'Rosemary's Baby' and 'Son of Rosemary': From Demonology to Religious Fundamentalism
Whereas the original finds horror in alienation from mainstream culture, the sequel finds horror in the force that mobilizes all culture into a monolithic mainstream.
Rosemary's BabyPublisher: NAL
Author: Ira Levin
Publication date: 2003-09
Son of RosemaryPublisher: Pegasus
Author: Ira Levin
Publication date: 2010-04
We have reached the time of year in which Roman Polanski’s 1969 Rosemary’s Baby is most likely to be playing on television. A staple of the horror genre, and arguably of American cinema, Polanski’s film frequently overshadows its source material, Ira Levin’s 1967 novel, as well as that source material’s 1997 sequel. Next year, however, Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby turns 50 and its follow-up, Son of Rosemary, turns 20. Given the imminence of these milestones, I decided to revisit both novels. The original is still enjoyable, the sequel as bad as it was reported to be upon its publication. Varying quality aside, both novels, read in succession, offer a glimpse into major 20th-century shifts in the American popular religious imaginary. Between the original novel’s 1967 publication and its sequel’s 1997 one, the devil’s Catholic associations are replaced with Christian fundamentalist ones.
Levin’s original likely requires no summary. Like Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the story is a paranoid piece of 20th-century American mythology, so deeply ingrained into our cultural consciousness through the film’s iconography -- Mia Farrow’s “Vidal Sassoon” haircut, for example -- and the story’s many retellings, both explicit and otherwise. The novel is roughly organized around the nine months of Rosemary Woodhouse’s pregnancy. Rosemary and her aspiring-actor husband, Guy, lease an apartment in the Bramford, an old New York Victorian, across the hall from a nosy, if seemingly innocuous elderly couple, Roman and Minnie Castevet. As her pregnancy continues, and mysterious deaths and clues accrue, Rosemary becomes convinced that a coven of witches are plotting to steal her unborn child. She suspects Minnie and Roman, her obstetrician, and even Guy of collusion. The novel’s final twist: the witches are not trying to steal her newborn; rather, Rosemary has been tricked into giving birth to the antichrist.
The novel roots its horror in an older Catholic demonology. By the '60s, mainstream American Catholicism only infrequently traded in explicit demonological discourse. Catholic churches were far more likely thinking about how they might engage their increasingly mainstream congregations. Vatican II, for example, allowed for English-language masses to replace their Latinate antecedents; and the '60s saw Catholicism flirting with the integration of folk and rock into their services for the first time, in order to better reach younger Americans. Catholic adherents, now second- and third-generation Americans, were moving from urban, religiously defined neighborhoods to suburbs admixing Protestants, Catholics, and Jews -- and from working-class and immigrant financial limitations to middle-class affluence.
This geographic rearrangement of Catholic congregations was matched by an increasing rift between ritual and doctrinal adherence within congregants. American Catholics were likely to attend service regularly but they were less likely to follow all of the doctrinal prescriptions of the Church. Younger Catholics, for example, might hear their priest’s -- or Pope's -- admonishment of birth control and still obtain the pill following its 1960 release. As Patrick Allitt explains, “When [in 1968] the pope told [American Catholics] to carry on as before… they demurred and began using contraceptives anyway, acting on what they hoped the letter would say rather than on what it did say” (110).
All of these changes are almost prophetically articulated in the thesis of Will Herberg’s 1955 book, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, which downplays the differences between the “Judeo-Christian” religions -- the term originates with Herberg -- and instead emphasizes their common service in the development of a distinctly American “civic religion” (89). Though published a decade earlier, Herberg identified the growing trend in which an identification with American culture broadly was beginning to outweigh particular religious identification.
Rosemary’s Baby capitalizes on the postwar moment’s slippage between the religious and the secular by reintroducing both the demonological and the counter-cultural back into a secularized Catholic moment. Rosemary, after all, is a deft embodiment of the secularized Catholic. Growing up in the Catholic church (and catholic school), she has since held on to some elements of Catholicism and has discarded others: she feels guilt, for instance, for not regularly attending mass; and she marries Guy, a non-Catholic; but she still eagerly follows news of the Pope’s upcoming visit to New York City. Further, Rosemary is fully integrated into mainstream American mass culture. In fact, Rosemary is most frequently signified in the novel by her acclimation to the consumer practices of a mass -- if affluent, middle-class -- culture. She orders her clothes from catalogues, uses pages from magazines as inspiration for her own home design, and peruses popular party guides when she throws her own.
