Immaculate, The First Omen, and the Rise of the Pro-Choice Horror Film

It’s not every day you get a Catholic-themed horror film that outspokenly supports a woman’s autonomy over her body. But 2024 is the year we get not one, but two of these films, released a week apart. The two films—Immaculate, starring and produced by Sydney Sweeney, and The First Omen, a prequel to the 1976 film about the birth of the Antichrist—are shockingly similar. Both feature a mild, American novitiate—Sweeney’s Sister Cecilia and Nell Tiger Free’s Sister Margaret—recruited by a priest to come to Italy. They arrive to work among the less fortunate; Cecilia in a hospice for nuns and Margaret in an orphanage. They each befriend another nun who is more sexually experienced (Sister Gwen and Sister Luz, respectively). Another nun, who is strangely obsessed with them, jumps to her death. The priest turns out to be manipulating the main nun into giving birth to a child, and as both women (now mysteriously pregnant) seek to unravel the mystery of what’s happening, they encounter numerous deformed babies. In the end, both women give birth, very much against their will.

Films with similar themes hitting theaters around the same time is nothing new—I’m old enough to remember the summer of Deep Impact/Armageddon, followed by the release of both Antz and A Bug’s Life a few months later. But the similarities both large and small between these two recent films is even more profound. And coming as they do just 18 months after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and eliminated the federal protection for abortion rights, the films arrive as visceral manifestations of the deep anxieties that decision has unleashed in the US.

Author Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, a pioneer of “monster theory,” holds that horror fiction plays an important role in how a culture understands itself, particularly in relation to our fears and anxieties. He warns that societal tensions, traumas, and disruptions that create anxiety in a culture will manifest itself “symptomatically as a cultural fascination with monsters—a fixation that is born of the twin desire to name that which is difficult to apprehend and to domesticate (and therefore disempower) that which threatens.” (Monster Theory, p. 60)

In other words, when we experience anxiety at a cultural level—for example, widespread fear about a woman’s access to safe medical treatment and whether she’ll retain autonomy over her own body—we should expect those anxieties taking the form of a monster we can domesticate (on the silver screen, for instance). We saw this in the 1970s in the wake of passing Roe vs Wade. Not quite two years after the landmark decision, the proto-slasher Black Christmas (1974) arrived in theaters. The film takes place at a sorority house at a university—notable because Harvard had only started admitting women to its undergraduate programs a decade earlier; many other Ivy League schools didn’t start until 1969. Final girl Jess personifies the fears of those who demonized women’s liberation: she is an independent, unmarried young woman who is pregnant and informs her boyfriend at the opening of the film she plans to get an abortion. One of the reasons Black Christmas is considered a proto-slasher is that Jess doesn’t embody the virginal values endorsed by conservative culture, and she’s not “punished” with a grisly end for her “transgressions.” She is the hero. Even still, the anxiety around her pregnancy—and particularly how it affects her boyfriend—drives the central mystery of the film.

The Omen (1976) tells the story of a US ambassador who secretly adopts an infant after his wife gives birth to a stillborn child. The boy turns out to be the Antichrist and proceeds to kill his adoptive father, mother, and unborn sibling. Adoption has long been presented as an easy solution to unwanted pregnancies by anti-abortion activists, but The Omen reflects anxieties, however baseless and irrational, about the adoption process—can an adoptive parent really know the genetic heritage of their adopted child? What do they really know about the child they’re bringing into their home? What if the innocent baby turns out to be some kind of monster? (Yes, the question itself feels so monstrous it’s difficult to voice—which is why it ends up being sublimated into spectacle-filled horror films.)

The decade ended with the (ahem) mother of all films about the fear of unregulated pregnancy: Alien (1979). The xenomorph attacks and impregnates humans by forcing its ovipositor down their throats and implanting a fetus in the chest cavity. All seems well, until the matured fetus suddenly bursts from the chest of its host, killing them. The xenomorph’s reproductive cycle is a funhouse mirror of human fertility, twisted into monstrous form. The titular alien is the embodied fear of fertility that’s not carefully controlled—and opponents of abortion rights argue that readily accessible abortions incentivize women toward sexual activity, since a pregnancy no longer need result in the birth of a child (those same opponents rarely extend this logic to men). All these films in one way or another express or explore anxieties around pregnancy unleashed by the federal guarantee of abortion rights.

