(Note: If women’s reproductive choice and autonomy are issues you care about, the single best thing you can do right now is donate to the National Network of Abortion Funds. As their website says, “Not being able to afford or access an abortion is not an individual problem. It’s a systemic injustice. Together, we can fight back.”)
Last week, I talked about a few of Stephen King’s portrayals of pregnancy in his work. King is one of the all-time greats, but even Orson Welles had his off moments, and so has King. That said, his heart is in the right place and his characters are usually three dimensional and well-developed, with voices and desires that sound and feel authentic. The same cannot be said of all approaches to pregnancy in horror, however. Some writers and filmmakers are responsible for portraits of gestation that serve as both potent prophylactics and startling snapshots of misogyny – and the best place to start is with my old arch-enemy Stephanie Meyer and her novel Breaking Dawn.
When it came out, the Independent said that Breaking Dawn was “shockingly, tackily, sick-makingly sexist,” and the Washington Post added that it “has a childbirth scene that may promote lifelong abstinence in sensitive types.” I think that the former criticism has a lot more validity than the latter. The first reason should be obvious to anyone whose education in matters of human reproduction is even marginally complete: all births are pretty disgusting. It’s true that Bella Swan’s is drenched in more gore than most, involving (as it does) an undead, preternaturally strong and violent infant, but the real ick factor in Meyers’ fourth and final Twilight novel is found in her portrayal of women and her approach to gender roles. There are innumerable examples of sexism and misogyny that can be found in the Twilight family of horror products (the books and their various adaptations), but Bella’s pregnancy and the ensuing birth sequence in the novel might be the most egregious. The combination of Meyers’ awkward, tepid prose, Bella’s constant self-abasement and worshipful attitude toward her (much, much, much older) glittery vegetarian beau is hard to stomach. Add a supernatural pregnancy to the mix, one that effectively kills the uncomplaining Bella, and Breaking Dawn is essentially what would happen if Marie Osmond and Phyllis Schlafly collaborated on a project after each had suffered a mild head injury.
Bella is a flat, lifeless character upon whom pregnancy is inflicted – she expresses desires (often, self-destructive desires that have more to do with her obsession with Edward than any self-actualization), but for the most part is a passenger in and observer to her own life. This is a problem endemic to horror, although one that is less pronounced with every passing year. As horror learns to embrace the perspectives and voices of women as active participants in and tellers of stories rather than just props, characters like Bella – and pregnancies like the one inflicted on readers in Breaking Dawn – will hopefully crop up less often. Despite what the commercial success of Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey (which, incredibly, began life as Twilight fan fiction – I kid you not) might tell us, and despite what the governments of states like Alabama and Missouri might wish, progress is being made.
As evidence of this fact, I humbly submit for consideration that rarest of creatures and most unbelievable of oddities: an anti-abortion, slyly Catholic horror film. What’s stranger still, it wasn’t a standalone product, some passion project launched by Fox Faith and starring Kevin Sorbo. No, the script (by Leslie Bohem) flew far enough under the radar that in 1989 it became the fifth installment in a multimillion-dollar franchise and one of the last slasher films released in the 1980s. No small project, it had a budget of $6 million and was evidently worth every penny, as it grossed $22 million at the box office. I speak, of course, of A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: the Dream Child.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching every film in the Nightmare canon, you can skip this one. Dream Child continues the story from Nightmare on Elm Street 4, and focuses on two uniquely unpleasant maternal storylines. First, we have the rape and ensuing pregnancy of Amanda Krueger, a nun who is also mother to Freddy. I suppose that those involved with Dream Child thought of Amanda as a stand-in for conventional morality and authority, disrupted by – and victim to – Freddy, the child-murdering boogeyman. That’s one reading, but to me, Amanda was a deeply troubling character. Here we have a nun, badly raped by an asylum full of lunatics (leading to chants, directed at young Freddy, of “son of a thousand maniacs,” which is a pretty awesome epithet, to be honest). She gives birth while physically restrained by a group of mostly men, and winds up dying as a result of suicide and is thus posthumously shunned by the Catholic Church. Every step of the way, pregnancy is something terrible visited upon Amanda, a cataclysm in which she has no say and over which she has no agency. Despite this, it is ultimately Sister Krueger who holds herself – and is held – responsible for Freddy’s existence.
As a parallel to the nativity of Freddy, we are presented with Alice. Alice is a teenage mom-to-be whose boyfriend – and the father of her unborn child – pretty quickly meets his end in the first act of the film. Furthermore, it becomes apparent that her fetus’ dreams are allowing Freddy to regain access to the dreams of his victims. Leaving aside whether a newly minted zygote busy engaging in mitosis can dream (for the record: nope), this begs the question of why Alice never even considers terminating her pregnancy, saying when the subject is brought up a single time that “she could never do that.” By the end of the film, this misplaced moralism has cost at least two of Alice’s friends their lives.
Dream Child, even more troublingly, deploys a trope that I truly hate: the appearance of a Ghost of Fetus Future in the form of visions Alice has of a sullen, vaguely stoned-looking child who scolds her for “not wanting him.” The future-child’s admonishments are no “Why Did You Kill Me, Mommy?,” but they come from the same place: a manipulative, ignorant, anti-choice place that spawns nightmares much more frightening than Freddy Krueger.
That’s what this comes down to, in the end. Horror is a reflection of human fears, and every human is intimately, intricately linked to the magic – and terror – of childbirth. What scares us about pregnancy? Is it peril presented to life and limb, both mother’s and child’s, a distinct subspecies of body horror? Or is it female sexuality, either constrained or unleashed? Are we frightened by women’s capacity to give life, or are we frightened by the idea of that capacity leading to exploitation and subjugation?
The US stands on a razor’s edge right now. Which way things tip will largely depend on passion – that of those looking for justice, and that of those striving to take us back to the dark ages.