By: H. B. Gardner
Note: All passages in purple are direct quotes from the novel ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ by Ira Levin.
Rosemary’s Baby is perhaps the most positive Satanic book (and film) ever made. Certainly there will be die-hard fans of Joris-Karl Huysmans who insist that his 1891 novel Là-bas (translated as Down There or The Damned) is the ultimate piece of Satanic literature; however, it’s confused philosophical digressions, not to mention it’s darker and more grotesque passages, keep it far from the field of the positive. Rosemary’s Baby, both as a novel penned by author Ira Levin and as a hit film directed by Roman Polanski, works on an entirely different level from Huysmans’ masterpiece of decadent diabolism. A level so close to our own, in fact, that we cannot help but be pulled into the story and accept that which must be considered by devout Christians to be the ultimate unacceptable thing – to purely love the spawn of Satan – the Antichrist incarnate. The other choice which presents itself in this thriller is suicide – a grave matter – and a mortal sin that has been judged unpardonable in the past.
We are left wondering at the end of the story. We wonder if it is indeed a happy ending or a terrifying one. By the end of Rosemary’s Baby some people’s deeply held beliefs are called into question regarding: the Devil’s power, Is God dead? and, if you were Rosemary Woodhouse, a sense of what would you do? We must examine and consider our reaction to the final scene where Satan’s power is fully revealed in the apparent absence of any God. A child has been birthed who is destined to “overthrow the mighty and lay waste their temples! ….redeem the despised and wreak vengeance in the name of the burned and the tortured!” A true ‘Mother’s Love’ is certainly the purest kind of love to be found on Earth but what to do in this case?! We are left wondering – ‘Wouldn’t it be better if she throws the baby out the window and jumps out after it?’ as is suggested in the novel. Or, we might choose to look at it differently. After suspecting through much of the tale that the baby was in mortal danger from the coven, ‘Isn’t it marvelous that the baby is not only safe at the end but fiercely adored?’
Sister Light, Sister Dark
In the story we (“we”are Rosemary – for the entire story is from her perspective) meet (Theresa) Terry Gionoffrio, a former drug addict with a sketchy past whose life has been turned around by a nice old couple, the Castevets, who in the way of the Good Samaritan (in a parable told by Jesus in the Book of Luke) have literally picked Terry up off the sidewalk, brought her home with them, and are bringing her back to full health and (in the novel) even planning on putting her through secretarial school – giving her the promise of a second chance, a new future. But their home is the Bramford, a dark gothic apartment house on Manhattan’s upper West side with an even sketchier past than Terry’s. For over a hundred years all manner of scandals and crimes have accumulated within it’s darkly woven texture: suicide, murder, cannibalism, diabolism… But the Castevets seem kindly enough, “like real grandparents” as Terry says.
“I was starving and on dope and doing a lot of other things that I’m so ashamed of I could throw up just thinking about them. And Mr and Mrs Castevet completely rehabilitated me. They got me off the H, the dope, and got food into me and clean clothes on me, and now nothing is too good for me as far as their concerned. They give me all kinds of health food and vitamins, they even have a doctor come give me regular check-ups! It’s because their childless. I’m like the daughter they never had, you know?”
Terry says that at first she suspected the Castevets had some kind of ulterior motive, “a sex thing” he, or she, or they would want her to do. “But they’ve really been like real grandparents. Nothing like that.” It must have broken her heart when the revelation came that they actually did indeed want her for a “sex thing,” just not in the way anybody could have possibly imagined.
Rosemary and Terry meet in the Bramford’s gloomy basement where, as we learn early on from our friend Hutch, that “a dead baby wrapped in newspaper had not so long ago been found. Whose baby had it been, and how had it died? Who had found it? Had the person who left it been caught and punished?” She considers researching the incident “but that would have made it more real, more dreadful than it already was. To know the spot where the baby had lain, to have perhaps to walk past it on the way to the laundry room and again on the way back to the elevator, would have been unbearable. Partial ignorance, she decided, was partial bliss.”
A more appropriate meeting place could not be devised for these two women who each live “in partial ignorance and partial bliss.” The basement, being underground, is the womb – tomb of the “Black Bramford”. It is the location of a horrendous discovery “not so long ago”of a dead infant. Rosemary and Terry meet at the nefarious scene where a dead baby was discovered; a strange yet subtle twist involving the fates of these two women. The Bramford’s basement laundry facilities is a witches’ crossroads of devouring death; the dark steamy maw of the Dark Mother who gives birth to, and devours, her young. Were this story a Grimm’s fairy tale we could just as easily imagine the meeting of the relatively innocent pig-tailed Rosemary and the more worldly-experienced Terry taking place in some deep dark forest, at a crossroads where criminals are hanged, the unquiet dead are buried, and necromantic rituals take place in the flickering light of black candles made from the fat of unbaptized babes. They meet in the basement of the spooky, gothic witches’ mansion. The basement which is also, of course, the subconscious – where the monsters live. With it’s “steamy brick walls” it is the Bramford’s bowels, a moist womb. A gestation place for all evil conceptions. As Terry proudly exhibits her lovely, yet foul-smelling, gift from the Castevets, the umbilical threads of Fate are rewoven by the hand of Satan between these two women.
