Hexing, Cursing, and Crossing: The Truth Behind Baneful Magic

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Featured Horror Mystery and Lore

In antiquity, the distinction was made between “white,” and “black,” magic (excuse the quotes, those terms are the most recognizable, although I personally reject the concept of colors in magic). In The Book of Black Magic and Pacts, we’re told that, “Esoteric Medicine, which consisted in the application of occult forces to the healing of disease in man, and included a traditional knowledge of the medicinal properties resident in some substances disregarded by ordinary pharmacy, produced in its malpractice the secret science of poisoning, and the destruction of health.” Every witch knows that it’s not always black and white—many times there are shades of gray.

Baneful magic has existed as long as magic has existed—that is to say, as long as we as a species have believed in helpful magic, we have believed in harmful magic. Hexes, curses, and crosses are but a few of the names that baneful spells within witchcraft or magic culture are referred to as. So why is there such a huge culture of misinformation surrounding baneful magic? Why do people label it as being “black” or “dark”? Well—to be quite frank, it’s simply the result of a bad reputation and possibly a little ignorance. It’s unfortunate that noted authorities like Waite are still being trusted when their beliefs and assertions are so far outdated, but they do give us a good idea of how far we’ve come.

To say his belief that, “White Ceremonial Magic is … an attempt to communicate with Good Spirits for a good … purpose. Black Magic is the attempt to communicate with Evil Spirits for an evil purpose,” would be a ridiculous oversimplification.

Traditions of Baneful Magic: What’s the Difference?

There is a common saying within the community of magic practitioners, that “a witch that cannot hex, cannot heal.” This always seems to strike a foul mood in practitioners who are adamant that magical practices can only include fluffy, happy vibes and should only exist to help people and not to interfere with free will, nor should it be used to harm anyone. The overall concept is that magic itself is not good, nor is it evil. Just like a knife is not in itself good or evil. The operator of the equipment decides how to use it—so if a construction worker decides to knock down an orphanage instead of the building set to be demolished, you’re not going to blame the wrecking ball. So, let’s explore the differences between the different types of baneful magic.

Hexing

Hexing, when it comes right down to it, is a baneful spell—this is a spell cast by a practicing witch—that is intended to cause a specific, non-beneficial result on an intended target. In metaphysical literature, it’s quite common for the word “hex” and “curse” to be used interchangeably, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll be using the word “hex”. That is to say that hexes are inherently evil, as many witches who practice baneful magic typically have a good reason for casting such spells.

An example scenario that a witch might cast such a spell for, is when a mother is fighting for custody of their children through the court system, but the father (and intended target) has a history of domestic violence, drug abuse, or worse. The mother has done everything within their power to secure the safety and future of their children, but somehow the father still has a pretty good chance at winning custody. In this circumstance, a witch could target the father’s lawyer to do poorly in his court performance, which might help turn the tables in the favor of the mother—or—the witch could target the father to have all of his lies exposed.

What is a curse to one person is a blessing to someone else. It just depends on where you happen to be sitting. That’s why the ethical lines are so blurry.

Hexing is a tool that a witch can use to interfere with free will in situations that call for it—of course, there are also individual witches out there who are just nasty people and love nothing more than to watch people suffer. Overwhelmingly, people generally fall into the good category and don’t go out of their way to ruin people’s lives. There is also the lesser-known fact that practicing baneful magic takes an incredible amount of energy and will often leave a witch feeling exhausted, irritable, or even sick. I can tell you from personal experience that the worse the intended hex is, the worse a witch will feel afterward.

Dark Witch in the Woods
Dark Witch in the Woods
https://puzzleboxhorror.comcursed-books/

Cursing

There are two schools of thought when it comes to what a curse is. Some people believe that a curse is simply, wishing bad things upon someone who has slighted you in some way. This could be as silly as, “I hope you step in water whenever you put on fresh socks,” in an effort to ensure the person is forever uncomfortable—or it could be something much more serious. As a general rule, however, curses are not actually spells—they are manifestations of intentions, with no specific ritual attached to it. Now, some witches may disagree with this definition, but I’d like to reiterate that hex and curse can be used interchangeably. Most often, the layman knows curses as they relate to the grievous incidents that surround certain objects, projects, or historic events.

Famous Curses

There are also curses that have played significant roles in history; we can look at practically any culture on earth and find a curse that is commonly believed to be true. These curses can range from the ridiculous to the significant, but one thing is certain, they get a lot of attention by those who believe in the supernatural and paranormal.

The Curse of King Tut (or the Curse of the Pharaohs)

Tutankhamun is famously known to have been a pharaoh of Egypt during the 14th century, but when the tomb at the base of his pyramid was opened in February 1923, no one could have known the tragedy that would follow. Perhaps this curse is a result of a hysteria over the death of the archaeological team’s lead sponsor just two months after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s mummy. At the time, it was believed that he had died from King Tut’s curse, when the reporters from Britain made the baseless claim—as it was found that he had actually died from an unidentified bacterial infection. However, when other members of the archaeological team died soon after, the curse was revived; ever since there have been movies inspired by the terrifying prospect of being cursed by the mummy of Tutankhamun.

The Curse of the Hope Diamond

When French gem dealer Jean-Baptiste Tavernier purchased a large diamond in the 1660s it was believed that the 112-carat monstrosity had been stolen from the head of an idol in India. The legend followed that the priests of the temple where the idol had been vandalized cursed the precious stone upon its theft. Some believe that it was Tavernier himself that had stolen the diamond from the Hindu goddess’s statue, and the legend of its curse was spread by newspapers and jewelers alike. Its original owner after Tavernier acquired it, was King Louis XVI of France, who gave it to both Princess de Lamballie and Marie Antoinette to wear. Both women along with King Louis XVI were met with the guillotine during the French Revolution and so the curse of the Hope Diamond was born.

