Arguably the first mainstream American film to portray contemporary occultism in depth, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby — released 50 years ago this month — premiered as a palpable fascination with the occult was taking hold. Based upon Ira Levin’s bestselling novel, various real-life occurrences surrounding the film added to its aura of evil, fueling fears that later spun into an all-out obsession with Satanic cults that ultimately attracted the attention of the FBI. The rise of the Moral Majority had something to do with this also. But how did one film set the stage for the histrionic phenomenon known as the Satanic Panic?
The Manson cult’s brutal 1969 murder of Polanksi’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, followed in 1977 by Polanski’s arrest for statutory rape, suffused the film with an indelible stain of bodily horror connected to the victimization of women — this, despite the utter lack of physical violence in the film itself. The heady 1970s saw a rise in occult activities, born in the consciousness raising of the 1960s. Alongside the Beatles’ exploration of Eastern mysticism, Jimmy Page and Mick Jagger were practicing the occult arts, or at least singing about them.
Establishment institutions like the Church were branded as outmoded and stifling, and the younger generation sought a closer connection to nature and the cosmos: a new secularism was born and, with it, the notion that God was Dead. The Exorcist (1973) portrayed a teenage girl possessed by a demon, evidence of Black Mass desecrations of Catholic churches, as well as a priest whose crisis of faith explodes as he confronts the Devil in the flesh. Then came The Omen (1976), in which a woman is forced to give birth to the devil incarnate in her son Damien. The birth of modern witchcraft in England in the 1950s made its way to the States in the 1960s, and soon shops full of crystals, grimoires, herbs, and tarot cards proliferated, especially in New York City and San Francisco, already considered bastions of evil because they were centers of homosexual culture.
Indeed, sex was at the root of the fascination with the occult, as it has been since the days of the Salem Witch Trials: Blame for the loss of bodily and spiritual control could be laid at the horned hooves of the Great Beast, and one only had to ask forgiveness from God for one’s transgressions. This model of salvation following indiscretion became a rallying cry for the Moral Majority, which sought to rebrand America as a Christian nation after its slide into secular ennui following the Vietnam War (which followed the Cuban Missile Crisis, which followed the Korean War, which followed World War II — America was sorely in need of an epiphany regarding the nature of evil). With the election of unapologetic Christian Jimmy Carter and then right-wing demagogue Ronald Reagan, a social shift occurred and the occult-rich media of the 1960s and 1970s were followed by a fallow period in the 1980s when there were very few movies or TV shows focused on the occult.
And yet, the fascination was still there: The rise of the New Age and Wicca were happening, and the spread of evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity sowed seeds of resistance to all things ungodly, including Dungeons and Dragons, heavy metal music, and most urgently, Satanic cults. Cult/occult: words so close in appearance, if not necessarily meaning, that the two became inseparable in the minds of the mainstream public.
The pop culture basis for the Satanic Panic cannot be understated. In 1985, FBI behavioral crime expert Kenneth Lanning convened a seminar devoted to exploring rumors of satanic cults infiltrating daycare centers, and offered “warning signs” of satanic involvement (including black clothing, heavy metal music and occult jewelry). The notorious McMartin daycare center case in California overtook news headlines in 1987; it was eventually concluded that the initial accusation of abuse came from a mentally ill parent, but before that, the hive-mind hysteria did its job, helped along by social workers and psychologists enamored of a trendy new practice involving “recovered memories” that led to another oft-cited phenomenon: Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA).
Lanning eventually led a task force determined to uncover evidence of the many child abductions and murders said to have occurred; but when not a single corpse was ever found, Lanning, who was to some extent responsible for fueling the panic, eventually concluded the reports and allegations were false. Then there were the milk carton kids, most of them taken by non-custodial parents (not satanic strangers), adding fuel to the fire; the widespread fear of child abduction had an irrevocable and, some would say, disastrous impact upon American culture.
