Rosemary’s Baby * Ira Levin Book Review

“It’s one thing to refer to the book,” Levin wrote of Rosemary’s Baby , “as being ‘generally credited or blamed for having sparked the current revival of occultism,’ and another to recognize, as I have in the past few years (writing in 1990), that the blame may be real and weighty.” The preponderance of horror in fiction and on film led to a time, Levin noted, “when people, presumably schooled, detect backward demonic messages in rock music and Satan’s symbol on bars of soap.”
Otto Penzler

Rosemary Woodhouse and her struggling actor husband Guy move into the Bramford, an old New York City apartment building with an ominous reputation and mostly elderly residents. Neighbors Roman and Minnie Castavet soon come nosing around to welcome the Woodhouses to the building, and despite Rosemary’s reservations about their eccentricity and the weird noises that she keeps hearing, her husband takes a special shine to them. Shortly after Guy lands a plum Broadway role, Rosemary becomes pregnant, and the Castavets start taking a special interest in her welfare. As the sickened Rosemary becomes increasingly isolated, she begins to suspect that the Castavets’ circle is not what it seems . . .

I’ve wanted to read this book ever since I saw the 1960’s movie with the same name (and the remake). It haunted me over the years and I kept returning to it and its ending. Is this the story of an expecting mother going mad with worry over the delivery of her first born or a complex plot of a Satanist cult designed to sacrifice her newborn for a ritual? Is she crazy or isn’t she?

Rosemary looks like such a lovely girl. One of many brothers and sisters (all of which have their own children), from a very Catholic family with a very Catholic upbringing, married to.. (gasp) a Protestant actor wannabe. She is surrounded by light, happiness and signs of fertility all around her.

A pregnant woman went by in a navy blue dress. Rosemary watched her. She must have been in her sixth or seventh month, talking back happily over her shoulder to an older woman with packages, probably her mother.

She and Guy move into a beautiful Gothic apartment building (The Bramford) in New York City. The building has a shady history according to their old neighbor Hutch (Maurice Evans) – tales of witches’ covens, children being cooked and eaten, people dying and the like.

“I don’t know whether or not you know it,” he said, buttering a roll, “but the Bramford had rather an unpleasant reputation early in the century.”

Undaunted, they move in. Rosemary stays at home while her actor husband goes to work. She makes the home comfortable, and soon meets Terri, a former junkie who was saved by, and now lives with, the neighbors, Minnie and Roman Castevet. Terri wears an amulet (given to her by Minnie) that contains a stinky substance which was later named as Tannis but which Hutch identifies as Devil’s rot / mold – used in satanic rituals.

The next night, Rosemary and Guy are returning home when they come upon a scene in front of their building. Seems Terri has jumped from the building, and is smushed in a pool of blood out front. The Castavets arrive and ID the body. They appear more shell-shocked than sad.

Rosemary has nightmares that night. She dreams about Terri and nuns. The next day, Mrs. Castavet comes over and invites the couple to dinner. At dinner, they talk about religion, and Roman speaks flatteringly to Guy about some of the roles he’s had in theater. Minnie and Rosemary talk about Rosemary’s large family as they do the dishes.

Guy becomes fast friends with Roman, and Minnie continues to drop in on Rosemary. She gives Rosemary the amulet formerly worn by Terri, calling it a “good luck charm”. Evidently, tannis root (contained within the amulet) is the source of the foul odor.

Guy finds out that the actor who won the role he wanted (Donald Baumgart, voiced by Tony Curtis) suddenly went blind. Therefore, Guy now gets the part. Rosemary talks to Hutch about this, stating, “Actors are all self-centered.” She comes home to find a bouquet of roses at the door, and Guy says that he is ready to start a family.

They sit down to a romantic dinner. The doorbell rings – it’s Minnie. She has delivered some chocolate mousse for dessert. Rosemary has a few bites, but remarks that it tastes chalky, and dumps the rest of the mousse into a napkin so that Guy stops yelling at her for not eating it.

Guy said, “Aren’t you going to finish it? That’s silly, honey; there’s no ‘undertaste.’”
Rosemary said there was.
“Come on,” Guy said, “the old bat slaved all day over a hot stove; eat it.”
“But I don’t like it,” Rosemary said.
“It’s delicious.”
“You can have mine.”
Guy scowled. “All right, don’t eat it,” he said; “you don’t wear the charm she gave you, you might as well not eat her dessert too.”

She then begins to stagger, and ultimately falls down. Here’s where the weirdness begins.

She hallucinates/dreams that her bed is on the ocean. Then she and other people are on a fancy yacht. Then Guy begins to take her clothes off.
Then she’s back on the boat, nude, and then in a bikini. Hutch appears, but he is not allowed on the boat. Guy appears to take his wedding ring off, and she sees murals and frescoes on the ceiling. Someone yells, “Typhoon!” and she approaches a sailor on a boat. This weird dream appears to mix with another, more real.

