A Review of Guillermo del Toro’s Mama: Of Imaginary Guardians and Jealous Gods

This is a guest post by Sara Lin Wilde. Sara is a Toronto-dwelling Canadian writer working towards publishing her first novel. You can also find her on Twitter.

(There are spoilers in the review below!)

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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.

As in so many religions, Mama makes sure there’s a price to pay for straying from the fold.

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.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lindsey.stock.7 Lindsey Stock

    The question that bothered me most by the end of the movie was how in the hell are they going to explain all these dead people to child services.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    Okay, so is this worth seeing, or not? That’s all I want to know. Well… that, and how it rates as a horror flick, because I’ve seen some really hyped up flicks that sucked donkey balls (“Blair Witch” anyone?) and I’ve seen some things fly under the radar that were really awesome (“The Shrine”).

    • http://twitter.com/Freemage69 Freemage

      Given that it’s Guillermo del Toro, I’m gonna bet that it’s worth, at a minimum, a Netflix/Redbox viewing.

      • lefty

        his track record is great, except for that one awful film with katie holmes about the tiny little monster things. what a stinker.

  • cipher

    Like any jealous god — and who hasn’t heard the theory that we base our concepts of the deity on our parental figures?

    Hard-core fundies – i.e., Calvinists (which is most of them) – who dislike the caring, compassionate God of the liberal theists, like to tell their less bastardly coreligionists, “God isn’t like your grandfather!” Yeah, he isn’t like your abusive Dad, either – no matter how desperately you want him to be.

    I sometimes think the whole of Christian theology can be reduced to a recreation of childhood trauma.

  • The Other Weirdo

    So it’s a film treatment of a Star Trek: TNG episode about a little girl and her invisible friend? Truly, have we now reached the bottom?

  • Pawel Samson

    It’s cool that you wrote a movie review from an Atheist’s perspective! This movie wasn’t on my radar until I read this.

    I hope to read more reviews like this in the future, but not just of movies. Bioshock Infinite in particular should be of interest to any Atheist- gamer or not. It’s already getting a lot of criticism for being anti-religious and anti-conservative, what with it being set on a floating, man-made island that’s run by a dogmatic prophet like every tea partier’s wet dream. The fact that it’s the followup to Bioshock gets me super-excited, as that was the best takedown of Ayn Rand’s objectivism I’ve ever encountered… even though it was “just a video game.”

    http://youtu.be/Pff-AY7ztyY

  • http://daniel.bottle-imp.com/ Daniel

    I kind of enjoy Christian mythology in movies and comic books and stuff. The trailers for this just seemed corny to me. I love horror films and stuff Guillermo del Toros does, but I don’t know. Maybe when it comes on Netflix.


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