Novel * Ira Levin * It’s Just a Totally Normal Baby * 1967
I saw the movie first. Usually I find this annoying when reading the book, especially when the film hews close to the source material, because then my brain is stuck with ready-made images instead of flights of my own dang fancy. Rosemary’s Baby gets a pass, largely because 1968 Mia Farrow is so flippin’ hot my brain couldn’t do better so I may as well roll with it. Also, the story is set in a New York City that’s long gone, a late-sixties metropolis that’s alien to my experience but is captured perfectly by the film. New York now is a cacophonous, trash-strewn, urine-soaked hellhole (pee-pee soaked heckhole, sorry), and maybe it was then too, but the film grain makes it romantic I guess. Anyway, the director might be human garbage, but the film itself is iconic for good reason, and there’s no way to extricate the movie from my head while reading. That’s okay, the book is still good. Sure I know how it ends, the element of surprise is gone, there’s no mystery here. It’s still a well-crafted novel, the writing is clear, and the creeping paranoia is still intact.
Rosemary’s Baby is a story about the supernatural, sure, but mostly it’s about slow-burning dread and paranoia. If you’re not familiar, the setup to the story is pretty straightforward. Our protagonist is Rosemary Woodhouse, a vivacious young go-go modern sixties woman. She’s a newlywed, and her husband is an aspiring actor named Guy. Two red flags right away: I’m pretty sure that with the exception of Tom Hanks all actors are terrible people and guys named “Guy” shouldn’t exist (especially considering he changed his actual name, which was Sherman). Anyway, Guy is kind of a prick. He’s not outwardly abusive or anything, but it’s immediately apparent that he’s a selfish, controlling douche who doesn’t deserve Rosemary. Probably a lot of this is my liberal 2017 sensibilities crashing headlong into casual 60’s misogyny, but even before the paranoia sets in Guy sucks. So delightful Rosemary and horrible Guy move into these old, probably haunted, apartments to begin their new life together. Everything goes great forever.
Ha, no, not even for a little while. This is one of those stories where we all know something bad is going to happen to our main character, and that it’s only a matter of time before all the foreshadowing bills come due in the end. Maybe it’s because I knew the story already, but the entire first third of the novel makes it pretty clear that shit’s going to go off the rails for our young couple, it’s simply a matter of what kind of nastiness is in store for them. Between Rosemary’s cool old man friend Hutch telling her various horror stories about her dope new hipster apartment and awful things that happens in the book’s first fifty pages, there is no ambiguity about whether or not Rosemary is in serious trouble. When we’re introduced to Minnie and Roman Castevet we pretty much already know that they’re a threat. Not because they’re immediately sinister, but because of the alarming events which seem to occur around them. I actually really appreciate that to all appearances, Minnie is just a sassy n’ brassy Midwestern lady. Later we learn a lot more, but the underlying personality never changes. As for the rest of the story, well, it’s simply a story about our Rosemary finally getting what she wants: a baby.
Before we get into the spooky paranoia properly, we do get some helpful background about Rosemary’s life, which leads directly to her desire for a family of her own. Rosemary, who is young, liberal, and while not a hippie is still Bohemian-adjacent, is from Oklahoma, which then as now is pretty much the opposite of those things. Most of her family, save one alcoholic brother, have basically expelled Rosemary from their lives since she married Guy. Not because Guy is an asshole, but because he comes from a Protestant family. Never mind that neither of the young people are particularly religious, but family religious heritage is still important to Rosemary’s family. So she’s in New York, which is of course far more progressive – there gay dudes and everything! – and Rosemary is able to focus on starting her own, less judgmental family. The only problem with this plan of hers is that Guy isn’t into it. At all.
Guy’s progression over the course of the story is to go from a mildly obnoxious dickweed to a cowardly, selfish brand of actual evil. Guy doesn’t want a child in his life, from his perspective such a thing could only distract from his grand destiny as a famous actor. His life, and by extension Rosemary’s, should be all about him and what makes Guy happy. What would make Guy happiest would be to finally be recognized as a great actor – from his point of view, this is all Rosemary should want as well. It’s gross and he’s gross, and the entire story revolves around a particularly nasty bit of business. The Castevets are, of course, in league with Satan. Quite literally. They promise Guy answers to all his problems and pretty much promise that he’ll be the bigshot success that is all he’s ever wanted. All Guy needs to do is sacrifice his wife and unborn child to the Dark Lord. So far as Guy is concerned, there’s no decision to be made here. He roofies his own wife and offers her up to Satan, who plants his unholy seed in her fertile womb. When Rosemary wakes up, Guy’s excuse for why she feels like shit is because after she passed out he climbed on top of her and went to town. Somehow, Rosemary doesn’t consider this disgusting act to be rape, I assume because it’s 1967 and husbands own wives. Gross.
As the novel progresses and Rosemary’s world gets smaller and more paranoid, it becomes obvious that the scariest thing of all in this story is Rosemary’s utter lack of power in her own life. Like that awful episode above, Rosemary has no control over anything happening to her. She gets a perfectly nice doctor, but is forced to switch to a Satanist doctor because husband said so. Then, when she tells Satanist doctor that everything hurts all the time, he simply tells her it’s no big deal, probably stop whining about it, also don’t talk to your friends any more. Then Rosemary talks to her friends, and Guy flips out. Of course he’s afraid that Rosemary is going to find out about his betrayal, but also kind of because she had the audacity to disobey him. In the end, when Rosemary finally decides to peace out and fuck the consequences, she returns to the first doctor who seems sympathetic. Of course he’s just humoring her, because come on now, she’s just a hysterical pregnant broad who simply needs a stern hand from her husband. Rosemary’s Baby is as much about the everyday, insular horror of being a woman in the sixties as it is a story about the devil.
I don’t like the ending. In the movie it just comes across as silly, what with all the old people capering about chanting “Hail Satan” and whatnot, and it was like, no, I am not frightened of this. The novel is a little worse, a little more ominous, as Rosemary slowly realizes that all of her terrible suspicions were true the entire time. Then she discovers her little demon baby and the book loses me. I’m sitting here hoping she chucks the little demonseed out the damn window and just kicks the shit out of the elderly Satanists even though I know she won’t. Rosemary accepting the literal devil baby as her own feels like a failure, and a submission to the status quo. Because in choosing to mother the actual, real Antichrist, she has justified all of Guy’s betrayal. The ends justify the means for her, because in the end she gets her baby. Rosemary’s choice simply reinforces the cultural paranoia inflicted on her by society. She’s a woman, all she needs to be happy is to crank some kids out. If she gets that, she can deal with everything else – systemic misogyny, Satan-babies, whatever. And that sucks.
Here’s how it should have gone down: Vanquish the demon, wreck up shop in the coven, and run away to California to live a proper life. That also opens up a dope franchise opportunity. It’s called Rosemary the Witch Hunter in which she starts up a Private Investigator business in 70’s San Francisco and hunts down supernatural threats on the side. Oh! And then you can have a crossover with Dirty Harry in which Rosemary shows up and horns in on Callahan’s case because of course he doesn’t believe in this supernatural shit, but Rosemary is such a badass he can’t help but fall for her, and after they crack the case by working together and kill a vampire or something Harry makes his move and Rosemary leans in as if to kiss him and then she’s all “you’ve got to ask yourself, do I feel lucky? Well do ya, punk?” And Harry hesitates because that’s his line and Rosemary walks off before he can say anything; “yeah, I didn’t think so” she says, walking out of his life forever. Or until the sequel.
I’m mad that doesn’t exist now.