Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin is a classic horror novel about a young couple, a dream apartment, and a whole slew of witches (Maybe? Probably.) The film version is perhaps even more famous than the novel. I saw it years ago, and it’s a great movie, creepy and weird. The book is just the same.
Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse are thrilled to finally get an apartment in the gorgeous old Bramford building. Poo-pooing their friend Hutch’s warning that the building is cursed, they move in and Rosemary gets to work making everything perfect. Guy’s acting career has hit some snags, but she hopes that they’ll finally be able to have a baby.
The first sign of trouble comes when a young woman living with the elderly couple next door jumps out a window, killing herself. The couple, Roman and Minnie Castevet, are bereft, and the Woodhouses offer polite comfort that soon turns into close friendship. Rosemary is sometimes uncomfortable with the intimacy, but they seem so kind. It’s hard to say no.
Before long Rosemary becomes pregnant in a scene that a modern reader would probably understand as marital rape, and that’s if we take the charitable reading, if we ignore her dream about what happened that night. Rosemary is uncomfortable with how the pregnancy came about, but she’s too thrilled about the baby to dwell on it. From there, the book turns toward Rosemary’s battle for control of her own body. Everything she’s told, even if taken at face value, is horrid. Her husband and new neighbors isolate her from all outside influences and laugh off any worries she has. On the few occasions she steps outside, her old friends express worry and fear for her. But every time she takes a step toward asserting herself, something happens to keep her tied to Guy and the Castevets.
If you know the story, you’ll know that it turns out that what’s happening is worse than even her worst fears. The answer is creepy, to be sure, but the book’s real horror is in the slow, careful stripping away of Rosemary’s will. Rosemary broke away from the Catholic church, from her family, and from her Nebraska home. She’s a capable modern woman, but she still can’t quite accept the truth of what’s happening around her until it’s too late to get out. She’s been taught to mistrust herself, and that teaching enables those who would use her to have their way.
This is the third of Ira Levin’s novels that I’ve read (the others being The Stepford Wives and A Kiss Before Dying) and I’m fascinated with the fact that in all three novels, he dwells on how men use women for their own ends. And he treats if very clearly as a horror, not a fantasy. Some men take women’s bodies and even their lives if it serves them. True then, true today. That’s why Levin’s books, sadly, hold up.