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‘Malevolence’: The Overlooked Mid-2000s Love Letter to John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’

WARNING: The following contains major spoilers for Immaculate and The First Omen.

Horror has always served as a frightening mirror to reality. In his 1981 treatise on the genre Danse Macabre, author Stephen King writes, “we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones”; it seems scary movies have been helping us do that since the earliest days of storytelling. Modern examples include The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) now considered a reaction to the 1973 oil crisis, Dawn of the Dead (1978) which stands as a horrific condemnation of consumerism, and the explosion of the torture porn subgenre in the wake of 9/11. As the United States enters a new phase of fear, two films have converged in an exploration of horrific pregnancy caused by religious abuse. As reproduction becomes more dangerous, Michael Mohan’s Immaculate and Arkasha Stevenson’s The First Omen both follow nuns impregnated against their will and forced to carry fetuses intended to save the world. 

It’s no coincidence that both films hit at a time of increased threat to reproductive rights. The 2022 Dobbs decision plunged the United States into medical chaos and rescinded the right to bodily autonomy for millions of women. A pregnant person’s access to care now depends on her zip code and laws regulating routine medical procedures are creating gynecological deserts which threaten the health and safety of all women. The opinions of politicians and lawyers weigh more than those of doctors and strangers have the right to challenge a person’s private medical decisions. Regardless of belief or ideology, the reality is that childbirth in the US is less safe than it was two years ago and becoming pregnant feels more like a horror movie with each passing day. Both films explore this horrific atmosphere by taking us to convents where women have willingly given their lives to the Lord. But even in this restrictive environment forced impregnation is an egregious violation and innocent women are treated as nothing more than available wombs. 

Though their stories vary wildly, both Immaculate and The First Omen begin in similar places. Two novitiates fly to Italian convents and prepare to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Cecilia (Sydney Sweeney) has just moved into an abbey that doubles as an assisted living facility when she discovers that she is pregnant seemingly by immaculate conception. At first honored as a holy vessel, she quickly becomes a prisoner on the grounds, forced to carry whatever has been placed inside her womb. Serving as a mirror image to Cecilia, Stevenson’s novitiate Margaret (Nell Tiger Free) is still preparing to join the cloth when a priest approaches her with an ominous warning. As the pieces of this sinister story fall into place, Margaret realizes that she is pregnant with the devil’s child. She quickly gives birth to twins; an unnamed baby girl and a boy who will come to be known as Damien. Only concerned with her male offspring, the murderous clergy steal the baby and place him in the arms of an American ambassador, hoping to spread their dark influence across the world. 

Nell Tiger Free as Margaret - The First Omen review

‘The First Omen’

Both films show the trauma of pregnancy and the violent nature of birth, but neither story concerns itself with the resulting babies. Aside from brief glances, these stories belong to the mothers and it is their experiences that bring the horror. However, the characters they engage with care only for the contents of their wombs. When Cecilia is attacked and nearly killed by a fellow sister, doctors immediately check the status of her pregnancy. They’re relieved to see that the fetus is fine, but the frightened young woman reminds them that she is not. She asks to be seen by an outside doctor and must fake a life-threatening miscarriage to be taken seriously. Margaret faces similar abandonment moments after giving birth. A priest carries her son to a waiting crowd and it’s not until she calls for the child she just delivered that they remember she’s still in the room. Both films also feature a pregnant woman pleading for release through a locked door – a haunting parallel to the experience of being trapped in an unwanted pregnancy. 

It’s important to note that neither woman gives consent for their conditions. We don’t see the moment Cecilia conceives, but we eventually learn that a priest dabbling in genetics has impregnated her with the ancient DNA of Jesus Christ. Margaret has been bred under a specific set of circumstances to create a mother capable of bearing the Antichrist. To achieve this evil goal, her fellow clergy drug and assault her in a hideous ritual that has been repeated many times before. Both Cecilia and Margaret have chosen a life of chastity and neither woman shows anything but horror at the traumatic months of gestation to come. Even though they have willingly dedicated their lives to God, they are forced to give up their bodies as well, sacrificing their mental and physical health for babies they never expected or wanted. 

Immaculate unfolds in three chapters, mirroring the major stages of a typical pregnancy. Sometime during the second trimester, Cecilia notices that she has lost a tooth. Likely a nod to superstitions about the loss of one tooth per child, this harrowing moment also reflects a larger truth. Growing and birthing another human being forever changes a person’s body. In addition to more well-known symptoms like nausea and postpartum depression, expectant mothers also experience gum disease, carpal tunnel syndrome, nosebleeds, and hair loss. Even the size of a woman’s feet have been known to change after giving birth. As her due date nears, Cecilia watches with trepidation as her belly begins to move on its own. While this can be an exciting feeling with a wanted child, Mohan presents these baby kicks with horror. An alien being has taken root inside Cecilia’s belly. Her body has been commandeered by a stranger and she can do nothing but wait for it to emerge. It’s easy to remember the bookends of pregnancy – conception and birth – forgetting that the pregnant person is “with child” every minute of 280 days. Mohan shows us the messy details in the middle and reminds us that reproduction is so much more than two isolated events. 

