Birthing from Within: On Teaching Monstrous Birth in Cronenberg’s The Brood

by Jason Middleton

When my partner and I were pregnant with our first child, we took a class called “Birthing from Within”; it was a transformative experience that prepared us perfectly for our eventual homebirth. But a class in which “ancient wisdom and modern practices come together in [a] dynamic approach to childbirth education” is not for everyone (even in Portland, Maine). Although a majority of the non-gestational parents (male and female) were fully on board with the class dynamics, one man had clearly been dragged there under protestation. He dutifully went along with the exercises and grudgingly mumbled his way through moments when he was expected to speak to the group. But there was one element of the class’s “modern practices” that exceeded for him even the onerousness of sharing thoughts and feelings. As fodder for an initial discussion, the teacher would show a birth video at the start of each class meeting. These videos varied in their production contexts and aesthetics, but many included unedited long takes depicting births in graphic detail. Although one goal of showing these videos was to foster consideration of different approaches (home or hospital, other family members present or absent, various birthing positions), my sense was that acclimation to the sight of babies coming out of vaginas—even as mediated by video—had its own pedagogical function. This image has been so culturally taboo that it was the first time many in the class had even seen it—gestational and non-gestational parents alike. But while most of us fought through some initial squeamishness and kept our eyes on the screen, this one male outlier looked away every time. Indeed, once it became apparent to him that he would be placed in this viewing position at the start of each meeting, he began quietly showing up a carefully-timed five minutes late: looking away was not enough.

The image of childbirth has been so circumscribed for so long that it carries a profound power to shock the viewer. For years I have taught films with violent and disturbing imagery in the context of an undergraduate horror film class, but in my experience the single most difficult film for students is not a horror film. Window Water Baby Moving, Stan Brakhage’s 1959 experimental portrait of his wife Jane’s home birth of their daughter Myrenna, provokes more averted gazes and covered faces than I have ever experienced with the most graphic scenes from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) or even Hostel (2005).1 Colleagues report even more extreme reactions from some students, such as leaving the room or fainting. Horror cinema has a longstanding tradition of marketing its ability to produce these kinds of physical reactions, especially in female spectators, but it is consistently male students for whom the Brakhage film is most unwatchable. Indeed, Maya Deren proclaimed that the Brakhage film was a form of “blasphemy” because it allowed men to look at something they are not supposed to see.2

While male viewers are expected to be stoic in the face of violent imagery, cringing at the sight of childbirth is a culturally sanctioned form of male spectatorial vulnerability.

Mainstream cinematic depictions of childbirth have displaced spectators’ discomfort with the biology of the process into two main genre frameworks: comedy and horror. The comedy is generally situational: slapsticky high jinks getting to the hospital once the water dramatically (and unrealistically) breaks; or the perennially popular depiction of the birth mother’s transformation in the delivery room from serene Madonna to shrieking harpy, blaming her male partner for “getting her into this” and demanding the epidural she had previously foresworn. For example, Judd Apatow’s hugely successful Knocked Up (2007) offers a valuable teaching text in how comedy films deploy visual and narrative devices to both solicit male anxiety about childbirth and manage it through the affirmation of patriarchal ideology.3

But horror cinema with its transmutations of childbirth into grotesque and fantastic imagery presents an even more productive site for analysis. From the classic Universal Studios cycle of Frankenstein films, horror cinema has explored the possibilities of altering the processes of reproduction and birth. As David Skal argues, however, medical and cultural changes in the 1960s provoked new cultural anxieties to which horror films of the period responded.4 Such changes include the introduction in 1960 of Enovid, the first birth control pill; the political advances of (and cultural resistance to) second wave feminism; changing sexual morés and the countercultural ideology of “free love”; and the scandal of Thalidomide, a drug prescribed for morning sickness that produced fetal abnormalities and deformities. Beginning with the revival and elevation to cult status of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) in the 1960s and the cultural sensation of Rosemary’s Baby in 1967, a wave of horror films depicting monstrous forms of reproduction, birth, and children followed, including The Exorcist (1974), It’s Alive (1974), Alien (1979), and The Brood (1979), among many others.5

