Adult fear: A critical analysis of “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)

June 28 is an important day for horror fans: It’s the birthday of Adrian Woodhouse, the titular baby of Rosemary in Ira Levin’s classic psychological thriller novel and Roman Polanski’s subsequent cinematic adaptation. Polanski’s “Rosemary” is an interesting feat because it is one of the most faithful adaptations ever filmed–unsurprisingly, it was Levin’s favorite adaptation of one of his works.

Part of what made “Rosemary” such a success, and an enduring horror classic, is the depths of its psychology. In the modern social world, adults are supposed to be capable, responsible and independent. “Rosemary,” particularly the film, peels away the layers of the apparent capability of adulthood and exploits the child within.

Horror is often thought of as a childish genre–fears of the dark, spirits and , in the modern world, are not considered “adult.” But “Rosemary” is about unsettling juxtapositions. Horror often takes place at night in a distant woods or isolated suburb; “Rosemary” takes place in place in broad daylight, and it buries its horror in the heart of the city, and not just any city but New York City.

The juxtaposition goes further. A cult of megalomaniacal Satanists is made up of eccentric old people in a crumbling brownstone. The horror–the “childish” element–intrudes upon the modern world–the “adult. In “Rosemary,” horror does not happen somewhere over there; it happens right in the audience’s modern midst.

Levin had a gift for describing people at their most vulnerable: away from home in “A Kiss Before Dying,” moving to an unfamiliar suburb in “The Stepford Wives” and pregnant for the first time in “Rosemary’s Baby.” In the novel, Rosemary is separated from her parents because she married a non-Catholic. She communicates only with her sister via the phone when the sister tells her she had a premonition of danger for her, a premonition that Rosemary ignores.

In the film, this is exaggerated even further. Rosemary (Mia Farrow) never interacts with her family, and she barely even mentions them. Instead, Rosemary relies almost entirely on her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) for psychological support. Modern audiences are sometimes frustrated with Rosemary’s helplessness, but it should be understood to be childishness, like a child’s unwavering faith and reliance on a bad parent.

Rosemary is often dressed in comically childish outfits, like an oversized red velvet outfit that resembles a child’s Christmas pajamas that she wears before the surreal rape scene. On her increasingly pregnant yet still spindly body, the outfits hang like adult clothes on a little girl, giving her an unnervingly Lolita look. This is compounded later in the film by her short hair, which makes her look youthful and androgynous, like a child’s doll.

Polanski was very careful with his camera. He used a tripod for all but a couple of shots–even the first scene, a continuous shot of the new apartment, is rendered cinematically smooth. Doing so saves the shock value of the realism that handheld shots are meant to evoke.

One of the most shocking is a shot of Rosemary jaywalking across the street, cars slamming on their brakes and honking as she keeps her head down. The reactions of the cars are not scripted. Polanski told Farrow to cross the street impromptu and not to worry–no driver would hit a pregnant lady in New York. The result is a moment that codifies “Rosemary’s” most frightening juxtapositions: a nightmarish situation in a daylit city, a childish mistake made in the all too adult world.

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