The Possessed: Dispatches from the Third Trimester

On pregnancy, demons, and Stranger Things.

Sara Fredman | Longreads | October 2018 | 11 minutes (2,913 words)

 

In the second season of Stranger Things a tentacled smoke monster forces its way into poor Will Byers’ mouth, taking up residence inside his body. When his mother draws him a warm bath, he refuses. “He likes it cold,” Will intones creepily. The demon inside is invisible to others but exerts its will on Will, who is himself but also something else. As I watch the story unfold, the human being growing inside my body moves frenetically, as if it is popping and locking to a beat I cannot hear. This flurry of activity makes my stomach look like a potato sack with several distressed squirrels stuck inside; this is likely due to the cookie-dough ice cream I have recently eaten. I, too, have something inside of me; it also likes it cold.

“Pregnancy has every element of an alien invasion,” I read on the NPR website. “The human placenta is one of the most invasive placentas.”

We often turn to the extraterrestrial when we describe the phenomenon of growing a new person inside of an existing one. Early ultrasound images recall the classic imagining of alien form: a giant head attached to a smaller, translucent body set against a black abyss. It’s not just the optics. As pop icon and formerly-pregnant person JLo once remarked, “Pregnancy and giving birth are weird, strange. The growing life inside you — it’s like an invasion of the body snatchers.” I assume this creepy description reflects the way in which the growing fetus influences, commandeers even, so many of the bodily processes of its host. Google “alien” and “pregnancy,” and the least-frightening video that comes up will confirm: “Clearly, the fetus has no qualms about doing whatever it needs to do to get things for itself.”

The monster that invades Will’s body is from the Upside Down, a dark, bizarro version of the human world. The first season saw Will kidnapped to that parallel dimension; this time, the Upside Down comes to him. The infiltrator arrives not from beyond the stars but from beneath the soil. It makes its host do things he would never dream of doing of his own volition. Will’s body hasn’t been snatched by an alien, it’s been possessed by a demon. This is an important distinction: the Duffer Brothers have gifted us one of the few portrayals of male possession in film, television, or literature.

The impulse to see pregnancy as a sci-fi curiosity turns pregnant people into something that is not human, or at least adds an asterisk to their humanity.

Gendered demonic possession — the kind we see in movies like The Exorcist and Deliver Us from Evil — has a long history. The Malleus Maleficarum, an infamous manual for witch hunters, was published in 15th-century Germany and remained a bestseller for two centuries. It identified women as susceptible to sorcery and possession because their bodies were more “porous” than male bodies. Women’s bodies were understood to have the capacity to act as a dwelling place, but what dwelled within could be divine or demonic, the voice of Christ or the voice of the devil. (If I talk about pregnant or possessed women here, it’s because this history has largely excluded trans or non-binary people from these experiences.) Historian Sarah Ferber has argued that ecstatic spirituality, possession, and witchcraft all lay on the same “sliding scale of rapture.” If you’re a woman in a patriarchal religion, sometimes a voice in your head is your best bet for active spirituality, even if it’s not the right voice.

In medieval and early-modern cases of possession, Ferber notes, the demonic spirit was believed to “override the physical humanity of the possessed, and to control their every move.” For those of us who have been pregnant, talking about the experience as possession or invasion can be a way to describe a lived reality: in a number of important ways, there is someone else calling the shots. Perhaps this explains the camaraderie that I, a real-life woman growing a person, began to feel with Will Byers, a fictional boy with a shadowy demon inside of him. Perhaps this is why pregnancy-horror is a film genre. But I wonder if these metaphors serve a different purpose for those on the sidelines, reflecting a hard-to-admit discomfort with the idea of pregnancy. The impulse to see pregnancy as a sci-fi curiosity turns pregnant people into something that is not human, or at least adds an asterisk to their humanity. The only process by which we can perpetuate our existence becomes an exception rather than the rule, a quirky but sometimes terrifying aberration, rather than a linchpin in the survival of our species.

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We talk about pregnancy as “natural” — that 21st-century seal of approval — but it’s not clear that we truly mean it (especially when we hesitate to bestow that seal on trans men and others who don’t conform to the traditional image of a pregnant woman). Is this because only some of us do it? The big bad of the first season of Stranger Things, the one who makes Will susceptible to this parasitic shadow monster in the first place, is based on the Demogorgon from Dungeons & Dragons, also known as “The Prince of Demons” and “Lord of All That Swims in Darkness.” Watching Will succumb to his literal inner demon while my internal squirrel pops and locks reminds me of a crucial truth. We were all once swimmers in the darkness, but only some of us know what it’s like to be the dark pool. When we use the paranormal to understand a person’s ability to act as a dwelling place, we disown the process by which we have all come to be even as we claim to revere it.

