Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin is the story of Rosemary Woodhouse, a young woman who moves with her husband Guy into the Bramford, a beautiful New York apartment building with a sinister reputation, populated by eccentric elderly residents. As Rosemary and Guy settle down and think about starting a family, it soon becomes clear that the Bramford’s reputation is justified and their friendly neighbours may not be what they seem.
I only discovered this book through the film, but both book and film are classics, masterpieces of horror and atmosphere. Both are genuinely sinister, but the book has the added bonus of engaging, skilful prose that goes far deeper into Rosemary’s perspective than the film is able to.
In a lot of horror fiction, the protagonist is an idiot. They sleep overnight in the haunted house, they creep down into the basement, they accept the dare to trespass in the abandoned mental hospital; and no matter how great the rest of the story is there’s always this faint feeling of exasperation that this whole ordeal could have been avoided if only the protagonist had acted like a normal sensible person and just stayed at home. Not so with this book. Rosemary does everything right, she takes all the precautions, she actively thinks about the situations she finds herself in, she’s self-aware, she’s smart – and she still ends up getting inescapably tangled up in the machinations of the people around her. It makes the horror even more sinister, because when you do all the right things and the horror still catches up with you, where can you go from there?
I’ve seen some reviews decrying Rosemary’s lack of agency, and I think this comes from a misreading of both her personality and her historical context. Rosemary is living in the sixties, she comes from a devout Catholic family, and is married to an older man with a severe ego problem, so maybe she isn’t the fiery “strong female” a modern reader might be looking for, but her quiet intelligence is a much more accurate result of her environment. There are plenty of modern readers who have experienced gaslighting at the hands of a domineering spouse, or confusion due to a strict religious upbringing, so I think it’s a complete misinterpretation to decry her as weak.
For a book published in 1967, written by a male author, there is a surprisingly amount of sensitivity and nuance in the way Rosemary’s relationship with her husband is handled. Levin doesn’t use modern terms like marital rape and gaslighting, but it’s very clear that that’s what he’s talking about. Although technically this is a book about Satan and devil worship, there is so much in the story about humans and human relationships, which is why it works so well.
Rosemary’s Baby is a compelling and disturbing story, not just an excellent horror novel, and rightly deserves to remain a classic.
© 2020 Alice Olivia Scarlett
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Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.