Health Anxiety in the 1960s as a Motif in Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead
The desire to be healthy is a part of human nature. It could be a conscious desire, as exemplified by people who follow rigid diets and fitness plans to be their healthiest selves. Or it could be an unconscious desire, such as worrying about possible infection when one gets a cut, scrape, or other minor injuries. It is normal for most people to experience some anxiety about their health every now and then. However, this differs from illness anxiety, also known as hypochondria, which is a mental illness characterized by debilitating fears about oneself having a serious illness despite exhibiting little to no symptoms. 1 During the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become more common to feel and talk about health anxiety openly. Even people who are not hypochondriacs or do not have anxiety disorders are likely to have also felt health anxiety about the coronavirus due to its high rates of transmissibility and fatality rates.
Many films are explicitly about diseases, viruses, and/or health anxiety. These include World War Z (2013), The Happening (2008), Bird Box (2018), and so on. However, some films explore diseases, viruses, and/or health anxiety implicitly, by using allegory. These include the fear of syphilis in Nosferatu (1922), the fear of parasites in Alien (1979), and the fear of dementia in Relic (2020). This article explores the motif of health anxiety in the 1960s as seen in two films from the decade: Rosemary’s Baby (1968) directed by Roman Polanski and Night of the Living Dead (1968) directed by George A. Romero. The former explores health anxiety about women’s health and pregnancy and the latter explores health anxiety about exposure to nuclear toxins.
Polanski’s film was released during the women’s liberation movement. This movement included much discussion about women’s health and reproductive rights. At this time, marital rape was still legal, abortion was legal only in extenuating circumstances but even then, was highly stigmatized, and birth control pills had only just begun being sold explicitly as a contraceptive. While changes in favour of women’s bodily autonomy were finally underway, they were only in the beginning stages of development. This means that many women were still subject to the men in their lives making health decisions for them.
Rosemary’s Baby shows how “even for a woman who welcomes pregnancy, as Rosemary does, the experience may produce anxiety, fear, and ambivalence towards her own body, particularly if she is worried about the outcome of her pregnancy due to ill health”. 2 Her husband, Guy, makes all decisions about her impregnation without her knowledge. He conspires with the Castevets without her knowledge, agrees to have her drugged and raped, and offers her up to be the mother of Satan’s child. He also gaslights her throughout the film whenever she brings up her suspicions about the Castevets and the odd things she has been experiencing during her pregnancy. Additionally, her obstetrician, Dr. Sapirstein, is chosen by the Castevets. He dismisses Rosemary’s health concerns about her pregnancy and refuses to let her take vitamins, typically recommended for pregnant women at the time. Rosemary’s exclusion from decision-making and the dismissal of her concerns only exacerbated her anxieties for the welfare of both herself and the fetus.
During her early pregnancy, before she learns more about witchcraft and the Castevets involvement in it, it seems plausible to the audience that she is feeling normal amounts of stress and anxiety for a first pregnancy. However, when Rosemary insists on throwing a party with her friends, who are not tenants at The Bramford or friends of the Castevets, her anxieties about her health are validated. Unlike the Castevets who are significantly older and unlikely to believe in women’s bodily autonomy (as seen through their involvement in the plot to have Rosemary birth the devil’s child without her consent), Rosemary’s friends are young. When she shares the extreme abdominal pain and weight loss she has experienced during her pregnancy, along with the lack of vitamins, Dr. Sapirstein’s inadequate care, and Minnie’s suspicious daily tinctures, they confirm that this is unusual and uncharacteristic of a typical pregnancy. As women who are around the same age as Rosemary, they are likely to understand how the medical system ignores the valid health concerns of women and the need for women’s rights, including reproductive rights. The anxiety Rosemary feels about the health of the fetus and her health adds to the uneasy feeling that is characteristic of psychological horror films. While health anxiety is not a major theme in Rosemary’s Baby, it is an underlying motif that appears consistently throughout. This is similar to how women’s reproductive rights were not at the forefront of common discourse in the 1960s (as the women’s liberation movement was not accessible to all), but the need for it was felt by women throughout the world.
