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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

‘Rosemary’s Baby’ is born again in a post-Roe world

Following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Roman Polanski’s pre-Roe gothic horror tale is given new, terrifying life

Many films in the horror genre reflect the social anxieties of their time.

“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978) fed on rampant Cold War era fears that your next-door neighbor might secretly be a communist. Likewise, a resurgence in 1980s vampire flicks like “The Lost Boys” (1987) conspicuously coincided with the AIDS epidemic.

However, as times change, so does the menace of such films. Fears of communism have thawed with the conclusion of the Cold War just as vampires have lost their bite with the subsiding of the AIDS epidemic. 

Similarly, the classic “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) is antiquated in a world where abortion rights are guaranteed at the federal level. The film, written and directed by Roman Polanski, shines a spotlight on the horrors of forced pregnancy amid the second-wave feminist movement five years before the landmark Roe v. Wade case. 

But, that changed when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, making “Rosemary’s Baby” just as terrifying for the current generation as it was for audiences in 1968. 

The film follows the story of Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow), who has just moved into a new apartment with her husband Guy (John Cassavetes). Woodhouse wants to have a baby but her husband resists the idea. 

At least, until he relents to Woodhouse’s wishes by raping her in her sleep to conceive a child. 

Woodhouse soon discovers she is pregnant. For the remainder of the film, her pregnancy is increasingly controlled by her husband and their elderly neighbors, the Castevets (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon). She comes to suspect the Castevets, in league with her husband, are part of a Satanic cult trying to steal her baby.

Farrow offers up a heart-wrenching performance as an isolated woman under constant siege and perfectly captures the emotional toll that being trapped can have on a person. The emotional complexity on display makes the film feel incredibly real — magic spells and witchcraft aside.

Farrow’s performance heightens the horror Woodhouse endures throughout her pregnancy.

Spoilers for “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) ahead.

Date rape, desolation and devil worship

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One of the most provocative examples of this horror is the marital rape Woodhouse endures at the hands of her husband. In the film, she eats a gift of sedative-laced chocolate mousse from the Castevets on the night she and her husband planned to conceive a child, knocking her unconscious.

What follows is a surreal, dream-like experience where Woodhouse is raped by Satan while surrounded by chanting cultists. The next morning, her husband claims he had sex with her in her sleep, saying he didn’t want to “miss baby night” in a sickeningly casual manner. In a twist, the child which results from this rape is later revealed to be the Antichrist.

Not only does this sequence shine a light on marital rape and its horrifyingly frequent dismissal, but it also perfectly encapsulates the position women are put in when forced to carry their rapist’s child to term. One would imagine it feels much like carrying the spawn of Satan himself.

The pregnancy takes a physical toll on Woodhouse as the film progresses. Soon, she is gaunt, pale and in constant pain. The pregnancy itself appears to pose an immediate danger to her. However, she has little ability to seek help as her husband and the Castevets control almost every aspect of her pregnancy. Woodhouse doesn’t even have the chance to choose her doctor, as Guy urges her to see one recommended by the Castevets.

Upon seeing her physical state, Woodhouse’s friends suggest that she should consider an abortion. After learning this, her husband admonishes her friends and bars Woodhouse from seeing them for the rest of the film, leaving her isolated.

Though she ultimately survives – solely due to the Castevets’ witchcraft – Woodhouse’s physical decline parallels an ectopic pregnancy. 

An ectopic pregnancy occurs when a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus. Most if not all ectopic pregnancies are fatal for both the mother and the fetus if carried to term.

Woodhouse’s deterioration throughout her pregnancy – while having no ability to seek help – mirrors the fate women with ectopic pregnancies may face under new abortion bans. According to The New York Times, after the overturning of Roe v. Wade, at least 12 state legislatures across the country have banned or severely restricted access to abortion. More restrictions are expected to take effect in the near future.

The film is a slow burn that steadily grows in suspense, heightening the viewer’s dread. This tension stems from the helplessness of Woodhouse’s plight and the inevitability of her fate. 

While Woodhouse struggles to piece together why the Castevets’ cult wants her baby, the audience has already figured it out through not-so-subtle context clues, simply waiting in torment as the film creeps towards its pre-destined conclusion. 

This same dread resembles what many pro-abortion rights Americans experienced between the leak of the Supreme Court’s early draft opinion regarding Roe v. Wade in early May and its eventual overturning in June. They could see what was coming but were helpless to do anything but watch as it happened. 

All the same elements of “Rosemary’s Baby” which once felt out of step with contemporary life are now its most visceral sources of horror. The film has taken on new life capitalizing on the anxieties of a post-Roe world, much as it had decades ago before the Supreme Court’s original decision on abortion rights. 

Once dead and buried, none could have guessed that the horrors of the past could return to haunt us once again. 

“Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)  is currently streaming on Prime Video and Paramount Plus.

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Noah Fellinger

Noah Fellinger is the Arts Editor for The Daily Cardinal. He has covered new film and television releases, labor issues in the performing arts, and has written analysis of the relationship between art and contemporary politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Noah_Fellinger.


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