After the first three to possess the jewel met such a gruesome death, it was believed that anyone who was unlucky enough to possess it would also die in mysterious ways. Allegedly even jewelers who kept it at their shop met this unusual fate. Henry Philip Hope came into possession of it in 1839 and died the same year, but eventually, it came into the possession of American heiress Evelyn Wash McLean in the 1910s. McLean ended up dying and ownership defaulted to a jewelry company in the U.S. that sold it to the Smithsonian in 1958. To this day, the famously cursed jewel remains on display in the United States through the Smithsonian Institution. Many who want to be more logical about so many deaths would believe that this curse was actually a product of greed, an attempt to make the jewel that much more valuable.

The Kennedy Curse

The assassination of President Kennedy was the lynchpin that marks the beginning of the curse of the Kennedys. Robert Kennedy was also assassinated five years later, Senator Ted Kennedy somehow survived a plane crash only to drive off a bridge later on. Robert Kennedy’s son died as the result of a drug overdose and his second son died in a skiing accident. Then, JFK Jr. died in a plane crash with his wife and sister, and finally the wife of RFK Jr., Mary Kennedy committed suicide. Talk about a family curse!

https://puzzleboxhorror.comrosemarysbaby/
The Curse of Rosemary’s Baby

Often when movies like Rosemary’s Baby are said to be cursed, it’s typically as a result of a marketing strategy; a means to boost ticket sales and they’re later found to be a simple publicity stunt. There are many who believe that all the negative happenings surrounding the production of the movie wasn’t just a little bad luck.

Ira Levin Reputation Tanked

Despite the book’s adaptation into the feature film and lingering popularity over the last five decades, author Ira Levin’s reputation, career, and personal life were all but ruined. Religious institutions around the world were not pleased at what they perceived to be Levin’s attacks on organized religions, with the Catholic Church even asserting his book was blasphemous. Levin’s wife left him the same year that the film was released and as a result of his poor luck, he became more terrified and paranoid as time passed. Not just that, but due to his reputation as a blasphemer, he had to publicly denounce Satanism on a regular basis and his later attempts to salvage his career with a sequel to Rosemary’s Baby failed miserably.

The Fall of Castle

William Castle, the man who initially picked Levin’s novel up to purchase the rights to the film ended up becoming the producer for the project. Unfortunately for Castle, not only did he develop severe kidney stones, but his mental health also suffered due to the volume of hate mail he received as a direct result of being associated with the film. He later made claims that he hallucinated demonic scenes from the movie while he was under anesthesia during his surgery. His reputation never recovered.

Death, Substance Abuse, and Assault

Numerous other stories are related to the curse that is believed to have surrounded Rosemary’s Baby, one truly famous story involves the film’s composer Krzysztof Komenda, who fell into a coma after a falling accident. Some link his coma to that of Rosemary’s friend within the film, Hutch who was targeted by a witch’s curse. Like Hutch, Komeda never recovered from the coma but instead died the following year. John Lennon was another popular death associated with the curse of the film, since he was assassinated just outside of The Dakota in 1980, the building featured as Rosemary’s prison within the film. Another famous story that is linked to the curse, is the murders of Roman Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate, as well as their unborn child. Victims of the Manson Family and their leader, Charles Manson.

Crossing

Crossing comes from a separate tradition altogether—it’s not technically considered part of the witchcraft tradition, since voodooisants, hoodoos, and folk magic practitioners don’t generally consider themselves to be “witches”. Being cursed with Zombification might not exactly be something that conjure, one wishes for, but as opposed to other ways in which folk magic practitioners practice baneful magic it might be one of the least painful ways to suffer. Crossing within folk magic cultural practices might be similar to curses and hexes in theory, but it’s wellknown that regular “black” magic doesn’t hold a candle (pun intended) to the type of crossing that is done within voodoo, conjure, hoodoo, and folk magic. This is in part due to the fact that crossing often involves personal talismans, like blood, hair, and fingernails which amp up the power of any magical working.

Final Thoughts

As in the article presented by the Scientific American, what really makes people wary of so-called “black” magic, is the “bad is black” effect. “[It] only underscores the importance of finding ways to combat the various ways that our inherent biases can influence perceptions of guilt and innocence.” This essentially submits that anything with the label of “black” is automatically associated with being bad. What should really be taken away from this article, is that hexing, cursing, and crossing are used (much of the time) in a way that vindicates the practitioner of any wrongdoing.

As a witch that practices baneful magic, I don’t often advertise the fact, I prefer to not have to debate, argue, or even calmly explain my own beliefs and practices. Nor do I feel that anyone outside of the practitioner has much of a right to know the whys or hows. I would never divulge on whom these practices might be focused! Witchcraft and any other magical practice is a very personal thing—so, if you’re the target of someone who is claiming that they’ve done black magic on you, or that they’ve cursed you, you can in most cases, discount their claims. No magical practitioner worth their salt goes around telling their targets that they’ve done work on them. You can rest assured that those who claim they’ve cursed, hexed, or crossed you simply want you to believe they have and effectively scare the shit out of you.

And with that, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes…

A witch ought never to be frightened in the darkest forest … because she should be sure in her soul that the most terrifying thing in the forest was her.”

Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith

Work Cited

Dhruv Bose, Swapnil. “Dissecting the Curse of Roman Polanski’s Horror Classic ‘Rosemary’s Baby’.” Far Out Magazine, 24 Nov. 2020.

Farnstrom, Mary. “A Voodoo Practice: Mysteries of Zombification.” Puzzle Box Horror, 2 Apr. 2020.

Farnstrom, Mary. “African American Folk Magic: Hoodoo, Conjure, and Rootwork.” Puzzle Box Horror, 12 Feb. 2020.

Farnstrom, Mary. “Oddities of the Bayou: Religions and the Occult.” Puzzle Box Horror, 12 Feb. 2020.

