Truly Omen-ous?

June 01, 2006

Truly Omen-ous?

There’s a Quit Smoking ad on Sydney buses doing the rounds at the moment: a cigarette that metamorphoses into a foot, some toes of which have rotted off due to gangrene, a side-effect of a smoking-related disease. The intent is threateningly didactic: this is what can happen if you smoke, so stop it.

The same purpose could be attributed to religiously themed horror films like John Moore’s version of The Omen, which mine their symbols from a quarry of Christian imagery as if to frighten the heathen into piety with good old-fashioned judgement served up as apocalyptic spectacle.[1] There are evil forces afoot in the world, these films seem to say, and only turning to God can help everyone through.

But any practising Christian, who knows the Bible as more than an array of distant images culled from the ghosts of Sunday School past, would fathom the gulf between the faith they profess with the understanding of God, Jesus, the Bible and the devil which is promoted in (mainly Hollywood) religious horror films. Indeed, the devil is the darling of horror and it is his theatrics and deviant exploits which preoccupy religious horror like The Omen. God is largely absent; his traces only visible in the religious talismans wielded by the film’s ‘faithful’ characters. Jesus figures more as a metaphor than a person, as his sacrificial nature is glimpsed in the human protagonists whose task it is to right (or attempt to right) this world gone awry.

The Omen’s thesis of the devil made flesh is a perverse parody of the miracle of God’s son made flesh in Jesus, and seems designed to appal even those who profess no religious belief. In this way the film plunders what it needs from the Bible for shock value and then discards what it doesn’t. Real-life events like the Columbia spaceship disaster, the destruction of the World Trade Centre and the Asian tsunami are interpreted as fulfilling prophecies of the Book of Revelation. Into this maelstrom of 21st century conflict, strife and suffering, Damien Thorn comes of age at six years old; his film releasing in cinemas on the sixth day of the sixth month of the sixth year. Did you just get chills?

Horror is unique as a genre because it accepts the existence of a supernatural realm implicitly, as Christian filmmaker Scott Derickson has maintained.[2] But the spiritual essence of The Omen is weighed down with material concerns and the occupations of this world, rather than the promise of the next, whether that is salvation or judgment.[3] This hinders and, strangely enough, helps the film’s usefulness in communicating ideas about a Christian worldview.

In the film, Damien throws a violent fit when passing by a church with his parents, as if the very bricks of the building possessed an unbearable holiness that was nowhere else to be found. Father Brennan wallpapers his hideout with pages from the Bible, as if the very paper it’s printed on provides an enchantment to ward off evil. And of course, Damien must be killed on holy ground as if God’s only real estate were to be found underneath a spire.

The failure of films like The Omen is that the use of Christian symbols by visibly ‘Christian’ characters (just look for the guys in cassocks) looks a lot like idol worship: imbuing inanimate objects with magic properties. Their use occurs without significant reference made to what these symbols ultimately allude to, which is what has made them such enduring icons since Christ walked the earth. They become tainted by association with such tawdry use. Is this what it is to live in a post-Christian world: the symbols remain but the God is gone?

Religious horror films can communicate theological ideas of judgment, salvation and the very existence of a supernatural realm but their usefulness is limited in a Hollywood imagination dictated by an absent Almighty and an Anti-Christ running amok. However, this can be helpful inasmuch as films like The Omen reveal more about our conception of evil and how truly banal it is. We may not be altogether flattered by what we see.

The devil does exist but he is also the sum total of human license writ large. We measure the devil’s hopes by our own. God created the universe and everything in it. Damien, as the petulant devil-in-waiting, manoeuvres himself into the White House so one day he can be President of the United States and rule over a microscopic part of that universe. What ambition. But before we scoff too loudly at Lucifer, we would do well to remember that 666 is not just the devil’s number, but also man’s.[4]

Damien’s lust for earthly power cannot but be underwritten by the anxious awareness that one day his number will be up and God will storm the stage. This is a picture of humanity lost in sin, living by the philosophy: eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.[5] Though audiences may not necessarily believe in (any) God, the montage of 21st century chaos alluded to earlier articulates a sneaking suspicion that humanity deserves divine wrath for making such a mess of the world. So while Damien smiles at the camera as he holds the President’s hand is chilling, the joke is really on him. He reveals the hollowness of man’s endeavours and his ultimate ambition—really, banality—devoid of God.

It’s doubtful whether Hollywood’s version of religious horror in efforts like The Omen will ever see fans fleeing cinema aisles for church pews. But the image of man absent the guidance, love and mercy of his Creator is pitiable indeed. There’s no need to frighten people into obedience. The sorry state of humanity absent God is testament enough.

[1] The Hollywood imagination of religious horror is really civic religion masquerading under the guise of its more pious counterpart. This largely secular effort embraces a non-denominational God as a figurehead to serve the needs of the state and keep its citizenry “dutiful during the day and frightened at night.” See Edward J. Ingebretsen, S.J.’s Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King. 1996, M.E. Sharpe, Inc., New York

[2] Scott Derickson quoted in Peter T. Chattaway’s ‘Devil in the Details?’ Christianity Today, November 2005, Vol. 49, No. 11, p102. Available online at Accessed 23-Jun-06

[3] At the level of the film as a commodity, making money is the material point. The Omen seems entirely designed to capitalise on the once in a millennium opportunity to brand its publicity posters with triple sixes. Presumably this is because according to Revelation, it’s only by exhibiting these numbers that people will be able to buy and sell movie tickets.

[4] Revelation 13:18

[5] Isaiah 22:13

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