The idea of "Three Mothers" comes from "Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow", a section of Thomas de Quincey's Suspiria de Profundis. The piece asserts that just as there are three Fates and Graces, there are also three Sorrows. They include Mater Lacrymarum (Our Lady of Tears), Mater Suspiriorum (Our Lady of Sighs), and Mater Tenebrarum (Our Lady of Darkness). The attribute of each woman (tears, sighs, shadows/darkness) is a direct translation of her name from Latin. (Mater being the Latin word for "mother".)
Suspiria clearly derives its title from the woman delineated in de Quincey's work. However, Inferno's title does not reference Mater Tenebrarum. Thus, Argento's 1982 film Tenebrae is sometimes mistaken as the second installment in the trilogy.
The story of the Three Mothers begins at the dawn of the 11th century, when three sisters created the pernicious art of witchcraft on the coast of the Black Sea. In the years that followed, they wandered the world and amassed great personal wealth and power, leaving only death in their wake.
In the late 19th century the women commissioned E. Varelli, an Italian architect based in London, to design and construct three stately buildings. From these enchanted, bastion-like homes the Three Mothers "rule the world". According to Varelli's memoirs, entitled The Three Mothers by an anonymous colleague, the architect learned too late of the women's evil nature. (At least six copies of the book are known to have existed. Four may have been destroyed at the end of Inferno.) The residences he designed will become so corrupted that eventually the land they were built on will become pestilential. An unpleasant, bittersweet smell of evil already pervades the area surrounding Mater Tenebrarum's home.
Both Mater Suspiriorum and Tenebrarum have claimed that the Mothers are Death personified.
Mater Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sighs, is the oldest of the Three Mothers. Her given name is Helena Markos. She was also known as The Black Queen. The actress who portrayed Markos in Suspiria was uncredited. According to Jessica Harper, "the witch was a ninety-year-old ex-hooker Dario had found on the streets of Rome."
Markos, a Greek émigré, was exiled from many European countries and had written several books on a variety of arcane subjects. In 1895 she founded the Tanz Akademie ("Dance Academy" in German), a school for dance and the occult sciences, in the Black Forest outside Freiburg, Germany. The locals feared her, having intuited that she was a witch. As Markos' wealth grew so did suspicions about her true nature. To avert this unwanted scrutiny, she faked her own death in a fire in 1905. Control of the academy, which became solely a ballet school, was said to have gone to Markos' prize pupil. In reality, this was Markos herself. (The Akademie bears a plaque stating that Desiderius Erasmus once lived there.)
In Suspiria Markos is the Directress whose presence is concealed by her coven, headed by Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett). A young American, Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper), discovers the hidden chambers beneath the school after several pupils are killed by Markos' proxies.
In The Mother of Tears it is revealed that before the events of Suspiria Elisa Mandy (Daria Nicolodi), a white witch, sought to challenge Markos' evil might. The two battled in Freiburg, and Markos slew both Elisa and her husband. However, Elisa was able to weaken Suspiriorum into the hag-like state she appeared in Suspiria. According to Father Johannes (Udo Kier) in the third film, the battle left Suspiriorum "a shell of her former self". Elisa's daughter Sarah would later defeat Mater Lacrimarum in Rome.
Mater Lachrimarum, the Mother of Tears, is the most beautiful and powerful of the Three Mothers. Like Tenebrarum, her true name is unknown. Inferno suggest that her home in Rome, Italy may be located near No. 49 Via Dei Bagni - the Abertny Foundation's Biblioteca Filosofica - when Sara (Eleonora Giorgi) notices a strange smell in the air. In The Mother of Tears Lachrimarum's home is revealed to be the Palazzo Varelli.
In Inferno Lacrimarum attempted to spellbind Mark Elliot during a music lecture in Rome. According to Argento, Ania Pieroni did not return to reprise her role as Lacrimarum in The Mother of Tears because "she now has five kids!"
Lacrimarum is portrayed by Israeli actress Moran Atias in The Mother of Tears. The witch has been hibernating for centuries in Rome, and is awakened when Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento) opens the urn in which her most powerful relic, a red tunic, is stored. As her minions wreak havoc on the city above, Lacrimarum hides below ground in the catacombs of her Palazzo, regaining her strength.
Mater Lacrimarum also makes a notable appearance in Kim Newman's novel Dracula Cha Cha (aka Judgement of Tears)
Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness/Shadows, is the youngest and most cruel of the Three Mothers. Her true name is not given; her home is located in New York City and was christened in 1910. The house's number is 49 and bears a plaque that states that Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff once resided there.
In Inferno the character is portrayed by Veronica Lazar. She masquerades as Professor Arnold's nurse for much of the film. At the climax, Mark Elliot (Leigh McCloskey) descends into the bowels of her home to confront her. He learns that Arnold is in fact the architect Varelli, and essentially Tenebrarum's slave. Tenebrarum's bloodlust would ultimately be her own undoing, as one of her victims, a maid, was inadvertently responsible for the house catching fire in the midst of her death throes.
Words and images via Werewolf