Farnstrom, Mary. “Punishment for Grave Robbing Epitomized in Short Horror Film, Toe (2020).” Puzzle Box Horror, 5 Apr. 2020.

Farnstrom, Mary. “Rosemary’s Baby Review: Terror in Plain Sight.” Puzzle Box Horror, 24 Jan. 2021.

Freuler, Kate. Of Blood and Bones: Working with Shadow Magick and the Dark Moon. Llewellyn Publications, 2020.

Farnstrom, Mary. “The Utterly Wicked Truths About ‘Dark’ Magic.” Puzzle Box Horror, 11 Sept. 2020.

Grewal, Daisy. “The ‘Bad Is Black’ Effect.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 17 Jan. 2017.

“The Distinction between White and Black Magic.” The Book of Black Magic and Pacts: Including the Rites and Mysteries of goëtic Theurgy, Sorcery, and Infernal Necromancy, by Arthur Edward Waite, Weiser, 1984, pp. 13–15.

Inuit Spirit of Death: The Keelut

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Featured Horror Books Horror Mystery and Lore Scary Movies and Series

What is the Keelut?

Aggressive Keelut, Inuit Spirit of Death
Photography by Nick Bolton

This creature is an Inuit legend, one who hunts people during the winter, but it’s not actually a predator in the strictest sense–it’s a spirit of the Netherworld. The Keelut (key-loot), also known as the Qiqirn (key-kern) is sometimes referenced as a spirit of death or an evil earth spirit. While it is actually a spirit, it takes the form of what some believe to be a true cryptid. To be honest, it’s hard to say which is a more frightening aspect of this creature, that it’s an immense, malevolent, black, hairless dog with the sole purpose of preying upon humans, or that it’s also a spirit so it doesn’t necessarily abide by the laws of physics. The Keelut’s mythological cousin is the Church Grim or Barguest of Great Britain, who stalks those traveling in the night which results in an untimely death.

The major difference between the Church Grim and the Keelut is the fact that the Keelut doesn’t have any hair, except for on its feet. They say that this makes their tracks in the snow disappear easily, which gives the advantage of stalking prey without being noticed. Aside from their predatory nature, these creatures have other similarities that transcend the separation of culture—both are known to act as a harbinger of death, and otherwise feast upon the dead. In Inuit folklore, the Keelut is known to attack lone travelers, the sight of one would cause disorientation, then eventually hypothermia and death.

Hold the Dark (2018): Bringing Alaskan Horror Legends to Life in a New Way

Hold the Dark Horror book featuring Keelut

This Alaskan creature of terror was made to take the sidelines in William Giraldi’s book Hold the Dark: A Novel (2014) and now a Netflix original film Hold the Dark (2018) when the residents of Keelut, a remote (fictional) Alaskan village, have been the unfortunate targets for a dangerous pack of wolves. These wolves have successfully taken three children before the main story takes place.  It’s certainly a spin to the original tale of the Keelut, but it pays special homage to the Inuit folklore wherein it was born.

While it certainly didn’t get rave reviews from this critic, I have a personal bias when it comes to films that include Alaska and the surrounding culture, even if it’s not terribly accurate.

The Iconic Final Girl

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Featured Women in Horror
The Final Girl of Halloween (1978) Laurie Stroder
The Final Girl of Halloween (1978) Laurie Stroder

It has been said that “women in peril work better in the suspense genre … If you have a haunted house and you have a woman walking around with a candelabrum, you fear more for her than you would for a husky man.” (Clover; pg. 77) With this statement, we can almost summarize the entirety of the horror genre’s tilt towards what some might call misogyny perpetuated by the film industry’s propensity for being male-dominated. We can also build towards a much more interesting concept—that of the Final Girl.

Throughout the lifespan of horror, we see that a woman in peril is hardly a new trope within the genre—in fact, the evidence of its existence can be seen clearly in literature such as that of Edgar Allan Poe, where he regularly relied upon the formula to create suspense within his works. His perspective, however, that “the death of a beautiful woman is the ‘most poetical topic in the world,’ does little to help us in understanding where this pattern comes from. We know the Final Girl is rarely, if ever, regarded for her evolution from victim to heroine, but what is less clear is why that is such a rarity.

The Villain: Epitomizing the Slasher

The killer is with few exceptions recognizably human and distinctly male; his fury is unmistakably sexual in both roots and expression; his victims are mostly women, often sexually free and always young and beautiful ones. Just how essential this victim is to horror is suggested by her historical durability.

Carol J. Clover, pg. 77 – Her body, himself: Gender in the slasher film

The argument goes that men are victims but Clover argues that, “… if some victims are men … most are women, and the women are brutalized in ways that come too close to real life for comfort…” (pg. 77). It’s true too, that the genders are each represented in their reflections on the screen and this encourages the impulse to identify the impulse of committing sexual violence with men as well as the victimization in their female counterparts. While that association isn’t necessarily flattering to the emboldened female of the modern age, it’s been a trope for such a long time that it’s hard to deny its root in historical facts. Cross-gender identification can and has been entertained as a possibility, but only in the sense that the females watching can identify more closely with the male roles.

The Male Role in Horror: The Killer or the Failed Hero

These days, more often than not, the male viewer can only identify with two portrayals of himself—the killer or the failed hero—male parts are more marginalized, with few exceptions, their characters tend to be more underdeveloped and without fail they have a tendency to die early within the film. We see males portrayed as “policemen, fathers, and sheriffs,” who, if they don’t end up as a victim, only have enough screen time, “to demonstrate risible incompetence,” and if they’re not portrayed in this manner, they’re being portrayed as the killer.

The killer, the villain, the slasher, the butcher—he’s the one that competes with the first victim for the least amount of screen time. We barely see him during the first half of the film, but when we do finally see him as more than a silhouette or a brief flash across the camera we see a character that is hard to identify with.

Who is the Final Girl?

