Starring: Mia Farrow, John Cassavates, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy
Directed by: Roman Polanski
This isn't actually a film review, it's an essay I wrote for a course on horror films I attended a few years ago. The aim of the essay was to show how Rosemary's Baby reflects the fears and preoccupations of modern society. I've put it up complete with footnotes, references and biobliography, so it may seem a bit scholarly and pretentious, and you probably won't find it very helpful if you haven't seen the film. However, I think it's interesting, so why not check it out...
When Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby was released in 1968, it received a mixed reception. A 'runaway success' at the box office, it was lauded by critics yet reviled in religious circles for its 'shock content' and 'perverted use and distortion of fundamental Christian beliefs' (Roman p.243, Polanski p.134). Today, its suspense-filled story, eerie and at times surreal camera work and haunting soundtrack have caused the film to be regarded as a classic, by horror fans and Polanski aficionados alike.
Yet the principal reason for the film's continuing appeal lies in the alarming and subtly terrifying way in which it reflects the features and fears of modern society, both in the 1960s and today.
The film tells the story of Rosemary Woodhouse, a young wife whose husband, an out of work actor, makes a Faustian pact with a Satanic coven: in return for fame and fortune, he offers up his wife to be the mother of the AntiChrist.
The fact that it is Rosemary herself who is ultimately responsible for bringing evil into the world can be seen as reflecting a deep-seated fear of woman and her reproductive functions. In her study of woman's portrayal as a figure of fear in horror films, Barbara Creed states that it is 'woman's reproductive functions [which] mark her as monstrous' (The Monstrous Feminine p.83). The womb is seen as a terrible black hole capable of producing hideous, inhuman life: 'From classical to Renaissance times the uterus was frequently drawn with horns to demonstrate its supposed association with the devil' (p.43). Thus, by nature of her gender, Rosemary is already allied with the Devil.
Yet it is hard to see anything monstrous in the frail, vacillating, beautifully feminine and exasperatingly passive figure of Rosemary. Entirely engaging the audience's sympathy, we warm to her as an ordinary young woman, in love with her husband, intimidated by her neighbours and frightened by the inexplicable changes taking place in her body as her much longed-for pregnancy proceeds.
Many of her fears reflect typical concerns of the day. In the 1960s, the fear of giving birth to a deformed, 'monstrous' baby was all too real. Although Thalidomide was never available in America, its disastrous effects in other countries were widely known. Frances Kelsey, the doctor responsible for preventing the drug's approval in the US, explains that her efforts were prompted by a 'growing concern regarding the exposure of the fetus to drugs and other substances to which the mother was exposed during pregnancy'.(1) So although Rosemary's obstetrician Dr Sapirstein may assure her that the herbal drinks he recommends are 'fresher, safer and more-vitamin rich than any pills on the market', we share Rosemary's scepticism about their mysterious, unnamed ingredients.
Yet the most frightening aspect of Rosemary's pregnancy is the way in which it forces her to surrender control of her own body, surely the ultimate relinquishment of power. As her pregnancy advances, she undergoes terrifying physical and mental changes, which she does not understand and cannot prevent. Instead, she must rely on the expertise of outsiders such as Drs Hill and Sapirstein to help and advise her.
An obedient daughter of consumer culture, Rosemary is already thoroughly dependent on the opinion of 'experts' to shape her views: 'I saw it in a magazine,' she says proudly of her kitchen, whilst she defends her unfortunate Vidal Sassoon haircut by explaining that it is 'very in'. During her pregnancy, she becomes torn between the advice of Dr Sapirstein and that of other experts. Sapirstein warns her not to read books or listen to her friends - 'no two pregnancies are ever alike', he explains in a patronising tone - but Rosemary cannot resist consulting other experts: 'it just leapt off the shelf,' she whispers apologetically of a baby book she couldn't help but read.
