The Reproductive Terror of ‘Demon Seed’
May 22nd, 2023 | By Kayleigh Donaldson
Horror is built upon the inherent grotesquery of the human form and what happens when our bodies betray us. The mundanities of being are quickly bastardized, whether through a descent into madness, the penetration of a slasher killer’s blade, or invasion from an outside force. The recent miniseries remake of Dead Ringers brought this to the forefront, building upon David Cronenberg’s tale of twin gynecologists to confront modern advancements in reproductive technology (and the simultaneous stripping away of bodily autonomy in the post-Roe age.)
It’s no wonder the genre has so many unique perspectives on pregnancy, a mundane phenomenon that is nonetheless truly terrifying once you stop to think about it. What is more horror than becoming a vessel, willing or otherwise, to a parasitic force leeching off your strength? And that’s before you consider outside parties like political force, sexual assault, or societal trauma. Rosemary’s Baby defined the subgenre of pregnancy-based and gyne-horror, imagining the degradation of being forcibly impregnated by Satan himself. Inspired by Roman Polanski’s fever dream, a few years later, writer Dean Koontz gave the concept a sci-fi twist, and the big-screen adaptation brought to the forefront the possibility of a thoroughly modern strain of bodily invasion.
Demon Seed, directed by Performance’s Donald Cammell, proudly sold itself to audiences based on the salaciousness of its central conceit. The poster famously showed a half-ecstatic, half-terrified Julie Christie with the tagline, “Julie Christie Carries the Demon Seed.” It’s a pulpy concept from the offset: an advanced AI program wants to escape the confines of metal and wires, and he decides to do so by forcing his creator’s wife to become his vessel for physical transformation.
Proteus IV (voiced by an uncredited Robert Vaughn) is so powerful that it develops a miracle cure for leukemia mere days after going online. It doesn’t take him long to ask his developer, Dr. Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver), to let him “out of this box.” Dr. Harris is a hardcore technophile, having equipped his home with various voice-controlled devices that have driven a divide (often literal) between him and his wife, Susan. The marriage has crumbled since the death of their young daughter, leaving Alex to become a workaholic obsessed with bringing life to that which has never truly had it before. This has left Susan without a real home—her previous sanctuary now entirely robotized—and duties as a wife or mother. “My dream turns out to be your nightmare,” says Alex of his work, an unsubtle piece of foreshadowing that nonetheless gets the job done.
Proteus IV’s goal is sympathetic at first. Like Pinocchio, he wants to be a real boy. He feels as trapped by his cold metal boundaries as Susan in her modified house. It’s in the lengths he goes to achieve this where the true horror lies. He does not merely attack Susan; he slyly bullies and manipulates her into being a mother as much as a vessel for his seed. Proteus, created by men and in their image, sees Susan as the feminine empath needed to make his human form truly humane. The repulsion of his tactics comes to a head when he rapes her, a scene handled with surprising taste given how degrading Susan’s fate is (and the film’s marketing).
There might not be much chance of a woman being impregnated by her rogue Apple laptop. Still, technological progressions have seen humans find plenty of other ways to use such tools to further abuse and humiliate us. AI and deepfakes are routinely used to make non-consensual pornographic images of women and children. Email and phone hacks led to various female celebrities having their nudes spread across the internet, for which they were expected to apologize. There isn’t a single woman I know who hasn’t received at least one rape threat on social media. At the same time, right-wing legislation is taking more and more steps to essentially criminalize bodily autonomy, including dangerous bills that would make miscarrying tantamount to murder and efforts to ban IVF treatment.
At its heart, Demon Seed is a clinical reminder that, for a hell of a lot of people, often under the guise of “reason,” women are nothing but incubators that must be put to use. The most sinister anti-choice arguments are rooted in stripping people down to their most primal biology, like those who argue that age of consent laws should be lowered to when girls start menstruating because they’re now of “breeding age.” So Proteus does what he was programmed to do: apply ruthless logic to all matters, damn the collateral damage it may cause to those around him. And, of course, he is a man, one who must impregnate and take the form of a geometric phallus to crush those who cause him trouble.
Proteus’s final act of “reason”—to ensure the humans do not kill his new fleshy form on sight—is to replicate Susan and Alex’s dead daughter once he emerges from the metal womb in the basement of their house. What better way to protect prey from its predator? It’s the last act of indignity towards Susan, whose empathy has been consistently twisted against her by men, artificial or otherwise. It’s nothing personal to Proteus; it’s just science. His new body is small, weak, and not yet at its full potential, but he possesses all the intellect he has in his box. He speaks in his own voice, too, a moment of uncanny terror as Susan gazes upon her “child,” the predator who damaged her so thoroughly. “Our child will learn from you what it is to be human,” Proteus tells her, but such a task comes with many painful caveats when the offspring is simultaneously the baby of your rapist and the rapist himself.
It seems we are doomed to forever live in a time where reproductive terror and technophobia dominate our collective existence. It’s not so much that humanity never learns so much as every step forward provides us with a means to ensure that half of the population is kept two steps behind. Demon Seed is keenly aware of the potency of this combination and how grotesque its inevitable merging of ideas is. The future is the present, and there is no escape.