In 1973, a psychiatrist named Lawrence Pazder began to treat a troubled woman named Michelle Smith. Under hypnosis, Smith “remembered” being repeatedly abused as a child by her parents during satanic rituals. She was allegedly tortured, locked in a cage, and forced to participate in the mutilation of various babies. The results of Smith’s hypnotherapy with Pazder were later published as the 1980 book, Michelle Remembers. This, in turn, incited a massive rumor panic that escalated to some truly ridiculous extremes throughout Great Britain, North America and Australia for the rest of the decade. Several other people would have similar “memories” under hypnosis as well, and they were popularized by bullshit media sensationalists like Geraldo Rivera. TV audiences were emotionally bullied into accepting these “Satanic survivors” and their stories at face value. Even psychiatric and law enforcement professionals blindly accepted these stories as true, and just having someone accuse you of being a “Satanist” was enough to get you prosecuted for alleged child abuse. As in every other witch hunt throughout the history of the human race, absolutely no verifiable evidence was necessary; countless people were thrown in prison and prohibited from seeing their children simply on the basis of rumors and hearsay.
People finally started coming back to their senses in the early 1990s, when the FBI officially investigated the whole “Satanic Panic” and said, “Woops! There’s absolutely no hard evidence that any of these alleged crimes ever happened! And we’ve also discovered that when people are under hypnosis, they’ll remember random shit they saw on TV and think it actually happened!” This effectively debunked the entire urban legend of “Satanic ritual abuse” (SRA), which hasn’t been taken seriously by anyone in psychiatry or law enforcement ever since. (The only people who continue to believe this nonsense today are whacko conspiracy theorists who insist that all the “evidence” for SRA has been “covered up” by nonexistent super-cults like the Illuminati, which also allegedly “controls” the FBI and various other branches of our government. It’s almost like these people are somehow disappointed that there aren’t any international Satanist conspiracies to abuse children. Furthermore, the fact that one could argue much more easily for the existence of Christian ritual abuse apparently means nothing to them.)
The 1968 theatrical poster for Rosemary’s Baby
If there was any fictional work that had a significant part to play in shaping the Satanic Panic, it was most certainly Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968, based on the 1967 novel by Ira Levin), which set the standard for all devil cult movies to follow (and which is still xeroxed by lesser horror flicks today). In fact, I’d wager that most (if not all) of the “Satanic survivors” were actually “remembering” things from this film under hypnosis. As a result of all that happened (as well as several controversies involving cults like the Church of Scientology and the People’s Temple of the Disciples of Christ in the 1970s), the 1980s were an extremely dangerous time to be openly participating in any sort of “new religious movement” (NRM). This was especially the case for Pagans, and as a result, many Pagans I know find Rosemary’s Baby a very difficult film to watch or even discuss.
The film revolves around a young newlywed named Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow), who has a stereotypical heteronormative relationship with her husband, Guy (John Cassavettes). Guy’s an actor who’s busting his balls to find work, but aside from appearing in a few TV commercials for little pay, he isn’t having much luck. Rosemary’s absolutely devoted and perfectly obedient to Guy, and he seems genuinely nice to her at first; but as the film progresses, we find that he sees nothing morally wrong with the idea of having sex with Rosemary (and even scratching and bruising her) while she’s asleep. When she discovers she has become a victim of such rape and abuse, Rosemary becomes angry…but then she suppresses her anger and dutifully subjects to her husband’s will. This is the result of her Roman Catholic upbringing, which seems to affect Rosemary in two different ways. When she’s conscious, she blushes and becomes embarrassed when other characters say anything critical about the Pope; but when she’s asleep, she dreams of domineering nuns and of being naked at parties that are for “Catholics only.” This suggests that Rosemary feels oppressed by her Catholic upbringing on a deep, unconscious level.
After moving into a new apartment together, Rosemary and Guy meet their new neighbors, Minnie and Roman Castavet. The Castavets are an elderly couple who travel the world, who have a young hippie woman living with them, and who make lots of strange noises in their apartment at night. Their young lady friend soon turns up dead (having jumped out a window near the top of their apartment building), and then Rosemary notices Roman Castavet talking conspiratorially with Guy. Then she gets sick after having a romantic dinner with Guy one night and has a strange dream where she’s surrounded by the Castavets and many other elderly people (all of whom are nude). Then she’s raped by a big hairy creature with snake-like eyes and finds, upon waking, that she’s actually pregnant. (The night of the rape dream sequence happens to be the same night that Guy claims to have had his way with Rosemary while she was sleeping).