With Rosemary and Terry we are reminded of a pair of women that occur as a choice in many hero journey myths. Or, as card number six ‘VI The Lovers’ on the Marseille style Tarot card. The Dark Woman represents Vice, the Light Woman represents Virtue. Sister Dark and Sister Light – each represent a temptation. The somewhat exotic, brunette Terry – with her history of illicit sex, prostitution, and drugs; and fair, strawberry blond, girlishly pig-tailed Rosemary – the good Catholic school girl from Omaha, Nebraska. In the novel we learn (Minnie’s voice coming from the nun in the dream on the night of Terry’s suicide): “All she has to be is young, healthy and not a virgin. She doesn’t have to be a no-good drug-addict whore out of the gutter.” Very simple qualifications for the required candidate the Castevets need. Terry has been staying with the Castevets for a few months. Has Terry inquired about their taste in art? Or have they removed their paintings from the walls?
‘There aren’t many like Mr and Mrs Castevet,’ Terry said. ‘I would be dead now if it wasn’t for them. That’s an absolute fact. Dead or in jail.’
Is suicide a sin?
Not long after meeting Terry we find her dead in the street, quite literally in the gutter you might say, right after she jumps from the Castevet’s seventh story window. We are shocked and appalled at this sudden loss of such a beautiful young woman we have only just met (in the novel we learn everyone mistakes her for the actress Anna Maria Alberghetti; in the film she resembles Victoria Vetri – who actually plays the role under the name Angela Dorian). “She was a very happy girl with no reason for self destruction” mourns Minnie. We are left to wonder as the suicide note is read silently; though Minnie Castevet tells us later that the suicide note “made it crystal clear” that they (the Castevets) hadn’t “failed her in some way”.
Of course we come to learn just what Terry’s dilemma was. She was being groomed by the Castevets to become the mother of Satan’s child. Apparently the Castevets had wisely withheld this information from Terry up until and just before her suicide. Rosemary and Guy hear Minnie’s midwestern bray through the walls of their own apartment: “But it’s impossible to be a hundred percent sure!” and “If you want my opinion, we shouldn’t tell her at all; that’s my opinion!” The film hints that the suicide occurs the night after Rosemary and Guy hear the “singing and the flute and the chanting” coming through the wall from the Castevet’s neighboring apartment. The novel tells us the Castevet’s had one of their parties on the Saturday night before Rosemary meets Terry, but we are uncertain whether Terry was present. Perhaps she was, and perhaps that was when she was presented with the antique Tannis charm. On the night of the suicide Rosemary overhears the distraught voice of Minnie Castevet through her bedroom wall as she drifts into sleep. The voice seeps into her dream in the form of an angry nun from her Catholic school girl years complaining: “Sometimes I wonder how come you’re the leader of anything! If you’d’ listened to me, we wouldn’t have had to do it! We’d have been all set to go now instead of starting all over from scratch! I told you not to tell her anything in advance….. I told you she wouldn’t be open-minded! Time enough later to let her in on it.”
Terry felt compelled to choose between willingly giving birth to Satan’s child, or suicide. Which choice is the lesser, or greater, sin? This is the question that unconsciously worms it’s way into our minds.
Whenever – and under whatever circumstances – she was informed of the Castevet’s diabolical plan, Terry felt compelled to choose between submitting to having sex with Satan and giving birth to his child, or suicide. We are presented with a soteriological dilemma. Which choice is the lesser, or greater, sin? This is the question that unconsciously worms it’s way into our minds. According to the theology of the Catholic Church, death by suicide is considered a grave matter, one of the elements required for mortal sin.
A mortal sin (Latin: peccata mortalia), in Catholic theology, is a gravely wrongful act, which can lead to eternal damnation, if a person is not absolved of the sin before death (an impossibility for a successful suicide). A sin is considered to be “mortal” when its quality is such that it leads to a separation of that person from God’s saving grace.
Suicide is contrary to love for the living God. Not only is suicide seriously contrary to justice, hope, and charity, but it is forbidden by the fifth commandment: “Honour thy father and thy mother”. There is some debate among denominations and theologians, and differing opinions, as to whether suicide is, as a sin, pardonable or not.