Gender and the Final Girl

Horror movies, especially slashers, have a tendency to boast large body counts—after all, excess is the name of the game—and as we’ve learned those bodies are usually females and pretty ones to boot. One thing that we also have a tendency to see within these same movies, is that the one character who does live to tell the tale, that is to say, if anyone is alive by the end, is fated to be female. This is the famous Final Girl that, we can reliably pick out of the crowd of horny teenagers based on her advanced character development.

Once picked out of the crowd, we see that her storyline is really the only one that has any attention paid to it—outside of the killer’s that is—unlike the rest of the female characters, she has been bestowed a more reasonable set of characteristics. If she’s not operating on pure luck, she likely impresses us with her intelligent watchful eye and her ability to stay more level-headed when she’s put under pressure. She’s typically the first one to notice anything is wrong, but this is generally chalked up to a “gut feeling” which shows us that her instincts are significantly greater than the characters that are more disposable. She is the only character whose view, or perspective, of the situation most closely matches our own as the audience.

We register her horror as she stumbles on the corpses of her friends; her paralysis in the face of death duplicates those moments of the universal nightmare experience on which horror frankly trades. When she downs the killer, we are triumphant. She is by any measure the slasher film’s hero. This is not to say that our attachment to her is exclusive and unremitting, only that it adds up, and that in the closing sequence it is very close to absolute.

Carol J. Clover, pg. 79 – Her body, himself: Gender in the slasher film

Women in Peril

While women in peril can be found in almost any genre—the damsel in distress is a popular motivation for any male antagonist. However, as Clover points out in her essay on gender within the slasher film, women in peril tend to work better within a genre of suspense. This stems from origins in such serial productions as The Perils of Pauline (1914); the consensus is that if we were to see a male and female wandering around a haunted house (or other precarious situation), we would invariably be more worried for the female than for the male. This perspective is all too accurate, despite the rise in female heroines in action movies and thrillers and has more to do with how much we can identify with gender and less to do with misogynistic perspectives.

Perhaps it’s the range of emotional expression that the genders are each allotted within these storylines, where the men are given the macho aggression or displays of force, women are given the displays of “crying, cowering, screaming, fainting, trembling, [and] begging for mercy.” In essence, the feminine reaction to violence, killing, or simply-put terrifying situations, is “abject terror”.

The Evolution of Perspective

We see within the beginning of these types of films that we have a more intimate view of the killer’s perspective; a perfect example of this would be the opening scene of Halloween (1978) where we are literally seeing through the eyes of a six-year-old Michael Myers as he watches his sister, who instead of babysitting him as she was supposed to, is getting it on with her boyfriend. We see him intentionally sneak through the house while his sister and her boyfriend are aggressively cuddling upstairs, and watch as he grabs the biggest sharpest knife available to him. While we don’t want to identify with this perspective, even though we are forced to see through this lens, we do experience the waxing anxiety that comes with him padding up the staircase and stabbing his breast-baring sister to death. To be quite frank though, it’s not necessarily the perspective that is really disturbing, it’s the moments where we hear the killer’s breathing or heartbeat.

This forced perspective links us, albeit unwillingly, with the killer during the earliest parts of the film, we know him before we know any other character of importance to the storyline. We know his perspective before we even know what he looks like, or in most cases, who he is and what his story might be. We know him before we know our Final Girl—this is done intentionally. Although in Final Girl (2015) we see the pattern flipped, so we see and know who the Final Girl is before we know who the bad guys are (and oddly almost want to identify with them right before they are taken out by our heroine). Aside from the minor outliers to this pattern, the progression of the film leads our shift of perspectives from the killer to the Final Girl. As Clover cleverly stated, “our closeness to him wanes as our closeness to the Final Girl waxes—a shift underwritten by storyline as well as camera position.”

By the end, point of view is hers: we are in the closet with her, watching with her eyes the knife blade stab through the door; in the room with her as the killer breaks through the window and grabs at her; in the car with her as the killer stabs through the convertible top, and so on. With her, we become if not the killer of the killer then the agent of his expulsion from the narrative vision. If, during the film’s course, we shifted our sympathies back and forth, and dealt them out to other characters along the way, we belong in the end to the Final Girl; there is no alternative.

Carol J. Clover, pg. 79 – Her body, himself: Gender in the slasher film

Final Thoughts on the Final Girl

Ultimately when it comes to the Final Girl, I don’t see mysogynistic screenplays, instead I see simple tropes in horror that were stumbled upon by writers who ultimately understood the value of a character that everyone could root for. It’s a human condition to thrive off of excess, this is true for, “sex, violence, and emotion [as they] are fundamental elements of the sensation effects of [pornography, horror, and melodrama],”—we grasp for the gratuitously violent, the gratuitously sexual, and the gratuitously depressing because of the effect they have on our bodies (Williams; pg. 3).

If we were to try to label the reason for the existence of these “heavy doses of sex, violence, and emotion,” we would have to face the fact that they are there for no other reason except to excite us into reacting. Therefore, when we see this Final Girl and her implicit androgyny, her assumed virginal state, her intelligence, and her eagle-eye for understanding the situation that is unfolding before her and we say, “Yep! That would be me if I were in that situation!” We think to ourselves that we would never be the first one to die, we would run out of the house instead of cornering ourselves upstairs, we would never look back while we were running and would therefore never trip over our own feet—and we would never ever utter the phrase, “I’ll be right back.”

Work Cited

Crow, David, et al. “The 13 Best Final Girls in Horror Movie History.” Den of Geek, 30 Sept. 2020.

Kendrick, James. “Slasher Films and Gore in the 1980s.” A Companion to the Horror Film, by Harry M. Benshoff, Wiley Blackwell, Chichester, West Sussex, 2017.

Lentini, Lori. “5 Horror Movies Where Females Took a Big Bite Out of the Bad Guy.” Puzzle Box Horror, 27 Apr. 2020.

Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 4, 1991, pp. 2–13.

