It can sometimes be hard to put words to the fear of losing the right to control your own body – but horror movies have been putting those fears on screen for decades. The female body horror genre is all about the terrifying idea that a woman’s body does not belong to her, whether she’s being turned into a monster, possessed by spirits, or serving as an unwilling host to supernatural offspring.
In the aftermath of the Dobbs decision overturning Roe V Wade, real-life headlines have started to sound like a horror movie for more and more women across America. It can sometimes be hard to put words to the fear of losing the right to control your own body–but horror movies have been putting those fears on screen for decades. The female body horror genre is all about the terrifying idea that a woman’s body does not belong to her, whether she’s being turned into a monster, possessed by spirits or serving as an unwilling host to supernatural offspring formula is so horrifying because it has a basis in reality. Here’s our Take on the messages female body horror stories send and how they can help us process the fears of being a woman in this scary moment.
“Something’s wrong—like more than you being just female”
- Ginger Snaps
The Horror of No Bodily Autonomy
Horror movies scare us by tapping into our real-life fears, and some female body horror centers around the idea that a woman’s body is used or controlled by other people.
“We’ve come here tonight to sacrifice the body of Jennifer from Devil’s Kettle.”
- Jennifer’s Body
A classic example of this subgenre is Roman Polanski’s 1968 psychological horror, Rosemary’s Baby. In the film, a group of Satanists conspire with Rosemary’s husband to impregnate Rosemary with the Devil’s child. But it’s not Satanism that makes the movie scary. The real horror in the movie lies in the way everyone around Rosemary disregards the fact that her body is hers. Her neighbors and husband police her medication and diet, and even insist on choosing her doctor, who makes her ingest a “vitamin drink” that makes her terribly ill. Rosemary does try to fight back and hold onto her identity–and eventually tries to get help from her own, good doctor. But when she tells him about her concerns, he assumes she’s disturbed and calls her husband to collect her–again, indicating her husband has more ownership of her body than she does.
“Come with us quietly, Rosemary. Don’t argue or make a scene.”
- Rosemary’s Baby
Aside from the carrying Satan’s spawn part, Rosemary’s Baby is rooted in real experiences of women throughout history. After the Neolithic revolution men needed women to make offspring, and they needed to be sure that the offspring was theirs, since otherwise their property would not go to its rightful heir. According to philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, women’s subjugation began with their bodies. As a result, pregnancy was seen as something that happened to women, not something a woman should have control over. We see this ideology reflected explicitly in a series full of body horror, HBO’s House of The Dragon. When the Queen’s pregnancy has complications and either she or her baby can survive, it’s the King who gets to decide how to proceed. And the scene makes us feel the Queen’s physical terror as her body is held down for an unmedicated C-section that will kill her. In a truly patriarchal society, the baby belongs to the father and to society, so the female body is a means to an end. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale condenses these attitudes into an especially stark and horrific vision of female subjugation, in which a category of women called handmaids are “bred” like livestock by their commanders.
The Horror of Being An Unwilling Host
In lots of media, pregnancy & birth are shown as difficult but ultimately rewarding, which reflects the experience of many who choose to become mothers. But it’s a very different story when someone doesn’t want to be pregnant, is unable to take on the responsibility of becoming a mother, faces serious health risks from the pregnancy, or is impregnated without their consent. . And some body horror films focus on the terrifying way an unwanted pregnancy can feel like a hostile takeover from inside. Body horror films sometimes portray the parasitic nature of pregnancy, especially for an unwilling, unconsenting host.
In the iconic Alien franchise, an alien species propagates by using human bodies as hosts–they “inseminate” humans, grow rapidly within the host’s body and eventually explode out, killing the host. Much like with forced pregnancy after non-consensual sex, the host carries the essence of an “other” in them, maybe even something they hate or fear. The alien “baby” looks remarkably phallic, and the pain and destruction induced by this phallic object again reminds us of assault. It is not only women who are killed by aliens in the franchise–But it seems deliberate that in Prometheus, the 2018 installment to the franchise, one of the most harrowing scenes in the film features a woman scientist performing. Desperate to get rid of the invader, she overwrites a computer program to force an AI med-pod to perform a violent abortion on her. The scene is especially haunting because it’s so rooted in real life–although unsafe abortions are entirely preventable thanks to abortion pills and other advances in medical technology, they’re still in the top 5 causes of maternal mortality today. And with abortion bans rising in the US, that scene becomes even more frightening.
