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The Subtle Body Horror of Rosemary’s Baby

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This November, the Frida Cinema is focusing on films that center around New York, and one such film is Rosemary’s Baby, which brilliantly uses the city as a background for one of the most influential horror movies of all time. Polanski utilizes the setting to create this claustrophobic atmosphere for Rosemary, and you can feel the tension sizzling in the concrete jungle. Rosemary’s Baby explores a still relatively untapped niche of horror that centers around the relationship between body horror and pregnancy. Along with that, it’s impossible to ignore the connection between those themes and those of gender and conformity.

Rosemary (Mia Farrow) is forced to be polite. She is confined by society’s expectations, and everyone around her is reinforcing this. She can’t reject her neighbors no matter how much she wants to because she doesn’t want to appear rude, and she can’t disagree with her husband because that would make her a bad wife. You can’t help but squirm in your seat as you watch her being gaslit by the people around her when really her instincts are right on the money. During the scene at the party, you feel that Rosemary is so close to freedom you can taste it. Her friends are the first people to reassure her that what she’s going through is not normal, and when she finally stands up to Guy (John Cassavetes), you are on the edge of your seat, thinking, Yes, yes, this is it, she’ll get out! But as soon as she feels the baby move, she trusts Guy again, and we are plunged into despair.

's Baby 2Because Rosemary is pressured to be polite and repress her feelings throughout the film, it makes me wonder, does she really want this baby? Is that something she is hiding as well, her resentment towards her pregnancy? Is she just doing what people expect her to do? Guy and Rosemary represent the typical nuclear family, and the film was made in 1968, when the United States was still transitioning to the free love movement of the ’70s, and thus it reflects the conservatism of the time. Because of this, having a baby doesn’t seem like a voluntary decision. It seems more likely that the Woodhouses are doing it just because it is the expected next step in their relationship, to start a family. You can’t help but feel that the film is directly or subtextually exploring the horror of the nuclear family and gender roles. As soon as Guy has a steady occupation, Rosemary becomes pregnant, as if that’s just what you do; the man becomes the breadwinner, and the woman becomes the housewife. This ties back into how Polanski uses the environment to create tension. You can feel the walls closing around Rosemary in her… admittedly beautiful apartment in the Bramford. I feel that Rosemary is performing the role of the perfect mother in order to compensate for her resentment.

As Rosemary’s pregnancy continues, she loses her autonomy and her identity, and she transforms into something else: a mother. I would argue that, much like the transformation of Seth Brundle in Cronenberg’s The Fly, while Rosemary’s body doesn’t become physically twisted, she is the victim of a subtle body horror. It is telling that the movie is called Rosemary’s Baby; the focus is on her pregnancy, not on her as an individual. We watch helplessly as Rosemary struggles to hold onto her humanity as this unknown thing inside her grows, her best friends replaced by the repulsive citizens of the Bramford. I think that there is something very real about it that women can relate to, that when they become pregnant, they stop being women and become “mothers.” They become an extension of their children, which is exactly what happens to Rosemary. 

In the age of TikTok, we have become saturated by the phrase “feminine rage,” but what does that actually mean? I have found that it is defined not just as women expressing anger but also as expressing it on the behalf of those who cannot. There are parallels between Rosemary’s Baby and the film Possession. Both Rosemary and Isabelle Adjani’s Anna are going through a rough transition period in their lives. However, Anna is able to be deranged. She is free from the shackles of judgment and is allowed to show her rage. Rosemary’s Baby is noticeably absent of feminine rage, because Rosemary is almost terminally passive. Instead, the film lets the audience, specifically the women, express feminine rage, because it is denied to her.

Rosemary’s Baby screens starting Friday, November 24th.
Friday, Nov 24th – 7:15pm
Sunday, Nov 26th – 2:30pm


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