Monster Mash: Medicalization of the Female Body in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and ‘The Exorcist’

October is finally upon us! It’s the time for cozy sweaters, making everything taste like pumpkin and, most importantly, horror films. Of course, sometimes it can be hard to decide what to watch, and if you are anything like me one is never enough. That is why, for each week in the month of October, Much Ado About Cinema’s Monster Mash series is providing you with a double feature program and delving into why and how they go together like fava beans and a nice Chianti.

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Rosemary’s Baby

Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby is a powerful depiction of a young woman’s bodily autonomy being taken away from her. On the surface, it is a terrifying depiction of motherhood, but it is also a film about male entitlement, expectations of women to be good mothers and better housewives, and the medicalization of female bodies. When Rosemary (Mia Farrow) feels there is something wrong with the child growing inside of her, she is told by both her doctor and her husband that she is wrong and that they know what is best for her and her body. When she finally realizes that something is truly wrong, and that the people around her are not looking out for her best interest, she breaks away to find a doctor who she feels will actually listen to her. For much of the film, we follow Rosemary through a haze, unsure what is reality and what is hallucinated but wanting so badly to believe her. When she finally unveils to him the conspiracy she believes is being set out against her, the audience realizes just how crazy it all sounds. We are terrified because we know that there is no way anyone will believe the words of this “hysterical” woman. The most terrifying part of Rosemary’s Baby was never the witchcraft or Satanism, but how Rosemary’s control over her own body was so easily stripped from her by the authoritative men she is surrounded by.

The Exorcist

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William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is most popular for its disgusting and terrifying special effects, and also Damien Karras ( who gives the hot TikTok priest a run for his money (or maybe that’s just me), but it is certainly more than a demonic possession movie. Regan Macneil (Linda Blair) is a twelve-year-old girl who messes around with a Ouija board and accidentally invites a demon into her house, although she sees him as an imaginary friend and names him Mr. Howdy.  Before our young protagonist is fully possessed and walking on all fours up some stairs, however, she starts to show small hints of something being … off. Clearly, this possession reads as a metaphor for the woes of puberty. Specifically, female puberty. Mood swings, uncontrollable body functions (at one point in the film, Regan pisses in the middle of the floor during one of her mother’s house parties), and masturbation are all depicted as disturbing awful things happening to Regan throughout the film.

Worried about her daughter’s health, Regan’s mother (Ellen Burstyn) consults multiple physicians to try and figure out what is wrong with her daughter. She is taken through an onslaught of invasive tests, including a spinal tap. The audience is forced to watch as Regan is poked and prodded and cries out in immense pain, with the scene dragging on for what feels like ages only for the doctors to conclude that there is in fact nothing wrong with her.

But, just to be sure, they should do another spinal tap. For me, it is the most painful scene in the entire film because nothing hurts more than watching a child go through immense pain, and it is only worsened to know that there is absolutely no reason to this pain. Although the audience knows that Regan is becoming possessed by a demonic entity, these doctors simply see a young girl acting out and acting “hysterical,” and believe she must have something medically wrong with her. These doctors are not related at all to the demon that haunts Regan, and yet they feel the most sadistic of all.

Double Feature Name: The Devil and the Doctor 

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Right off the bat, there are surface similarities between Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. They are both adapted from novels by directors who are without a doubt really awful, shitty people and they both deal with demons and the occult. On a deeper level, their similarities also lie in how they both deal with the possession of a female body and the subsequent mistreatment of it by male authorities—specifically doctors. In so doing, they provoke an interesting and powerful commentary on the way that women’s bodies are medicalized. More precisely, these films draw our attention to how the medicalisation of women’s bodies functions to rob them of their bodily autonomy, especially by patriarchal authorities. 

Polanski claims he was unaware that he was able to take liberties and stray from the source material of Ira Levin’s novel. How much of the feminist undertones in the film were intended by Polanski, though, is hard to say. Just as many horror films have homoerotic subtext that the creators claim they were completely unaware of (I’m looking at you, Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge), it seems entirely possible that films can transgress boundaries and make scathing commentaries about society without that being the initial intent of the artist. It happens often in the world of film that audiences offer alternative interpretations that were never intended by its creators, but this phenomenon seems to happen at a much higher frequency with horror films. Horror deals with repressed fears and the monster as allegory so it seems only fitting that a specific message could appear to the audience, even while completely alluding the creators. 

Whether they knew what they were doing or not, it is worth noting that both films have terrifying scenes of men overpowering women with needles and absolutely no devils or demons in sight. In fact, the doctors in these films can be interpreted as a form of corrupting religion in their own right. In 1979, Doctor Robert Mendelsohn critiques Western medicine by likening it to religion. According to Mendelsohn, female patients were expected to have complete faith in their physicians and partake in any surgery or swallow any drugs they were told to. In a field where menopause and pregnancy were seen and treated like diseases, this was incredibly dangerous. In his book “Mal(e) practice: How Doctor’s Manipulate Women,” Mendelsohn explains that “if you are a woman in America, the greatest danger to your health is, in all likelihood, your own doctor.“

When watching two films in which beings from hell possess, overtake and harm the female body, it is all the more disturbing that the much more horrifying component in each of them is the very human, very male, and very ignorant doctors whom our protagonists believe are helping them.

You may check out the rest of our Monster Mash series here. 

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