Mothman Prophecies – The cosmic horror movie is still thrilling 20 years later
Babysitting is arguably the most dangerous after-school job in the world of young adult horror. The caregivers in these books consider themselves lucky if the biggest problem of the night is getting the kids to bed. These less fortunate assistants have to deal with a variety of boogeymen. While not every waking second in these teenagers’ lives is a total nightmare; their own homes and schools are temporary refuges. A.Bateson the other hand, found a way to ensure that a babysitter is in a constant state of terror. In the author’s 1991 novel Help for the mother, a 17-year-old accepts a high-paying but unusual job offer; she is hired to babysit full time. The only catch is that the nanny job requires you to stay on a small island, far from home… and always close to danger.
Rebecca “Becky” Collier finds an excuse to leave Seattle for the summer after her boyfriend dumps her for her best friend. And with her leaving for college soon, the soon-to-be freshman needs to make some quick cash. So when Mrs. Nelson provides a stone for two birds, Becky hops on a plane to Sebastian Island. The gig itself – watching over a little boy named Devon all summer – is easy enough, but after a while Becky tires of Devon’s demanding mother.
Mrs. Nelson is visibly uncomfortable with her own son, and she is reluctant to let Becky leave the house. Making things stranger is why the Nelsons are in Sebastian in the first place. Someone has threatened Devon, and his parents – Devon’s father has been away all this time – think keeping him here is the best option. As eager as Becky is to ignore all the red flags for a mouth-watering $5,000 lump sum, the growing isolation eats away at her. On top of that, there’s the handsome but suspicious townsman and neighbor, Cleve Davidson, who keeps asking Becky so many prying questions.
Once she gets the night off, Becky’s mind starts racing. Along with the sheriff’s convenient accident, which effectively leaves the town of South End without any law enforcement, Becky questions Cleve’s innocence. His incessant curiosity about Becky’s work and her “aunt” suggests that he is not who he appears to be. Ms. Nelson herself is just as dodgy, if not more so. She not only forbids Becky from answering the phone in her office when she’s not home – a room Bates compares to the forbidden one in the French folktale “Bluebeard” – her daily work meetings are nothing plus she’s sitting alone at the marina. For someone who claims to be hiding, Mrs. Nelson really doesn’t know how to stay hidden.
From Becky feeling like a prisoner in the Nelsons’ summer home to her growing anxiety about Devon’s stalker, Help for the mother is all about the horrors within. Becky suffers the effects of cabin fever early on; her irritability and paranoia cause her to make rash decisions as the story progresses. Then, being aware of Devon’s predicament makes Becky suspicious and nervous. The more she gets entangled in the Nelson problem, the more she internalizes their fears.
When it comes to scares, Bates largely channels the psychological menace of classic “women in peril” movies as opposed to the teenage slashers influencing other suspenseful YA novels from the same era. She plays on Becky’s dread with a phone that keeps ringing but not answering, and she perpetuates the feeling of being watched. At one point, the author terrorizes the protagonist with strategically placed dolls; some are broken and mangled, while the most fearsome of them all is completely unscathed. A great line about this incident sums up Becky’s uneasy state of mind:
“This doll was perfect – no cuts, no broken, broken heads, no torn limbs – and somehow it was even scarier.
Almost like it was a blank threat, Becky thought. Fill it with anything I can imagine.
Family thrillers were all the rage in Hollywood when Help for the mother was first published. Sinister guardians, abandoned lovers, and bad seeds were just some of the threats found in these now dated accounts. Regardless of how they did it, the would-be villains sought to destroy the family. This book predates the cinematic peak of the subgenre, which includes The hand that rocks the cradle, poison ivyand mother’s boys. Unlike those movies, however, Bates’ story details the aftermath of a crime. Of course this facet is not realized until the last act.
Mrs. Nelson eventually gives in to Becky’s questions and admits that she is running away from Franklin, her abusive husband. The women devise a plan in anticipation of Franklin’s arrival; Becky hides the baby elsewhere while Mrs. Nelson distracts her husband. As expected, things don’t go as planned. This is due to Mrs. Nelson lying about everything. Devon is not his child; he is the biological son of Franklin and his current wife. Becky’s client took the baby and then fled to this island, where she put everything, including the rental house and the checking account, in the nanny’s name. And to make sure he wouldn’t alert the proper authorities, Ms. Nelson hurt the sheriff and let the town think Cleve was responsible.
Caroline B. Cooney exercised the “stolen baby” plotline a year earlier in her Janie Johnson series, beginning with The face on the milk carton. However, Help for the mother executes the idea very differently. The result is a greater shock to the target audience, as the twist is delivered near the end rather than at the beginning as in Cooney’s book. Young readers identify with Becky, who, like them, would never suspect a mother lying about being a parent. The thriller plays with perception as well as the concept of who can be considered inherently trustworthy. That Becky would then become an accomplice to a kidnapping, albeit without her knowledge or consent, is appalling.
Despite being manipulated, lied to, and nearly killed, Becky remains compassionate. She understands that Mrs. Nelson needs a different kind of help now. As she confronts the woman at the marina, Becky is sympathetic instead of angry. She eventually lets Mrs. Nelson escape and tells her to “be safe”. Letting the antagonist, especially someone with a mental illness, live in these kinds of stories is both merciful and uncommon. It’s also not the most logical or even legal choice to make, but it suits Becky, a character whose fatal flaw is caring too much.
There was a time when the children’s section of bookstores was overflowing with horror and suspense. These books were easily identifiable by their flashy fonts and garish covers. This notable subgenre of YA fiction flourished in the 80s, peaked in the 90s, and then finally came to an end in the early 2000s. YA horror of this genre is indeed a thing of the past, but the stories endure at buried in a book. This recurring column reflects the nostalgic novels that still haunt readers decades later.