DEMONS & EXORCISMS, PT. 1: ROSEMARY'S BABY, WOMEN'S LIB, AND JFK
Watching: The Ranger (2018), The Faculty (1998)
Drinking: Bulleit Rye and Peach-Pear Lacroix (like the classy bitch I am)
I fucking love exorcism and possession movies. Which is deeply ironic because I’m not even a little bit religious, so you’d think I’d just kind of find movies about demons and Satan laughable, with the exception of I Drink Your Blood (1970). That shit’s fucking hilarious. And the thing is, those flicks legit get to me sometimes. The Last Exorcism (2010) might be one of my favorite rando indie finds, in fact. Maybe I like them because I’m so far removed from the genuine fear many people have of the devil. Maybe if you’re actually really scared of Satan and Hell and all that, exorcism/possession movies hit a little too close to home. I think the appeal for me might be that I get to experience what a lot of other people really do fear without the sense of genuine threat Christians have? Or maybe I’ve just subconsciously internalized the oppressive weight of religious terror I’m surrounded by in first world Western culture, especially as a woman because women are literally blamed as the source of all pain and suffering in the world because supposedly Eve convinced her dumb ass boyfriend to eat an apple... Whatever.
Anyway, I want to talk about exorcism/possession movies because why not? Also, we went to see the Exorcist steps yesterday in Georgetown and now I’ve got demons on the brain (more so than usual, at least).
I want to start by talking about some theory first, because I always find that having some smart shit as your foundation leads to the best thoughts and critical writing. Let’s start with what influences any particular horror movie to be what it is. Andrew Tudor, one of my favorite film theorists, cites a socio-cultural structuralist approach in his super important essay “Why Horror? The Peculiar Pleasures of a Popular Genre.” He says that any given horror movie is a direct result of the culture that produces it at the time it is produced. He says, “Thus, for example, it is common to examine 1950s sf-horror in terms of an interlinked cluster of themes, including the threat of alien invasion, the risks of nuclear power, and the roles of science and scientists. Typically, it is argued that such films articulate distinctive American fear (xenophobia, anti-communism, anxiety about technocracy and mass society, etc.) apparent in both the public discourse and private lives of the period” (458). Cultural and historical context are key to understanding what a film means, what it’s point is. In the this and the next two articles I write, I'm going to apply this idea to three exorcism and demonic possession movies of the 60s and early 70s - Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen - and talk about Satanic Panic, the destabilization of American identity, and women's liberation movements. Obviously, from the title of this post, I'm starting with Rosemary's Baby, and I've chosen to do so partially because it's the earliest in the three I've picked and partially because I really fucking love Mia Farrow (RIP) in this flick. Let's dig in.
So basically, in the late 60s and 70s there came about a cycle of super popular horror flicks that centered on Satan, demons, possession, and the female body. Scholars refer to these films by different names, but I call them crisis of faith movies.
Here are some examples of what I mean:
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
The Devil Rides Out (1968)
The Brotherhood of Satan (1971)
The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971)
The Exorcist (1973)
Satan's School for Girls (1973)
Burnt Offerings (1976)
The Omen (1976)
As we just learned from Tudor, horror movies are a product of the culture that produces them, right? So let’s talk a little about where these movies came from and what they mean to us. I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about this and the conclusion I’ve arrived at is that these movies are the direct result of the breakdown of the nuclear family, the end of the Vietnam War, and the upset of faith following the establishment of the Second Vatican Council in 1959. And also probably the FDA approval of the first oral contraceptive (birth control pill) in 1960, because now ladies could have sexy time for the pleasure of it and not have to worry about whether their dudes brought condoms to the party or (worse) slipped the condom off during coitus. Sexual freedom + religious sexism = demon-infested women. But I’ll come back to this in a little bit.
So for this analysis, I’m going to throw some scenes from different movies at you to demonstrate the connection between the socio-cultural shit that was happening in the 60s and 70s and the demon-y movies that came out around that time.