Sydney Sweeney Immaculate


Also during the second trimester, Cecilia goes through what appears to be a miscarriage. She wakes up screaming and notices heavy blood pouring from between her legs. The frightened mother-to-be begs a priest to take her to a hospital and wails that she doesn’t want to die. This terrifying scene likely hits home to any woman who’s ever suffered pregnancy loss. The brutal experience is often marked by heavy bleeding as the body tries to expel the nonviable fetus. If emergency care does not follow, the mother could die due to excessive blood loss. If the uterus is not cleared of all fetal tissue, sepsis, infection, organ failure, and death may follow. We eventually learn that Cecilia has faked this miscarriage to escape the convent. With chicken’s blood covering her legs, she runs through a field as two priests drag her back to an idling car. While Cecilia’s life is not in immediate danger, this scene presents a horrifying reality playing out across the country. Cecilia simply wants medical care, but the men in control of her fate must believe that she is minutes away from death before they will act. 

Margaret only has a few hours to experience her awful pregnancy, but her labor is intense. Due to the baby’s demonic parentage, her belly rapidly balloons as the unholy twins expand inside her. On the chosen hour, she experiences debilitating spasms and falls to her knees as fluid gushes from between her legs. Cecilia’s water also breaks in the film’s final act, preceding a daring escape while she experiences active labor. After murdering her caretakers, she staggers through the convent halls seeking to kill anyone who stands in her way. But as she goes on her righteous rampage, contractions start to rip through her body. It’s a powerful depiction of this unique type of pain. The massive cramps drown everything else out and Cecilia has no choice but to wait for the current contraction to abate. She may be running from a murderous priest who will surely cut open her stomach and leave her for dead, but even then, the pain is so great that it stops her in her tracks. 

In addition to the trauma of labor, both films accurately depict the brutality of birth. While delivery can be a beautiful process, many women report a shockingly violent experience. Moments after her belly enlarges, Margaret is strapped to a gurney and rolled into a secret operating room. Stoic faces ignore her pleas for help and inject her with drugs to calm her down. Ominous medical tools are presented as instruments of torture and Margaret watches in helpless horror as the surgeons begin their work. They cut into her belly and jostle around inside her abdomen as they search for a membranous sac containing the twins. This terrifying scene reflects the experience of cesarean birth. Numb from the rib cage down, it’s still possible to feel the surgeon’s hands moving your body from side to side, rearranging internal organs and clearing a passage to pull out the baby.

The First Omen 2024 directed by Arkasha Stevenson

‘The First Omen’

Cecilia experiences a different kind of birth – arguably the film’s most powerful scene. After escaping the convent, she finds herself on the edge of a cliff surrounded by wilderness. The camera hovers inches from her face as she bears down and screams through her final contractions. The baby soon passes out of her body and Cecilia desperately tries to recapture her breath. Though we hear tiny coughs and gurgles from the product of her womb, we never see the so-called savior’s face. Cecilia severs the umbilical cord with her teeth and steps away from the reddish-brown creature wriggling on the ground. After locating a heavy rock, she braces herself and then slams it down on the newborn creature. This shocking moment perfectly captures her rage at this tiny stranger. She did not give permission for a fetus to grow inside her and she resents the way it has turned her life upside down. 

Both films explore the concept of good and bad women by following nuns who draw the line at sacrificing their wombs. Margaret tells a misunderstood orphan that she is not “bad,” explaining, “They just tell you that you are because you’re not doing what they want you to do.“ The Catholic church has been telling these two women what to do since birth. They have always been governed by someone else’s religious ideals and given no choice in the way they live out their own faith. As long as Cecilia and Margaret are playing their assigned roles in a hellish plot, they are considered good, even holy. But the minute they exert any will of their own, they are vilified and targeted for death. Another nun tells Cecilia that “suffering is love,” hoping to convince her to allow the abuse of her body. But suffering is only love when it is a choice. Cecilia never chose to be in this position and what happens to her can only be considered punishment. She and Margaret are punished simply because they have fertile wombs – a powerful reflection of what it feels like to be a woman in the US today. 

When Margaret realizes she has been impregnated, she immediately asks for an abortion, insisting, “I need it out of my now.” While upsetting, this sentiment is familiar to millions of women facing pregnancy in a country where religious ideology has taken precedence over medical care. Both films explore these relatable horrors and follow women who refuse to let their bodies be sacrificed to someone else’s understanding of God. Traumatized, assaulted, and violated in every conceivable way, Margaret and Cecilia attempt to murder their unholy offspring with varying levels of success. Though horrific, their actions challenge a patriarchal system that sees them as nothing more than vessels for reproduction. Neither woman renounces her faith and both stand against the hypocrisy that would harm one child of God to produce another. Though their stories end in different places, both women decide that a church that doesn’t care about the mother does not deserve the child. 

Sydney Sweeney horror


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