1. Ray Bradbury Theater, “The Small Assassin” (1988)
Babies are weird. They can’t talk, they cry and scream and poop, and they have to be taught how to be human in a process that takes years of valuable living-one’s-own-life time. It’s impossible to know what babies are thinking, and while their lack of upper-arm strength and basic motor skills limits their threat level, their cuteness gives them a lot of leeway. Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Small Assassin” (adapted for television in 1988 for Ray Bradbury Theater) exploits this concern in the most straightforward way possible. A woman gives birth, but she doesn’t much care for her child, because she doesn’t think the child much cares for her. Birth means leaving the comfort and safety of the womb. It’s a violent change, and what if that violence makes the delivered infant view his parents as the enemy? What if he resents expulsion, and seeks for some way to redress the wrong? It’s a potentially ridiculous idea delivered without winking, and silly or not, there’s something chilling in the thought of welcoming some stranger into one’s home with complete trust, only to find that trust repaid in the harshest way imaginable.
2. It’s Alive (1974)
Although it looks silly in retrospect, It’s Alive is far scarier when viewed in historical context. Released just months after Roe V. Wade and during a time when Thalidomide birth defects were still fresh in the popular consciousness, the film holds up a funhouse mirror to some inflammatory real-life issues. After his wife gives birth to a homicidal troll that slaughters all the medical staff in the delivery room, suburban dad John Ryan is forced to decide whether to help the police capture and kill his little bundle of joy. Bodies pile up as Ryan’s relationship with his wife deteriorates, compounded by the revelation that the couple nearly had the fetus aborted—that is, after she took an experimental fertility drug to help her become pregnant. The infant itself is a fanged, gray-skinned, sewer-crawling mutant that’s only half as terrifying as the film’s iconic poster, which shows a baby carriage with a claw hanging out of it. It’s Alive spawned two sequels and a 2008 remake (starring Bijou Phillips), but nothing can match the nerve-jangling campiness and eerie resonance of the original.
3. The Passion Of The Christ (2004)
For a film that presumes to go further over the top than the Bible itself, Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ admittedly boasts a great deal of artful, detailed symbolism. Rosalinda Celentano’s androgynous, black-robed Satan resembles Maia Morgenstern’s plain, pale Mary. It’s no accident: Mary isn’t the only maternal figure in this film. As Jesus (James Caviezel) suffers a thrashing from the Romans, he sees Celentano lurking among the crowd, holding a baby. The infant turns its head to reveal an ugly, shrunken adult face, twisted in a retch-worthy parody of a cherubic smile. (Its back and arms also appear either bruised or hairy.) Even Gibson admitted, speaking to Christian-centric websites that raised questions about this not-strictly-Biblical scene, that “it’s almost too much.” In fact, it’s one of the film’s most subtly terrifying moments. Not only is the child hideous, it’s also aware and delighted about the possibility that it’s the antichrist, just coming out to get some air and take in a leisurely torture session.
4. The Baby Of Mâcon (1993)
Even if the miraculous infant of the title isn’t the creepiest in cinematic history, it at least appears in the most disturbing movie on this list. In Peter Greenaway’s opulent play-within-a-play-within-a-film, the town of Mâcon is stricken by famine, drought, and plague, until Julia Ormond claims to have produced a virgin birth. In fact, the baby was born to her grotesque, idiotic mother, and Ormond passes it off as her own in order to sell indulgences; when she seduces Ralph Fiennes, the son of the local bishop, to protect her scam, the baby uses its divine—or diabolical—power to force a bull to gore him to death. Blaming this on Ormond, the church seizes the baby and continues its exploitation, leading to a horrific chain of events that ends with the child being dismembered and sold to the “audience.” Greenaway’s films often contain horrific images and implications, but none more than this one, an unfairly maligned effort that’s never received a legal DVD release in America. Its unnamed baby is both monster and victim in one of the most savage critiques of religion ever to hit the screen.
