Rosemary’s Baby (1968): The Devil and the Cathode Ray Tube

Written by Roman Polanski, based on the novel by Ira Levin
Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, and Sidney Blackmer




There is a preciousness to the sanctity of one’s personal space that plays an important role in preserving a sense of stable selfhood. Regardless of the goings on at work, or school, or in other areas in civic life, the certainty of having a secure space in which maintains some semblance of ownership cultivates a notion of identity that is unified and coherent; the home is a space at once public and private wherein the individual can proclaim “here is where I live, these are my things, this is who I am”. This space can, however, be precariously balanced at best; it is susceptible to influence by external forces, external beings and changing circumstances. This tenuousness is exacerbated by urban living–in apartment buildings and high rises wherein social arrangements hang in arbitrary constellations against the entropic forces of interpersonal relationships and the lack of agency in determining one’s neighbours, the friction growing as individual agendas, conceptions of self, and social realities come into contact.

With his apartment trilogy – Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant – Roman Polanski interrogates these interruptions of personal space and how they work in conjunction with existent psychological phenomena to restructure conceptions of identity. Rosemary’s Baby follows the young and married Woodhouses, Guy, John Casavettes, and Rosemary, Mia Farrow, as they move into a new apartment in New York. Guy is a struggling actor, working mostly in commercials with some stage appearances, while Rosemary spends her days in their new apartment, recently vacated by the unfortunate death of an older woman. The pair move into the spacious apartment and consummate the move after dinner on the floor of the empty living room, updating its musty and cluttered décor by painting the walls white and slowly furnishing the rooms with more contemporary pieces. Having been advised by a friend of their new building’s occult past, Rosemary bonds with a young woman who lives with an older couple in the apartment adjacent to the Woodhouse’s apartment via their shared skittishness in the basement laundry room.

The young woman speaks highly of the couple she lives with, the Castevets – Minnie, Ruth Gordon, and Roman, Sidney Blackmer – and shows Rosemary a strangely odorous “good luck” charm that they have given her. Despite this jovial meeting, the young woman commits suicide shortly thereafter by jumping from the window of her apartment (foreshadowing pivotal events in The Tenant later in Polanski’s career). The older, and nosey, Minnie implicates herself into the lives of the Woodhouses, stopping by their apartment to not-so-subtly survey how they have altered it since the passing of her friend. The Castevets are insistent with their neighbourly advances, inviting the Woodhouses over for dinner, manipulating the couple through their reticence to offend the generousity of the older couple, despite the gap in their ages. The older couple take a more involved interest in the young couple’s openness to begin a family, encouraging their tentative plans to have a child. While Guy is charmed by Roman’s anecdotes and stories, Rosemary finds their intrusions to be inappropriate and invasive.

Shortly following their acquaintance with the Castevets, Guy experiences a break in his acting career, gaining a part due to the sudden, and inexplicable, blindness of the leading man. This, in turn, takes him away from home more, leaving Rosemary alone and feeling neglected. To amend for his selfish behaviour Guy proposes that they start a family, working out the dates when Rosemary is most fertile. A romantic dinner between the two is interrupted by Minnie who brings them a chocolate mousse for dessert, which tastes funny to Rosemary who eats a little and covertly throws the rest away. Following dinner, Rosemary becomes disoriented and has a strange dream wherein she drifts at sea on a mattress before being naked and surrounded by the similarly nude occupants of her building. In her dream, Rosemary is bound to a bed before being raped by a demonic figure who leaves scratches on her flesh. These scratches persist into Rosemary’s waking life and are explained away by Guy who insists that he’s filed his nails down and that the two had an intimate encounter that her drinking must have erased from her mind.

(Un)Naturally, Rosemary becomes pregnant following this somnabulistic sexual encounter. The Castevets refer her to a doctor who is among New York’s finest and a close personal friend and Minnie takes an especially involved role in Rosemary’s pregnancy, preparing a vitamin broth made from herbs she grows that Rosemary must drink daily. Guy is increasingly absent as his career continues to bloom, seemingly in proportion to a decrease in Rosemary’s health; Rosemary loses weight and becomes ghastly pale, her feature hollowing out beneath a chic new haircut – “It’s Vidal Sassoon!” – that works to heighten the gauntness of her face and unfeminize her soft appearance. As the pregnancy moves along, Rosemary is in increasing pain and sometimes eats raw chicken liver, and other strange proteins, raw. Her sense of defamiliarization from her life increases as the Castevets and her new friends close a circle around her, removing her from old friends, insisting that they know what is best for her against her own sense of her situation.

