Not all horror movies need horrifying monsters, excess gore, or jump scares to unsettle an audience. Sometimes all you need is a good hard look at reality, specifically the female experience… and maybe a few worms. A physical and psychological exploration of unwanted pregnancy and abortion, Grace Gregory’s Earthworm follows a twenty-year-old woman who is fortunately in a position to receive care, but unable to escape all that it entails. Giving a relatable glimpse at common procedures not often seen in cinema, Gregory perfectly captures the kind of suffering that so many women must face alone.
Admittedly, some scenes in Earthworm might feel a bit mundane: A young woman who finds out she’s pregnant and is instantly welcomed and supported by her loving parents as she comes home to take care of herself isn’t exactly the most compelling premise. But that’s not what drew us into the film. Earthworm is incredibly nuanced and so is the filmmaking itself. There are a lot of moments that are traumatic, but are utterly downplayed. Like Claire’s cramping or finding out she was pregnant in the first place. Everything sort of rolls off of the character’s shoulders and when Gregory introduces unexplained dirt and worms on the character’s body, we as audience members, accept it and move on even if it makes us uncomfortable. And that’s the point – everything Claire, played by Charlotte Foley (who also wrote the script), experiences is uncomfortable and painful, but she’s expected to endure.
Just a “quick” uncomfortable procedure followed by statements like, “you’ll feel some light cramping, here we go”, “you’ll experience bleeding for five to ten days”, and “the worst is over” are lines that will stay with you long after watching Earthworm. While no medical professional is impolite or doing anything wrong, it’s hard to not be cynical about how much of an ordeal having an abortion is, no matter how quick and simple. That last scene will make anyone’s blood boil.
Earthworm is about enduring as much as it is about the often lonely and painful process of handling an abortion. Foley’s script was based on real experience, after her own abortion spiraled into a traumatic surprise procedure when her gyno discovered she had already started miscarrying before she could even get the pills, and echoed many of the feelings the director was unable to grasp after her own abortion. “In the fall of 2020, I had a medication abortion (an abortion using Misoprostol and Mifepristone),“ Gregory recalls. “The experience was more painful and upsetting than I had ever anticipated, but more intense than the physical pain was how creepy and unsettling it was: I felt powerless against the force of my own body.“
To Gregory, Foley’s script was more relatable than any abortion story she had come across because it didn’t focus on choice or access – hot topic obstacles that fortunately weren’t barriers for Gregory – but rather the physical and psychological aspects of abortion itself. Having had a hard time articulating her own feelings regarding her abortion, reading about Claire’s hallucinations of worms taking over her body made a lot of sense. To Gregory, it expressed the vulnerability that she felt, both in carrying a foreign, almost alien, thing in her body with a pregnancy she didn’t want and the surreal process of expelling it.
Sometimes trauma can manifest itself into weird things, and in this case, worms. Gregory and Foley wanted to capture the unsettling and bizarre feeling of carrying and terminating an unwanted pregnancy, but still make it relatable to those who might never experience it. The worms and dirt was a way to create a little cringe in the film, while also providing visual evidence of the character’s psychological injury. Visceral and unnerving, Gregory didn’t heavily rely on the earthy invertebrates, but certainly made you feel particularly disturbed by the film’s ending. As she explains: “With everything else in the film being as close to a medically accurate portrayal of the experience as possible, our goal was to highlight the extremely fine line between the real and surreal consequences of getting un-pregnant.”
Earthworm certainly left an impression on our curators and was an official selection of Mill Valley Film Festival and Brooklyn Horror Film Festival among others.