If we’ve learned one thing from horror and horror-adjacent films, it is that mother does not always know best. So, in honor of Mother’s Day, Vulture has pulled together a list of 20 of the absolute worst, most frightening moms ever onscreen. And by worst we mean a combination of incredible and evil. Would you want these matriarchs to raise you up and run your home? No. But do you want to watch them rain terror down on their outmatched family members and enemies? Yes, of course you would. You know about Margaret White and Mrs. Loomis, but here are 20 other mothers (including one Other Mother) to be feared and reviled.
Lucy Harbin (Strait-Jacket, 1964)
Joan Crawford reinvented her Hollywood persona through suspense films in her later years. In Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? she played the put-upon sister to a delusional narcissist, but in Strait-Jacket she went full ax murderer. As Lucy Harbin, Crawford is a woman newly released from an asylum, where she was sent for 20 years after killing her cheating husband. She goes home to reconnect with her daughter, but then bodies start hitting the floor. Could it be Lucy? Probably! Mommy dearest indeed!
Nola Carveth (The Brood, 1979)
In the broadest possible terms, The Brood is a movie about a custody battle — just with experimental psychotherapy called “psychoplasmics”and monster babies. Samantha Eggar gave one of the great performances in horror history as Nola Carveth, an unwell woman with the power to turn her rage into deadly weapons. We won’t spoil what those weapons are if you still haven’t seen this classic, but since this is a David Cronenberg film you can expect them to be surprising and grotesque. But suffice to say: You do not want to not upset this mother!
Corrine and Olivia (Flowers in the Attic, 1987)
Flowers in the Attic is a double serving of evil moms, with Corrine and her own mother, Olivia, competing for who can be the worst to Corrine’s children (who, by the way, are the product of a very untoward romantic relationship). The kids are kept sequestered, starved, abused, and manipulated as mom and grandma both try to get at a large family inheritance, making Flowers the exact kind of madness evil movie mothers were invented for.
Julia Cotton (Hellraiser, 1988)
Although not traditionally grouped with the mad-mom canon, Julia in Hellraiser is such a horrible bitch of a stepmother that we felt she deserved proper recognition. Clare Higgins has a cold, severe gaze that almost makes Pinhead feel like a second-tier villain by comparison. (The head nails are great and all, dude, but also a little obvious.) Julia is the stepmom to our hell-raising heroine, Kirsty, and she cements her wicked status by first cheating on Kirsty’s dad with her uncle, Frank, then raising Frank from the dead by feeding him strangers so he can regenerate with their blood. And she enables the murder of Kirsty’s dad as another Frank sacrifice. Rude! Julia is so evil, in fact, that she graduates to star in the sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II.
Mommy (The People Under the Stairs, 1991)
Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs is a classic. A family living in an eroding apartment building is about to be convicted by their heartless landlords, the Robesons, so young Fool and two neighborhood heavies break into their house to try to rob them. But they are definitely not prepared for the horrors within. Wendy Robie plays one half of the Robesons, and her unhinged Mommy is one of the most absurdly insane screen mothers of all time. In addition to keeping desperate prisoners in her basement and torturing her “daughter,” Mommy is also definitely having sex with her brother, Daddy, who likes to dress up in bondage attire and hunt people through the house. A truly Hall of Face performance from Robie.
Peyton Flanders (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, 1992)
File this one, like Inside, under the “hideous aspirational mothers” category. Rebecca De Mornay plays Mrs. Mott, a woman driven to vengeance against the woman she believes ruined her life and her family. (In all fairness, her husband killed himself because many women accused him of sexual assault, and Mrs. Mott’s pregnancy failed due to complications after he died.) So she becomes Peyton Flanders and is hired to nanny the newborn of her enemy. She surreptitiously breastfeeds the infant, turns the older daughter against her mom, plots to ruin her marriage, and does a lot of generally devious work. This is peak 1990’s evil mom bunny boiler cinema, and it is glorious.
Vera Cosgrove (Dead Alive, 1992)
Vera was already bad enough as the domineering mother of Dead Alive’s protagonist, Lionel, but then she gets bitten by a rat-monkey, turns into a zombie monster, and starts infecting the other townsfolk. This early Peter Jackson film is a spectacular of gore and wild practical effects, and Vera is a hell beast for the ages. Also, Peter Jackson make more horror movies challenge!
Beverly Sutphin (Serial Mom, 1994)
Psycho moms were made for camp, and John Waters is the camp king. In Serial Mom, Kathleen Turner plays a suburban housewife who will bake a world-class cherry pie and also leave you bleeding out on the ground if you cross her. From dirty prank phone calls to fire irons to chef’s knives to homemade flame throwers and scissors, this mom will make your life hell by any means necessary.
Debbie Salt (Scream 2, 1997)
No, not that Mrs. Loomis! The final boss of Wes Craven’s Scream 2 is a nod to Friday the 13th and one of the great mad mothers of all time. Pesky reporter Debbie Salt who has been stalking the action the entire movie is in fact the vengeful Debbie Loomis — mother of the murderous Billy from the first Scream — and she steals every single minute she spends onscreen. A heroine of Sidney Prescott’s esteem deserves a foe as noteworthy as one played by the incomparable Laurie Metcalf.
