The Spawn of Satan: A Brief History of Monstrous Birth in Literature and Film
by Jen Burd
March 31, 2013
Let’s face facts. Children, especially the evil ones, are scary. With their violent crayon drawings and sinister grins, evil children are the darlings of the horror genre. Evil babies and fetuses have inspired far fewer nightmarish vignettes. A child is just more frightening than a baby. They’re a lot more mobile for one. A babydoesn'tdo very much in a horror movie. He may have evil psychic abilities, but he’s really just lying in a crib and maybe looking colicky in a few shots. A being with something called a “soft spot”doesn'teasily induce terror or dread.
There is, however, anunder appreciatedsub-genreof horror films dealing with “monstrous births,” usually of demonic, satanic, or alien origins. These films share many commonalities with films about evil children. They hint at fears of miscegenation. The children are the result of a human’s unnatural sexual contact with some sinister other. Monstrous pregnancies and births represent a more complex, more bodily anxiety than tawdry psychotic children, and the concept of monstrous births has a lively history in canonical literature.
The idea of monstrous births, like every other idea in human history, predates Christ. In The Bacchae, Euripides imagined a Dionysian cult of women suckling wild animals such as fawns and wolves. The idea of monstrous births and the corruption of reproduction also blended
well with early Christian lore. The Bible contains one helpful hint on the problem of monster babies. In II Esdras, an apocalyptic text in the apocrypha, scripture warns that one day “wild beasts shall change their places, and menstruous women [or ‘women in their uncleanness’] shall bring forth monsters.” Isn’t it always the menstruous women causing a ruckus?
Monsters were a popular topic in the literature of the Middle Ages, when books printed on parchment priced many Europeans out of literacy. With technological advances during the Renaissance, monster lore became prominent throughout European. Muslim Spain transmitted the invention of paper to Europe from the Middle East. Paper made printed material cheap enough for the masses, and the masses wanted to read about monsters. Broadsides frequently
featured stories about “real life” monsters such as Martin Luther’s “Pope-ass of Rome.” The medieval, Augustinian view of monsters held that physical aberrations from the norm, or birth defects, were symbols from God, and could be read as messages. This view persisted until disabilities became part of the growing medical realm in nineteenth century, and it informs modern horror films, many of which operate on a metaphoric level.
Ifyou'veever had the pleasure of taking an early American literature or history class, you might, or very well might not, remember the story of Anne Hutchinson. Hutchinson was an Antinomian dissenter who bore what Puritan minister Thomas Weld described as thirty “monstrous births…few of any perfect shape, none at all of them…of humane shape.” Hutchinson, a minister’s daughter and wealthy merchant’s wife, was brought to trial in Boston in 1638 as a result of the weekly meetings that she held in her home to discuss sermons and theology. Hutchinson’s gatherings had become popular enough to attract the church’s attention, and the magistrates saw her as a potential threat. She was not the first or the most powerful Antinomian of the time, but she was, and still is, the most well-known Antinomian.
For most of the history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, witchcraft accusations were scant and unstylish. The Puritans were a more educated bunch than most, and they held back on officially documented witch-related finger pointing chiefly because theydidn'thave very many women to spare. Executions for witchcraft were much more common in Europe, where somehow, crusades and inquisitions still had left some bloodlust unquenched. The Salem outbreakdidn'thappen until 1692, but Weld, a man ahead of his time, smelled a witch two generation prior. In his preface to the 1644 edition of A Short Story of the Rise, reign, and ruine of the Antinomians, Famillists, and Libertines (which is actually a very long story), Weld write:
And see how the wisdome of God fitted this judgement to the sinne every way, for looke as she had vented mishapen opinions, so she must bring forth deformed monsters; and as about 30. Opinions in number, so many monsters…Weld assumes that Hutchinson’s miscarriage is an ominous judgment from God, keeping in line with some popular beliefs of the era. In the same publication, Governor John Winthrop (the “city upon a hill” guy) describes the monstrous birth of Mary Dyer, Hutchinson’s friend and follower, which occurred in 1637. Winthrop found out about Dyer’s birth, which had been kept secret, at Anne Hutchinson’s trial. He decided to exhume the body because that’s the type of thing people did before TV. He writes:
The eyes stood farre out, so did the mouth, the nose was hooking upward, the brest and back was full of sharp prickles, like a Thornback, the navell and all the belly with the distinction of the sex, were, where the lower part of the back and hips should have been, and those back parts were on the side the face stood…in stead of toes, it had upon each foot three claws, with talons like a young fowle…It had no forehead, but in the place thereof, above the eyes, foure hornes…The description, in many ways similar to lore surrounding the Jersey Devil, goes on and on. Winthrop blames the baby’s alleged appearance on Dyer’s assumed ties to the Familists, a group of English dissenters, and on the presence of Jane Hawkins, a midwife who “was notorious for familiarity with the devil,” a term that unequivocally implied witchcraft and sometimes referred to actual sex with a demon. Winthrop also reports that “…most of the women who were present at the womans travaile, were suddenly taken with such a violent vomiting, and purging…their children taken with convulsions, (which they had not before, nor since)” and “at such time as the child dyed…the bed wherein the mother lay shook so violently, as all which were in the roome perceived it.”
