Film

Birthing the Beast Part II: Motherhood & the Spectre of Death

Everything changes at the moment of conception

When horror films feature pregnancy as a central theme, there are innumerable questions  raised. In part one of this series we examined the dangers of removing a woman’s agency in the face of pregnancy. Another motif frequently seen when featuring pregnant characters is drastic, often violent, disfigurement of the body. Whether it be total evisceration or atypical physical change, the fears of surrendering one’s body are ever present: the specter of death apparent, as eons of human history attest to the dangers and likely death that result from childbearing.

Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s devastating film Inside (2007) follows Sarah (Alysson Paradis) an expectant mother who is involved in a car accident that results in the death of her husband. Sarah is heartbroken, but readies herself for the inevitable delivery of her child.

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One night a strange woman (Béatrice Dalle) breaks into Sarah’s house, desperate for a child of her own. What follows is a litany of extreme and violent acts on the pregnant Sarah. Alongside featuring one of the most gut-wrenching final moments in the horror genre, these scenes are a very poignant analysis of just how much bringing life into the world stirs our very human anxieties surrounding death — whether it be a fear of something going wrong in the pregnancy, or the fact that motherhood is a milestone in life that can puts a woman in touch with her own mortality.

Dalle’s unnamed character dons a full-length black dress, and in doing so, draws an immediate likeness to the Grim Reaper. In her pursuit of a child, she savagely mauls Sarah, turning anything and everything into a weapon.

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By showing ‘death’ coming for an unborn child with so much viciousness, coupled with Sarah’s tenacious desire to keep her and her child safe, what the filmmakers are trying to express becomes quite clear. Giving birth is no easy task. Everything changes at the moment of conception, and the worry of keeping one’s spawn alive will remain for years to come.

David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979) features a different kind of disfigurement, the sort this body horror maven is known for. The film follows a psychotherapist named Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), who works for the Somafree Institute. There, he performs his acclaimed technique called “psychoplasmics”. Through Dr. Raglan’s process, patients are able to explore traumas in their lives, with the result being physical changes that manifest on their bodies. Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) has been institutionalized at Somafree due to the years of abuse she experienced at the hands of her mother. Nola becomes one of “psychoplasmics” most loyal followers. Throughout The Brood, small, asexual mutated children, attack the people who have hurt Nola the most, and commit a series of brutal murders.

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 Aside from being one of the most terrifying movies to come out of Cronenberg’s extensive filmography, The Brood offers fascinating commentary on cycles of abuse. Nola is so pregnant with pain, that she births mutated killers, whose only goal is to hurt the people who have hurt their ‘mother’. The ‘children’ act as an extension of Nola because  — they are a physical manifestation of her thoughts. Nola’s external womb brings forth these violent “children” but, coupled with the fact she has also properly given birth to her daughter Candice, it highlights the differences between conventional depictions of motherhood and the real terror that accompanies birth. After the trauma experienced by Nola’s family at the hands of her brood, Nola spots a lesion on her daughter and understands that the cycle of trauma and abuse will not end with her.

Horror is one of the most beautiful and human film genres. It takes the darkest fantasies we can conjure and manifests them with, what is often, profound poeticism. When we face the monsters of our subconscious we are witnessing a very valuable part of our visual culture. When a woman becomes pregnant, it is equal parts exciting and terrifying. It is a situation where a woman is barraged with new and confusing emotions. The medium of film encourages us to exorcise those demons and, as a result, draws us closer to the experiences of others.

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/

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