Let’s start with Rosemary’s Baby (1968), a truly incredibly, deeply influential film about a lady having a pretty rough pregnancy. And by the way, rather than me wasting time and blog space recounting the plot of the film, if you haven’t seen Rosemary’s Baby, first of all, shame on you and, second of all, click here to read a pretty solid synopsis.
When Rosemary is drugged and impregnated by the Satanic cult led by her neighbors, she becomes pregnant with the antichrist. During the whole drug-rape sequence, Rosemary has this weird dream sequence. At the beginning, she’s on a yacht with a man who sound and looks unmistakably like JFK. Rosemary asks, “Isn’t Hutch coming with us?” and JFK responds, “Catholics only. I wish we weren’t bound by these prejudices, but unfortunately…” Her wedding ring comes off. Note that her wedding ring is removed while Satan is raping her IRL, probs because the wedding band is (to the Catholics) a symbol of the sacred covenant between man and wife in the eyes of God. Can’t be wearing that shit while the Devil’s raping you, right? Also, taking the ring off signifies “divorce,” which will get your ass excommunicated from the Catholic Church. So this whole weird JFK shit is supposed to symbolize Rosemary falling completely out of the Church, like so many Americans were doing at that time in the US.
So anyway, JFK, who was a Roman Catholic himself (the only Roman Catholic president to date, by the way), becomes like a “gatekeeper” of Rosemary’s dream/rape. Kennedy’s Catholicism was actually a deeply contentious point in his candidacy and throughout his presidency because many politicians and constituents questioned whether he’d be loyal to America or to Rome. So the fact that Rosemary and JFK are both Catholic is definitely important because religious faith, especially in the Catholic church, was actually waning in the 1960s. It’s interesting because as the Catholic church was watching it’s flock diminish all over the world, Anton LaVey’s Satanic Church was starting to get some attention in the United States. This is important because of their role in progressive
politics. Here’s a little snippet from the Satanic Temple website: “Politically aware, Civic-minded Satanists and allies in The Satanic Temple have publicly opposed The Westboro Baptist Church, advocated on behalf of children in public school to abolish corporal punishment, applied for equal representation where religious monuments are placed on public property, provided religious exemption and legal protection against laws that unscientifically restrict women’s reproductive autonomy, exposed fraudulent harmful pseudo-scientific practitioners and claims in mental health care, and applied to hold clubs alongside other religious after school clubs besieged by proselytizing organizations.”
Let’s take a minute to talk about how the JFK assassination shaped the culture and attitudes of the 60s. JFK was an extremely popular, extremely handsome man. Unlike every other president, he was young, charismatic, and, again, Catholic. Where most Presidents couldn’t negotiate their way out of a paper bag, JFK negotiated us out of the motherfucking Cuba Missile Crisis. The Kennedy family represented everything solid and safe and reliable about the American Dream. So when he was shot on November 22nd, 1963, America’s sense of security just about evaporated. Suddenly all of the things we had relied on, all of the faith we had in authority and permanence and safety in America disappeared. If our most important figurehead, the embodiment and manifestation of everything good and right about America, our President – who’s basically like the American equivalent of the Pope or the King or whatever – can be gunned down in the
streets like the rest of us mere mortals, is anything safe or sacred? The assassination of JFK is famously referred to as “The Shot Felt ‘Round the World” because it was genuinely that fucking impactful. For so many people, God died in Dallas that day. That sudden, shocking instability meant we couldn’t trust any of the givens in our lives – that the government will protect us, that our spouses love us, that our neighbors don’t want to hurt us, not even that childbirth is a miracle rather than an unholy abomination. To be blunt, people were freaking the mother fuck out.
So yeah, the weird JFK dream sequence is extremely important to understanding this movie. But let’s get back to it.
As Rosemary’s dream shifts, she passes underneath a ceiling covered in angelic murals and then finds herself on a boat naked. The dude at the helm of the boat looks at her and says, “You’d better go down below, miss.” While she’s descending into the boat, the walls around her are burning with flames. As if that wasn’t a super fucking clear metaphor for descent into Hell.
