This Is the End: American Apocalypse in Ira Levin’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’

By K.E. Roberts / January 2, 2017

Ku Klux Klan rally, early 1960s. Photo: Jim Wallace

Rosemary’s Baby, both Ira Levin’s 1967 bestseller and Roman Polanski’s meticulously faithful film adaptation of 1968, seeded the American consciousness with infernal terror at precisely the moment the country was supposed to be suffering its most desperate crisis of faith. While William Peter Blatty would seal the deal with The Exorcist (1971), it was Levin’s sly, Gothic update that shook loose the puritanical roots we thought, with more than a little Space Age smugness, we’d outgrown. Although much is made of Levin’s exploitation of the anxiety surrounding reproduction and reproductive rights, that isn’t what makes his novel so unforgettable. Rosemary Reilly, unlike the thousands of doubtable horror heroines who clutter the genre’s history, is neither stupid, superficial, venal, vengeful, or even particularly naive, and her lapsed Catholicism is more charitable than most active memberships. Rosemary’s lone sin, and it can be called that only after the accumulation of some 50 years of unabashed national schism and cynicism, is that she trusts her husband, her neighbors, her doctors, and the formerly unassailable integrity of the establishment to which they belong. And that is why she is raped by Satan and gives birth to the Antichrist.

Levin plays on a number of cultural cues and actual events, directly and indirectly, to flesh out and ground his supernatural thriller, which begins in August 1965 and ends in July 1966: the ascendant interest in witchcraft, Satanism (Anton LaVey founded the Church of Satan in 1966), and all manner of occult and esoteric beliefs; the assassination of John F. Kennedy; the particularly American infatuation with conspiracy theories; the apparent decline of American religiosity; the first papal visit to the United States following the controversial Second Vatican Council; and the reverberating effects of the Civil Rights Movement during its most critical and violent phase. The period from 1963 to 1966 marked a great transformation in American life, the end of a postwar consensus that almost everyone assumed to be imperishable and the beginning of a violent crucible that would forever split the country into hostile camps. Events would only get more desperate by decade’s end. Rosemary’s pregnancy, and her growing awareness of the malevolent circumstances surrounding it, is the story of that gestating national apocalypse.

“What a Price We Pay for This Fanaticism”

Rosemary is 24 years old when the novel opens, the youngest of six children, born to an Irish Catholic family from Omaha, Nebraska. In the summer of 1962, as throngs of other young adults would do throughout the decade, she left her “country” home and moved to the city, in this case New York. Shortly thereafter, she meets Guy Wodehouse, an ambitious and successful (but not famous, to his chagrin) actor. They marry, and the action begins as the young, upwardly mobile couple get out of a lease they’ve signed for a “white,” “geometric” apartment because there’s a last minute opening at the Bramford, an “old, black, and elephantine” Victorian building prized for its “charm and individuality.” Rosemary’s immediate desire is to set up a cozy and stylish home—she’s been saving clippings of decorating schemes since high school—and have “three children two years apart,” though Guy would rather postpone parenthood until after his big break. Rosemary’s older friend Hutch, something of a surrogate father, warns Rosemary and Guy about the Bramford’s dark past, especially its harboring of a witch named Adrian Marcato, who claimed in the 1890s to have “[conjured] up the living Satan.”

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Doreen Valiente, “the mother of modern witchcraft,” Brighton, 1962

