Girl Meets Context: In the wake of The Exorcist‘s massive popularity, dozens of “Satanic thrillers” were made in the mid-to-late 1970s, of which The Omen might be the most famous one. The film is about Robert Thorn, an American diplomat (played by screen legend Gregory Peck) who comes to believe that he may have unwittingly adopted the son of Satan after he switches out his dead newborn with an orphaned infant (without telling his wife). Five years later, mysterious things begin happening: his son Damien’s nanny hangs herself at his birthday party, leading to the arrival of a mysterious new nanny, Mrs. Baylock. Thorn’s wife Kathy (played by Lee Remick) develops an aversion to the child after he freaks out when brought near a church. Later, all the animals at the zoo recoil or become aggressive in his presence. Soon Thorn is running around the globe with the help of a photographer (David Warner), trying to piece together the puzzle of Damien’s true origins. Kristine and I sat down to discuss the film’s gender and class politics, as well as the ways in which it is and is not like The Shining. Be forewarned, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS, so go watch the movie and come back!
Kristine: Well, I have to say, after knowing about “Damien” and this movie just through cultural osmosis for years and years, The Omen was… not what I was expecting!
Sean: Tell me everything. What did you expect?
Kristine: I think I was expecting Damien to be more actively and deliberately evil. But the movie was more about the fears of the parents, and their relationship dynamic with one another. And the real baddie was Mrs. Baylock, the evil nanny, and not Damien.
Sean: Well, the baboons would disagree.
Kristine: Ha! Can’t believe that for even a second I forgot that amazing safari zoo scene! I kept waiting for Damien to do evil things on his own.
Sean: He rode his tricycle into Kathy! He pushed Kathy over the railing!
Kristine: He was coached into doing that by Mrs. Baylock.
Sean: Did you want to punch Damien in his puffy white face?
Kristine: Yes, he was ugly.
Sean: He had an extra chromosome.
Kristine: But I still feel like his defense lawyer because I think the film did a poor job at presenting him as “evil incarnate.” Would evil incarnate need an evil nanny to show him what to do?
Sean: I think the idea is that he is being raised to be the Antichrist, so Mrs. Baylock and the dog are there to oversee him until he comes into his true dark powers. They are like his familiars. I think what’s supposed to be scary is the idea of Satan behind the scenes, being evil and pulling strings.
Kristine: The best scene in the movie, by a landslide, was when Nanny #1 hung herself and said “it’s all for you, Damien!” Well, that’s the best scene after the baboon freakout. Don’t you think that scene was a commentary on spoiled kiddies?
Sean: The first nanny hanging herself might be the most iconic scene in this movie. Though Kathy hanging from the railing and Jennings getting decapitated are also pretty famous.
Kristine: The nanny-hanging was AMAZING.
Sean: Tell me your spoiled kiddy theory.
Kristine: Just that over-the-top birthday party and Kathy being jealous of Nanny #1 being close to Damien. The idea that through permissiveness and spoiling their kids, modern parents are “creating monsters.” I mean, it was sort of My Super Sweet Sixteen: Extra Chromosome Edition. I also find it interesting how this movie really capitalizes on the idea of parents being afraid of and/or horrified by their own children.
Sean: Yes, I like that reading. I think one of the “problems” with the Thorn family in general is their class status and how unselfconscious they are about their privilege. This is why all the Kathy/Blaylock scenes are so great and filled with tension because its really hard to know who to root for. It’s great to see Blaylock, the hired help, be all sassy and disrespectful to the mistress of the house. But then we’re asked to be creeped out by Mrs. Blaylock as this invading force from outside the family, trying to undermine Kathy’s role as mother. The movie might be guilty of siding too often with the super-wealthy and privileged, and presenting the “help” as a bunch of abject, base weirdos.
Kristine: Was this movie the first time the whole “666” thing got really big in the public consciousness?
Sean: I don’t know the answer to that question! I think it might be the big entry of “666” into the pop culture vocabulary.
Kristine: Mrs. Blaylock, the evil dyke nanny was pretty awesome. I like how she is this matronly figure who intimidates Kathy and Robert, whereas the first nanny was this pretty young thing who Kathy felt a totally different kind of rivalry with. But I do think that Kathy’s initial jealousy of Nanny #1 immediately undercut our ability to sympathize with her character. She comes off as an insecure dummy.
