On an entirely practical level, it’s important to note that depending on the genre, the pregnant woman is virtually guaranteed to have one of two fates: she is the one character who will survive a disaster movie, no matter what happens, and the character most likely to die in any modern horror movie. I think it’s worth taking a quick look at the reasons for this.
The key factor is the audience. Disaster movies have a mainstream audience. Families are going to see these movies together. The messages you want to see in a disaster movie are themes of bonding, of hope despite all obstacles, and most importantly the survival of the status quo in at least a symbolic manner. The pregnant woman, who will go into labour right about the time the heroes find clean water and an extra blanket, works on all these themes. She reminds us that family values and bonds will survive no matter how society is transformed. More often than not the father of the baby is missing from the picture, which presages the (temporary) breakdown of “normal” society and allows the pregnant woman to bond with another available male, so that the audience can see traditional family structures rebuilding themselves amidst widespread destruction. Right before their eyes, a nuclear family is born, like a phoenix emerging from the flames of society.
While we’re at it, the pregnant woman gives us an easy opportunity to hit audiences over the head with the “surprising strength of a righteous woman vs. assholes” moment, which is always good for audiences. Here, the expecting character will hit the disposable sleazeball character with a book or a shoe or a right hook. It will be a wonderful comedy moment. Your audience will chuckle or cheer on demand.
Of course, all these rules go right out the window if the developing fetus happens to be a zombie, alien or the spawn of Satan. If this is the case, you’re doing a horror movie and it’s quite likely that your primary audience is young and male. They don’t care about the survival of the nuclear family. They don’t give a shit about rebuilding society. The only bonding they want to do is pair bonding, and a trio is definitely not a pair. For this audience, the pregnant chick is a liability. She’s slowing them down.
Worst of all, she is a living, breathing reminder of the hidden dangers of sexual gratification. She symbolizes unwanted responsibility. Commitment. Entrapment. Nobody wants to think about that stuff, so the sooner you kill this lady and the terrible thing growing inside her the better off you are.
You’re going to get your secondary market segment with this character, too, because teenaged females aren’t generally any more enthusiastic about pregnancy than their male counterparts. For them, pregnancy is an even more dangerous trap, and one that carries far more disastrous consequences. Your teen male has the option of running away from an unwanted pregnancy (and, of course, at this age all pregnancies are unwanted) - but your teen female’s only escape option is to actually get rid of it.
You could spend all day thinking about the horror implicit in those four words. The possibilities are deliciously nauseating.
And what we’ve touched on there (eww!) is the best part of the whole business. The pregnant woman is your gateway to one of the most physically repulsive themes horror has to offer – the fear of your own body. By planting an unwanted grotesquerie inside a female character, you remind your audience that our bodies themselves are pretty disgusting, and apt to go haywire in horrible ways, and there isn’t a damn thing we can do to prevent it. The zombie fetus in our movie isn’t only a fetus – it’s an appendix, a melanoma, a blood clot in a major artery. It’s the blackened and festering root of a tooth that is about to cripple you with pain. It’s every painful malfunction our bodies have to offer. It’s a suffering so awful you’ll kill yourself to get rid of it.
There, I said it again. Mmmm.
Having said all this, it seems a little strange that more horror movies haven’t been made that feature pregnancy as the central theme, instead of a running sideplot. But of course, the notable exception to the rule is one of horror’s classics, the utterly fabulous Rosemary’s Baby. Written by Ira Levin with his usual deft touch, and filmed by Roman Polanski. The book is very good, but in my mind the surrealistic nightmare of the Polanski film stands even taller. Mia Farrow is the perfect Rosemary, a young woman in a new apartment, terribly unsure that her husband is the right man for her and timidly entering the new world that pregnancy symbolizes. She has lost her bearings, her body is betraying her, and she is afraid of everyone and everything. And then there is that silly, nagging, dreadful question – what exactly is Rosemary’s baby, and who is the father?
I really hope that most modern audiences already know the answer to this, but in any case it isn’t the mystery that makes Rosemary’s Baby a great film. When you come right down to it, the story isn’t really about the baby at all, but about the pregnancy, and all the real reasons why pregnant women rarely survive horror movies.