This, however, is a rare example of disobedience on Rosemary's part. Painfully lacking in self-confidence, she constantly defers to the opinions of others: her husband, her doctor, her surrogate father-figure, Hutch, and her female friends. Even when taking a stand against Guy, demanding a second opinion on her pregnancy, she merely parrots what her friends have told her: 'Pain like this is a warning something's wrong' she chants. Later on, she berates him for throwing away Hutch's book whilst at the same time meekly accepting a vitamin pill from him; distrusting Dr Sapirstein, she runs straight into the arms of another authority figure, Dr Hill.
Yet experts in Rosemary's Baby cannot be trusted. Not content with being a 'quack', a 'sadistic nut' (as Rosemary's friends label him), Sapirstein is a member of a Satanic coven, and even 'dreamboy' Dr Hill delivers Rosemary into the hands of the devil worshippers.
This lack of faith in authority is typical of the late 1960s, when crises such as the Vietnam war and the assassination of President Kennedy were forcing ordinary citizens to question the motives and capabilities of the 'experts' in charge: the government, the military, scientific bodies.
In contemporary horror films, this mistrust and fear of those in authority was often transferred from external representatives of power to the head of that microcosmic patriarchal organisation, the family. So arises the figure of the 'monstrous father' who destroys his wife and children (The Shining's Jack Torrance is another example), a role which Guy Woodhouse fills with aplomb. From the start of the film he appears domineering, selfish and manipulative; Rosemary is there to serve his needs, and serve them she does, literally sacrificing herself on a black altar to Satan in order to further her husband's ambitions: 'It was kinda fun, in a necrophile sort of way,' Guy jokes callously.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Guy has done 'lots of television': just as he dictates to Rosemary how she will conduct her life, so, during the 1960s, as more and more households acquired television sets, the media began increasingly to shape material wants and prescribe desired modes of living. The way in which Rosemary interrupts her housework to kneel reverently before the television and watch her husband extol the virtues of Yamaha sums up perfectly both the control he exerts over her, and the control which the media exerts over the nation as a whole.
Thus through the character of Rosemary, and more explicitly, through her femininity, the film explores the way in which individuals are rendered powerless by the regulatory structures of modern society, expressing, particularly through Rosemary's lack of control over her life and even her own body, common anxieties over privacy and autonomy.
Subservient to her husband, ignorant of the processes of her own body and utterly dependent on the expertise of outside authorities to shape her opinions and actions, yet able to trust no-one, she becomes increasingly isolated and helpless. Her initial lack of self-confidence quickly turns into a complete loss of identity, her pregnancy dramatically altering her appearance and psyche until she is barely able to recognise herself, again reflecting current fears that, by coercing us into new modes of living, external forces such as the media are divorcing us from our 'real' selves.
The disintegration of Rosemary's sense of self is clearly marked by the recurring motif of the mirror in the film, a symbol consistently used in art both for self-knowledge and for alienation from the self.(2)
The first time we see Rosemary looking in the mirror she is filled with confidence: 'Tannis, anyone?' she jokes to herself, holding up Minnie's talisman before sensibly hiding it away in a drawer. Once she is pregnant, however, she becomes anxious to confirm her own identity, conscious that something within her has fundamentally changed: 'You're pregnant,' she whispers to her reflection in a shocked undertone. Later on, her tired, haggard image intrudes shockingly on her contemplation of a nativity scene in a shop window, an almost unrecognisable stranger preventing her from aspiring towards the icon of the ideal mother. Finally, when she catches sight of herself gnawing on a piece of raw liver, her reflection has become so alien that it makes her physically sick.(3)
Confused and disorientated, Rosemary starts to suspect that she is going mad. Certainly, at times, she sounds crazy and hysterical: 'They'll be coming for me,' she mutters distractedly to Dr Hill, 'There's a plot. He sleeps in pyjamas, he never used to.' Indeed, we cannot entirely blame the man for turning her over to Guy and Sapirstein, believing, as Guy so tactfully puts it, that she is suffering from the 'pre-partum crazies'.