Rosemary’s Baby Review: Terror in Plain Sight

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Featured Reviews Scary Movies and Series Women in Horror
Rosemary's Baby (1968) movie poster
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Roman Polanski’s 1968 disturbing film, Rosemary’s Baby can technically be counted within the supernatural horror sub-genre. In truth, the horrific nature of this film lays within the details. The deeply disturbing psychological trauma, sexual assault, and domestic imprisonment that our pitiably petite Rosemary endures is what is horrifying. After all, what is psychological horror if not a gut-wrenchingly elongated and personally traumatizing?

We summarized Rosemary’s Baby last January when it was featured on Netflix, but we never explored this psychological horror show. There are many different topics to focus on as they exist within the walls of Rosemary’s bourgeois prison. Women face danger as the direct result of the history of inequities between men and women. Therefore, I decided to analyze the grotesque nature of these inequities as they existed as little as sixty years ago.

As a woman who has experienced domestic violence, I feel uniquely qualified to dissect this movie; one in three women will experience domestic violence at one point or another in their lifetime. The horrors that Rosemary faces in her own domestic prison hit so close to home for women everywhere. My own experience with an abusive husband taught me the code of red flags. When it comes to identifying them as they present themselves, I could spot them at sea with a spyglass. Rosemary has one up on me; I’ve never given birth to the antichrist and I only joke with my daughter that she’s demon spawn.

The Psychological Horror Show and the Slow Burn

From the offset, we see what is effectively being masked as a happy and healthy marriage. The relationship between meek and dreamy Rosemary and her D-List actor husband is pruned for the public. She nearly swoons every time someone asks what he does for a living; recalling every role he’s played as if to impress upon others how successful he is. I recognize this as a coping mechanism they use to convince themselves that, “he’s actually a great guy!” Guy, Rosemary’s husband, is definitely charming when there is company around—abusers usually are. Domestic strain isn’t visible from the outside looking in, instead we see it in the details—after all, that’s where the devil usually lies.

Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Mia Farrow as Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Satanic Cults and the Antichrist

https://puzzleboxhorror.comdemons-satanism/

We’ve talked about Satanism and the religions that are associated with the image of Lucifer and Baphomet; we’ve discovered how they aren’t actually evil, or dark as might be suggested by modern media or popular culture. You can find more about them in our article here.

I decided to start the discussion here because it’s arguably the least horrifying thing that Rosemary actually experiences. In fact, this movie is about as supernatural as a park bench; any supernatural elements that are present within the movie are seemingly confined to drug-induced dream states—until the end…

Rosemary: Mother of the Antichrist

Early on in the film, Rosemary befriends a woman around her age by the name of Terry. They two share an innocent interaction where Terry, still under the spell of the Castevet’s elderly charm, sings their praise. Before they are able to speak again, Terry’s skull is cracked open on the sidewalk; in a disturbing mystery of how she fell from the apartment she shared with the elderly couple. It’s never fully explained in the movie and I haven’t read Ira Levin’s novel; so, I’m unsure of the reason behind her death according to canon. There are, however, several different theories to go along with her death. All of which are quickly swept under the rug as characters continue on, relatively unmoved after Terry’s apparent suicide.

Paranoia, Superstition, and the Unlikely truths

Whether Terry killed herself instead of submitting herself to the Devil for the benefit of the cult, or she was killed because of her unwillingness to comply, it’s clear that she was previously designated to be the host for Satan’s child. The Castavets had kept their distance from Rosemary and Guy prior to Terry’s death, having only made an appearance through their voices carrying through the shared walls. Luckily for the Castavets, they have a new host who consistently puts the interests of others before her own, Rosemary made the perfect candidate for their cult to impregnate.

Domestic Abuse and Rape Culture Explored

There is the age-old argument that marriage makes any intimacy automatically consensual—this certainly would have been the attitude of the time in which this film was created—or the years directly preceding its creation, since the time it was based in was the mid-1960s, versus the late 1960s. Fortunately for women, this attitude has changed dramatically and consent is what establishes whether or not rape has been committed.

There is an incredibly disturbing moment within the film, however, where anyone who has been taken advantage of sexually might feel their skin crawl. It’s the morning after Guy and Rosemary have a romantic dinner at home, complete with desert courtesy of their neighbor Minnie Castevet. This is not discounting of course the scenes that stretch the span between the desert and the next morning—where Rosemary notices that her chocolate treat “has a chalky undertaste,” and Guy coerces her into eating it by guilting her into believing she’s an awful person if she doesn’t. He leaves the room long enough for Rosemary to dump most of her cup into her cloth napkin, which she later dumps into the trash, and then she pretends she’s eaten the rest by the time he comes back into the room.

Drugging Rosemary for the Purpose of Rape

As Rosemary is getting rid of the evidence in her napkin, she nearly falls over—she’s clearly drugged—and Guy comes to her rescue. What a gentleman. When she finally collapses as he’s helping her down the hall, he scoops her up and hurries to the bedroom with her. What follows is, the half-drugged waking dream sequence where Rosemary has lost all control of the situation—a horror for any woman—and she as well as the audience is unsure of whether or not what she’s seeing is real. It is and it isn’t—at this point we’re not sure, but one thing we are certain of is that her neighbor drugged her desert so that her husband could get her into a vulnerable position.

Why would this be necessary if they were already trying to conceive a child you might ask? Well, as her dream sequence reveals, it’s so that her husband Guy can be assured that his wife won’t wake up as he and the residents of the apartment building perform a satanic ritual in which she becomes pregnant with the antichrist. It makes you wonder, if she had eaten all of the pudding (chocolate mousse) would the following paranoia and suffering have occurred at all?

There are some moments of clarity for Rosemary as it’s all happening where she realizes, even in her drugged state, that what is happening to her is not right and that she has not consented to what is being done to her. When she wakes up the next morning, she assumes that she’s just had a bad dream until she notices the scratches that run down the length of her side—the ones that the Devil gave to her in her waking nightmare. Guy, already aware that they’re there, immediately tells her not to be upset that he scratched her, that it was an accident because he was in too much of a rush to take advantage of her.

