I recently sat down to watch Rosemary’s Baby, a cult classic 1968 horror film that I never got around to watching. This film shocked me, and not in the way horror movies normally do. It was creepy, funny, gripping, haunting and incredibly meaningful, and I now completely understand why it is known as one of the best horror movies to date. The influence it has on contemporary horror is extremely evident, and the themes it explores hold up as topical representations of modern womanhood. As thousands rally across the United States to fight for abortion rights, I can’t help but notice the links Rosemary’s Baby has to the systematic control of women during pregnancy. I am shocked that today, even sixty years later, women can easily comprehend (and have most likely experienced) the patriarchal power regulating our bodies, much like Rosemary experiences throughout the film.
Rosemary’s Baby, directed by Roman Polanski, is set in a 1965 New York apartment complex. Rosemary and her husband Guy move into the apartment, next to some overly friendly neighbours that take a keen interest in Rosemary’s life. She falls pregnant from a night Rosemary can only remember through strange visions. She struggles through the pregnancy and despite the odd herbal treatments her neighbours give her, she becomes thin, weak, and does not leave the apartment. From Rosemary’s point of view, we discover that all the people around her, including her husband, are a part of a Satanic cult who have performed a ritual in which Satan himself impregnated Rosemary. She is forced to birth the spawn of Satan and is left to decide if she will be a mother to the devilish child or not.
Polanski uses realism to tap into our real fears about urban living, the female body, pregnancy, and loss of control. While women in 2022 may not lead similar lives to 1960s housewives, the control others have over our lives is all too familiar. This movie relies on several techniques to instil fear and draw our attention to the social commentary that drives the action. Through the idea of a Satanic cult, this film reveals the way sexism haunts domestic life, especially during the film’s time, and explores the terror of the wretched in pregnancy. The film does not rely on many techniques or tropes of the genre to frighten its audience, instead creating an atmosphere and story that speaks to the deeper, subconscious fears of society.
The members of the cult physically force Rosemary, through drugs, deception, and manipulation, to carry this baby and consequently uphold the motherly role that women of the era were expected to maintain. Despite the baby literally being the spawn of Satan, Rosemary is expected to be a mother to the child and therefore reinforce the patriarchal ideals of domestic life. The disturbing and dark history of the apartment complex also shows the larger cultural anxieties that are disturbing the domestic life of the 1960s, which fuels the terror through which women are manipulated to uphold the domestic sphere. Despite this film being sixty years old, women are still expected to be the primary caregiver to their children, as women continue to be exploited by a patriarchal society.
This movie is also about control, or lack thereof. The disciplined focus on Rosemary’s point of view pushes us to believe that Rosemary is not in control, and neither are we. Her husband speaks to her like she is a child, and she is systematically denied information about her body. We are reminded that this is not unlike how women were actually treated in the 1960s and still sometimes are. Women in the traditional housewife role had very little bodily autonomy, and were forced to be submissive and obedient, reflecting the very real power of the patriarchy. The message of the film is driven home when Dr Hill, who is not one of the Satanists, responds to Rosemary’s desperate plea for help by calling her husband, certain Rosemary is crazy and unable to be in control of her own body.
Rosemary’s husband even admits to raping her while she is asleep, which underlines the film’s focus on male society co-opting female sexuality and the pregnant female body. The film can be seen as a defence of the contraceptive pill and the need for abortion in the case of dangerous pregnancies. The Roe vs. Wade case is real-time evidence of the need society has to control our bodies, and despite the shift away from the domesticated housewife lifestyle in modern society, this film still reflects women’s real, current fears (regarding the control men have over our lives). These fears have not disappeared since the 1960s, despite all that women have fought for and continue to fight for, even though this has been an issue (for literally thousands of years), and regardless of people being aware of it, even at the time this film was released. Rosemary’s pain exaggerates the way in which any pregnancy is an invasion of a foreign entity, and dramatizes the most basic fear of every pregnant woman – that something is wrong, and we can do nothing about it – capturing the terror of losing power over one’s own body.
Despite the concept of having the devil’s baby sounding implausible, the realised film is all too familiar. Along with Rosemary, we are trapped in an apartment, a society, and a body that turns on her and steals her power to decide what she wants to do with her life. This is similar to how women in America today must sit and watch their rights being stripped away. This movie effectively instils fear; is terrifying, and the devil has nothing to do with it.
Author: Hope is an aspiring writer who loves to explore what it means to be human and experiment with new formats and genres. She’s currently working on a collection of short stories about growing up as a female in a man’s world.
Artist: Jackson is a Meanjin based non-binary poet at the tail end of their writing degree and is making the most of their time on the ScratchThat team before they move beyond the veil. You can find more work from them on the ScratchThat website, in QUT Glass Issue #11, or on their Instagram account @deku.of.dune