Tagged horror

rosemary’s baby (1968): a nightmare of the body


[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.


space, suburbia and architecture: constructing tension in film

“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

Alfred Hitchcock’s distinction between suspense and surprise can be applied to the architecture of film. Here is a guided tour through architectural features that manufacture and encourage tension, a blueprint of a cinematic dream house, orienting its components through noteworthy film stills.


Corridors are seldom occupied. In the empty space and junctions they create, they become a means to keep moving, or escape.

The Shining (1980)
The Shining (1980)
The Shining (1980)
The Shining (1980)
The Shining (1980)


The lack of windows and seemingly garish design promote the confinement of rooms and ability to ostracise an audience in A Clockwork Orange. The camera angles are invasive and uncomfortably close to interactions that feel altogether private or perverse, relocating the audience to a position of intrusion and discomfort as a framework for their anticipation.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)


Suburban staircases are continually and gradually icons of deterioration in The Exorcist. Visually allegorising a descent into possession, the crab-walking scene is one of the more memorable moments from what is still heralded as the scariest film to date. Separated from scenes that are far more graphic and perverse, the staircase scene is terrifying for its very banal setting. We are lead to believe that we are safe when we leave Regan’s bedroom, but even the safe spaces in the house become infiltrated.

The Exorcist (1973)
The Exorcist (1973)
The Exorcist (1973)


Through the networks of water and noise, entities are carried to the outside world and inward.

Psycho (1960)
Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 17.45.32
Psycho (1960)
Psycho (1960)
The Shining (1980)
The Shining (1980)
Slither (2006)
IT (2017)

open plan spaces

Paradoxically, open spaces are a symbol of claustrophobia in Sleeping with the Enemy. The wide shots of the spacious beach house, its floor length windows and modern interior design add to the film’s sense of emptiness and the psychological claustrophobia that manifests between episodes of violence. What seems easier to escape from, at least seemingly easier than a cellar as one classic site of entrapment, becomes impossible. Psychological claustrophobia, as manufactured here by the risk of escaping a violent man, is what distorts the idea of open space as freeing and emancipating, and is instead demonstratively empty and tormenting.

Sleeping with the Enemy (1991)
Sleeping with the Enemy (1991)
Sleeping with the Enemy (1991)

the closet

Childhood psychological fears of monsters and darkness play into the role of the closet in the cinematic dream house. Often, the closet is where an entity resides to then be unleashed and wreak havoc, in The Grudge, the closet dweller retreats, taking those who peer inside.

Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 17.34.41
The Grudge (2004)
The Grudge (2004)

the attic

Both a place to escape to and a place that is difficult to escape from, the attic’s function is dual and conflicting. Its moments of relief and its resurgence of tension and confinement occur within moments of each other.

Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 17.57.35
Sinister (2012)
Sinister (2012)


The Conjuring franchise use doors as a way to visually demonstrate paranormal movements, but also, as the house grows more unrelentingly ‘possessed’, the doors themselves seem to physically confine the family indoors.

The Conjuring franchise
The Conjuring franchise
The Conjuring franchise
The Conjuring franchise
The Conjuring franchise


Windows create tension for their very literal and visual function to preview an interiority or exteriority. To see inside a building, or for this view to be blocked or hindered, is very symbolically connected to the idea of darkness vs light. The windows are metaphorically connected to the ways we physically watch film, we cover our eyes from what we can see and we are caught off guard when tension obstructs our vision.

If necessary, windows are a means to escape. Thus even their size in a room impacts our sense of tension and our prediction for the likelihood a protagonist is able to escape, how sealed their fate is. In Mother! windows are a way to see what’s coming before there is a knock at the door.

Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 17.20.07
Mother! (2017)
Mother! (2017)
Mother! (2017)

the treehouse

Hereditary’s treehouse is extremely allegorical, as a location for grieving, and by the end of the film, as a site of ritualistic sacrifice and worship. Two of the films major themes, mourning and ritualistic satanism, connect only here, at the bottom of the garden amongst ominously fake looking trees that resemble one of Annie’s models.

Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 17.27.04
Hereditary (2018)
Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 17.26.19
Hereditary (2018)

using space: wide shots and reflections

Suspiria (1977)
Suspiria (1977)
Black Swan (2010)
Carrie (1976)
It Follows (2014)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 19.29.51
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Get Out (2017)

How the camera is positioned in relation to these spaces is the second motion in the construction of tension. Suspiria and Black Swan, similar in their subject matter, use reflective surfaces and mirrors for distortion and conflicting focal points. It Follows uses wide-shots of dark industrial and suburban locations as traps for ‘it’ (the following, morphing entity that orients the narrative) that challenges its audience to find a focus point to latch onto for safety. Either way, there is an exercise of predicting where in our vision is safest, or most thrilling, to look.

hereditary (2018) and its deleted scenes: notes on grief

Some of Hereditary’s deleted scenes have recently been circulated and can be seen here.


For a film that deals with as much spiritual and visual horror as it does, Hereditary’s dissection of grief isn’t overshadowed but enforced.

Horror seldom realistically presents grief. Considering how dominantly and graphically it portrays death, it’s surprising that something that naturally succeeds death is often totally unaccounted for within the horror universe. Maybe the absence of grief in horror is what separates it from tragedy. But even within its own genre, the absence of grief renders horror films unrealistic at best and ridiculous at worst. Sometimes this absence is structural, for example, perhaps a slasher movie doesn’t have time to pause its killing spree if the spree is to continue or the plot is to ever be resolved. Equally, a pause, or a moment of grief, would deconstruct its pace, and pace is necessary for a subgenre that so heavily relies upon visuals and sensorial terror to frighten its audiences.

Conventionally, horror films offer moments of relief in their construction in order to emphasise the horror when it happens and to prevent desensitising its audience from unrelenting scares. These moments, breaks, are necessary. Hereditary’s construction, however, is different. Important (and expected) moments of relief are replaced with insight into grief and guilt. Quiet spaces are inhabited by trauma, and we are routinely excused from visual horror only to witness grief and guilt manifest. And we are not left desensitised and unimpacted because the relief is not replaced with more visual horror, but instead with a psychological parallel that renders us traumatised within the first thirty minutes.

Hereditary’s exploration of grief, in the deleted scenes and throughout the film, is inextricably tied to the pace and the construction of the film as a whole. The narrative of grief and its refusal to offer any moments of relief for the audience demonstrates the idea that pace doesn’t have to manically keep up alongside visual horror in order for a film to be frightening. For Hereditary, its terror lies in the uncomfortably realistic depictions of mourning and loss as our only respite from the brutality of its visual horror: a ritualistic cult, decapitations and possession.

The portraits of grief and guilt as a structural replacement for moments of relief are what terrifies us because it creates a framework that leaves no room for any catharsis. It denies us any moment to purge our pity and fear in order to prepare for more discomfort. We remain in a permanent state of either being terrified or disturbed in a quiet alternation. What succeeds in Hereditary is its episodes of grief and guilt as our only antithesis to visual tragedy, both of which are unnervingly difficult to forget.