Horror auteur David Cronenberg’s The Brood offers a valuable object for feminist analysis in the classroom because a feminist approach requires us to resist identification with its male protagonist and his revulsion toward the film’s vision of female reproductive biology: to look closely when he wants only to look away. The Brood darkly satirizes 1970s self-help therapies such as EST (Erhard Seminars Training) and reproductive technologies in the post-pill era. A horrific companion piece to Kramer vs. Kramer (both were released in 1979), the film also taps into anxieties about rising divorce rates and invokes nascent “men’s rights” discourses and backlash against second wave feminism.6 The film’s protagonist, a successful contractor named Frank Carveth, is separated from his wife Nola and does his best to care for their troubled six-year-old daughter, Candice. Nola is undergoing treatment at a secretive institute headed by Dr. Raglan, a self-help guru who has developed a therapy called “psychoplasmics,”which hyperbolizes the psychoanalytic promise to excavate repressed traumas from the unconscious. Hypnotherapy sessions with Raglan literally bring buried anger to the surface, manifested in lesions and other growths patients form on their bodies.

Early in the film we learn that Nola is herself the child of divorced parents and that she blames her mother for a history of physical and emotional abuse from which her father looked the other way. Nola’s mother, Juliana, denies this abuse, offering the seemingly less plausible explanation that young Nola would often wake up in the morning with bruising on her body that doctors could never diagnose. As the plot unfolds, the film’s fantastical premise lends Juliana’s story some support: Nola is Raglan’s prized patient because of her unique capacity to physically manifest inner rage. The narrative proceeds by cutting between Frank’s efforts to secure a divorce from Nola and gain custody of Candice and a series of gruesome murders: first Nola’s mother Juliana, then Candice’s schoolteacher (with whom Frank may share a romantic attraction and whose presence suggests a possible new mother figure for Candice), and finally Nola’s estranged and alcoholic father, Bart. Establishing the film’s sympathies to men’s rights discourses early on, Frank visits a divorce lawyer. The lawyer tells him that whether or not Raglan is a dangerous fraud, he must cooperate with Nola’s therapy and her visitation rights with Candice, or “it’s just a matter of time before the cops show up at your door and you lose your kid for good. The law believes in motherhood.”

The struggle between Frank and Raglan for control of Nola signals competing perspectives on trauma and repression. Raglan’s therapy literalizes the idea that buried emotions must be drawn out to the surface. By contrast, it is self-evident to the emotionally reticent Frank that repression is necessary for human functioning: after Juliana is murdered with Candice under her care, a police psychologist tells Frank that he must encourage his daughter to remember what happened. Where the psychologist argues that the repression of what she has witnessed could produce greater psychological trouble down the road, Frank believes that her apparent amnesia is the healthiest outcome. The stalemate between Frank and the psychologist introduces a theme manifested by a visual motif throughout the film: Frank’s constant need to avert his gaze from troubling sights (such as the grotesquely swollen cancerous lymph nodes on a former psychoplasmics patient).

As the film progresses, we learn that the murders were carried out by the titular “brood”: going well beyond the results he obtains with other patients, Raglan has enabled Nola to “birth from within” her psyche grotesque childlike creatures whose brief life span consists solely of acting out her angriest impulses. The film’s climactic scene offers students a striking image of Nola as what Barbara Creed terms the “monstrous-feminine”: her reproductive system is rendered horrifically abject, and she additionally embodies Creed’s concept in her tyrannical defense of a mother-child dyad against outside incursion.7 But the pedagogical value of this scene extends well beyond its status as Exhibit A when paired with Creed as an assigned reading.

The scene employs a conventional shot/reverse shot structure to foster identification with Frank’s horror and disgust at the dramatic reveal of Nola’s biological transformation through psychoplasmics.8 This visceral shock shared by protagonist and viewer affectively reinforces the scene’s satirical jab at 1970s-era discourses of male sensitivity and support for feminism. Frank approaches Nola carefully and speaks to her gently in a strategic effort to rescue Candice, who has been kidnapped by the brood. He attempts to overcome her suspicion using language that breaks from his characteristic emotional reticence and emphasizes openness to new ideas and ways of “relating.” As the film cuts with increased tension between Frank’s performed earnestness and Nola, lit dramatically in a flowing white garment that simultaneously evokes hospital gown and an angel’s robe, Frank increasingly sounds like a man in an encounter group: “I want us to understand each other… make me a part of your new life. Let me be part of it. Show me, educate me, involve me. I’m ready now. I wasn’t before but I’m ready now.” With a sardonic expression that suggests she knows Frank will get more than he bargains for, Nola dramatically parts her robes to reveal a kind of externalized uterus that rests on her lap containing the fetus of a brood-child. This abject transposition of bodily interior to exterior is rendered even more transgressive as Nola’s comportment becomes distinctly animalistic: she tears it open with her teeth to release the bloody infant, then proceeds to lick the blood off its scalp in the manner of a dog with its pup. When Frank recoils, his face ashen, Nola’s proud display of her offspring turns to anger as she realizes that Frank’s reaction signals his true intentions. “I know you so well,” she growls. “I’d kill Candy before I’d let you take her away from me!” Nola’s rage provokes the brood to violently attack Candy, justifying Frank’s strangulation of Nola in order to save his daughter. This murder is offered as cathartic for both Frank and the viewer.

