Horror Week 2011: Rosemary’s Baby: Marriage Can Be Terrifying

This is a guest post by Stephanie Brown.  
Rosemary’s Baby is one scary movie. It’s about a woman’s lot in a hostile world. It is about a terrible marriage to a narcissistic and selfish person. It is about the fear of motherhood and giving birth. It is convincing as a terrifying movie about the supernatural, and as a life lesson about selling your soul to a metaphorical devil. I like horror to convince me that I have learned something about the dark side of human nature…not just play with gore, or supernatural themes, or catastrophic nightmares. It has to name a fear that we really have, or a truth we find hard to believe, and the best horror enlightens us by showing us the darkness that haunts our lives.
The film, directed by Roman Polanski and released in 1968, has been written about at length, for its link to the era’s zeitgeist, its use of everyday people as agents of evil, even its shooting locations. Urban legends have been told about it; real-life events surrounding and following the film have been scrutinized. Rosemary’s Baby is essentially a fable about marriage and motherhood, and its magic is in the sleight of hand that all effective horror movies use: we focus on the scary yarn and are fascinated by it, so that the truth told (in this case, domestic unhappiness) goes down entertainingly. If it were told in a straight narrative arc, it would be kitchen-sink-drama depressing. Ira Levin, who wrote the novel the movie is based on, also wrote The Stepford Wives. How did we ever function without the phrase “Stepford Wife,” such a useful pejorative that has entered our lexicon? We all understand this shorthand phrase to describe a certain kind of too-perfect woman who seems to have lost the ability to articulate thoughts of her own. In Levin’s upper-middle class America of the 1960s, a male-controlled, male-centered marriage meant a slow death for a wife, as she loses control of her mind, her choices, and especially her body. In both novels, the husbands are able to transform the women’s bodies against their will—this is what marriage amounts to. Levin was acutely tuned-in to embarrassing truths about self-centeredness—the man who programs his robot wife to yell, “You’re the champ!” while having sex in the Stepford Wives; Guy Woodhouse, Rosemary’s husband in Rosemary’s Baby, eager to sacrifice his wife for his acting career. And while we all know a Stepford Wife, we probably have met these husbands as well. I find them recognizable. Levin’s characters found themselves in predicaments that were hard to imagine coming true—but the motivations for their behavior (wanting a pliant spouse, selfish ambition) were not hard to imagine at all. These human foibles are at the heart of the matter.
In the film, Mia Farrow is Rosemary Woodhouse, and John Cassavetes is her husband, Guy, an actor whose career is stalled and going nowhere. The two of them move into a spacious apartment in the Bramford building (shot on location at the Dakota building) in Manhattan. Rosemary meets a neighbor in the laundry room, a young woman who speaks highly of the people she lives with, Minnie and Roman Castavet whom, she says, took her in off the streets and saved her life. Just a few days later she is found dead on the sidewalk outside the building, a suicide. Rosemary and Guy meet Minnie and Roman that night; they are both strolling home to the building and arrive at the same time. Minnie and Roman are an older couple, in their late 60s or 70s, played by Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer. They soon insinuate themselves into the younger couple’s lives, forcing themselves onto the couple, who are too polite to reject them, but soon Guy is seduced by them. You don’t see it happen but later you come to understand that Roman has proposed a deal to Guy and Guy has accepted it. Guy has sold his soul to the devil so that he can have success in his career, and it works. The man playing the role he covets suddenly goes blind, and Guy gets the part.
The price for his success? His wife will be impregnated by the devil and bear his child. The young woman who has fallen to her death was supposed to bear the child, but maybe killed herself or was killed when she realized what she was involved in. In a terrifying scene, Rosemary, surrounded by the coven that includes Minnie and Roman, is held down and raped. She is hallucinating as this happens but some of the action she sees is taking place, and eventually she screams what has become a signature line from the film, “This is not a dream! This is really happening!” The next day, Rosemary discovers long claw marks on her back, and Guy tries to pretend that he made the marks during sex with her the night before. Rosemary looks at him differently than she has; she had seemed to adore him and now she looks at him with confusion and fear. If he scratched her like that, it’s very strange; if he is lying, it’s worse still. Much of the rest of the movie is about Rosemary trying to figure out what is happening to her, understanding what is happening, and trying to convince others that it is “really happening.” After she gives birth, the coven members tell her that her baby has died, and Guy expects her to move on and forget about it. The baby hasn’t really died, and the ambiguous ending makes it clear that the coven will use the baby to gain power and wreak havoc.
