JANUARY 27, 2021
I would never be a mother, for I was a daughter — existentially — and I always would be.
— Sheila Heti, Motherhood
ROTTEN FRUIT in a glass bowl; satsuma skin wrinkling. Faded Post-it notes — bearing instructions like turn off tap — stuck to cupboards. Discarded scraps of candle wax strewn across a table. Called to her mother Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) house after her disappearance, Kay (Emily Mortimer) finds it in disarray. “It’s been a few weeks since we spoke,” Kay later tells a police officer. Apologetic, she adds, “Work’s been crazy. You know how it is.” She looks expectant, seeking reassurance that she can’t be held accountable for her mother’s disappearance, but no such confirmation follows; he doesn’t reply. Should Kay have visited Edna more often? Was it her duty to take care of her? Or, perhaps, in the most honest form of this question: is Kay a bad daughter? This anxiety — and its shapeshifting forms of anger, despair, and guilt — gives Natalie Erika James’s Relic (2020) its pulse. Daughterhood here is a rich terrain: one of intimacy, ambivalence, and unease. In horror, this form of daughterhood is striking new ground.
Motherhood, however, is horror’s subject du jour, but it’s a recent emergence. Mothers as characters have a long-established position in horror: think of the terrifying mothers of Friday the 13th (1980) and Psycho (1960) — or the terrified mothers in The Shining (1980) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Although these films depict maternal figures, their narratives don’t dwell on motherhood itself, but elsewhere (Rosemary’s Baby is perhaps the most focused on motherhood and pregnancy as abject experiences, but the others are not: Psycho veers instead toward a psychoanalytical depiction of sexuality, The Shining toward the mechanisms of domestic abuse). These films do not, in other words, make central a woman’s interiority as a mother. The idea that motherhood itself is not just a backdrop but a subject worth interrogating has only come to the forefront fairly recently: beginning with the release of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) and Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s Goodnight Mommy (2014), there followed Alice Lowe’s Prevenge (2016), Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (2017), and Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018). All of these narratives center, in one way or another, on the figure of the mother — a woman who is not straightforwardly terrifying or terrified, but a murky combination of both — and her experience of motherhood as a rich, thorny interior landscape. Unlike their 20th-century predecessors, the source of horror in these contemporary narratives stems explicitly from motherhood and its failings: a mother’s fever-pitched frustration with her child (The Babadook) or her guilt-ridden confession that she never wanted to become a mother in the first place (Hereditary).
Cultural obsessions with motherhood — in all its forms — are not unique to horror. Fiction, too, has recently taken motherhood as its central subject (think of Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, Helen Phillips’s The Need, Sophie Mackintosh’s Blue Ticket, and Emma Gannon’s Olive, among many others); horror amplifies the theme of motherhood in contemporary fiction, filtering it through genre conventions to expose its darkest undercurrents. It’s Heti’s novel I thought of when I saw Relic: Heti’s narrator struggles with the novel’s central philosophical question — whether to become a mother — because she feels, primarily, that she is a daughter. Her desire to “turn [her] mother’s sadness into gold” is an inherited feeling: her own mother “lived her life turned towards her mother”; the narrator confesses that she is “turned towards [her] mother, too, and not towards any son or daughter.” She vividly recalls sitting at the kitchen table with her family, realizing, “I would never be a mother, for I was a daughter — existentially — and I always would be.” Despite its title, the novel is just as much — if not more — about daughterhood as it is about motherhood.
It is this turning toward a mother that Relic speaks so well to: although Kay’s own daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), stays with her at Edna’s house, the film fixes its gaze on Kay not as a mother but primarily as a daughter. We witness events from her perspective: when they scour the house for Edna in the film’s opening scenes, Kay is the one to enter her bedroom, refusing to let Sam in. It’s an ambiguous gesture, and it’s unclear if Kay’s motive is to protect her daughter from possible trauma, or to fulfill her own daughterly duty to her mother. Later, Kay is the one to tidy the house, consumed by guilt: she rearranges furniture, dusts the keys of her mother’s piano, organizes objects into cardboard boxes. Kay is the one to diligently, and frustratedly, care for her mother once she returns: cooking her food, making lists, running baths. Relic wears a similar mask to Heti’s novel: on the surface, it masquerades as fiction centered on motherhood, but it turns instead toward the ambivalence of daughterhood.