In place of the harmonious relationship between the religious and the secular in postwar American mainstream culture, the novel presents the cult and the “mass cult” in diametric opposition. Indeed, if on first read the novel appears to place as its central conflict the struggle between freedom and control (i.e., the coven’s “plot”), Rosemary’s near-full imbrication into postwar popular culture -- the television, for instance, is always playing -- reframes the question from whether Rosemary will get free to who gets to control Rosemary. On the one hand, the coven’s doctor forbids her from taking the popular, FDA-approved pregnancy pills (instead Minnie will bring her a home-made concoction to drink every morning), from reading any pregnancy magazines, or from discussing her pregnancy with any family or friends who have had children. On the other hand, mass-produced products appear to be warning Rosemary over the course of the novel about the conspiracy surrounding her: while painting, she turns to see Guy holding a “Red Devil” paint can, a commercial playing in the background sounds as though it's speaking directly to her circumstances (90); and, in a particularly famous sequence, Rosemary is able to untangle an anagram through the aid of a wildly popular consumer commodity: Scrabble.
As such, Rosemary's Baby fits snuggly alongside Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train or John Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio” as a postwar text preoccupied with questions of the norm and the exception, and of the boundaries between the exceptional (i.e., the artist or genius or exceedingly wealthy) and the deviant. In Levin, it's the exception that's treated with the utmost suspicion. Rosemary and Guy choose the Bramford apartment -- the coven’s home -- because of its age, character, and singularity; the novel’s plot hinges on Guy’s desire to be a “distinguished” actor; and Rosemary accepts the tannis root pendant -- a bewitched charm -- because it's a one-of-a-kind family heirloom. The novel’s “deviants”, the witches, are another sort of mainstream exception: in the coven’s age and their hyperbolic embodiment of the religiously demonological, they are a hangover of sorts of the urban immigrant religious community largely diminished through suburban white flight and urban gentrification. The “horror” of the novel is that the coven wins, but the fact that the novel’s horror works at least in part through the threat of being abnormal suggests that the cultural and market forces that shape the novel form a “plot” of their own, aiming to coerce or scare the reader into the safety of mainstream and mass-produced popular culture.
Son of Rosemary
In his new afterword to the 2003 edition of Rosemary’s Baby, Levin makes two claims: first that the film “inspired Exorcists and Omens and lots of et ceteras” (308); and second that Levin and Rosemary's Baby are in some part responsible for the late 20th-century resurgence of Christian fundamentalism. The first claim is fair enough: the book was a bestseller and the film a hit with audiences, critics, and the Academy and would surely inspire studios to capitalize on the zeitgeist. (Levin does, however, hyperbolize the backlash to the film: The Legion of Decency did condemn the film, though it condemned 16 other films that year, too; and his anecdote of a woman crying “Blasphemy!” after a New York preview pales in comparison to the reactions that would greet The Exorcist five years later, 308.)
His second claim, however, is merely bizarre and smacks of an author attributing to themselves a cultural (and historical and global) importance that far outsizes their actual cultural contribution. To reason late 20th-century Christian fundamentalism as an effect of Levin’s second novel is downright amnesiac in its ignorance of postwar Christian fundamentalist radio and television culture and to the mid-century’s mobilized and growing, if separatist, fundamentalist congregations, all predating Rosemary. Still, the sentiment betrays a significant shift in the mainstream religious imaginary: between 1967 and 1997 the devil is dislocated from Catholic mythology and affixed instead to Christian fundamentalism. Moving from the original novel’s afterword to the front matter of the sequel makes this transition explicit: the epigraph on the page preceding the sequel’s title page is a quotation from Billy Graham on the “malevolent spiritual power” of Satan.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way: Son of Rosemary is bad. Like bad bad. As you read the novel, you get the sense that Levin himself is not terribly interested in what he's writing. Plot points are introduced and abandoned, its tone veers wildly (e.g., jokes are frequently cracked during scenes that attempt to build suspense or horror), the relationship between Rosemary and her son is explicitly (at times, graphically) Oedipal, and the novel recycles every single story beat from the original: another new haircut, another Christmas shopping scene, a new anagram to puzzle out, a new Scrabble board, another character pretends to leave town, another friend murdered by a Satanic organization, tannis root returns, as do the coven’s chants. It's best, in other words, to go into Son of Rosemary with both the lowest of expectations and the steely refusal to allow the sequel to tarnish one’s enjoyment of the original.