One of the reasons the film is so effective is because of the fine performances by all of the actors, even those in small roles such as Patsy Kelly as Minnie’s dim-witted friend, and Ralph Bellamy as a bellicose doctor. Ruth Gordon’s Academy Award winning performance, however, is a stand-out. She makes the conceit of devil-worshippers-who-look-like-your-grandma work, and it works beautifully. Her Minnie seems to be a batty old lady, kind of nosy but endearing and well-meaning, eccentric but not dangerous, and most importantly, harmless. It is hard to believe—nearly impossible to believe—that this old woman with her badly applied lipstick, gaping handbags and herbs from her herb garden, is sinister and evil. Gordon is entirely convincing as someone who is a skilled liar and con artist. She wiles her way into their lives because a person like Rosemary is too polite to refuse her. By the time she is sick of the Castavets and is ready to politely refuse them, Guy has been seduced and will not hear of her rejecting them.
If you take away the supernatural element, Guy could be any man who is seduced by his neighbors—wanting to keep up with the Joneses, wanting to get in on the deal, wanting to be famous, wanting to impress the others, whether it be in the building, on the job, or to the world. These people are a ticket to a bigger life and more success, money, and fame. He is willing to use his wife’s body to make it happen. Surely this is a metaphor for a person who sells his soul for success. The wife in this situation can be sacrificed in many ways to make it happen: to work hard while he pursues his dream, to be ignored or be ashamed of when he realizes he wants another kind of life than the one she can offer, to help him become a success until he is successful enough for a trophy wife. One of the tenets of a religious marriage vow is the promise to keep sexually faithful and even, in some vows, to “worship” each other’s bodies, perhaps in a holy sense of worship; what happens in the Woodhouse marriage is a complete blasphemy of this idea. A selfish person puts his or her own desires ahead of the other—with that person, there can really be no union. Stories of the “black mass” and Satanic stories may even reinforce the validity of the religious idea that they purport to trample, as may Satanic fables reinforce our most basic values: when you think about it, there could be nothing more appalling than betraying your spouse, and when it happens to you it feels horrific, like being fucked by the devil.
I’ve watched Rosemary’s Baby at different points in my life, and when I watched it after giving birth, it resonated with me about the experience of childbearing. Rosemary finds herself craving raw meat and having terrible pains—due to the fact that she is birthing a devil baby. However, cravings, pains, sickness—these are real and miserable parts of pregnancy. Having had my pregnancy nausea and sickness start around Valentine’s Day, I only have to think of Valentine’s Day to feel nauseous, and that happened to me nearly twenty years ago! I remember the fear and mixed feelings I had about having a baby, and I wanted to have a baby, and so did my husband. But I had sensitivity to smells, felt dizzy, threw up every day, and felt completely out of control of my body; I felt invaded as well as afraid, in the first part of my first pregnancy. That changed; I felt happy and calm as time progressed. But having a baby is a change that marks your life forever, and there is no turning back once it happens. It’s something that is seldom talked about or admitted to; we are annoyed or disgusted by women who feel that their pregnancy is less than ideal, or that their passage into motherhood was not easy. We do not talk about how we fear that we could be bearing a monster or a “bad seed,” how we may not know what to do, that we fear we may not have enough love or patience or mothering instinct. We do not want to hear about those fears, and we do not want to hear about how pregnancy changes a man and woman’s relationship, maybe for the worse. In Rosemary’s Baby, Guy is shown as not caring much about the baby; he knows that it will be taken away and given to the coven. How many women have found that their husband is not really interested in their pregnancy, or feels it interferes with the attention given to them, to their needs? Guy is really only interested in his burgeoning career. The knowledge that one has made a mistake, that the person one is tied now to is not the person you thought you married—Rosemary’s Baby reveals that bleak, depressing, and real-life scary story. Rosemary realizes it when she sees the scratches on her back, and she never feels the same way about him again. When Guy sees what is waiting for him in a glittering future, he realizes he’s set his sights too low in a life with Rosemary. He is no longer an understudy and is ready for more.
Horror stories like Rosemary’s Baby tell the truth about our darker natures. We can look at our bad feelings, hatreds, misgivings and betrayals without knowing too well what the story really reveals about our feelings—it’s displaced onto a monster, a Thing, a killer, a mist, a contagion. We can see the truth and the horror refracted, like looking at a Medusa head in reflection so that we do not turn to stone. We can look at our darker natures, and accept that they exist somewhere, displaced into a place we call the supernatural.

Stephanie Brown is the author of two collections of poetry, Domestic Interior and Allegory of the Supermarket. She’s published work in American Poetry Review, Ploughshares and The Best American Poetry series. She was awarded an NEA Fellowship in 2001 and a Breadloaf Fellowship in 2009. She has taught at UC Irvine and the University of Redlands and is a regional branch manager for OC Public Libraries in southern California.