While it is increasingly becoming a year-round treat, when the calendar roles over to October, horror takes center stage and becomes the focal point for audiences across the country. We embrace our fears and dress up as our favorite monsters, go to haunted houses and pay money for the desire to be frightened by a stranger in a hockey mask, and most commonly, we watch scary movies. As Halloween closes in, we venture into the realm of taboo and revel as we watch people get terrified, mutilated, possessed, and suffer all manner of gruesome fates for our entertainment. There are many theories as to the appeal of horror ranging from cathartic satisfaction to deeper psychoanalytic analysis, but the most common theme is that is indulgence; horror allows us to expose ourselves to and soak up things that we are not supposed to see or be attracted to. When watching death, gore, personal invasion and the supernatural all torment the actors on screen, we allow ourselves to take pleasure in aspects of life which we would otherwise find revolting and terrible.
We are going to take a break from the spectacle of body horror and slashers and instead delve into the more subtle ranges of horror. Far from the realm of shock and gore lies psychological horror whose goal it is to leave a more lasting impact on the viewer. Psychological horror films are a slow burn that constant builds tension throughout the entire run-time of the film before finally snapping at the climax to leave a mark on the audience that has the ability to last for some time. Many of the most highly regarded horror films of all time are of the psychological variety, and one of the most significant ones of those is Rosemary’s Baby.
Psychological horror is an entirely different animal than the types of films that we have dealt with previously; psychological horror is built on a foundation of distrust, paranoia, suspicion and general unease about the world around us. It is that instinct within us to not trust certain people, or two twist and innocuous noise into something that can fill us with dread. With Rosemary’s Baby, we feel those sensations alongside the protagonist, Rosemary, as her distrust and suspicion of everyone around her reaches its peaks and she is driven to near hysteria. Her fear is driven by her suspicion that her new neighbors have nefarious intentions for her and her unborn child. Ultimately, her suspicion is reveled to have been correct, and that she has been used as a vessel to birth the son of Satan.
Demons and devils are no strangers to psychological horror films. Early on in Rosemary’s Baby rumors spread of witchcraft and other rituals which have taken place in the building that Rosemary and her husband had recently moved into. These rumors begin to bear fruit as the film wears on and Rosemary begins to suspect that her elderly neighbors, her doctor and even her husband are all involved in a plot to take her baby shortly after it is born for the purpose of a ritual. The distrust that she feels towards each of these characters is equally felt by the audience, as we vicariously live these horrors through Rosemary. The audience feels every feeling of fear, suspicion, anxiety, distrust and eventually disgust with all of those who are reveled to have plotted against her, including her own husband for the sake of his own acting career.
Psychological horror exists like parasite that lives in your brain. Once it has gained access to your mind, it will continuously burrow deeper and deeper, leaving paranoia and suspicion wherever it goes, but of greatest consequence, it tricks the brain into scaring itself. A hallmark of psychological is the lack of a tangible threat that the audience can latch all of their fears onto. It is often something ambiguous, and even when it is not, it is very often unseen. The danger in Rosemary’s Baby is entirely unseen, save for the witches and other servants of demons that have infiltrated Rosemary’s life. But the scares are created by our own brains; the distrust, suspicion, and even a possible visage of the devil-child at the end is all left up to our brains to create, and there is not a prop, make up effect, or CGI monster that can ever instill as much fear within us as our own minds.
This is the goal of films such as The Silence of the Lambs, The Exorcist, Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby. These are not films that you will be able to watch and forget about as soon as the credits role. They want to stick with you for as long as they can and force you to think about the events that take place within them. Rosemary’s Baby wants you to consider the conclusion of the film long after it ends; it wants you to wonder if Rosemary has actually conceded and joined the witches in raising this demon child, if she is once again being controlled by them as she was earlier in the film, or if she is still resisting them and plotting to end the life that she helped being into this world. While many horror films have psychological elements that can linger within the mind, a true psychological horror film with stay with the audience for as long as the memory of that film still exists in their brains.