by David Nickle
One evening many years ago, author and playwright Ira Levin paid a visit to his friend Rosemary Clooney. It was during her pregnancy, in the apartment she shared with her husband Jose Ferrer in the Dakota Building in New York City. As legend would have it, Ferrer was a lousy husband, and Levin worried about Rosemary both in the marriage and in that gloomy old building. He went away and set to work on a new novel, about a woman also called Rosemary married to a down-on-his-luck actor in a building very much like the Dakota.
The novel departs from Clooney’s depressingly mundane reality, as Rosemary Woodhouse’s husband Guy sells her uterus to a pack of Satanists living upstairs. And as they wait for their little Dark Lord to gestate, the course of a difficult pregnancy turns into the nightmarish horror show of Rosemary’s Baby — arguably one of the most influential and powerful horror novels of the 20th century.
Reportedly, Levin was dismayed by the most obvious influence of the book, in creating a genre of horror fiction that preyed on what he regarded the superstitious impulses of the reading public. But he ought to have been more pleased with the other big influence: the introduction of feminist themes into horror fiction. In particular, into horror fiction written by men.
It’s an interesting, and interestingly popular, subset of a genre that can be anything but feminist. One of the frequent complaints about modern horror films is that they often treat women as simple victims, lasciviously oppressed and violated, and very often killed. In the original King Kong, Fay Wray is little more than a rape victim. In The Cat People, Simone Simon’s Serbian shape-changer is a creature whose womanly desires and fallibility turn her into a killer. The dead sorority sisters in the endless slasher movies of the 1980s are legion — all implicitly executed for simply enjoying their sexuality.
But Rosemary’s daughters are a different breed. It would be wrong to call them properly feminist — because they’re not really stories informed by the core experience of their authors. Rather, they’re stories written by male novelists, using the tools they’ve got to understand, as best they can, the experience of their sisters and wives and daughters.
They don’t always get it right. But they take an honest stab at it.
In Rosemary’s Baby, Levin asks us to study the vulnerability of women who enter into marriage and embark on a life of child-rearing. As Rosemary’s pregnancy progresses, she finds herself having less and less agency in her own life and care — much as was the case for most women with children in 1960s America. Levin went as far as acknowledging, and illustrating, the horror of that disempowerment. But in the end, the best he could offer was an expression of lurid despair.
William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist was also concerned with women — in particular, with the anxieties and vulnerabilities that he saw as intrinsic to women-led households in the early 1970s, when Vatican 2 denied the “wisdom” of the old religious patriarchy and a demon might slip in through the gaps to steal away your child. It would be wrong to call a novel feminist, in which that demon finally succumbs at the hand of one of the priests of that Old Time Religion. But as previously stated — they didn’t always get it right.
What they did was observe the changing world of gender roles, with as much empathy and as little condescension as they could.
Stephen King’s debut novel was the story of Carrie White, a young girl whose abuse at the hands of her zealously conservative mother combined with her first menstruation unleashed latent telekinetic powers that literally destroyed the oppressive, patriarchal society around her. King, interestingly, depicted that patriarchy most brutally enforced by the women: specifically, Carrie’s mother, and the mean girls who set up the Prom Night prank that leads to the pyrotechnic conclusion.
King has been an enthusiastic, if imperfect, bearer of the flame in this little sub-category throughout his very prolific career. His novel The Shining takes a powerful look at domestic abuse borne of substance abuse, and ultimately delivers a kind of victory to Wendy Torrance, who escapes both the evils of the Overlook Hotel and the immediate threat of her abusive husband. But it’s a victory delivered by men — the momentary mercy and regret of her husband, the ‘Shining’ powers of her son Danny, the sacrifice of Dick Hallorann, the hotel’s psychic custodian.
But there are others: Rose Madder, Dolores Clayborne, Gerald’s Game… to an extent, It and The Stand. They all take that stab at understanding and illuminating the human condition, as experienced by the double-X chromosome.
When I was putting together my latest novel, The ‘Geisters, I paid less attention to King, and more to Levin. Initially, my novel of a woman haunted by a poltergeist, and pursued by men with a dangerously carnal interest in that poltergeist, was to be informed by another great Levin feminist-horror novel: The Stepford Wives.
That one’s barely a novel at all — it’s a tiny thing, really a novella. But Levin’s slim tale has become in its way an even more prevalent meme than Rosemary’s Baby: the story of a community of men, irritated by the rising tide of feminism in the early ’70s, who respond with a horrible utopianism: a world in which real women, with their needs and desires and ambitions, are replaced by the servile sexual objects that these men had always desired.
It’s a powerful meme, and like the horror at the heart of Rosemary’s Baby, it’s fundamentally hopeless. From his time and place, that’s how Levin evidently saw the future for women in North American society. To paraphrase George Orwell, the likely future of feminist aspiration is a black-polished Oxford shoe, stomping on a woman’s face — forever.
It’s tempting to dismiss that assessment as dated. But to do so would be naive. Lawmakers in North Carolina and Texas are waging an all-out war of oppression on women as I type this. In Dubai, Norwegian designer Marte Deborah has barely escaped imprisonment for the crime of having sex out of marriage, for simply having reported an allegation that she’d been raped in that country. Patriarchy may sometimes seem to be dissolving into history — but like the monster in a horror novel, it always seems to return, its powers undiminished.
When I wrote about The ‘Geisters on John Scalzi’s blog in June, I described it as Rosemary’s Baby, where the part of Rosemary Woodhouse is played by Carrie White. My protagonist Ann LeSage has to take a lot of shit from some very bad men. But she has within herself the capacity to give it back, with interest.
In that sense, I hope that my addition to this continuum is if not a statement of naive hope, at least something of a battle cry.