Rosemary is unswayed, as expected, and she sets to work making over the Bramford apartment, hanging curtains, buying quaint furniture, hiring painters, and reserving special wallpaper for the den that she intends, sooner rather than later, to be a nursery. Much to her relief, apart from a “normal abnormal” homosexual couple across the hall, Rosemary finds the other Bramford residents “entirely commonplace.” In the basement laundry room—for Rosemary, though a reader of The New Yorker and the Kinsey Reports, is a dutiful wife, and seemingly indifferent to the cultural revolution being waged by many of her peers—she meets Terry Gionoffrio, a young woman and former prostitute and drug addict taken in by Minnie and Roman Castevet, an elderly couple who live next door to Rosemary and Guy. Not two weeks later, as Rosemary and Guy approach “the Bramford’s blackened mass” after a night at the theater, they notice a crowd outside the building, as well as the flashing sirens of police cars. Terry has jumped out of the Castevets’ seven-story window in an apparent suicide. (The Mountain of Purgatory in Dante’s Purgatorio contains seven “terraces” that correspond with the seven deadly sins; the seventh terrace is reserved for the lustful.) The Castavets arrive on the scene, Rosemary introduces herself and pays her respects, and the two couples—one of which presides over a coven of satanic witches—begin an unlikely friendship.

That night, Rosemary has a waking dream while trying to fall asleep, a device Levin employs twice to reveal important plot details (and obscure others to preserve the final twist). The image of Terry’s “pulped face,” which Rosemary had glimpsed before a blanket was thrown over the body, wracks her mind until she is transported to the Catholic school of her childhood and chided by a “furious” Sister Agnes, whose words are actually Minnie’s, heard through the bedroom wall: “All she has to be is young, healthy, and not a virgin. She doesn’t have to be a no-good drug addict whore… Didn’t I say that in the beginning?”

A few days later, after Guy quite literally sells his soul (and his wife’s unborn child) to Satan in exchange for the promise of stardom, he feeds Rosemary a dessert (concocted by Minnie) that’s filled with tranquilizers on the night they plan to “have a baby” (the reason for Guy’s abrupt change of heart doesn’t become obvious until the second act). As she is again caught between states of consciousness, she dreams that she is “sitting with a drink in her hand on President Kennedy’s yacht” while, in reality, she is being undressed and prepped for her ceremonial sacrifice to Satan incarnate. Jackie Kennedy, Pat Kennedy Lawford, and Sarah Churchill appear in the vision too, and the President, wearing his Navy uniform, “had completely recovered from the assassination and looked better than ever.”

The assassination of John F. Kennedy is arguably the defining moment in modern American history, and it permeates the subtext of Levin’s literary horror. The tragic event in Dallas laid low a nation sky high on a postwar version of manifest destiny, and it was an especial blow to Irish Catholics: Kennedy was, and still is, the only Catholic U.S. President, and at the time of his election Catholics were still widely scrutinized by “the finger of suspicion.” In September 1960, in the heat of his race with Richard Nixon, 150 protestant ministers demanded that Kennedy repudiate the Vatican’s teachings, resulting in his famous speech at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association celebrating religious freedom and the separation of church and state—a view that many Catholics today condemn for “dramatically privatizing religious conviction and marginalizing its role in orienting a public official’s moral compass.”

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Zapruder film frame showing President Kennedy just after he was struck with the first bullet, Dallas, Texas, November 22, 1963

Kennedy’s very gruesome and very public death—recall Terry, who is “watching the sky with one eye, half of her face gone to red pulp” when Rosemary first sees the corpse outside the Bramford—was interpreted by the liberal majority “as a symptom of, and perhaps even a punishment for, some tragic moral flaw in American life,” to quote journalist and historian Godfrey Hodgson. This attitude is expressed touchingly and agonizingly by Chief Justice Earl Warren in his eulogy of the President, delivered on November 24, 1963:

We are saddened; we are stunned; we are perplexed.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a great and good President, the friend of all men of good will, a believer in the dignity and equality of all human beings, a fighter for justice, an apostle of peace, has been snatched from our midst by the bullet of an assassin.

