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Hideous Progeny: Birth and Motherhood as Motifs in Horror

Horror directors often tell us through the films they create that there is nothing more terrifying than identifying with the female gender. Horror films are rife with examples of women being punished solely because of their gender identity. Why else would women be hung up on meat hooks, caressed with razor-edged fingers in the bath, or slaughtered naked in the shower? In the 60's and 70's, mass produced horror and exploitation films highlighted that nothing is more spellbinding than watching a woman lose her mind onscreen. Regardless of these facts, there is one topic that is harped upon by horror writers and horror film directors that is worthy of feminist analysis: the terror, alarm, and trepidation that come along with giving birth and becoming a mother.

Comparing a horror novel to giving birth is not a new revelation; Mary Shelley famously described her novel Frankenstein as her "hideous progeny." Motifs in Frankenstein are riddled with birth analogies. Some interpretations of the book argue that Victor Frankenstein is ultimately punished because he gives birth to the creature, going against "nature."

In The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror, author Cynthia Freeland discusses the birth theme found in Guillermo del Toro's Mimic. Mimic opens with images of disorder and death, with the main character, Dr. Susan Tyler, crying openly when she gazes upon rows and rows of sick and dying children. This immediately separates the heroine from the bravado filled and initially unrepentant Victor Frankenstein; this female character has compassion. The viewer soon fines that Dr. Tyler created a race of super bugs, called the "Judas" strain, to combat the cockroaches that had spread pestilence and plague throughout New York City. The released population of Judas insects were all female, and allegedly had a life span that lasted only a few months. Initially, the genetic modified bugs are deemed a success. Of course, that success is short-lived, Dr. Tyler's insects are evolving and quickly. The "Judas" bugs have now transformed into human sized monsters that mimic humans in order to feed on them.


Dr. Tyler's insect "children" that she "birthed" directly counteract all of her characters actions in the film. Freeland argues that in Mimic, the concern about and relations with children drive much of Dr. Tyler's actions. Dr. Tyler began her work creating the "Judas" bug with the sole goal of saving the lives of all of the children in New York City. Like any woman confined within patriarchal boundaries, Dr. Tyler as a strong affinity towards small children, particularly boys; as who would ever want "useless" girls? Dr. Tyler herself is hinted at having infertility problems. This is highlighted in a scene in which Dr. Tyler is waiting for the result of an at home pregnancy test. As Dr. Tyler excitingly gazes at her belly, she receives a phone call saying that a "Judas" bug has been discovered in the New York City sewers. The exuberant expression fades from her face. Dr. Tyler's pregnancy result is negative. Dr. Tyler has failed at both being a scientist, and failed patriarchal expectations in regards to being a mother. Mimic is also eye-roll inducing in regards to who survives the horror film. The heterosexual white scientist couple survives a horrific excursion to eradicate the "Judas" bug in the sewers, whereas the black male subway cop (Leonard) and the gentle Mexican shoeshine (Manny) man are violently slaughtered. In an action of note, Manny sacrifices himself to save his grandchildren, after chastising Dr. Tyler for giving birth to the "Judas" bugs, and for essentially being a "bad Mom."

Another film that has an iconic birthing moment is David Cronenberg's The Fly. In The Fly, the heroine Veronica Quaife is ambitious, motivated, intelligent, and career driven. Quaife becomes romantically involved with a reclusive scientist, Seth Brundle, after interviewing him for a research article. Brundle eventually has a scientific experiment catastrophe, and mergers his genome with that of a housefly on a molecular genetic level. Terror ensues as Brundle literally falls apart. Freeland argues that Quaife is an example of allegories that repeatedly show within the horror genre. Though the man (Brundle) is the one that acted irrationally, it is the woman (Quaife) that is charged with feeling the repercussions of his actions. Quaife is responsible for guiding the viewers emotions while watching The Fly, although Brundle acted rashly because of his hubris, he is still worthy of compassion and empathy. The love and empathy that Quaife shows towards Brundle are deemed as being traditionally feminine traits by Western Society. Because of this, Quaife fits into her gender role.

