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The far-reaching legacy of Rosemary's Baby

Contributed by
Aug 17, 2018

In the years following the release of Rosemary’s Baby, author Ira Levin expressed dismay that audiences had misinterpreted the meaning of his book. In his mind, the driving theme behind the story was his apparent atheism, urging readers to question belief systems. Throughout the book and in parts of the film that resulted from it, various characters criticize religion, only for all of them to be members of a satanic cult by the end. Few interviews with Levin exist, but it's generally accepted that Rosemary’s Baby was a critique of all theologies. Christianity is blamed for its sense of oppressive guilt, driving people to an alternate religion that saw them become so obsessed with a demon that they ruin a young woman's wife in hopes of bringing some part of Hell to Earth. Neither option is meant to appeal.

So it is with great sorrow that we must inform the late Mr. Levin that his book helped form the cultural zeitgeist that led to a rise in interest in cults and Satanism, one that still resonates today.

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The book originally saw print in 1967 and was such an instant success that film rights were bought immediately. The movie was released shortly thereafter, the first book-to-film adaptation director Roman Polanski ever made, and for better or worse, it is still one of the most remembered horror films of its generation or any other.

A dark legacy

While it takes a backseat in Hollywood mythology to other “cursed” films like The Twilight Zone and The Crow (due to the fact that very little of the curse actually played out on the set), Rosemary’s Baby has still been well remembered for its dark legacy, as several individuals involved in the production went on to suffer shocking trauma. Krzysztof Komeda, the composer of the film’s score, fell from a great height in a similar manner to a young woman early in the movie and died not long thereafter. Producer and classic Hollywood camp horror director William Castle was plagued by hate mail, and his health faltered. After Rosemary’s Baby, he never made another hit film. Polanski, despite being deeply unsympathetic for a great number of reasons, was stricken by personal tragedy when his wife Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson family in 1969 — while Rosemary’s Baby was still playing in some theaters.

The Manson killings were a part of the catastrophes occurring throughout 1969 that led some people to refer to that year specifically as the end of the hippie movement, although history and timelines don’t truly boil down to single definitive moments. The truth is more complex than that. Rather, it takes many different events and people to bring about a cultural change of any kind. In that way, Rosemary’s Baby and its relentless bleakness might have contributed to the “death” of the hippie movement, which wasn’t so much an end as a forced cultural recognition of its dark side. The story did indeed speak to a growing acknowledgment of a more insidious aspect of communal living.

Satan in pop culture

The year the book hit the stands also saw the release of the comedy Bedazzled, a retelling of Faust starring Dudley Moore that was later remade with Brendan Fraser in the starring role. Faust predates Rosemary’s Baby by hundreds of years, but in some ways serves as the foundation for the tale in that a young man bargains with the Devil to achieve success only to find that he’d made a horrible mistake. The story was also revisited by musician Robert Johnson in his 1937 song "Me and the Devil Blues," a year before he lost his life at the age of 27. The myth has never fallen out of popularity, and in some ways Rosemary’s Baby is a continuation of the same story, even as the focus shifts to the wife of the man who makes the deal with the Devil.

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Beyond its Faustian influences, the theme of hedonism being intrinsically connected to amorality and evil was further pronounced in films that followed Rosemary’s Baby, such as Mark of the Devil and Blood on Satan’s Claw. Follow-up movies tended to focus more on the Satanism of the story than anything else, and that was indeed what the public seemed the most interested in seeing.

In Mephisto’s Waltz, for instance, a young couple experiences the same Faustian conundrum, and the story is told from the wife’s perspective, but there is no “baby.” Instead, it is her failing relationship with her husband that takes center stage. In one of the better films inspired by Levin’s skewed take on Satanism, the wife’s willingness to do anything — including neglect her own morality and identity — is viewed with more skepticism than in other movies of its kind. While not many of the films that cashed in immediately after the release of Rosemary’s Baby evolved the narrative in any way, some did, and Mephisto’s Waltz qualifies by taking the unsettling tone of Polanski's adaptation and going several steps further.

Although the focus on the mother was unique in Rosemary's Baby, children terrorizing adults wasn't exactly a new trope in horror, and warnings of malicious demon children first saw their appearance in various regional folktales as far back as many thousands of years ago. Even in the world of cinema, movies like The Bad Seed predated Rosemary’s Baby by more than 20 years. In the mid-’70s, the book and film version of The Omen saw release, which posed the question of what would have happened if the Devil's child had been adopted by a caring couple unable to have kids of their own, thus leading to a near-avalanche of “scary kid” films like Children of the Corn and Pet Sematary over the ensuing decades.

The epidemic of moral outrage

By the ‘80s, what had been once considered a campy horror trope evolved into what is now referred to as Satanic Panic. The somewhat cartoonish view in the U.S. of Satanism had been popularized in the ‘60s through many outlets, including the over-the-top antics of Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan and "LaVeyan Satanism." It also enjoyed a long stint in horror films of the ‘70s, culminating in a strange combination of real-life cults, serial killers who professed to practice Satanism, and a public that went into a full-fledged panic at references to Satanism, which ultimately led to such useless combative tactics as parents destroying Ozzy Osbourne records. While there is far more to the subject than can be said here, the book Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the ‘80s collects several essays addressing the wide-reaching impact of the ideas put forward in Rosemary’s Baby and other similar tales.

As for his legacy as a writer, Levin followed up Rosemary’s Baby with The Stepford Wives, and it’s possible to view his protagonist there as an evolution of Rosemary. Joanna seems to have the life that Rosemary had only dreamed of, but it turns out to be equally hazardous due to the failings of her husband and the community of men who rise around him, threatened by the feminist beliefs that he initially supported and agreed with. While things don’t work out any better for Joanna, there is a hint that Rosemary could never possibly have had a happy ending, and that it would always ultimately be men who took the chance of one from her due to their own insecurities. It can prove difficult to refer to Levin as a feminist writer in that his protagonists are so often women who lack autonomy in ways that the plot depends upon to make its point, but he does acknowledge the role men play in their demise.

It's safe to say that we have yet to see an end to the influence of Rosemary's Baby. The normalized paranoia of the original film was cited by writer-director Jordan Peele as being one of his influences for 2017's Get Out. Although Peele's movie stands on its own, the overwhelming feeling of being lied to and manipulated by everyone around you is pure Ira Levin. A TV mini-series starring Zoe Saldana as Rosemary, released in 2014, was not as well regarded as the original by any stretch of the imagination, but held much of its substance, and brought some interesting new performances to the table, showing that even the intended message of Rosemary’s Baby has morphed to fit different viewpoints. For many years, the theological aspect of the story, while possibly widely misinterpreted, was the most defining characteristic for audiences. More recently, the greatest message people seem to take from the plot is Rosemary's sense of nervousness and distrust.

In writer/director Stewart Thorndike’s 2014 movie Lyle, we see a greater focus on the gaslighting element of the tale. When interviewed about the film, Thorndike relayed a sense of surprise when she wrote out a story and then realized she had essentially written “lesbian Rosemary’s Baby.” Lyle stands out for many reasons, but it stands apart from what may have been its inspiration by giving us a more satisfying resolution for our main character, thus vindicating her of the extended manipulation she has undergone. Up until that point, throughout the many different incarnations of the story, Rosemary was a victim who eventually relents to her oppressors. In Lyle, she finally gets to be the hero. It isn't just lesbian Rosemary’s Baby; it's the Rosemary’s Baby that was written for Rosemary.

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