Of course, any notions of an impermeable human body are illusory. Bodies of all genders are more porous than we could have ever imagined: scientists have found that we have just as many microbial cells as human cells inhabiting our bodies, if not more. We are all, essentially, possessed by microorganisms. But we can’t see the microbiome — all those symbiotic species inside of us — so we can pretend it doesn’t exist. Even though microbes are our more permanent residents, we talk about them with the language of itinerancy; we are simply hosting them. When we talk about the unborn, we use more permanent imagery (“As big as a house”: how one professor in my graduate program described a pregnant colleague). I wonder whether what turns the temporary berth of the womb into a residence is the evidence its occupant provides of its existence. It is an unseen demon that nevertheless makes its presence known. One body must grow in order to accommodate another; in their expansion, pregnant bodies become inhabited.

We were all once swimmers in the darkness, but only some of us know what it’s like to be the dark pool.

The vaunted “bump” is important because it is symptom, not cause, appearance rather than the thing itself. The theater of the womb remains closed to all but those invited into the sonographer’s suite. And even the revelatory magic of sound waves can only tell us so much. This is strange for us because it chafes against the illusions we harbor of unrestricted access to the things we want to know (“ask the internet!” my daughter implores when I don’t have the answer to one of her copious questions). We cast furtive, shadowy glances at its contents but the womb keeps many secrets.


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Medieval and early-modern Christians were not the first to ask what might lurk within women’s bodies. The Hebrew Bible concept of the Sotah betrays a similar discomfort with the guarded capaciousness of these bodies. A foundational text for not taking a woman at her word, the passage outlines the trial by ordeal that results if a man suspects his wife of infidelity in the absence of witnesses and she refuses to confess to any wrongdoing. The woman must appear before a priest and drink holy water into which the priest has dissolved a scroll inscribed with curses. If she has been unfaithful, the water will cause her belly to swell and her thigh to “sag.” When I learned this in Jewish day school it was explained as an exploding uterus. If, however, she has been falsely accused, “she shall be unharmed and able to retain seed.”

Anticipating the spirit of numerous “how to troubleshoot a demon” tracts, the trial by ordeal of the Sotah registers unease with what the female body is capable of holding within itself, and with what it might stubbornly refuse to disclose. In response it offers a prescription for making the internal visible and the unknowable known. What is usually a den of secrets becomes a revelatory organ: whether the accused woman is found guilty or innocent, her womb delivers the verdict.

We no longer use curse-laden drinks to render judgment on a woman’s body, but we still struggle with the great unknown of the womb. Movies in the pregnancy-horror canon, like Village of the Damned, see the womb as capable of housing anything: what else, they seem to wonder, can these bodies grow inside themselves? In real life we deal with the opacity of human gestation by focusing on what we can know, like biological gender — an obsession manifest in elaborate reveal parties and intrusive queries from strangers. Even this third time around, it is fascinating that once I am incontrovertibly “showing,” my body and its contents become not only a regular topic of conversation with strangers but the mainstay of my social interactions.

We no longer use curse-laden drinks to render judgment on a woman’s body, but we still struggle with the great unknown of the womb.

“Pregnancy is an experience that invites public intervention and forces the female body into the public discourse,” writes Roxane Gay. I cannot leave the house without discussing my body. Everyone is eager for information on the not yet visible thing in my very visible belly and their inquiries follow a predictable pattern. The first question demands to know when the blessed event is due to take place; the next is invariably about gender. At that point I disclose that I prefer to find out this piece of information in the delivery room, which provokes an immediate and unsolicited guess as to what type of fetal genitals are lurking inside of me. When this predictable exchange takes place at Ace Hardware, the well-meaning woman surmises that, based on her own three pregnancies (all boys), I seem to be carrying a girl. Given the same information, Paul at the post office recommends his own name “if it becomes a boy.”

All of these constant, weird conversations remind me that, as the walking wombed, I enjoy a privileged perch. While I remain ignorant of so many things about the body developing inside of my own, I know that my relationship to it is inaccessible to the rest of the world, including the co-procreant who sits beside me watching Stranger Things. At 17 weeks I feel a first flutter, imperceptible to the outside world. I begin to discern a rhythm in my occupant’s day, active while I teach my morning classes and relaxed at night. In my ninth month, my children regularly ask whether the baby is awake or sleeping. They understand that I am the gatekeeper of this information. Like Will Byers, I mediate between the denizen of my body and the outside world.

