spookiness making it no less effective when its creepy figures start lurking in doorways and rattling at windows. But these movies also make use of a panic that has nothing to do with the supernatural. They’re intimate horror movies about the dark things lurking in a family home, and, more interestingly, in the minds of women, in how unmoored they start to feel in identities defined by the children they’ve had, in their self-doubt, and their own shunted-aside longings. It’s what makes both films reverberate long after the standard haunted house movie has faded from memory. What’s a monster lurking under the bed compared to the nagging suspicion that maybe there’s something monstrous within?

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