Sean: Yeah, Kathy’s jealousy of Nanny #1 is totally sketch. I mean, Kathy is Betty Draper right? And Nanny #1 is Megan?
Kristine: Kathy is Season 1 Betty but with an even greater age/power difference between she and her husband. C’mon, Robert is like 40 years older than her! It was RIDIC.
Sean: That is such an old Hollywood trope: the old fogey with a young wife, like Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly in High Noon and a million other examples.
Kristine: Yeah. I thought the characterization of Kathy as a social climber was pretty mean-spirited, actually.
Sean: How was she painted as a social climber?
Kristine: There were several instances when she makes comments about how nothing is too good for the “wife of the ambassador” or she makes comments about his brother being the president, and wanting to get invited to fancy government events. And she gets wet when Robert gets his big promotion. She is just an all-around social schemer. And I also find it gross how the audience is asked to find her lacking because she doesn’t realize Damien is not her kid… like she lacks maternal instinct. This movie is so brazenly sexist.
Sean: I was actually HORRIFIED this time around that Robert and the priest so casually swap the baby out and are like “Eh, what she don’t know can’t hurt her!” I mean, total patriarchal conspiracy.
Kristine: Yeah, it was terrible. Robert’s attitude towards Kathy across the board is so patriarchal. And that sexist hubris actually bites him in the ass, because the baby he swapped out is totally the spawn of Satan!
Sean: Robert is so patriarchal, it is just ridic.
Kristine: You know what I found weird about this movie? Jennings, the photographer! I thought it was a real stretch that this dude just happens to be around photographing all these disparate events and pieces the whole thing together and then goes to fucking Israel or wherever to dig up graves and solve this mystery???? I was like, NOPE.
Sean: I thought it was funny how the “hero” of this movie is this (sort of corrupt) political figure and then along comes Jennings, this member of the media, to abet and aide in Robert’s every deed.
Kristine: Jennings was just a bit plot device, and there to give Robert some brotherly camaraderie since he treated the woman he was married to like a child. A modern update of this movie would have Kathy and Robert working together to solve the Satanic puzzle, not have Robert and his boyfriend running all around while the wife all mutely waters potted plants on vertiginous balconies.
Sean: I just want to say a few words in response to your initial comment that this movie was not what you expected. I mean, The Omen is so different from The Exorcist and most other of the “Satanic panic” pictures from the 1970s that it is REALLY pulpy and really plot-driven. I mean, it is kind of a procedural thriller mixed with lurid family melodrama more than a straight-up horror movie.
Sean: It is very plot-heavy and the photographer is all about advancing the plot. The Exorcist is virtually plotless. It is just this intense, unrelenting situation. The Omen is like a fuckin’ Agatha Christie novel on steroids (with some Peyton Place thrown in).
Kristine: Right… I get that… But since Satan or whomever can cause these evil acts on his own (skewering the priest and decapitating the photographer), why does he even need Damien? He’s got Mrs. Blaylock and his Rottweillers!
Kristine: I’m serious!
Sean: The movie relies heavily on Christian mythology, I think, in order to get us to just accept as a foregone conclusion that the devil has to manipulate things from beyond. The movie really trades on just the mythic idea of “the antichrist” and doesn’t feel the need to explain anything beyond that (re: Satan’s motives). Speaking of the Rottweilers, the dog attack in the graveyard was the scene that scared me when I was tot. I really was really scared of it.
Kristine: I thought the dog guarding over Damien when he was sleeping at night was good. I like how Robert was directly challenged in his own home and he backed down. The patriarchy is down one point!
Sean: Yeah, the dog as this wildly exaggerated masculine force that guards and protects the mother/son dyad of Baylock/Damien was really fascinating to me.
Kristine: Don’t you think, though, that Robert and Kathy were “chosen” to be the foster parents because they are flawed people? People who care more about appearances then the truth?
Kristine: They’re people who sweep things under the rug.
Sean: Because they’re W.A.S.P.s?
Kristine: Like, Robert was afraid of Kathy’s wild womanly feelings after she miscarried, so he went along with this absurd scheme to swap babies. Actually communicating with his wife would be too much work, so he just represses the truth. Remember, he thinks she is going to go nuts and he doesn’t want to deal with a crazy wife; he wants her to be happy homemaker. But I think all of the repression and lying marks them as “sinful” and, thus, a kind of portal through which the Antichrist can enter the world.
Sean: Right. I LOVE the ridiculous family melodrama stuff in this movie.