What moved some misguided wretch to do this horrible deed may never be known to us, but we do know that such acts are commonly stimulated by forces of hatred and malevolence, such as today are eating their way into the bloodstream of American life. What a price we pay for this fanaticism…

Americans simply could not believe that their great prince had been felled by a disgruntled halfwit using a sniper rifle purchased through a mail order catalog—and they still can’t. When the Castevets have Rosemary and Guy over for dinner, one of the topics of discussion is the Kennedy assassination, because “Mr. Castevet was reading a book critical of the Warren Report.” Established by President Lyndon Johnson and chaired by Chief Justice Warren, the Warren Commission determined in September 1964 that the assassination “was the work of one man, Lee Harvey Oswald. There was no conspiracy, foreign or domestic.” The irony, of course, is that Roman Castevet himself is the leader of the ultimate conspiracy: an international coven of witches that’s working to overthrow the Biblical Prince of Peace and usher the Antichrist into power. Castevet’s reading of the Commission-denouncing text (almost certainly Harold Weisberg’s Whitewash, first published in 1965) is an implication that the “forces of hatred and malevolence” behind Kennedy’s assassination were literally the work of the devil. “The ship” that Kennedy had been captaining, to return to the climax of Rosemary’s liminal vision, “was heading for disaster.”

“The Whole Country’s Talkin’ Witchcraft!”

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The Red Menace lobby card, 1949. Following the House Un-American Activities Committee’s institution of the Hollywood blacklist, studios released a string of anti-communist propaganda films

America, an ideology characterized from the beginning by Puritanism (whose adherents sought to “purify” the Church of England from perceived Catholic elements), “rugged individualism,” and exceptionalism—as well as, at times, the sanctimony that results from so many unmet great expectations—is more susceptible than most to conspiracy theory. From the Salem witch trials to 9/11, what else but subversives, working under cover of certain unalienable Rights endowed by their Creator, could deal privation and tragedy to the “City upon a Hill“?

On February 9, 1950, the junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, gave a speech to Wheeling, West Virginia Republicans preaching “a show-down fight… a war between two diametrically opposed ideologies… our western Christian world and the atheistic Communist world…” McCarthy went on:

When a great democracy is destroyed, it will not be from enemies from without, but rather because of enemies from within…

The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because our only powerful potential enemy has sent men to invade our shores… but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have been treated so well by this Nation…

I have here in my hand a list of 205 [the exact figure quoted by McCarthy is disputed]… a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department…

And so began what is now known as McCarthyism, a national campaign that encompassed a host of loathsome and often blatantly unconstitutional practices, including book banning, blacklisting, the institution of loyalty orders, forced registration of non-citizens, legal harassment, wrongful conviction, antisemitism, mass firings of homosexuals, the emasculation of labor unions, and the demonization of the polio vaccine and mental health legislation. All told, Joseph McCarthy, a Catholic and friend and ally to Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and his family, irreparably damaged the reputations and livelihoods of thousands of innocent people, and had hundreds imprisoned before he himself was famously censured by Edward R. Murrow, Joseph Welch, and, finally, the United States Senate.

As with the Kennedy assassination, Levin manipulates the distinctly American fear of “enemies from within,” except that in Rosemary’s Baby, as already mentioned, the threat is real and imminent. Black magic works. Satan exists, spiritually and physically. The “war between two diametrically opposed ideologies” is a cosmic one, and the only player missing from the struggle, even after Rosemary’s eventual appeal to Him, is God (the Bramford, we discover early on, “is owned by the church next door”). What’s particularly brilliant of Levin is that he doesn’t play sides in the emerging culture war—or rather, he plays both sides. While Roman’s coven certainly appears to consist of what would be considered establishment figures (“elderly” doctors, retired dentists, businessmen, housewives), they practice the anarchic occult magic that was identified almost exclusively with the dissident younger generation. And as staunchly evil as the aged Roman is, we understand that the young artist Guy, who accuses Rosemary of a “McCarthy-type smear campaign” when she unravels Roman’s true identity (he is Adrian Marcato’s son), is much worse.

“God is Dead and Satan Lives!”