Whereas the Alien franchise explores the parasitic horror of unwanted pregnancy through violence and gore, other films take a more psychological approach to the same idea. In David Cronenberg’s 1986 body horror classic, The Fly, he explores how the fetus is a total unknown – we do not know who or what it will actually grow into. In the film, eccentric scientist Seth Brundle accidentally combines himself with a housefly during a drunken night in the lab. Shortly after, his wife Veronica discovers she is pregnant and has a nightmare in which she gives birth to a maggot. The story captures the paranoia and fear that can come with pregnancy, and the act of merging our DNA with another person’s to create a totally new life. As Veronica starts to realize she can’t truly know who her partner is, she also realizes she can’t know who her future child may become. A similar dynamic plays out in the 1999 film, The Astronaut’s Wife, in which a woman named Jillian becomes pregnant soon after her husband returns from space. When he starts to act strangely, she begins to suspect he is not the same person she married and that both he and the baby may not even be human. When Jillian is unable to safely end the pregnancy, she throws herself down the stairs. So these stories highlight the fear of being reduced to hosts, incubating life that may turn out to be a dangerous, mysterious, even hostile stranger.
The Physical Horror of (Regular) Pregnancy
It’s not just the social and psychological effects of pregnancy that are scary–the real physical effects of pregnancy are sometimes so surreal that directors barely have to exaggerate them to create horror. In Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary develops weird food cravings, which is normal for pregnant women, except Rosemary craves raw meat. She also loses weight and becomes ill–in the film this happens because of dark magic, but in reality this can also happen in cases of extreme morning sickness. And pregnancy can sometimes be deadly. In Twilight, Breaking Dawn - Part 1, like Rosemary, Bella wants to be pregnant, but her pregnancy nearly kills her–first her half-vampire child’s craving for blood makes her sick, and then after an excruciating emergency “C-section” where Edwards bites the baby out of her, Bella only survives because she is transformed into a vampire.
While it can be easy to forget thanks to advanced modern medicine, childbirth is incredibly dangerous; and, as a series like House of the Dragon underlines, for much of human history, it was common and viewed as normal for women to die while giving birth.
In Julia Ducarneau’s experiential body horror Titane, the protagonist, a serial killer with a titanium plate in her head named Alexia, also experiences physical struggles with her pregnant body. She literally becomes a machine to serve her child after having sex with a handsome Cadillac. Her body even leaks motor oil as her belly swells.
Hormonal shifts that change how a pregnant person behaves, whether they’re suffering from mood swings or bouts of depression, can likewise be horrific because they can make you no longer recognize yourself or trust your feelings. Alexia changes her literal identity while on the run for murder and spends her pregnancy pretending to be someone’s long lost son. This experience is also present in the 2016 British horror-comedy Prevenge, the heroine, Ruth, feels that her fetus is compelling her to murder people. There is both horror–and in the case of Prevenge, comedy–in the pregnant woman’s loss of free will, as her basic desires change and she’s at the whims of her body, driven by natural animalistic tendencies she doesn’t understand.
This idea of pregnancy as animalistic horror is more explicitly represented in other body horror films where pregnant characters start to act like animals–or even give birth to animals. In V, the Alien empress Anna looks human, but lays eggs in water like an amphibian. In Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen’s children are dragons, and when we first see her with them she looks feral–wordless, naked and sitting on the ground, literally closer to Mother Earth. In Cronenberg’s The Brood, Nola, a psychiatric patient who grows deformed infants in womb sacks outside of her body, leans down and rips the placenta open with her teeth.
