Ira Levin's social impact

The other day I was rereading my copy of Rosemary’s Baby which contains a note from the author, Ira Levin, at the end reflecting back on the work 30 years after it was published. In this note he states that he watched various stories and movies pop up after Rosemary’s Baby that brought the devil to life in various forms (The Excorcist and The Omen were two he mentioned by name) that made satan a real, tangible being as opposed to just being an abstract thought for most people. He associates this with the rise of extremism within Christianity and wonders if Rosemary’s Baby had never been written if the surge in evangelical Christians would still have taken place. His tone is almost apologetic, as if he is taking the blame for something he finds truly distasteful.

Have you read/seen Rosemary’s Baby and the subsequent horror stories that followed it? What impact do you think they’ve had on society? Do you think Mr. Levin is correct in his assumption or do you think he is just a pompous blowhard taking credit for social movements that have nothing to do with him?

Pompous blowhard.

So Ira Levin made the devil a tangible person as opposed to an abstract thought?

He must be really fucking old.

He probably had a far greater impact with his novel Coma, which probably scared a lot of people from listing themselves as potential organ donors. That, thankfully, is changing (as in Italy following the highway shooting of Nicholas Green), but in some (developing) countries where conspiracy theories and urban legends about involuntary organ donation remain rife, I wouldn’t be surprised if much of that old fear and reluctance remain.

Coma was by Robin Cook.

However, though Levin may be overstating, the idea of the devil as a tangible, evil presence in popular fiction was certainly popularized by Rosemary’s Baby. Before that, you either had religious-based portrayals of him (e.g., Inferno) or the urbane trickster (Faust, The Devil and Daniel Webster, etc.). At the time Rosemary’s Baby came out, the devil was a guy who showed up to trick you out of your soul, and was usually more like a clever lawyer than the epitome of evil.

Rosemary’s Baby showed the Devil as portrayed in older, religious settings and put that into a modern setting. It also showed the Devil’s followers to be decent people, not evil reprobates (Ruth Gordon was especially nice in the film). That gives the idea that you can be a devil worshiper and not be a bad person.

The Excorcist and The Omen clearly are influenced by Rosemary, so it’s not too much to claim it was the seed of that change.

But the book was only one part of the trend, not the entire one.

I think this is what he was getting at in the afterward in the book. It seems like he is afraid that people on the cusp of leaving the church read Rosemary’s Baby and saw The Excorcist and ran back to religion in fear. I think he is giving himself more credit than he is due but it does make you wonder how much influence the arts and media have over the decisions we make about our lives.

Yes, but did they simply run back to the churches they didn’t pay much attention to any more (for example, they began attending weekly, instead of only Easter and Christmas); or did they go whole-hog into fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, being born again, and making every decision based on what they thought Jesus would do? There are plenty of mainstream Protestant churches that don’t go for the fire-and-brimstone, hallelujah-ing, proseletyzing sort of things that are associated with fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity; and if the folks Levin seems to think he scared back to religion returned to such churches, would anybody notice?

I’ve read Rosemary’s Baby and seen the movie (and some of the other “devils and demons” works from the late 60s and early 70s), and I don’t think Levin is correct. I’d suggest that these works were part of a fad of the times–and as for such things, there was a vogue in the mid-60s for spy stuff (James Bond, Maxwell Smart, Mission: Impossible), and in the 1970s for trucking culture (CB radios, CW McCall’s “Convoy,” and so on). Why not have a “devils and demons” vogue in pop culture in the late 60s and early 70s?

Also something worth considering, although I don’t know how much, were the Jesus Freaks of the time. Sort of an offshoot of the hippie movement. Pop culture reflected them, with shows and films like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar; and songs like Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” and Ocean’s “Put Your Hand in the Hand.” I don’t know, but I’d suggest that it may be plausible that today’s older fundamentalists grew from these beginnings, with little if any influence from Levin.


I thought this 1970 computer-controlled society novel was was better than Brave New World, or any other futuristic fantasy stories.
Check it out.

Wayyyyy overestimating himself. That’d be like Harper Lee taking credit for the civil rights movement.

Ray Walston was getting raves and standing ovations playing Satan in the modern era on Broadway more than a decade before Rosemary’s Baby, F.W. Murnau made private movies about him, C.B. Demille was bringing to life half the Bible as Charlton Heston on film, etc., Goethe as mentioned above and Lord Byron wrote classic plays about ‘the old boy’, etc…
At most he’s responsible perhaps for some of the success of the Omen novels and movies- not that they’re the same, but Rosemary may have whetted the appetite for some fans.

I remember watching Rosemary’s Baby with a group of high school friends. I don’t think anyone thought the Satanic element was particularly scary –the infantilization (and rape) of Rosemary was the terrifying part. Being pregnant and helpless. Uck. But I’m pretty sure they were all at least agnostic, and even the Christians I knew growing up were not of the fire and brimstone variety.

I don’t know that he can take credit for evangelism. But he was very influential in the realm of fiction. His books were awesomely scary. In my case, I went the opposite route and deep down wished I could be sort of raped by the devil and have to give birth to a demon child. (And you wonder why fourteen year old girls read Twilight!)

Granted, on one hand you’ve got evangelicals intruding in all aspects of our civic life, but on the other hand Mia Farrow’s pixie cut was cute and perfect for a Summer fling, so I guess it all balances out.

Evangelism has gone in and out of fashion since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. I think the current wave would have started with or without Levin.