Rosemary’s Baby (1968): gaslighting Rosemary Woodhouse

Syringe filled with pebbles against a pastel pink background.

This classic adaptation of horror novel Rosemary’s Baby is a modern metropolitan gothic story with a trump card of sensational excess.

Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse are excited to move into The Bramford, an ornate New York apartment block with a notorious history. The eccentric old couple next door seem friendly enough – but when Rosemary falls pregnant she starts to suspect their interest in her unborn child.

Metropolitan gothic chic

At the heart of Rosemary’s Baby lies an urban gothic horror story, complete with foreboding house, sickly housewife and dread of the unknown. Of course, the whole thing reeks of isolation and paranoia – this despite its cramped New York City backdrop.

The plot is far more explicit with its erotic subtext than, say, Jane Eyre. Yet it similarly relies on whispered secrets, mental fragility, hidden rooms and imprisoned women.

As with other gothic tales, this means protagonist Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) is in for a rough ride.

Ultimately Rosemary’s Baby trumps its fantastical gothic origins with a true corker of excess. Rosemary Woodhouse has been chosen to give Satan a son – she just doesn’t know it yet.

Gaslighting: a very grand conspiracy

Rosemary’s gaslighting – her psychological manipulation – is an interesting phenomenon. As in 1997’s The Game, it takes almost an entire city to pull it off. Indeed, as the book Hutch gives her proclaims, they’re “All Of Them Witches”, a massive clue to what Rosemary can’t yet see.

Husband Guy (John Cassavetes) is first to fall for their neighbours’ charms. As a struggling actor, the Castavets easily gain his loyalty through promises of career success. Together, they use black magic to remove their enemies, including Guy’s acting rival, and Rosemary’s friend Hutch.

Roman and Minnie Castevet run the Bramford witches coven to serve Satan. They procure Rosemary through Guy to give Satan an Earthly son – a kind of inverse Jesus birth story, and/or a modern re-telling of several Greek myths.

Guy and the Castevets collude to keep Rosemary in the dark via a combination of drugs and lies. For instance, Minnie whips up a batch of laced chocolate mousse that Guy then manipulates Rosemary into eating.

The conspiracy stretches much further, however. Everyone in the building appears to be in on it, including the lift attendant. The obstetrician they make Rosemary see is part of the coven. And when she finally escapes to her own doctor, he’s in on it, too.

The deviousness of the strategy is its scale. It isolates Rosemary from her friends, then separates her from her own intuition. She even lives with pain for months because she submits to their wisdom. By the time she realises something isn’t right, she’s on her own.

The coven keeps Rosemary on the verge of mental breakdown to keep her pliable. This also mimics the stages and self-doubt of mental illness. She’s no threat if she can’t tell truth from reality – and if she can’t credibly convince others what she’s seen.

The path to knowledge

Horror movies often serve up their esoteric knowledge via books or librarians (see The Mothman Prophesies).

Here, Rosemary’s friend Hutch is the conduit to knowledge, both for her and the audience. Their conversation at the start of the movie reveals The Bramford’s dark history, including accusations of witchcraft and cannibalism. This sets the stage – and our appetites – for what’s to come.

The book Hutch bequeaths Rosemary, All Of Them Witches, is another gateway into hidden knowledge. It explains how covens work and, importantly, how they rely on herbs like tannis root to drug and manipulate others.

Another kind of wordy pursuit then helps Rosemary “fill in the blanks”: she uses Scrabble tiles to unscramble Roman Castevet’s true name. It’s an anagram for Steven Marcato, and he’s the son of Adrian Marcato, founder of the original coven.

So knowledge in different ways is potent armour for Rosemary Woodhouse. No wonder Satanists and society are in cahoots to keep her in the dark.

Is old age inherently scary?

Minnie Castevet’s use of tannis root and other herbs is ambiguous at first. It harks back to witches’ gardens and spells, but also of feminine knowledge – of ‘grandmother knows best’. It also invokes a far older prejudice against traditional female knowledge that pushed healing out of the reach of women and into the hands of male doctors.

There’s also an interesting tension in the movie between learned knowledge and experience. Consider how Rosemary is so young (more of that below). Even Guy is older and more mature, while the Castevets seem positively ancient in comparison.

Finally even Rosemary – another herb, incidentally – has enough. She arranges a party for friends of her own age, in a bid to carve out her own power and authority.

Who’s the baby?

Rosemary’s baby? Yes, yes she is …

Whether or not Mia Farrow was Polanski’s first choice for the role of Rosemary Woodhouse, her presence brings a palpable fragility to the part.

Rosemary Woodhouse on-screen is sparrow-like and almost androgynous. With her baby doll dresses and oversized suitcase, she looks at times more like a child playing dress-up. In fact she is, and over the course of the movie must grow up and fashion her own ideas about motherhood and maturity.