Below was a huge ballroom where on one side a church burned fiercely and on the other a black-bearded man stood glaring at her. In the center was a bed. She went to it and lay down, and was suddenly surrounded by naked men and women, ten or a dozen, with Guy among them. They were elderly, the women grotesque and slack-breasted. Minnie and her friend Laura-Louise were there, and Roman in a black miter and a black silk robe. With a thin black wand he was drawing designs on her body, dipping the wand’s point in a cup of red held for him by a sun-browned man with a white moustache. The point moved back and forth across her stomach and down ticklingly to the insides of her thighs. The naked people were chanting—flat, unmusical, foreign-tongued syllables—and a flute or clarinet accompanied them. “She’s awake, she sees!” Guy whispered to Minnie. He was large-eyed, tense. “She don’t see,” Minnie said.

This is no dream , she thought. This is real, this is happening. Protest woke in her eyes and throat, but something covered her face, smothering her in a sweet stench. The hugeness kept driving in her, the leathery body banging itself against her again and again and again.

She wakes up the next morning, naked, with faint scratch marks on her side. Her husband is in pajamas. Next comes the most disturbing (for me) part of the novel.

“You mean you—”
“And a couple of my nails were ragged.”
“While I was—out?” He nodded and grinned.
“It was kind of fun,” he said, “in a necrophile sort of way.”
She looked away, her hands pulling the blanket back over her thighs.
“I dreamed someone was—raping me,” she said. “I don’t know who. Someone—unhuman.”
“Thanks a lot,” Guy said.
[…]
She squirmed away from it. “It’s supposed to be shared, not one awake and one asleep,” she said. Then: “Oh, I guess I’m being silly.” She got up and went to the closet for her housecoat. “I’m sorry I scratched you,” Guy said. “I was a wee bit loaded myself.”

Damn! That’s marital rape! Rosemary has every right to be angry and upset – and she does take a few days off in a retreat provided by Hutch to recover and get perspective.

She would give him a year to shape up and become a good husband; if he didn’t make it she would pull out, and with no religious qualms whatever. And meanwhile she would go back to work and get again that sense of independence and self-sufficiency she had been so eager to get rid of. She would be strong and proud and ready to go if he failed to meet her standards.

She is sensible and believes that strong communication is key to a good marriage.

That next day she reached what seemed like a sensible and realistic view of things. They were both at fault; he for being thoughtless and self-absorbed, she for failing to express and explain her discontent. He could hardly be expected to change until she showed him that change was called for. She had only to talk—no, they had only to talk, for he might be harboring a similar discontent of which she was similarly unaware—and matters couldn’t help but improve.

After she returns to her rapey husband who flaunts more red flags than a Chinese army on parade day, Rosemary finds out she’s pregnant. Gus is quick to tell the next door neighbours, and anyone who would listen, despite Rosemary’s protests. She is quickly moved to a new doctor, super expensive but cheap for them due to his relationship with the Castavets and he talks her into accepting the weirder pregnancy symptomps.

Yes, every pregnancy is different, but still! Craving red meat (raw chicken hearts!) and drinking Minnie’s weird herb cocktails can’t be good for her. She looses loads of weight and for the continuing 6-7 months she can’t go out and is in constant pain.

Minnie took the glass of wine Roman held out to her. “It’s easy,” she said. “Just do everything Abe tells you and have a fine healthy baby; that’s all the thanks we’ll ever ask for.” Roman raised his glass. “To a fine healthy baby,” he said.

A series of weird incidents keep happening. Gus is advancing in his career due to the misfortune of his co-stars. He is getting Warner Bros offers, he is getting praised. Hutch is suddenly comatose the morning after he called Rosemary with news about his tanis root research which he wanted to share in person. At his funeral, a few months later, his girlfriend gives Rosemary a book he found and a cryptic message saying that “it’s an anagram”.

Hutch sends to Rosemary, ‘All of Them Witches’. by J.R. Hanslett. Both the book and the author are works of fiction.

Out of which had come everything; the play, the reviews, the new play, the movie offer…Maybe Guy’s part in Greenwich Village , too, would have been Donald Baumgart’s if he hadn’t gone inexplicably blind a day or two after Guy had joined (maybe) a coven (maybe) of witches (maybe). There were spells to take an enemy’s sight or hearing, the book had said. All Of Them Witches . (Not Guy!) The united mental force of the whole coven, a concentrated battery of malevolent wills, could blind, deafen, paralyze, and ultimately kill the chosen victim. Paralyze and ultimately kill.

Panicked, she packs a suitcase and runs away from home, from her husband and nosy neighbours, from her ob-gyn to her new doctor hoping that mr. Hill would take care of her and assure her that her baby is fine.

