Ira Levin might just be one of the most quietly influential figures in the history of horror and science fiction. Mention of his name often leaves people blank, grasping for some connection, trying to place the vague sense of familiarity conjured up by a collection of loosely recognisable syllables: “Ira: a composer, maybe?”; “Levin, Lev? A character from Tolstoy, perhaps?” Yet, while the name might seem strange or obscure, Levin himself has been instrumental in shaping modern horror fiction and film. In 1967 Ira Levin published Rosemary’s Baby, a film whose adaptation the following year would signal a watershed moment in horror and unleash a torrent of uniquely visceral cinematic terror. Five years later, Levin would pen The Stepford Wives and, in doing so, would conflate horror, science fiction and conspiracy-thriller in a uniquely potent admixture of paranoid fantasies. While Levin himself may have been dwarfed by the success of his own novels, the paperback blockbusters of their day, and even more so by the success of their subsequent film adaptations, he nevertheless remains a vital force in horror fiction. The nightmarish, claustrophobic and deeply sinister worlds imbued with life on the pages of Levin’s novels have left an indelible imprint on contemporary horror and continue to shape the terrors that infiltrate our minds in their darkest moments.
Levin began work on Rosemary’s Baby in 1965, and the novel was the very definition of a “potboiler,” a work created primarily so that the author could continue to put food on the table. The novel, a tale of pregnancy and parturition, was born out of Levin’s preoccupation with suspense, anticipation and the horror of the unknown. For Levin, fear was not about horrifying visages and the all-consuming terror of being confronted with the monstrous. Instead, he saw horror as grounded in expectation, the promised delivery of the nightmarish, and the gestation of something unimaginable. It was for this reason that Levin chose to centre his novel on a diabolical pregnancy. What greater example of expectation and anticipation could there be? Even removed from the threat of a supernatural pregnancy, childbirth is an unsettling, even uncanny, experience. Rosemary’s Baby opens with an epigraph borrowed from a contemporary parenting manual that muses on the alterity of pregnancy, the foreboding sense that some alien presence has taken root deep within one’s body:
“As for the desirability of cheerfulness during pregnancy, this should follow naturally from the fact that you are well and are approaching what will prove to be (although you may not appreciate it now) the most permanently satisfying event in your life. Do not think, however, though you devote all your days to laughter, or all your nights to symphony concerts, that your child will be one bit cheerier or one whit more musical because of it. No, his mental characteristics are more deeply rooted than that …” (Nicholas J Eastman, MD. Expectant Motherhood).
Even setting aside its use in a novel about the birth of the Antichrist, there is something chilling about the lack of control, the uncertainty, of pregnancy. In a 2003 introduction to Rosemary’s Baby, Levin wrote that “a fetus could be an effective horror if the reader knew it was growing into something malignly different from the baby expected. Nine whole months of anticipation, with the horror inside the heroine!” Ruling out an exploration of actual medical horrors, possibly with the recent revelations about the morning-sickness drug thalidomide firmly in mind, Levin settled on the idea of impregnating his heroine with the spawn of Satan. He was, as he later admitted, “stuck with Satan. In whom I believed not at all.” Detailing the nefarious machinations of a sinister coven who concoct a plan to bring about the birth of the Antichrist using a young woman named Rosemary Woodhouse as the vessel for the diabolic seed, Rosemary’s Baby transformed the popular cultural conception of Satan. If devil worship had previously seemed a thing of the past, a distant and remote nightmare, Levin brought it home; transplanting the occult into the vibrant modernity of mid-twentieth-century New York. Much to Levin’s dismay, Rosemary’s Baby spawned a host of diabolic imitators and paved the way for films like The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976).
However, while Rosemary’s Baby irrevocably altered how we understand the Devil, and while it is indisputably one of the most famous modern texts about Satan, it can be argued that Satan is not the real villain of the book. Rather, the true source of evil in the novel is the cruelty of the world our heroine inhabits and, more specifically, that of her abusive husband, Guy. Rosemary’s Baby is therefore a novel about abuse, control and coercion in which the devil is merely a metaphor and a medium.
