Some film scholars have divided the history of horror cinema into pre- and post-Psycho periods, suggesting that Hitchcock’s 1960 film represented a thematic shift that had a lasting impact on the genre.
These scholars argue that Psycho moved horror into the contemporary, familiar world and introduced new, more psychologized, representations of monstrosity and terror. The influence of Psycho is apparent eight years later in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), in which monstrosity is internalized, fragmented and generally unseen. Yet, even while the film seems to situate horror within the ordinary world, it draws much of its psychological terror from the hidden supernatural events confined to the film’s blind spaces. The complex blending of these different thematic concerns, which enhance and play off one another, disrupts a simple post-Psycho reading of Rosemary’s Baby.
The final scene, in which Rosemary enters the Castevets’ apartment, epitomizes these thematic tensions in the film. As Rosemary enters the Castevets suite through a door in her closet, she is closely followed by the camera in a long-take steadicam shot. Thus, Rosemary and the audience cross the threshold together, “leaving home for a Satanic Wonderland.” (Fischer, p.14) This single shot continues uninterrupted as Rosemary explores the corridor, enters the Castevets’ living room, and approaches the bassinet containing her baby. The cinematography of the scene reinforces the film’s interest in locating monstrosity in the ordinary and everyday world. Fischer writes, “If Rosemary’s Baby assumes a certain banality of horror, it replays that thesis on the level of style. With the exception of the dream/hallucination sequences, the work is crafted with conventional cinematic verisimilitude: long-shot/long-take format, standard lenses, location shooting, continuity editing, credible costume and décor.” (Fischer, p.13) These filming techniques produce a realist aesthetic that seems to ground the film in the world of the everyday rather than the world of supernatural fantasy. The deep focus approximates the actual vision of the human eye and allows us to see all the way down the narrow corridor. It also makes us keenly aware of the limits of our vision, constrained by the walls that seem to be closing in on Rosemary. In addition, the single long-take creates the sense of real time passing and draws out the suspense of the scene. However, the unnatural floating quality of the steadicam and the objective camera angle also create the uneasy sense that a spirit is hovering behind Rosemary. Thus, even while the cinematography generally appears beholden to a realist aesthetic, it simultaneously draws upon supernatural elements of horror for its production of psychological tension.
When Rosemary first enters the apartment, she notices the grotesque, satanic paintings on the walls. The camera lingers over these paintings as Rosemary stops to examine them. The Satanist imagery cites an earlier era of gothic horror with its clichéd and stereotypical representations of evil including witches, demons, and the apocalypse, portrayed as a cathedral engulfed in hellish flames. Rosemary recognizes the painting of the burning cathedral from the nightmarish sequence in which she is apparently raped by Satan. In the dream, the painted flames had appeared to be real. Now, recognizing the painting for what it is, Rosemary whispers to herself, “Got her too high”. She realizes that the dream was based in reality, but explains away the supernatural phenomenon with drugs. Significantly, these paintings had been conspicuously absent when Guy and Rosemary had dinner with the Castevets early in the film. The Castevets’ hiding of these Satanist paintings from Guy and Rosemary, and therefore from the audience, mirrors the dominant thematic mode of the film, which constantly disavows the supernatural. For most of the film, the reality of witchcraft remains confined to off-screen space, which Bonitzer calls the “blind spot”(Bonitzer, p.57) of the film. However, the return of the paintings in the final scene suggests that the film is finally ready to reveal the hidden truths at the heart of its narrative.
As soon as Rosemary turns away from the paintings, she hears the voices of the actual witches off-screen. The camera follows slowly behind her as she approaches the coven in the living room. For most of the film, Rosemary fears that the witches want her son in order to sacrifice him in their demonic ceremonies and she has entered the Castevets’ apartment in order to save him. Although we share her fears, the film insists that we remain skeptical about the reality of witches and the supernatural. Nevertheless, the satanic wall paintings arouse our expectations of horror and monstrosity as Rosemary approaches the coven. However, these expectations are subverted once the coven enters the on-screen space. Unlike the grotesque black-cloaked witches in the paintings who are explicitly coded as frightening, the actual minions of evil appear to be ordinary, mostly elderly men and women gathered for a cocktail party. They are wearing traditional formal attire and, although they have indeed stolen Rosemary’s baby, they are innocently sitting, talking and drinking rather than performing a gruesome satanic ritual. They seem harmless compared to the threatening figures in the paintings. Here, Polanski, like Hitchcock, is redefining the monstrous by situating it within the familiar world of the everyday.
While Hitchcock sets Psycho in an ordinary California motel, Polanski turns the Bramford building, a contemporary apartment complex in New York City, into the center of a Satanic cult. Despite the fact that the interior and exterior of the Bramford retain traces of the traditional Victorian haunted house or castle, it is nevertheless located relatively close to home for most viewers. The building’s fusion of old and new horror conventions echoes the discursive blend in the film as a whole. Furthermore, the witches are all respectable, upwardly mobile members of bourgeois society, including in their ranks people like the renowned obstetrician, Dr. Saperstein. However, beneath this veneer of respectability lies a dark side that is eager to enact the evil will of the Devil. Similarly, Minnie and Roman Castevets, the leaders of the coven, appear to be excessively friendly and nurturing grandparental figures to Rosemary, but their external personalities belie their true sinister intentions. There is a strong suggestion that the coven members’ socio-economic successes are connected to their Faustian pacts with the Devil. These figures of evil contrast sharply to the classic movie monster, such as Frankenstein’s creature, whose monstrosity is coded directly onto his physical appearance. The hideousness of these monsters makes them easy to identify and fight and often functions as markers of their moral depravity or lack of humanity. Sharrett traces this thematic shift back to Psycho:
Whereas the early horror films contained a ‘demon’ (mummy, vampire, werewolf, ghoul) on whom violence could be displaced, the post-1960s genre has dispensed with most monsters in order to make the issue of pathology both transparent and transpsychical. The current device of the psychopath-as-monster both turns the bourgeois subject into a model of explanation and upsets audience expectations about the localization and displacement of evil. (Sharrett, p.357)
In both Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby, horror and monstrosity have become internalized within the human mind and, as a result, can be easily overlooked or hidden from view. At first glance, no one would suspect that the ordinary-looking Norman Bates, an awkward, but seemingly harmless young man, is actually a psychotic killer. Like the members of the coven, he has a dark side, a “blind spot” that most people never see. Both films suggest that the potential for evil is found inside every human being and that although monstrosity can be invisible, it is never far away.