5. Trainspotting (1996)
Trainspotting boasts a number of memorable sequences, none more than Renton (Ewan McGregor) hallucinating through brutal heroin detox while locked up in his childhood bedroom. Danny Boyle’s stylized direction cuts quickly among fantasy (Renton’s parents on a game show answering questions about AIDS), reality (friends stopping by), and straight-up hallucinations. The most vivid finds Sick Boy and Allison’s dead love child, Dawn, crawling across the room on the ceiling while Renton wails hysterically. At first, the sight of a baby crawling across the ceiling is genuinely unnerving, but when it stops above Renton and turns its head 180 degrees, it looks almost laughably fake. Hey, Boyle only had a budget of £1.5 million ($2.4 million at the time); he could only devote so much to realistic-looking dead babies.
6. Eraserhead (1976)
Poor Jennifer Lynch. Not only was her directorial debut, Boxing Helena, the object of one of the most severe critical ass-whoopings in history, but she had to grow up knowing that father directed one of the most pungent manifestations of the fear of parenthood ever committed to celluloid. The ambient creepiness of David Lynch’s Eraserhead is often chalked up to free-floating surrealism, but when the film is looked at as an expressionist manifestation of paternal terror, the pieces fall neatly into place. Exhibit A, of course, is the skinless, suppurating mass delivered to unhappy dad Jack Nance, who lives in an industrial flat where dank textures seem to seep into the very walls. His entire world becomes a oozing nightmare that makes poopy diapers seem positively benign.
7. The Brood (1979)
Picking up where Children Of The Damned left off, The Brood is David Cronenberg’s boundary-stretching take on the creepy-kid cliché. Samantha Eggars plays the mother of the titular brood, a troubled woman driven to undergo a radical psychotherapeutic procedure that causes her own sociopathic tendencies to manifest themselves as fetuses. The hideous offspring sprout up to become bloodthirsty, murderous toddlers, embodiments of Eggars’ various issues with her parents and her ex-husband. Lots of disturbing adulticide ensues—but the most horrific image comes in the film’s climactic scene, in which Eggars, after gestating one of her children in a distended, sac-like appendage, tears her uterus open with her teeth and starts lustily licking bloody afterbirth from the deformed newborn like a dog cleaning one of its puppies.
8. The Fly (1986)
A cautionary tale for the ladies: dating scientists with plans to “change the world” may put a damper on your procreational habits. After meeting, falling for, and sleeping with scientist Jeff Goldblum, journalist Geena Davis splits from her new lover once he starts behaving strangely. Fingernails fall away, body parts slough off, and he vomits digestive enzyme onto his food in order to eat it. It’s just a natural part of turning into a half-man, half-fly, thanks to a compromised experiment with his new teleportation system. There’s just one complication for Davis: She’s pregnant, but doesn’t know whether the conception occurred pre- or post- teleportation. This leads to one of the more repulsive birthing scenes caught on film, as Davis has a nightmare that she gives birth to a huge, writhing maggot. An attempted abortion never comes to pass, though Davis must eventually exterminate her baby’s father. The baby’s fate is never revealed, unless you count The Fly II.
9. Grace (2009)
Expectant mother Madeline Matheson is unsurprisingly bereaved when a car accident kills her husband and unborn baby. But rather than surgically removing the fetal corpse, she follows a midwife’s advice to let her body expel it, a strategy that pays miraculous dividends when the newborn unexpectedly comes to life. There’s a catch, though: Its preferred food isn’t mother’s milk, but blood, which the grey-skinned tyke eagerly suckles from her progressively more mangled breast. Although Peter Solet’s movie has some sympathy for the mother’s attachment, it strays over the line between depicting her fears and being repelled by them.
10. Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)
With its masterful use of demonology, crucifix-molestation, and bodily fluids, The Exorcist took big-screen horror to another level. It only makes sense that the film’s Renny Harlin-directed prequel, Exorcist: The Beginning—as well as its alternate Paul Schrader-helmed version, 2005’s Dominion: The Prequel To The Exorcist—would try to up the gross-out ante even more. Just as predictably, though, the relatively low-budget The Beginning totally fails in this regard. But one scene in particular almost makes the movie worth the price of admission. In a village in Kenya near an archeological dig that allegedly holds an icon of the demon Pazuzu, all sorts of supernatural nastiness is going down. The most graphic instance of this unholy despoilment is the birth of a child that comes out stillborn—and so horribly deformed, it looks much like a creature of hell itself.
