In 1726, an English woman named Mary Toft became the center of a rather peculiar medical controversy. The pregnant Mary was working in a field with other women when they disturbed a rabbit. It fled from them, and they pursued, but failed to catch it. The incident left such an impression upon Mary that it consumed her thoughts, eventually leading her to miscarry . . . but what emerged from her womb was not a human fetus, but a misshapen rabbit.
A whirlwind of scandal, attention and excitement followed, during which Mary continued to deliver rabbits with astonishing regularity (pieces of dismembered rabbits, to be more disturbingly specific). She was transported to London, and endured examination by a bevy of doctors, including King George I’s royal surgeon—who proclaimed the miraculous rabbit-births real! Eventually, after months of intensifying scrutiny and skepticism during which her own health drastically declined, Mary confessed to having faked the whole thing, and the professional credibility of English doctors was lowered in the public’s estimate for a while to come.
There are a lot of reasons why Mary Toft’s case went viral, so to speak. The theory of “maternal impression”—that the sights a pregnant woman was exposed to could influence the nature of the fetus—was widely-believed at the time. Mostly, though, people back then were just as fascinated, repulsed, intrigued and alarmed by the processes of pregnancy and childbirth as they are now.
Monstrous or unnatural pregnancy has long been a topic of fascination in folklore—think of the minotaur, born to Pasiphae, who was enchanted by Poseidon into mating with a bull after her husband invoked the god’s wrath. Our cinema is no different. The Fly II (1989) begins with Veronica Quaife dying in the process of giving birth to a baby encased in a larval cocoon; a bizarre human-fly hybrid like his father, the protagonist of the infamous The Fly (1986). The 1964 British film Children of the Damned has all the women of child-bearing age in a small English village mysteriously impregnated during an hours-long blackout that leaves the entire town unconscious; five months later, these women all give birth on the same day to eerie-eyed, pale-haired children who grow unnaturally fast and possess psychic powers. And really, who can forget the chest-bursters of Alien (1979)—or the squid-like alien infant the protagonist of its prequel, Prometheus (2012), has to remove via an ersatz C-section?
Finally, no discussion of monstrous births would be complete without mention of cult classic Rosemary’s Baby, in which the titular protagonist’s husband conspires with a Satan-worshipping cult to impregnate her with an infernal child. Manipulated by everyone surrounding her, lied to and kept in the dark, Rosemary suffers through a difficult pregnancy which makes her grow gaunt and pale, experience inexplicable abdominal pains, and crave raw meat. At the movie’s end, the baby is born and the cult reveals what they have done to Rosemary. The baby itself is never shown to the viewer, but Rosemary reacts with horror on seeing it, crying “What have you done to his eyes, you maniacs?” To which, the Satanists reply that he has “his father’s eyes.” In other words, Satan’s.
What propels our enduring fascination with non-normative birth? A generous serving of ableism is certainly part of the answer, seasoned with a dash of eugenics. I remember visiting the Mütter Museum, watching people gawk at row after row of glass jars containing fetuses and infants with congenital deformities. There’s a very old and very mean kind of pleasure in look at the freak, a pleasure made all the more delicious when it’s laced with the fear that having such a child could happen to you, too—and savage relief, in the moment, that it happened to someone else instead.
But even when it proceeds along “normal” lines, pregnancy is still inherently horrifying. At its best, the pregnant person’s body is being hijacked by hormones, having its immunological responses suppressed, boarded by an invader that draws nourishment from its host and will quite literally starve that host if its nutritional needs aren’t being met.
At its worst, pregnancy is excruciatingly painful, harrowing, and can do lifelong damage to the pregnant person’s body—if it doesn’t just kill them outright. Not to mention post-partum depression, or the host of ordeals that can await a person after they’ve successfully given birth.
Is there anything scarier than being stripped of agency over your own body, whether it’s state laws or hormones doing the hijacking? Of being seen not as a person but an incubator, reduced to the sum total of your reproductive organs? Of having a fetus be awarded a personhood you’re denied, its well-being prioritized over yours?
Forget the Satanists—the real horror of Rosemary’s Baby is how Rosemary’s fears are dismissed as paranoia by the people around her; how her developing pregnancy leaves her both increasingly physically helpless and more prone to being brushed off as hysterical; how she knows there’s something inside her that she doesn’t understand, that’s hurting her, but she can’t escape, because it’s inside her.
Why are we obsessed with monstrous births? The real answer might be because we fear the power of a body that can give birth, particularly its power to produce non-normative children . . . which is to say, children who aren’t exactly what the people in power wanted them to be. And that, of course, is why we try so hard to police and the bodies of uterus-owners.
Children are the future, or at least, a representation of the future that we invest with all our hopes and dreams for the same. What better expression of our fears as a society, then, than our imaginings of the ways children can come out horribly wrong?
The womb is a scary place, you see. A place full of secrets, a liminal place that’s neither here nor there. A haunted house where so, so many of our cultural anxieties come home to roost.
Sometimes in horror literature, this metaphor becomes literalized. In Toni Morrison’s Gothic masterpiece Beloved, escaped slave Sethe is pregnant, exhausted, and on the verge of collapse as she flees her master. As Sethe drags herself across the ground, her sense of the boundaries between herself and her children begins to blur. “I believe this baby’s ma’am is gonna die in wild onions on the bloody side of the Ohio River,” she thinks, referring to herself in the third person, not as herself but as the mother of her children.
Sethe’s mother-love, sharpened by slavery and the terrors of separation, is dangerous because it’s too much. Too powerful, too strong. She thinks of her children as part of herself; holds them so fiercely close that she begins to subsume their lives into her own. When the threat of being recaptured rears its head, Sethe knows she would rather die than go back. And it is this overpowering mother-love, this inability to separate out her children from herself, which makes her decide to kill them. She’s stopped in time to save three of them, but it’s too late for one—the still-unnamed girl-child who dies after Sethe cuts her throat.
It’s this girl-child who goes on to be Beloved, the name inscribed on her headstone—the ghost who haunts Sethe, the house, and the book. The signs of the ghost’s presence start out small: fingerprints in flour, objects knocked over. The sound, heard in the night, of her crawling up the stairs “to get back to her bed”—the stairs Sethe painted white to help the infant Beloved crawl up them when she was still alive, as she continues to do after death, almost as if she’s trying to make her way back through the birth canal and into the womb. (Haunted houses, haunted wombs—sometimes the difference is negligible.)
As the book progresses, Beloved ramps up her activities one step further by returning in a corporeal body, taking the form of a young woman. Reinserting herself into her mother and surviving sister’s lives, she gradually monopolizes all of Sethe’s time and affections, keeping her enthralled until “Beloved bending over Sethe looked the mother, Sethe the teething child. [ . . . ] She sat in the chair and licked her lips like a chastised child while Beloved ate up her life, took it, swelled up with it, grew taller on it.” Beloved’s belly swells in a vampiric kind of pregnancy, one that isn’t creating new life, but siphoning life from her mother. And all of this takes place inside the house, where Sethe and Beloved increasingly seclude themselves from the outside world.
Boundaries make us feel safe. We like to draw clean, distinct lines between things. So much good horror, therefore, depends on crossing those lines—on things that should have stayed separate collapsing into each other. A mother loves her children enough to kill them rather than let them be separated. A child murdered by its mother comes back to keep its mother close. Beloved isn’t trying to hurt Sethe. She’s just doing what she thinks Sethe wants: to keep them together. Forever.
So next time you’re tempted to ask someone when they’re having kids . . . don’t. Because where the business of birth is concerned, Frankenstein told it truer than the Hallmark moments ever did.
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