(There are spoilers in the review below!)
It’s an idea most atheists probably find pretty familiar, if not resonant: vulnerable believers, scared and alone, taking comfort in imagining a benefactor or guardian figure, a surrogate parent of fantasy who they come to believe is real.
The concept goes literal in Guillermo del Toro’s Mama when two kidnapped children, found living feral in the woods five years later, come to live with their uncle. Psychologists, witnessing the girls’ interactions with their invisible protector, theorize that Victoria and Lily invented Mama to help them cope with their trauma, terror, and abandonment.
But because this is a horror movie, Mama turns out to be all too real, and her relationship with the girls goes south once she finds she can’t have them all to herself.
If the phrase “imaginary guardian” was all Mama had in common with any given deity, the parallel would be far less interesting. But Mama’s wrath would make the Jealous God of the Old Testament proud. As the girls slowly shift their loyalty away from Mama to their new (corporeal) guardians, Lucas and Annabel, Mama makes it clear that she is not keen to share.
Like any jealous god — and who hasn’t heard the theory that we base our concepts of the deity on our parental figures? — Mama is threatened by the reality-based ties Victoria and Lily start to form. It’s not for nothing that the Gospel of Luke has Jesus saying his followers must hate their fathers and mothers, wives and children (14:26, if you’re keeping track). Like the Judeo-Christian God, Mama wants absolute adoration, undiluted by earthly ties. Real-life relationships pull the girls away from Mama’s mystical, ethereal world and offer them opportunities to question the lifestyle she offers.
Of course, the brunt of her wrath is borne by unbelievers: Lucas and Annabel, conniving Aunt Jean, and the inquisitive psychiatrist who comes to suspect Mama might be real but notes that “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.” As in any devout religion’s worldview, the unbeliever represents the worldly temptations that might seduce away the faithful, and Mama is willing to kill to prevent the children from experiencing the richness of life in a flesh-and-blood family.
But the fate of her two foster daughters is perhaps most interesting of all. Tiny Lily, too small at the time of her abandonment to remember any other parent, clings faithfully to her phantom protector while older sister Victoria plays the sinner by bonding more readily with her new family. Of course she is made to suffer, mostly through guilt and threats to her new loved ones. Yet, ironically, Victoria’s apostasy allows her to live and enter fully into her new family, while Lily’s blind adoration ultimately leads to her annihilation.
It’s not news that blind faith in an angry god carries painful repercussions for everyone affected by the deity’s rigid demands, whether they’re enforced by a wrathful ghost or a particular church or denomination. But the poignancy of Lily’s fate reminds us that any true believer, in making herself little more than a God’s possession, loses the richness of human experience — and is all the poorer for having so little understanding of what she’s lost.