The Reading Life: All of Them Witches


The interiors of the apartment building where Rosemary Woodhouse would become Satan’s unknowing paramour were filmed elsewhere, but anyone knows that the exterior shots were of the Dakota, on Central Park West and 72nd Street, a corner most famous for being where John Lennon was shot. (Mia Farrow’s sister was the Prudence to inspire John to write “Dear Prudence,” but that is a campfire tale digression.)

I lived a few blocks from the Dakota for a couple of years. I would exit the park after long runs and stretch by knots of tourists and hot dog vendors. Via some combination of children’s literature and Rosemary’s Baby, I imagined uptown living as farcical and sinister. It was neither. There were eccentric old people with clown makeup, stately building lobbies, and walks down patrician avenues, but there were no herbs growing indoors or paintings that left dust marks on the walls. Mysteries about the neighbors abounded, but in my ideation, I left out the part about being raped by the devil.

I didn’t watch Rosemary’s Baby until college. I went through a desultory phase, starting at the age of ten or so, where I obsessed over popular horror, but I paid no attention to a hierarchy of taste. For what reason, other than its availability at a nearby Blockbuster, did I have any interest in Black Christmas? When I got older, I started to fill in the gaps and catch up on what I had missed or dismissed. I had read that Rosemary wasn’t that scary, which in retrospect was lame code for the lack of gore. But it was a classic, so I watched it on my laptop while I halfheartedly studied for a French exam. This is how I first saw what would become one of my favorite movies. I think I got a B on the test.

I can’t say more than most people have said about the story. I have always responded to horror films because they represent an entirely extreme situation. The stakes are as high as they can be, with death and destruction looming behind doors or in caves or under beds. My favorite pieces of horror are set in the bland everyday, and Rosemary’s Baby qualifies while still being set in a place I recognize as both my home and a monument to something like royalty. It’s a Hollywood picture, after all. Not one but two actors in the supporting cast were known otherwise for their portrayals of U.S. presidents, and there they are, hailing Satan. Hollywood screwball gems like Ruth Gordon and Ralph Bellamy radiate with evil. Tony Curtis has an uncredited cameo as the voice of a bitter blind man. John Cassavetes is close to parody as the perfect narcissist, the man who strikes something worse than a Faustian deal.

I’m a sucker for subtext, but I try not to engage with any paranoid readings of this movie. While the film itself is intensely paranoid, the characters are not, and that’s what I like about it. If you’re like, “Okay, so she gets pregnant with the devil’s baby, and that’s it,” then you don’t get it at all. Because it’s not like she knows that. What makes Rosemary such a compelling character is her ability to be surprised. I agree with people who call the film a feminist allegory, who see it as a critique of women’s ownership over their bodies. All of that is pretty sexy. But I cannot put my heart into such an unmystified view. It ignores so much of the film’s aesthetic thrill, and I am too seduced by the tangible to cut it up for ideology’s sake.

It took reading Ira Levin’s book to realize this. The book isn’t bad, necessarily. It’s competent. And it’s not that words cannot terrify me. It’s more that there aren’t novels, at least among those I’ve read, that marry aesthetics with anxiety in quite the same way as those shots of hallways and elevators. There are details in the film that aren’t in the book at all. Like the frosty blue color of Rosemary’s nightgown, or the word “blood” in Farrow’s bulbous handwriting on a wall calendar. Or the dent in the VW bug made by the satanists’ first choice for the demon’s mother, on her way jumping out a window. Or all that sweat on the brow of Rosemary’s friend Hutch while he cuts a glistening roast and explains the urban legends behind the couple’s new building. In Polanski’s summer, everyone looks like they’ve got a fever. I have never seen a film that so closely represents how easy it is to be trapped.

Think for a second about how this movie uses something as square as Scrabble tiles to represent triumph. When Rosemary figures out the identity of her neighbor Roman, it’s via those tiles, and we don’t see her face. The next shot is of the door, chained and bolted, and then we see Cassavetes’ hand reaching in to get at the latch. It’s wonderfully economical. The simplest facets of apartment life (doors, closets) and common parts of the body (hair, stomach) become stages and projections of intense emotion, and this is, I guess, what draws me to domestic psychological horror. Movies generally provide a safe outlet for emotional masochism.

I have a very specific memory. I am perhaps eleven or twelve years old, it is Christmas vacation, and every night before bed, like an idiot, I am reading a decaying paperback of The Exorcist. I wake up one night and feel the urge to walk around the house, while the rest of my family sleep, just to make sure there is no one else there. It’s quiet at my grandmother’s house, except for the din coming from the ocean less than a mile away. I am wearing slippers that thwack my heels. I kick them off. It’s a decision that feels smart in the midst of doing something kind of stupid, like picking up a kitchen knife for protection.

But obviously there’s no one there, and I end up in the living room looking out the window at nothing. There isn’t even a rustle in the hedge to make my shoulders tense. Just leaves and lawn and ocean noises from not so far away, and I don’t fall asleep for another hour.

I can’t remember if I understood body horror as a concept before Rosemary’s Baby. It’s difficult to remember how you thought of something before what now defines it for you. Similarly I cannot remember what I thought of New York before I decided I wanted to live here. I remember seeing street simulacra on sitcoms and in movies; I remember skipping down steps outside a building on a school trip. But any idle thought of what this place could be was rendered useless by the time I started to think about it with intent. The city grew in my mind until it was realer than any other idea of life I had considered, and then it became where I lived, larger than a memory and stranger than any of my fantasies. A version of home, if home is a comforting trap.

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