Welcome to Mother of Fears – a monthly column that will explore the various roles that mothers play within the horror genre. Mothers are a staple feature in horror movies, and yet, their stories, motivations, representations, and relationships with their children are so varied and complex that we never feel like we’re watching the same story twice. Every month I will take a look at a different mother from the world of horror, explore their story, and look at how they fit into the broader representation of women in horror.
Pregnancy is supposed to be a beautiful, magical time where you look forward to the birth of your new baby and marvel at the miracle of life as you struggle that little bit more each day to tie your shoes. Of course, pregnancy is also a tsunami of emotions as you try to grapple with the fact you’re growing a very tiny person that you will be responsible for at least the next 18 years, while your body changes drastically and seems to enjoy making things difficult for you.
For Ruth in Prevenge (2016), pregnancy is an addition to her grief and a reminder of the partner she lost in a climbing accident the day she found out she was pregnant. The baby makes it hard to forget what happened that day, as it sprung into her life as unexpectedly as her partner left. She has no happy memories to associate with the baby, only sad ones, which makes her journey as a mother all the more difficult.
As it turns out, Ruth’s partner plummeted to his death when there were too many climbers hooked up to the same rope. The decision had to be made to cut one person free to save everyone else, and Ruth’s partner was the one who suffered, presumably because he was at the end of the rope. The poor decisions and terrible luck involved in his death make it even harder for Ruth to deal with.
Already heavily pregnant, and struggling with the impending birth of her child which may make her partner’s death even harder to deal with, Ruth believes her child is communicating with her from within the womb. Not only that, the baby is intent on getting revenge on the others involved in Ruth’s partner’s death in the hope it will provide both Ruth and her baby with some sort of closure and relief.
Ruth’s first victim is Mr Zabek, a slightly perverse pet shop owner who Ruth visits under the guise of looking for a new pet for her imaginary eight-year-old son. Ruth is the perfect serial killer. Dressed as a middle-class housewife with her large baby bump, she doesn’t seem like a threat to anyone. Mr Zabek clearly believes the power is in his hands as he leers over Ruth and invites her into his backroom to look at his private collection. She laughs at his bad jokes, smiles politely through his inappropriate comments, and so he really believes he is completely in control of the situation when Ruth leans over and slits his throat.
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“For Ruth in Prevenge (2016), pregnancy is an addition to her grief and a reminder of the partner she lost in a climbing accident the day she found out she was pregnant.”
While Ruth is clearly experiencing an unconventional pregnancy, she’s still choosing to document the path she and her unborn child are taking together by patiently filling out her baby book. However, rather than photos of scans and memories of her partner, the book is both a kill list and a murder scrapbook. While Ruth blames her baby for her murderous impulses, it’s clear that working through the list of people she blames for her partner’s death is giving her something to focus on rather than the thought of actually giving birth and having to care for a baby. It’s hard to distract yourself from pregnancy when the mirror and everyone around you do nothing but offer constant reminders of your current state, and so this revenge quest is giving Ruth both a distraction and purpose.
Ruth’s murders are intercut with the seemingly never-ending midwife appointments which pregnant mothers have to attend in the later months of pregnancy. While Ruth is dealing with a potentially homicidal baby, the advice she is given is similar to the advice any pregnant mother receives. “Just so you know, you have absolutely no control over your mind and body anymore. This one does”, Ruth’s midwife says pointing to Ruth’s baby bump.
Advice like this seems slightly terrifying, even for a normal pregnancy, and it is. It’s very easy to feel like your body is no longer your own, and the baby is the only thing that anyone else is worried about. Everything you do is for the health of the baby, including giving up certain foods, caffeine, alcohol, and certain physical activities. You are nothing more than a vessel for this new life.
The midwife’s words seem to tell Ruth that she should listen to her baby more and stop trying to fight the murderous instinct that is growing inside her. Baby knows best, after all. And so Ruth leans more into the murders she commits, getting more and more confident as time goes on. By the time she comes for hard-nosed businesswoman Ella, Ruth’s baby is complimenting her on her no-nonsense killing style.
However, the more Ruth connects with her baby through the murders, the more she misses out on the life she feels she should have had if her partner had survived. She presses herself against the wall of her hotel room as a couple in the adjoining room have sex, keen for any sort of intimacy even if she’s she’s an unknown participant. But her baby likes to remind her who is in control. When Ruth seems to be building a sort of bond with Josh, the roommate of another murder victim, Ruth is bombarded with images of the day her partner died. Ruth’s baby shows Ruth what happened the last time she cared about someone, and how the results had a devastating effect on her. The risk isn’t worth it to have someone else ripped away from her so horribly.