11. The X-Files, “Humbug” (1995)
The image of a bloody, murderous, scrabbling fetus in fetu was burned into the brains of anyone who watched this particularly grotesque installment of The X-Files. After David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson investigate a series of murders in a Florida town inhabited largely by circus freaks, the culprit turns out to be, naturally, the partially formed fetal twin of alcoholic Vincent Schiavelli. “Leonard,” the murderous fetus, is able to detach himself from Schiavelli’s body and search for a “new brother,” one who hasn’t destroyed his body with liquor. Leonard’s M.O. is to attempt to burrow into the sides of his victims, which of course only kills them. In the end, Leonard is devoured by The Condundrum, a tattooed geek who will “eat anything.” Though the episode is known for its dark humor, it’s also been responsible for quite a few nightmares, as a horrifying, deadly fetus turns out to be way scarier than any of the circus freaks.
12. V: The Final Battle (1984)
The birth scene—which is stupidly amusing nightmare juice for tots—is one of the most famous in the entirety of the V saga. Robin (Blair Tefkin), a woman giving birth to a human/alien hybrid, is heartened by good news. She’s had a baby girl, a perfectly normal one! Then a long, snaky forked tongue emerges like a party favor from the mouth of said baby girl. The doctors sedate the terrified Robin, but then get to see the worst themselves, as a green reptilian baby crawls out of Robin’s uterus and pokes its puppety head above the sheet covering her, looking for all the world like a horrible Jim Henson prank. The reptile kid sneers at all assembled and provides a jolt to end this installment of the miniseries—before promptly dying at the start of the next one.
13. Demon Seed (1977)
In the tradition of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000, the villain of Demon Seed, Proteus IV, is a cold, cunning sentient computer that develops a contempt for the squishy, imperfect race that created it. But Proteus’ contempt is mixed with a chilling curiosity, which results in its impossible impregnation of Julie Christie, the wife of one of the machine’s creators. After fabricating a geodesic incubator for the human/computer fetus, Proteus gives birth to the baby, a squealing, metallic humanoid tethered to its mechanical womb by a copper-wire umbilicus. Christie’s first instinct is to kill the creature, but her husband overpowers her and gently peels away the child’s robotic shell to reveal a little girl—a clone, in fact, of the couple’s dead daughter, only one that speaks in the droning, digitized voice of Proteus.
14. Splice (2009)
A highlight of this year’s Sundance, Vincenzo Natali’s cautionary tale centers on a childless couple of genetic engineers (Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody) who fill the void with a hybridized creature they name Dren. (“Nerd” backwards, although that part is best forgotten.) With her oversized eyes and birdlike legs, Dren seems utterly alien at first, but as she matures at a highly elevated speed, she takes on more human characteristics. It’s one thing for her to be a specimen in a cage; it’s quite another, more unsettling situation when she’s hopping around the lab in a dress. Natali’s movie is nominally horror, but like Dren herself, the film changes shape so often, viewers never know what’s coming next.
15. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
The infant antichrist in Rosemary’s Baby is never actually seen, which was indubitably the right choice for director Roman Polanski; Mia Farrow’s terrified reaction when she sees what came out of her womb is more expressive than any special-effect monster the ’60s could have offered. (Case in point: Farrow wound up with her Satanic offspring after a drugged night with the devil, and the brief depiction of him looks pretty cheesy today.) Polanski chose to let the audience’s imagination and a few key lines—“What have you done to its eyes?” “He has his father’s eyes!”—conjure up an effectively chilling image. Though as the film’s climactic scene continues, it turns out that there’s something even scarier than a devil-baby that repels its own mother: a mother-son bond so strong that it lets mom overlook her devil-baby’s hideous aspect and hideous proposed future, and cuddle up with him anyway.