At the time of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, official Catholic doctrine expressed outright contempt for other religions, proclaimed that the Church was “the sole arbiter of truth and falsehood,” rejected the notion that the Church should be separated from the state in any way, and stigmatized Jews as Jesus Christ’s assassins. (The Church’s official neutrality during World War II and the Holocaust has caused dogged controversy.) The Second Vatican Council, initiated by Pope John XXIII in October 1962 and concluded by Pope Paul VI in December 1965, “reformulated” the Church “in contemporary terms.” The Vatican now urged Catholics to embrace religious freedom, allowed that truth was not an exclusive provenance of the Church, rejected “all forms of civil discrimination based on religious grounds,” and “[decried] hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”

Pope Paul VI arrived in New York City—the first ever papal visit to the United States—on Monday morning, October 4, 1965. He would spend the next 14 hours showing off the revamped Catholicism of Vatican II to the most modern city of the modern world. He met with President Lyndon Johnson (they discussed poverty, civil rights, and the Vietnam War) and addressed the United Nations (“Listen to the words of the great departed John Kennedy: ‘Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind’”). “How nice it is,” Rosemary thinks to herself of the event, “that the whole city is happy on a day when I’m so happy.” The occasion of Rosemary’s happiness is that Guy has agreed to have a baby. And the Antichrist is conceived on that very night, as the pope delivered a “Mass of Peace” to 100,000 people in Yankee Stadium:

We feel, too, that the entire American people is here present, with its noblest and most characteristic traits: a people basing its conception of life on spiritual values, on a religious sense, on the rule of law, on freedom, on loyalty, on work, on the respect of duty, on family affection, on generosity and courage…

rb-is-god-dead-1966“Well, he is the pope,” Rosemary says to Roman Castevet a few days earlier, after the coven leader has accused the pontiff of “show biz” and referred to religions as “pageants for the ignorant,” a sentiment shared by pre-Faustian Guy. “I guess I’ve been conditioned to have respect for him and I still do,” she goes on, “even if I don’t think he’s holy anymore.” Such was the attitude that inspired Vatican II in the first place. Nearly nine months later, as Rosemary, who is beginning to work out the cabal, sits nervously in the waiting room of the obstetrician (Dr. Saperstein, a Jew) she will soon realize is a member of the coven, she absently picks up a magazine on the table at her elbow. “Is God Dead?”, the cover of Time reads, in red block letters against a black cover. That cover is now famous as an iconographic embodiment of acute spiritual anxiety at a moment of national turmoil not seen since the lead-up to the Civil War.

The article (“Toward a Hidden God,” April 8, 1966), written by religion editor John T. Elson (the fact that one of the nation’s most widely circulated magazines had a religion editor seems to contradict the question posed on the cover), discusses the apparent secularization of society at the hands of science and the proposals of some “radical” ministers “to carry on and write a theology… without God.” (At the time, nearly 97% of Americans believed in God, but only 27% claimed to be deeply religious.) The magazine makes another appearance in Levin’s bravura Chapter 5 (Part 2), as Rosemary, who has thrown a big party to mask the incurable pain of her early pregnancy (“You look as if you’re being drained by a vampire,” Hutch says), overhears someone named Scott saying:

His name is Altizer [Thomas Altizer, who Elson pegs as a leader of the “current death-of-God group”]… and what he says is that the death of God is a specific historic event that happened right now, in our time. That God literally died.

Levin is not trying to be clever or philosophic, though he is both. (He recollected, in 2003, that Rosemary’s Baby was born “in the wake of a Broadway flop”: “I had no other intriguing ideas and a family to support. I read up on witchcraft and, late in 1965, set to work.”) His sole intention, as a good horror novelist, is to scare the shit out of his audience. But by prodding the traumatized psyches of his readers, all of whom had taken the Great Society for granted a mere three years earlier, and by indiscriminately subverting their convictions and prejudices, he achieved an authenticity and a resonance that went well beyond traditional genre fare. Rosemary’s Baby is not just a brilliant horror thriller; it is a classic of American literature, as surely as The Scarlet Letter or Wise Blood.

