I now have something of a literary crush on Iva Levin. I was so impressed with The Stepford Wives – and Levin’s single-handed invention of the Feminist-Horror genre – that I had to triple-check on Wikipedia he actually was a man. (Before you flame me for refusing to believe that a male writer could actually write genre fiction in the key of Feminist – just you go ahead and name me any other man in the entire canon of Western literature who has done so. Go on. I dare you. And then I’ll read every word they wrote, too, and review them here.) In Rosemary’s Baby – Levin’s ludicrously convincing tale of a woman who spawns the actual child of Satan – he proves this wasn’t just some sort of strange, one-off mistake. While poking contentedly around in the pulp fiction of a previous generation, I have found myself a creature so rare I honestly wasn’t sure they even existed. Ira Levin is an actual, honest-to-God, Strident Male Feminist.
I’ll start with a quick plot summary, although “Woman Spawns Actual Child Of Satan” pretty much covers the basics. Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse rent an apartment in New York’s Bramford building, which is a fairly standard creepy-haunted-house-that-only-an-idiot-would-want-to-live-in. Next door live an old, weird couple who talk loudly in their bedroom, give awkward dinner-parties, serve epically bad food and ultimately turn out to be devil-worshippers. One night, Rosemary passes out over an intimate dinner with Guy and has an erotic dream featuring a yacht, the Pope, being tied up, and someone with long fingernails and a big wang who has sex with her while a lot of people watch. When she wakes up, Guy explains he had sex with her while she was asleep, because she was ovulating and he didn’t want them to miss the window. And, of course, it worked, and she’s pregnant.
Rosemary then endures a nightmare pregnancy. Rosemary’s in constant pain. Loud Old Next-Door Couple are way over-involved. Her doctor gives terrifyingly bad advice. Guy experiences a creepy run of good luck based entirely on other people’s misfortunes. As her pregnancy progresses, Ro slowly realises what we’ve all known all along – she is being coerced by Devil-worshippers. At the climax of the novel she gives birth to the baby, and he is The Actual Child Of Satan. (Unfortunately, he is called Adrian. This really doesn’t work for me. But that’s a minor detail, and doesn’t spoil the book.) And then, an unexpected twist in the closing pages – when Ro finally gets to meet her baby, she loves him anyway. The book closes with the fabulous, unsettling spectacle of Ro nursing Devil Baby while the worshippers look on in awe and fascination.
How does Ro, presumably a reasonably normal young woman, end up nursing Adrian, Spawn of Satan, while a bunch of devoted elderly Satanists gawp at her? Well, one of the reasons I find this book so fascinating is because I don’t quite know how to read it. I don’t quite know how to read Rosemary.
Levin gives us plenty of signposts that point to Ro being a modern, liberated woman. She’s broadly rejected her Catholic upbringing. She has a copy of the Kinsey report on her bookshelves. She has a truly weird conversation (the only badly-written scene in the novel) with the elderly Mrs Castavet and Mrs Castavet’s friend Laura-Louise on the subject of menstruation. “You look worn,” observes Mrs Castavet. “It’s the first day of my period,” Ro explains casually. You and I might think this is a strange way to introduce yourself to a perfect stranger (“Hi, I’m Ro, and this is the first day of my period, may I offer you some coffee?”) but Laura-Louise is strangely down with it. She happily reminisces about how bad her periods used to be (The cramps! The clots! The family rushing round with bottles of gin! Ah, how we used to laugh…), takes out a bag of wool, and starts crocheting. This is a ludicrous scene, that has no visible point. The only reason I can think for its existence is to establish that Ro’s in tune with her cycle, in step with the times, happy to discuss her body; in fact, part of the sisterhood.
But despite the Kinsey report and her strange eagerness to discuss her period with total strangers, Ro still seems ridiculously passive, excessively childlike, far too submissive to authority figures. In other words; strange and exceptional. But in the Horror genre, the strange and exceptional is reserved for events. Your average Horror protagonist is almost always…just average.
There are two possible readings of this. Number one: Ro is weird, and this book breaks a fundamental rule of the Horror genre to make the plot work. Number two: Ro is totally normal for her time, and we should all take a deep breath of thankfulness that times have moved on.
Here’s a case in point. When it comes time to pick a doctor to supervise this pregnancy, Ro’s first choice is Dr Hill – recommended by her friend Ellie, who’s already had two babies. Dr Hill is young and cute and nice, and gives her some pre-natal vitamins. But Guy and the Castavets steer her towards Dr Sapirstein (who is, of course, a member of the Coven). To modern eyes, Dr Sapirstein’s advice is so utterly stupid that I actually laughed.
