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16 February 2011

Black Swan Review Series: “Where is Your Mother, Nina?“ The Nonexistent Mother Theory and the Female "Psycho"

By Rob San Miguel       
(First published on February 16, 2011 in “The Chair.” Updated: 2012)
(Spoiler Alert

One of the most intriguing interpretations of Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” is that Nina’s mother, Erica Sayers (outstandingly portrayed by Barbara Hershey) does not exist.  She is Nina’s creation along with all the other doppelgangers inhabiting Nina’s psyche.  This theory may be a stretch for some but Aronofsky’s tricky and calculated direction laid open the film into various interpretations.  The film has enough ambiguities to entertain even far-fetched notions.  If Nina’s mother truly did not exist, then “Black Swan” may be darker than it claims and Nina may be more psychologically splintered than most of us earlier speculated.   What proof do we have to substantiate this theory?


First, Erica was only featured in scenes with Nina except in the actual performance of Swan Lake in the latter part of the film. However, Aronofsky hid important physical details about Erica as she sat with the audience that totally did not disprove Erica’s nonexistence.  I will refrain from revealing this crucial hidden physical detail so that you can have the pleasure of deciphering it for yourself.

Second, only Erica saw Nina’s bruised, blistered and bleeding back (alliteration intended).  The ballet company’s costume designer did not see it.  The costume designer behaved calmly and so her actions did not indicate that she saw something abnormal about Nina’s back despite Nina’s near panic that the costume designer might discover her bruises.  Definitely, Nina’s bruised back was the first hallucinatory signs of her transformation into the black swan.  The bruises and blisters were the sites of her initial molting. The fact that only her mother saw her bruises and blisters is a strong proof that Erica, along with Nina’s other delirium, was part of her imaginary creations.

"The mirror effect" (Click image to enlarge)

One scene shows Nina and Erica sitting opposite each other with a large mirror in the background but each of the two women taking the other’s reflection.  This may be interpreted as Nina and Erica being the same person.


Unfortunately, the film also provided an important counter-evidence to prove that Erica was a real person. Lily (Mila Kunis) visited Nina in her apartment but Lily’s encounter with Erica was shot deceptively.  When Erica opened the door, we did not actually see Erica looking at Lily; we only saw Erica’s back covering the opening and she’s talking to someone at the door.  A barely inaudible murmur was heard before Erica closed the door. 

Nina asked Erica who was at the door, but Erica just replied, "It was nobody. It was no one."

Nina rushed to the door and saw Lily.  On the hallway, Lily tried to apologize to Nina but Erica interrupted to remind Nina that it was time for dinner, Nina turned to her to say “Give me a second,” and then yelled “Ma, please!”

Lily commented by saying, “she’s a trip.”

“She’s a trip” could be taken as Lily’s ridicule (spoken out loud) to Nina for talking to herself. Nina’s position was also strategically and deceptively placed to block her mother from view.

Erica interrupted again saying “Sweetheart, you need to rest,” and Lily said “Jesus.”

Is she real or imaginary? Erica as brilliantly
played by Barbara Hershey. Barbara Hershey 

has won two Best Actress awards at the 
Cannes Film Festival (for "Shy People" in 
1987 and "A World Apart" in 1988)
Lily’s “Jesus” remark (and the way she said it) can still be interpreted that Lily was slowly realizing that Nina was mentally unbalanced because she was continually talking to an invisible person. Regrettably, specifically during Lily’s “Jesus” remark, Lily’s eyes were focused on the door and not on Nina, and this may be used to disprove the nonexistence of Erica.

A critic friend of mine disagreed with me. Lily's eschewed gaze does not disprove anything. He said that it was still safe to assume that Lily already suspected Nina's mental disturbance and Lily's visit to Nina's house only confirmed her suspicion. Lily, after all, invited Nina because Nina had her own hidden agenda. Perhaps, I am just nick picking, and I cannot just let it pass.

Too bad, if Aronofsky had directed Kunis to keep her eyes focused on Natalie Portman’s character, the evidence to prove that Erica was imaginary would have been airtight and thus making the film ever more complex.  These may all be accidental or perhaps intentional; still, the beauty of this captivating film is its many possibilities.

The Female "Psycho"

Another possible interpretation is that "Black Swan" is the female counterpart of "Psycho." In the past, when Nina's mother was still alive, she repeatedly manipulated and abused Nina. Much of Erica's actuation and her interaction with Nina signal her abusive relationship with her daughter. The “cake” scene is a good example. The film is also littered with subliminal messages, which include recurring images of birdcages and wings. In one scene, Erica entered Nina's room and asked her, "Are you ready for me?" Nina's room also resembles a young girl's room even though Nina is already in her twenties. It is as if Nina's psyche were stuck in prepubescence but her body is the only thing that has matured. Nina's room is her psyche.  And the Black Swan coming out from inside her is her true self, demanding recognition and freedom from denial, or her darkness taking over.

Eventually, at some point during her long abuse, Nina might have killed her mother and Nina might have felt distraught and guilt-ridden, a feeling that can be considered as residue of her mother's manipulation. With such unbearable guilt, she resurrects her mother in her mind with the same intention of Norman Bates when he resurrects his abusive mother in "Psycho." In Nina's case, she does not dress like her mother, she just allowed her mother to inhabit their apartment, and in so doing, Nina relives the horror of her sexual and psychological abuse periodically. 

Mila Kunis' character Lily might also be "Black Swan's" equivalent to Janet Leigh's character in "Pyscho."

So then, why did Nina have to kill herself in the end?  That, my dear readers, is your homework. Enjoy decoding.

For now, the theory of the non-existent mother will just be one of the many stimulating conversation topics at coffee shops and living rooms. This type of conversations can be enjoyable and could drag for hours until midnight with the sole purpose of spending intelligent quality time with your friends or family. 

Personal Deceit

On a personal note, I had a two-hour jovial debate with my non-existent black swan of a friend, but alas, I had to kill him in the bathroom because he devilishly declared that he would write about the nonexistent mother theory in his own blog and steal my readers.  Black feathers started sprouting like thin daggers from my skin. To make it short, he did not live to see the light outside the cinema. His dead body is still tucked away hidden in one of the cinema bathrooms in one of the countless malls in the city, but I am sure his blood has already dried up by now. 

Then I went home and found my “very existing” mother informing me that she cleaned my room and alphabetized my porn.  I started scratching my back but she said that I should buy anti-fungal medicine as soon as possible as she retired in the darkness of her room. I heard Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s music playing as my own movie faded.

And the Oscar goes to me… because I want it to be “perfect.”


The non-existent theory was not my original idea.  I just fleshed it out into an article. The theory came from a friend of a friend. They are still alive, by the way.

Here are links containing articles that explore other theories about the relationship between Nina and her mother Erica in "Black Swan."  

Most notable is Faith Allen's review "Black Swan: Movie about Mother-Daughter Sexual Abuseand Dr. Kathleen Young's article "Black Swan: Revealing Mother-Daughter Abuse."

The following are reviews about the film
We also encourage other critics and film lovers to share their reviews and be part of the "Black Swan" discourse

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