“The Appalling Silence and Indifference of the Good People”

“Gas and Clubs Used to Halt Rights ‘Walk’,” read the front page of Rosemary’s hometown newspaper, the Omaha World-Herald, on March 8, 1965, the morning after Alabama state troopers and mounted deputies attacked over 500 peaceful civil rights demonstrators with nightclubs and tear gas and, in the article’s words, “drove them bleeding and screaming through the streets.” The Selma to Montgomery marchers encountered no resistance until they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge into Dallas County, where they met a wall of “blue-helmeted” troopers and newly deputized white men under orders from Alabama Governor George C. Wallace to “enforce state laws.” Newspaper and television coverage brought home “the screaming Negroes, some of them children and aged persons,” and President Johnson sent the voting rights bill to Congress eight days later, signing it into law on August 6, 1965, three days after Rosemary’s Baby begins.

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Civil rights demonstrators are confronted by state troopers after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama, March 7, 1965. Photo: Spider Martin

As Rosemary and Guy tour the Bramford for the first time, Rosemary observes the “uniformed Negro boy with a locked-in-place smile” who runs the elevator, and later, in the laundry room, which “would have done nicely in a prison,” she feels “self-conscious, clumsy, and Negro-oppressing” after “a bevy of Negro laundresses” fall silent at her “unknowing intrusion.” During her drugged vision of herself on Kennedy’s yacht, the President, amidst “sunny and breezy” weather, “gave terse and knowing instructions to a Negro mate.” (Even though black votes were pivotal in the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy balked on civil rights legislation due to his narrow southern support in Congress.) After (dream) Hutch tells (dream) Rosemary that a typhoon is coming, Rosemary tries to warn the (dream) President, but he’s gone:

Everyone was gone. The deck was infinite and bare, except for, far away, the Negro mate holding the wheel unremittingly on its course.

Rosemary went to him and saw at once that he hated all white people, hated her. ‘You’d better go down below, Miss,’ he said, courteous but hating her, not even waiting to hear the warning she had brought.

In the final act of the novel, while at the Castevets’ duplicitous “bon voyage party,” talk “turned to tornadoes and civil rights.” Rosemary finds it “hard to maintain” that “these people who were so much like her aunts and uncles in Omaha… were in fact a coven of witches.” Much like it’s hard to maintain that seemingly the most upstanding of American citizens—U.S. Senator Edmund Pettus, for instance, for whom the Edmund Pettus Bridge is named—could return home after a day of “establishing Justice, insuring domestic Tranquility, providing for the common defence, promoting the general Welfare, and securing the Blessings of Liberty,” only to pull a pointed white hood over his face and wage “a prolonged campaign of intimidation, violence, and murder in opposition to the civil rights movement.”

Pettus was, while serving in Congress, a Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, which acted as “the military wing of the Democratic Party in Alabama.” If Pettus was too “respectable” to do the dirty work himself, he certainly ordered it done. So, again, Levin twists the knife. White liberalism itself is skewered. Underneath all of this middle class New York propriety there is something immaculately evil, and no one is innocent, not even a “country girl” from Omaha who dreams only of “three children two years apart” and a home in Los Angeles with a spice garden. Is her infernal son a collective “punishment for… some tragic moral flaw in American life” that sanctioned slavery to begin with and still, to some degree, resents its abolition; that gave us JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. only at the cost of Oswald and James Earl Ray; that boasted of freedom of speech and freedom of worship while burning “heretics” and “traitors” at the stake?

When Rosemary and Guy return to their apartment after having dinner at the Castevets’ for the first time, Rosemary, the consummate homemaker, notices that

Their pictures; they took them down. In the living room and in the hallway leading back to the bathroom. There are hooks in the wall and clean places. And the one picture that is there, over the mantel, doesn’t fit. There are two inches of clean at both sides of it.