And then it happens – eager to get the approval of the more senior and more renowned doctor, mr Hill calls him in and her husband too, making Rosemary seem crazy. She goes into labor shortly and when she wakes Dr. Sapirstein tells her that there were “complications” and the baby died.

But her breasts still produce milk. She is kept sedated and the milk is collected (for disposal). Rosemary keeps hearing a baby crying and when she associates her “milking” times with the baby stopping crying, she realises her baby is still alive and well, living next door.

She drugs her captors and manages to crash a worshiping party where people from all over the world came to pray to the new Satan baby.

Rosemary goes to the crib and to her horror she sees a baby with yellow eyes and hooves and horns.

A tail! The buds of his horns! She wanted to scream, to die. She would do it, throw it out and jump.

In the end, her motherly instincts take over and she begins slowly rocking the baby and thus becoming the Satanist version of the Holy Mother and being revered as a result.

He couldn’t be all bad, he just couldn’t . Even if he was half Satan, wasn’t he half her as well, half decent, ordinary, sensible, human being? If she worked against them, exerted a good influence to counteract their bad one…

So the next step is set for Ira Levin’s second book – Son of Rosemary – not as good as the original.


My Take on It

While I’m all about the occult and scary stories, Rosemary’s case is special as it’s every pregnant woman’s worst nightmare – running. What if the baby is not well, what if the mother isn’t getting all the nutrients. Having to rely on the older generation who “knows better” is always a risk as it comes with herbs and potions and whispered know-hows. In her rebellion, Rosemary invites all her friends for a same-age get together (all social distancing in place) and she gets more support and encouraged to seek a second opinion for her pains. I think given enough time, her same-age support network might have helped her get rid of Gus too, with his rapey self.

The book is clear at the end that there was indeed a coven, that the baby was the devil re-incarnate and that Gus planned along with the elderly couple to get her pregnant in a Satanic ritual. Rosemary is nothing but an object to be passed around and used as a vessel and this is exactly what pregnant women fear – to be seen as less than an individual, more of an incubator for something better than they are.

I would have liked it if the ending would have been more ambiguous and they didn’t have a reveal. What if Rosemary was indeed going crazy?

Notes:

It is notable that while the word ‘Tannis’ appears to be fictional, there was an ancient Egyptian city with a similar sounding name – Tanis. In addition, ‘The Devil’s Pepper’ is the name of a real herb whose scientific name is ‘Ravolfia’.

Throughout the movie, it becomes increasingly obvious that the coven (or Roman Castavet alone) possesses the ability to curse or cast hexes on anyone unlucky enough to cross their path. Like many of the other occult themes prevalent throughout the movie, this one draws from popular beliefs about magic and witchcraft. The idea that a personal item or effect of the victim can be used to cast spells on them is based on the magical idea of association.

Personal items which have been in close contact with the victim’s body are particularly prized because they contain some of the ‘essence’ of the person. There is no easy way to prove such an association. However, ‘sensitive’ people might have already noticed that the personal effects of recently deceased individuals maintain something of the energy or ‘flavour’ of the person who owned them. The popular (if incorrect) idea of voodoo dolls also draws from the same idea – using a personal item that has been in contact with the victim allows for the casting of spells which will have a direct effect on the person who is still connected with the item by energy or essence.

The baby in the movie remake was fine and had clear eyes.

During the flappy boobies sex scene, Gus is seen taking off Rosemary’s wedding band before the ritual. As a Catholic, the ring would have signified the Catholic sacrament of marriage to Rosemary and would be a major Christian symbol. The removal of it is an act of turning against God and renouncing (and even further – defiling) a sacred vow.

Writing in Blood – The act of writing on Rosemary’s body with blood (or red paint) is another borrowed theme from the practice of darker forms of magic. Blood – especially freshly spilled blood contains certain essences of the living organism which make it invaluable in ritual magick as a form of spiritual fuel. It also carries the additional moral stigma of using a sacred symbol of life in an act of ritual defiance. In its primitive form, it resembles the magical rituals of our cave-dwelling ancestors for whom blood was an offering to the spirits – a form of exchange of a costly living resource for gain.

About the Author

Ira Levin (1929–2007) was the genius whose brilliant first novel, A Kiss Before Dying (1953), won the Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America in the Best First Novel category. Never a prolific novelist, his next novel was Rosemary’s Baby (1967), which he followed with the dystopian science fiction thriller This Perfect Day (1970). He then added a phrase to the language with The Stepford Wives (1972) before writing the huge best-seller, The Boys from Brazil (1976), then concluded his novel-writing career with two less well-regarded books, Sliver (1991) and Son of Rosemary (1997). All but This Perfect Day and Son of Rosemary have been filmed at least once.

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