The plot of Rosemary’s Baby is a familiar one to horror fans, not least because of Roman Polanski’s iconic 1968 adaptation. Simply put, it tells the story of an optimistic young woman, the eponymous Rosemary, who moves into the opulent Bramford building with her actor husband, Guy. Her upwardly-mobile aspirations and dreams of raising a family in the fashionable environs of 1960s Manhattan are slowly corrupted when Guy allows Rosemary to be used as vessel for the birth of the Antichrist in a devilish plot orchestrated by the elderly Satanists who live next door. The horror of the novel derives, ostensibly, from Rosemary’s growing realisation that the child developing within her may not be entirely human. However, on a deeper level, the terror that infuses the novel emanates from the unsettling manner in which Rosemary’s body, the most private reaches of her interiority, is manipulated and controlled by those around her. Drugged by her neighbours and raped by the Devil, Rosemary’s pregnancy does not take place on her own terms. While she may dream of an idyllic, loving motherhood, her actual pregnancy is the result of brutal sexual violence. As her baby grows inside of her, she is denied access to real medical care and forced to remain ignorant about issues related to maternal health. Her obstetrician, Dr Sapirstein, is a member of the satanic cabal himself and, so, forbids her from reading books about pregnancy or speaking to her friends about it. In place of prenatal vitamins, she is given a mysterious herbal tincture by the witch next door, Minnie Castevet. All choice and all agency is taken from Rosemary. Minnie and her husband, Roman, monitor Rosemary’s every move, agree to do her shopping so that she does not have to go outside, and regularly intrude on her privacy.
That the issue of choice and bodily autonomy would be a central preoccupation in a novel about a demonic pregnancy is, of course, to be expected, but the presence of these issues also speaks to the time period in which Levin was writing. In 1960, the contraceptive pill was approved for sale by the FDA; and in 1965, the year Levin set to work on Rosemary’s Baby, the Supreme Court case Griswold vs. Connecticut ended state laws that restricted access to oral contraception; a few years later Roe vs. Wade would result in the legalisation of abortion. Contemporary media debates and political discussions about reproductive rights seem embedded in the very fabric of Rosemary’s Baby, as the novel explores in painful detail the anxiety of losing control, or having control taken from you.
At the same time, Rosemary’s Baby is a novel about consent and abuse. Although the details of Rosemary’s pregnancy are horrifying, the story of her conception is perhaps even worse. After eating chocolate mousse that has been drugged by her devil-worshipping neighbours, Rosemary falls unconscious (though, she retains some awareness due to having sneakily disposed of some of the foul-tasting dessert). In her delirious state, Rosemary is raped by the Devil. Upon waking the next morning, her husband convinces her that she had too much to drink, patronisingly telling her that in the future she can have cocktails or wine but not both. Feeling achy and noticing marks on her body, Rosemary questions Guy and is told, matter-of-factly, that he made love to her inert body because he “didn’t want to miss baby night”, or the chance to conceive. Essentially, Guy is telling her that he raped her while she was in a drunken stupor, joking that “It was kind of fun, in a necrophile sort of way.” When Rosemary observes the long scratches on her body, Guy simply promises to cut his finger nails. Although the text may be addressing satanic sexual assault, the subtext appears to be alluding to marital rape. Unlike the film, the novel allows us access to Rosemary’s thoughts, her inner monologue, and, so, we are privy to her emotional response to this violation. Reflecting on the fact that, as far as she knows, her husband assaulted her sleeping body, Rosemary muses that
“Guy had taken her without her knowledge, had made love to her as a mindless body (‘kind of fun in a necrophile sort of way’) rather than as the complete mind-and-body person she was; and had done so, moreover, with a savage gusto that had produced scratches, aching soreness […]”
