September 2009

Jessica Ferri

Kissing Dead Girls

Congratulations! It's . . . the Devil.

Believe it or not, Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby is actually based on a novel of the same name by Ira Levin. Levin also wrote The Stepford Wives, and, according to his bio on the back of a mass market paperback, "the Barbara Streisand hit 'He Touched Me.'"

If Knocked Up, with its total and utter neglect of the entire pro-choice movement terrified you as much as it did me, Rosemary's Baby is really going to knock your socks off. Rosemary is a twenty-four year old recovering Catholic, recently married, who wants a nice apartment and three kids. Her husband, Guy, is a struggling actor who promises to acquiesce to her needs as soon as he's had his big break. They move into a beautiful building called The Bramford on New York's Upper West Side. But oops, Rosemary's friend Hutch is emphatic that they not sign the lease. Why not? Well, because The Bramford has an unfortunate history. It turns out some guy named Adrian Marcato tried to conjure Satan there in the 1890s.

But everyone knows witchcraft and voodoo are silly; and a five-room apartment with two bathrooms on the Upper West for five hundred bucks a month? Sign me up! So Rosemary and Guy move in anyway. One night, a young woman named Terry who lives with an elderly couple, Minnie and Roman Casavet, jumps to her death and lands on the sidewalk outside the entrance to the building. Rosemary has a strange nightmare about being raped, and wakes to find scratches on her chest and thighs. Her husband explains that he had sex with her while she was passed out. "It was kind of fun, in a necrophile sort of way." Rosemary forgives this behavior because he says he was trying to make a baby. Turns out the entire apartment building is a coven of Satanists who have hand picked Rosemary to deliver Satan's child. Guy strikes a deal with them: if he goes through with it, in exchange, his acting career will take off.

Rosemary's Baby has often been interpreted as one of the first horror books / films to illuminate the female sex's ongoing struggle to gain and maintain control over their own reproductive rights, but like Knocked Up's mom-to-be Alison, Rosemary is determined to become a mother. When confronted with the building's history she responds, "Maybe there are good houses too. Houses where people keep falling in love and getting married and having babies." To which her lovely husband says, "And becoming stars." (Yuck! I don't know what's worse, a devil baby or an actor spouse.) Later, after a few months of pregnancy, Rosemary's friends are concerned with how sickly she looks. They demand that she see a different doctor from the one her husband and neighbors have chosen for her. She retorts, "I won't have an abortion." She's going to have this baby, even if it kills her. She's a breeder.

Pregnancy in general is enough material for a horror story -- the sensation of having something growing and then kicking around inside me frankly gives me the willies. Levin admitted in an interview that he would not allow his pregnant wife to read the book. Babies are parasites, after all -- pregnant women often report that their hair and nails completely fall apart because all the nutrients they consume go to the fetus. But Ira Levin takes it one step further. Rosemary's baby is practically killing her -- causing intense and constant pain along her back and pelvis. And, while most pregnant women crave pickles and ice cream, Rosemary finds herself "chewing on a raw and dripping chicken heart -- in the kitchen one morning at four fifteen."

Obviously something was going down in the sixties. With demon birth and possession movies like Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, and The Exorcist, the human race was feeling some serious anxiety about parenthood. Maybe men were worried women had gained too much control over their bodies, and that they would be deemed unnecessary for the survival of the human race. Maybe parents had completely lost touch with their teenage children. Maybe there was a backlash against adoption (Damien, in The Omen, is switched at birth when the couple's biological child is stillborn). Maybe, with all this fancy new medicine, people were worried that the Devil would weasel his way into our bedrooms. Most likely, it was all of the above.

In The Omen, Gregory Peck has the fortitude to kill Damien once he realizes he's the devil's spawn by the 666 birthmark on the back of his neck. Not so with Rosemary. She considers it only briefly. "The thing to do was kill it. Obviously. Wait till they were all sitting at the other end, then run over, push away Laura-Louise, and grab it and throw it out the window. And jump out after it. Mother Slays Baby and Self at Bramford." But she quickly reneges. "No, she couldn't throw him out the window. He was her baby, no matter who the father was. What she had to do was go to someone who would understand. Like a priest." I suppose Damien's adoptive-status makes it easier for Gregory Peck to kill him (and the fact that's he's murdered several people, including his adoptive mother), but is it wrong that I want Rosemary to buck-up and get rid of the son of Satan? I mean, the thing has claws, for chrissakes. "He has claws, but they're very tiny and pearly. The mitts are only so He doesn't scratch Himself, not because His hands aren't attractive." However, I can also understand if you carry something around for nine months, you probably want to keep it, even if it does have yellow eyes and pearly claws.

Rosemary's Baby is a masterpiece only in the sense that it raises serious questions about procreation. Ira Levin's writing style could be categorized as terse and functional. He's not out to convince anyone that he's a great literary master. He's just trying to convey a story. His dialogue, however, reads like a movie, which may be the reason why Polanski's adaptation appeared less than a year after the book. If you're a Stephen King fan -- King's novels are the closest novels come to movies -- then you'll love Ira Levin. His timing, the mid-sixties, when everything about gender roles and reproductive rights was changing, was impeccable and he struck gold with his two major novels, Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives, two horror novels about the perils of domesticity. In the end, that's all you can really ask from a horror novel -- that with nuance and creativity, its moral can urge us to question the meaning behind our own social constructs.

Or remind us that we shouldn't marry actors.