We find out what this means in the very last scene, when Rosemary discovers a secret passage in her linen closet leading into the Castevets’ apartment, where the coven is keeping the baby she was told had died during childbirth: “Over the curio cabinet hung a small but vivid oil painting of a church in flames… St. Patrick’s it looked like, with yellow and orange flames bursting from its windows and soaring through its gutted roof.”

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Birmingham residents react in the aftermath of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, September 15, 1963

Whether Levin meant it or not, the image certainly recalls the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The timed bomb (between 15 and 20 sticks of dynamite) was planted by members of the Ku Klux Klan on early Sunday morning and detonated as a group of children changed into their choir robes in preparation for a sermon called “The Love that Forgives.” Four girls, aged 11 to 14, were killed. The burning and bombing of black churches has been a standard terror tactic for white supremacists since the 1950s.

“Vexed to Nightmare by a Rocking Cradle”

There is no doubt that Levin, a philosophy and English major who graduated from New York University in 1950, had read William Butler Yeats’ tremendously influential and oft-quoted “The Second Coming,” a 1919 poem describing the “blood-dimmed” aftermath of World War I in apocalyptic Christian and esoteric language (Yeats was a lifelong student of the occult). The poem’s relevance to the late 1960s was not lost on the writers, artists, and activists of the day. Joan Didion’s book of essays about the dark side of California’s counterculture, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), was named after it, and Martin Luther King Jr. alluded to it in a series of speeches from 1964 to 1968, the last one delivered four days before he was assassinated:

And I am sorry to say this morning that I am absolutely convinced that the forces of ill will in our nation, the extreme rightists of our nation—the people on the wrong side—have used time much more effectively than the forces of goodwill. And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, “Wait on time.”

King is criticizing the white liberals who peddle “the myth of time”—the idea that racial justice can be achieved only through “patience and prayer.” The specific reference is to the last couplet of Yeats’ first stanza: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” It’s no accident that the grim verdict holds true for the characters in Rosemary’s Baby. While Rosemary is unfailingly honest, intelligent, and compassionate, she is also unwilling to take sides (she and Guy identify as “agnostic,” importantly, not as atheist) in the struggles of her time, hesitant to even engage with them in a meaningful way, a victim of her guiltily acknowledged “selfishness” and “boxed-in propriety”—though she has no problem probing past societal upheavals, “finally” reading Gibbon’s luridly detailed The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire after the pain of her pregnancy has “settled down to a constant presence.”

When Terry Gionoffrio tells her how the Castevets’ took her in, “starving and on dope,” and treated her like “the daughter they never had,” Rosemary remarks that “It’s nice to know there are people like that, when you hear so much about apathy and people who are afraid of getting involved.” Terry’s death obviously upsets Rosemary, but she is not bothered enough about it to heed Hutch’s earlier warning about the long list of “ugly and unsavory” happenings at the Bramford. And she does not mention or think of Terry again.

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First edition of Rosemary’s Baby, Random House, 1967

Months later, in the early stages of pregnancy, she reads the paper and tries to be “interested in students burning draft cards and the threat of a city-wide transit strike,” but “this was news from a world of fantasy; nothing was real but her world of pain.” An understandable attitude, to be sure, but even after her pain abruptly subsides and she finds out Hutch—upon whom she has “effortlessly and completely [depended]” since her arrival in New York—has died, she realizes that she had “all but forgotten him” since he slipped mysteriously into a coma (a result of the coven’s black magic). She had resisted visiting him, she realizes, because she feared the baby may have been “endangered” by his unexplained sickness.

