Abortion was made for horror. In abortion, a mother is pitted against her child, the Madonna becomes Medea; and the child, usually a symbol of innocence, is experienced as an invading enemy. The distortions of the pregnant woman’s body are mirrored in the dismemberment of the fetus, and the helplessness and terror felt by many women facing unwanted pregnancy are mirrored in the unfeeling, unthinking total powerlessness of the embryo. The present is turned against the future, the doctor works to end a life, and the womb becomes a battleground. Regardless of your political or moral beliefs, there’s enough material there to give anyone nightmares.
Perhaps this is why abortion and unwanted or monstrous pregnancy have been explored countless times in horror movies, comics, and prose. And horror has treated these topics much less reductively than one might expect, approaching them primarily in emotional or visceral terms, and secondarily in moral terms, rather than primarily in political terms.
There are at least three obvious approaches creators could take to abortion-horror. The two I’ve run across most frequently are grotesquerie and grief: horror focusing on a monstrous baby, and horror focusing on a haunted post-abortive parent. I won’t attempt a complete survey of abortion-related imagery in horror; these are merely observations about how horror has managed to address our intense and conflicting fears around unwanted pregnancy and the unborn.
In The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, David J. Skal argues that the 1960s and 1970s brought a wave of monstrous-baby movies, which he links to the terrible birth defects caused by Thalidomide and the growing movement for legalized abortion: Rosemary’s Baby, of course, and the body-horror flicks Eraserhead (David Lynch) and The Brood (David Cronenberg), plus a score of much lesser flicks like Humanoids from the Deep and It’s Alive and its sequels. He focuses on the hit movie Alien: “The poster art for Alien was deceptively simple and evocative: a cracked egg in a dark void, and the tag line In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream. Whether the space was internal or external was not made clear.”
These images reflect and perhaps strengthen the real revulsion many women experience at the thought of an unwanted pregnancy. It’s impossible to spend five minutes reading an online discussion of abortion without coming across a description of the unborn child as a “parasite” or a “tumor,” a “mass of cells,” an intruder, invader, alienalmost a rapist.
As anyone who’s watched Rosemary’s Baby can see, the images of monstrous children recur in horror not because the filmmakers want to get us to donate to Planned Parenthood, but because they tap into preexisting fears in the audience.
But there is another large sub-genre of abortion horror. For reasons not entirely clear to me, I’ve run across this other kind of horror almost exclusively in short stories and independent comics.
These are stories about ghosts: The return of the child who was never allowed to be born. As with the monster-child films, not all of these works are very good. F. Paul Wilson’s 1989 novella Buckets, for example, is an uninspired rendition of an obvious central ideathe children an abortionist killed returning to wreak their revenge. Tanith Lee’s short story The Abortionist’s Horse (A Nightmare), reprinted in 2001’s Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, features her characteristic over-ripe prose, redeemed by eerie imagery. Lee describes a pregnant woman alone in a country house who can’t stop hearing the clip-clop of a ghostly horse, which once carried a rural woman who performed illegal abortions. The inescapable hoof beats (a horrific echo of the heartbeat in her womb) both reflect and heighten her own fears about her pregnancy, leading up to a bloody, tragic ending.
For genuinely artistic representations of abortion-as-horror, however, the best examples are comics. Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta) suffuses his return-of-repressed-conscience horror comic A Small Killing with imagery of abortion symbolically portrayed as the destruction of youthful innocence.
This symbolism seems to have escaped most readersdespite its ubiquity in the comicperhaps because of the comic’s equally-blatant left-wing political slant. Once again, the force of the abortion imagery is best understood by reading emotionally and morally, not politically.
A similar collision of the politics of abortion and the emotional aftermath of the act occurs in Jaime Hernandez’s “Flies on the Ceiling: The True Story of Isabel in Mexico,” one of the darkest installments in the extraordinary comic series Love and Rockets. “Flies” may depict a woman’s psychological breakdown, or her encounters with the devil; or both. Her abortion is depicted by showing a scene of generic creepy protesters outside a clinic. The politics of this depiction might even be called anti-pro-life.
And yet the story of Isabel’s grief and partial healing follows a more complex emotional and symbolic logic. Her healing begins when she becomes the housekeeper for a lonely single father, becoming part of their family. Although her maternal idyll doesn’t last, it effectively shows that both her abortion and her divorce are experiences from which she’s still recovering. The comic doesn’t take a final stand on whether the satanic figures who stalk Isabel are projections of her own Catholic guilt and shame or if, by her actions, she has opened herself to visionary and terrifying experiences of the supernatural.
I had expected to find one other sub-genre of horror: the horror of repression, in which the focus is not on the monstrous baby or the haunted adult, but on the social pressures controlling women’s choices and circumstances. John Carpenter did a “Masters of Horror” installment called “Pro-Life,” in which a woman carrying a demonic fetus is prevented from aborting by her pro-life relatives; I leave it to the viewer to determine whether this explicitly politicized treatment of abortion-horror succeeds as art. An understandably obscure French movie, House of Voices, at first seems like it will be repression-horror, since it centers on a woman hiding her unwanted pregnancy in a 1950s orphanage, and is suffused with images of binding, covering, and cleansing. However, by its confusing, hallucinatory end, it’s embedded firmly in the second, “haunting” sub-genre.
Even David Skal, who often over-politicizes his reading of horror movies, acknowledges, “the demonization of fetal images does not lend itself to a simplistic ideological interpretationmonster children are not exactly pro-life or pro-choice, but, like the sick joke, articulate unspoken aspects on both sides.” Abortion horror, whatever its creators’ political sympathies, explores the fears and griefs and blood so often ignored or repressed by both sides of the political battle.
Eve Tushnet is a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C., and blogs at EveTushnet.com.