16. Dawn Of The Dead (2004)
It’s hard to imagine less fortunate circumstances of birth than entering the world in the back room in a shopping mall, where both your parents have been shot dead by another patron. It doesn’t help if you’re born with a virus that has turned you into a mindless monster wanting only to bite other humans and spread the infection further. As a final insult, you can’t even accomplish that task because of your inability to walk. Sigh. Oh well. After all the build-up to the zombie baby’s birth in 2004’s Dawn Of The Dead remake—including a bulging zombie belly with creepy zombie fetus movement—it turns out that a zombie baby isn’t that hard to dispose of. And frankly, when the victim is this disturbing, infanticide doesn’t seem all that wrong.
17. Dead Alive (1992)
There’s a good deal of insanity in Peter Jackson’s zombie epic Dead Alive: psychotic monkeys, murderous mums, lawnmower vengeance, and, ulp, custard. It may not top the list, but the murderous zombie baby that pops into the picture right when things start getting really crazy makes an impression. The result of an unholy humping between a dead priest and a dead nurse, the baby is one more complication for Dead Alive’s hero, Lionel (Timothy Balme), which only worsens when he decides to take the monstrous infant out to the park for a stroll. The creature gets loose in spite of Lionel’s best efforts, and all sorts of hilarious yet disturbing havoc ensues. Babies don’t normally intend to devour the nearest toddler (we hope), but when the pregnancy term is less than a fortnight, and mom and dad don’t have pulses, certain variations on the norm are to be expected.
18. Bright Lights, Big City (1988)
The film adaptation of Jay McInerney’s novel almost warrants subtitles screaming “THIS IS A METAPHOR!” during any mention of the Coma Baby. In McInerney’s story about a hard-partying New York professional (Michael J. Fox) teetering on the brink of personal ruin, the news dominating the city’s tabloids concerns a fetus inside a woman who’s left comatose by a car accident. Fox obsesses over the baby, which leads to a dream sequence where he even talks to the creepy, fake-looking fetus, who vows never to leave the womb: “I like it in here—everything I need is pumped in.” SYMBOLISM ALERT: You see, Fox totally is the Coma Baby! By the end of the film, when Fox has an epiphany and decides to clean up his life, the New York Post headline blares “COMA BABY LIVES!”
19. Beyond Borders (2003)
Angelina Jolie’s humanitarian work has laudably brought a lot of attention to global troubles. In 2003, she tried to bring some of her activism to the big screen with Beyond Borders, a well-intentioned but stiff film about a naïve woman who finds purpose working for humanitarian causes. Not helping matters: a shot of Jolie’s character clutching a starving African child who was clearly a computer creation. It is, of course, iffy to call out a film for not finding an actual starving child for our entertainment, but the CGI victim looked unsettling in ways the film couldn’t have intended, as if Jolie’s next stop should be rescuing the displaced children of the Uncanny Valley.
20. The Simpsons (1994 to present)
Maggie Simpson is such a quiet, sweet, unassuming baby that it seems surprising that she’d have an arch-nemesis. But she does, in the form of Baby Gerald, who’s roughly the evil, monobrowed doppelganger of Swee’pea from Popeye. For a one-joke character, Gerald has popped up a surprising number of times, eventually revealing a life that runs as a polar opposite to Maggie’s. Widespread mayhem and destruction follows him, to the point where even Mayor Quimby acknowledges it. (Although, to be fair, Gerald has never shot Mr. Burns.) With the redesign of the show’s credits for high-definition TV, Gerald appears every week, so he and Maggie can shake their fists at each other.
21. Teletubbies (1997-2001)
The Teletubbies live in an idyllic world of green grass, bright flowers, and giant rabbits that nonetheless seem friendly. Their sun even has a smiling, benevolent baby, who laughs when the Tubbies do things that please him. But seen in another light, the whole scenario shrieks of a science-fiction dystopia, not unlike Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream,” where an angry all-seeing, all-knowing god demands his subjects perform for his amusement and be subjected to his rigorous tests. This means plenty of singing and dancing, even more baby talk, and only a sentient vacuum cleaner as a friend for the four heroes. Sun Baby might seem normal, but any baby impervious to the heat at the heart of the sun is surely possessed of demonic power. Does that dead-eyed stare hide evil?