Genre films, first emerging in 1895, have increased in popularity throughout history, beginning with just three genres: tragedy, comedy, and melodrama, to now countless others, including their subgenres like action and romantic comedy (Casper). However, horror genre films are uniquely distinct in their adaptability. They are produced within various horror genre cycles, such as slasher films or science fiction horror films, these cycles occurring as studios and filmmakers remix elements of the horror genre in order to keep up with and appeal to contemporary audiences. These cycles speak to the adaptability of the genre, as films were created within these cycles to reflect the real-life societal fears of audiences during the time at which the film was being made (Cherry 11). For example, the cycle of independent slasher films with movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) came at a time following the particularly bloody and brutal Vietnam War (Dewan). Audiences were seeing horrors of the war and subsequent riots in real life and on the news, as well as chaos and gore on screen in the film. As such, the horror genre works across time by constantly adapting to what events occur in the real world, attempting to both intensify the fear factor of its films, as well as help viewers process the societal fears they faced in reality by presenting them on screen. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) are no exceptions to this, the former reflecting concerns of evilness of man as Hitler rose to power and the latter reflecting fears of the occult and satanic practices, each utilizing the iconographies of their respective horror genre cycle and practices of the eras of film they were made in to enhance these fears.
With World War II beginning just two years prior and Adolf Hitler’s power and influence growing rapidly, the release of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came at a time when fear of dictatorship was at its height, despite it being a remake of the film of the same name released a decade earlier (“The 1930s”). In the film, Dr. Jekyll, a noble doctor, becomes Mr. Hyde, a violent criminal, when taking a self-invented serum, unleashing an evil and sinister side of himself. This duality of man, the sides of both good and evil in one person, seen in Jekyll/Hyde connect to the reality of Hitler’s rising of power. His extremely evil ways, despite his being a mortal human being, was similar to the evilness within Dr. Jekyll. In this way, the presentation and vilification of the Jekyll/Hyde character on-screen allowed audiences to process their fears of Hitler and the depravity of man. The iconography of the film as a part of the gothic horror genre cycle, as well as its use of the law of natural morality as a classical era genre film element both aid in emphasizing these fears by intensifying the chilling effects of the film, and therefore enhance the process of understanding and working through these real-life fears.
Iconography, an element of genre films, “refers to particular objects, archetypal characters and even specific actors” (Grant 12) and settings are a part of a genre’s iconography as well (“Genre”). The iconography used in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is common in its gothic horror genre cycle. The inspiration behind early horror films was rooted in works of gothic horror literature, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the basis for the film, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (Renée). These works of literature incorporated gothic settings such as dark, imposing, and decaying castles and mansions, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde subscribe to this tradition as well, as scenes are set in shadowy gothic locations. For example, the scene where Dr. Jekyll and his friend Dr. Lanyon first encounter Ivy and save her from being attacked is set in a dark and mysterious alleyway (17:25). The gothic setting is seen all throughout the film, from Dr. Jekyll’s lab with peculiar glass test tubes and bottles lining the walls and the dark park with ominous trees through which Dr. Jekyll walks home and transforms into Mr. Hyde (1:20:06), to outside of Beatrix’s home where Mr. Hyde beats her father to death (1:41:30). These shadowy settings accentuated with chiaroscuro lighting and heavily contrasting shadows aid in highlighting the chilling content of the film. Additionally, it nods to the real-life concerns and fears about evil lurking in the shadows, potentially in every ordinary person you meet and regularly interact with, like the grocery store clerk or even your family doctor.
As a film of the classical era, it displays the era’s considerations of morality. While the modernist era, to come years later, considered morality to be situational, with different rules applied depending on the nature of the situation, the earlier classical era considered morality to be absolute and following the natural law ethic (Casper). Moral good and evil were dictated by the rule and law of nature, with good being good and evil being evil, no exceptions or changes made based on the situation at hand. This notion of absolute natural law morality is seen in the film through the characterizations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll is good, moral, and respectable in every way. He is professionally ambitious, striving towards innovation and discovery in his work as a doctor. He is romantically deferential, courting Beatrix and being respectful to her and her father in the process. And he is generally moral, stopping to save Ivy, who was a stranger at the time, from being attacked and not giving in to her advances afterward. By all accounts, he is an absolutely ethically sound man as Dr. Jekyll. Meanwhile, Mr. Hyde is bad, immoral, and depraved in every way. When seeing Ivy for the first time as Hyde at the club, he trips the waiter with his cane for no reason (47:55). He then decides to keep her hostage in her apartment, raping her whenever he pleases. Later in the film, he beats Beatrix’s father to death when he comes out in response to Beatrix’s cries. All three characters were innocent, having done nothing to Hyde to make him act that way towards them. In this way, the law of nature morality dictates that Hyde’s actions are immoral since he preyed on innocent individuals. There is no room in the film to interpret his actions as anything other than morally bad because there was no situation presented by which his actions could be interpreted in any other way.
Through these elements, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde shows the real-life fear of the evilness in man as Hitler’s rise to power occurred at the same time and attempts to help viewers process this fear as a result. The element of iconography in its gothic horror settings intensified this fear by emphasizing the evilness of Mr. Hyde by showing him against shadowy gothic backdrops and reinforcing his character as an evil villain. Moreover, the presentation of the law of natural morality as a facet of classical era films further differentiates and adds depth to the characters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, allowing the fear of evil within man to become more real and three-dimensional. As a result, viewers are able to process their fear by easily vilifying the Jekyll/Hyde character.
