The Horror Icon Who Spooked Himself: William Castle and Rosemary's Baby

By David Parkinson | July 24, 2008
William Castle Book Reading William Castle entertaining guests

Film historian David Parkinson recounts the remarkable true story of flamboyant producer William Castle and the curse of Rosemary's Baby.

Producer William Castle devoted the latter part of his movie career to the cause of trying to scare movie crowds with cheap gimmicks. But Castle himself would fall victim to a macabre irony when he became genuinely terrified of one of his own pictures — indeed, the only title in his canon of any real quality. Here David Parkinson unravels the many woes that assailed Castle — from casting problems to ill health, hate mail, untimely death and savage murder — in the making and reception of Rosemary's Baby.

After 15 years toiling in such B-movie series as The Whistler and The Crime Doctor, William Castle sold his soul to horror. In 1958 he hit upon the notion of insuring the lives of those brave enough to see his new chiller, Macabre, and recouped around $5 million on a $90,000 outlay. The same year's House on Haunted Hill confirmed Castle as the "King of the Gimmicks," thanks to Emergo, a pioneering process that involved a 12-foot plastic skeleton whizzing across the auditorium on a wire.

Ultimately, Emergo induced more laughter than terror. But Castle continued to promote his pictures with stunts. For The Tingler (1959), he devised Percepto, which used buzzers fitted to the seating to transmit small electric shocks at scary moments. Patrons of 13 Ghosts (1960) were issued with special glasses to view spectres visible only in Illusion-O, while the action in Homicidal and Mr Sardonicus (both 1961) was respectively interrupted for a Fright Break (during which those of a nervous disposition could claim a refund by passing through Coward's Corner) and a Punishment Poll that permitted punters to vote on the villain's fate.

But Castle had tired of novelty by the time audiences were invited to brandish cardboard axes during Strait-Jacket (1964) and be strapped into the Shock Section for I Saw What You Did (1965). For all his commercial success, Castle had always craved respect; and he hoped that Rosemary's Baby would finally win over the critics. But the showman who had peddled cheap thrills to millions ended up terrified of his own movie.

Castle secured the rights to Ira Levin's novel before its publication, reportedly beating off competition from Alfred Hitchcock. Paramount, keen to make the story of a young wife chosen by a coven of New York witches to mother Lucifer's child, entered into negotiations with Castle in early 1967. However, studio executives Charles Bludhorn and Robert Evans didn't want Castle to direct; and it was only with great reluctance that Castle agreed to produce the picture for Roman Polanski.

Castle with Mia Farrow and Paramount boss Robert Evans on the set of Rosemary's Baby

Castle with Mia Farrow and Paramount boss
Robert Evans on the set of Rosemary's Baby

Castle had been in a similar situation two decades earlier, when he associate-produced Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai after his own treatment of Sherwood King's pulp novel If I Die Before I Wake had been rejected by Columbia chief Harry Cohn. But while Castle had been prepared to step aside for his hero Welles in 1947, he doubted the atheistic Polanski's suitability for Rosemary's Baby. Soon the two men were arguing over Polanski's choice of Tuesday Weld for the part of Rosemary Woodhouse. Eventually, with Robert Evans' backing, Castle prevailed and Mia Farrow was cast ahead of Jane Fonda, Julie Christie, Elizabeth Hartman, Joanna Pettet, and Polanski's wife, Sharon Tate.

John Cassavetes landed the role of Rosemary's husband, Guy. But this brought a third director on to the set, and when Polanski wasn't squabbling with Cassavetes about motivation and method, he was feuding with Castle about schedule delays and the advisability of actually depicting Satan's spawn on the screen.

The biggest problem during production, however, was caused by Frank Sinatra. He wanted to co-star with new wife Mia Farrow in The Detective, and when it became clear she would not be finished on Rosemary's Baby in time to start Gordon Douglas's cynical policier Sinatra ordered her to abandon the Polanski picture. However, Farrow refused to quit and Sinatra had her served with divorce papers in front of the cast and crew on the morning that Polanski shot the party sequence in which Rosemary's friends (including an uncredited Sharon Tate) lock Guy out of the kitchen to express their concern at her condition. Castle later regarded this incident as the first manifestation of the curse that descended upon the project. But worse was to follow.

