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Torture Born: Representing Pregnancy and Abortion in Contemporary Survival-Horror

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In proportion to the increased emphasis placed on abortion in partisan political debate since the early 2000s, there has been a noticeable upsurge in cultural representations of abortion. This article charts ways in which that increase manifests in contemporary survival-horror. This article contends that numerous contemporary survival-horror films foreground pregnancy. These representations of pregnancy reify the pressures that moralistic, partisan political campaigning places on individuals who consider terminating a pregnancy. These films contribute to public discourse by engaging with abortion as an individual, emotional matter, rather than treating abortion as a matter of political principle or a political “means to an end.” This article not only charts a relationship between popular culture and its surrounding political context, but also posits that survival-horror—a genre that has been disparaged by critics and largely ignored by scholars—makes an important contribution to sexual-political discourse. These films use horror to articulate the things we cannot say about abortion.

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  1. This article is mainly limited to discussing abortion in relation to the US political context. Where European horror films are discussed in detail, they will be accompanied by relevant information regarding abortion laws in those contexts.

  2. In order to demonstrate that the films cited are representative of broader trends, additional films will be named in the footnotes. The films referred to are principally lower budget, independent horror films. Film-makers working outside of the Hollywood studio system typically enjoy greater freedom to explore contentious issues (such as abortion) and often use controversial themes to differentiate their films from the higher-budget horror exhibited in multiplexes. On these distributional issues and controversial subject matter in contemporary horror, see Jones 2013, 170–186.

  3. On torture porn’s popularity and its negative connotations, see Jones 2013. The label “torture porn” is avoided here, precisely because it is commonly (mis)used by those who seek to dismiss popular horror rather than engaging with it.

  4. Throughout, “fetus” is used in reference to all periods of gestation.

  5. The association delineated between prolife movements and right-wing conservativism is intended to make a point about discursive politics, rather than advancing the author’s moral judgment on this issue.

  6. See, for example, the views expressed at (2013).

  7. Others include The Last Exorcism (dir. Daniel Stamm 2010), Paranormal Activity 2 (dir. Tod Williams 2010), and Puffball (dir. Nicolas Roeg 2007).

  8. The attempts to exorcize the dibbuk in the film’s finale are a thinly veiled abortion of sorts.

  9. One exception is the overtly anti-abortion themed film The Life Zone (dir. Rod Weber 2011), which was produced by the prolife organization Justice for All.

  10. Other examples include Detour (Snarveien, dir. Severin Eskeland 2009), Dead End (dirs. Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa 2003), Storm Warning (dir. Jamie Blanks 2007), and Break (dir. Matthias Olof Eich 2009).

  11. This special victim status is literalized in US law via the The Unborn Victims of Violence Act (2004, Public Law 108–212), which refers to the fetus as an additional victim of some crimes perpetrated against pregnant women (see also Maas 2009, 217–219). Although Madness is a Swedish film, it is an English-language movie set in America. In this regard, the film appears to be pitched towards a US or international marketplace rather than a local audience. The representation of pregnancy—which implies that fetal personhood is a controversial matter—certainly seems to be aimed towards an American rather than a Swedish audience given that “Sweden is usually seen as having the most liberal laws on abortion” in Europe, if not the world (de Cruz 2013, 450).

  12. An interesting exception is Resurrection County, in which Tommy is almost raped. However, Tommy is rescued before rape can occur. In contrast, his pregnant fiancée, Lucy, is subjected to rape.

  13. Other examples include Dying Breed (dir. Jody Dwyer 2008), The Embodiment of Evil (dir. Jose Mojica Marins 2008), Alive or Dead (dir. Stephen Goetsch 2008), The Clinic (dir. James Rabbitts 2010), and Primal (dir. Josh Reed 2010).

  14. Both Inside and Frontier(s) are French movies, and abortion has particular connotations in that national context. Between 1975 and 2014, abortion laws in France were much more restrictive than in the US. Prior to the 2014 reform on abortion law, abortion was only permitted in the first ten weeks of gestation if the pregnant individual was in distress, and only beyond that point if two physicians agreed that the pregnancy endangered the lives of either the fetus or the pregnant individual (on abortion trends and laws in France, see de Cruz 2013, 438; Rossier et al. 2009). Although the 2014 reform legalized abortion on request up until the twelfth week of gestation, that cut-off is far lower than in the US and UK. It is also notable that France’s “principled opposition to abortion and pragmatic acceptance of it” is not characterized by the same “divisive politics” found in US political debate on the issue; rather the debates center on “human dignity” and concerns related to Nazi eugenics (Banchoff 2011, 15). Although I do not have space to unpick these cultural differences here, the connotations of Nazism are evoked in Frontier(s)’s right-wing government and neo-Nazi family. However, such cultural specificities do not impact upon the analytical points made regarding the narrative positioning of pregnant women in these films.

  15. On the relationship between ultrasound imagery and the abortion debates, see Gatter et al. 2014; Palmer 2009.

  16. On various other tactics used to facilitate audience engagement with distressed protagonists in contemporary horror, see Jones 2013, 70–80.

  17. This view has been widely contested; for example, see Greene Foster and Kimport 2013.


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Correspondence to Steve Jones.

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Jones, S. Torture Born: Representing Pregnancy and Abortion in Contemporary Survival-Horror. Sexuality & Culture 19, 426–443 (2015).

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