Number One: “Please don’t read books.” Seriously; that’s his very first piece of direct speech. “Please don’t read books.” Number two piece of advice is even better (and again, I’m quoting directly) – “Don’t listen to your friends.” After all, what would they know? They’ve only been through this pregnancy thing themselves multiple times and all, right? Nothing to learn there. But number three is my personal favourite; he tells her to throw away her vitamin pills and start drinking the herbal mixture Mrs Castavet upstairs is going to start making and bringing down for her every morning. That’s Mrs Castavet, who has no medical qualifications. And who can’t even make chocolate mousse taste normal. Or mix a cocktail without slopping it all over the new carpet.
I’m seriously considering posting a dressed-up version of this encounter on the Mumsnet prenatal boards, just to see what happens. “I saw my doctor this morning, and he told me not to read any books or talk to any other women because it would only worry me. Also, a woman I have only known for two months, and who has no medical qualifications, is going to bring me a herb drink every morning which I am supposed to drink. I don’t know what’s in it, but apparently it’s good for me. AIBU to be a bit suspicious of this advice?”
But instead of laughing in his face just before walking out, finding a lawyer and threatening a malpractice suit, Ro goes along with every word. He’s a doctor. She’s just a silly little woman. Of course Dr Saperstein knows best!
This dynamic – Ro’s strange passivity in the face of outrageous coercion – turns up again and again and again. The dinner-party where Ro’s best female friends stage an intervention in her kitchen, insisting she must see another doctor because constant pain and severe weight-loss are absolutely not normal symptoms of pregnancy. (Meanwhile, Guy is practically beating down the door in case they’re managing to convince her.) The book that Ro’s friend Hutch gives her, which reveals the Castavet’s Devil-worshipping habits – and which Guy hides from her, then throws away when she’s not looking, because “worrying isn’t good for you, or the baby”. And, most chillingly, the occasion of Devil Child’s conception.
One evening, Creepy Old Neighbour Minnie Castavet appears at the doorway citing a surfeit of chocolate mousse, and leaves Guy and Ro with two ramekins. Ro thinks hers tastes weird. Guy bullies her into eating it; Ro rebels by secretly hiding the last bit in her napkin. Of course, the mousse is drugged. As soon as Ro’s out cold, she is carried into the Castavets’ apartment, who summon up the Devil, who possesses Guy and impregnates her. When Ro awakes the next morning, Guy explains that he had sex with her while she was passed out. “It was kind of fun,” he tells her, “in a necrophile sort of way.”
Ro’s response is beautifully executed, and incredibly chilling. She tries to assert herself – “I dreamed someone was raping me”, and then backs away again – “Oh, I guess I’m being silly.” She makes Guy his breakfast, and when he’s left, she does the washing-up. She makes the bed, and tidies up the apartment. And then, when all these household tasks are done, she gets into the shower and washes, and washes, and washes.
These days, this is marital rape – a criminal offence with jail-time attached. Back in 1967, the crime quite literally didn’t exist. These days, Ro would have a language and a label for her outrage, and the backing of the law. Back in 1967, Ro still has the outrage, but she has no way to articulate it. She’s on the cusp of breaking free – in fact, she actually leaves Guy for a while to stay in a friend’s cabin – but, in the end, she goes back again. The whole of society is telling her to stay with Guy. All she has to fight it with are her own instincts. And that’s just not enough.
So, she goes back to Guy. She sees Dr Sapirstein. She doesn’t read books. She doesn’t listen to her friends. She drinks the herbal drink. And as a consequence, she spawns the actual child of the Devil.
Ultimately, that’s why I think this book is still relevant to Feminist debates. If you look past its outrageous B-movie premise, what you actually have is a horror-story about control. Ro wants to control her own body – she’s this close to emancipation, this close to breaking out – but she can’t quite get there. (In fact, now that I think about it, even the title – “Rosemary’s Baby” – is ironic. Does it count as “your” baby if you didn’t consent to its conception, can’t remember the birth, didn’t choose its name and have no say over its future?) Even if Guy, not Satan, was the father of Rosemary’s Baby, I’d still say she’d given birth to the Devil’s child. Guy is a controlling, manipulative, aggressive, narcissistic rapist. That sounds pretty Satanic to me.
The Stepford Wives is terrifying because the questions it raises about gender equality still feel horribly relevant. By contrast, Rosemary’s Baby feels more like a period piece. It’s a reminder of the bad old days, when you could actually be told by an actual professional to actually not bother your pretty little head with all that book-learning stuff, and feel grateful to him for doing so. I wasn’t expecting to find a piece of feminist history buried in a fifty-year-old horror story, but that’s why I love poking around in the trash so much. You never quite know what you’re going to find.