This essay is part of a Public Books capsule by Eleanor Johnson on feminism and horror.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968) remains one of the greatest horror films of all time. It is also one of the most sociological. It uses horror to explore what we now call domestic violence in a serious and sustained way. More specifically, it addresses coercive control, a form of domestic violence that is notoriously difficult to identify, assess, and prosecute. It centers not just on coercive control but, very acutely, on one important subtype of coercive control, which is reproductive coercion. And Rosemary’s Baby recognizes something particularly excruciating about this form of domestic abuse: it’s almost impossible to identify, even when it’s happening to you, or to someone close to you.
Coercive control and reproductive coercion don’t look like what we expect domestic violence to look like. They don’t necessarily involve physical battery, trips to the hospital, or calls to the police. Coercive control happens when a partner (usually but not always a man) severely limits his intimate partner (usually but not always a woman) in her basic rights, by restricting her access to her friends or family, medical care, money, children, education, information, or reality itself. Reproductive coercion happens when a man restricts a woman’s access to birth control, or forces her to engage in intercourse for the express purpose of impregnating her, without her consent. It also happens when someone—usually a man—tries to control and determine the outcome of a pregnancy. The ultimate goal of reproductive abuse and coercive control more broadly is to dehumanize, disempower, and control a domestic partner.
Rosemary’s Baby showcased these terrible ills of private domestic life decades before the terms coercive control or reproductive coercion were even twinkles in the eyes of women’s rights activists. Birth control had only recently become legally available. Abortion was illegal in every state; New York had just failed for the second time to pass even the most meager of abortion liberalization laws. Marital rape did not even exist as a legal category; until 1984, it was still, in the eyes of the law, impossible for a man to rape his own wife. Women seeking to divorce their husbands on grounds of battery would lose their claim if they retroactively condoned his abuse by having sex with him; unfortunately, when marital rape doesn’t exist as a legal category, that meant that a man could force his wife to have sex with him in order to invalidate her claim of battery. Reproductive coercion and sexual violence were thus tacitly supported by the structure of American law in the late 1960s.
In its focus on these particular and particularly insidious forms of domestic violence, Rosemary’s Baby was a story 50 years ahead of its time. Fifty-five, in fact, because the film was released on June 12, 1968—55 years ago—and family and criminal courts around the country are only now, in 2023, beginning to name, curb, and prosecute these forms of abuse.
Famously, in Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary is drugged by her conspiring husband, Guy, so that her Satanist neighbors can summon Satan to rape and impregnate her. Guy is present and lurking, creepily nude, at the ritual, watching his young and trusting wife as she’s demonically raped for the express purpose of birthing the Antichrist. Rosemary’s legs are tied down. Satan’s dark, clawlike hands rake over her abdomen as he begins to assault her. Rosemary has a moment of clarity within her drug-induced haze when she says, “This is no dream! This is really happening!” She is being raped; she knows she is being raped. Her husband has sanctioned it; her neighbors are facilitating it. Whatever supernatural horrors may arise in this film, there is a foundational domestic horror at work: Guy is a betrayer, a liar, and the facilitator of acute sexual violence toward his own wife. But as is too often the case in real-life instances of reproductive coercion, the reality is too horrible for Rosemary to hang onto, and she concludes, upon waking up, that it was, in fact, just a dream.
From that point on, once the central act of reproductive coercion is accomplished, Guy proceeds to engage in numerous other forms of coercive control. When Rosemary wakes up from the rape ritual, Guy pretends he was the one who savaged her; as she examines the claw marks on her body, he pretends he was a little drunk and rough, and offers a lukewarm apology. In pretending he was the one who scratched her, he gaslights her; he controls and delimits her perception of reality. Soon after, he begins to restrict her access to her friends, allowing her to socialize almost exclusively with her Satanist neighbors (whom she, upon waking from her “dream,” thinks are relatively regular people). Guy coerces her into accepting someone the neighbors recommend as an OBGYN, even though she herself had already found a kind, sympathetic doctor; Rosemary is not allowed to continue to see that doctor, and—surprise, surprise—it turns out the doctor Guy forces her to see is a Satanist, too. Guy also forces Rosemary to eat and drink certain things—things the neighbors prepare, and that make her dangerously ill and cause her great pain. Guy restricts Rosemary’s access to reading materials that might give her insight into her situation.
All of these behaviors—gaslighting, social restriction, restricting access to medical care, controlling what she eats or drinks, controlling what she reads or what media she consumes—are part of what more liberal state laws on domestic violence now recognize as coercive control. These are behaviors that fit into what the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists now recognizes as reproductive coercion: trying to control and determine the outcome of a pregnancy.
Now recognizes. For about the past decade.
The film’s horror emanated not really from the Satanist neighbors, but from Guy, who betrayed, deceived, entrapped, and tortured her.
Rosemary’s Baby stages a sociopathic intimate conduct for which there was no vocabulary at the time—not medical, not legal—and for which there was therefore neither any medical nor legal avenue toward redress. It stages that sociopathic conduct in a way that is, itself, hard to pin down and identify. After all, it’s not Guy who sexually violates Rosemary; it’s Satan, so the locus of evil is somewhat off-loaded from Guy to a demon. And the film ambiguates our sense of whether the rape scene really happened in the first place—Rosemary dispels the idea from her mind the morning after. Reflecting this ambiguity, many early reviews suggested that Rosemary had delusionally concocted the whole thing, and that none of her experience was real—a reading which, of course, rather brutally reinforces the gaslighting to which Guy subjects Rosemary in the film. Put provocatively, the reviewers, in choosing to read Rosemary as crazy and not as a victim, become Guys in their own right, refusing to admit and acknowledge the torture to which Rosemary is subjected.