Hutch is, in fact, the book’s quintessential slacker. A 54-year-old Englishman and Rosemary’s only true ally, pegged as “extremely intelligent” by Roman Castevet, it’s Hutch who figures out the Castevets are witches—and though his apartment is adorned with “an inscribed photo of Winston Churchill and a sofa that had belonged to Madame Pompadour,” he makes his living writing American “boys’ adventure books” under three different names, an irony he appreciates in self-deprecating terms. All of which belies the passionate intensity of the coven’s devotion to Satan, who “came up from Hell… to avenge the iniquities visited by the God-worshipers upon His never-doubting followers!” The American spiritual crisis, in Levin’s narrative, is entirely one-sided. God really is “literally” dead.

“If only prayer were still possible!” Rosemary laments, when she finds out she’s pregnant, when she realizes the “dangers that had never been dangers before” that her baby now faces. “How nice it would be to hold a crucifix again and have God’s ear: ask Him for safe passage through the eight more months ahead…” This unwavering, nearly excruciating desire for a home and a family is, of course, at the bottom of her self-imposed insulation from the outside world, and it’s the only commitment in the book that approaches the resolve of the witches. Her estrangement from her own family is not a result of generational conflict, but the fact that Rosemary married a Protestant whose mother-in-law has been divorced twice and is now married “to a Jew up in Canada” (note that the coven does not discriminate: only absolute allegiance to Satan is required). Cast off by her parents and resented by her siblings for escaping Omaha, Rosemary, who has “never been alone in [her] whole life,” is desperate to establish a nest and progeny at a time when the traditional American family unit—like the nation itself—was starting to unravel.

* * *

Eight months later, as she is confined to bed rest and kept under sedation by her extended Bramford “family,” Rosemary discovers that her baby is still alive in the Castevets’ apartment—she hears him crying one day, over the noise of the air conditioner, just before she pumps the breast milk that is supposedly being dumped down the kitchen sink. One afternoon she drugs her keeper, uncovers the secret passage leading to the Castevets’, and sneaks through with a carving knife. She would “turn to no one” this time, expect no one “to be her savior” (self-reliance and self-determinism are key ingredients of LaVeyan Satanism). She spots the black bassinet across the room, an inverted silver crucifix dangling from its hood, a “black ribbon wound and knotted around Jesus’ ankles.” Roman sees her. The rest of them see her. There’s a squeal of horror from the baby’s nurse as the knife is spotted, but Minnie holds the coven back, knowing Rosemary intimately by now.

Rosemary, who looks into her son’s serpentine “golden-yellow” eyes, each of them divided by “vertical black-slit pupils,” listens as Minnie regales the creature’s tiny claws and “the buds of His horns.” For a moment, after the young mother has collapsed into a chair and dropped the knife, she ponders throwing the baby out of the seven-story window, and following after it—just like Terry Gionoffrio. But Roman speaks to her like the father she never had, and she clings to her “conditioned” Catholicism (“killing was wrong, no matter what”), her propriety, her unalienable maternal instincts. The baby fusses, and she starts rocking him, talking to him soothingly. She tells him about the nursery she has prepared for him. She demands that the baby’s name be changed from Adrian to Andrew. Roman bristles, but, with a nudge from Minnie, he relents.

And that is how the forces of hatred and malevolence ascend to the throne. After the thundering oaths of allegiance subside (“Hail Satan!” “Hail Adrian!” “Hail Andrew!“), in the hushed tones of a lullaby (“Go on. Just rock Him till He stops complaining”), Rosemary sacrifices everything she has learned about the nature and reality of evil, the radical independence she has painfully earned by piecing together and resisting the conspiracy, for a middle-class myth of hearth and home that is conceivable only through a continuous theater of self-deception. It’s an inverted cross her country continues to bear.


UFOs Vallee 1977K.E. Roberts is Editor-in-Chief of We Are the Mutants and a freelance writer. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two daughters, and the longest cat any of them have ever seen.

 

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One thought on “This Is the End: American Apocalypse in Ira Levin’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’

  1. Pingback: Children of the Beast: The 1980s ‘Satanic Panic’

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