Horror movies are an uncomfortably ideal medium for storytelling about the bloody, nightmarish experience that is pregnancy. I’ve seen it enough in the genre to detect a pattern. So has Jess McIntosh, a Democratic strategist, activist, and more importantly, lifelong horror enthusiast.
Pregnancy, McIntosh pointed out to Jezebel, obviously takes center-stage in movies like Rosemary’s Baby, the story of a young woman who suspects her fetus is demonic, or Ilana Glazer’s False Positive, which follows a woman after a creepy fertility doctor nonconsensually impregnates her and hundreds of other women. It is also an indelible part of a movie like A Quiet Place, in which Emily Blunt’s character visibly struggles to manage her increasingly pregnant body in a dystopian land where making a sound can be a death sentence, or mother!, where when a pregnant woman is bombarded by strangers who invade her body and home with her husband’s blessing.
“We don’t talk about pregnancy, its unglamorous parts, and we tell everybody to stay quiet about the gross parts—that only feeds the imagination even more,” McIntosh said. “Half of the horror is the very obvious, literal reality that this is a gross, scary thing that human beings do—of course it’s turned into horror movies. But then there’s the second piece, where things get really interesting, which is the loss of bodily autonomy that it brings about.”
The months since Roe v. Wade fell in June have churned out horror story after horror story about cancer patients denied abortions they need to live, a woman forced to carry a headless fetus, and pregnant child rape victims forced to travel across the country for care. Lawmakers have gone out of their way to make pregnancy as dangerous and dehumanizing as it could possibly be. But pregnancy (including joyful, wanted pregnancy) has always been a menace. It breeds medical and interpersonal gaslighting, when the pregnant person’s discomfort is shrugged off to detrimental results. And just as the spookiest horror movies elicit a nagging feeling of being watched, pregnancy is essentially the end of all privacy—both through literal, extensive digital surveillance, and normalized, physical invasiveness.
I talked to McIntosh about whether we’ll see a reckoning with the Roe decision in horror, the most frightful depictions of pregnancy in the genre, and what we can actually take away from this horror trope. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.
JEZEBEL: What first drew you to the horror genre?
JESS MCINTOSH: I was a really scared kid, and horror was a way of controlling the things that scared me and getting enjoyment out of them. That has a lot of parallels to being a woman in the world and figuring out how you’re going to control as much of it as you can, while knowing that so much of it is entirely out of your control. Horror really put you in the position of the protagonist, right? So, there’s something validating about watching it and going, “I wouldn’t have made any of these choices.” And I can see a sort of catharsis in scaring the crap out of yourself for a couple of hours, because life is really quite traumatic in and of itself.
What is it about pregnancy that’s uniquely applicable to horror movies?
One is that pregnancy is innately horrific—like the description of a normal pregnancy sounds like a sci-fi script, when you read it. It’s just the most visceral, bloody, terrifying, traumatic, bodily thing that humans do on the regular. And in Rosemary’s Baby, which is sort of the seminal pregnancy horror film, if you think about it, Rosemary’s Baby was directed by Roman Polanski, so watching a movie about a woman whose body is taken over by men who make decisions without consultation, written by somebody who is a sexual predator and rapist, is scary. It has real-world implications.
What are your favorite and least favorite depictions of pregnancy in horror movies?
I love False Positive, because it was definitely a movie that was written and directed by a woman about an experience of a woman. A bad one… maybe Aliens? I feel like that was the one where the guys just jumped into this. I mean, I obviously love the birth scene, but I think we see a bit of men making horror movies sometimes, where they know they can’t compete with us, so they keep essentially making and re-making The Human Centipede. But pregnancy is right there, guys. You don’t actually have to invent a new way of torturing the body. You have it. Aliens was a pretty, pretty clear demonstration of how men are like, “We want to get in on the pregnancy horror, too.”
Speaking of False Positive, gaslighting and psychological manipulation have become such a central theme in scary movies lately. What do you think of how they’re applied to pregnancy in False Positive?
You have this really rich tapestry of the crush of societal expectation and all of the turmoil going on within yourself, and then people are gaslighting you simultaneously. I mean, a lot of pregnancies involve being gaslit—people will tell you that everything is going to be fine, whether it will or not, strangers will touch your stomach and tell you that’s normal. Like, we’re just told that everything is OK all the time, and we’re not allowed to talk about the things that frighten us. That is a really scary experience. I think False Positive does a great job portraying the reality of being a pregnant woman today. And ultimately, that’s scary even without the horror elements.
Even in a movie where pregnancy is more tangential, like A Quiet Place, what’s the impact of Evelyn Abbott’s (Blunt) pregnancy—does it add to the horror?
There’s a stomach drop that happens whenever you see a pregnant character at the start of a horror movie, because you know what’s going to happen. You know that character is going to give birth under horrible circumstances. Being pregnant in the zombie apocalypse is sort of the worst case scenario. And that’s what a horror movie is. As soon as you place a pregnant person in a situation like that, it’s already horrible. You’re picturing yourself in that situation.
Every pregnant person is in an incredibly physically vulnerable situation, where they are regularly dependent on people they don’t know, people they haven’t consented to trust, strangers, bosses, employers, their husbands, everybody. So when you see that in the film, it touches on some essential truth. Even though, sure, pregnant people are not usually required to stay silent so that monsters won’t kill them.
Speaking of male directors, pregnancy, and metaphors, what did you think of the pregnancy at the center of mother!?
