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A Bun in the Coven: Pregnancy in Horror, Part One

Depending on your definition of horror and how broadly you want to define the canon, the first pregnancy-themed horror stories are tales of gods and monsters; stories that explained both the generative and destructive powers of the universe. This is understandable, not only as theology but also as divine biology, infant mortality and rates of illness and death for expectant mothers being what they were in the misty days of myth: as below, so above. It’s difficult to ascertain the degree of personal choice involved in the matter, but the earliest archeological representations of divinity are of a pregnant mother-goddess, her breasts and belly swollen to exaggerated fullness. If not an image of agency, that is at least an image of potency and power. Sometimes, the women or goddesses in these ancient stories demonstrate agency, as when the titan Cronus’ wife, Rhea, and mother, Gaia, conspired to feed him a rock in place of his son Zeus. More often, however, pregnancy in myth and religion – from Zeus and Leda to Yahweh and Mary — tends to be visited upon women, rather than something that they choose.

Miracle of life notwithstanding, it isn’t particularly difficult to glean why pregnancy and childbirth are a veritable font of horror. It’s an objectively horrific process, and even in 2019, more dangerous than you might think, for both the mother-to-be and the child-to-be. Reproductive rights and women’s health are also a source of hot political and cultural debate in the United States (and elsewhere), and, often, when a society is trying to work out its feelings on a particular subject, the controversies and fears inherent to the issue are sublimated into horror fiction. Thus, pregnancy- and birth-related horror are worth thinking about.

Today is part one of a three-part look at stories of monstrous maternity. Today, both of my examples come from the world of film. I thought about starting with Katherine Dunn’s haunting novel Geek Love — a pregnancy horror story of surprising richness, depth, and multigenerational, omnidirectional weirdness – but, in the end, I decided that Dunn’s work of dark family drama and surreal Americana touches on a lot more than just motherhood, and will get its own standalone article soon. So to start things off, let’s talk about Rosemary’s Baby.

It’s a complicated film to write about because its director, Roman Polanski, fled justice in 1978 after drugging and raping a 13-year-old child, and he has lived in exile ever since. It’s hard to dispute the fact that Polanski is a gifted filmmaker, given his filmography, but it’s also impossible to dispute the fact that he pled guilty to a terrible crime against an underage girl. With #MeToo exposing so many members of the Hollywood elite as, essentially, amoral sex criminals, its worth remembering that Polanski’s behavior was so incredibly repugnant, even by the standards of 1978, that he had to flee the country.

All of that is to say that any discussion of Rosemary’s Baby has to be prefaced by an acknowledgment of who – or, rather, what– Polanski is, and how that affects our perception of his films in 2019. That’s particularly the case with a film like this one, which deals explicitly with gender, consent, and the changing sexual, social, and religious mores of its time. Polanski’s 1968 film is an adaptation of the 1967 novel by Ira Levin, which sold 4 million copies and arguably paved the way for modern commercial horror, including William Peter Blatty’s the Exorcist in 1971 and the career of Stephen King, who published his first novel, Carrie, in 1978.

Polanski’s film is exceptionally good. It looks askance at the paternal and patronizing patter of patriarchy, and asks harsh questions about the control exercised over a pregnant woman by a religious faction that does not have her best interests in mind, and isn’t particularly interested in questions of consent. That these true believers are portrayed as Satanists is unfortunate, especially given the glancing but positive references the film makes to Catholicism, but a reaction to some very real changes. April of 1966 was the year that the Church of Satan, the first modern Satanic faith (albeit not the last, and not the one I belong to), was established. April of 1966 was also when Time magazine ran their famous “Is God Dead?” cover (featured in the film), which I’m sure ruffled more than a few feathers in more than one religious community.

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight and the uncovering of real-life horrors, we know that the threat to Christian infants and the autonomy of women doesn’t come from Satanists – and it never has. Hell, Polanski himself was more of a threat than Satanists. But understood within the context of its director and the context of 1968, Rosemary’s Baby is quite affecting, and reflective of complicated fears about the unknowns of pregnancy and the social conspiracies surrounding women’s bodies. The cinematography is understated, the acting first-rate, and the music disturbing (if you’re feeling zesty, try the avant-garde metal version by the band Fantômas on for size). Rosemary’s Baby was a benchmark moment in horror, and remains relevant to this day.

Four decades later, writer-director Paul Solet brought us 2009’s Grace. Grace is a film that, by today’s standards, gestates a little slowly, but it’s one that rewards a robust attention span with layered portrayals of motherhood. It’s an exploration of the ways in which we can be poisoned by mothers, and simultaneously an unnerving look at the ways in which mothers can be cursed by their offspring. Indeed, in a manner of speaking Grace’s mother, Madeline, is cursed by love, which is a concept that few among us are entirely unfamiliar with. In Grace, as in Rosemary’s Baby, the titular child is barely onscreen and is more or less consigned to bit player status: the action stays centered on the woman’s point of view, on her fears about physical harm and loss of volition as much as on any risk to (or evil of) her progeny.

Grace is a less predictable film than Rosemary’s Baby, and also contains generational elements (mother-to-son, mother-in-law-to-daughter) and complicated, troubling portrayals of masculinity, breast feeding, and other particulars mostly unexplored by Polanski. Both films, with their layers and their questions about female autonomy, are excellent pieces of horror fiction that play on themes of pregnancy. Next week, we’ll look at the ways that Stephen King has portrayed pregnancy in his fiction – the good, the bad, and the weird.

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