At this point, I feel like I should remind y’all of something I said earlier about birth
control. Rosemary’s Baby came out shortly after the FDA approved the very first oral contraceptive for women, and oh boy was that a game changer for women’s rights. With that in mind, let’s talk about what happens right after Rosemary wakes up. Guy, her dickbag, shitball actor husband (I mean, for fuck’s sake. Dude’s name is “Guy.”) admits he fucking raped his wife (although he technically didn’t actually because Satan). He doesn’t see it as rape, even though she was out cold. He says “It was kind of fun in a necrophillic way” and “I didn’t want to miss baby night.” Now if that isn’t some patriarchal bullshit. He doesn’t respect or even think about the women’s sexual liberation movement that’s happening literally around him. This same shit comes up again later in the movie when Rosemary is crying to her lady friends about her abnormally painful pregnancy (I imagine it hurts quite a bit more when the kicking baby has fucking cloven hooves). Her friends eventually realize something is very wrong with her and they suggest she go see a different doctor. Rosemary immediately freaks out and says “I won’t have an abortion” even though literally no one has said shit about an abortion. The whole scene points to the black-and-white rhetoric of anti-women’s lib politics we’re still dealing with today. As a woman (and, y’all, I’m speaking from personal experience here), you can either remain totally under the thumb of male authority or you can have an abortion. Those are your two options. You can be a good little Catholic girl and never get divorced (even if your husband is a manipulative rapist little shit) and never embrace or take autonomy of your own sexuality or you can be a dirty, dirty whore with a Frequent Flyer Miles card at your local baby killing clinic. It’s fucking stupid, but this dichotomy – Angel and Whore – is a well-documented, well-studied representation of women in film and literature going all the way back to the damned cave paintings. Click here for more on this. It’s fascinating shit.
So basically, it’s pretty clear that Rosemary’s body and her “bad birth” are the site of male-dominant religious and political struggle. That's the point I'm trying to get to. And actually, most demonic possession movies are really about the repression of female sexuality. But I'll get to that when we talk about The Exorcist in a few days.
There's a shit ton more to say about this movie and feminism and the baller ass shit happening in the 60s and 70s, and I am going to talk about it all on the podcast, be assured, but for now I think this'll do. Plus, I've been drinking for five hours and I am no longer smart enough to write about this. I want to come back to the idea of the "bad birth" when I talk about The Omen, but for now there's an article by Karyn Valerius titled “‘Rosemary’s Baby’, Gothic Pregnancy, and Fetal Subjects” that gives a pretty in-depth look at the overlay of the history of women’s rights in the 60s and Rosemary’s Baby. I highly recommend it if you're interested in the concepts I've been talking about.
Side note about what I'm watching tonight, totally unrelated to this post: I like to watch a movie I haven't seen and then a movie I haven't seen in a while. Tonight I watched The Ranger and The Faculty. The Ranger was way different than I thought it was going to be, but it was incredible. As a life-long punk chick, I fucking geek the fuck out when I see my people on film. Green Room, for instance, had me fucking floored. But The Ranger was interesting because - like Green Room - it threw city punks into the dangerous rural, but in a way I haven't seen before. Also, the soundtrack was fabulous. And then The Faculty, motherfucking Mother Mary on a pogo stick, I always forget how great this movie is. Also, are there any actors who aren't in it? Elijah Wood, Usher, Josh Hartnett, Famke Janssen, Jon motherfucking Stewart, Salma Hayek, Christopher McDonald, Piper Laurie, Clea DuVall... Seriously. What the fuck? It's not an incredible movie, but I love seeing all the little baby celebrities before they became super famous. And that, by the way is a topic I'm going to write about eventually. Do you have any idea how many big names started out in horror? Trick question: you don't have any idea. It's a fuck load more than you can even guess. Okay, it's almost 5am and I'm barely conscious. See you later. Cheers. Kenna