What Relic makes apparent is that adult daughterhood is a rare subject for contemporary horror. Daughters, of course, exist in horror, but there are few films that focus on the condition of daughterhood itself, and far fewer still that center the adult daughter. For a genre so concerned with women’s nonconformity and familial dysfunction, it’s a curious omission. It rings especially loud, too, in the context of horror’s recent focus on motherhood, as though daughterhood itself does not generate its own set of ambivalences, anxieties, and agonies.
This tension, maybe, lies not in the parallels between motherhood and daughterhood — their familial obligations, or cultural scripts of devotion — but where they diverge. A mother’s responsibility is to care for her child; there exists a clear hierarchy of caregiving. But an adult daughter’s responsibility to care for her mother presents a murkier dynamic, a complexity Relic leans into. Perhaps horror turns so often to motherhood because a mother has clearly demarcated responsibilities, and it’s easy to imagine where these responsibilities might fail to be met: if a mother should be selfless and loving, then a selfish and neglectful mother signifies the monstrous. With strict criteria in place, failure (and resulting horror) has a clear threshold. Room for monstrosity in daughterhood is less clearly defined: there are fewer models of an adult daughter caring for, or maintaining a relationship with, her aging parents. What are her duties to them as an adult herself? Whose responsibility is it to repair the relationship’s damage? Who is supposed to be taking care of whom?
These anxieties of daughterhood — which explicitly structure Relic — find tentative beginnings in The Visit (2015) and in Hereditary. Tellingly, both narratives focus, either implicitly or explicitly, on the failures of motherhood, but at their fringes we find compelling subplots about daughterhood. The Visit — which follows Loretta’s (Kathryn Hahn) children, Becca and Tyler, visiting a couple they believe to be their grandparents (in true M. Night Shyamalan style, there is a plot twist: this couple has murdered their real grandparents) — depicts the horror of estrangement. Loretta confesses in the opening of the film that she has not spoken to her parents for 15 years, and by its end she reveals why. Gripped by shame and guilt over having struck her mother during an argument when she was a teenager, she never returned her parents’ calls. Loretta has turned her parents into strangers and, in the process, unwittingly places her children in danger. When we learn of their murder at the film’s midpoint, its horror functions on two levels: the surface level of violence and deception, but on a subtler level, too — the fact that a daughter’s conflict with her parents might have no resolution, that forgiveness might never be granted.
Daughterhood is susceptible to failures of connection in Hereditary, too, which follows Annie’s (Toni Collette) family, haunted by a demonic presence in the aftermath of her mother’s death. Speaking at her funeral, Annie is unsentimental; her affection, when it flickers briefly into view, is strained. Sparked by her mother’s “completely manipulative” nature, their estrangement sours Annie’s feelings of grief (“Should I be sadder?” she asks), even as she remains troubled by her mother’s memory. Even as a mother herself, Annie, like Loretta, is haunted by her own condition of daughterhood, by her fidelity — however troubled or reluctant — to it. A fear lingers here: Annie is anxious that she, too, will have a detached or severed relationship to her own children, and Hereditary expresses this anxiety in the chilling form of the supernatural. Being a mother has not resolved Annie’s crisis of daughterhood, and has in fact only weakened her ability to be fully committed to either. Daughterhood in these narratives sets the plot in motion but is not its central horror: it makes room for the possibilities of unthinkable violence (The Visit) or the ambivalent terror of motherhood (Hereditary). These women turn toward their mothers — to use Heti’s phrasing — but, crucially, always turn back toward their children with love (in Loretta’s case) or with anger (in Annie’s).
Perhaps the women in these narratives carved a path for Kay, for an adult daughter who is, variously, guilty, empathetic, anxious, stoic, and compassionate at once. But what sets Relic apart from The Visit and Hereditary is its treatment of daughterhood itself: instead of functioning as the plot’s starting point, or its segue into motherhood, Relic treats daughterhood as the central problem — and the primal source of horror. Horror so often equates motherhood with caregiving, and daughterhood with being cared for; it conflates motherhood with womanhood, and daughterhood with girlhood — but what happens when these borders disintegrate? Relic collapses these false dichotomies as roles bleed into one another: midway through the film, Kay finds her mother peeling pictures from the glue of a photo album — chewing their glossy edges, spitting pieces out across the forest floor. When Kay tears the photos away, Edna is furious, hissing, “I’m still your mother, Kay.” Again, who is supposed to be taking care of whom? This anxiety swarms around Relic, drawing uncomfortable attention to this decay, and then inversion, of hierarchy: Kay is now responsible for Edna’s welfare. Following her mother into the forest, Kay begins to cry: “Will you move into my place, Mum? I’m sorry I wasn’t there more. I’m sorry.” It’s the kind of apology a mother might offer a daughter. But for Kay, daughterhood now entails this rigorous, ongoing caregiving, and it is overwhelming.