Rosemary: What time did I go to sleep?
Guy: You didn’t go to sleep. You passed out. From now on you get cocktails or wine, not cocktails and wine, hm?
Rosemary: The dreams I had.
[Rosemary notices the scratches]
Guy: Don’t yell. I already filed them down. I didn’t want to miss baby night. A couple of nails were ragged.
Rosemary: While I was out?
Guy: It was fun, in a necrophile sort of way.
Rosemary: I dreamed someone was raping me, I think it was someone inhuman.
Guy: Thanks a lot. Whatsa matter?
Rosemary: Nothing.
Guy: I didn’t want to miss the night.
Rosemary: We could have done it this morning or tonight. Last night wasn’t the only split-second.
Guy: I was a little bit loaded myself, you know.

Rosemary is outwardly upset about the fact that he openly admitted to having sex with her while she was passed out, but even more disturbed when Guy jokes that “it was fun, in a necrophile sort of way.” She is obviously bothered by the whole thing but doesn’t press the issue further—evidence of the abusive silence and gas-lighting that must regularly occur in their relationship already.

Paranoia, Superstition and the Unlikely Truths

The tumultuous whirlwind of paranoia, superstition, and wild theories that follows her rape and impregnation by the Devil is more than a little difficult on Rosemary—physically, emotionally, and psychologically it’s almost like she’s carrying the child of Satan. I kid, of course, because obviously she’s carrying the child of Satan. She doesn’t know that though, she chalked the dream up to be nothing more than an alcohol-addled nightmare and upon finding out she was actually pregnant was as happy as she could possibly be. The weeks and months that followed her impregnation were spent being taken under the wing of her controlling and abrasive neighbors Minnie and Roman Castevet. They get her to go to a doctor of their choosing, by saying they’re doing her a favor—he’s the best doctor, after all, plus he’s a life-long friend and won’t charge her as much as he usually does.

More Gas-lighting and the Final Reveal

Her obstetrician, doctor Saperstein dictates that her neighbor Minnie will be providing her all the prenatal vitamins she needs through herbal remedies in drink and cake form—he demands that she doesn’t read any books or talk to any of her friends about her pregnancy because “every pregnancy is different,” at first he seems to be a little domineering, but well-meaning. Eventually it becomes clear to Rosemary that something is wrong, after finally speaking to her friends—they tell her she looks awful and when she indicates she’s been in pain for a length of time, they suggest that she get a second doctor’s opinion. This doesn’t go over well with Guy. Luckily for Guy, the Castevets, and Dr. Saperstein, just as Rosemary is about to get a second opinion the pain suddenly vanishes and the rest of her pregnancy is generally problem free. That is, until she receives a book from her friend Hutch, which explains how they are all witches that have formed a plot to take her baby. Rosemary misunderstands though, they’re witches of course, they definitely want to take her baby, but not to use as a sacrifice—that’s their dark lord and savior growing in her womb.

This is where she once again is gaslit by all of the people in her life—the only people in her life—the ones who control every second of every day and have become a living prison for Rosemary. Rosemary’s paranoia has amped up, at this point, to such a degree that she tries to escape the clutches of those around her—eventually getting to the office of her one-time obstetrician Dr. Hill and explaining how there is a plot against her. Dr. Hill pretends he is on her side, puts her in one of his birthing rooms and has her take a nap. When she awakes, Dr. Saperstein and Guy are there to take her home. We learn through all of Rosemary’s paranoia and investigation that her husband became complicit in this plot as a means to achieve fame and fortune—a price he has to pay now that the role he lost to another man was suddenly given to him after the other man suddenly and mysteriously went blind.

When Rosemary finally has the baby, they continue to sedate her and when she finally starts hiding the pills and is coherent enough to question what happened to her baby, she’s told that her child died shortly after birth. Cool story bro, except why is there suddenly a baby crying in the Castevet’s apartment? Rosemary tells them all that they can miss her with that bullshit when she forces her way into the room with the crying baby and discovers her child as well as “his eyes.”

Rosemary’s baby is the son of Satan and when the film ends, we see her warming up to the idea of actually mothering the antichrist.

Feminism and Women’s Rights in the 1960s

It’s frightening to think that less than sixty years ago, women in the United States still didn’t have the basic freedoms that we take for granted today. Unmarried women couldn’t have credit cards,—what’s more is that 1960s scientists and psychiatrists often believed that a man beating or raping his wife while under the influence could actually be considered a good thing. They considered it, “violent, temporary therapy,” that remedied a man’s insecurities over letting his wife run the house and remedied a woman’s guilt over emasculating her husband. This of course is complete and utter bullshit.

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Unfortunately for Rosemary, having grown up in an era of repression, she does what she’s told (for the most part, without question). It’s only when she’s encouraged by her less repressed group of friends that she begins to think for herself. Even after being clued into what is really going on by her girlfriends and her former landlord, Hutch, she still doesn’t leave until the last possible moment. When she does eventually try to escape, it’s not for her own well-being, but for that of her child. Just as we fear, the one person she believes she can trust, her former obstetrician Dr. Hill chalks her fears up to paranoia and hysteria from pre-partum stressors. In the end, he betrays her trust and hands her back to her abusers.

Rosemary’s Baby Explained: Realism and Control

Final Thoughts

There are more disturbing elements in this movie than could ever possibly be discussed in one article. However, since I’m an overachiever, I dug at all of the issues that I found pertinent to the conversation. If you think I’ve missed something and you’d like to discuss it further, feel free to leave a comment! If you disagree with anything I have said here, I encourage you to share your opinion! I would love to discuss this movie further with fans of the genre.

