Rosemary’s Baby: Classical Horror in an Era of Desensitization
Ask any writer, and they’ll tell you that one of the most important things you can do is read. It helps you decompress, it allows you to get those creative juices flowing, it can even serve as a source of inspiration (not fan-fic or plagiarism, mind you, but it can become a springboard for new ideas). Consuming new content, in general, serves that purpose.
With that in mind, I’ve recently been prowling the shelves of Barnes & Noble (still love the brick and mortar), looking for something that would catch my eye. Well, my eye came to rest on Rosemary’s Baby.
Like a lot of people, I’d heard of it. I knew it had started life as a book, then there had been a movie adaptation. I’d heard that both were terrifying and seminal works in the horror genre. So I figured, ‘What the hell,’ and picked it up.
It’s a good book, without a doubt. It’s well-written, there are some really tense moments, and I feel like it’s deserved the praise that’s been heaped on it down the years.
But I was never scared.
That seems strange to say, but it’s the God’s-honest truth.
I kept thinking about it in the days and weeks after I closed it, and I came to the sad conclusion that I’d been desensitized. Slow-burn horror has always been my favorite kind (see my post on H.P. Lovecraft), and it’s that style that I try to emulate wherever I can. Creeping dread has always been preferable to cheap jump scares in my mind.
The unfortunate reality is that, having been born in the era that I was, the jump-scare is all I’ve ever really known. Scenes (in print and on the silver screen) played out for shock value, grotesque body horror, loud noises and single-frame flashes, endless fucking torture porn (how the fuck is the Saw franchise still going? The first one was good, but all the subsequent ones missed the point entirely).
As a side note: Does that stupid green filter those kinds of movies drench over the camera lens make anyone else nauseous, or is it just me?
The slow-burn, as exemplified by works like Rosemary’s Baby, just can’t compete with that kind of sensory overload. And that sucks.
On paper (haha), it should be absolutely terrifying. A young woman is forced to become the unwilling mother of the Antichrist. She is isolated, gaslighted, drugged, raped, and surrounded by a cult of Satan-worshippers that only care about the demon spawn growing in her womb. Laid out, it has all the makings of a piece of horror that should’ve stayed with me long after I’d finished.
Instead, I found myself wondering if a chainsaw-wielding lunatic wearing a flesh mask in any given scene would’ve spiced things up a bit. Maybe if they were cannibals in addition to being Satanists it might’ve gotten my heartrate pumping a little quicker. What if the elevator doors opened and a tidal wave of blood washed out of them?
I’m being facetious of course, but that’s where the bar has been set, because horror, across all forms of media, has come to prioritize the grotesque as a method to unsettle, as opposed to the plot or the characters.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for some good, old-fashioned blood and guts. John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of my favorite horror movies, and I find Se7en to be a masterclass in the genre. I still hold Jaws as one of the most effective thrillers of all time. The thing about those movies, though, is that they understood when to hold 'em and when to show 'em (Jaws notwithstanding -- the only reason that movie came out as good as it did is because they couldn’t get the stupid shark to work for more than five minutes at a shot).
Even The Exorcist, the poster child for grotesquerie, is comparatively tame when stood next to the schlock that’s slapped across our faces when we watch movies like Hostel (don’t, it’s terrible) or The Human Centipede (just don’t).
Somewhere along the line, people started to think that crafting a piece of horror meant nothing more than causing disgust or startling the reader/viewer, and I don’t think there’s any going back.
What was once a terrifying piece of well-crafted fiction in Rosemary’s Baby has become nothing more than a museum piece in the face of the modern definition of horror.
It’s unfortunate that this is where we’ve wound up: A cornerstone genre in the realm of fiction, dragged through the muck and spat out by an uncaring world that will sacrifice plot, character, setting, and acting in exchange for a few seconds of a 140 BPM heartrate.