“When the Jews return to Zion and the comet rips the sky and the Holy Roman Empire rises, then you and I must die. From the eternal sea he rises, creating armies on either shore, turning man against his his brother ‘til man exists no more.”
Evil exists. In 2016, there’s no denying it. Any of us could turn on the news right now or venture to the current events outlet of our choice and see the headline…the omen, if you will, that’s enough to make most of us forever question human decency. And yet many of us still choose to see evil as something that stomps its way in from the outside, a black and ferocious mongrel that we choose to let into the sanctity of our homes, our schools, and our government. Evil, from the American perspective, is something that exists outside of our borders and invades—the borders of country, our neighborhoods, and our morals. Tethered to our sanity is the notion that evil is always someone else‘s problem, something that affects us but never is us, despite of and because of our absolute and unquestionable child-like innocence. Naturally, evil is also something that we can combat with the adult-minded segregation, nukes, and guns, always guns. Through combat we can hold onto the belief that we can control these things that are outside of us, because anything that we can convince ourselves is outside can be locked out with the right door.
But perhaps evil is something lurking within that spreads outward, like some unseeable act of carnage beneath a pool of water or an eternal sea–the blood let from the deed done slowly rising to the surface and dispersing until it has contaminated all that’s around it. And with that scene of carnage complete, blood is in the water and those other things below feel a stirring within their very nature. It’s not the physical quality of the blood that creates the frenzy, but the recognition that the very same essence flows within and that there’s power in letting it out. That welling up and dispersal of blood comes from within our institutions, our safe spaces, and sometimes our very souls because there’s power in that. Forty years ago, The Omen introduced us to evil in the form of Damien Thorn, the antichrist clad in the skin of a child. Through the lens of white American privilege and the stigma of mental illness, The Omen dug into the soul of late 20th century America and found its innocence all dried up. The blood had already been let, and it’s still spreading.
It begins with a lie and a secret, both compounded unto themselves. To fully appreciate the severity of The Omen, one must understand that it exists along divisions. Throughout the film, Richard Donner and screenwriter David Seltzer create the illusion that this division exists along the lines of good and evil, of God and the Devil, of rightness and wrongness. This is the oldest story ever told, and for a time in our youth, it is the only story ever told. The mere casting of Gregory Peck as U.S. Ambassador Robert Thorn instills within us a confidence that goodness exists within this movie, and regardless of the horror we may witness along the way, truth, justice, and the American way will win out in the end. After all, who is more American than Atticus Finch? And who defines goodness within the world of fame and excess like Peck who stood against the government’s investigation into communists within the film industry, who rallied against the Vietnam War, and continually sought nuclear disarmament and gun control? There’s nothing coincidental about Peck’s casting as Thorn, or the fact that he fills the role of a U.S. Ambassador, a role that he was once offered to him by President Johnson should he have won his second term. And so it makes sense that the first act of horror we see within The Omen is Robert Thorn/Atticus Finch/Gregory Peck telling a lie, a lie that sets in motion a terrible chain of events. Understand that the actors tied to Hollywood’s Golden Age were forever bound to their most famous roles and their public personas. Peck may have been playing a character named Robert Thorn, but for many audiences in 1976, the separation between Thorn, Finch, and Peck himself was somewhat moot and there was comfort in the fact that they could bow at the altar of his goodness. As a result, audiences were led on a trail of breadcrumbs with the promise that the moral center they remembered from their youth would permeate the film in the form of Gregory Peck. But Robert Thorn isn’t a pillar of morality. He’s just a man and that means he’s got evil within him too, evil that wells up from the result of a lie he tells to save his wife from pain. But this lie, that Damien is their flesh and blood, is possible by a Priest’s lie that the true child of Thorn died in childbirth, when he was in-fact murdered by Satanists so that the antichrist could take his place. Lies lead to lies, blood lets blood, and the mad frenzy begins.