After a breakdown at a party thrown for her old friends, Rosemary senses the baby’s movement in the womb and her pain subsides into the ecstatic realization that the child is alive. The film flashes ahead to Rosemary being near term when she receives a package from her recently deceased friend – who also mysteriously fell into a coma after meeting Roman – which contains a book on witches and a coded warning about Castevet. Rosemary becomes more certain than ever that the elderly pair have evil intentions for her child and looks to seek help from an old doctor. This doctor, hearing her ranting about the witches’ coven and her fears, contacts her husband and doctor who take her home where she goes into labour. Upon awakening, Rosemary is informed that her baby was lost after labour due to complications, despite the sound of a child crying emanating through the thin walls between the Woodhouse and Castevet’s apartments. Rosemary hides the pills that she is given by Minnie and the apartment building’s tenants who are looking after her and sneaks into the Castevet’s apartment through a door in the wall to discover a small, black silk covered, bassinet which holds her unseen, and demonically-eyed, baby.

Polanski’s decision to have the Woodhouses repaint their apartment white renders it antiseptic, alien, and cold, the clinical aesthetic reinforced by the shearing away of Rosemary’s hair. These elements subtly combine to reinforce the manner in which Rosemary’s pregnancy is placed under institutional monitor by the coven, who manipulate its various elements. The lack of colour also visually reiterates the loss of vitality of Rosemary when she becomes pregnant; the pallor of Rosemary’s face in her illness is recapitulated by the pallor of her private surroundings that have become contaminated by the intrusion of the Castevets and their coven.

That the invasive otherness which disturbs the domestic equilibrium of the Woodhouses is personal is no accident. Polanksi is indebted to the Sartrian belief that hell is, quite literally, other people. This otherness is logically carried out such that it infects and disrupts not only the social and external life of Rosemary, but also gestates in her womb. The abject horror implicit in the generation of an organism that is simultaneously of yourself and radically separate from you is manifested in Rosemary’s Baby under the guise of the demonic child begotten through the insidious machinations of a witches’ coven. This is, however, an overly melodramatic representation of the manner that general society has been given agency to invade the home by various modes of media and culture; the horror that any child raised in the world is at the mercy of invasive external forces that may abscond with the child in the flickering blue shadow of a television left on in the dark of a bedroom. This is gestured toward numerous times by the film as Guy and Rosemary are shown watching the television. Guy’s own status as a double agent – in a manner of speaking – is reiterated in both his direct collusion with the Castevets and his presence in television ads and his desire to move to Hollywood.

The twinning of the occult and the technological speaks to a clever connection wherein modern America was wedged between the superstitions of the old world and the progressively more inexplicable new world of technology. The exponential rate of technological development of the twentieth century left many people alienated from the means by which their lives were experienced – many is the time someone’s father has bemoaned the loss of their ability to fix a television or radio where they once could. Where the private world of the individual was once entirely at their command, the propagation of technology distances the individual from a personal agency over the manner in which the world enters their home; the Castevets may obnoxiously come knocking every night and good manners may require that you allow them in, but the invasion of technology requires no such invitation and disregards all manner of manners. Rosemary herself becomes complicit in this advancing entanglement of technology, looking on her face with horror when it is observed in the reflective surface of a toaster and calling her old doctor at home, imploring him to return to his office from his own private home. The reach of the public sphere extends unnaturally further and further into the private lives of its individuals.

Rosemary’s dream vision of the entirety of her apartment building standing nude before her – and her nude among them – becomes not just an apparition of a satanic ritual, but also an allegorical representation of the manner in which the increasingly invasive technological innovation will divest the individual of any pretense or artifice among its peers. Rosemary’s experience becomes not only an intensely personal experience with the unnatural, but also a terrifying sort of prophesy. The film’s final gesture, then, gains an additional complication; Rosemary’s resignation to functioning as a mother for the child, regardless of its father, smiling subtly as she rocks the antichrist’s cradle, speaks to the subdued eagerness with which we all engage in the dissolution of the boundary between the public and private spheres. Polanski slantly shows the moment in which the screen becomes both the cradle and the grave of private life.


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