[spoilers and content warning: rape, themes of complications in pregnancy]
Rosemary’s Baby (1968) fools us into believing that we are now, fifty years after its production, at a safe distance from its terror. We see a typical young, married couple move into a New York apartment building, into an apartment met with rumours of disturbed previous tenants, and the precedent is set that the couple, and audience, should be wary. However, as soon as we are situated within the initial viewing of the apartment, as soon as we see the chest of drawers and the mysterious closet it unnaturally blocks, and the moment we witness what becomes an increasingly abusive marriage, we realise that there is no safe space for Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow). Instead of the pleasant, character developing realism that usually premeditates climactic horror, we see Rosemary, whose perspective we are significantly and exclusively bound to, slowly subjected to episodes of abuse that precede scenes of the supernatural, and in effect, lays the groundwork for the trauma that materialises.
the sexed body
Rosemary’s Baby evokes a kind of terror that moves inward and deeper into the mind of the audience than conventional tropes of horror. Rendering us bizarrely entranced by its surrealism, this terror is tracked against Rosemary’s body in its deterioration. Rosemary’s body is, quite literally, the skeleton of all trauma. Rosemary’s husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), whom she initially believes to have raped her and in doing so impregnating her, the ‘wire’ that she feels twisting inside her as her unborn child torments her, and the doctors who cooperate with the cult to subsist Rosemary’s isolation and medicate her with ‘tannis root’, are traumas inflicted upon the female body as a reproductive, commodified host.
Through the body, we see its relational status. We relate Rosemary’s body to her mind, how it paradoxically spirals into madness from an outward perspective the closer she gets to the truth of her pregnancy, Guy’s relationship to her body, and her body’s relation to her use of language: how she communicates or fails to communicate the messages her body is telling her: in pain, there is something wrong. It is far more distressing to watch Rosemary’s abdominal cramps and the paranoia that her unborn child could be stillborn when we remember that her doctor advises against reading about or speaking of pregnancy with her friends (“no two pregnancies are the same“, he tells her). This contrived web of isolation knits Rosemary further and further into herself, turning to her body as the only tangible material that can evidence her descent. In the vulnerability and exploitation of the female body, we step outside of surrealism and psychological horror and into the more terrifying realm of what is conceivable and real. Our discomfort isn’t merely reactive to the (albeit disturbing) imagistic sequence of the Satanic cult at work, it is the shocking and violent impregnantion and the pregnancy that follows: Rosemary’s physical trauma and her decline parallel to her isolation.
Food plays an important motif throughout the course of the film. It motivates the plot: Rosemary is delivered a dessert by Minnie in an (unsuccessful) ploy to poison her into a comatose state in which she can later be molested, as well as the ‘natural’ remedies for pregnancy such as the cakes and herb concoctions. Food, in its absence, also maps Rosemary’s deterioration. Polanski points us dialogically towards Rosemary’s physical transgression as she is described as thin and unwell by those around her, quite literally embodying her internal and psychological disturbance. As food becomes malignant, nourishment does too. In the aftermath of her molestation, Rosemary weakens physically as she carries her child, and her consumption of the medicinal drinks become a pattern for her lack of control: her body as possessed by other forces at work.
a nightmare of the body
It all boils down to a lack of agency. In its constituent parts, Rosemary’s Baby is a nightmare of the body in a hyperbolic translation to perfectly befit the horror genre, and even with its neat containment, it speaks emphatically to ideas of autonomy regarding gender and sexual violence. In its criticism, the justifiably controversial director Roman Polanski seems to operate through a lens frequent in mid-twentieth century film: the male gaze of a vulnerable woman under the guise and exemption of intimacy and high aestheticism. Thankfully, this doesn’t render Mia Farrow’s performance as a prop by which to experiment with aesthetics and thrills, instead, she becomes our heroine. Throughout her performance, Farrow quietly escapes the threshold of her character by deconstructing it. We are left mesmerised, by what could be, and often is, misunderstood as a vacancy and naivety in Rosemary’s character, with what is actually a powerful force in the face of extreme, physical adversity. When Rosemary is finally ensnared by the dreaded birthing scene, the scene we have long anticipated throughout the film, we reach the body’s second most violent act (following the impregnation). Upon regaining consciousness after the trauma and sedation, Rosemary enters the closet that we saw at the beginning of the film and steps into the lair of the cult, the Castevets’ apartment through the connecting architecture of the apartment block. By this physical act of infiltrating the cult’s congregation, sneaking through the connecting door into the next apartment, we see Rosemary’s emancipation, out of an apartment that we now allegorise with her pregnancy: in both, she was imprisoned.
Rosemary Woodhouse is exemplary for dictating the film’s atmosphere and subject. With her body as its fabric, she is the terror. What is terrifying isn’t the mythic nightmare of being targeted by a cult, it is the exploitation of the body and its deep, unnerving manifestations on the mind and reality. In this conspired exploitation, the body homes a distrust in everyone, and more pertinently, a fear of what exists within.