Coming on the heels of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, Richard Donner’s The Omen mined further the prospect of the Devil wreaking havoc on the ostensibly prosperous and peaceful West, specifically by using a child to accomplish the task. The Omen trilogy does not reference Nazism or the Holocaust directly, but the films chronicle the rise of the Antichrist in the venue where he can best destabilize civilization and unleash humanity’s worst instincts – politics. Damien’s adoptive family, the Thorns, are at the pinnacle of a mature capitalist economy governed by a handful of transnational corporations. Sociologist Neil Gerlach argues Antichrist films are critical dystopias revealing the weaknesses and corruption of modern social, political and economic structures, as well as institutionalized knowledge. Science can do nothing to stop the Antichrist; in fact it serves as an additional tool in his arsenal. That the Antichrist is a voracious capitalist make sense, Gerlach argues, because he is the embodiment of “the perfect post-Fordist man, waiting to transform society into his own selfish, ‘me generation’ image.”[i]
The Holocaust relied on science, law, technology, and a robust bureaucratic state – the hallmarks of the post-Enlightenment age. How else would a modern Antichrist achieve world domination than similarly undermine the institutions governing our existence, suddenly turning them into agents of destruction? It is not only effective, but utterly demoralizing. Moreover, the Antichrist will act with our consent. The Omen has no monsters, demons, or vivid apocalyptic landscapes, just a child nurtured in a familiar postwar power structure – corporations, government, elite military schools, and hallowed democratic bodies like Parliament. Consequently, it is difficult to fear Damien because his monstrosity is not obvious to us. In fact, we may be pulling for him to bring down the whole rotten artifice enabling his meteoric rise to power.
Damien’s racial and economic privilege is instrumental to his quest to become the all-powerful Antichrist. Satan obviously agrees since he arranged for him to be raised by the Thorns. “[T]his is a film about whiteness,” Andrew Scahill writes of The Omen, “It is a film about whiteness become monstrous, a film about white privilege and the invisible labor that upends it . . . .”[ii] From the governess who hurled herself out of a window at Damien’s fifth birthday party, screaming, “It’s all for you, Damien!” to the minions paving the way for him in school, corporate culture, and politics – sacrificing themselves and countless others – Damien ascends to the pinnacle of power on the literal and figurative corpses of his social inferiors. Why would anyone suspect Damien for benefitting from the system in place? Critic Wheeler Dixon mistakenly described Damien as “the blond young son” of Robert Thorn, noting the “Nazi-like precision” of Damien’s plotting.[iii] Damien is famously raven-haired, not blonde, but Scahill attributes Dixon’s careless mistake to our tendency to equate blondeness with whiteness. Damien should be blonde given his cocoon of wealth and privilege revolving around an elite military school and the global reach of Thorn Industries. Damien’s path to power required eliminating rivals and subjugating the Third World to poverty and famine, Scahill writes The Omen II “explicitly invokes the iconography of the Hitler Youth movement to link education, white privilege, and colonialism.”[iv] Damien does not manipulate economic and power structures with shocking supernatural powers. The Antichrist simply must work within the established bounds of formal institutions.[v]
Entrenching Damien in the corridors of power, a precocious child who blithely casts aside inept adults powerless to stop him makes this antihero the implicit hero. Damien has a goal and ruthlessly pursues it, perhaps unintentionally providing a service by revealing the internal rot of our civilization. Audiences in the late 1970s could identify with this subtext. Robin Wood argues we root for Damien’s “systematic destruction of the bourgeois Establishment.” Furthermore, “The Omen would make no sense in a society that was not prepared to enjoy and surreptitiously condone the working out of its own self-destruction.”[vi] It is coincidental The Omen and The Boys from Brazil were released so close together, yet the two address similar themes integral to post-World War II horror – feelings of anxiety, helplessness, and blurred boundaries between order and disorder.[vii] Moreover, the films suggest the next Hitler or the Antichrist could just as likely emerge from an American family as he could Hell or the dark well of history. The Omen is deeply unsettling, but also wryly amusing because Damien, Neil Gerlach concludes, “is what America is becoming in the late modern period.”[viii] Damien intends to enact genocide using the tools of a modern-nation state and the bottomless resources of an international conglomerate. The Holocaust is a model for the Antichrist and proof the past is prelude when it comes to genocide. It is not Damien, or even Satan who should frighten us; it is our complacency, our powerlessness, and ultimately our complicity in making the Antichrist’s victory inevitable.
[i] Neil Gerlach, “Narrating Armageddon: Antichrist Films and the Critique of Late Modernity,” The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, vol. 24, no. 2 (Summer 2012), 219.
[ii] Andrew Scahill, “’It’s all for you, Damien!” Oedipal Horror and Racial Privilege in The Omen Series’” in Lost and Othered Children in Contemporary Cinema, Andrew Scahill and Debbie C. Olsen, eds., (MD: Lexington Books, 2012), 98.
[iii] Scahill, 98.
[iv] Scahill, 100.
[v] Neil Gerlach, “The Antichrist as Multi-Monomyth: The Omen Films as Social Critique,” The Journal pf Popular Culture, vol. 44, no. 5 (2011), 1036.
[vi] Robing Wood quoted in Gerlach, “Narrating Armageddon,” 218.
[vii] Gerlach, “The Antichrist as Multi-Monomyth,” 1030.
[viii] Gerlach, “The Antichrist as Multi-Monomyth,” 1044.