Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Ira Levin has populated the realms of literature with some of the most original classics it has seen from the fifties to the end of the seventies, and Rosemary’s Baby is perhaps his best-known work, at least among horror aficionados. The story follows the titular Rosemary and her husband Guy Woodhouse as they move into an ominous apartment building where an elderly couple begins to take an unusual and uncomfortable interest in their lives.
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Ira Levin Creates a Timeless Classic
Never have people become so close yet isolated from each other as when they invented apartment buildings. Hundreds, if not thousands souls meshing together in one place, few of them having any real ties or connections to each other. As such, they’re the perfect setting for suspicions to fester; few are the people who haven’t wondered what their neighbours do behind closed doors. It’s a setting most notably used to its full potential in Ira Levin‘s bestseller of the 1960s, Rosemary’s Baby.
The story, which was also turned into multiple silver screen adaptations, begins by introducing us to the titular Rosemary Woodhouse, and her husband Guy. They are a young couple full of hopes and ambitions, moving into a building with a bit of a sinister reputation, populated mostly by the elderly. Not to be defeated by superstitious rumours, they are more than confident they’ve found the right home to start a family.
Not long after their arrival Roman and Minnie Castavet show up on their doorstep, welcoming them to the building as their new neighbours. Their nosiness and eccentricity puts Rosemary on guard, making her think it’s best to put some distance between them and her family. However, their husband Guy takes a shine to them despite it all, even the weird noises they keep hearing from time to time.
Soon after befriending them, Guy lands himself a fantastic role in a Broadway production, and Rosemary becomes pregnant. It seems like their ideal life has finally become reality, if only not for the Castavets who are becoming increasingly bothersome and imposing with their newfound interest in her well-being.
Slowly but surely, Rosemary becomes sickened by the people around her and the world she has found herself in, isolated from anyone who might offer her a helping hand. Piecing together the clues one by one, she comes to realize the Castavets might not be who they seem, and that a very real danger lurks not only over her, but her unborn child as well.
The Horror of Vulnerability in Rosemary’s Baby
In modern times, whether we look at books, movies or even video-games, the horror genre has become defined by a single purpose: to scare its consumer. However, the reality of the situation is that most people learn the horrors of real life trump those of fiction to such an extent that it’s not really possible to be scared by the latter anymore.
I believe the horror genre ought to be about providing the reader with the opportunity to experience various negative emotions and explore unsavoury themes with the added benefit of detachment. It allows us to see what’s down the dark well while hanging from an unbreakable safety rope. I believe this approach is better-reflected in novels of the past, and I dare say Rosemary’s Baby is one of the better examples.
In and of itself, the plot doesn’t try to terrify the reader and keep them awake at night. On the contrary, it seeks to explore the themes of vulnerability and total helplessness by following Rosemary’s inevitable descent to a tragic conclusion. As far as I see it, the novel’s connection with real-life issues makes it infinitely more poignant and relatable than many of its peers.
Rosemary herself isn’t what you’d call the modern heroine, but rather, a more or less average young woman who remains somewhat naive about the world around her, having seldom seen its terrible side. The further the story advances, the more clues we, the reader, are given as to the nature of what’s happening around her, and yet we are forced to watch as she obliviously wanders deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole, completely abandoned by all those supposedly out to help her.
Ira Levin has magnificently succeeded in making the protagonist’s suffering memorable in the worst ways possible. Watching a young, frail and pregnant woman, whom we instinctively want to protect, powerlessly fall prey to wrongdoers who want to simply use her to their own horrific ends is, in my opinion, what we can call true horror.
When they first appear on the scene, the Castavets almost feel like they’re comedy relief material, caricatures of overly-friendly neighbours who will occasionally show their faces around to lighten the mood. Ira Levin does a great job at using this starting point to slowly subvert our initial expectations, building the tension around them brick by brick.
As a matter of fact, I would say the plot quite heavily leans on the building of the tension and the small but increasingly worrying revelations we are given here and there. Now, let’s be honest for a second, most of us reading this book have either seen the movie, or can already divine where things are going based on our modern horror experience.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t make Rosemary’s Baby any less fascinating, because we’re still left to wonder when things will happen, how they’ll happen, and will Rosemary survive the ordeal. The slow unravelling of the accumulating mysterious occurrences is a strong enough hook in and of itself. Additionally, the ending in the book does differ somewhat from the movie, so naturally I’ll leave you to make this discovery for yourself.
In any case, back to the Castavets, it’s quite obvious the author put a lot of time and effort into making them feel as real as can be, while still preserving some unsettling characteristics, partly playing on the spreading modern fear of socializing with strangers. Whenever Rosemary interacts with them we can sense the discomfort they cause her, and I think it’s quite easy for the reader to put themselves in her shoes, largely because we’ve all met people like those.
I’m going to veer into concrete spoiler territory here, though the warning does seem a little obsolete for a novel over sixty years of age. One of the main appeal of our antagonists is just how ignorant they seem to be of what they’re doing, and how dangerous it really makes them. They are, in essence, an exploration as to what would happen if your overly-friendly next-door neighbours happened to also be Satanists hell-bent on bringing forth the Antichrist… and having the power to actually do it.
|256||Pegasus Books||May 5 2014||978-1605981109|
The Final Verdict
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin doubtlessly deserves its place among the pantheon of all-time horror classics, having inspired countless works after it and offering a solid core story centred on a vulnerably pregnant woman’s descent into madness at the hands of all those surrounding her. It explores some heartrending themes which often manifest themselves in the real world and puts on a masterclass in tension building.
Whether or not you’re familiar with the story, if you’re a horror fan and haven’t read the book yet, I highly urge you to do so. It’s one of those classic bestsellers of the 1960s we can look upon and say: “They don’t write them like this anymore.”
(August 27, 1929 – November 12, 2007)
Ira Levin was an American novelist, playwright, and songwriter of great renown, best remembered for his international bestsellers A Kiss Before Dying, Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, This Perfect Day and The Boys from Brazil. His play, Deathtrap, holds the record for the longest-running comedy thriller on Broadway, in addition to which it also earned him his second Edgar Award.