Some films also show female puberty as animalistic, representing even the body’s future potential to reproduce as a power that is hard or impossible to control. In Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie, the teenage protagonist develops telekinetic powers during puberty–but she has very little control over them, leading to erratic outbursts of violence.
In the 2000 Canadian supernatural horror Ginger Snaps, the teen lead Ginger gets her period and is immediately attacked by a werewolf because of the smell of her blood, after which she herself becomes a werewolf (and like Carrie, is not totally in control of her new self). The movie takes pleasure in drawing parallels between Ginger’s werewolf transformation and puberty.
The Exorcist also reflects a parents’ fears about their kids’ rapidly changing personality under the influence of hormones–and puberty really does a number on Regan. In general, demonic possession movies often play with this theme, as the demon frequently possesses a young woman and fills her with an animalistic sexual desire. It’s as if there’s something innately animal about the female body–as well as a pervasive fear that this body is evil, or susceptible to evil. In a famous scene from the 1981 horror film Possession, a woman named Anna suddenly goes into a strange, violent trance in a subway underpass. She slams her groceries against the wall violently, as though rebelling against domesticity, and spurts blood, egg yolk and milk from her orifices–the three primal matters we associate with womanhood.
Many of these possession stories center a male point of view, prioritizing the horror of encountering these sexual, uncontrolled female monsters over the terror these women experience at losing control of their bodies. Stories of female monsters have historically been used to justify female subjugation. From Eve’s original sin to Pandora opening the box, mythical women are often the one who unleashes all evil that humanity endures.
But in some body horror films, female monstrosity has been or is being reclaimed. Male monsters tend to be created through the actions of the men themselves, often through a combination of hubris and scientific error: Dr. Jekyll creates Mr. Hyde, Bruce Banner creates the Hulk, Seth Brundle creates the teleporter that combines him with the fly. Meanwhile, as writer Aviva Briefel points out, female monsters “tend to commit acts of violence out of revenge for earlier abuse by parents, partners, rapists, and other offenders.” Carrie and Nora in The Brood are abused by their mothers, Jennifer of Jennifer’s Body is sacrificed by a band that worships Satan, and Anna in Possession is in a contentious divorce, with her husband trying to take their child away from her. This adds a layer of catharsis to the film–even if they go way too far and may need to be stopped, on some level it’s satisfying to watch these women use their animalistic nature to fight back against their abusers and hurt those who wronged them–whether that’s the mean popular kids who terrified Carrie, the cruel boys who exploited Jennifer, or the people who threaten or enrage Nora and are then attacked by her monstrous offspring. In Game of Thrones, when Daenerys uses her dragon spawn to attack her enemies, for a while the audience gets a thrill from how her attacks feel personal, like payback for people who hurt or underestimated her.
“They’re the children of her rage. They’re motivated only by her anger.”
- The Brood
Many philosophers have drawn connections between all these phenomena of female puberty and pregnancy, and the fact that patriarchy has been able to dominate. As Beauvoir writes: “pregnancy, giving birth and menstruation diminished [women’s] work capacity and condemned them to long periods of impotence”. While women were bound to the duty of making the human species reproduce itself, men were free to build technologies and create ideas that let the human species surpass itself–and destroy itself. This idea gets at the core fear in many female body horror genre stories: that in this framework, men were built for genius and war and violence. And women, we fear, were built for pain.
“Pain, sore boobs, childbirth, you know. We carry it with ourselves throughout our lives.”
Female body horror films inspire terror, largely because they evoke the real-life nightmares of being a woman in a society that doesn’t respect or support experiences like pregnancy and even forces women to go through it against their will. Many states are now living through an increasingly horrific reality of total abortion bans and harsh gestational limits, as well as campaigns to prosecute and grimly punish women who seek abortions, even in extreme situations like rape, incest or threatening health issues. Female body horror films showcase the full range of these fears: forced pregnancy means not being able to make decisions about your body and your life, it means being treated like a passive, disposable host, and it means dealing with sometimes dangerous, sometimes alien-feeling changes to your body that you didn’t consent to. We cannot have gender equality until women have bodily autonomy.