The visual reveal of Nola’s monstrous birth functions as a bitterly ironic visual rejoinder to Frank’s attempted engagement with feminist discourse: “Men of the 70s,” the film seems to say with this shot, “you think you want to be educated about women’s issues, be involved with women’s experiences in a new way? Well, you get what you wish for!” Students initially tend to miss these thematic implications of the scene, until class discussion opens up for them the film’s historical and cultural context. Armed with this contextual understanding, students come to recognize that the viewer’s identification with Frank’s shock and disgust may subtend a larger identification with these reactions to the female reproductive system itself and a suspicion of feminist discourses that seek to engage men with “women’s issues.” If the viewer maintains an identification with Frank, then the film reinforces the perspective of the man in my birthing class, who seemed to quietly yearn for the days when male partners were safely ensconced in the hospital waiting room.

A feminist analysis of the film, however, opens up new possibilities: what if Nola and her brood are not the film’s real monsters, after all? Have we forgotten one basic lesson of the seminal horror film Frankenstein—to understand the film’s depiction of monstrosity, we must examine not only the monster but also the titular doctor?9 Applying this insight to The Brood, we are able, as a class, to critically reconsider the film’s male characters as variations on a theme of patriarchal failure: Nola’s father as ineffectual enabler, her doctor as manipulative tyrant, and her husband as paragon of an emotional inaccessibility so thoroughgoing that it could itself be seen as a form of abuse. These insights allow us to reconsider our reflexive look away from the troubling spectacle of Nola’s birth scene, and instead to look toward the patriarchal cultural context that makes the scene’s real-world analogue so readily available for transposition to monstrosity and horror.

1 Window Water Baby Moving, directed by Stan Brakhage (San Francisco: Canyon Cinema, 1959), 13 min.; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, directed by Tobe Hooper (Vortex, 1974), 84 min.; and Hostel, directed by Eli Roth (Santa Monica: Lionsgate, 2005) 94 min.

2 Mike Everleth, “Outrageous! Window Water Baby Moving,” Underground Film Journal January (2010),

3 David J. Skal, The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, rev. ed. (New York: Faber and Faber, 2001).

4 Knocked Up, directed by Judd Apatow(Universal City, CA: Universal Pictures, 2007), 129 min.

5 Freaks, directed by Tod Browning (Beverly Hills: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1932), 90 min.; Rosemary’s Baby, directed by Roman Polanski (Hollywood: Paramount Pictures, 1968), 136 min.; The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin (Warner Bros., 1974), 122 min.; It’s Alive, directed by Larry Cohen (Burbank: Warner Bros., 1974), 91 min.; Alien, directed by Ridley Scott(Los Angeles: 20th Century Fox, 1979), 117 min.; and The Brood, directed by David Cronenberg (Atlanta: New World Pictures, 1979), 92 min.

6 Kramer vs. Kramer, directed by Robert Benton (Los Angeles: Columbia Pictures, 1979), 105 min.

7 The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 1993).

8  The term “shot/reverse shot” designates the alternation between the view belonging to a character and a shot of that character; it is often used to structure conversations between two characters.

9 Frankenstein, directed by James Whale (Universal City, CA: Universal Pictures, 1931), 71 min.

Jason Middleton is associate professor in the English Department and the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies, and director of the Film and Media Studies Program, at the University of Rochester. He is author of Documentary’s Awkward Turn: Cringe Comedy and Media Spectatorship (Routledge, 2014), and coeditor of Medium Cool: Music Videos from Soundies to Cellphones (Duke University Press, 2007). His next book project, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The Limits of the Visible in Documentary Film,” explores the mimetic and affective qualities of moving images that depict bodies in transformation or seek to transform bodies: experimental films and instructional videos about childbirth, documentaries and activist videos depicting industrial food production, and approaches to illness and dying in avant-garde film. His work has been published in journals including Cinema Journal, Journal of Visual Culture, The Velvet Light Trap, and Afterimage.