Kristine: It is all VERY Guiding Light.
Sean: I adore the scene where Damien is making noise and Kathy is like, “Get him the fuck outta here!” I think, in a lot of ways, this movie is meant to be a “parents’ worst nightmare” situation.
Kristine: Exactly!!! That is one of the reasons why I think the movie is not sympathetic to Kathy. She pawns him off on “the help.” There are several scenes where Kathy is crappy to the domestics. This movie is basically like, “It is so hard to find good help these days, right?” to the audience and expects us to nod and agree.
Sean: Oh, Kathy’s entitlement and bossiness is off the charts. She is a total cunt and I love her.
Sean: I mean, you love The Real Housewives shows! Kathy is a total RH.
Kristine: Kathy is SUCH an RH! Real Housewives of the State Department.
Sean: I don’t understand that paradox.
Kristine: What paradox?
Sean: You don’t like Kathy but you love RHs.
Kristine: First of all, liking to watch RH shows does not equal loving the actual ladies on the show. And I didn’t say I didn’t like her, I said the movie is unsympathetic to her.
Sean: I mean, one of the things I like about this movie is that it brings to life the fear that once you become a mother, you’ll hate it.
Kristine: Yes, agreed.
Sean: The whole plot of Kathy slowly realizing Damien is a weirdo is, to me, a metaphor for motherhood-as-trap.
Kristine: There are several realities of parenthood going on: that YOU might not feel or behave as you expected, that your partner might not feel/behave as you had expected, and that the kid might not be what you expect.
Sean: That scene of her kicking him out of the library is great, and Robert is all disapprovingly tut-tutting at her. Robert spends the entire movie tacitly judging his wife, and then she’s dead and he is sad. It is like, Hmmm, if only you had treated her with respect or deceny when she was alive! But I love Kathy’s frustrations and growing sense of alienation from Damein because it is like, the frustration of being saddled with a noisy, ugly twerp. Sometimes you look at kids and you’re like, Ugh these awful little bastards. Then other times they’re the cutest and most charming. The movie’s total commitment to
“child as little asshole” feels like an almost radical skewering of a huge cultural conception that children are all “beautiful” and “special” and “our most precious natural resource.” And this movie is like, “Um, actually they’re ugly little spazz-monsters, sorry.”
Kristine: Right. God, Damien is ugly.
Sean: Though Kathy can just order the help to deal with him anyway, so I don’t know what she’s all bent out of shape about.
Kristine: Because it’s hard to admit that you hate your kid sometimes!
Sean: I think she wants Damien to be this adorable accessory to her fabulous life and when he’s not, that makes him into this impenetrable, disturbed creature. Like when she is jealous of Nanny #1 getting photo-op-ed with Damien and she rips him out of Nanny’s arms and is all, “Mine!” She wants him to be HER accessory.
Kristine: I agree 100%. Things haven’t changed that much re: the social more against admitting you don’t love your kids all the time. Remember when what’s-her-name, the fat lady who is married to Michael Chabon, said she would always love him way more then her kids, and people LOST THEIR MINDS and she got like, death threats? The “mystique of Mommy” is still such a real thing.
Sean: Oh god I hate her, even though I support her right to hate her kids.
Kristine: Well, yeah, me too. And in a way, I think this movie still supports the notion that mothers have (or more properly, should have) this unshakable bond with their kids. It’s this really gross, essentialist idea about parents and children and I don’t like it.
Sean: But the movie really problematizes all this because it all boils down to this question of biology.
Kristine: Exactly! The things this movie purports to be “natural” really disturb me. And so because there is no “natural bond” between Kathy and Damien, she hates him.
Sean: If only he was BIOLOGICALLY HERS, nothing would be wrong. Is this movie just anti-adoption propaganda?
Kristine: Remember when Mrs. Baylock says, “I am here to make sure no harm befalls you”? She is completely fine with sacrificing herself for “her” child, Damien. The “natural” bond between matriarch and beloved child is rewritten here as a supernatural and uncanny bond between monster mother and monster child.
Sean: If only every adopted kid got a devil nanny and a hound of hell in the mail at their new address to guard and protect them.
Kristine: Ha! Awesome! I feel like this movie comes close to exploring interesting issues, then cops out with the whole “child of the devil” thing.
Sean: Right? So, I like how frank the movie is about abortion. Kathy fucking said that word left and then she said it right.