If nothing else, this recycling of the original novel’s elements throws the sequel’s fundamentalism into sharp relief. (From here on out, I will refer to Christian fundamentalism simply as fundamentalism.) Rosemary's Baby’s imagining of the rift between secularism and Catholicism is replaced by an alliance between Satanism and global politics, whose collusion is by 1997, a well-known piece of popular fundamentalist eschatology. That is to say, Son of Rosemary is a distinctly obvious gloss on Tim Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ Left Behind series, which began its run in 1995. In that series, the rapture occurs, and a panicked and devastated world is united under the charismatic authority of the antichrist, posing as Nicolae Carpathia, a Romanian political figure. Carpathia institutes the “Global Community”, an oversized global power that attempts to destroy all remaining Christians on Earth.
The narrative of the antichrist’s takeover of the post-raptured Earth precedes Lahaye and Jenkin’s novels. It was previously popularized by Hal Lindsey’s 1970 bestselling nonfiction book, The Late, Great Planet Earth, and Donald Thompson’s 1973 film, A Thief in the Night (the latter of which coincidentally takes as its narrative template Jack Finney’s aforementioned The Body Snatchers). Lindsey’s book reads then-current-day events through prophetic passages of the Bible and, in doing so, identified within '70s global politics signs of the end times; that is, the Christian rapture followed by the antichrist’s rule on Earth. Thompson’s film even more specifically identifies the vehicle by which the Antichrist comes to power: the UN.
Son of Rosemary maintains the same dispensational end-times narrative. The novel opens with Rosemary awakening from a coma in November of 1999, the day the last of the original coven members dies, the death of the coven members the novel’s rapture-like twist. The coven had placed Rosemary in a permanent coma in 1972, when they learned that she planned to flee with her toddler son, Andy (yes, that son). Rosemary wakes to find that Andy has grown and become a global phenomenon, uniting the world through his philanthropic acts and his arresting charisma. Rosemary joins his organization, aiding him as she can, while resisting his disturbing advances and attempting to determine which “half” of Andy has won out, whether he really is a good philanthropist or whether this is all a demonic plot.
The answer is, of course, the latter. Satan has disguised himself as Andy’s close advisor -- and has begun courting Rosemary -- though Andy has actively tried to resist his demonic destiny. Regardless, the plot is successful: Andy’s foundation makes and distributes candles to be lit by every human in the world at the moment of the new year, 2000. Evading the question of time zones, the climax ends with the lit candles emitting a toxic gas that destroys humanity.
Son of Rosemary, then, not only substitutes Catholicism for Christian fundamentalism but inverts its horror scenario: whereas the original finds horror in the prospect of alienation from mainstream culture, the sequel finds horror in the prospect of the galvanizing force that mobilizes all culture into a monolithic mainstream. (Although, in another echo of the original, the demonic plot finds itself opposed to the mass market in one sense: Andy’s candles are made through his foundation; by contrast, the mass-produced Tiffany & Co. products that Andy purchases betray him, becoming functional clues that alert Rosemary to Andy’s connection to the murder of one of his employees.)
The novel, however, does not end here. Humanity dying, the devil offers Rosemary an escape from the poison: submit to him and live forever. She agrees and takes a literal elevator to Hell before waking up again in 1965, on the morning of another day of apartment hunting with Guy. The accumulative plots of both books was nothing more than a bad dream. Rosemary and Guy have not yet moved into the Bram -- in fact, she learns that the Bram doesn't even exist -- and they are instead offered the chance to live in an apartment in the Dakota -- the building off of which Levin based the Bram in the original novel. Relieved as Rosemary is to be in these surroundings, she doesn't shake her unease before the novel closes. It ends instead with the ambiguous line, “She looked ahead” (255).
And so the sequel ends with a return, and revision, to the original. The 1967 original looked backwards, set as it is in 1965 and 1966, and concerning as it does the return of an antiquated demonological sensibility. The 1997 Son of Rosemary by contrast looks forward, eyeing the roughly two months leading up to the new millennium. In this way, the novel embodies an evangelical anticipatory disposition. The novel’s end, its return to the past, seemingly signifies Rosemary’s own conversion to this disposition, studying her surroundings for signs of the end times. Like Hal Lindsey, comparing current events to Biblical prophecy, the novel ends with Rosemary comparing the Dakota against the Bram and, we assume, wondering if the Dakota is close enough to the Bram to confirm her end-times nightmare. In its recycling (and re-cycling back to the opening of the first novel), Levin revises his original novel’s Catholic horror into a fundamentalist eschatological one.
Allitt, Patrick Religion in America Since 1945: A History. NY: Columbia University Press, 2003.
Herberg, Will. Protestant Catholic Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.
Levin, Ira. Rosemary’s Baby. NY: New American Library, 2003.
-- Son of Rosemary. NY: Pegasus Books, 2010.
Samuel Bednarchik is a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studying late 20th-century American literature. His research interests include Post45 American literature, 20th-century American political and economic history, and American popular religion.