Giving birth is the weapon humanity has against the constant attempt of nature to destroy it, the yin to death’s yang. It is the way that people gain a measure of immortality in the physical world, a way to make sure that half of the genetic information that makes up who you are continues on after you’re long gone. It’s also an amazing way to bring together humanity, literally combining two separate human beings at a genetic level, knitting them together more closely than any relationship ever could. And the instinct that humans find in marginalizing or sacrificing themselves for the betterment of their child is one of the only instincts in humanity that is naturally a selfless one. There are many beautiful things about the idea of having children.
And there are many terrifying things, too. Childbirth has long been a source of many deaths for mothers, and even in our modern society, there is still a minor risk of a mother losing a life bringing a child into the world. And pregnancy itself is a source of much fear, for both parents. In a world that makes terminating a pregnancy difficult to impossible in a safe way, young people can suddenly find themselves discovering that their lives are no longer just their own, and that a decision made in the heat of passion can dictate an entire lifetime.
But at its base, pregnancy is often scary to people because it is about unusual biology. Pregnancy is a “natural” thing, that is for certain, but it is not the default state. The human body goes through changes that are often inconvenient and confusing, and sometimes frightening and painful. Sickness, complications, cravings, even emotional instability, often root from the act of propagating the species. Not to mention that, at the end of the day, there is a tiny group of cells that is growing at an exponential rate inside of a person’s body until it has gestated long enough, and then it will be making its way out in the most intimate and painful way possible.
But we risk it all, because there is the biological imperative to continue the species is strong. There is an innate knowledge of our own death inside us from the moment we become self-aware, and perhaps it is the recognition that birth is the closest natural thing to living forever that pushes us into a place that can be uncomfortable and dangerous. Because as director Alfonso Cuaron’s brilliant film “Children of Men” reminds us, the only thing more frightening than being responsible for bringing a life into the world, is knowing that you can’t.
The sub-genre dates back to the 1960’s, when taboo subject matter was finally allowed in mainstream films (before that, the anxiety of motherhood manifested as evil children movies in the “Bad Seed” vein), and is one of the sub-genres most often reinvented. Here are four recommendations for further exploration into the sub-genre.
The one that started the sub-genre, director Roman Polanski’s film (the second in an Apartment Trilogy that began with “Repulsion” and ended with “The Tenant”) tapped into the fears of motherhood, the changing place of religion in contemporary society, and the dual roles of a modern woman and mother. Based on the hugely successful novel by Ira Levin, “Rosemary’s Baby” is a powerful film more for what it insinuates rather than what it shows, allowing the audience to wonder, right to the end frame, if what’s happening is really witchcraft, or simply the delusions of a sick woman.
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Part of the French new wave of dark and ultra-violent horror films that also brought us “High Tension” and “Martyrs”, “Inside” tells the story of a pregnant woman, widowed by a car accident, who spends a terrifying Christmas eve trying to save herself and her unborn child from a female assailant determined to kill all in her way to get to the baby. Unrelenting in its violence and bluntness, the film acts as a brilliant metaphor for the expectant mother’s parental fears made all too real.
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When Madeline’s child dies in the womb, she decides she can’t let go, and brings the child to term. It’s somehow alive, and the bulk of director Paul Solet’s film is dedicated to the disturbing lengths that the young mother will go for Grace, her unusual new child, to keep her that way.
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Maverick filmmaker Larry Cohen made many films that defy categorization, but the film he is probably most well-known for is this classic meditation on parenthood, sibling rivalry, post-partum depression, and the challenge of loving even the worst children. Made with an eye towards what causes birth defects (the film even namedrops environmental concerns and subtly references thalidomide’s devastating effects on a generation of children), this film is a fascinating combination of exploitation horror film, family drama, and police procedural, and it somehow works together to create a film that still holds tension when watched today, much more than the bland 2008 remake.
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