“The child is dead.” These words echo in Thorn’s head as he pulls up to the hospital at the opening of the film. The child he’s thinking about being his own flesh and blood, but if we’re counting the film’s thematic range of dead children, then that sorrowful statement, “the child is dead,” also holds true for the Christ child, and our own childlike view of good and evil that we carry with us into this film. For Thorn, the answer to getting over a dead child is to replace it – revival by substitution. And with the aide of the hospital’s chaplain and secret Satanist, Father Spiletto, he secretly replaces his dead son with a newborn orphan child without his wife being ever the wiser.
But before this pact is sealed, Thorn is reminded that he “could adopt a child” to which he replies “she wanted her own.” Because isn’t that our God-given privilege as human beings? To have children of our own and give them everything we possess. And if we’re white, wealthy, and American? Well then that’s as good as a God-given promise that everything will work out in the end because that’s the measure of goodness so much of society stands by. And so this false child and false Thorn is given all the comforts of wealthy, white American-hood which provide the necessary foothold for his evil and power. There’s always the chance that nurture can beat nature, a roll of the die we live by, and that inherent goodness of Robert and Cathy Thorn can change Damien or at least keep his evil at bay. But Robert and Cathy’s positions in life don’t allow for that kind of goodness, and division steadily fades until there’s none to be seen at all, only wrongness that can be seen but is willfully ignored. There’s no evil in the existence of white American wealth and power as morality is not founded on racial lines, but there’s evil in what we, collectively, let white American wealth and power become and enact time and time again.
The suicide of Damien’s nanny, Holly, has become one of the iconic scenes in horror history. ‘Look at me Damien! It’s all for you!” she shouts before leaping from the roof with a noose tied around her neck. It’s the suddenness of the violence that’s shocking, and the unwilling, clear-eyed joy in Holly’s eyes before she plummets to her death. As well-shot and acted a scene as it is, it is meaningless without subtext in the actions that immediately proceed Holly’s death. Minutes before the hanging, the camera lingers on Cathy’s quiet jealousy as Holly holds Damien for the press photographers. Cathy proceeds to take Damien away from Holly, and we’re made aware of the rift between the two women, just as Damien is. Cathy’s possessiveness is the burden of the wealthy, white, stay-at-home mother who can live a life of luxury while pawning her child off to hired help, until the time comes where she wants to hold the child up to the press as mother and Madonna. Holly’s forced suicide isn’t simply a display of Damien’s evil, but a display of the evil that exists within Cathy, an evil that the privileged can remain ignorant of while it spreads in that eternal sea and becomes not an isolated incident but a tenet to live by. In America specifically, there’s a long a winding road of sin that’s paved by disinterested mothers who cling to that title like a symbol of their unquestionable goodness while doing next to nothing to earn it.
Despite The Omen’s categorization as supernatural horror, there is a prevalent fear of the very real horror of mental illness that runs throughout the film. When Mrs. Baylock arrives she blames Holly’s suicide on homesickness and the separation from her boyfriend, an excuse that Robert and Cathy gladly accept. Holly’s suicide as an incident that can be contained within her social status is something far more digestible than the possibility that the woman raising their son was mentally ill and could have somehow tainted their child. For the Thorns’ mental illness isn’t a natural occurrence in their world, but something that can infect their clean white existence of untold privilege, something not so unlike evil.
As Damien’s fits become more prevalent, Cathy’s fear in his wrongness grows. “He’s a perfectly healthy boy. We have nothing to worry about with him, physically or….otherwise” Cathy says, allowing the space between “or” and “otherwise” say more than a spoken line ever could. Yes, on its most surface level, The Omen is centered around the supernatural horrors unleashed the son of the devil, but if we tear that veil just a little and peer through it we can see the frenzied scrawling detailing America’s secret shame: its fear of mental illness — that those who we believe are born “right” are actually born “wrong.” This is a human fear as well and in fact many of those aforementioned stories told along the divisions of good and evil are based in the idea that these moral absolutes come from a right way of thinking and a wrong way of thinking. And what’s more terrifying than the realization that there are people whose view of the world doesn’t fit within ours, that borders are imaginary constructs to protect ourselves from being touched by the madness we so fear.