Dementia is the film’s metaphorical monster, but it is its literal monster, too. There is violence (as her dementia worsens, Edna becomes increasingly aggressive and a physical threat to Kay and Sam in the third act); there is body horror (Edna’s skin becomes mottled with a black mold as she deteriorates, and the film’s final scene depicts Kay peeling this skin from her mother’s body before she dies). These genre conventions are a poignant expression of the film’s central source of drama and pathos; they give Kay’s suffering — her repulsion, fear, and anxiety — visceral form.
Turning toward a mother in Relic is not without complication: Kay is resentful of this burden of responsibility. Early in the film, she tells Sam that Edna called her before her disappearance, worried that there was someone in the house. Not yet having needed to navigate this form of daughterhood herself, Sam is horrified: “You didn’t call the police?” Kay bristles, defensive: “You know what she’s like. She forgets things.” When Edna does return, Kay asks her, repeatedly and to no avail, where she has been. Gripping her mother’s bloodstained nightgown, she shrieks, “Just tell me what happened.” Resentment whips her love into daughterly fury, but even this anger is textured with empathy: positioned with Kay, we feel the poignant contours of her love and her frustration in equal measure. She takes care of Edna, even while exhausted, frightened, impatient. She visits a retirement home and cries in the car afterward. As the film progresses into its third act, her emotions begin to carry the trace of something darker, too: fear. In the bedroom, Sam asks why Edna can’t move into their house. “It’s not practical,” Kay insists. “It’s not about space. She needs to be watched.” We know what Kay can’t fully face: that this illness means her mother’s interiority cannot be known to her, no matter how intently she watches.
A genre of extremity, horror gives Relic a language for the colossal grief — and terror — of this unfamiliarity. When Kay sits with her mother at the dinner table, her expression registers her unease as it slides into fear: she shifts, increasingly uncomfortable, under her mother’s gaze — unwavering, furious, resentful. A knife sits on the table between them, and Kay jolts when her mother rises from her chair. The genre’s conventions of the knowable becoming unknowable — the sentiment that Edna isn’t Gran anymore rings throughout — allow Relic to confront the horror of a daughter contending with a mother’s unknowability as she ages; it conjures the most intimate form of anxiety.
This uncertainty textures the film’s cinematography, too: there are always spaces out of shot; the camera often rests on Kay so that we can’t see her surroundings; all three women are swallowed by doorframes, corridors, narrow spaces. This stifling claustrophobia was, according to James, a deliberate choice. “[W]e did frames within frames that would cut people off, or have the action take place off camera,” she told Sight & Sound. “[T]here’s something inscrutable about the space — just as with Edna’s dementia.” This concoction of claustrophobia, anxiety, and fear reaches a fever pitch in the film’s third act, which sees Kay and Sam trapped inside the walls of the house as they attempt to escape Edna’s violence. Relic’s closing scenes are an unsettling, poignant portrait of the vast expanses of a daughter’s love: after Kay stops Edna from attacking Sam, they run to the door to escape. But Kay — crucially — turns away from her daughter, and back toward her mother. She tells Sam, “I can’t leave her.” Locking Sam out of the house, she carries her mother upstairs. I was a daughter — existentially — and I always would be.
While investigating the cluttered space of Edna’s closet, Sam finds a Post-it note stuck to a box: my mother has green eyes. Its poignancy lies not only at its surface — the act of a daughter forgetting the details of her mother’s face — but also in its indication of the inherited feeling Heti describes in Motherhood: that the women in her family live their lives turned toward their mothers. It is true for Sam, for Kay — and perhaps for Edna, too. In its emphasis on Kay’s interiority — not as a mother to Sam, but as a daughter to Edna — Relic punctures horror’s conflation of daughterhood with girlhood, and daughterhood with being cared for. It has its own room for failure, for ambivalence, for commitment. Daughterhood, Relic suggests, is as fertile a terrain as motherhood for terror, capable of consuming a woman just as meaningfully and just as significantly. Daughterhood is, as Heti describes, an existential state — an emotional fidelity, an ongoing condition with its own pleasures and tensions. Relic might indicate, then, horror’s tentative shift from motherhood to daughterhood; it might turn toward the idea that adult daughterhood itself is worthy of singular critical focus.