What “really happened” in Rosemary’s Baby

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This is a little thing I wrote about Rosemary’s Baby for Hallowe’en last year, and I’m pulling it out of the original Weakly Reader in which it was embedded to post as its own item now. Lightly edited. Happy Hallowe’en.

So: Hallowe’en. I love Hallowe’en. I make it last all month. And it doesn’t take much to make it work for me.

By way of celebration, I usually watch Rosemary’s Baby once or more during the month of October. I’ve seen it dozens of times, maybe even nearly a hundred. And it is still, by my lights, the perfect film, never surpassed as a horror movie, as the absolute ideal of novel adaptation, as a psychological portrait, as a naturalistic depiction of 1960s New York and of 1960s American “manners” — never surpassed, in fact, in nearly every relevant category I can think of. Every time I view it I notice at least a few more subtle touches. It is a work of astonishing artistic depth and breadth.

One tantalizing thing I always wonder about is what it might have been like to see the film or to read the Ira Levin novel from which it is adapted without already knowing the plot and conclusion. The book carefully and deftly cultivates an ambiguity: is this Satanic plot real, or a paranoid delusion? And it keeps it up right to the end, and even then… well it’s still possible to imagine that the ambiguity persists even after Rosemary beholds the devil baby’s yellow eyes as she pulls away the Satanic bassinet’s veil. Perhaps it’s still a delusion, born of the anguish and soul-breaking despair of losing a child, an elaborate, paranoid, “therapeutic” fantasy of the Operators and Things sort: in short, an alternate, symbol-laden reality conjured by a broken mind. (Such delusions certainly do happen, or have been thought to have happened, or have been… caused to happen.)

As such it is a brilliantly conceived dramatic and, dare I say, philosophical set-up. Even when you (think you) know what’s really going on, the tension between mundane reality and fanciful, perhaps delusional, terror, is the very essence of “horror” at its best; and it is also one reason why this film (like the book which the screenplay very closely follows) feels so “real” despite the outrageous, fantastic content. It is always anchored in a plausible, concrete reality, with the result that the rather extravagantly preposterous horror plot that emerges rings true, somehow, to actual experience in a way matched by few, if any, other horror films.

I have no doubt that that was the intentional plan of the novel. The ambiguity is woven into the narrative, and much effort is devoted to sustaining it.

Even Levin’s rather ill-advised, practically unreadable sequel, Son of Rosemary, published and set in the late ‘90s, continues the equivocation, sort of, though clumsily and with far, far less subtlety. The titular child grows up to become a kind of self-help celebrity Antichrist who destroys all life on earth with a deadly virus, after which Satan comes to earth and drags Rosemary down to Hell… after which, Rosemary awakens from a deep sleep and it’s 1965 again before the events of either book have taken place — it was, in fact, all a dream. After which, however, Hutch’s putatively sinister remarks about candles and a reference to yet another anagram — “roast mules,” whose significance is unexplained — along with some time-logic disjunctions involving the Beatles, ultimately give one to wonder: was it really a such a dream after all?

At any rate, the film, I believe, up till the end, is acted and directed that way as well, each scene more or less plausibly functioning as an effective double entendre. But film is more concrete than literature, the images more direct and tangible, even when couched in dream sequences and what-not. Everyone knows, now, what “really happened” in Rosemary’s Baby. It’s not possible to view the film without knowing it, from the beginning. It’s just too famous. The artful ambiguity has been so effectively flattened by this fame and by prejudicial awareness of what story is being told that it is all but impossible to see.

But in 1967? There had to have been people who read that book — and even some who saw the subsequent film, before it became common knowledge what it was, allegedly, “about” — who didn’t quite know for sure what to think till the final scene, and even then, perhaps, who may have wondered, just a little.

It’s an interesting experiment to try to force yourself to watch the film that way, as though it is a story about a young woman’s descent into madness rather than a straightforward, literal story about a true Satanic cult of elderly people who summon the Devil to impregnate her and steal the resulting half-human half-devil baby only to be discovered via a secret passage into the Devil-worshippers’ apartment where they are all having a big party. It is just possible, or nearly possible, if you try, to view it that way.

And it is like watching a whole different film. Try it.

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I am Dr. Frank. I write books and songs. Mtx Forever.

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