Influence of Political Culture
Another film that explores health anxiety implicitly is Night of the Living Dead. This film was conceptualized and released during the Cold War. This period of time was characterized by widespread fear of nuclear war due to the ongoing conflicts between the United States and the Soviet Union. Many events in the 1960s increased fear of nuclear war, including the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and the Space Race from 1957 to 1969. These events, along with the rise of the environmentalism movement, which began as anti-nuclear protests, explored the effects of manmade chemicals and toxins, such as pesticides, and their effects on the health of the general public. The Cold War also instilled a fear of foreign interference and its potential consequences for the general public. Sartin explores the role of people, science, and technology in the formation of the infectious horror genre in literature and films saying:
“The horrors of two world wars followed by the first nuclear cataclysms have led to a realization that … science and culture could contribute to mankind’s decay. This is the critical point that horror, and especially infectious horror in the post-World War II period, address. Men and women of science, in their hubris, have created the conditions for monstrous outbreaks…” 3
This fear of government toxins and chemicals contributed to the creation of the zombie as a creature of horror. Romero’s classic film cites the undead, cannibalistic condition as an effect of radiation from a space probe. The government’s involvement in nuclear power was a grave concern for the general public at that time. This fear about how nuclear toxins and waste could impact human health culturally transfers onto the screen. At that time in history, the only consequences of radiation from nuclear power had been observed in the health of people in Japan who had been exposed to the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II twenty years earlier.
In Romero’s film, the creatures are never referred to as zombies, but as ghouls. These creatures were people that others knew and loved, such as Johnny who was Barbra’s brother and Karen who was the Cooper’s daughter. However, the condition takes away their status as humans. Being referred to as ghouls makes them inhuman, stripping them of their humanity. It alienates them and makes them appear to be something to be dreaded given that they are so obviously different and unknowable. To keep themselves safe, Ben and the others must isolate themselves in the house indefinitely until help arrives. This can be understood contemporarily through the COVID-19 pandemic which encouraged people to stay home and minimize contact with others to prevent contracting the virus. The virus cannot be contained or controlled so people must contain and control themselves to avoid contraction. This is precisely what the humans in Night of the Living Dead experience but unprecedented illness and disease are represented by undead ghouls. Additionally, the illness supposedly caused by radiation from the space probe shows how the Space Race contributed to public anxiety about foreign influence on such a large scale. The illness itself was of alien (i.e., foreign) origin, which is also how the COVID-19 virus, which was initially found in Wuhan, China, was first perceived by Western society.
Health anxiety is something that is still felt today. It is a human trait that stems from the desire to be healthy to survive. This article explored how the health anxiety of the 1960s was present in two significantly successful and culturally impactful films from that decade. While women’s health anxiety in Western society might look a bit different from the 1960s, it is still prevalent, especially in minority groups who continue to experience discrepancies in healthcare as opposed to men (particularly white men). The scrutinization and politicization of women’s reproductive rights and abortions, along with attributing concerns to anxiety still occur, but are done more subtly as microaggressions. The origin of zombie creatures lies in fear of government-made toxins and chemicals. It is a fear that continues to pervade society as science and technology continue advancing and the threat of biological warfare has never been greater. The prevalence of this fear is seen in the ongoing popularity of zombie narratives. For instance, zombie films are now their own subgenre of horror and have developed their own mythology and lore. They have also spawned several successful zombie franchises such as The Walking Dead (2010-2022) and Zombieland (2009, 2019).
- Warwick, Hilary M. C., and Paul M. Salkovskis. “Hypochondriasis.” Behaviour Research and Therapy, vol. 28, no. 2, Jan. 1990, pp. 105–117, doi:10.1016/0005-7967(90)90023-C. ↩
- Valerius, Karyn. “‘Rosemary’s Baby’, Gothic Pregnancy, and Fetal Subjects.” College Literature, vol. 32, no. 3, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005, pp. 116–35, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25115290. ↩
- Sartin, Jeffrey S. “Contagious Horror: Infectious Themes in Fiction and Film.” Clinical medicine & research vol. 17,1-2 (2019): 41-46. doi:10.3121/cmr.2019.1432 ↩
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