This paper will explore the relationship between horror films and the religious cultures in which they are created and viewed. Horror films, such as Rosemary's Baby, have always been stuffed with religion and the most frightening films are often those with the most religious components. This leads to two questions: "What do we fear?" and "Why religion?" Douglas Cowan argues that films can only frighten us if they tap into "sociophobics," fears that are culturally specific and socially constructed. In fact, the horror genre relies heavily on "cultural shorthand," which is the product of sociophobics. From here, this paper will investigate Rosemary's Baby in which the element of horror arises through religious fears. This will bring us closer to understanding why this film is as frightening as many people find it and will help us reveal deeply held ideas about religion.
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Several people have argued, for example, that Rosemary's Baby frightens us because it plays on a subconscious fear of the power of woman, children, the counter-culture, and the devil. For instance, Rosemary's Baby points to a very real fear of being possessed, where the tension between society and the church reinforces the terrors of everyday life. If we acknowledge that films, like Rosemary's Baby, actually do appeal to widespread religious fears than we must also recognize that religion and the supernatural remain a powerful cultural force.
To begin, there are six specific religious sociophobics. The first is the fear of change in the sacred order. Rebellion from the Christian faith is a theme that emerges throughout the movie. The film begins with Rosemary and her struggling actor husband Guy Woodhouse looking for an apartment in New York City. The couple finds a flat in the Bramford, a building with a history of mysterious events which Rosemary soon witnesses when a neighbour commits suicide. Briefly after their move, the Woodhouses become close to their elderly neighbours, the Castevets, however, Rosemary is somewhat put off by the eccentric couple. One evening, Mrs. Castevet brought Rosemary a dessert that caused her to become sick, pass out, and experience visions of being raped by a demon. Shortly thereafter, Rosemary discovered she was pregnant and starts experiencing startling psychological and physical changes, for which doctors had no explanation, again reinforcing the fear of change.
The second is the fear of the uncertainty of sacred space.Engaging the audience's sympathy, we warm to Rosemary as an ordinary young woman, in love with her husband, intimidated by her neighbours and frightened by the inexplicable changes taking place in her body as her much longed-for pregnancy proceeds. Many of her fears reflect typical concerns of the day. In the 1960s, the fear of giving birth to a deformed, 'monstrous' baby was all too real. So although Rosemary's obstetrician Dr Sapirstein assured her that the herbal drinks he recommended are 'fresher, safer and more vitamin rich than any pills on the market', the audience shares Rosemary's skepticism about their mysterious, unnamed ingredients and the unknown world she now lives in. Many aspects of disorientation are employed here, as a young couple embarked on the birth of their first child in new surroundings, known for their history of death and witchcraft. Overall, there is no greater fear than to live in a world where one can not be sure of anything.
The next sociophobic is the fear of death, of dying badly, and not remaining dead. For example, in the film the fear of being invaded and taken over by a supernatural force is relevant, as one could see that the Devil had taken over her body and mind. Her initial lack of self-confidence quickly turned into a complete loss of identity, where her pregnancy dramatically altered her appearance and thoughts until she is barely able to recognize herself, thus emphasizing what can happen if one loses control, yet does not die. Emphasizing the fear of dying badly and not remaining dead; the dangers and uncertainties associated with strange behaviours and events such as when a woman Rosemary met in the washroom suddenly died a mysterious death shock the audience. Additionally, Rosemary all of a sudden had strange dreams and heard bizarre noises, which stressed the fear of death; as Guy became increasingly distant, as if she was dead to him.
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Furthermore, when returning home one night, Rosemary and Guy are confronted with a bloody, unexpected scene outside their apartment building. A woman named Terry, who had been living with the Castevets had suicidally jumped from a window to her gruesome death on the street. Out of the darkness came the two elderly neighbours, who claimed Terry's death was inevitable since she was deeply depressed. However the audience is convinced that Terry was the first woman chosen to bear the devil's child yet she was proved unsuitable, therefore they either killed her or placed a spell on her to commit suicide. Accordingly, the audience is left with fearful questions about life and death; like what really happened to the young girl who lived with the peculiar Castevets and why does Rosemary look so sick when a mother-to-be should be glowing with health?
