Hail, readers! Welcome to Devils in the Details, a monthly column examining the satanic and occult influences in horror. This column provides a non-sensational look at these influences by examining them through the perspective of modern Occult scholarship. The study of satanism and the occult is a life-long endeavor, and I have much yet to learn. I hope you will join me in this sojourn into the darkness!
Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is a religious horror classic about a woman who experiences a less-than-normal pregnancy after moving into a new apartment with her husband. The film is based on the Ira Levin novel of the same name and kicks off the boom of religious horror movies that would include The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). While most are familiar with the criticism of organized religion and the sensationalism of satanic cults portrayed in the movie, perhaps more important are the societal and cultural issues explored.
The film begins with Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and her husband Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) moving into an old apartment building and planning their lives together. However, clues quickly present themselves in the form of mysteriously moved furniture, strange chanting from the neighbors, and the suicide of a woman staying with said neighbors. After the suicide, the elderly neighbors Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castevet (Roman Castevet) take an interest in the young couple, inviting them to dinner, where Roman and Guy become fast friends. From this point on, Guy has a renewed interest in starting a family.
One night as the couple has a romantic date, they are visited by Minnie, who drops off some chocolate mousse (or mouse as Minnie calls it) for them to try. Rosemary notes a chalky aftertaste and doesn’t eat all of it despite Guy’s pressuring and insistence that the aftertaste is just in her head. However, that night, Rosemary experiences a horrific dream in which she is sexually assaulted by something inhuman. The scene is compelling and uncomfortable, feeling simultaneously like a dream and like reality. When she wakes, she finds scratches along her body, and Guy admits he had sex with her while she was unconscious in order to not “miss baby night”.
Rosemary’s Baby is not perfect, but it’s a reflection of an imperfect time. When Rosemary stands up for herself, she is gaslit or condescended until she conforms to what either her husband, her doctor, or even her neighbor wants. In this world, men run the show, and part of this film’s horror is the sense of helplessness and despair this woman experiences. It highlights the idea of conjugal rights and marital rape exemption prevalent until the first half of the 20th century. This idea, a law in several countries, purports that married couples cannot revoke the “conjugal rights” of their partner within a marriage.
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This created an exemption in which rape was, by definition, not possible within a marriage. In fact, it was the work of second-wave feminists and women’s rights advocates throughout the 1960s that would finally see marital rape criminalized. Still, it was not until 1993 that marital rape would finally be outlawed in all 50 states, meaning Rosemary’s Baby’s acknowledgment of this issue was ahead of its time, as backward as that may seem.
“While being assaulted by Satan is by itself a nightmare of epic proportions, the idea of being drugged and not even remembering an assault is just as nightmarish […]”
However, as the audience, we know it was not Guy who impregnated Rosemary, but Satan himself. The drugged chocolate mousse was intended to incapacitate Rosemary to the point she would remember none of the experience. While being assaulted by Satan is by itself a nightmare of epic proportions, the idea of being drugged and not even remembering an assault is just as nightmarish, adding to the discourse this flick presents. However, the drugging does not stop there.
Earlier in the movie, Minnie gifted Rosemary a small charm containing a pungent herb called Tannis Root. The root comes up several times throughout the film, with most instances being a comment on its foul odor. Minnie admits Tannis Root is also present in the vitamin shakes she has been giving Rosemary after learning about her pregnancy. While Tannis Root’s effect is never fully explained, a passage in a book Rosemary reads explains:
In their rituals, they often use the fungus called Devil’s Pepper. This is a spongy matter derived from swampy regions having a strong, pungent odor. Devil’s Pepper is considered to have special powers. It has been used in rituals and worn on charms.
One noticeable effect is Rosemary’s pallid and emaciated appearance and possibly the cramping pain she feels. A possible purpose for Tannis Root is as a tranquilizer of sorts to keep Rosemary weak and compliant. Other drugs have been used in such a way in real life, such as the motion sickness drug scopolamine.
Devil’s Breathe, the Real Tannis Root
Internet-based horror fans may be familiar with scopolamine, or Devil’s Breathe, from one of the various creepypastas about the drug. These stories paint the drug as a powerful mind-control drug so horrific it can compel others to commit heinous crimes against their will. While this is an embellishment for scare value, the actual medication is terrifying on its own and is a perfect analog for Tannis Root.
Plants containing scopolamine have been used in religious ritual practices for their hallucinogenic properties. A deliriant, scopolamine causes confusion and blackouts fitting perfectly into Rosemary’s experiences, and as an alkaloid, it likely has a strong, bitter odor. In fact, the U.S. Overseas Security Advisory Council includes this passage in a 2012 crime report:
Scopolamine can render a victim unconscious for 24 hours or more. In large doses, it can cause respiratory failure and death. It is most often administered in liquid or powder form in foods and beverages. […] To avoid becoming a victim of scopolamine, one should never accept food or beverages offered by strangers or new acquaintances or leave food or beverages unattended.
Minnie’s chalky chocolate mousse and bitter vitamin shakes are looking mighty suspicious! Further, scopolamine occurs naturally in certain plants. Scopolia carniolica, also called henbane bell, is a common ingredient in medieval love potions that contains the alkaloid toxins responsible for scopolamine. Henbane is also a common ingredient in witchcraft of the middle ages.
Like any religious horror of the time, Rosemary’s Baby vilifies witchcraft and presents a sensationalist view of satanic covens. This film, in particular, also digs deep into black mass lore when referencing the fictional Trench Sisters who allegedly cooked and ate children. However, the fact is that the evil witch of the wood who prepares deadly potions and cooks children is primarily a result of harmless fairy tales intended to keep children out of the dangerous forest and the purposeful propaganda used to persecute elderly or troublesome women. Though I will hand it to Polanski as the portrayal of this coven and their use of herbology is, perhaps unintentionally, more accurate to the actual history of witchcraft. Check out the Devilish Details of Häxan to learn more!
“…the portrayal of this coven and their use of herbology is, perhaps unintentionally, more accurate to the actual history of witchcraft.”
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