Vomiting, convulsions, and phantom shaking were all common complaints of witchcraft victims during the 1692 Salem outbreak, and Winthrop was aware that they were thought to be signs of possession. Ann Hutchinson was exiled to Rhode Island as the result of her trial and died shortly thereafter. Jane Hawkins was tried shortly after Hutchinson, and Dyer was executed a few years later.
Puritans believed in magic as fiercely as they believed in religion. Most people at the time thought of Christianity and magic as two sides of the same coin. Some magic came as a miracle or a sign from God, and other magic came from Satan. Science and medicine had not come into conflict with religion, and science, magic, and religion co-existed peacefully in the Puritan imagination. And really, the whole monster baby thingisn'tthatfar fetchedfor a people who once tried a man named Thomas Hogg for his suspicious resemblance to a newborn piglet.
But by the time monster lore resurfaced, stronger than ever thanks to Gothic literature, monsters tended to remain in the realm of fiction. Many literary critics view Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein as a monstrous birth story because Dr. Frankenstein brings his monster to life in a moment of mania and without the help of a woman. Gothic literature is widely considered the forerunner of the modern horror genre.
Fast forwarding to 1968, the success of Rosemary’s Baby ushered in a wave of films about satanic babies, witchcraft, and cults. Like Mary Dyer’s baby, Rosemary’s baby was the result of a sexual encounter
with Satan. In the British horror film, I Don’t Want To Be Born (1975), a woman gives birth to an evil baby after a man with dwarfism curses her womb. While the movie will not make you squeal in horror at the sight of a frowning baby, it demonstrates fear of disability almost as well as the 1932 pre-code horror classic, Freaks. In I Don’t Want To Be Born, a little person named Hercules (George Clayton), curses Sharon’s womb after she politely asks him to stop groping her breasts. Hercules is in some vague way “familiar with the devil”. Hercules makes the baby panics in churches and when he’s exposed crosses. There is no doubt that Hercules’s disability is directly linked to his role as a conduit of evil, and the circle of monstrous life thusly proceeds.
If monstrous births haven’t achieved the notoriety of evil children, they are still a common occurrence in horror and science fiction films. Monstrous birth scenes are prominent in movies as diverse as Alien, Eraser Head, and The Fly. An autopsy on The X-Files seldom passed without some creature moving about beneath someone’s skin. Horror is a bodily, lusty genre to begin with, and monstrous birth is an overtly sexual and reproductive fear. Martin Luther used the images of hybrid monsters to inspire fear and hatred of Catholicism. For the Puritans, monstrous births represented witchcraft and feminine transgressions. In modern times, the monstrous birth shares some features of eugenics rhetoric, while often retaining its religious quality.
Selected sources and further reading:
William Bradford, History of 'Plimoth Plantation' (Project Gutenberg).
Richard Godbeer, Sexual Revolution in Early America and The Devil’s Dominion.
Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman.
David Hall, The Antinomian Controversy (primary documents).
Robert F. Oaks, "'Thing Fearful to Name': Sodomy and Buggery in Seventeenth Century New England." Journal of Social History 12.2 (1978): 268-81.
Angela M. Smith, Hideous Progeny.
Norman R. Smith, “Portent Lore and Medieval Popular Culture”, The Journal of Popular Culture 14.1 (2004): 47-58.
Merry Wiesner-Hanks, The Infancy of Printing.
by Jen Burd
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