'Suspiria,' 'Rosemary's Baby,' and the Two Types of Body Horror

A look at women's bodies, the patriarchy, and villainy in two horror masterpieces.

Dakota Johnson Suspiria
Amazon Studios

Warning: Spoilers for Suspiria (2018)

Luca Gudagnino’s Suspiria, a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic, is, among many things, a welcome entry into the body horror subgenre. Plenty of the new film’s scenes are guaranteed to rival even your favorite (or least favorite?) David Cronenberg moments. Eat your heart out, Jeff Goldblum’s prolonged and repulsive transformation into a human-fly hybrid!

Suspiria tells the story of Suzy Bannion (Dakota Johnson, finally in a role that suits her vast talent), former Mennonite and wickedly gifted dancer, who arrives at the Markos Dance Academy in West Berlin in 1977. Eager to prove her worth, she auditions and quickly impresses the academy’s head instructor, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). She earns a spot as a pupil and takes up residence at the academy. But strange happenings are afoot, and it would appear that the Markos Company is secretly being run by a coven of powerful witches.

The first look anyone got at the new Suspiria, after months of excruciating anticipation, was last April at CinemaCon in Las Vegas. Guadagnino showed the audience the first clip from his new film…during lunch. And dramatic reactions rapidly hit Twitter: people had vomited! And just like that we officially had word that Guadagnino was diving in head first, body horror wise, with his adaptation.

The scene in question was, of course, the moment in which Madame Blanc cosmically links Suzy to another dancer: poor, poor Olga. As Suzy throws herself into a passionate performance for her fellow dancers and new instructors, Olga finds herself alone in a room lined wall to wall with mirrors. Olga’s body begins to violently toss itself around in unison with Suzy’s movements until she is essentially contorted into a human pretzel. Guadagnino captures the whole bloody, urine-soaked affair and doesn’t let us miss a moment, guaranteeing that movie-goers will watch this scene with hands half-covering their eyes.

Besides the obvious and simple definition of body horror (graphic and disturbing violations of the human body caught on film), film theorist Linda Williams recognizes another key characteristic for the genre. She contends that successful body horror “is often measured by the degree to which the audience sensation mimics what is seen on the screen.” And this scene from Suspiria definitely delivers. Olga’s nightmarish “dance” will undoubtedly invoke some kind of catharsis in viewers and characters-alike.

So that’s body horror. But what term should one use to describe the unique terror that befalls  Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) in another witch-centric horror movie: Rosemary’s Baby? A quick reminder about the 1968 film: young, attractive married couple Guy (John Cassavetes) and Rosemary move into a beautiful, old building in New York City. There they meet their strange older neighbors Roman and Minnie Castevet, who are a little annoying, but also very smart and well traveled. More importantly, though, they are witches and members of a secret coven along with several of the building’s other tenants.

Soon enough, Rosemary unwittingly becomes the key player in a deal with the devil. The Castevets, who quickly recognize Rosemary as the perfect candidate, approach Guy with a proposition. And he agrees: offering Rosemary up to carry satan’s child in return for immense success in his acting career. Rosemary is subsequently drugged and raped and then afterward assured it was all just a dream. She endures a long pregnancy, chockfull of blinding pain (“it’s like a wire inside me getting tighter and tighter,”) and gaslighting from anyone she turns to for help. Almost everyone in her life (even her doctor!) conspires to make sure Satan’s only living son is successfully carried to term, no matter at what cost to Rosemary.

The horror in Rosemary’s Baby remains body-centric, even without actual body horror. The threat she faces is in her own body: the spawn of Satan growing in her womb. It’s leeching her nutrients and making her ill amidst her tragically futile attempt to fulfill her motherly duties to what she believes is her own beloved, human child.

Suspiria and Rosemary’s Baby are therefore not simply alike because of witches and covens, but also for each film’s intent focus on women’s bodies. One of the best things about 2018’s Suspiria is the gorgeous, original score that Thom Yorke created for the film. The first song from which we hear in the movie is called “Suspirium“. It opens with this lyric: “This is a waltz thinking about our bodies / What they mean for our salvation.”

Suspiria and Rosemary’s Baby both tackle this idea, but take different paths to do so. Suspiria, with a focus on classic body horror (in other words: physical), and Rosemary’s Baby with a focus on psychological “body horror”.  The thing that makes this difference so interesting is, as Rosemary spells out in scrabble pieces in an iconic scene, “all of them witches.”