All of that being said, there are a couple of things that I wanted to address about this particular movie. These things don’t necessarily have to do with the content of the movie itself, but they’re worth mentioning.

Polanski—The Predator

There are very few people who are not aware of the criminal background of Polanski, but Rosemary’s Baby was actually filmed before the scandal ever came to the forefront of public knowledge—so viewing this film with the knowledge of Polanski being a predator might not be the best lens through which to focus.

The Backstory—Our Disclaimer

At the time of the film’s release, Polanski had only been married to Sharon Tate for about five months and it’s alleged that Polanski wanted to cast Tate for the part of Rosemary, but Maurice Evans—the man who played Hutch—insisted upon Mia Farrow for the role. A little over a year after the film’s release, in August 1969, Tate and her friends were stabbed to death by the followers of Charles Manson. Tate, at the time, was over eight months pregnant with Polanski’s child.

Less than a decade after all of this, Polanski was charged and convicted of drugging and raping a thirteen-year-old girl. Polanski fled the country before he was able to be incarcerated. To this day, Polanski is still alive and well, with dual citizenship in France and Poland. Since his conviction and subsequent identification as a pedophile and child rapist, Polanski has continued to be a celebrated name. Disturbingly, he’s been nominated for over fifty awards and won quite a few of them since his conviction. Some of the nominations and awards were received as recently as 2020. Needless to say, this gross corruption of the entertainment industry is far from an isolated event; the last thing Polanski should be remembered for is his creative “genius,” when “child rapist” is a more suitable title.

Fuck Roman Polanski.

Work Cited

Dockterman, Eliana. “Domestic Violence: 50 Years Ago, Doctors Called It ‘Therapy’.” Time, Time, 25 Sept. 2014.

“The Horror Film BIRTH TRAUMAS: PARTURITION AND HORROR IN ROSEMARY’S BABY.” Cinematernity: Film, Motherhood, Genre, by Lucy Fischer, Princeton University Press, 2014, pp. 73–89.

Huntley, Chris. “MenuDramatica® The Next Chapter in Story Development.” Dramatica, dramatica.com/analysis/rosemarys-baby.

McElhaney, Joe. “Urban Irrational: ROSEMARY’S BABY, POLANSKI, NEW YORK.” City That Never Sleeps: New York and the Filmic Imagination, by Murray Pomerance, Rutgers University Press, 2007, pp. 201–213.

McLaughlin, Katie. “5 Things Women Couldn’t Do in the 1960s.” CNN, Cable News Network, 25 Aug. 2014.

Sharrett, Christopher. “The Horror Film as Social Allegory (And How It Comes Undone).” A Companion to the Horror Film, by Harry M. Benshoff, Wiley Blackwell, 2017.

Night of the Living Dead: Social Commentary in Horror Cinema

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Night of the Living Dead (1968) was hardly the first zombie film—in fact, it was the fortieth, for those of you who like useless trivia facts—but it is possibly the most memorable of the older zombie classics. It’s not hard to see why it has persisted for the last fifty-three years, enduring beyond the renown of such modern zombie sensations, such as The Walking Dead (2010 – Present) and Train to Busan/Busanhaeng (2016). What most modern films and television shows of the horror genre seem to gloss over is their captive audience. Therein lies the opportunity for commentary on the civil rights issues that are still incredibly relevant in the present day.

One notable exception to missed opportunities for commentary being Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017)—but we can get to that one later. For now, we’ll just focus on the message of Night of the Living Dead. As Tom Gunning explained in his essay, “confrontation rules the cinema of attractions in both the form of its films and their mode of exhibition. The directness of this act of display allows an emphasis on the thrill itself—the immediate reaction of the viewer,” (“An Aesthetic of Astonishment”, 122)—this thrill that we get from controversial messages and images on display within films is one of the main reasons we watch horror. Excitement is king.

They’re coming to get you, Barbara!

Johnny in Night of the Living Dead (1968)
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A line of undead ‘zombies’ walk through a field in the night

What is Night of the Living Dead about?

At face value, this movie is just a story about survivors of a zombie apocalypse stumbling upon one another, clashing personalities, and finally a begrudging combining of forces to fend off the zombie hoard that surrounds the farmhouse that they each found and decided to hunker down in for safety. One by one, these survivors each ends up dying, until we see the last man standing—Ben, emerged cautiously from his secure space in the cellar of the farmhouse to find that police and other volunteers were roaming around, killing the zombies, and reclaiming their land for the safety of the living.

Unfortunately for Ben, these rescuers are less focused on finding survivors and more focused on mindlessly putting down anything they find that moves. While that might simply be interpreted as bad luck for our main character, Romero’s decision for this ending was actually fairly controversial considering the time in which it had been created. Now you might be asking yourself, where does the conversation of civil rights factor into this? Well, buckle up, buttercup—we’re just getting started.

Night of the Living Dead (1968) Movie Poster
Night of the Living Dead (1968) Movie Poster

Controversial Social Commentary

“Curiositas draws the viewer towards unbeautiful sights, such as a mangled corpse, and ‘because of this disease of curiosity monsters and anything out of the ordinary are put on show in our theatres,’” (Gunning, 124). Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) gives us these “unbeautiful sights” in spades. Consider the special effects that were available to directors at that time—the glimpses of a woman with her face eaten off at the top of the stairs and zombies ripping flesh off of bones after an unfortunate accidental explosion of the getaway vehicle were the literal encapsulation of this concept. The intangible concepts within this film are the reflections of society and how little progress has been made since 1968.