As to why Terry didn’t just try to get out of there – we might well imagine her despair at the idea of going to seek help with her crazy story! She would have quite assuredly imagined – knowing what she surely figured out before taking her own life (remember, Terry knew poor old Mrs Gardenia who used to live next door before slipping into a coma after a falling-out with the Castevets) – that the Castevet’s coven would take immediate black magical action against her, causing her to go blind, deaf or worse! Even if the Castevet coven resisted casting any spells against Terry (Ha! As if!) she would almost immediately have been shut away in some hideous New York mental hospital (this is 1965 remember). Or, she could choose to risk going back to the streets of New York in 1965, where she would most likely end up falling back into her old ways, and end up dying in the gutter anyway. Falling or jumping as a form of suicide holds some close connection to the idea of Satan’s Fall from Heaven. Poetic, no?
He moves in mysterious ways…
“Minnie said, ‘He chose you out of all the world, Rosemary. Out of all the women in the whole world, He chose you. He brought you and Guy to your apartment there, He made that foolish what’s-her-name, Terry, made her get all scared and silly so we had to change our plans. He arranged everything that had to be arranged, ’cause He wanted you to be the mother of His only living Son.'”
We are given some valuable extra information about Rosemary’s thinking process in the final pages of the novel. After the awful revelation she is sitting with a hot cup of Lipton’s tea and thinks…
“The thing to do was kill it. Obviously. Wait…. and grab it and throw it out the window. and jump out after it. Mother Slays Baby and Self at Bramford. Save the world from God-knows-what. From Satan-knows-what.”
Yet, she struggles with the idea whether it is even human and decides “He couldn’t be all bad, he just couldn’t. Even if he was half Satan, wasn’t he half her as well, half decent, ordinary, sensible, human being?” She considers that she could exert her own good influence over him to counteract their bad one. She even considers going to a priest. “It was a problem for the Church to handle. For the Pope and all the cardinals to deal with…”
Her motherly instincts take over when she hears the baby crying and sees that Laura-Louise is rocking the baby too fast. Roman Castevet tells her to rock him. “She stood still and looked at him. ‘You’re trying to – get me to be his mother,’ she said. In the film Sydney Blackmer, excellently cast as Roman Castevet, with a suffering look of pure pathos says “Aren’t you His mother?” In the novel, her eyes then move to the window and she suggests that Roman should oil the squeaking wheels of the bassinet. It’s as though she is still deciding just what to do. Window? Wait?
“She stood still and looked at him. ‘You’re trying to – get me to be his mother,’ she said. ‘Aren’t you His mother?’ Roman said.”
As she is rocking him she begins to think his eyes, which so startled and revolted her at first, are actually “pretty in a way,” and asks what his hands are like as they are covered in black mitts. She is told that he has very tiny pearly claws and they’re covered “only so He doesn’t scratch Himself, not because His hands are unattractive.” Her anger flashes at the appearance of Dr Sapirstein but she is quick to say: “‘Not you,” to the Baby. ‘It’s not your fault. I’m angry at them, because they tricked me and lied to me. Don’t look so worried; I’m not going to hurt you.'” She loosens the neck of the baby’s gown to make Him more comfortable. Tells Him He has a very cute chin.
Indeed, it isn’t the baby’s fault. “Poor little creature.”
Rosemary insists the baby be named Andrew John rather than Roman Castevet’s favored Adrian Steven, after his devil conjuring father and his own true name. A point she refuses even to argue about. And, “He can’t wear black all the time.” She has come to fully accept her baby, with budding horns, tail and all. Naming it, claiming it. Speaking sweetly to it as the coven gathers around the black bassinet in awe at the dark miracle before them and exclaim “Hail Andrew!” and “Hail Rosemary, mother of Andrew!” and “Hail Satan!” Rosemary Woodhouse gave birth just after midnight on June twenty-fifth. Exactly half the year round from you-know-who. She has become the first Satanic Madonna and has not even joined the coven. She calls the baby ‘Mr Worry-face’. Roman assures her the baby knows she will not hurt him. She asks Roman “Then what does he look so worried for? The poor little thing. Look at him.” As a final touch, in an effort to erase what she sees as a “worried expression” from the baby’s face, she taps the silver ornament dangling above the baby – an inverted crucifix suspended by a black ribbon bound around the Christ’s ankles – and sets it swinging.
The genius of Rosemary’s Baby lies in it’s so successfully aligning the reader, or viewer, with the character of Rosemary that we too can’t help but condone her motherly instincts. With an intense interest in the subject Jules Bois wrote in 1895 in Le Satanisme et la Magie that the devil’s power lies in that “he suffers;” an idea expressed so well in Milton’s Paradise Lost we find ourselves wondering which side Milton was on. Rosemary sees her own baby “suffering” in the midst of a coven of aging witches – surrounded with black, gown uncomfortably tied, rocked carelessly and without a mother’s good sense, her own breast milk she’s been pumping out being fed to her baby in bottles when she had decided to breast feed, etc..). In Rosemary’s Baby, book or film, we find ourselves choosing life rather than the murder of an innocent baby – whatever it’s paternal, or infernal, origins may be.
By: H. B. Gardner