In 1989, following the infamous cult murders in Matamoros, Mexico, where a college student from Texas was killed during a spring break outing and found in a mass grave with 12 other people, mass media went apoplectic. The killers, part of a drug cartel, said they watched the 1980 film The Believers, about a pseudo-Santerian cult, as an “instructional video.” Just prior to the killings, Geraldo Rivera had produced a popular prime-time documentary called Satan’s Underground and repeated its findings on his daytime talk show, where he interviewed law enforcement officials connected to the Matamoros case. Oprah Winfrey also devoted episodes of her nascent show to Matamoros, famously intoning, “The only possible explanation for this is that these people were possessed by the devil.” Both Oprah and Geraldo featured guests who claimed to have “survived” satanic cults (some of them becoming authors or self-proclaimed experts on occult crimes), and described, repeatedly, scenes that uncannily resembled a particular scene in Rosemary’s Baby.
The dreamy sequence occurs the night that Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) take advantage of Rosemary’s fertile cycle to make a baby. Guy colludes with the devil-worshipping witches next door (Roman and Minnie Castevets, their surname eerily similar to the actor playing Guy), and Rosemary is drugged with a dessert made by Minnie and brought to a witches’ sabbat. People are standing naked in a circle chanting, holding candles, the air smoky with incense, etc. Rosemary is dimly aware she is not dreaming but is unable to fight back (“episodic paralysis” has been described by SRA survivors). Of course, the drug use and nudity helped demonize the Dionysian excesses of the 1960s, and the desire to impregnate hapless (and Godless!) young women in order to deliver their newborns to Satan (Guy was a struggling actor who chose to make this pact, underscoring the devilish antics of Hollywood) led to the insane rumor that an underground network of baby killers was on the loose (yes, indeed this is connected to the rise of the uber-Christian pro-life movement as well).
In the wake of Rosemary’s Baby, a number of films clearly influenced by its storyline (like The Mephisto Waltz, The Omen, and The Stranger Within) fed audiences’ cravings for occult storylines portraying deals with the devil and babies conceived by satanic means. In 1993, the West Memphis Three murders in a Bible-belt region of Arkansas led to the wrongful conviction of three teenagers accused of a brutal “occult crime.” One occult expert who testified, Dale Griffis, also a consultant to law enforcement, was exposed as having a mail order Ph.D.
The so-called “ringleader” was Damien Echols, who had changed his name to honor the priest who devoted his life to helping people in a leper colony — but the news media insisted on linking his name to the devil child in The Omen. Damien wore black, smoked weed, loved heavy metal music, wrote Aleister Crowley’s name in his journals, and dabbled in Wicca: a sort of half-hearted Goth with authority issues, misunderstood and ostracized. His fate and that of compatriots Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin was sealed in a corrupt criminal trial that concluded Damien sought to murder three children as sacrifices to the devil. The Paradise Lost series of documentaries on the case by Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger raised enough awareness to eventually lead to their exoneration and release. Perhaps no miscarriage of justice more clearly illustrates the influence of Polanski’s horror classic than this one: In a case surrounded by rumors of satanic ritual murder, three innocent young men were incarcerated for 18 years for crimes now believed to have been committed by the stepfather of one of the victims.
And therein lies an unusual irony: The clear message of Rosemary’s Baby was that the devil-worshipping witches live right next door, on the other side of the wall of your charming flat on Central Park West. They’re like family: They act as surrogate parents by giving you healthy herbal drinks and silver pendants to protect you, but they’re actually planning to consecrate your baby to the devil. Even your doctor is in on it; heck, your own husband signed his firstborn over to Beelzebub so he could get a juicy part on Broadway! You try to convince people of the plot you’ve uncovered, but they just cluck their tongues (poor thing, you’re just exhausted) and tranquilize you. Even when you’re proven right, that they were there all along, the witches next door who contrived to make you give birth to Satan’s spawn, no one helps you.
Despite overwhelming evidence that most acts of violence against children are perpetrated by family members, the tendency is to look beyond the home, to suspect a shadowy outsider, someone with a taste for heavy metal music and black T-shirts, or a penchant for goddess worship and tarot cards. Rosemary’s Baby masterfully other-ized the evil that lies within (and without), making us hide our children away from any and all possible dangers, including public schools, the internet, the outdoors. It seems clear: Another wave of panic looms on the horizon.