Motherhood & Ghosts in “American Horror Story: Murder House”

Written by Morgan Aprill

A woman’s ability to foster new life for nine months within her womb is seen by many as beautiful and empowering. However, there is a part of our cultural dynamic that seems to be threatened or even terrified by this ability. One need only consider the amount of horror movies and television shows that revolve around demonic or parasitic pregnancies to confirm this. As scholars like Lucy Fischer and A. Robin Hoffman have discovered through their analyses of various horror films featuring reproduction, there is something about the ghostliness of pregnancy and reproduction—the life that is being created inside another—that irks us to a point and causes anxiety in men and women. This has made our society look at pregnancy as a ghostly process, something that is potentially both spiritual yet demonic.

Living in a largely Christian society, we are already familiar with the idea of a ghostly impregnation. Our fascination with the Virgin Mary, religiously or culturally, shows how humans are drawn to the magic of reproduction. The importance of the virgin birth of Jesus is a major tenet of Christianity. Mary and her virginal status are the epitome of purity, and her son is the most perfect of all. She also represents another esteemed status for women, that of motherhood. Mary is the perfect combination of two impossible ideals for women: sexual purity and motherhood. Christmas is a day to thank God for giving us a Savior, but it is also a day to celebrate the impossible miracle of a virginal birth which was only possible through the Holy Spirit. The ghostly aspect of Mary’s pregnancy is obvious here. Only through a spirit is Mary able to conceive such an important child.

In our culture, however, there is another version of ghostly pregnancy, one that is much more sinister and tied up with the demonic. Consider the recent television show American Horror Story: Murder House, which gives us a good example of the idea of a ghostly, demonic pregnancy. In the seventh episode, the husband and wife within the show, Ben and Vivien, are visiting an obstetrician to check on the health of their unborn child. During this visit, Vivien asks to confirm that nothing is wrong with their child and wants to know, specifically, if it has “hooves or anything?” Her husband is bewildered by this odd question, but the doctor reassures him that “Every pregnant woman worries if there’s a little devil in them.”  A. Robin Hoffman has shown us that many pregnant women fear that a monstrous or deformed child is growing within them (Hoffman 248), and the show clearly is responding to this general anxiety about pregnancy.  However, it also engages in a longer tradition within the horror genre by developing the story as one concerning the birth of the Antichrist. In contrast with the story of Christ’s birth is that of the Antichrist. The opposite of Jesus, the birth of the Antichrist is said to lead to the fall of mankind and an ultimate damnation for all.

This idea is developed further in the sixth episode of the show, where Vivien meets with a technician who had performed Vivien’s first ultrasound and subsequently passed out. Not knowing what the problem was, Vivien was eager to meet with the woman, Angela, again to find out what it was that she saw on the screen. Like many mothers, she feared a complication. Angela meets her at a church and warns Vivien not to get too close. She then informs her that she “saw the unclean thing: what you carry in your womb. The plague of nations. The beast.” She then goes on to quote scripture as Vivien leaves the church quickly, believing the woman to be delusional and in need of help. But this incident continues to linger with Vivien as her pregnancy progresses. As the show goes on, many of the characters refer to the child-to-be as the Antichrist, and we find out that the real father was an evil ghost named Tate within the house, not her husband.

Like the story of Mary and Jesus, Vivien is impregnated by a spirit of sorts that leads to a pregnancy of deep religious significance tied up within Christian beliefs. The conception of Christ was accomplished without any sort of sexual contact, keeping the mother of the son of God pure. However, in the stories of the Antichrist, and within this one in particular, the child is often conceived through rape or sexual contact of some sort. Vivien is raped by Tate, believing him to be her husband as he is wearing a full body suit. We find out more about Tate’s background throughout the season and learn that he may or may not have been molested by the devil himself as a child. The origin of Tate’s demonism remains a mystery throughout the show, and the audience is left wondering just what happened the day a young Tate went down to the basement and why his actions ever since—murder, rape, and other acts of destruction— were so utterly deplorable.

The whole show is fraught with anxieties concerning motherhood, paternity, and child rearing as many of the ghosts within the house have connections to at least one of these topics. Ben is haunted by the ghost of his mistress whom he impregnated and who now wishes to steal the baby growing inside his wife. Ghosts of a gay couple who were murdered before they were able to adopt a child together also want to steal the child in order to raise it as their own. The ghost that impregnates Vivien is the son of a woman who seems to have a cursed womb that gives birth to handicapped children, whether physically or mentally. Finally, the evilness that cursed the house in the first place is connected back to the original owners, a doctor who performed illegal abortions and his wife who mourns the cruel murder of their own child by an angry boyfriend of one of their patients.

Abortion is something that has been in debate for a long time and is bound up with our cultural conversation on reproductive rights. Fischer and her fellow scholars discuss how, for centuries, women’s bodies have been regulated by men through institutions like marriage, as virginal status has been part of the tradition of purity involved in marriages. In addition, there is a highly male-mediated aspect to the giving away of a daughter to a man whose name she takes. Perhaps fear of a women’s reproductive capability, something that men do not have nor can they completely control, has caused pregnancy to seem specifically eerie to us within our patriarchal society. Even in recent times, we have Congress, which is predominantly male, voting on whether women’s contraception should be covered by healthcare, another example of how men feel the need to regulate women’s bodies. A woman’s ability to foster life within her womb is seen by many as a great blessing. However, those who do not have this ability can feel threatened by it, especially within a patriarchal culture that relies so heavily on male succession.

Within Murder House, there are examples of how a woman’s body and ability to foster life becomes frightening to men and even to women. Perhaps then, we can connect the show’s presentation of a demon child that destroys society to an ingrained fear of upsetting Western society’s well-established patriarchy, something that is still a cause of great anxiety in our patriarchal culture today. This television show is therefore working with various aspects of a very real, and old, cultural fear, that of indeterminate paternity and monstrous birth.

Ghosts are bound up in our cultural conversation about pregnancy and reproductive rights whether we realize it or not. With a ghost’s child growing within her, the ghostliness of pregnancy is literalized in Vivien’s experience. Though we scientifically understand so much more about pregnancy now than we did in our days of fertility goddess worship, pregnancy and reproduction still are magical, ghostly, and mysterious to us in a certain way. We can see that quite clearly in the workings of American Horror Story: Murder House. Our most famous pregnancy story involves a spiritual impregnation. The ability to create life has been idolized and feared in females since humanity’s days of fertility goddess worship, something we can see when looking at ancient Neolithic statues to earth goddesses like the ones on display at The Louvre. The uncertainty of paternity and the absence of the father during the pregnancy is also something that has caused anxiety within Western society for a long time. All these can be connected back to the ghostliness of pregnancy itself and men’s attempt to control this power that women have. We can see this all too well when examining some of our culture’s most popular horror stories that involve demonic or ghostly pregnancy and any other form of the trope of the creation of the Antichrist.

Works Cited:

Caputi, Jane. Goddesses and Monsters: Women, Myth, Power, and Popular Culture. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. Print.

Hoffman, A. Robin. “How to See the Horror: The Hostile Fetus in Rosemary’s Baby and Alien.” Literature Interpretation Theory 22.3 (2011): 239-261. Web.

Fischer, Lucy. “Birth Traumas: Parturition and Horror in Rosemary’s Baby.Cinema Journal. 31.3 (1992): 3-18. Web.

 

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