One reviewer, Kathleen Carroll, registered the central horror of the film was interpersonal betrayals, and she very clearly saw Mia Farrow’s entrapment and dehumanization within that system of interpersonal betrayal.
Miss Farrow … reminds one of a fawn in captivity. What she does so remarkably well is draw sympathy to Rosemary who is herself a captive fawn, a totally helpless heroine surrounded by evil on all sides with no way out. Everyone in the audience will want desperately to help her.1
To Carroll, the film is not just a supernatural horror story about witches and Satanists. In fact, it isn’t primarily a supernatural horror story: instead, it’s an empathogenic story about female helplessness, where the woman in question is surrounded by an enclave of domestic malefactors. Carroll does not talk about the “evil” directly as sexual, or as wife-battery, but she sees Rosemary as “a captive fawn,” surrounded by evil on all sides. What Carroll responds to is the then-unnameable horror of reproductive coercion and coercive control.
And she is not the only person who read the film this way—although she may be the only mainstream reviewer. I have interviewed several women who saw Rosemary’s Baby in theaters when it first came out. Some of them were domestic violence survivors by the time they saw the film; others were not. When asked, “What did you think was scary about Rosemary’s Baby when you first saw it?”, they responded that Rosemary’s entrapment and powerlessness, as well as Guy’s betrayal of her and willingness to trick her, manipulate her, cause her to be raped, and hurt her were, by far, the scariest parts of the film. The Satanism didn’t bother these viewers much. They registered the occult elements of the film, but saw its representation of reproductive coercion and coercive control as central to what was horrifying. They perceived that the film’s horror emanated not really from the Satanist neighbors, but from Guy, who betrayed, deceived, entrapped, and tortured her.
What these viewers recognized is that, without Guy’s coercive control of Rosemary, there would be no Satanic rape. Without the rape, there would be no Satanic baby. The horror of Rosemary’s Baby is to show how terrifying, unimaginable supernatural horror piggy-backs on the routine, quotidian, mundane reality of domestic abuse. Rosemary’s Baby recognizes that coercive male behaviors—gaslighting, psychological control, social isolation, restriction of movement and knowledge, sexual control, reproductive violence—are what spawn evil in the world; it literalizes that idea through the Satanic baby.
Rosemary’s Baby goes further even than this in its exploration of domestic violence, by digging into the male psychology that commits it. Indeed, the film and the novel on which it’s based are very clear about why Guy betrays and dehumanizes Rosemary. Guy is a struggling actor. He makes most of his money doing commercials, but he wants to be a leading man. He wants the big parts, but he doesn’t get them. It’s Guy’s sense of inferiority that makes him likely to be an abuser. The Satanist neighbor flatters Guy: “You have a most interesting inner quality, Guy. It appears in your television work too. It should take you a long way indeed; provided, of course, that you get those initial ‘breaks.’” Rosemary openly acknowledges how limited Guy’s roles have been. Guy, on some level, wants revenge on Rosemary; he wants vindication as a man, as a thespian. The wounded male ego is the fertile ground into which the metaphorical seed of Satanism is planted; the vulnerable female body is the fertile ground into which, then, the literal seed of Satan is planted.
Grounding this idea visually, Guy takes a book he finds Rosemary reading—called All of Them Witches—to gain insight into her situation, and places it high up on a bookshelf, out of Rosemary’s reach. Close up, we can see that the book touches two and only two other books on the shelf, which it is placed horizontally on top of. The books are Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, volumes one and two. This is not in the novel. Polanski—a case study in the abusive sexual behavior of the human male—is highlighting for us the psychology of the domestic abuser in this scene. A psychology he knows all too well, perhaps even for his own comfort, and seems at pains in this film to put on full display. The statement made by the visual reference to Kinsey is clear: Guy, whose very name makes him a stand-in for any and all guys, is coercively controlling his wife because the pillar of his own psyche is his sexual identity, his sexual power, and it has been traduced somehow by Rosemary’s lack of faith in him. Polanski’s suggestion, with the juxtaposition of the three books, is that the demonic abuse to which Rosemary is subjected has at its root something dark and malevolent in the male sexual mind.
Fifty-five years after the film’s release, in the wake of the reversal of Roe, and the attendant abject loss of legal and social ground that women face in the United States, I recommend Rosemary’s Baby as a homework assignment for the summer. Watch the film. Feel Rosemary’s agony. Feel how her reality is slowly stripped away from her, along with her right to choose any kind of real reproductive self-determination. Feel along with her how little power she has to combat Guy’s sadistic machinations against her—machinations she can’t fight, in large part because she can’t see them or name them, even though she certainly can feel their repercussions in her mind and her body.
Because this is the power of horror films, great ones, anyway: to make us feel vulnerable in parallel with someone else, feel their abject terror, their abjection, their subjection to malign forces they can barely name and certainly can’t control. So go feel horror with Rosemary this summer. And then come back to school or come back to work and fight for women’s rights like your life depends on it. Because it does.
- Kathleen Carroll, “Rosemary’s Baby is horribly frightening,” New York Daily News, June 13, 1968. ↩