Ben giving Barbara slippers in Night of the Living Dead
Ben giving Barbara slippers

Freud pinpoints the appeal of the horror story. He begins by discussing the etymological root of the word “uncanny” in German, a word long associated with the horror genre, demonstrating how both the word and its opposite are very close in definition and usage… ‘it may be true that the uncanny [unheimlich] is something which is secretly familiar [heimlich-heimlisch], which has undergone repression and returned from it, and that everything is uncanny fulfills this condition.’ … Freud … hit upon the key to understanding the core of the horror genre. Horror is dissimilar from much of [the] science fiction genre in which the threatening ‘monster’ (often created because of the interference of science or technology)—whether it be alien, atomic mutant, or cyborg—is portrayed as the Other which must be destroyed or controlled by science, often in conjunction with the military/industrial complex, in order to save humanity. Horror tends rather to concentrate on another type of ‘Other,’ an ‘Other’ which is very familiar and because of that much more frightening, an ‘Other’ which is rooted in our psyche, in our fears and obsessions.

James Ursini, pg. 4 of the Introduction in The Horror Film Reader

The Civil Rights Movement

From 1954 to 1968 the Civil Rights Movement empowered Black Americans and their like-minded allies. They battled against systemic racism (or institutionalized racial discrimination), disenfranchisement, and racial segregation within the United States. The brave efforts of civil rights activists and innumerable protesters brought meaningful change to the US, through changes in legislation; these changes ended segregation, voter suppression for Black Americans, as well as discriminatory employment and housing practices.

The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

There were tragic consequences for two of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. With the assassination of Malcolm X on February 21, 1965, and the subsequent assassination of Civil Rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. Each of these losses to the movements provoked an emotionally-charged response; looting and riots put even more pressure on President Johnson to push through civil rights laws that still sat undecided.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968

The Fair Housing Act became law on April 11, 1968. It came just days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; too little too late, but it prevented housing discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, and religion. It was also the last piece of legislation that was made into law during the civil rights era.

Casting a Black Actor in a Non-Ethnic Role

The way the lead character Ben was written originally with Rudy Ricci. Surprisingly, however, when 31-year-old African American actor Duane Jones auditioned for the part, the decision to cast him was unanimous. Even Rudy Ricci was on board with the change in plans, stating that, “Hey, this [was] the guy that should be Ben.”

Duane Jones—the Anti-Ben

Romero recalled that Jones had been the best option when it came to casting the part of Ben, and remarked that, “if there was a film with a black actor in it, it usually had a racial theme.” He even saw fit to mention that he resisted writing new dialogue for the part just because they had cast a black lead. It was assumed that Jones was the first black actor to be cast in a non-ethnic-specific starring role, but that barrier was broken by Sidney Poitier in 1965.

Interestingly enough, the role of Ben was supposed to be a gruff, crude, yet resourceful trucker. His essence was that of an uneducated or lower class person. On the other hand, Jones happened to be very well-educated, with fluency in several languages, obtained a B.A. at the University of Pittsburgh, and an M.A. at NYU. Jones was the one who flipped the script, improvising through the dialogue to portray his interpretation of Ben as a well-spoken, educated, and capable character. Therefore, as originally written, white Ben was a stereotype whereas Jones turned the character into the antithesis of a stereotypical black ben.

So why was Night of the Living Dead so controversial?

Even though Ben is the protagonist, he was never meant to be the hero—in fact, Ben was supposed to represent just an everyday Joe, who “simply reacted to an irrational situation with strong survival instincts and a competence that, though far from infallible, surpassed that of his five adult companions trapped in that zombie-besieged farmhouse,” (Kane). What we would expect in terms of racially heated arguments, we only witness the palpable tension that displays what goes unsaid. What also may not occur to modern viewers as being controversial, is the portrayal of a black man and a white woman being locked up alone in a house together. Segregation may have begun over a decade prior, but racism doesn’t die overnight just because laws are changed.

The “Final Guy”

The tragic ending of Night of the Living Dead was a commentary on real injustices that were happening at the time, as well as a foreshadowing of an issue that has doggedly limped into the systemic racism of the twenty-first century. The world was facing its end of days. The threat of the undead rising from their graves and feeding off of the living was enough to pull everyone together to stay alive—but racism was still alive and well. Unlike most of his African-American male successors of horror, Ben does not fall victim to the black character stereotype by being the first character to die. Ben makes it to the end—the so-called “final” guy—he was able to save himself when the house was overrun by the living dead. Then, after all of his hardship, he ends up dying at the hands of the gun-toting police officers.

Ben was wielding a gun, he was clearly not a revenant, and the sharpshooter who put one between Ben’s eyes could very obviously see this—his death affected not a soul in that situation, his life in plain language was unworthy of continuing in the eyes of the men who were supposed to serve and protect the living, who instead of seeing a human being, perceived a threat. The ending that Romero’s film allowed to linger in the minds of the audience was controversial because it made people think. It made them look at the social and political issues that were washing over the United States all around them; Romero delivered in that two minutes ending, a message that was unforgettable. It has thusly endured through the culture of horror and has continued to inspire modern horror cinema.

Final Thoughts

If classical Hollywood style is posited as the norm, then filmmaking practices that deviate from it risk becoming seen as “primitive” (such as early cinema) or “excessive” (such as genres where spectacle often seems to trump narrative, including musicals and horror films).

Adam Lowenstein, “Living Dead: Fearful Attractions of Film”

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Interested in watching the full film now that you’ve read this article? Well, you’re in luck—this film is now in the public domain and can be watched online for free.

Work Cited

Gunning, Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator.” Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film, by Linda Williams, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 1995, pp. 114–133.

Lowenstein, Adam. “Living Dead: Fearful Attractions of Film.” Representations, vol. 110, no. 1, 2010, pp. 105–128. JSTOR. Accessed 19 Jan. 2021.

Kane, Joe. “How Casting a Black Actor Changed ‘Night of the Living Dead’.” TheWrap, 1 Sept. 2010.

Harper, Stephen. “Bright Lights Film Journal: Night of the Living Dead.” Bright Lights Film Journal | Night of the Living Dead.

Ursini, James, and Curtis Harrington. “Introduction/Ghoulies and Ghosties.” The Horror Film Reader, by Alain Silver, Limelight Ed., 2006, pp. 3–19.