Freeland argues that the The Fly is an interesting film due to the motifs of invasion in both the male and female body. The invasion of the female body in The Fly is rather straightforward. After having sex with Brundle prior and post ruinous scientific experiment, Quaife discovers that the is pregnant. Brundle's transformation has already begun to show. Based on their intamacy timeline, Quaife cannot be sure that their child could be truly human. Quaife is undecided about whether or not to terminate the pregnancy. Quaife's worry cumulates with a horrific nightmare, in which she gives birth to an infant size squirming maggot covered in her blood. Horrified, Quaife attempts to have an abortion done in the middle of the night, only to be abducted by the failing Brundle. Brundle demands that Quafie bring the pregnancy to term, as the zygote Quaife is carrying inside her can be the only remaining remnants of Brundle's humanity. Quaife staunchly refuses potentially being an incubator for a monster. This sets up the films climatic final act, in which the still pregnant Veronica is forced to kill the almost inhuman Brundle with a shotgun blast to the head.

Invasion of the male body in The Fly is equally as jarring. As Freeland notes, the male body in The Fly is exposed; we see Brundle becoming increasingly comfortable in his own skin as his sexual relationship with Quaife develops. We see Brundle go from being uptight and swathed in tweed, to becoming more relaxed in his own skin. All of that is altered the moment he starts to transform. Hairs sprout from Brundle's body, and eventually, body parts (including his penis) begin to fall off. Like Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, the only respite for Brundle's fate is death.

Alien and Aliens are drenched in motherhood and birthing symbolism. Notable moments include the "birthing scene" of an infant alien emerging from Kane's chest in Alien. In Aliens, Ripley violently defends a child, Newt, from the Alien Queen. Being a good or bad mother is a theme that constantly arises within these films. In fact, the "facehuggers" of these films "impregnate" any gender by essentially raping them, making them forced "mothers" to an alien race.


No discussion on motherhood in horror would be complete without Rosemary's Baby. The 1968 film and 2014 mini-series, based off of a 1967 horror novel by Ira Levin, catapult off of numerous themes relevant to feminists. Rosemary's husband, Guy Woodhouse, removes Rosemary's agency by drugging her, and (along with the Satanic cult in their building) forcing her to have sex with Satan. Guy's motives are entirely selfish, Guy does this in order to gain fame and fortune in his acting career. It is not Rosemary that wants a baby, it is Guy, sacrificing his wife for his own ambition. In the film version, Guy even jokes about allegedly having sex with his passed out wife.

Rosemary is not a woman with feelings who is allowed to make choices, instead, she is a chess piece or chattel, and is sacrificed so that Guy can achieve his ambitions. Rosemary eventually realizes that something is awry. Believing that the cult wants to use her baby as a sacrifice (due to her drugging, Rosemary is unaware that the Father's baby is Satan, though she has nightmarish memories of the night of conception), Rosemary attempts to escape. Rosemary fails, goes into labor, and passes out. After being told that her baby died, Rosemary hears the cries of an infant. As Rosemary walks through a secret door, Rosemary finds the satanic congregation of her neighbors and realizes the horrifying truth. After being urged by cult members to be a father to her and Satan's son, Rosemary adjusts the babies blankets and rocks him to sleep. There is nothing more horrifying than a mothers love triumphing over social norms of evil.

Giving birth and becoming a mother can be terrifying in even the best of circumstances. Horror writers and directors play up on these fears within their works. Women have immense pressure to be a "good Mom," to breastfeed (or not, dependent on the decade), to remain steadfastly loyal to their children and, due to heteronormative culture, whoever fathered them. Being a mother is not easy, even if your progeny is not the child of Satan. Feminists must strive to respond and resist this narrative. Birth and motherhood in horror films deserve a closer look through a feminist lens.

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