La Femme (Inside, 2007)
Inside is really a tale of two mothers. One is a woman who is nine months pregnant with a baby that’s imminently due, and the other is La Femme (Béatrice Dalle). La Femme is not pregnant, but she is determined to cut that child out of the womb and keep it for herself. Inside is one of the most infamous New French Extremity films, and its villain is in the race for most horrifying “aspiring” mother ever onscreen. Get ready for a lot, no like a lot, of blood.
The Other Mother (Coraline, 2009)
Obviously there are many wicked cartoon mothers, step and otherwise, but the grotesque Other Mother from Coraline might be the most wicked of them all. Thanks to the haunting aesthetic of Laika’s stop-motion animation, Coraline is the kind of kids’ movie that ruined the sleep of ’80s babies, the ones that grew up with truly twisted “children’s stories” like Secret of Nimh, Legend, or The Dark Crystal. (Generation Z could never.) And Teri Hatcher’s voice work, switching back and forth between mothers good and evil, was and absolutely chilling accompaniment to Other Mother’s craggy body and black-button eyes.
Erica Sayers (Black Swan, 2010)
Even though Barbara Hershey’s Erica Sayers, mother of the high-strung prima ballerina Nina, only appears in a few scenes of Black Swan, her presence weighs on the entire film. Erica is the suffocating, obsessive martyr who devoted her entire life to Nina’s success on the stage, making her the scariest goddamned dance mom imaginable.
Evelyn Stoker (Stoker, 2013)
Nicole Kidman is one of our greatest living actresses, and she channeled every ounce of her talent into maternal evil for Park Chan-wook’s Stoker. Evelyn is cold, cruel, vindictive, jealous, and truly hates her daughter, India (Mia Wasikowska). But thanks to Kidman’s delicate ability to thread the needle between terrifying and tragic she’s no cartoon character, either, making Evelyn feel like a real worst mother you could ever have the misfortune of meeting.
Mutter (Goodnight Mommy, 2015)
You know a character is frightening when she’s just called “mother.” In Goodnight Mommy, Mutter returns home from a medical procedure with her face fully obscured in bandages, and her twin sons grow increasingly suspicious that their real mother — who drifts through the house like a ghost — is not the one under all that wrapping.
Amelia (The Babadook, 2015)
Poor Amelia (Essie Davis). Things were hard enough when she was merely a widow doing her best to raise an extremely difficult son, but then a fairy-tale creature called the Babadook showed up and made her house a whole nightmare. Anxiety and depression manifest as streaks of mad violence in Essie as she battles the creature that goes “dook dook dook” in the night, creating two of the great modern horror icons.
Mina (Hungry Hearts, 2014)
Every frame of Hungry Hearts feels desperate and tense. Almost as soon as the young couple in this movie gets their new baby home, mother Mina (Alba Rohrwacher) starts steadily unravelling. She is obsessed with the safety of the infant, so much so that every single thing around her becomes a threat — the air he’s breathing, the food he’s eating. Mina might not be picking up an ax and swinging it around her child, but Hearts proves that a mother’s love gone wrong can be the most dangerous weapon of all.
Mona Champagne (Home Sweet Hell, 2015)
Have you ever wanted to see Katherine Heigl in matching white undergarments, a statement necklace, and a transparent rubber smock cutting a body to pieces with a Skilsaw? That is what she gives you as Mona Champagne, the prickly, take-no-shit alpha of the suburban murder comedy Home Sweet Hell. The movie is about a corny furniture salesman (Patrick Wilson) whose affair with an employee leads to him getting mixed up with some violent criminals, but honestly, Sweet Hell exists as a showcase for Heigl. Champagne for everyone!
Ruth (Prevenge, 2016)
What if, while pregnant and left grieving for your dead partner, your fetus started whispering orders for you to kill people? That’s the position Ruth finds herself in, prepping for a new baby while going on a quiet killing spree at the behest of her spawn. Writer, star, and director Alice Lowe makes Ruth an empathetic anti-hero worth rooting for, even as the body count climbs.
Kendall Ryan (Mom and Dad, 2017)
Selma Blair can present as a most unassuming figure, which is why it’s so fun to watch her go full berserker mode and try to murder her own kids in Mom and Dad, a movie about a global pandemic that results in parents all over the world just trying to take out their children. Kendall is like suburban housewife malaise on cocaine and steroids, and she’s the best.
Annie Graham (Hereditary, 2018)
As the star of Ari Aster’s domestic hellscape, Toni Collette’s Annie Graham is horror’s reigning Worst Matriarch. This family is just trying to hold it together after a pair of tragedies, but as Annie slips further into madness she loses track of who the bad guy is, and whether or not it’s actually her. Collette’s performance starts at 11 and inches up to 20 throughout the film. It’s got the rage, the grief, the agony, and the insanity to make her an instant classic.