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Maybe the curiosity of the mother’s public stems from equal parts delight in and discomfiture with gestation: delight in the creation of an entirely new person within an existing one, and unease with the idea that we can only see one of them. All promise, a swelling belly puts us on tilt. It announces the existence of an entity we can’t see but toward which we nevertheless feel compelled to extend our care. A friend recalls walking in the rain while visibly pregnant when a passerby exclaimed: “your baby is getting wet!”

Even the most respectful and articulate among us may turn into awkward bumblers when we encounter pregnant people. But well-intentioned intrusion can become something more sinister in the hands of misogynists. It is a pillar of feminist thought that misogyny sees pregnant women not as human beings but as vessels bearing the embodied human future we must all strive to protect. This, the thinking goes, makes it easy to dismiss their reproductive autonomy. I suspect it is somewhat more complicated. What if those who would try to extend their reach into our bodies do so not because they think of us as nothing more than walking wombs, but because deep down they, too, suspect that pregnancy turns people into more than themselves — that it is not substitution but addition?

Like Will and his demon, pregnancy turns those who experience it into possessors of knowledge inaccessible to the rest of the world. The changing shape of a pregnant person makes it impossible to forget that the rest of us are left out of this particular drama, that what stands between us and our future as a species is a female body. I’m not sure pregnant people would chafe as much at being in the public discourse if we could enter it as authorities; if the rest of the world, in acknowledging that we are ourselves but also someone else, could understand that condition as entitling us to more autonomy rather than less.

Like priests of yore obsessed with externalizing that which they suspected to be lurking within the female body, politicians today subject pregnant bodies to the trial by ordeal of pre-abortion counseling and transvaginal ultrasounds before they can regain autonomy. In place of the “discernment of spirits” which judged whether the voice inside of a woman was God or the devil, we have a “discernment of motives,” in which legislators decide whether a pregnancy is being terminated for the right reasons, should such reasons even exist. The mechanics have changed but the goal remains the same. Patriarchy used to turn female knowledge and authority into a demon, a curse that could make women’s bodies explode. Now it just defers that knowledge and authority with invasive questions and ultrasound wands, waiting periods and bureaucracy. Thanks to Brett “the government has permissible interests in favoring fetal life” Kavanaugh, we may soon look back on that bureaucracy with nostalgia.

I’m not sure pregnant people would chafe as much at being in the public discourse if we could enter it as authorities; if the rest of the world, in acknowledging that we are ourselves but also someone else, could understand that condition as entitling us to more autonomy rather than less.

It isn’t just men who try to chip away at women’s sense of our own bodies. During my first semester of graduate school, I had a positive pregnancy test and a body I knew was not pregnant. “But wouldn’t that be wonderful?” the nurse practitioner from Student Health Services asked as we awaited the blood-test results. I wasn’t ready to take on the responsibility of mothering and I knew I wasn’t going to have to. “It looks like you’re losing the baby,” she later said over the phone. “It was never a baby” is what I should have replied.

Who gets to say when a fetus is a person, and what do we even mean when we use that word?

I find it hard to refer to my tenants as “babies” until they reach that point of development at which they would be able to survive outside the womb. An acquaintance mourned her first-trimester loss as if it had been a baby carried to term. Maybe part of what rankles us about pregnancy is that the identity of what’s inside is determined not just by its own developmental status but also by the particular beliefs and circumstances of the person growing it. It’s a burdensome power that our cinematic fantasies of helpless women with hijacked bodies aim to occlude.

Alas, when it comes to pregnancy, all experts are destined to once again become bumblers. After 39-and-a-half weeks of indwelling, my exuberant demon takes on a life of her own (if you’re reading this, Ace Hardware woman, your instincts were spot on) and I return to the company of those who do not know. Encountering pregnant women, I begin to ask all the same invasive questions to which I had until recently been subjected. All pregnant people eat from the Tree of Knowledge but are eventually exiled from that particular garden. All we can take with us is the understanding that this kind of possession turns us into agents rather than vessels, that it generates authority instead of victimhood.

Will Byers spends much of the second season of Stranger Things in a hospital bed or unconscious. The demon inside of him is ultimately vanquished by Eleven, the telekinetic Eggo lover revealed in this season to be called Jane. In an otherwise underwhelming season, the idea of a boy possessed and a girl capable of saving the day is thrilling. Still, I feel a twinge of sadness that it is never the possessed who save the world, even though that is often the mundane truth of the matter.

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Sara Fredman is a writer living in St. Louis. She holds a PhD in medieval English literature and is an editor for december magazine. Her work has appeared in Tablet and Lilith.

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Editor: Ben Huberman
Illustrator: Lily Padula