Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Monsterology: Babies

In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, we’ve been looking at the history of Horror’s archetypal monsters.

Last September, my wife, Elise, and I received the terrifying news. We were told that in nine months, a creature would be bursting out of Elise’s body to menace us for the next eighteen years… perhaps more if it decides not to go away to college. How could this be? Elise hadn’t been exposed to any alien eggs. She hadn’t been visited by Satan after taking a dose of drugged chocolate mousse. At least I don’t think she had. We don’t spend every minute of the day together, you know.

As many, many years of devouring horror movies has taught me, Elise’s pregnancy could have happened any number of ways. After all, a lot of monstrous babies have crawled across the screen. Yet the monster baby is a relatively recent phenomenon. While monstrous children peaked in the early sixties amidst “juvenile delinquency” hysteria with items such as Village of the Damned and the “It’s a Good Life” episode of “The Twilight Zone,” it was not until 1968 that Roman Polanski explicitly monsterized the first stage of life. I say “explicitly” because one could argue that the monster baby was delivered during the haunted summer of 1816 when Mary Shelley conceived Frankenstein. Though we are privy to the Monster’s sketchily described birth in the book, he spends most of it in a state of rebellious and ornery adolescence, pissed off at his inattentive doctor daddy. And we certainly never witness him as a bald little diaper-wearing thing.

We do not see such a creature in Rosemary’s Baby either. We only hear his mother’s shrieks about his demonic eyes, most likely making the film’s climax more terrifying than if we actually saw a phony monster puppet or kid in prosthetics. The film is also frightening because we walk with Rosemary Woodhouse through the entirety of her pregnancy, which was a rarity in film at the time, monstrous pregnancy or not. The awful circumstances of it—Rosemary’s husband and neighbors drug her so the devil can rape and impregnate her with the antichrist—work as an overwrought metaphor for the anxiety many women feel when expecting. In the worst-case scenario, a woman may have the antichrist growing inside her. But the child might also be unhealthy. A difficult pregnancy might put the mother’s health or even her life at risk. Or the baby might just grow up to be an asshole.
Mia Farrow's expression says it all: that baby ain't no snuggling baby. 

As David Skal points out in his essential study The Monster Show, Rosemary’s Baby was no surprise pregnancy. Rosemary’s drinking of a foul-smelling tannis root beverage fell right in step with times in which the anti-nausea drug Thalidomide had only recently been taken off the market for causing birth defects. Fertility drugs such as Clomifene and widespread use of the pill had also recently started fiddling with the natural process of childbirth. Considering the disastrous consequences of Thalidomide, who knew what the long-term effects of these other new drugs might be? Fortunately, time has proven that demonism isn’t one.

If a reason for not putting Rosemary’s baby on screen was the idea that corrupted infants were just too disturbing for 1968 audiences, 1973’s The Exorcist basically wiped away all terror taboos, readying the maternity ward for the arrival of It’s Alive the following year. Lenore Davis gives birth to a fanged freak after years on the pill. As soon as the baby is born, it wastes no time in running amok, slaughtering the doctors and nurses that brought it into the world. As it turns out, the baby was conceived with the aid of fertility drugs. In reflection of another recent issue, the landmark 1973 Roe v Wade decision that allowed American women the right to choose abortions, the Davis family must decide whether or not to have their little monster put down.
A pre-juvenile delinquent.

David Lynch is a lot less concerned with current events than the events whirling inside his own fertile head. His flourishing art and cinema career hit a bit of a speed bump in 1967 when he learned his girlfriend, Peggy Reavey, was pregnant. Suddenly he found himself with a wife and child to support, and it is widely believed that the anxiety of fatherhood sired his first feature film. The mutant infant of Eraserhead is not the product of Thalidomide or experimental fertility drugs. It is more metaphorical, the embodiment of its father’s anxieties about sex and low self-esteem. When he considers doing away with the child, he suffers none of the hand wringing of Frank Davis in It’s Alive. He is not killing a literal baby. He’s is erasing the part of himself that is preventing him from loving himself and achieving enlightenment (the production of Eraserhead coincided with Lynch’s discovery of transcendental meditation). The ostensibly violent finale of Eraserhead is not the horrifying scene it would be on paper. It’s actually quite moving.

Only David Lynch could pull off anything as obviously dicey as making a beautiful moment of infanticide. There certainly is little beauty to be found in all the other monster baby movies that bookend it. Witness what must be cinema’s most shocking birth scene when a newborn razor-toothed horror bursts through Kane’s abdomen in 1979’s Alien, uniting fatherhood anxieties and the inherent bloody violence of childbirth in one grisly bundle of joy. That same year, body-horror maestro David Cronenberg presented The Brood, in which a woman with severe anger issues gives birth to a legion of murderous gremlins who, like the infant of Eraserhead, serve as metaphorical conceptions of their parent’s emotional problems. Unlike Eraserhead, there is no transcendence in a vile climax in which the mother reveals a bulbous sac extending from her belly, which she tears open with her teeth to deliver one of her bloody babies before licking it clean in front of her sickened husband.

Monster babies don’t always have to be so traumatizing. By the 1990s, they’d become a common enough part of horror culture that it was OK to start laughing at them. In Peter Jackson’s Braindead (aka Dead Alive), a cooing zombie baby goes on a rampage in a park and we learn that cute, little Maggie Simpson is actually the offspring of Marge and the squidy alien Kang when Maggie sprouts wriggling tentacles and her first baby fang in the “Treehouse of Horror IX” episode of “The Simpsons.” Though this plot development would turn out to be as isolated as the asinine revelation that Principal Skinner is actually “Armin Tamzarian,” “The Family Guy” would work a monstrous baby into its ongoing cast of characters with Stewie, an articulate, evil mastermind bent on murdering his own mother.

The monster baby has persisted in the twenty-first century with the insatiably hungry tree-stump creature of Jan Švankmajer’s Little Otik, the chilling cry baby who grows up to be a conscienceless killer in the novel and film We Need to Talk About Kevin, American Horror Story, and an entire line of grotesque dolls called Zombabies. Elise and I can only hope that our child turns out a little better than all of these creepy crawling creeps. With any luck, our baby will take after her or his mother.
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