There’s Something About Rosemary’s Baby: Rereading Ira Levin’s 1967 Novel

Ira Levin said he never wrote a comic novel. Stefan Beck begs to differ as he revisits the 1967 horror bestseller.

Horror movies, like jokes, are ruined by analysis. The friend who introduced me to horror—by age 14, he could simulate a gunshot wound with a condom, fake blood, and Black Cat firecrackers—was outraged when his English teacher called Dawn of the Dead (1978) a satirical comment on consumerism. It wasn’t that he couldn’t see the symbolism in a mall full of zombies. What bothered him was the suggestion that his hero, George A. Romero, might be pretentious enough to consider this incidental punchline his movie’s actual subject. The producer Walter Mirisch wrote about Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): “I remember reading a magazine article arguing that the picture was intended as an allegory about the communist infiltration of America...[Nobody involved] saw it as anything other than a thriller, pure and simple.”

Put another way, sometimes a chainsaw is just a chainsaw.

An exception, if not the exception, is Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), which the Criterion Collection rereleased in a deluxe edition the day before Halloween. Watch it in high school or college and what you see is an imaginative, masterfully paced thriller, pure and simple. If you’re a little older, however—if, say, you’ve moved in with a significant other and begun to talk about starting a family—Rosemary’s Baby is a completely different beast. It’s an ingenious spoof of yuppie anxieties about children and child rearing, real estate and neighbors, ambition and careers, the secrets spouses keep from each other, and the values they compromise to get ahead. It’s about fear of growing up and of the uncertainties that growing up entails. And this is even clearer in Ira Levin’s largely forgotten 1967 novel, from which Rosemary’s Baby was adapted.

In conversation with Leonard Lopate—the interview is one of the Criterion edition’s extras—Levin calls Polanski’s film “one of the most faithful adaptations ever made,” noting that almost all of the book’s dialogue was preserved. At one point Lopate asks Levin why he’s never written a comic novel, and Levin replies: “If I had a good idea for [one], I would pursue it in an instant.” Levin doesn’t see that Rosemary’s Baby is, in fact, a comic novel, or that the only way the film deviates from it is in being too compelling, too human, for this comic subtext to make itself known. One cares too deeply about gaunt, anguished Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and the incredible shrinking soul of her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) to laugh at their fate without feeling callous. The book is another story.

Consider the opening scene, in which Rosemary and Guy are shown an apartment in the Bramford, the accursed Manhattan apartment building in which their lives are to unravel. The “new home” is a typical starting point for a horror film, from I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and The Shining (1980) to Paranormal Activity (2007) and Insidious (2010), and in the film version of Rosemary’s Baby one doesn’t think twice about it. In the book, however, the focus lingers on what makes Guy and Rosemary somewhat unpleasant themselves. Guy, an actor, concocts a story to break their existing lease and secure an apartment in the higher-status Bramford. Even as Rosemary praises his “marvelous” ability to lie, Guy is distracted by vanity: “Christ, a pimple,” he groans at a mirror. Meanwhile, Rosemary is giddy at a kitchen “as large if not larger than the whole apartment in which they were living.”

All this may seem benign, but it’s a very subtle bit of foreshadowing. We sense in the first few pages that Guy is mostly concerned with fame and fortune, and that his wife wants certain things—a baby, a beautiful home—so badly that she will overlook the worst in her husband until it is too late. This dynamic is as old as the hills, but Levin’s genius is to crank it up past the point of absurdity. What, exactly, is Guy willing to do to get ahead? Little things, like humoring Rosemary’s elderly friend Hutch (Maurice Evans): “Guy found Hutch a bit boring but always treated him cordially; his wife had been a cousin of Terence Rattigan, the playwright, and Rattigan and Hutch corresponded. Connections often proved crucial in the theater, Guy knew.” And then bigger things, like helping to curse his rival with blindness. “I’ve got the part,” he tells Rosemary. “It’s a hell of a way to get it.”

This remark, with its allusion to the underworld, is just one of the campy little Easter eggs Levin scatters around his book; an earlier example is Guy’s insistence, soon abandoned, that “[w]e signed a lease, Ro; we’re stuck.” Like many ambitious young people, Guy Woodhouse expects to be able to break any promise—but the lease alludes to his impending deal with the Devil, and we don’t believe he’ll get out of that one. In short order Guy will be networking with Satan’s colleagues.

This is the source of all the humor in Rosemary’s Baby, the substitution of ordinary anxieties or irritations with grotesque, soul-threatening ones. In real life, your otherwise desirable apartment building might have ancient plumbing or a silverfish infestation; in Rosemary’s Baby, it has a history of witchcraft, cannibalism, and suicide. In real life, the walls are so thin that you can hear your neighbor watching porn or yelling at his cat; in Levin’s world, what you hear is “flat unmusical singing… almost like religious chanting, and the same flute or clarinet weaving in and around and underneath it.” In real life, you agonize over whether to befriend your neighbors, or how to extricate yourself if you find that you can’t stand them; in Levin’s world they are a corrupting influence, a threat to all you hold dear.

The rest of Rosemary’s Baby, the part treating the biggest, most significant anxiety a young couple will face, is not that different from Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, plus a few witches and a spooky soundtrack. There is a prototypical reluctant father: “She was twenty-four and they wanted three children two years apart; but Guy ‘wasn’t ready yet’—nor would he ever be ready, she feared, until he was as big as Marlon Brando and Richard Burton put together.” There is an either prescient or timeless depiction of the tension between folk wisdom and medical science: poor Rosemary is bullied by ostensibly well-meaning neighbors into taking her neonatal vitamins in the form of a weird herbal shake. (Tannis root, anyone?) And there is the inevitable freakout when Rosemary loses trust in her obstetrician, though in this case her concerns are anything but unreasonable. Above all, and perhaps in least need of stating, the question mark hanging over every pregnancy—what kind of child am I bringing into the world?—is writ in devilish red neon.

Adulthood, it seems, is the stuff of nightmares, and Levin and Polanski turned it into one that seems almost plausible. What makes it funny is that it’s more reassurance than warning: take the worst-case scenario you can imagine, the most Grand Guignol catastrophe, and then consider that it cannot ever happen. It’s hard to sally forth into the world, sure, but at no point will the Devil himself straddle your path. He won’t even slouch next to you in your pediatrician’s waiting room, fanning himself with a Highlights for Children. If Rosemary’s Baby contains a lesson, even one its author never intended, it’s that our darkest fears remain our own damn fault—and that it’s probably still safe to be fruitful and multiply.