As far as Dr Hill is concerned, Rosemary is simply being paranoid. Yet we, the audience, share her misgivings, her distrust of the over-friendly Castavets ('Sometimes I think they're too friendly and helpful,' she murmurs) and her mounting sense of dread as the coven ensnares her. And, as it turns out, our paranoid suspicions are confirmed: 'all our nightmares come true. there really are no nice people next door, and the worst things you ever imagined about that dotty old lady down in 9B turn out to be true' (Stephen King, Danse Macabre p.342-343). As King points out, Rosemary's Baby both reflects and confirms the common 'urban paranoia' of the city dweller (p.341). Like some terrible morality tale, the film warns of the dangers of being too trusting, of refusing to believe the worst.
Certainly, Rosemary's naïvely open nature is partly responsible for her downfall. She is very quick to befriend the Castavets, revealing intimate personal details on first acquaintance. It is she who first brings up the subject of pregnancy, explaining that one room is 'going to be a nursery'. 'Oh, are you pregernant?' Minnie responds immediately. 'No, I hope to be,' Rosemary replies. Then, not only does she describe herself to Minnie as 'fertile', but she even reveals the details of her menstrual cycle: 'It's the first day of my period'. The way in which she unblocks the secret doorway leading from her apartment into the Castevets' can be seen as symbolic of this deliberate, artless openness: rather than blocking off this gateway to hell, she papers it prettily with gingham.
In her study of gender in the horror film, Carole Clover states that 'Rosemary's pregnancy comes about because, as a female, she is naturally enterable' (Men, Women and Chainsaws p.80). So, both biologically and metaphorically, Rosemary is seen as open to assault.
Yet it is Guy who proves most open to the malevolent influence of the Castavets. It is ironic that, once the baby is conceived, Rosemary pleads for 'a new openness' in their relationship, for although he has shut himself off from her, rather than refusing to believe in Satanic Black Magic, as Rosemary does at first, Guy has embraced it with open arms.
In fact, it is Rosemary's reluctance to accept a supernatural explanation for her plight that cements her downfall. Her nature may be open, but she finds it hard to open her mind to the occult, the spiritual dimension which Carole Clover labels 'Black Magic', and which is aligned with 'satanism, voodoo and folk variants of Roman Catholicism' (Men, Women and Chainsaws p.66). Poor Terri, the Castavets' previous candidate for the role of Satanic Mother, also dies because she 'wasn't open-minded enough'.
This refusal to recognise the supernatural reflects a concern common to horror films of the period: that modern society has closed its mind to spiritual issues, and that this is destructive, dangerous and potentially fatal. (The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976) deal with similar issues.) The question the film poses is the very one that Rosemary sees splashed across the cover of Time magazine in Dr Sapirstein's waiting room: 'Is God dead?'
According to Stephen King, 'Rosemary's Baby was written and published at the time the God-is-dead tempest was whirling around in the teapot of the sixties' (Danse Macabre p.336). Like The Exorcist, which to Barbara Creed 'appears to be arguing that the modern world, like Sodom and Gomorrah, has sold itself to the devil,' the film depicts a crisis of faith in contemporary society (The Monstrous Feminine p.34). With its decaying walls and peeling paint, its morbid history of cannibalism and Satanism, infanticide and suicide, the 'Black Bramford' becomes a microcosm for a world gone rotten, and, to quote Creed again, 'central to this modern wasteland is the growing decline in religious belief' (ibid).
When asked by the Castavets if she is religious, (or, more to the point, if she is not religious), Rosemary's response is flustered and confused: 'Oh, no, no,' she laughs nervously. 'I was brought up a Catholic but now I'm not sure.' As usual, she is merely reflecting the views of those around her, saying what she thinks people want to hear. Yet it is this attitude, the feeling that faith is something to be disowned as embarrassing, that, in King's words, 'allows the devil a doorway in to her life' (Danse Macabre p.338).
Her patchy religious convictions weakened by lack of self-confidence, Rosemary finds herself inwardly riven, her Catholic upbringing battling her new-found fashionable agnosticism. As the coven closes in around her, she struggles to set aside the promptings of common sense and modern scepticism and believe in the impossible: that pure Satanic evil does exist, and is residing next door.