What’s funny is the director, Darren Aronofsky, said it was a metaphor for climate change. I was like, no, you just made a pregnancy movie. Male directors will keep trying to push a metaphor for something deeper, but I think they should ask themselves, why do you keep going for that imagery? Why is that imagery of pregnancy so compelling? Not because it tells you about something deeper, but because it tells you about pregnancy and how scary it is. In mother!, the pregnant woman is totally out of control of her circumstances, and that’s what happens to a pregnant person in a horror movie and real life. They will become entirely out of control of their own safety and circumstances.
I’ve read Aronofsky talk about the husband representing God and the pregnant woman representing Mother Earth in mother!, which feels a bit… dehumanizing?
Right, like, sure, you can have allegories about everything. But here’s a pregnant woman who was being controlled by her husband. Nobody respected her personal space or wishes. And the movie winds up with her being violated every way in her own home, in her own body. So, you can say it’s about climate change. But more than anything, it’s a pregnancy story.
Do portrayals of pregnancy in horror ever feel heavy-handed or pedantic to you, like they’re being too obvious with whatever the deeper message is?
I don’t really feel like there’s a lot of preachy pregnancy movies out there, but maybe we’ll see more of that with the fall of Roe. I feel like these movies tend to open conversations and leave people with a lot to say. I can’t think of a boring pregnancy horror movie. There are so many that aren’t necessarily about pregnancy, but feature pregnancy, allude to omens about demons, planting demonic seeds, giving birth to literal evil—there’s a lot of ways to interpret it all.
Pregnancy and birth are often gory and unpleasant enough in real life. What visual cues or camera work make it clear that this is a pregnancy in a literal horror movie?
It’s things like, say, the speculum. It’s the tools of the pregnancy, how cringy and scary it is to see those. You always have that establishing shot, where you see the tools there on the table. It’s the table itself, the idea of being physically restrained in any way. You can’t see what’s happening at the affected area. That’s a terrifying thing in its own right. Looking at the masks of people that you don’t know who are talking about you, but not to you—that is a very scary experience. The nakedness—you’re not wearing clothes, you’re in the most physically vulnerable position you possibly can be.
And there’s usually the sense that the pregnant woman is being watched, like she’s not alone in the house, or there’ll be a scene showing that it’s difficult for her to do something easy. She’s loading the laundry with difficulty, and it’s like, oh, it’s gonna be hard to run. So, they do these little establishing shots, like the scene of Emily Blunt [in A Quiet Place]. If you see a nail on the stair, and you see the pregnant woman, you know what’s gonna happen.
In our post-Roe world, how does an older horror movie featuring pregnancy, like Rosemary’s Baby, hold up?
I think that you watch that movie differently as a woman now, because now, it’s so suffused with Polanski. The movie has a predatory gaze, which is one of the reasons it’s so frightening. You have the sense that she’s being stalked throughout. Even before the dark turn, it’s claustrophobic. She’s got close-ups on her all the time. It’s predatory, and that’s why it’s a good horror movie. But it was made by a predator, who generally treated women like objects that did not deserve to be in control over what men did to their bodies. Watching it now, I can’t appreciate it as a good horror movie—it’s just scary. I wasn’t too freaked out by Rosemary’s Baby the first time I saw it when I was like 20. Now I don’t even really like to think about it too much.
What’s really scary to me about pregnancy in horror movies as a pregnant-capable person who wants kids someday is the visceral, physical discomfort they elicit. Is the horror around on-screen pregnancy as visceral for people who can’t or know they never want to be pregnant?
I’m sure people could make really, really scary movies about all kinds of ailments that men suffer, or are unrelated to pregnancy. But what’s unique about pregnancy is that it can be this naturally occurring event that a lot of people hope for. Similarly, there’s nothing as physically traumatizing that men routinely go through. There is no point when men give up their bodily autonomy in a comparable way like pregnant women do. There is no point in manhood where that is expected to happen, as routinely.
Is there a male equivalent of the on-screen horrors of pregnancy?
Watching somebody with testicles get kicked in the testicles is especially horrifying for people who possess testicles, right? I can watch that and be like, well, that really looks like it hurts, but my husband is going to go home and I can tell that he’s feeling it. I think the same is true for anybody who’s capable of being pregnant. At some point in your life, even as you came to the decision that you don’t want to be pregnant, you thought about it. There are so many elements. Your body will change, its actual physical dimensions will change, your bones will realign, you will use your body to feed another entity, and that entity will decide what it does to your blood sugar levels, and you’re not in control of any of that. You know you’ll be poked and prodded by all manner of medical professionals, some of whom you will like, likely some who you will not. And then you’ll go through what is largely known as the most physically painful experience in life. It’s so visceral and real to watch, because you’ve probably devoted some pretty serious thinking to pregnancy at some point in your life.
Why do you like or not like this trope?
I think it’s great. Any place where society reckons with how we treat pregnant people is good. Does every movie do it in a way that is productive? No, of course not. They’re making movies and some of them are just fun. But we stifle all the discussion of the terror, the grossness, the pain of pregnancy, of the recovery, like we don’t want to let people learn what happens to their bodies during pregnancy until they get pregnant themselves. So, any place where people are having these conversations, where people are telling these stories, is interesting and valuable. And now that there are so many more women who are making horror movies, I’m very excited to see where it goes, because I think we’re going to start getting really rich, complicated, terrifying stories.