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[Guest Post] On American Horror Story, Part 2/2: The Terrors of Reproduction

2012 December 4

In my previous post yesterday, I talked about the first season of American Horror Story and its reliance on two female archetypes – the femme fatale and the overbearing mother – in its construction of the monstrous.

The spoiler warning, again, goes here!

Today, I’m going to talk about reproduction, so if you want to sing that song from Grease 2, you better get it out of your system now. Ready?

Mothers are, in the world of AHS, a danger not only to their children, but also to the others that touch their lives. Pregnancy, with its easy symbolism and suitably melodramatic and gory end bit, lends itself to Horror. But it is not just the obvious that is made an object of fear.

Vivien, the walking womb-ded

As I said in part one, Vivien and Ben are a married couple facing difficulties. She’s had a miscarriage, he’s had an affair, and their relationship is in tatters. I think, I think, that we’re meant to be engaged with this crumbling marriage.

Poster for American Horror Story showing the cast standing in an eerie living roomBut while Ben is a rounded character – full of hope and regret, sweetness and cruelty, passion and inertia – his wife is driven only by her desire to save her marriage, which in turn is driven by her maternal desire.

Like Nora, the basement abortionist’s wife, Hayden (Ben’s deeply sexual and manipulative mistress), and Constance, the terminally abusive and neglectful mother next door, Vivien simply has uterus, will procreate.1

Vivien is little more than a vessel, a womb with bouncy hair. She is Shroedinger’s Uterus, forever pregnant or not pregnant, host to a foetus that is alive or not alive, evil or not evil depending on the requirements of the plot in any given episode. Viven’s role as incubator is underlined when she dies in childbirth – her role is complete, so we need nothing more from her.

Vivien’s pregnancy is unusual. Hers is a product of heteropaternal superfecundation – she’s carrying twins with different fathers. One is her husband’s, the other is the result of her rape by a psychopathic ghost.2 Let’s not even go into the fact that her husband doesn’t believe she’s been raped – there’s something much worse than that on the horizon.The show’s mythology tells us that a child born of a ghost and a human will be the antichrist, and we all know what that means: apocalypse.

Just in case the implication of that isn’t clear, let me put it in slightly different terms: Vivien’s vagina is the muggletuppin’ Hellmouth.

Here’s where we get into the really juicy feminist theory

Much of what I’ve said so far owes a debt to Barbara Creed’s theory of the monstrous-feminine, and in particular the abject body; the demonisation, defilement and objectification of the female body in Horror.

Gory birth scene - screenshot form American Horror StoryVivien’s labour and delivery is presented as particularly sanguinary; a festival of blood and sweat. It’s a burlesque of the natural; a grotesque, pantomimic affair attended entirely by a gorily deceased medical staff provided by the house.

With neither the clinical intervention of the modern birthing experience nor the cleanliness of the body innocent, the birth plays on both classically Freudian and modern germophobic fears. It is, from both perspectives, unclean.

The point of Horror, if there must be one, is to walk the line between desirable and undesirable; to cross or threaten the boundaries that separate stability and chaos. Childbirth, as a triumph of the primal over the civilised and the inner over the outer, is a natural exemplar of this. It’s naturally yukky and generally unstoppable, and that makes it pretty frightening. Here we’re treated to close ups of Vivien’s sweat covered forehead, wide overhead shots that emphasise the claustrophobic urgency of the scene, and heavy blood-loss.

Horror films that depict monstrous births play on the inside/outside distinction in order to point to the inherently monstrous nature of the womb as well as the impossibility of ever completely banishing the abject from the human domain. […] The womb represents the utmost in abjection for it contains a new life form which will pass from inside to outside bringing with it traces of contamination – blood, afterbirth, faeces.

– Barbara Creed, The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (1993)

Childbirth places us on the side of nature, outside of patriarchal order. Flesh is torn, blood is spilled, the sexual organs begin to resemble a wound. The imagery is graphic, base: abject. Vivien’s affinity with uncivilised, feral nature invoked, her threat to patriarchal law is cemented. The birth of Vivien’s twins is a threat fulfilled, a boundary crossed. From the abject comes the ruin of the world.

Vivien is threatened not just by the hell-spawn she’s carrying, but also by three of the ghosts that share her home. Nora and Hayden, who have lost their own children, and Chad, who has never had children, each desire ownership of Vivien’s child and conspire to steal the baby once it is born.

Baby-snatching is a common, well rooted trope in fantasy and horror, which usually points to the degeneracy of a group or being – a sign that they’re beyond redemption, truly inhuman. Infants are stolen for ingestion (as in Torchwood: Children of Earth), as revenge (like the Pied Piper of Hamlyn) or a sacrificial offering (the Buffy episode Band Candy) and occasionally, though rarely, to be raised as the kidnapper’s own. It is this which motivates the childless ghosts of AHS.

Each conspirator represents a different level of threat. Deceased interior designer Chad, constantly arguing with his (also dead) partner Patrick, is no threat at all. More concerned as he is with decorating than mending his broken relationship, he seems to think the baby will simply be handed to him. Nora, left to her own devices, is an unlikely threat – she’s narcissistic enough but ethereal and clueless.

But with Hayden, the picture is quite different. Hayden is wicked, determined and operating without fear of consequence – she’s dead, after all – and that’s precisely why she’s so dangerous.

The feminine is only established, however, if the wish for a penis is replaced by one for a baby.

– Freud, “Femininity”, New Introductory Lectures in Psycho-Analysis (1933)

The problem here is one of motivation. Now, I’m not saying there’s something wrong with wanting children. But there’s something wrong with wanting children to the exclusion of everything else. Hayden is a formidable woman brimming with agency and audacity, and, in a stunning display of the roles women play in our diverse society, she’s pregnant too.

When she dies, she’s contributing all her energy to winning Ben back, and then, bam! One blunt-force trauma later, her whole reason for being has changed. Now, I get that dying is the sort of thing that might emotionally scar a person, but COME ON. The child in her belly, previously presented only as a tool of emotional blackmail, will never appear, so she’s obsessed with replacing it.

And that’s the key to understanding both Hayden and Nora. They both want to replace children they’ve lost. It is a narcissistic craving; a desire merely to possess. The possibility of motherhood has stripped them of rationality, maybe even sanity, and turned them into objects of dread. Here motherhood truly is ‘the most powerful feminine wish’ (Freud again, in 1933), and it is dangerous.

In the eyes of AHS, women are to be feared. Female sexuality is aberrant if not abhorrent, and represented by crude Freudian symbolism (if you aren’t yet convinced, check out the suckling infant literally devouring his mother’s breast).

I’m with Simone de Beauvoir when it comes to Freud, but not so Messrs. Murphy and Falchuck; it’s like they’ve tried to dramatise Introduction to Psychoanalysis.

The second season of American Horror Story recently began its run on UK television (on FX, new episodes Tuesday evening). So far it’s really pushing the boat out to hate women in a variety of new and exciting ways under the guise of a critical look at the pathologising of sexuality and historic attitudes to poor mental health.

It’s terrible. You’re going to love it.

  • Libby earned her feminist stripes interning for the Fawcett Society where she was horrified by most of the stories she heard. An accidental activist, she is a regular contributor to BCN, the UK’s only 100% bisexual publication. Her latest project, TreasuryIslands, is the home of her other passion – children’s literature. Libby is very proud of her bad reputation.
  1. In a worrying conflation of hetero femininity and queer masculinity, one half of the gay couple who also haunt the house is also constantly yapping about having a child. []
  2. Who, by the way, IS WEARING A LATEX FETISH SUIT because that isn’t sex negative, kink-shaming douchery AT ALL. []
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