Rosemary becomes overjoyed with the prospect of motherhood, but her joy wanes as she starts to feel a terrible pain in her stomach. The Castavets recommend that Guy take her to a doctor named Sapirstein, who prescribes for Rosemary a vitamin drink and tells her she’ll be all right. But the pain doesn’t go away, and whenever Rosemary tries to tell Guy about it, he just gets angry at her. When she tries to tell Dr. Sapirstein, he just refutes it. As the story goes on, Rosemary loses more and more control over her own body, even receiving criticism for a haircut she gets halfway through the film. At the same time, she begins to think that her neighbors are members of a satanic cult, that they want to kill her baby for one of their rituals, and that Guy has made some kind of deal with them. That last suspicion is sustained by the fact that Guy doesn’t like the Castavets at first, but that he suddenly likes them for no apparent reason later, that he listens to everything they suggest about Rosemary’s pregnancy (and becomes angry when Rosemary wants a second opinion), and that he suddenly finds a very lucrative and high-paying acting job. But are the neighbors really Satanists? Do they really want to hurt Rosemary’s baby? And is Guy really in on it?
If you wish to avoid reading any spoilers, stop reading this review right now…because the answers to the preceding questions are, “Yes,” “No” and “Yes.” Yes, the Castavets really are Satanists; no, they don’t actually want to hurt Rosemary’s child (for the father is actually Satan, which makes her child the Antichrist); and yes, Guy is most certainly in on it, having prostituted his wife to the devil in exchange for a solid career. But if there’s one thing the Christian conspiracy theorists and the Pagan critics both have in common, it’s the fact that they’re both missing the real point of this film. Rosemary’s Baby shows us how horrifying it is to be physically violated, to become pregnant as a result of that rape, and to be caught between two clashing ideologies that both regard your body as being someone else’s property.
Rosemary deserves better than this misogynist numbnuts.
It’s easy to see how this applies to the film’s antagonists. For both the cultists and their new convert (i.e., Guy), Rosemary is simply a vehicle for the delivery of their dark messiah. Ostensibly, it’s because of the kid’s claws and horns that Rosemary’s been in so much stomach pain, but never mind that; the little terror’s safety is far more important than Rosemary’s. She could have been ripped in half during childbirth and these people wouldn’t give a damn (no pun intended). After the Antichrist has been born, they have no further reason to treat Rosemary with anything even resembling kindness; they make it perfectly clear that unless she’s willing to help raise her monstrous brood, they’ll just kill her and dump her body somewhere (like she’s trash). Naturally, poor Rosemary has no choice but to obey; and then, just because things aren’t already horrible enough, she seems to actually form a bond with her unholy son. As when Guy casually confesses to raping and abusing her while she sleeps, Rosemary reacts with anger and horror at first…but then, having been raised to do so since birth, she dutifully accepts her lot.
But there’s a flip side to all of this, a subtext that targets the Christian establishment as much as it sensationalizes the occult. Were Rosemary to approach the Catholic Church for help, her situation would not be any different; she would still be expected to go through the pregnancy (regardless of the fact that she was raped and she’s in terrible pain), and she would still be told what to do with her body by men who know nothing of what it’s like to be pregnant. (If the Catholic clergy think it’s a woman’s “duty” to give birth even when she’s been impregnated by a rapist, what can we expect from them when it comes to women who’ve been raped by the devil himself?) But this subtext goes even deeper, for Rosemary is the mother of the Antichrist – who is, of course, the opposite of Jesus Christ. And what happens in the story of Jesus? Well, He’s born of a young woman who’s made pregnant by a supernatural being without her knowledge or consent, and…
Perhaps the most chilling aspect of Rosemary’s Baby is the fact that its Satanist characters are simply reflections of the Christian majority. Sure, they worship Satan instead of Yahweh, and they serve the Antichrist rather than Jesus; but at the end of the day, they’re still an oppressive, abusive, and manipulative patriarchy. The men are in charge, the women are subservient, and one woman in particular is raped so their male “savior” can walk the Earth. Or to put it another way, the things that are done to Rosemary by Satan and his disciples have also been done by Yahweh and His worshipers to women in general. How is the story of the Virgin Mary any different from that of Rosemary in principle? How is the Christian “pro-life” movement any better than what Guy and the Castavets do to keep Rosemary under their control? This film cleverly exposes the inherent misogyny of the Bible by re-imagining the story of Mary in post-modern terms. The Roman Empire has become the United States and Jewish apocalypticism has been replaced with Satanism, but it’s all anti-woman just the same.