This struggle for faith, her 'religious pilgrim's progress', as Stephen King dubs it (Danse Macabre p.337), encapsulates the struggle of 1960s society as a whole, in its search for new values. Along with a renewed interest in Eastern mysticism and a 'whole range of crackpot folklore. from UFOs through astrology to extrasensory perception' (as Polanski wrote disparagingly in his autobiography) the 1960s saw a resurgence of interest in the Black Arts, in particular, in the sinister works of Aleister Crowley. Robert DeGrimston's satanic church, The Process, was flourishing, and in 1966 an ex-Process member, Anton LaVey, founded the Church of Satan, a 'notorious world-wide order of diabolism' that still exists today.(4)
Naturally, such developments were cause for concern: like the Cold War paranoia films of the 1950s, in which any of the apparently normal characters could be an alien (for which read Communist)(5) so in Rosemary's Baby, seemingly ordinary people turn out to be Satanists. Nosy, garrulous Minnie, with her garish clothes and awful cooking, and lumpy, bespectacled Laura-Louise are a million miles away from the glamorous and aristocratic witches and Satanists that people the likes of The Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968) and Hammer's The Devil Rides Out (1967). Anton LaVey himself reputedly lauded the film as 'a breakthrough in the portrayal of real Satanists' (quoted in Polanski p.135).
In fact, in its depiction of the Black Arts, Rosemary's Baby not only reflected current fears, but, in a bizarre case of life mirroring art mirroring life, may even have served to fuel them. In her book Witchcraft Past and Present (1973), Brighton witch Doreen Valiente claims that the film was 'one of the major influences which have brought about the craze for delving into darker regions of the occult' (quoted in Polanski p.120).
Polanski himself was to discover the hard way the fatal consequences of a collision between fact and fiction, when his wife Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson family on August 9th 1969, a murder for which many held Rosemary's Baby partially responsible. With characteristic attention to detail, Polanski had called on the services of Anton LaVey to advise on Satanic rites and to play the part of the Devil in the film; this would later lead to wild accusations of 'orgies, drug parties and black magic' after the murder (Roman p.270). Worse still, there was a link between Manson and LaVey, as both were former members of The Process. (See Polanski, chapters 13 and 14.)
The 1960s were a time of great social upheaval, in which old and young, liberal and conservative were pitted against each other: 'The two generations seemed, like the San Andreas fault, to be moving along opposing plates of social and cultural conscience, commitment and definitions of civilized behaviour itself' (Danse Macabre p.196). Polanski's biographer, John Parker, paints a vivid picture of 1967, the year the film was made, when a new, youthful 'freedom-seeking society of wayoutness', characterised by 'psychedelia. flower power, painted VWs, Indian gurus and a huge cloud of sweet-smelling smoke, hash cakes, LSD trippers and magic mushroom eaters' was combated by an extreme conservative backlash, 'a crescendo of critical reaction against this upsurge of protest' (Polanski p.115).
At first, Rosemary's Baby seems to reflect this split, polarising traditional values, represented by the Castavets and Dr Sapirstein, and modern, new-fangled ideas, symbolised by Rosemary's friends ('those bitches', as Guy calls them) and Dr Hill. Yet as with her religious beliefs, Rosemary is torn between two opposites. 'I like the idea of everything fresh and natural,' she exclaims, 'I'll bet expectant mothers chewed on bits of tannis root when nobody had even heard of vitamin pills.' Yet a few days later she longs for 'doctors, hospital, with everything clean and sterile'; 'I want vitamins like everyone else'.
Like its heroine, the film quickly begins to confuse these oppositions: the elderly Castavets shock the young Rosemary with their disparaging references to the Pope, and whilst the depiction of Rosemary's friends at her party conjures up images of stereotypical 'Swinging Sixties' hedonism, they seem loyal and kind, genuinely concerned for her welfare.
At the heart of this confluence of values lies Rosemary's rape, the ultimate transgression of boundaries, where innocence is invaded by corruption, the self by the other, her body literally invaded by an alien, demonic force. From this point onwards, the distinctions between good and evil, conservative and liberal, normal and abnormal, self and other, begin to blur, and it is small wonder that Rosemary doesn't know who to trust, or what to believe. 'This is really happening!' she cries in terror during the rape; yet afterwards, common sense refuses her to credit this as anything more than a dream.