Meanwhile, Rosemary’s Baby (1968), an adaptation of the novel by Ira Levin published one year prior, was of the occult horror genre cycle, associated with the likes of The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). The release of the film reflected real-life fears of the devil and religious counterculture, as both the iconic April 1966 Time magazine cover asking, “Is God Dead?” in large red lettering and the month of June 1966, written as 6/66, “the number of the beast”, struck fear and anxiety in individuals (Counter). Additionally, the Church of Satan was forming in San Francisco at the time, a further source of fear of religious counterculture for audiences (Counter). The film’s iconography as it relates to the occult horror genre cycle and elements as a film made during the modernist era helped underscore these fears.
The film incorporates various common iconographies of the occult horror genre. Throughout the film, there are numerous references made to Catholicism. When Rosemary and Guy go to the Castevets’ apartment for the first time (26:26), they discuss the Pope at the dinner table, Roman and Minnie asserting that he is a hypocrite as a religious figure because of the amount of money spent on his lavish robes and criticizing organized religion as a whole. Furthermore, the rape scene in which Rosemary is impregnated by the devil is full of Catholic symbolism, from Rosemary being put on an altar-like bed to images of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (42:30). The iconography in this scene in particular is strikingly fearsome, as images related to religion are juxtaposed with images of satanic ritual and the devil, making the scene all the more terrifying. Additionally, at the end of the film when the baby is in the crib in the Castevets’ apartment, there is a silver upside down cross hanging from atop. As a common symbol of satanic practices, the upside-down cross is unmistakable and aligns well within the iconography of the occult horror genre cycle. With public fears swirling around about resistance to traditional organized religions like Catholicism, the iconography of the film, with its references to Catholicism and use of the upsidedown cross symbol helps to magnify this fright and helps audiences process it by presenting it on screen.
As a film made during the modernist era of genre films, Rosemary’s Baby shows various elements or commonalities seen in films of the era, like the use of situational ethics and a non-closure ending. In contrast to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the content of Rosemary’s Baby is presented in moral shades of grey. For instance, Minnie Castevet bringing Rosemary vitamin smoothies and cakes every day throughout her pregnancy could be open to moral interpretation. Some may interpret this action as Minnie just being a friendly and motherly neighbor, trying to be as helpful to Rosemary as possible. Others may interpret it as her being suspicious and covertly sinister, with ulterior motives. There is no formal, absolute right or wrong determination of her actions, audiences instead left to their own devices to judge the morality of the situation depending on their own interpretations of the circumstances.
This also connects to one of the era’s basic tenets in being self-conscious in questioning social and moral values. The modernist movement emphasized the protagonist’s journey in searching to figure out modern society and whether or not norms should be blindly accepted (Casper). Throughout the second half of the film, Rosemary is willfully determined to figure out the truth about the Castevets and whether or not she is being used as a part of their witchcraft. She strives to find her answer and refuses to simply accept what everyone around her, from her husband to her doctor, is telling her. Therefore, she subscribes to this feature of the modernist genre film as she searches for the truth.
Furthermore, the non-closure ending is another characteristic of modernist films used in this film. While Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had a nice, resolute, and finite ending with Jekyll/Hyde being arrested, Rosemary’s Baby had an unsettling and non-closure ending. The film ends eerily with Rosemary rocking her half-devil baby after uncovering and verifying the terrifying truth, and viewers are unsure of what will happen to them both. Will she give in and help the satanic cult in order to be with her child? Will she think up a ploy to save the baby and raise it as a normal human? Or will something else entirely different happen? No one will ever truly know Rosemary’s fate and the film’s ending is unsatisfying and disconcerting in that way, not providing a clear closed ending.
These elements in Rosemary’s Baby, from the iconography to the modernist characteristics, reinforce the dismay of audiences concerning the occult at the film’s time of release. The modernist characteristics especially relate to the audience’s fears because religion as an institution is open to interpretation, as countless religions and its subsects declare different beliefs regarding humanity and what happens to humans when they die. No one truly knows the nature of the afterlife except those who have passed away, and the modernist elements of situational morality and non-closure ending reinforce this notion. Moreover, the iconography and modernist elements of the film serve to enhance the broader societal fears of the occult and establish the film’s position in the occult horror genre cycle and subsequently, the cycle’s place within the greater landscape of the general horror genre as well.
In conclusion, the horror genre has worked throughout time, in an ever-changing culture, by adapting to reflect the common societal fears of US audiences during the films’ times of release. This is done by utilizing different iconographies of the various genre cycles as they emerge within the horror genre, and by incorporating characteristics of the genre film era during which the film was made. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde addressed fears of evilness found in mortal men, as Hitler was rising to power at the time. A part of the gothic horror cycle, the film employed the iconographic element of shadowy, gothic settings. Also a part of the classical genre film era, the film clearly applied natural law morality in its characterization of Jekyll/Hyde. These elements served to reflect the good vs. evil fears audiences faced in reality and attempted to aid in audiences’ processing of these fears. Similarly, Rosemary’s Baby reflected audience fears of religious counterculture and satanic ritual by utilizing iconography common in the occult horror genre cycle, such as references to Catholicism and upside-down crosses. Additionally, as a film made in the modernist era, it presented situational morality, self-conscious questioning of social and moral values, and a non-closure ending, using these to enhance Rosemary’s assumed paranoia and resultantly make the film that much scarier. All in all, horror genre films throughout time have served as a way for audiences to process the scary situations that are happening in real-life by adapting to present similar situations on screen.
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