Reproducing the Horrors of Motherhood in Still/Born

Lately, I’ve been streaming Brandon Christensen’s Still/Born (2017), one of the most effective stories to address the horrors of motherhood that I have seen in a while. If you haven’t seen it yet, I grant you permission to stop reading this right now. Open your Shudder app. Come back after you finish it.

With a running time of fewer than 90 minutes, Still/Born wastes no time attempting to establish a convoluted backstory that takes away from the central narrative of the horrors of motherhood. Its focus is on Mary’s role as a mother, played spectacularly by Christie Burke. Still/Born opens with Mary in labor, her husband Jack (Jesse Moss in a terrific role) at her side. After giving birth to one of the two babies in her womb, it becomes clear that something is wrong. This is communicated silently through an exchange of looks between Mary, Jack, and a doctor. This scene is only one of the many reasons I consider Still/Born effective. Nothing needs to be spoken because Mary’s face says it all.

The Horrors of Motherhood

Still/Born’s plot bears witness to one woman’s struggle to cope with the horrors of motherhood, all while mourning the death of another child. Baby Adam is both a joy and a grim reminder of her loss of Thomas, the other baby. On top of this, Mary’s frustration with Adam’s inability to latch onto her breast to feed him leaves her feeling alienated from her child and like a failure as a mother. A cursory search on any internet forum about parenting demonstrates how devastating this can be.

Mary cries as she disassembles the crib of her dead son in Still/Born

Mary’s lack of sleep, self-care, and coping skills plunges her into an endless chasm of grief and paranoia. She hears cries from another baby in the nursery, which come from what would have been Thomas’s crib. On the video monitor, she watches a figure in white lunge towards Adam’s crib. She sees a baby covered in blood in Thomas’s empty crib. After this, Mary and Jack go to therapy, where the therapist (Michael Ironside) explains postpartum depression to them and privately asks Mary if she had been hallucinating, which she denies. The therapist prescribes her medication and sends them home.

The Horrors of Loneliness

Burke is beyond incredible in embodying these aforementioned emotions, but she is especially adept at showing the horror associated with loneliness (much like I wrote about in Pulse). Because Jack became a partner at his firm, they now live in a new house in a higher-class neighborhood. Mary struggles not only struggle to acclimate to her new maternal role but also to overcome the loneliness of her new lot in life. Mary’s isolation diminishes when she meets Rachel, a neighbor who also has recently entered motherhood. But Mary’s increasing anxiety and the suspicion that Rachel is more interested in Jack than in her hamper their budding relationship. That Rachel calls monogamy “archaic” only heightens Mary’s mistrust.

Mary sits on the couch and holds the baby as she stares at Rachel in the kitchen in Still/Born

To maintain their lifestyle, Jack must go out of town for work. Jack’s reluctance stems from a mark he finds on Adam’s leg while changing his diaper, planting the seed in his mind that Mary is unfit to stay home alone with the baby. He has a camera system installed because of his concern. It’s at this point that the alternate interpretation of events kicks into high gear. Maybe Mary isn’t suffering from postpartum depression (or postpartum psychosis, her later diagnosis) after all.

The Horrors of Chaos

Still/Born intimates that another explanation for the horror that Mary experiences is an otherworldly entity, hellbent on consuming her child. Several unexplained events occur: she sees a figure in the nursery, the nursery windows are broken inward, she hears whispering, etc. This usually happens when Jack is gone or asleep, which adds to the ambiguity of what is really happening. As anyone would, Mary searches the internet to find the shadowy figure that’s attempting to steal her child. There she finds an article that details the story of a woman who claims a demon stole her baby. Death is not the only loss one can experience as a mother. The horrors of motherhood also include dangers beyond our control.

A visit with this woman bears fruit, as she explains that “the bitch who’s trying to steal [Mary’s] baby” is a winged demon. Feeding Mary’s paranoia (or providing her with life-saving information—you be the judge) the woman gives Mary her entire box of “research materials.” Mary has to make a choice to save Adam, the woman tells her. This is the true test of her motherhood. She must either sacrifice someone else’s baby or the demon will take yours.

A finger touches a book's depiction of Lamashtu, a winged female demon

Mary dives into a box, poring over old books and depictions of the demon named Lamashtu, who is akin to depictions of other wicked women.[1] Lamashtu is an ancient Mesopotamian demon who presents particular horrors to mothers. In the ancient world she “preyed especially upon unborn and newborn babies.”[2] One might wonder why she appears in Still/Born‘s modern American context, but I think it makes perfect sense. Demons are externalizations of our inner anxieties and desires. As such, we can read Lamashtu as the personification (demonification?) of Mary’s anxiety about harming her child(ren), in addition to the guilt she feels about Thomas’s death and the fear she has about losing Adam.

The Horrors of Ambiguity

Still/Born presents a solid story full of dread and ambiguity. In this respect it’s similar to another recent horror gem, Josh Lobo’s I Trapped the Devil. Even without introducing supernatural elements,  in Still/Born there are real horrors of motherhood, pregnancy, and childbirth. This is especially true in the United States, where the death rate of people who give birth has more than doubled since 1991 (10.3 vs. 23.8 per 100,000 live births).[3] That Still/Born depicts many of the other common struggles that new parents face speaks to this. And this is the strength of this film. What actually happens (and its causes) is left to the audience to decide.

[1] See the section about wicked women in “‘Pleasures of Heaven or Hell’: Religious Imagery in Hellraiser.”

[2] Susan Ackerman, “Syria-Canaan.” ed. Sarah Iles Johnston. Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004), 460.

[3] Maternal mortality also disproportionately impacts people of color in America. See Suzanne Delbanco, Maclaine Lehan, Thi Montalvo, and Jeffrey Levin-Scherz. “The Rising U.S. Maternal Mortality Rate Demands Action from Employers.” Harvard Business Review, June 28, 2019.

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