All Of Them Witches

Both films feature witches, yet, the villains of each story are not who you might initially point to. Yes, the Castevets and their coven are pretty awful. But the real villain of Rosemary’s Baby is undoubtedly Guy and all the patriarchal notions about female bodily autonomy that he represents.

Not only does he unequivocally rob Rosemary of any and all agency by pawning her off as if she’s an item in his possession to be bartered, but he also goes on to gaslight her for nine months afterward. He isolates her from her friends, refuses to let her see other doctors, and assures her that anything that appears out of the ordinary should just be chalked up to her own foolishness.

For the most part, Rosemary simply takes it. The way that Guy acts and treats her isn’t seen as too far from what is expected in a marriage. Because while all of this happens in relation to an outlandish, unrealistic scenario (a deal with Satan, a demon baby, etc.), Guy’s betrayal and constant emotional abuse remain grounded in reality.

When Rosemary awakes the morning after the coven drugs her and allows Satan to rape her, she inquires to Guy about the scratches all over her back. He responds apologetically through laughs and admits that he should’ve cut his nails. He goes on to explain that he had sex with her after she passed out. Didn’t want to miss baby night, he says. Rosemary is clearly horrified by this revelation.  But ultimately, in the world of the film (basically, society in 1966), has no grounds on which to be. Marital rape, appallingly, was legal at this time and remained legal until 1984 in New York. And Guy, even though he is lying, sees no reason why Rosemary would be upset that he took advantage of her and her unconscious body while she was passed out.

Suspiria, on the other hand, presents much more of a grey zone when it comes to villainy. I know what you’re thinking: the witches who pick out dancers from their studio as bodies to sacrifice to their gods (whom they call mothers) are obviously the villains. And I hear you. A lot of what these witches do is, morally speaking, not ideal. Yet, the hero-villain dichotomy in the film remains blurred.

This is thanks to Suzy and her secret identity. Suzy is our protagonist, so as expected, we see the film through her lens. For the most part, we identify with her and hope for her success and prosperity. We definitely sympathize with and feel deeply for other innocent, non-witch characters (Patricia, Sarah, and Dr. Klemperer, to name a few), but ultimately, Suzy remains our priority.

So when she finally reveals herself to be a witch –and not just any witch, but Mother Suspiriorum: mother of sighs, wise and all-powerful, whom almost all of the coven’s witches awaited and now bow down to– it definitely changes things. But even after this revelation, Suzy, in a sense, maintains her innocent and kind persona. She treats all the characters we care about with (relative) care. She gifts Sarah and Patricia the sweet release of death at their request and apologizes to Dr. Klemperer on behalf of those who dragged him into the ritual. Maybe witches aren’t inherently evil, after all.

All of this is to say that Suzy’s (again– relative) benevolence and the film’s blurring of the lines between hero and villain tap into something interesting about how Suspiria uses body horror. The film gives the witches total autonomy. No one poses a significant threat to them and they hold tons and tons of power. This is definitely a new idea when it comes to witches. After all, remember witch-hunts? Outspoken women who refused to be trapped into society’s little box labeled “femininity” were accused of being witches and burned at the stake all over the world, at countless different times throughout history?

We can, therefore, view Suspiria’s use of body horror as simply an expression of the autonomy the women and witches of this film are gifted. The violence inflicted upon these character’s bodies definitely remains frightening and extreme and disgusting. But it’s still control over the female form gifted back to female characters. Even when characters are controlled by Madame Blanc, their agency remains in women’s hands. The film uses body horror to prove a point: Madame Blanc and her coven are not inherently evil, but instead representative of a dark but beautiful feminine power. By maintaining total bodily autonomy, and then pushing said bodies to the extreme in every possible sense, Suspiria makes women’s bodies equivalent to total empowerment. This is what their bodies mean for their salvation.

Rosemary, on the other hand, finds herself in a starkly opposite position, with every last shred of agency and autonomy viciously pried from her hands. Even the film denies her the potential catharsis of body horror by omitting such displays entirely from its world. Rosemary cannot enjoy the extreme power that the witches and women of Suspiria express through their ability to push their own bodies to appalling limits. Instead, Rosemary’s “body horror” all remains psychological, fitting in neatly with the gaslighting she endures.

All of them may be witches, but the cruelest, most gut-wrenching thing to be found in these two movies is undoubtedly Rosemary’s prolonged nine months of torture at the hands of the men in her life. Through both film’s meditations on the female body, I present my ultimate takeaway from Suspiria: witches aren’t inherently evil, but the patriarchy is.

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