Horror, for all of its wealth of symbolism, provides a perfect stomping ground to counteract every saccharine story of pregnancy. With every exciting embrace of parenthood, there are 100,000 individual anxieties on how it’s going to work, how strange it is to form a being inside of a body, and what it means to hit a new milestone in life. This series aims to explore several different interpretations of this theme within the genre of Horror, and what surfaces when filmmakers discuss a topic often more related to hypoallergenic rubber giraffes than the terror of a distorted female body.
Ali Abbasi’s Shelley (2016), a recent inclusion to the pantheon of pregnancy-as-horror films, addresses the concept of silencing a pregnant character’s reality, and the dangers that follow when outside forces remove that woman’s agency and force her into the role of breathing incubator.
Shelley revolves around Elena (Cosmina Stratan), a young mother who becomes a live-in maid for Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and Kasper (Peter Christoffersen), a childless couple who reside in an isolated lakeside home. Having formed an intimate bond, Louise asks Elena to be their surrogate, revealing that she is unable to carry a child to term. Elena soon realizes that this is no ordinary pregnancy, and that the child she carries is toxic and out to destroy her body.
Elena-as-mother is the most reliable source in this situation. Despite her experience she is routinely silenced and fundamentally held captive by Louise who is desperate to avoid another failed pregnancy at Elena’s cost. Elena is reduced to being in so much pain she cannot stand, and finds her body covered in bruises and lesions. Shelley shows the audience how the child affects each of the three main characters, and all of the negative possibilities associated with filling different roles in a baby’s life. Elena’s pregnancy and all of the physical changes therein, Louise’s thoughtless desperation to achieve motherhood and Kasper’s complacency. Kasper is barely present for most of the process, displaying a deeply rooted fear of fatherhood.
A male gaze on the female form is something that is consistently breached in this genre, but especially so when it comes to films about pregnancy. In Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon (2014), a newlywed couple, Bea (Rose Leslie) and Paul (Harry Treadaway), visit a lakeside cottage. The two are passionately in lust and love, constantly intertwined, and playing sickeningly sweet games. After Bea runs into her old colleague Will (Ben Huber), the honeymoon ether immediately dissipates. It becomes clear to Paul that there is a history between his wife and this man. Will is an aggressive masculine presence, and the feeling of the trip being an escape for Bea and Paul is lost.
One night Paul wakes to find Bea is missing. He finds her stripped and nearly catatonic, standing alone in the darkness. What follows is a growing distance between them. Bea is vacant and unable to perform basic tasks and strange welts appear on her skin. In a supremely disgusting birth scene Bea delivers a mucus-covered tentacle beast Paul realizes that she is not the woman he fell in love with – but something else entirely. In this narrative birthed straight from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Janiak explores the intimate crevices of the woman, and then turns everything on its heel once its characters reach a new chapter in their relationship. Through the lens of the male protagonist, it discusses a plethora of anxieties about the female body, specifically related to getting older and having children – Honeymoon shows a partner literally morph into something that is alien and unidentifiable. The easy honeymoon of sex, wine and roses changes quickly, as the next phase of compromise and growing as a unit fast approaches.
The horror genre is a fruitful womb to discuss repression. When I started this project I naively thought to myself that the subject could be limited to a short piece about distrust and paranoia (taking a note from Rosemary’s Baby), but it became overwhelmingly apparent that the subject was so prevalent in horror that it would be nearly impossible to keep to a mere few hundred words. From It’s Alive (1974) to Inside (2007), the pregnant character continues to be a captivating focal point.
Richelle Charkot is a freelance journalist & cult film programmer. She is a staff writer for Rue Morgue Magazine & Broken Pencil, as well she is an associate of programming & marketing at The Royal Cinema in Toronto. There, she curates a monthly film series – Retropath. https://www.richellecharkot.com/