Fascinating to me that in both the original Ira Levin novel and also the film version of Rosemary’s Baby, perfume is used to make a very definite point. From the start, the apartments we see in the company of Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse at “Black Bramford” are forcing houses of herbs and soi-disant medicinal plants. As both Rosemary and her unfortunate acquaintance Terri Genofrio are drawn into the garrulous old Castavets’ sabbats they are embraced by the foul bitter reek of the diabolical tannis root (“can a root be an herb?”) in its exquisite silver Renaissance pendant: pungent, earthy, sharp and repellent. “You’ll get used to the smell before you know it,” chuckles Laura Louise, the jolly witch from the 12th floor, and the strange thing is that Rosemary does. She becomes anosmic and I think this is a metaphor for her shutting her eyes to her instinctive suspicions of the supreme horror approaching, and one hint of many that ultimately she will become another Minnie Castavet, a perfect mother to the infant Satan at the ambiguous conclusions of the movie.
However once Rosemary discovers that she is indeed in the clutches of a nest of devil-worshippers and the time for the baby’s delivery approaches she drops the stinking root – “what IS it? A – a chemical thing?” ( a nice little in-joke, if unintentional, for perfume lovers) – down the drain and sprays herself heavily and refreshingly with Revillon’s 1953 Detchema. Now, why this scent? Possibly it was Ira Levin’s own particular favourite or maybe there’s a more pointed implication. Detchema is floral and heavily aldehydic – roses, jasmine and ylang ylang; iris, muguet and vetiver. About as far from sinister tannis as you can get, as the doctor’s receptionist comments. Its a bit middle-aged for Rosemary, though; and Revillon, being a fur company, originally commissioned it to complement the wearing of pelts. Perhaps a hint of the all the treasures of the world coming from Guy’s demonic bargain (“suddenly he’s very hot!”), but maybe too its a nudge to think animal; to imagine exactly what kind of baby poor Mrs Woodhouse is about to deliver….covered in fur, coated with scales? (“It won’t bite you…”).
As she slowly realises the Castavets’ game, Rosemary develops other understandable fears – “they use blood in their rituals”. This moves us into to quite different territory – the appeal of the vampire. Vampires have never really been out of style since the publication of Dracula in 1897, but they seem especially in vogue again now: there was even one running in this year’s Marathon. Amusing to read about Tim Burton’s new movie of Dark Shadows: I remember watching this as an late afternoon tv show in Bermuda in 1968, in a tiny house set in a grove of grapefruit and banana trees, with hibiscus flowering round the porch. Our hostess Barbara was a retired Ziegfeld Follies girl who had grown up next door to Joan Bennett, the pre-war Hollywood star who was now queen of the show, hence the obligatory daily viewing with the first stiff rum + coke. There was also the smell of electricity and faint scorching in the air as Barbara had to hold wires from the tv set to her head as a primitive conductor: reception was truly terrible on the island.
Why have vampires such a perennial appeal? If it’s just the smell of blood you’re after, pay attention next time you fall out with a can of beans and a faulty opener: sharp, metallic, hot, salty and of course alarming. Or try Etat Libre‘s Secretions Magnifiques: an extraordinary recreation and evocation of blood and other intimate fluids. An interesting and mesmeric scent (even if the mesmerism is one of repulsion or disgust) but to me, it lacks the necessary warmth of its human ingredients: there is corpse-like cold – or is it surgical coolth? – instead of a palpitating heat. And also a suggestion of decay; the accords seem to represent secretions from a body not entirely healthy, or having otherwise staled.
Vampires and their renewed popularity are a macabrely acute metaphor for the apathetic and fatalistic malaise into which society has fallen, just as they symbolised the decadence of the Naughty Nineties. We feel out of control, drained morally, financially and responsibly by the terrifying drift of the world. It seems impossible for the average individual, preoccupied by his own survival and that of his family to do anything to influence the general drift of events. Where once religion provided an anchor and a rationale there is now often a void, or a Church that itself that sometimes seems to have lost its way and fallen into schism. The notion of being sucked dry of the life force, of falling into a paralysed state of partially languorous torpor while initiative and vitality is inexorably drained away by a figure of supernatural authority (and erotic appeal) can be powerfully attractive as a fantasy to those without faith or hope. Stoker’s Dracula and many of his type are presented as possessing a hideous kind of attraction for their prey, being involuntarily welcomed in by their victims who become willing partners in their own destruction.
And ironically though many smells thought hitherto unpleasant or inappropriate have been transmuted by the perfumer’s organ (cigarette smoke, Stilton cheese, bubblegum) no one has yet unfortunately risen to the challenge of breaking the olfactory taboo of garlic.
Image from cinerarium.wordpress.com