In addition, the fear of supernatural evil, such as the belief of a satanic conspiracy within the church has been "a staple of anti-Christian propaganda" in Rosemary's Baby. The most frightening aspect of Rosemary's pregnancy was the way in which the Devil forced her to surrender control of her own body, surely the ultimate relinquishment of power. As her pregnancy advances, she undergoes terrifying physical and mental changes, which she does not understand and cannot prevent. The film also explores the dangers of the dissolution of reality and fantasy. Unable to accept a supernatural explanation for events, Rosemary is paralyzed by fear, trapped within her own pain and hysteria. Furthermore, to increase the sense of dissolving boundaries between supernatural forces, throughout the film, Polanski continually juxtaposed eerie images with ordinary ones; such as the bizarre chanting which echoes through the flowery wallpaper covering the partition between the neighbours apartments or Rosemary's raw liver binge, reflected in the side of the toaster.
Another major sociophobic is the fear of the flesh and the powerlessness of religion. The fact that it is Rosemary herself who is ultimately responsible for bringing evil into the world can be seen as reflecting a deep-seated fear of woman and her reproductive functions. The womb is seen as a terrible black hole capable of producing hideous, inhuman life. From classical to Renaissance times the uterus was frequently drawn with horns to demonstrate its supposed association with the devil. Thus, the question of whether God triumphs in the end is left open, as the Anti-Christ never reveals itself and lives on, reinforcing the church's weaknesses. Additionally, the question the film poses is the very one that Rosemary sees splashed across the cover of Time magazine in Dr Sapirstein's waiting room: 'Is God dead?'
Last, the fear to fanaticism and the power of religion is seen through Rosemary's abandonment of religion and the consequences cast upon her. Rosemary's refusal to recognize the supernatural reflects a concern common to horror films of the period: that modern society has closed its mind to spiritual and religious issues. From Rosemary's Baby we see that this is destructive, dangerous and potentially fatal. Rosemary is a Catholic, experiencing guilt regarding her religion and practicing on a consistent basis. Furthermore, when asked by the Castavets if Rosemary was religious, her response is flustered and confused: 'Oh, no, no,' she laughed nervously. 'I was brought up a Catholic but now I'm not sure.' As usual, she was merely reflecting the views of those around her, saying what she thought people wanted to hear. Yet it is this attitude, the feeling that faith is something to be disowned as embarrassing, that allowed the devil a doorway in to her life. Thus, we too fear Rosemary's struggle to believe in religion and modern skepticism about the supernatural: that pure Satanic evil does exist, and is residing next door. Through these devices, Rosemary's abandonment of religion hints to the preconditions of Satan's rebirth. Thus, making Rosemary's Baby an informative enterprise, preaching that we are all damned if we stop going to church on Sunday.
Ultimately, The Exorcist is fascinating for what it says about the relationship between religion and horror. Through the character of Rosemary, and more explicitly, through her femininity, the film explores the way in which individuals are rendered powerless by the regulatory structures of modern society, expressing, particularly through Rosemary's lack of control over her life and even her own body, common anxieties about privacy and autonomy. It is this feeling of uncertainty, when the distinction between imagination and reality is destroyed, that lies at the heart of horror, reflecting mankind's deepest fears and insecurities about his place in the world. Rosemary's Baby masterfully recreates this moment of terror and suspense, when fact and fantasy become indistinguishable from each other, so that, like Rosemary, we do not know whether this is really happening, or whether her neighbours are really witches or she is in fact out of her mind. Again, reflecting current fears that, by coercing us into new modes of living, external forces such as the media or supernatural forces are divorcing us from our 'real' selves. In conclusion, Rosemary's Baby taps into one of society's greatest fears: that no matter how hard we try to lead good lives, evil is out there, waiting to pounce.
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