A young woman finds herself trapped in a web of deceit, betrayal, and Satanism in Ira Levin’s 1966 classic, “Rosemary’s Baby.” Written the same year Time magazine printed their infamous “Is God Dead?” issue, the book reflects Baby Boomers’ changing values against those of the Tommy Dorsey era. (Or should I say the Frank Sinatra era?) Though the twist is that the values of the Tommy Dorsey era may not be as straightlaced as they appear, and some Baby Boomers may be more naïve than others, even if they are on the pill.
Rosemary discovers a partially-written journal entry: “… than merely the intriguing pastime I believed it to be. I can no longer associate myself …” Meanwhile, a large secretary had been shoved in front of a closet containing a less-than-malevolent vacuum. “She couldn’t have moved this by herself,” the manager exclaims, “she was eighty-nine.” But when an apartment becomes available in a place like the Bramford, one tends to overlook such oddities. And so the Woodhouses move in, christening their home during the first night by making love on the living room floor. “Rosemary’s Baby” is not intended to spring from the Immaculate Conception.
As Guy hustles to find acting jobs, Rosemary learns the meaning of credit cards and nesting by buying wallpaper, furniture, carpeting … after all they are, as Rosemary told the manager, about to start a family. But for Guy, “Daddy” is the one role he’s less than excited about. Until the Woodhouses meet Roman and Minnie Castavet—a meddlesome elderly couple who live next store in 7B. They irritate Rosemary (“[Minnie] is absolutely the nosiest person I’ve ever seen. She actually asked the prices of things,”) but fascinate an ambitious Guy, especially after a mysterious conversation with Roman (deliberately out of earshot from Rosemary) is followed by Guy getting the role of his dreams, once the actor who was originally cast suddenly went blind.
After Guy’s career takes off, he suddenly grows ecstatic about “Baby Night,” which are two nights circled on their calendar indicating the best time for Rosemary to conceive. And conceive she does, but not in the romantic way she’d envisioned. Oh, there are candles and dinner and silk pajamas, but after Guy forgets to bring dessert, Minnie conveniently drops by with chocolate mousse (“mouse” as she calls it)—”Guy’s with a sprinkling of nuts, [Rosemary’s] with a half walnut.”
Guy oddly bullies Rosemary for not eating all of Minnie’s mouse, er, mousse (“[I]t had a chalky under taste that reminded Rosemary of blackboards and grade school”), so she placates him by finishing most of it. This is indicative of how Rosemary is treated like a child throughout most of the book—yet she also allows herself to be babied, largely by the men in her life, i.e. Roman Castavet; Dr Saperstein, the OB/GYN the Castavets recommend (demand) she see; Dr Hill, her previous OB/GYN; and most tragically, Guy, a narcissist whom she blindly adores. This may be explained by Rosemary’s trusting nature, her Catholicism, the fact that she’s from Omaha, or a pattern that’s been set for centuries where Father (in whatever form he takes) knows best.
What happens next sets into motion the rest of the novel. Rosemary does becomes pregnant, but only after she dreams of being raped by a demon. Her subsequent pre-natal suffering goes way beyond morning sickness into agony, leading to weight loss instead of weight gain, a husband who won’t look at her, and a misguided Vidal Sassoon haircut which makes the already skeeved Guy stay further away from a dejected Rosemary. (Vidal Sassoon lent his name to the book and movie, possibly thinking that any publicity is good publicity.)
In the meantime, the Castavets and their elderly friends close in on the young mother, feeding her growing paranoia that she’s at the mercy of … something. Is Rosemary really pregnant with Guy’s child? After all, he is her husband. But she also passed out during “Baby Night” and awoke naked with scratches all over her body, while her pajama-clad husband sheepishly admitted, “Don’t worry, I filed [my nails] … It was kind of fun, in a necrophile sort of way.” Or was “Baby Night” really a rape? (The case for rape could be made whether it was Guy or Satan—Rosemary wasn’t in any shape to consent to sex with either one.) Either way, Rosemary’s body now no longer belongs to her, perhaps a frequent fear among pregnant women, or perhaps because she, as the dutiful housewife, neighbor, and mother-to-be, does not know how to B.S. her way out of her problems, i.e. “Thank you for your doctor recommendation, I’ll take it into consideration, good-bye.” By the time she reaches that arc, it may already be too late.
“Rosemary’s Baby” ushered in a brief subgenre of horror books and films, primarily in the 1970s, that can be classified as, “Is she being terrorized, or is she just PMS’ing/pregnant/a woman?” (See “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” “The Changeling,” “Don’t Look Now,” “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death,” or any film with a line that goes something like: “Oh honey, can’t you see there’s nothing there?”) The book does a great job of squeezing Rosemary into claustrophobic quarters, even within her giant “dream” apartment, and expanding on the theme that once you’re pregnant, you’re at the mercy of an invader, for lack of a better term. After all, Ira Levin called his novel “Rosemary’s Baby,” not “Rosemary.”
Speaking of which, a lot can (and has) been made about the characters’ names—Rosemary even uses Scrabble tiles to unscramble a main character’s alias. But there’s also Rose + Mary, or Red + Mary, or Devil + Mary; (Ro)semary and (Ro)man; and Guy is nothing more than just a guy, an actor who desperately wants to be a leading man but is so impotent he’s nothing more than an extra in his own life. I’d like to say that Rosemary’s friend, Hutch, who warned her about the Bramford, is symbolized by the secretary that blocks the secret vacuum closet. That might be a stretch, but having a hutch block the way while there’s a character called Hutch might also be too obvious.
In addition, the film was directed by Roman Polanski (who has the same first name as Roman Castavet). Coincidence? Probably. Then again …