Compare also Kubrick’s casting of Wendy in The Shining, and the pairing of sylphlike women and older husbands in both films.

This isn’t the only way Rosemary is babyfied. She’s been conditioned to accept male influence as somehow sacred: Guy and Dr Sapirstein even dictate if she’s allowed to read.

The Castevets also take Rosemary under their wing as a surrogate daughter – though of course she isn’t the first. When former addict Terry doesn’t work out as Satan’s love interest the Castevets bump her off and move in on Rosemary.

Of course, some of this reflects the social norms of the time (and more modern echoes, such as the trad wife movement).

Beliefs that women should serve marriage, home-making and babies prioritise family – and masculine freedom – over female fulfilment. The outside world, careers and self-sufficiency (i.e., the knowledge from book reading) threaten that balance … and must be ground out.

In that sense, Rosemary isn’t the first to be gaslit by medical science, which still too often writes women’s voices and concerns off as hysteria.

Yet while Rosemary’s Baby gets good mileage from its hell-themed horror, its real unease lies in everyday tragedy. It’s in the way Rosemary is consistently undermined, but especially in the way she’s groomed to accept the unspeakable abuse she experiences.

Hell on Earth

CW: sexual abuse

Rosemary’s Baby moves steadily and inexorably towards the unknown and the unnatural. Notably, it shifts ancient fears about demons to a modern, metropolitan setting, yet loses none of the dread.

In the film, Roman Castevet proclaims God is dead, and the Pope His media-savvy celebrity. Sure it’s a bold new secular world, but one cut loose from the certainty and comfort of faith. This is partly where Rosemary’s dread comes from (she’s a lapsed Catholic).

For all its hellish inferences, however, the film’s true unease comes from its treatment of Rosemary Woodhouse.

Husband Guy sets-up Rosemary to be raped while semi-conscious so it’s almost neither here nor there if it’s by Satan himself.

The next morning Guy claims he initiated sex while she was asleep. Rape, in other words. It’s even possible he takes part in her rape for real.

Rosemary, conditioned to believe she has her husband’s loyalty, writes-off Guy’s behaviour: at best, she can express disappointment. Keep in mind the first US state to outlaw marital rape only did so in 1975.

The film’s big reveal is that witches like the Bramford coven are literally creating hell on Earth through their worship and enabling of Satan. But Rosemary already lives in a kind of socially condoned hell. She has a fabulous apartment and stylish clothes, but no right to refuse her husband’s sexual advances (awake or not).

Neither does she have agency over her body as a breeding ground. Like the women of The Handmaid’s Tale, Rosemary is reduced to a carrying case.

Eventually Rosemary suspects the coven of doing “unspeakable” things. But the real unspeakable thing is not being able to recognise or say her husband has raped her – or to expect any protection from the law.

What Ira Levin’s source novel reveals

Polanski’s film adaptation runs very close to Levin’s 1967 novel; many of the book’s scenes and dialogue are fairly hoisted into place. However, a couple of things stand out to a greater degree in the book.

  • The whole point of the tannis root is to flavour Rosemary’s breast milk. Ultimately, it’s for the baby
  • The book has an interesting reference to Pygmalion / My Fair Lady. The theme of ‘man-made women’ returns in The Stepford Wives
  • Rosemary and Terry are both said to resemble famous actresses. And each is the other’s stand-in, if you like
  • The Castevet’s missing paintings are removed because they’re Satanic. They’re only replaced for coven meetings
  • In a sly Satanic dig at the birth of Jesus, the baby is born on June 25th: “Exactly half the year ’round from you-know”.

Motherhood and the film’s ending

Rosemary bursts through the closet … but doesn’t find Narnia

True to the story’s gothic patterns, Rosemary experiences terror because of her gendered position. Never mind the devil: she may have access to modern medicine but, like any Victorian heroine, motherhood may kill her first.

The pregnancy is tough on Rosemary, with the baby seemingly consuming her from the inside. This is a creepy reversal of Hutch’s story about the old aunts who munch on little children, incidentally.

The idea of becoming pregnant – or not becoming pregnant – is a trial for Rosemary. Carrying the baby to term is traumatic. Finally her fears of losing the baby come true, only to learn it’s yet more gaslighting because the baby is fine. Well, kinda.

The film’s ending is also Rosemary’s final test. Can she love her child despite knowing who and what he really is? For all her terror, Rosemary accepts her son just as he is because unquestioning devotion is what motherhood is all about.

Indeed, the film’s larger message (or interrogation) is that motherhood is what being a woman is all about.

So Rosemary, who spends the film running away from fear, runs into it and accepts it as normal – and you could call that another type of gaslighting.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968), directed by Roman Polanski

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Picture credit: Diana Polekhina