Misunderstood Monsters | The Barbarianism of Forced Motherhood in ‘Barbarian’
By Matt Konopka
Welcome fellow monster kids to Misunderstood Monsters. This is where I, Matt Konopka, sink my fangs into all sorts of beasts, ghouls, and creatures from above while I search for the humanity behind their frightening exteriors. From monster favorites such as The Wolf Man to obscure monsters like the whistling Shadmock, there is more to these fiends than bad hair days and gooey tentacles. Within them all is a piece of ourselves.
One of the more surprising horror releases of 2022 was writer/director Zach Cregger’s Barbarian. Not just because it turned out to be one of the best horror films of the year — you know it’s true — but because it was a rare example of both trailers and the internet managing to not spoil the reveal of the film’s monstrous Mother (Matthew Patrick Davis). Bravo! Yet Barbarian isn’t just another monster movie. The Mother isn’t even the true monster of the film; it’s the men.
In Barbarian, Tess (Georgina Campbell) is forced into an uncomfortable situation when she discovers awkward weirdo, Keith (Bill Skarsgard), occupying the Airbnb she’s rented for the weekend. From then until the final, bloody reel, Tess is dragged kicking and screaming over thresholds of comfort she’d rather not cross by men of all types. And on the other side of those boundaries, deep down in the dark depths of what looks like your average, cozy home, dwells the shocking result of man’s barbarianism.
Throughout a relentlessly frightening hour and forty-two minutes, Cregger’s film taps into the agony that generations of women have experienced at the hands of men. In Tess, we meet a woman trying to escape a toxic relationship with some caveman named Marcus. Composer Anna Drubich’s haunting cacophony of wailing women rises up during her introduction and swallows us in a cavernous mouth of dread. Their voices scream for Tess, for Mother, for every woman who has been tormented within that quaint little house.
It’s difficult for men to acknowledge their own toxicity. I get it. But it drives me nuts that most are unwilling to confront the dangerous society they’ve created for women. Girls have to be careful, Tess explains to Keith, because “guys will walk all over you if you let them.” His defensive response showcases your average “not all men” bro. Yes, even you, Keith! Men like him don’t understand how a tall, intimidating dude invading what was supposed to be a safe space for Tess would make her uncomfortable. Or how much worse it is that he pushes…and pushes…and pushes…the way all men do until they get what they want, convincing Tess to cross the threshold into the house. A close-up of her feet emphasizes stepping over her comfort zone. This followed by calling her a “young lady” while also saying she has a “pretty name.” He’s hitting on Tess and infantilizing her at the same time. Keith thinks he’s some kind of white knight. He’s not. Male readers, hear me when I say there’s nothing valiant about turning an already uncomfortable situation into something worse by making a woman choose between the dangerous streets of Detroit or a flirtatious guy who might try to have his way with her.
Why are men like this?
Some blame it on a primal piece of ourselves buried in our genes, an excuse that society perpetuates by letting men get away with almost anything with that “boys will be boys” nonsense. But that’s all it is, nonsense. Tess is right when she claims that had her role with Keith been reversed, he would’ve barged into the Airbnb, danger be damned. The home’s faux owner, AJ (Justin Long), does exactly that by barreling right through various thresholds that Tess was hesitant to cross (the house, the basement, etc.) But there is no excuse. No one should have to tell men to believe women or respect boundaries.
They should know better.
More men should pay attention to the lessons of horror films like Barbarian. The genre has always taught us to believe women. They’re the ones in these movies who tell the group to turn back. Heed the creepy harbinger’s warnings. Yet on the other side of them is a barbaric man who doesn’t believe anything can hurt him. He pulls that knowing woman and whoever else into that dark house. Keith does the same when Tess sprints up the stairs screaming about a secret room. He could acknowledge her fear and leave with her. Instead, he has to see it for himself. His ignorance forces Tess over another threshold and dooms them both.
Listen to women, people!
Down in that basement, Tess finds the thing she’s most afraid of becoming: Mother. Or rather, forced motherhood. The true owner of the house, Frank (Richard Brake) did not offer Mother a choice. A “copy of a copy of a copy,” she’s the end result of decades of him making pets out of women. Mother doesn’t dare enter Frank’s room because she sees him as some kind of “master,” hence the bell on the wall which implies she serves him. All she’s ever known is the dark and the single tape Frank gave her, instructions on taking care of a baby. It’s the only purpose she’s been given. A purpose that men have pushed on women since the beginning of time. Motherhood can be a beautiful thing, but for a career woman like Tess, Mother’s hideous appearance suggests the role, which Marcus and others have tried to reduce her to her whole life. A stay-at-home mom. A servant. A thing to be used however they please.
Which makes AJ’s death at the hands of Mother so goddamn satisfying.
A rapist of women, AJ may display disgust towards Frank’s tapes, but it’s only because he sees his own monstrous self in the bastard. We know what AJ is from the moment we meet him, singing “I’ll have to kill her myself” just as the song he’s listening to dies down. He exclaims “all right bitch, get ready to get fucked” as he ventures into the basement, having already found Tess’s ID and knowing she’s in the house. AJ doesn’t respect women (shocker). Like all the men of Barbarian, he infantilizes them…and gets some much-deserved comeuppance when Mother does the same to him through some gag-inducing breastfeeding. For all of their bravado, men like AJ and Frank, they’re the cowards of the film. The buh-buh-babies. Frank takes his own life when faced with consequences. AJ refuses to blame anyone but himself for his atrocities. The worst men refuse to admit what they are.
Barbarian shows us that all men can be monsters of sorts, whereas Mother is the product of man’s monstrosity. She wants to take care of others out of the belief she must. That’s never been what Tess wants. “I can’t go back there,” she says in the end. She won’t go back to that suburban home. She won’t be anyone’s pet. The bullet she puts in Mother’s skull is her way of saying no, forced motherhood is not her only option.
Men who think otherwise are downright barbaric. 🩸
Matt is a writer and wannabe werewolf who began his love of horror at the ripe old age of 3 with Carpenter’s Christine. He has a horror podcast called Killer Horror Critic which he does with his wonderful wife and has previously been published on Bloody Disgusting, Shudder’s The Bite, and Daily Grindhouse. You can also find more of his reviews and ramblings at his blog, KillerHorrorCritic.com.
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