Although she seems hurt that her husband has dehumanised her, making love to a mindless body, Rosemary seems primarily concerned about the objectification involved and does not appear particularly bothered about the violation itself. Unfortunately, given the cultural context, this makes sense. In the mid-sixties, when Levin was writing, marital rape, along with other forms of domestic abuse, was still widely accepted as normal. The criminalisation of marital rape did not begin in the United States until the mid-seventies and was only extended to all fifty states in the 1990s. Guy’s behaviour towards Rosemary is that of an abuser. As the novel progresses he becomes increasingly controlling and manipulative; he isolates her and cuts her off from her friends so that she is forced to endure a painful and frightening pregnancy alone. He consistently undermines her and chips away at her confidence. In one especially disturbing passage, Rosemary, presumably trying to exert some degree of control over a body that is changing in horrifying and agonising ways, gets a fashionable Vidal Sassoon haircut. Getting this haircut results in a scene, which has since become iconic due to Mia Farrow’s stunning transformation in the 1968 film, where Guy admonishes Rosemary, telling her “that haircut […] looks awful, if you want the truth, honey. That’s the biggest mistake you ever made in your whole life.’” Moreover, throughout the novel, Guy consistently gaslights Rosemary, forcing her to doubt her own sanity and question her perception of reality. Before she is raped, Rosemary detects a “chalky under-taste” to her dessert. Guy’s response is to tell her that she is simply imagining the whole thing. Similarly, when Rosemary begins to unravel the satanic conspiracy centred on her unborn baby, Guy attempts to convince her that she is going mad, perhaps the victim of some insidious prepartum psychosis.
I’ve recently had the opportunity to teach Rosemary’s Baby as part of a college course on witchcraft in popular culture, and while the book spawned numerous debates, the one thing almost everyone agreed upon was the fact that Guy is the real villain of the piece. Despite the satanic iconography in which the novel shrouded – the Castevets with their rituals and sacrifices, the weird music, the pungent herbs – the true horror of Rosemary’s Baby is abuse. Perhaps, even more unsettlingly, the true horror of the novel is the reality of abuse. Guy, as repugnant as he becomes, does not start out as a monster. In fact, Rosemary and Guy have the kind of relationship that many of us aspire to. Not only are the couple romantic partners, but they also seem to be friends: they enjoy spending time together, they support each other, they have private jokes. There does not seem to be a significant power imbalance and they appear to genuinely like each other. At a time when marriage was often entered into due to social expectation, this was not always the case. Nonetheless, as the plot unspools, Guy becomes more controlling, more dismissive and more abusive. Like real-life abusers, he does not appear as a cartoon villain, twirling his moustache and cackling; rather, he initially appears as a loving husband and only gradually transform into something monstrous. It is Guy, after all, who offers Rosemary up to the coven and allows her to be impregnated with the Antichrist. It is he who takes control from her, and he does so for his own selfish ends. Guy makes a pact with the Castevets and their satanic master, exchanging his wife’s body and freedom for a successful acting career. Interestingly enough, a similar exchange takes place in Levin’s The Stepford Wives, when Walter sacrifices Joanna for some signifier of signifier of “successful” manhood; though, in this case, the object of his desire is not a career but a perfect, subservient wife. It is often said that the Devil is in the details, but here the Devil is merely a detail. The true horror of Rosemary’s Baby inheres in its disturbing depiction of abuse, coercion and control.
Ira Levin began work on Rosemary’s Baby in late 1965; in 1966, Anton Szandor LaVey founded the Church of Satan. The Summer of Love was just around the corner, and people were trading old faiths for new. Traditional churches and forms of worship seemed to be withering away in the face of novel spiritual experimentation. For many, a sinister occultism was in the air. Yet, while Levin’s novel draws on all of these cultural anxieties, infusing the text with a sinister iconography of black candles, mysterious herbs and bizarre chants, this is, in many ways, simply window dressing for the real horror that seethes beneath the surface: the isolation and terror of abuse. Perhaps this is Levin’s legacy. While his reputation as a writer may have been dwarfed by the cultural phenomena that grew from his work, Ira Levin’s contribution to horror was immense. Assembling the trappings of ‘60s occultism and popular anxieties about New Age practices within a single tale of suspense and intrigue, Levin told a powerful story of abuse and control in which the supernatural served as a potent means to address real-world horrors.