Despite mixed reviews, Rosemary's Baby would become one of Paramount's five most successful features of the 1960s. Polanski's screenplay was nominated for an Oscar and Ruth Gordon won the Best Supporting Actress award for her performance as the sinister Minnie Castevet. But, with the plaudits, came calls from religious groups to boycott the picture for its alleged advocacy of diabolism. Then the hate mail began to arrive.

Farrow and John Cassavetes outside the Dakota in Rosemary's Baby

Farrow and John Cassavetes outside the
Dakota in Rosemary's Baby

Castle claimed to have received up to 50 abusive letters a day following the film's release on 12 June 1968 (exactly a week after the assassination of Robert Kennedy.) In his autobiography, Step Right Up! I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America (1976) Castle quoted such accusations as "You have unleashed evil on the world" and threats like "Rosemary's Baby is filth and YOU will die as a result." But when Castle began suffering from excruciating pains in his groin, one taunt particularly hit home: "Bastard. Believer of Witchcraft. Worshipper at the Shrine of Satanism. My prediction is you will slowly rot during a long and painful illness which you have brought upon yourself."

On 31 October Castle was preparing to fly to New York to discuss producing Neil Simon's The Out of Towners when he collapsed. A spinal tap was required to remove a blockage in his urinary tract. But the condition recurred several times over the next few months, and legend has it that during one emergency admission Castle yelled out, "Rosemary, for God's sake, drop the knife!"

As Castle later conceded, he was becoming fixated by the film: "The story of Rosemary's Baby was happening in life. Witches, all of them, were casting their spell, and I was becoming one of the principal players." And his fears were exacerbated in December 1968 when composer Krzysztof Komeda, whose score would receive a Golden Globe nomination, was rushed to the same hospital as Castle, having sustained serious head injuries. The exact cause of Komeda's trauma remains unclear. Several sources cite a traffic accident, while others claim that a blood clot ruptured while the Pole was skiing. Compatriot Roman Polanski, however, insisted that Komeda fell from an escarpment while jostling with writer Marek Hlasko at a drinks party. Whatever the truth, 38-year-old Komeda died in a Warsaw clinic on 23 April 1969 from a haematoma of the brain that eerily recalled the fate of Hutch (Maurice Evans) in Rosemary's Baby. Hlasko told friends, "If Krzysztof dies, I will die as well," and on 14 June, he succumbed to a presumedly accidental cocktail of alcohol and sleeping pills in Wiesbaden, West Germany.

Deeply disturbed by Komeda's demise, Castle became convinced that he would be struck down next. In such agony from renal colic that he could barely walk, yet unwilling to face more surgery, he agreed to a series of sodium bicarbonate injections. Administered twice a day for many months, the treatment induced fevers and acute discomfort. But the solution gradually dissolved the kidney stones and Castle was cured.

Rosemary's Baby

Yet any hopes that the hex had been lifted were dashed on 9 August 1969 when the pregnant Sharon Tate and three friends were murdered by members of Charles Manson's notorious Family at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon (the same street on which Joseph Stefano had written Psycho). The precise reason why they were targeted has never been established. But Manson had purportedly ordered his cohorts, led by Charles "Tex" Watson, to do "something witchy." And it is said that as Watson awoke the guests at 10050 he announced "I am the devil, here to do the devil's business."

More certain than ever that his film had loosed evil into the world, Castle went to ground. The year before he died, he wrote: "All my life I had yearned for the applause, approval and recognition of my peers; and when the awards were being passed out, I no longer cared. I was at home, very frightened of Rosemary's Baby." William Castle continued to make movies. However, the curse of his most enduring achievement didn't die with him in May 1977.

John Lennon had spent the spring of 1968 with Mia Farrow at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram in India. During their stay, Lennon had written "Dear Prudence" for Farrow's sister (who shared a name with Sharon Tate's Yorkshire terrier) and it featured on The Beatles' White Album that November. Charles Manson claimed that the LP contained coded messages about the impending race war he hoped to provoke with the Cielo Drive slayings. Lennon himself met a violent end in December 1980 when he was gunned down in New York — outside the Dakota apartments which Castle and Polanski had used for the exteriors of the Bramford block where Rosemary gave birth to her child.

Mia Farrow seems not to believe in curses or coincidences, however, as she resides in next door, in the Langham building.

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