A disheveled man wearing pajamas looks concerned
Posted on May 17, 2023

Beau Is Afraid, Mother Is Guilty: Ari Aster’s Maternal-Horror Nightmare

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Beau Is Afraid seems like something other than a horror movie. It’s nightmare-ish at times but simultaneously absurd and rarely (if ever) scary. It includes some bodily destruction or exaggeration, but these moments are brief or bizarrely humorous rather than straightforwardly horrific. And the movie is mostly described by critics as black comedy or bleak humor, surrealist or absurdist – not as horror.

Its plot doesn’t sound much like a horror movie, either. Beau (Joaquin Phoenix), who has some serious issues with anxiety, is going to visit his mother, but a series of bizarre difficulties prevents him from doing so. As he tries to get home, he discovers that she has died, and then he is hit by a car before he can act on that information. This is merely the opening of the movie, after which he is taken in by (held captive by) a creepily friendly family, adventures through the forest and meets a theater troupe of orphans, and eventually makes it home, where there are still more twists and turns. This sounds weird, but not horrific.

This is a horror movie, though.

And the monster is Beau’s mother, Mona (Patti LuPone). Reviews of the movie frequently foreground this element, describing the movie as “Ari Aster’s dementedly ambitious look at mommy issues” in one case or referring to “Mom’s inhumanity to man” in another, but they rarely connect the film’s representation of the mother to maternal horror specifically. For me, Beau Is Afraid only really makes sense in this context. All of Beau’s anxieties, his experience of the world, his interactions with other people, and ultimately his whole sense of self, are directly shaped by his mother and her desire to control him. She creates the world he lives in – full of drugs, crime, filth, and death – and then she judges him for failing to rise above it. (And I mean these accusations quite literally. We discover late in the film that she has gotten rich from selling the drugs that are behind many of these social problems, that she owns the apartments where Beau lives, that she is surveilling him, and that even the people who are nice to him are on her payroll.)

A well dressed woman looks concerned

Figure 1 Patti LuPone as Mona, Beau’s mother.

This perfectly illustrates one major type of maternal horror. Drawing on psychoanalytic theory, Sarah Arnold observes that “maternal power is figured as violent, destructive, and detrimental to the child” (11), and that the “abject omnipotent mother” is a key figure in maternal horror. Erin Jean Harrington looks to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) as a template: “Norman Bates’ imagined Mother – controlling, infantilising and abusive – has come, over time, to be a template for the popular representation of maternal overbearance in horror films” (188). In films like these, the mother is frighteningly powerful, unwilling to allow her child to develop independently. Interestingly, Patti LuPone has said that she doesn’t see Mona as a villain, saying instead, “She loves her son unconditionally, and perhaps is constantly disappointed by him. I think she’s trying to make a man of him. I don’t think she’s intentionally monstrous.” In maternal horror, however, the monstrosity doesn’t have to be intentional. Instead, the monstrous mother in horror presents an inverted image of maternal love, a kind of love that is expected to be overwhelming and life-changing for the mother, taken too far, twisted, not enacted appropriately. Proper maternal love is only temporarily all-encompassing. The mother has to know her place.

In Beau Is Afraid, this connection between motherhood and monstrosity is present from its first seconds. The movie opens with a dark screen and muted sounds: pulsing and screaming. It sounds like a distant scene from a horror movie, but it resolves into a birth scene. Birth is trauma, birth is horror, expulsion from the womb leads to more screaming from Mona and then Beau crying, too. This opening prepares the audience for a strong association between Mona and fear, and it echoes Harrington’s argument about pregnancy horror in which “the woman-as-subject and the foetus-as-subject do not happily coexist or conjoin; instead, they struggle for dominance” (97). Throughout Beau and beginning with this scene, our perspective and our sympathies are with Beau, not Mona. Her laboring body is mere background to his experience. However, in the struggle for dominance, she clearly triumphs. Because she is not supposed to triumph over her son (a good mother sacrifices herself for her children instead), this exposes her monstrosity.

A shirtless man who looks upset raises his hands in surrender

Figure 2 A naked Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) raises his hands to show his innocence and harmlessness.

