The Mother of All Psychological Horrors Is All Too Familiar

Hmm, it’s Mother’s Day and I haven’t written in awhile. I know! I’ll talk about Rosemary’s Baby!

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What have you done to it? What have you done to its eyes?

A dark parallel to the story of the Virgin Birth, what makes this film scary is that it lulls you into a false sense of security. The first two acts or so aren’t very scary so much as weird and off-putting. But as the movie progresses you realize how horrifying and hopeless the situation is and in the end you’re on the verge of tears over the plight of Rosemary.

The movie is several decades old but is hailed as a master of horror. It has very little blood and gore and no jump scares; instead, it gets under your skin by building up the feeling of dread and paranoia with ominous music and shots, culminating in a pretty shocking twist. But because the twist isn’t explicitly shown, it leaves room for some interpretations.

To me, though, what makes it scary even now is that it’s still pretty relevant. It presents the all too real plight of the lack of reproductive rights and justice.

When Rosemary is not pregnant, her husband dotes on her and she is quick to make friends and acquaintances. When she states her desire to become pregnant, though, attitudes towards her start to change. By the time she actually is pregnant, she is not treated the same. She is essentially treated as a brood mare, being withheld important information about her body, being manipulated by her neighbors, and being verbally abused and controlled by her husband. The one person she can trust, her old doctor, doesn’t believe her when she says what’s going on and immediately turns her over to her husband. When the baby is born she isn’t even initially allowed to see him, and does not receive a warm welcome when she comes to the congregation. Almost all the members of the coven disrespect or even outright show contempt for the mother of their savior.

Hmm…does that sound familiar?

What struck me right away is that the only people who are on Rosemary’s side are young women. Literally all the men (with one exception) and the older women see Rosemary as a walking incubator that has to be carefully controlled.

Rosemary herself is a really great character. Initially submissive and docile, her fierce love for her unborn child drives her to take action, seeking a safe place to give birth and get away from the coven. She is one of the few female horror movie protagonists to actually have character development, albeit development that is too late to save her.

The climax is especially horrifying. Imagine the baby you worked so hard to protect turned out to be an unholy demon, the product of a brutal violation. In the end, her motherly instincts kick in, but her smile seems a little halfhearted. Ultimately the viewer will have to decide the fate of her and her child.

This movie has a wide range of interpretations, ranging from calling it feminist to misogynist. I lean more to the feminist interpretation for a few reasons. The first reason is just how frank the movie is when it talks about periods, abortions, and childbirth, all topics that a lot of movies shy away from. Secondly, the whole situation, from the moment of conception to Rosemary’s acceptance of the baby, is seen as genuinely HORRIFYING, not as a cheap shock or drama.

Ultimately, this is a horror movie of something all too familiar and relevant: being a pregnant person having your bodily autonomy, rights, and dignity taken away from you. And that is something that will always scare you on a psychological and personal level.

Post War Trauma and Psychological Drama: The World of Japanese Horror

Does this look terrifying to you?

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There’s definitely something fascinating about a spiral shape, the way it draws you in, how it can play optical illusions on you, and how it’s been used in media as a way of hypnotizing people. Yet you wouldn’t think of using it as an antagonist in horror. In typical American horror, there’s a clear monster/ghost/serial killer to chase the hapless young hero (and a lot of gore and sexual violence tends to ensue).

Yet to Japanese manga artist Junji Ito, the mysterious yet not quite right appeal of the spiral shape was enough to make it into his horror masterpiece, Uzumaki (literally means spiral/vortex).

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(Source)

Imagine you’re living in an isolated town, and slowly, strange things start to happen that somehow all involve spirals. A man becomes so obsessed with spirals he tries to use his body to create the shapes. His wife develops a morbid fear of spirals that lead her to go nuts. A girl who moves into town in order to pursue a boy notices a scar on her forehead turns into a spiral shape. Slowly but surely it becomes apparent that the town is haunted by the spiral, but when the townspeople realize something is extremely wrong, it’s too late. It made for a creepy, creative thrill that I read in one night.

Junji Ito first broke into the manga scene with Tomie, a series about an evil protean entity who cannot die and is constantly being reborn and multiplying, who takes the form of a beautiful teenage girl who manipulates and tricks others. He would go on to create several short stories and have two other noteworthy works: Gyo and The Enigma of Amigara Fault.

Gyo begins with a rather ridiculous premise: schools of fish crawl out of the ocean on mechanical, insect-like legs, and are accompanied by a horrible smell. But soon it develops into a truly nightmarish story, when people and other land animals are infected by the smell (carried by a powerful germ transferred through bodily gases) and become the replacements for the mechanical legs.

In The Enigma of Amigara Fault, after a devastating earthquake, a new fault appears from the ground, sporting human shaped holes.

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(Yes, this was referenced in Steven Universe.)

People quickly discover that each hole is perfectly suited for each individual, and they feel compelled to enter the hole. They disappear for months at a time, and when they come out on the other side…well, they’re not quite the same.

What makes all three of these works chilling is that they take seemingly mundane, innocuous parts of life and morph them into something creatively horrifying. Ghosts and monsters and serial killers are scary enough, but what about a spiral that is seemingly everywhere that you can’t run away from? Now that strikes you on a psychological level.

Gyo has the extra horror of post WWII paranoia. In the manga, it was revealed that during WWII the protagonist’s grandfather helped conducted horrific experiments and created a toxic germ that could be used as a weapon. When the animals carrying the germ and emitting the gas would die or pass out, mechanical legs were created to carry them. Before they could be used on the front, they were lost at sea…and decades later, the disaster emerged. You can tell how horrifying that would be to a country nearly destroyed by war. The Enigma of Amigara Fault features a prefecture that was ravaged by a devastating earthquake. While I think that story has more nuances that resonates more with Japanese readers (in regards to things like conformity and finding your place in society), you can see how that would strike a particular unnerving cord to a country that is known for devastating earthquakes.

As you can tell, a lot of (good) Japanese horror is rooted in the country’s cultural fears. Panorama of Hell by Hideshi Hino is about a family destroyed by the Yakuza and WWII, based on the author’s own life (his grandfather was a Yakuza member and his own family fled Manchuria after Japan surrendered). Perfect Blue is about how the role of a (childlike but made to appeal to men) pop idol drives not one but two women mad when they dare to move on. And the original Godzilla is about the fear of a nuclear fallout. This is probably one reason why a lot of horror franchises that are originally Japanese don’t do as well when they become Americanized since a lot of what makes them truly scary is left out.

If you’re tired of American horror, I suggest you give Japanese horror a try. I strongly recommend reading Junji Ito’s work. He is extremely imaginative and effectively creepy, with absolutely gorgeous art. (He also wrote a genuinely cute and funny manga based on his life with two adopted cats, so you know he’s talented.) I don’t fully recommend Hideshi Hino because his work lacks subtlety and relies a bit too much on shock value and animal cruelty, but you should at least read his work Hell Baby because it’s a genuinely tragic, moving story about what it means to be human. There’s a litany of other horror (including Kazuo Umezuo, the original horror mangaka) that you can read up on. You can start HERE and HERE.

Feel free to share your experience with Japanese horror in the comments below!