Rosemary is made even scarier by the fact that its director’s wife, Sharon Tate, was brutally murdered (while pregnant) by the Manson Family one year after its release. It also just so happens that one member of the Family – Susan Atkins – had previously been in Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan for a brief duration, and this makes for good conspiracy fodder (as well as the fact that LaVey appeared in Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of My Demon Brother alongside another Family member, Bobby Beausoleil). While LaVey is not above criticism by any means, there’s a mighty big difference between the Manson Family (which committed murder) and the Church of Satan (which didn’t), and the fact that there was some overlap between the two groups is hardly surprising. (When there aren’t very many people in a given area who share the same unique interests, they’re bound to cross paths with each other at one point or another, even if they don’t like each other or approve of each other’s actions.) But LaVey did falsely claim to have played the devil in Rosemary, which generated publicity for his church. (Unfortunately, it also contributed to the popular belief that real life occultists actually do things like Minnie and Roman Castavet do.)
There’s one thing in Rosemary that makes me think about Seth. During the rape dream sequence, Rosemary hears someone chanting a bunch of random words, one of which is “typhoon.” My guess is that she’s actually hearing the cultists invoke Satan while she’s asleep, and I think Ira Levin must have drawn from LaVey’s Satanic Bible when he wrote the original novel. In his book, LaVey recommends chanting the names of several miscellaneous Pagan Gods while trying to invoke the devil, and the names “Set” and “Typhon” are both included in this list. On the Satanic Mass LP (1969), one can actually hear LaVey chant both of these names during the course of his daughter’s Satanic baptism. So it’s somewhat common for Satanists to invoke Seth (either intentionally or unintentionally) into their rituals, and I think that when Rosemary hears the word “typhoon” (and then dreams of a man walking in the middle of a violent tropical storm), she’s actually hearing the cultists chant the name “Typhon.” It’s superficial and meaningless – sort of like naming the antagonist in The Mummy (1932) after Imhotep, the legendary architect and physician – but it gets my attention every time I watch the film.
One of the most terrifying moments in movie history
When I first saw this film, I hated it for the same reasons most Pagans do. In fact, it still bugs me that there are nuts out there who think it’s a perfectly accurate portrayal of modern witchcraft. (And while many of my favorite classic horror films no longer frighten or upset me, Rosemary still does; I just watched it again this week, and it still makes me feel like I’ve swallowed a pound and a half of Drano.) But after many subsequent viewings, I came around to accepting that Rosemary is truly brilliant. This was also helped by my discovery that it was never Ira Levin’s intention to persecute real life witches; he was Jewish, he didn’t believe in the Christian Satan, and he later came to regret that his story has provided so much fuel for Christian conspiracy theorists. In the end, I feel that Rosemary’s Baby is really quite pro-Pagan (or at least pro-non-Abrahamic). It doesn’t have anything to do with Paganism per se, but it does make us react against a society in which men can justify treating women as property in the name of an exclusively “righteous” male superbeing – and frankly, I can’t think of a better argument for Paganism than that.
Rosemary’s Baby grew up to birth some truly alarming offspring of its own, including The Exorcist (1973), It’s Alive (1974), The Omen (1976) and even Halloween (1978), which all examine how malevolent paranormal children can threaten their families and/or communities in various ways. (Even 1979’s Alien was at least marginally influenced by it, since it too capitalizes on the fear of monster fetuses growing inside human bodies.) Rosemary was also given a made-for-TV sequel in the mid-1970s that nobody remembers (starring Patty Duke as Rosemary), and it has just recently been remade as a 4-hour TV miniseries. I fail to see how a remake is necessary since Roman Polanski bent over backwards to keep the original film as close to Ira Levin’s novel as possible. (Some people even argue that it’s the most faithful film adaptation of any novel ever made.) Frankly, I refuse to watch any version other than Polanski’s, and I think you should, too. If you haven’t seen it already, I highly recommend doing so – but preferably not late at night.