This week’s horror class explored religious horror. We read Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967) and watched Roman Polanski’s film adaptation (1968). This was the class’s first film assignment, kicking off a few weeks focusing mostly on film after the opening few weeks of written texts.
This week is the most reading-intensive portion of the class. I didn’t want to interrupt the structure I had set up for the first half of the course (one subgenre, theme, or topic per week) and Levin’s book is a pretty quick read, so I asked students to read the entire novel for Tuesday and then watch the movie before class on Thursday. Not everyone quite succeeded at finishing the book in time, but we still had good discussions on both days. If I teach this course again, I might change the timing on this and either spend a little more time on the novel so they can all finish reading on schedule or simply assign the movie and not the novel.
Assigning only the film version would remove some of this week’s function, however. The film is a very faithful adaptation, so my choice to assign both book and movie was not because students were going to get significantly different narratives out of them. Instead, I wanted to be able to compare the book and movie precisely because they are so similar. Their similarity makes this a good introduction to film adaptation and film analysis. In class today, for instance, because the film is so closely tied to the book, we used that similarity to help highlight the different techniques available to Levin and Polanski. How, for instance, can Polanski give viewers the same understanding of Rosemary as the book does? The book provides us with her thoughts, but the movie doesn’t; how, then, I asked my students, do we know what she’s thinking or feeling? And what tradeoffs are there when shifting from one medium to another? Identifying such techniques and the different effects they have on us, even when the story and its details are so similar, was quite productive.
We also looked closely at some specific scenes in class to identify what film techniques were being used and what effects they had. In particular, I wanted students to note the way the camera stays close to Rosemary, keeping us connected to her and giving us her perspective on the world. I also asked them to listen closely to the music in a few scenes (highlighting the lullaby theme, the theme associated with her physical pain, and the music in a chase scene late in the film) and to try to describe a) its emotional effect on us and b) what the music is doing to create that effect. I pushed them a little on this because I’ve found that although music is an incredibly influential element in film, most people don’t have the appropriate language to talk about how it works. Since this isn’t a music class, I’m not going to try to teach them actual music theory or terminology, but I do want them to listen for what kinds of instruments are used and to work on describing what the melody might be doing (rising, falling, staying static) or identifying how the music uses rhythm, volume, and even silence. We’ll keep working on this.
Aside from this kind of comparative work and close reading/listening, most of our discussion of the novel and film revolved primarily around two central ideas.
The first, which I asked the class to write about at the end of class on Tuesday, is about the role of belief in horror. Do we need to believe in the devil (or ghosts or whatever fantastic element a horror story includes) in order to be frightened by the story? Most students argued in their writing that we do not need to believe to be affected by the story, but that belief in the devil or other supernatural entities might add to the fear we experience. Empathy for the characters and suspension of disbelief allow us to connect with the story even when we don’t take it literally, they argued. A small minority in the class wrote that belief is necessary for the story’s effects to work, and I want to continue to explore the failures of horror – where it doesn’t succeed – throughout the semester, too.
The second idea was part of our discussions on both days and is connected to the first in some ways. If many audience members don’t believe in the devil or in the supernatural, what else makes Rosemary’s Baby work? I’m not scared by the devil in this film, but I am scared by the way Rosemary’s entire world works against her and removes all control of her own life. Her husband emotionally abuses her and sells her body and her baby for his own gain; her neighbors manipulate her, stalk her, and steal her baby; her doctor isolates her from her friends and other sources of information; and they all work together to make her helpless and childlike. They gaslight her about her weight loss, they lie to her about their motives, and they physically assault her when it’s time for her to give birth and then keep her drugged so she won’t find out the truth. All of this happened because she wanted a family and a happy home and was too nice and too willing to believe in others to see the threat that her new neighbors represented.
Rosemary’s Baby as a story about the devil trying to bring about the death of God and the beginning of a new reign of Satan is okay; Rosemary’s Baby as a story about the abuse and control of young women’s lives and bodies is, on the other hand, powerful and wonderfully creepy.
Next week, our overarching theme will be race, and we’ll watch Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Candyman (1992).
Music for this week: On Tuesday, I played John Fullbright’s “Satan and St. Paul” for both a change in musical genre and the Satan reference; on Thursday, I played Kishi Bashi’s “I Am the Antichrist to You” for the antichrist reference. I’m not subtle.