The second scene in Beau Is Afraid introduces guilt, a theme that continues until the final Kafka-esque trial scene. This too reinforces the film’s maternal-horror core. In this scene, Beau reflects in a session with his therapist about his relationship with and feelings about his mother. He is clearly unhappy, but he is just as clearly unwilling to admit that his mother might be a problem. His therapist writes down just one word in his notes: Guilty.

Although the film seems to keep asking about Beau’s guilt, as a maternal horror film, it is really about his mother’s guilt. After all, the world is scary because she made it that way, and Beau is an innocent. The original screenplay (which is, to be fair, quite different from the final product in many ways), opens with a description of Beau as “possessed of a striking, childlike innocence,” and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance of Beau makes him “a sympathetic, if pitiful, hero.”  His two refrains throughout the film highlight this tension between his internalized feeling of guilt – “I’m sorry” – and the movie’s argument that he is not to blame – “What did I do?” The answer to that question, after all, is nothing. He did nothing – both in the sense that he is innocent of wrongdoing and also in the sense that he is passive and incapable of shaping his own life. By the end of the film, this question and its answer also implicitly point to his mother. Beau did nothing; she did everything. She is monstrous in her overwhelming power over Beau and his world. He may be pathetic, but this is an indictment not of him but of the mother who made him that way.

A confused looking man sits in front of a sign that says, "Jesus Sees Your Abominations"

Figure 3 The ideas of guilt and surveillance are reinforced together in this sign reading, “Jesus sees your abominations.”

Many critics have read Beau Is Afraid as a re-telling of Odysseus’s journey home, but with a twist: Beau’s struggle throughout the film is simply to get home, and he faces many challenges along the way (including Lotus Eaters in the form of delusional suburbanites, a seductive siren, and a one-eyed monster), but ultimately Beau is no hero, and he is not welcomed home. Another influence worth noting, one that places this film firmly in the tradition of maternal horror, is Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (1992; also known as Braindead).

Dead Alive, like Beau Is Afraid, tells the story of a man with an overbearing mother who struggles to live in a world that she controls and who desires a woman other than her. Dead Alive tells this story through an infection that turns his mother into a zombie who infects everyone else, leading its protagonist (Lionel Cosgrove, played by Timothy Balme) to ever-more-impressively-gruesome scenes of fighting off braindead zombies in his mother’s house, culminating in a battle with his reanimated and changed mother. In her new form, she is overwhelmingly and abjectly female, “an enormous and grotesque shambling creature with pendulous breasts (and yet [she] is still wearing her string of pearls)” (Harrington 189), and she draws Lionel into her body where he must fight his way out again in order to ultimately free himself from her control and earn his happy romantic ending.


Despite the differences in tone, length, and budget, Dead Alive and Beau Is Afraid tell essentially the same story: Mother is monstrous, and she must be defeated. Where Lionel is able to defeat his mother and win his freedom, however, Beau fails. He strangles his mother in the end, but then he stops himself, apologizing profusely, and the final scene features her continuing to judge him. She seems to be undefeatable, making her even more monstrous and frightening – even though she remains a mere human rather than becoming a crawling, mutated mother-beast, as in Dead Alive.

Beau Is Afraid is billed as a comedy, and it is definitely funny, although in a different vein than Dead Alive’s horror-comedy. But my enjoyment of the film dissipates when it becomes just another condemnation of the mother. Aster’s humor is overtaken by the inability – of both Beau and the film as a whole – to do more than blame Mona for everything. There is no respite from her awfulness, even after her apparent murder at the hands of her son, and Beau maintains his innocence until the very end, remaining a victim even as the credits roll.

Beau is afraid, and the film is an immersive, effective experience of that fear, but ultimately the source of all that fear is simply the mother. Beau Is Afraid wants to be a work of art, but at its heart it’s nothing more than masculine mother-blaming.


Arnold, Sarah. Maternal Horror Film: Melodrama and Motherhood. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Harrington, Erin Jean. Women, Monstrosity and Horror Film: Gynaehorror. Routledge, 2018.

Christy Tidwell is Professor of English & Humanities at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. Her research most often addresses speculative fiction (primarily science fiction and horror), environment, and gender. She is co-editor of (and contributor to) Gender and Environment in Science Fiction (Lexington, 2019) and of Fear and Nature: Ecohorror Studies in the Anthropocene (Penn State University Press, 2021). For more, check out her website or follow her on Twitter.

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