As Robert is forced to shed his outward goodness through the revelation that his single lie could bring about the end of days, Cathy increasingly becomes wrapped in her own projection of innocence as her flowing garments give way to bandages that eventually makes her so immobile that she can’t even prevent her own death. Cathy knows that evil exists but she chooses to ignore it because she believes her status can afford her to. Even as it becomes increasingly clear that Damien isn’t an ordinary child, Cathy contests that which is apparent. “Wrong? What could be wrong with our child, Robert? We’re beautiful people, aren’t we,” she says. This last part isn’t delivered as a question but as a statement. In her childlike innocence, Cathy has convinced herself that to be wealthy and beautiful is to be good and immune to evil whether it be in the form of mental illness or forces beyond human understanding.
It shouldn’t go without notice that much of The Omen leans on Damien’s parents instead of Damien himself. Donner’s film isn’t really about the child of Satan, but of the people who hopelessly tried to raise him. The fact has been dampened by the films sequels, rip-offs, parodies, and endless references. Damien has been made out to be more than he is, with us having forgotten that most of the evil surrounding him is the result of other people. Damien, with his blank stares, and mischievous smiles isn’t a character but a symbol of evil. He isn’t the evil child who can be defeated like we’ve seen so many times before. He’s a force of nature who operates on the foundations of the white man’s burden in both global and domestic spaces. We’ve been trained to believe that every force has equal and opposite force and that if evil exists so does goodness. But goodness is nowhere to be found in this film. There is no opposing side, no exorcist or loving parent to save the day. Our potential saving graces, the clergy, the parents, and the truth-seeking photographer are wiped out without hesitation in a display of Damien’s power, in a display of fortunate American power. Why? Because a country contaminated by examples of privilege and wealth have no need for the saving grace of those individuals we once idolized. In its deaths, The Omen makes it clear that there is no church, no home, no truth in journalism that can stop what’s been unleashed because the lie has lasted too long and its influence spread too far.
In the very existence of The Omen’s sequels we attempted to lock the evil at the heart of these films away and forget about it. The sequels approached the subject with an optimism that only allowed us to lie to ourselves. As interesting as the premise of seeing the antichrist grow into adulthood is, The Omen’s success was in the fact that Damien remained unknown in the sense of him being anything close to a well-rounded character. Of course, the importance of optimism and the belief in goodness within our reality isn’t something to be denied, but to allow that optimism and goodness to permeate our viewing of The Omen is a disservice to the film. The Omen was meant to unsettle, so even after 40 years we must still allow it to be unsettling. Horror has the power to change the course of things, but only if we allow it to do its job and peer into the ugly places. And despite how time and pop-culture have tried to convince us otherwise, The Omen never peered into hell, it peered into us and the values that led us to this place where “Make America Great Again” is seen as an achievement instead of a threat.
As a society, we want an antichrist to combat, an outside force to point to as the source of all the world’s ills. But Damien came from within and he is nothing less than America’s son, born into a society that holds the power of privilege paramount and would rather choose to believe in divisions and repression than admit to anything dark lurking beneath the surface. At The Omen’s end, Damien now under the care of the President and First Lady of The United States of America, smiles at us although we are outside of the film. He smiles at us because he knows what lies within. Whether or not this smile can be looked upon as a warning of where we’re headed, or snide congratulations at the temporary victory of doomsday avoided, Damien’s message is clear. This burden of privilege, of power, of an empire built on secrets, of mental illness denied and feared, of beautiful, wealthy white people protected by lies and enabled to lead through them, “it’s all for you.” What we do with it is up to us.
Featured Images: 20th Century Fox