Exploring the wide world of family members killing each other… in popular culture.
A lot of our standard, basic concepts of drama and narrative trace back to the Ancient Greeks. Three act structure? Aristotle. Catharsis? Also Aristotle. Structurally and thematically, we have never really moved on from the groundwork laid out by Aristotle, Sophocles, and Homer, et al.
Now, most of the Ancient Greek plays and epic poems did not deal with Joe Normal the fisherman or John Everyman the farmer. Instead, they were about various gods and mythical heroes, who, possessing extremely long lifespans and supernatural libidos, were pretty much all entangled in a murderous, incestuous web that would put any spider to shame. Which is perhaps why, dramatically, we still seem to gravitate towards stories that keep murder in the family. The incest, somewhat less so—or at least usually sublimated into a societally acceptable significant other. Someone who, for example, looks and/or acts like your mom, but is not actually your mom.
That said, not only do we see patricide, matricide, fratricide, and all those other categories of intra-familial murder on screen all the time, there are also certain… interesting trends also frequently featured therein. So, without further ado, let’s take a few minutes to explore the wide and disturbingly popular world of parricide on screen.
Please do not try any of these at home.
Child Kills Father
Key Word: Power.
Seen In: The Force Awakens, Thor, The Hulk (2003), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Gladiator, The World is not Enough, Spectre, Game of Thrones, Smallville, Lost
Comments: The parricide trope. Heroes do it to prove they’re heroes, villains do it to prove they’re villains. Either way, stepping out from the father’s shadow and/or inheriting the father’s power are often involved. Usually sons (see: The Oedipus, below), but sometimes daughters. When it is sons, patricide being a way for the son to prove he has come into his own as a man (or at least to think he’s doing that) is almost always a point of emphasis.
The Paragon: Kylo Ren of Star Wars deserves a special mention for killing no less than three father figures over the course of two films. Some serious dedication to the trope, right there.
Father Kills Son
Key Word: Disappointment.
Seen In: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Big Country, Bigger than Life, Riverdale
Comments: Sons are generally supposed to be a father’s pride and joy—their heirs and legacy and blah blah blah patriarchy. But sometimes, things don’t work out. Sometimes an honorable man ends up with a real bad egg for a son and feels obligated to rectify the situation for the greater good. Or, on the flip-side, sometimes an objectively awful human decides his heir isn’t quite up to snuff and decides to cut his losses.
Father Kills Daughter
Key Word: Sacrifice.
Seen In: Game of Thrones, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Comments: The father rarely ever wants to do this. Usually, his daughter is the apple of his eye, the last person his shriveled walnut of a heart actually feels any affection towards. But then an advisor tells him that sacrificing said daughter to this god or that demon will give him the edge he needs to beat his foe, and, well, needs must. It should be noted that this strategy never actually seems to actually work.
Sibling Kills Sibling
Key Word: Jealousy.
Seen In: The Lion King, Chicago, Game of Thrones,
Comments: The good old Abel and Cain. It doesn’t take much to spawn jealousy between siblings—parental favoritism (real or imagined), romantic rivalry, the personal insecurities of one or both parties. That said, in situations where large inheritances are involved, especially those involving crowns, this trope becomes especially prominent.
That said, while the jealousy thing is definitely the main strain, another relatively common variant involves siblings separated by irreconcilable ideological differences where one ends up proving their ultimate dedication to The Cause by killing their sibling. (See: The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Black Panther)
Mother Kills Child
Key Word: Anxiety.
Seen In: The Others, The Orphanage
Comments: Usually these mothers really do love their children. In fact, they worry about them all the time. The world is a cruel place, after all. So sometimes they decide it would be kinder to spare their children the pain of being alive. Occasionally, a mother does not actually intend to kill her child, but her anxieties end up accidentally causing her child’s death anyway. Because storytellers love dramatic irony. Compare: hamster moms who stress-eat their babies.
Child Kills Mother
Key Word: Smother.
Seen In: Psycho, Carrie, Dragonheart, Sons of Anarchy, Once Upon a Time, Mindhunter
Comments: No matter where your personal feelings fall in the Nature vs. Nurture debate, generally in movies you see mom-murder when the children in question are screwed over in both regards. Not including children who kill their stepmothers or mothers who die in childbirth, because then this article would be a book.
This particular sub-genre of patricide features sons who kill their dads but love their moms. As in really love their moms. While you rarely see a full-blown Oedipus—as in, a character who kills his father and then proceeds to marry his newly widowed mother— the Oedipal subtext is everywhere.
See: The Last Jedi, Thor: The Dark World
This character has no regard for the value of human life. While their killing sprees generally do not end with their families, they often begin there—just to make it perfectly clear right off the bat that we are not dealing with a redemption arc.
See: We Need to Talk About Kevin, Luther, Mindhunter
The “Hindsight Is 2o/2o”
The one where a character kills someone without realizing said person was a relative.
See: Winchester ’73