Horror is a genre of film that is inherently disobedient. It is a visceral rejection of societal norms, of dominant culture, and of the very evils it depicts on screen. Great horror films, then, are ones that use societal fears in a way that alters the construction of the whole genre. The adaptation of Ira Levin’s 1967 novel, Rosemary’s Baby, was one such film.
Upon its release in 1968, Rosemary’s Baby was an instant hit. In his review, Roger Ebert described it as “a creepy film and a crawly film, and a film filled with things that go bump in the night,” and concluded that “it is very good.”
Since then, the film has accrued a 96% on Metacritic, which demonstrates the occult-based film’s ability to eerily transcend the fad-trap of popular culture. Rosemary’s Baby was able to outlive such fads by being… scary. But why did audiences react so viscerally to a story about an average American couple? What was the underlying societal expectation that Rosemary’s Baby toyed with?
1968 was notably a year filled with unprecedented social change. Civil Rights rallies swept across the United States, the American public was outraged by the Vietnam War, and hippie movements refused to adhere to established norms. Rosemary’s Baby was considered terrifying because it challenged these norms and the spaces where the American people felt most secure. In a society torn by hatred and mistrust, Rosemary’s Baby was a violent reminder to the audience that not even their homes were safe.
Horror films are meant to act like funhouse mirrors that force the audience to watch a contorted and often horrific reflection of themselves. Directors use techniques that purposefully go against the status quo in order to evoke a sense of fear from the audience. This genre is, necessarily, a symbol of nonconformity since it refuses to adhere to the standards of the film industry as a whole.
The great horror films — ones that set the bar for remakes and tropes — are the ones that truly terrify and entertain an audience. Of course, the audiences’ fears are intimately intertwined with their understanding of the world around them. The production and appreciation of horror films must feed off of a society where there is much to fear.
Rosemary’s Baby is a masterpiece, from the writing to the production. It tells the story of a young 60s couple, Guy and Rosemary (Ro), that move into their dream apartment in New York City. Guy is a mediocre actor, who works doggedly to break through in his long-shot acting career. Ro is comparatively domestic. She strives to make a happy family with Guy.
After settling into their new apartment, they are befriended by their older neighbors, Minnie and Roman, who are mourning the death of their adopted daughter. As the couples grow closer in friendship, Guy and Ro’s relationship becomes increasingly tumultuous. Guy becomes distant and irritable in the rare moments he’s with Rosemary. Ro, however, is obsessed with having a child, thus creating an ever-expanding divide between the two as they pull the strands of their relationship apart.
As Ro and Guy navigate their respective desires, the couple decides to continue their efforts to conceive. On “baby night,” Ro falls ill after eating a dessert gifted to her by her neighbor Minnie. In the midst of the resulting fever-induced nightmare, Ro dreams that she is impregnated by a horned, clawed, and hooved monster. Soon thereafter, Ro learns that she is pregnant. While she is elated, her pregnancy quickly becomes exceptionally brutal.
She endures abnormal pain, begins to lose weight, and craves raw meat. Both her husband and physician dismiss her concerns about the pains and illnesses she experiences, writing the symptoms off as hysteria. With a tip from a friend, Ro learns of witchcraft and occult practices that are eerily similar to what she is experiencing with her husband, pregnancy, and unusual neighbors.
Ro is convinced that her husband has offered their future child as a sacrifice in exchange for success with his acting career. Ro’s panic forces her into having labor induced by her physician. When she awakens, she discovers a company of elderly people watching her child. Then Ro first meets the newborn and she is horrified — her child is a monstrosity. The company explains that Satan chose her to consummate with in order to produce a child that is “stronger than stronger.” The cult then, without using witchcraft, convinces Ro to raise the child; sullenly Rosemary complies.
The movie’s plot is simple and real, a rejection of contemporary horror conventions like grandiose castles in far-away places, rare mutations that turn men to flesh-hungry wolves, and giant women that roam the streets of New York. As Jon Towlson writes in his book, Subversive Horror Cinema, the mundanity of the screenplay stirs terror in the audience.
Rather than distancing the viewer from the terror, as castles and werewolves and giants do, the movie encapsulates the banal experiences of average American life during the late 60s. As a result of this, the audience experiences heightened intimacy with the characters and events. The entirety of the movie takes place inside the couple’s apartment, with limited scenes depicting the outside world. The effect of this setting is twofold. Firstly, it limits the scope of information available to the audience. Consequently, the audience is forced to become intimate with the main characters, and grow hopeful along with Rosemary as she progresses with her pregnancy.
The movie establishes this intimacy between viewer and character, and then rips hope from their clutches as Ro’s pregnancy worsens. Secondly, the limited scope of the audiences’ perception exaggerates the inherent impotence of Rosemary’s situation. Since the audience doesn’t see much more than Ro’s face for the majority of the movie, it feels as though there is nowhere for the viewer to escape to other than Rosemary’s tragedy.
The movie preys on primal fear in its exploitation of the places where we are meant to feel most comfortable: our homes; with our significant others; or with doctors, neighbors, or friends. The movie thus transforms the typical into the terrible, and makes the audience want to escape from their own lives in order to not end up like Rosemary.
The year this film was released, was “a year of turmoil and change.” The United States was torn apart by frustrations with the federal government and the war in Vietnam. The nation was in the midst of one of the greatest developments for racial equality with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Protests and a multitude of counterculture movements were erupting across America.
The horror of Rosemary’s Baby and its positive reception from audiences are linked with the American people’s demand for control over their own lives. The film refuses to lull the audience into a sense of security. Instead, the film depicts characters in a hopeless situation that the audience is forced to experience along with them, mimicking the very hopelessness they can’t escape from in their daily lives. The horror of impotence is forced upon the audience in their everyday lives during a time when their agency was being constantly threatened.
Rosemary’s Baby challenged its audience with fear of their neighbors, friends, doctors, husbands, and even their own children. It emphasized the terror of everyday life; the terror in the ignorance that is promulgated by the mundane. Rosemary’s Baby emphasized that the grotesque can and will rip average families apart.
Rosemary’s Baby pictures courtesy Paramount Pictures, 1968.