After killing everyone else involved in her partner’s death, the only person left is Tom, the climbing instructor who was in charge that day. Ruth has met up with him a couple of times at this point but found herself unable to kill him, which only seems to enrage her baby more. Eventually, Ruth decides to infiltrate a Halloween party Tom is throwing in a final attempt to close this chapter of her life. Ruth dresses up as a vision of Death for Halloween, finally embracing the female rage and madness she has seen in the movie Crime Without Passion (1934), which Ruth enjoys watching in her hotel room after committing her murders.
“While Ruth blames her baby for her murderous impulses, it’s clear that working through the list of people she blames for her partner’s death is giving her something to focus on rather than the thought of actually giving birth and having to care for a baby.”
The women in Crime Without Passion are the Furies, who in Greek mythology were the goddesses vengeance, dishing out punishment to those who were perceived to have done wrong. Ruth is finally living her Furies fantasy and ensuring that punishment is served where an inquest into the accident failed her. The flaw in her plan comes when she sees that Tom’s partner is also pregnant, and Ruth hesitates to put another mother and child in the positive that she’s been left in. Her child, in a rage, tells her “Kill him. Or I kill you,” before sending Ruth into premature labor.
Tom knows Ruth is there to confront him, as he recognizes her from the inquest, and he gives us the first hint that perhaps Ruth’s rose-tinted memory isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Tom says that Ruth’s partner told Tom they were in trouble and he was thinking about leaving her. While it’s not clear if Tom is telling the truth or not, it shows that even if her partner had lived, Ruth may not have had the perfect life she was looking for.
Ruth wakes up in the hospital, having given birth to her healthy baby girl via cesarean. As she stares at her child she’s confused that she’s not birthed some sort of hellspawn, but rather a regular-looking child. The realization that her baby is not evil, and perhaps the hatred and grief have twisted her into a different person seems to hit Ruth. Perhaps it was easier for her to blame the way she was feeling on this strange thing living in her body. Finding out she was pregnant on the day she lost her partner meant the feelings she has for both of them were always going to be intrinsically linked.
As the baby grew inside her, so did her grief, with Ruth choosing to believe that the baby was somehow to blame so she could shift the onus away from here. However, with the baby here and no longer hell-bent on murder, reality hits. Ruth kisses her baby goodbye, with the same tender forehead kiss she gave Mr Zabek after she murdered him, and leaves to head to the cliff where her partner died.
In the ruins of a clifftop castle, Ruth places the picture of her partner next to some candles and finally leaves it behind. Ruth has been clutching this picture since the film began, pulling it out whenever she felt sad, and so to see her leave it behind suggests that she is moving on. It’s not clear whether she plans to return to her baby or not, but perhaps with the baby no longer living inside her, it is easier for her to finally let go of the past and move on with the next stage of her life.
However, while Ruth is able to let go of the longing for her partner, her rage seems to have changed her and caused her to become a different person. At the top of the cliffs, she meets Sam, and while he smiles welcomingly at her, Ruth dons her Furies face before the screen cuts to black. Perhaps the need to kill for her child and her partner has left her, but Ruth has become so used to killing now, that she doesn’t need to find an excuse anymore.
“Prevenge provides such a unique insight into what it’s like to be pregnant, amplifying it through the lens of horror.”
For Ruth, there’s not really a happy ending or a sad ending, just an ending. She gets to tick off everyone on her kill list and give her life a sense of completion, but the odds of her getting away with multiple murders and living a normal life after this are extremely slim. Unlike a lot of movies that follow the killer’s point of view, we never see Ruth cleaning up after her murders or trying to cover her tracks. Aside from burning one outfit and making a hasty exit from the police at another murder scene, the aftermath of Ruth’s crimes is never explored. The murders are about the catharsis for Ruth and her child, and not about the realism of her getting away with it.
Prevenge was written by director Alice Lowe when she was already pregnant, with filming taking place in under two weeks when Lowe was eight months pregnant. Feeling frustrated that no one would hire her for another role, and worrying she has missed her chance to start her filmmaking career now she was on the verge of becoming a mother, Lowe decided to write a very pregnant-centric storyline to make the most of this particular moment of her life. It also meant that Lowe’s daughter, Della, got to portray Ruth’s newborn when she was just 10-days-old.
Prevenge provides such a unique insight into what it’s like to be pregnant, amplifying it through the lens of horror. The feeling of a loss of control, of becoming merely a “vehicle” as Ruth describes it, and of losing your own identity to their baby’s are all themes that Lowe touches on perfectly. Even with lots of people around you, pregnancy can feel incredibly lonely. It really is just you, the baby, and a slew of midwife appointments.
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