‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ Horror Realism and the Loss of Control

Watch a video that explores the complexities of terror in Roman Polanski’s film.
Rosemary's Baby Ending
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on November 10th, 2016

Psychological horror can be subdivided into two other categories: fantastic and realistic. Horror fantasy deals with either creating new fears in an audience ‐ fear of masked bogeymen, of monsters who enter our dreams, of little girls who crawl out of televisions to murder us ‐ or with heightening our preexisting fears of the fantastic: ghosts, vampires, witches, aliens et cetera. Horror realism, on the other hand, deals with the fears we have about ourselves and the world we actually live in: that some maniac will harm us, our bodies will turns against us, fate will screw us, all of which boil down to the basic fear of a loss of control.

Nowadays, most horror falls into the former category, reliant upon shock and jump scares and visceral imagery, and moving at fast, almost breakneck-speed through its terrors like its racing for its own conclusion. This makes sense as currently most horror is aimed at a younger demographic, namely teenagers who aren’t accustomed to delaying gratification, they want blood before the title card. As a result, realistic horror has taken a backseat. There are still some great modern examples ‐ The Strangers, Wolf Creek, Silent House, We Need to Talk About Kevin ‐ but the genre really had its heyday back in the 1970s, when films like The Exorcist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Omen ruled the genre. These films bridged the distance between horror fantasy and horror realism, taking narrative elements of the former and blending them with the slow-burn narrative structure of the latter. So you still have films about demons and masked boogeymen, but you also have thorough character development, camera techniques meant to prolong scenes and thus the dread they induce, representation of social issues, and a general grounding of the story in the world we live in, which makes the intrusion of horror all the more horrible.

If there’s a king of this kind of horror from this era, it’s a queen: Rosemary’s Baby. Roman Polanski’s take on Ira Levin’s tale of a women manipulated psychologically and physically into having the spawn of Satan is fantastic in its conception but realistic in its delivery as it plays upon fears regarding urban living, religion, the female body, and pregnancy. Screen Prism has put together a very informative essay on this matter, exploring how Polanski conveys his brand of horror realism through these narrative means, as well as through the technical choices he makes in presenting his film. This is a must-see for fans of the genre, especially those hoping to make their own nightmares into cinematic realities.

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