OcTerror · Reviews

“All of Them Witches”: Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

While I have seen the film adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby—one of my favorite classic horror films—I’d never read the book that spawned it. Luckily, finding a beautiful, new copy at Grassroots seemed to prophesize that I was meant to read it for OcTerror. I’ll admit that I don’t read much of classic horror beyond Dracula and Frankenstein. Not knowing quite what I was in for, I began reading Rosemary’s Baby.

Surprisingly, the original novel reads like a movie adaptation, and shows how close to the source material the script and actors managed to stay. After seeing the movie first, I was able to hear the actors’ voices as I read and found it to be an enjoyable experience rather than a distracting one. While the film and book are virtually identical, the book has a few details that weren’t as fleshed out in the movie, more into Rosemary’s train of thought, and a grander ending.

Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse move into the Bramford, an old apartment building with a reputation for suicides and cannibalistic sisters. Guy’s a struggling actor who’s mostly done commercials and is living off of a lucrative Anacin ad from a few years ago. Rosemary wants to begin a family with the man she loves and decorate their new four room home with the latest fashions. They meet their mostly elderly neighbors, including the Castavets who live next door. Shortly after, Guy lands an amazing role and Rosemary discovers that she’s pregnant. Their neighbors begin to show an increasing interest in the unborn baby, and Rosemary becomes suspicious that their intentions may not be all that innocent.

I felt many of the same emotions I had the first time I watched the film: general discomfort, anxiety, terror, and revulsion. The fact that I knew what was coming, and it didn’t lessen the impact any shows how well-written and paced this book is. I still felt the instinct to shake Rosemary, to snap her out of her happy domestic daydreams, but I also felt more connected to her as a character as the book fleshes out her past and family issues. Religion plays a bigger part in the book, working well with the opposing antagonistic force, and I felt more strongly with Rosemary because of this struggle. It’s a born-again plotline gone horribly wrong.

The physical descriptions of the Bramford and the decorations in Rosemary’s apartment show how strongly she wants a family and a safe place to escape from the turbulent world of the late 1960’s. There is some mention of burning draft cards, the Vietnam War, the Civil Right Movement, and other key historical events of this time period, but those real horrors are pushed aside to focus on Rosemary and her individual terror. There’s a certain lush quality to the Woodhouse’s lives in the Bramford as they drink cocktails, have dinner parties, order furniture from catalogs, put up wallpaper, and socialize in New York—it’s a quality that’s really only seen in chick lit today, and it seems that every genre could use a little more elegance.

The other characters in the book are unsettling in their own ways. Guy, the doting husband in the beginning, transforms into a stranger before the readers’ eyes, and it’s his betrayal that hurts Rosemary the most. The Castavets, Minnie and Roman, seem nosey and too involved, but at times are loving caretakers. Rosemary’s friends, family, and the other neighbors in the Bramford all go onstage and offstage with ease, each one memorable and serving to either hinder or further Rosemary’s mental state. The attitude that Rosemary shows to the other characters varies throughout the book as her emotions flip-flop, but it works well to confuse the reader and keep them guessing until the very end whether she’s lost her mind or become perfectly sane.

The tension of Rosemary’s unusual pregnancy, the horror of betrayal by those she trusts, and the revulsion of the twist at the end make this a book that checks all of the genre’s boxes. Ira Levin’s book inspired the period of occultism that ran rampant through books and movies for a short time before slashers started their reign. It’s a classic twentieth century horror novel that’s convinced me to read more from this period, instead of just sticking to penny dreadfuls and contemporary work.

Rosemary’s Baby should be read by anyone who loved the movie (if only because the ending is further developed), for fans of horror novels that stand the test of time, and for those who want to read something creepy for Halloween but not something that will leave them up at night. This book is a perfect mix of horror, terror, and revulsion and shows that pregnancy can be the scariest thing of all. Find a copy nearest you to discover just what happened to Rosemary’s baby.