It is this feeling of uncertainty, when 'the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced', that lies at the heart of horror, reflecting mankind's deepest fears and insecurities over his place in and relationship to the world.(6) Rosemary's Baby masterfully recreates this moment of terror and suspense, when fact and fantasy become indistinguishable from each other, so that, like Rosemary, we do not know whether 'this is really happening', or whether 'All Of Them' are really witches or she is in fact 'kapow out of [her] mind'.(7)
Yet the film also explores the dangers of the dissolution of reality and fantasy. Unable to accept a supernatural explanation for events, Rosemary is paralysed by fear, trapped within her own pain and hysteria. It is only when she accepts the reality of the coven, that is, when she accepts that what, until then, she has taken to be fantasy is actually fact, that she summons up the courage to act, to take up the knife and go in search of her baby.
To increase the sense of dissolving boundaries, throughout the film, Polanski continually juxtaposes eerie images with prosaic, ordinary ones, such as the weird chanting which echoes through the flowery wallpaper covering the partition between the Woodhouse and Castavet apartments or Rosemary's raw liver binge, reflected in the side of the toaster. This technique reaches a wonderfully chilling climax in the final scene: like any family christening, the Castavets' living room is filled with a mismatched crowd of ghastly 'relatives', yet in the centre of the room stands the sinister black bassinet, over which is suspended an inverted crucifix. Whilst the coven are busy singing praises to Satan, Minnie plucks Rosemary's knife from the floor and fussily wipes away the mark it has made, just as she fretted over Roman when he dripped vodka blushes on their new carpet.
This masterful merging of the prosaic and demonic underscores the scene's importance as the final confrontation between good and evil, a confrontation which is doomed to failure, Rosemary's hesitant, insecure faith no match for the evil of the coven.
Mark Jancovich sees her capitulation as the result of societal conditioning: 'She has been taught that by becoming a mother, she can move from her position of powerlessness to one of identity, importance and power. [and] she is gradually seduced by this feeling of importance and power' (Horror). As Minnie points out, as the mother of the AntiChrist, Rosemary is due 'some respect'.
Alternatively, her 'seduction' can once more be seen to reflect patriarchal fears over woman's nature, the all-devouring womb expressing itself through an unconquerable maternal instinct which overrides both moral and religious convictions. Doomed not just by societal conditioning but by genetics, poor Rosemary is powerless to escape her biological destiny: she must care for her baby, no matter how monstrous.
More importantly, however, her conquest reveals the inextricable nature of opposition: without good there is no evil, 'without the sacred there is no profane' (Danse Macabre p.339). Try as they may, even the Satanists cannot create evil without the aid of Rosemary's goodness and purity. 'Catholics only,' Minnie proclaims during the impregnation scene, 'I wish we weren't bound by these prejudices but unfortunately.' And it is Rosemary's residual adherence to childhood Catholic values, her reverence for motherhood and the life of her unborn child ('I won't have an abortion!' she screams), that make her the perfect mother for the AntiChrist.
In a world in which all polemical values have systematically collapsed into each other, Rosemary's surrender to the AntiChrist represents the ultimate synthesis of good and evil. For unlike Guy, who is brought over to Satanism by greed and egotism, Rosemary is conquered by love, a love so huge and all-encompassing it can even love a monster: a mother's love.
And with this conclusion, Polanski taps into one of society's greatest fears: that no matter how hard we try to lead good lives, evil is out there, waiting to pounce. During the film's title sequence, we follow the camera as it pans slowly across the vast, impersonal skyline of New York, before finally focussing on Guy and Rosemary, two tiny figures lost in the huge metropolis.(8) At this point we can only guess at the evil concealed within the walls of the city, but as the final credits roll and the camera pans slowly back out again, we know for sure that 'there is such a thing as absolute evil'.(9)
Burkholz, Herbert 'Giving Thalidomide a Second Chance', FDA Consumer Sept-Oct 1997
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