Polanski carries this idea even further by emphasizing the fragmented and multiplicitious nature of “the monster” in his film. In Rosemary’s Baby, evil is not simply confined to a single human form, but instead, encompasses nearly all of the major characters in the film. As Rosemary enters the Castevets living room, she recognizes her elderly friends, neighbors and even her husband among the coven. Later, her obstetrician will join them. Much of the horror of this moment resides in the close proximity of this evil to Rosemary and the validation of her terrible suspicions. All of these people have betrayed her trust and friendship and manipulated her for satanic and egoistic purposes. This evil has followed her throughout the entire film, “lurk[ing] in the heart of the familiar” (Waller, p.5) and invading the domestic space usually set aside as a safe haven. After Rosemary arrives at the bassinet, she stops and glances around the room. Two POV shots show the witches staring at her from all directions. This staging symbolizes Rosemary’s entrapment in the satanic conspiracy. All of the characters who were not part of the coven have been pushed aside or murdered over the course of the film and Rosemary now has no one to turn to for help. There are no longer any safe havens from evil. Thus, Rosemary seems to inhabit a society that has lost its moral center and is on the verge of apocalypse. Sharrett’s claim that at the end of Psycho, “belief in recuperability of society begins to disappear,” (Sharrett, p.358) is equally valid here.
The film’s representation of monstrosity also extends into the supernatural realm with Satan and the demon-child. A major shift occurs in the final scene, and the film itself, when Rosemary looks into the bassinet at her child for the first time. Polanski focuses the camera on Rosemary as she recoils in horror from her son’s appearance. Rosemary yells at the coven, “What have you done to his eyes!?” After being told she has given birth to Satan’s child, Rosemary yells, “No! It can’t be!” to which Minnie and Laura-Louise respond, “Go look at his hands! And his feet!” This revelation represents a critical break from the dominant thematic mode of the film. Up to this moment, the film had disavowed the supernatural in an attempt to situate itself within the real world of everyday experience. Thus, despite the fact that over the course of the film Rosemary comes to believe in some of the witches’ supernatural influence, the possibility of giving birth to a demon-child remains inconceivable to her and is never articulated as one of her fears. However, confronted with the baby’s demonic features, she is forced to accept the terrible truth. Significantly, Polanski denies us any glimpse of the demon-child, even as the film equates seeing with believing (“Go look at his hands!”). Although this moment appears to be the pivot point in the film, finally bringing the supernatural into the realm of the real, Polanski is keenly aware that revealing the “blind spot” will rob it of its power to inspire horror. Bonitzer, referring to Jaws (1975), argues, “if the shark were always on screen it would quickly become a domesticated animal. What is frightening is that it is not there! The point of horror resides in the blind space.” (Bonitzer, p.58) Thus, the appearance of the demon-child is even more terrifying when it is left to the viewer’s imagination.
In a rare subjective moment, the Devil’s face briefly appears superimposed over Rosemary and she collapses into a chair, overwhelmed by the realization that her child is the spawn of Satan. This same image of the Devil’s face appeared in the satanic rape sequence. Significantly, this dream sequence is the only scene in the movie that contains a visible, on-screen monster in the classical sense—what Sharrett refers to as “a demon” (Sharrett, p.357). However, we never see more than a claw and a quick flash of his face. Thus, the monster is never fully visualized as a complete being and his fragmentation mirrors the film’s diffusion of monstrosity across the coven, the baby, and the Devil himself. Furthermore this explicitly supernatural event is confined to the realm of dreams and fantasy, allowing the narrative to disavow it until the final scene. However, the removal of this disavowal is never fully realized since the assumption that the satanic rape was real raises more questions than answers. The line between subjective drug-fueled dream and objective reality is hopelessly entangled in the sequence and it is impossible for the viewer or Rosemary to know exactly what transpired that night.
The division of horror cinema into pre- and post-Psycho eras sets up an oppositional relationship between the traditional supernatural movie monster and the new, psychological monsters, like Norman Bates, who populate the landscapes of the everyday. This delineation is problematized in Rosemary’s Baby, in which both thematics are intimately intertwined and actually reinforce one another. Although the dominant thematic mode of Rosemary’s Baby tends toward psychological horror, this horror is centered on the rarely glimpsed blind spaces of the film, where powerful supernatural evil resides. Thus, Polanski succeeds in blending multiple codes of monstrosity and terror to create a unique horror film that defies simple classification.
Pascal Bonitzer, “Partial Vision: Film and the Labyrinth”
Lucy Fischer, “Birth Traumas: Medicine, Parturition, and Horror in Rosemary’s Baby”
Gregory A. Waller, “Introduction” to American Horrors