At the same time, another powerful cultural force was shifting in reaction to Roe: religion. Catholics have been the most historically consistent on abortion. Before 1973, Protestants saw abortion mainly as a Catholic issue—going back at least to Augustine, Catholic theologians categorized abortion as a sexual sin. It wasn’t until 1965 the Catholic Church categorized abortion as the taking of a life. Evangelicals, the other stridently pro-life group who’ve played an active part in the discussion around Roe, have traced a similar trajectory in recent decades. Southern Baptists before the 1980s wrote little about abortion. The Church of the Nazarene (the denomination in which I have my ministerial credentials) had no statement in its governing manual until 1976 (the Manual is updated quadrennially, so the 1976 edition is the first post-Roe Manual), and the statement in 1976 begins by permitting abortion when the life of the fetus or mother is threatened before going on to protest “abortion on demand.” The Southern Baptist Convention passed its first resolution on abortion in 1971—two years before Roe. The resolution called for the protection of fetal life but also called for legislation to protect the right for abortion in cases as varied as rape, deformity, and “damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” A professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary argued that “God is pro-choice.” The pastor of First Baptist Dallas, W. A. Criswell, said in reaction to Roe, “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.” These statements stand in stark contrast to the positions held by the current leaders of those same institutions, reflecting a greater overall shift as abortion (and its increasing politicization) became a mobilizing issue for conservative evangelicals.

The same anxieties about unregulated pregnancy that manifested in ’70s horror caused a sea change in American religious attitudes toward abortion legislation—especially among evangelicals. Professor and historian Kristen Kobes Du Mez observes that, by the end of the 1970s, abortion had become linked with second-wave feminism in the cultural imagination (as films like Black Christmas illustrate). Feminism presented a real challenge to evangelicals. As Du Mez stated in an interview with NPR:

[F]or evangelicals, conservative evangelicals, gender difference is really foundational to their understanding of the social order. And they believe that God created men and women to be very different, even opposites. And the women’s primary calling is that of wife and mother. And so abortion also really severs that kind of biological or social relationship or threatens to do so. And for that reason, also, abortion is such a priority for evangelicals because it kind of strikes at the heart of their understanding of women and men and their understanding of how God has ordered society.

Fast-forward to 2024. The US Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, ending federal protection for abortion rights. Thirteen states immediately enacted “trigger laws,” written to go into effect the moment Roe was overturned, and thirteen more moved swiftly on legislation to ban abortions. Enter the twin terrors of Immaculate and The First Omen. The monster in these two films are the priests who parade as loving father figures but who really seek to control the innocent, pious young female bodies for their own ends. Specifically, both priests orchestrate pregnancies without the consent of the young nuns in their charge. They abuse their religious authority to exercise control over the womb of the young women—an act both films depict as monstrous and deeply wrong. Both films’ endings highlight the protagonist’s reassertion of her autonomy over her own body and her womb (though admittedly it works better in Immaculate, since it doesn’t have to bear the burden of a 40-year-old sequel).

Fifty years ago, our culture created films to process our collective fears about what reproductive freedom could mean for women. Fifty years later, the world hasn’t ended and no Antichrists have been born (to my knowledge). With the overturning of Roe, however, new anxieties have come to the surface: Who do we trust when we can’t trust those in authority? Still trapped in a patriarchal system, what must a woman do for men to hear her? Will women ever truly have autonomy over their own bodies? If the 1970s are any indication, Immaculate and The First Omen are only the first wave of films that incarnate not an Antichrist, but the very real anxieties contemporary women experience over the way powerful men continue to wield religion to control women’s bodies and reproduction. icon-paragraph-end

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