Kristine: She did, but again, I think that is part of the reason we aren’t supposed to be 100% on Team Kathy. She isn’t a “good” woman, because she’s pro-choice.
Sean: I think I disagree. Isn’t the movie is constantly playing with our sense of identification because we always know more than the characters? I mean, Robert thinks Kathy is hysterical but we know she’s not. If we didn’t know, I think the movie would be more sexist and sadistic.
Kristine: “Don’t let Damien hurt me,” mews Kathy.
Sean: In the end, I think it actually winds up critiquing Robert the patriarch more than it does Kathy.
Kristine: I agree with that, sure. Robert fucked up big time.
Sean: I feel like we are 100% on Kathy’s side about the abortion, even though it is presented in the movie as this tragic thing because we know the child would be “normal.” But Kathy doesn’t and so her logic makes sense. I mean, she has one devil baby already! Give a girl a break!
Kristine: I think you and I are on Kathy’s side there. I don’t know how the original audiences in 1976 might have felt about her. I suspect they might have been like, “Oh you loose, fallen, weak woman!” and judged her ‘til the cows came home.
Sean: Right. But I don’t agree that the movie cops out. I think the devil child stuff MAKES the metaphor. But at the same time, this is a ludicrous and incoherent movie.
Kristine: I hate that Kathy dies without knowing the truth. Once Kathy dies, this movie goes completely off the rails.
Sean: Kathy the human cannonball.
Kristine: Wasn’t she yelling something when she was falling?
Sean: I don’t recall.
Kristine: Do you love Mrs. Baylock?
Sean: I actually…. kind of hate her. Am I a bourgeois pig?
Kristine: Hah! I loved her!
Sean: I am all, “Don’t speak to the mistress of the house that way.” Can you believe?
Kristine: No, I can’t!
Sean: Normally I hate the rich characters and want them to pay. But Kathy is the only character in the movie that I find all that interesting. And so because Mrs. Baylock’s role is to undermine and terrorize her, it makes me hate her. There’s also some dykey exploitation vibes to that relationship that are hilarious but make me also think, “Run, Kathy! That butch devil dyke wants to fist you!”
Kristine: I love Baylock and I love butchies.
Sean: Damien’s mother was… a dog. I love that detail (the reveal in the Etruscan graveyard).
Kristine: Yeah, a jackal. One thing I didn’t quite get… how did the visit to the graveyard prove that their child was murdered, not miscarried?
Sean: There was a huge hole in the baby’s skull. It’s head was bashed in.
Kristine: Oh! Poor baby!
Sean: Yeah, I know. It really is fucking dark, this movie. Very bleak and nihilistic for a mainstream thriller.
Kristine: And Father Brennan aided and abetted because he was under the influence of the dark forces?
Kristine: So now we have the mistrust of organized religion in the mix. Basically, all patriarchy is fucked. They will kill your baby and give you a demon to raise! LADIES, take note.
Sean: Oh total pre-pedophilia Catholic conspiracy scandal.
Kristine: Fuck, the ladies have it tough. God damn it!
Sean: This movie is just so deeply paranoid about like, ALL the facets of culture and civilization. It is kind of ridic! Did you like the photographer’s decapitation?
Kristine: It was crazy. His head was spinning like a bowling ball!
Sean: I know – again, pretty graphic for a mainstream thriller.
Kristine: Yeah, but not scary enough for me. I wanted more scares. You’re right, the dogs were the scariest part.
Sean: Robert had to seek out a wise, ancient Jew to defeat Satan, fyi.
Kristine: Oh, I know. And the Jew had no problem being like, ‘Kill the kid.’ And then stupid Robert has second thoughts?!?!?!?!?!
Sean: Ugh! Robert is a moron. But I did think it was interesting that movie puts all its trust in this “older” Hebrew religion rather than a more “modern” politically organized church. This is the rare conservative movie with the subtext, “Trust the Jews!”
Kristine: If you are going to seek out an ancient, wise Jew, then do what he says! No questions asked!
Sean: Robert speeding by the cops at the end being the most conspicuous child murderer in the world…
Kristine: Ha! I did like Damien positioning himself as the President’s kid at the very end, though. That made me laugh.
Sean: Oh that ending is so ridiculous.
Kristine: So Knots Landing.
Sean: So do you see why we watched this movie next in our rotation?
Kristine: Ummm, because of the Presidential elections? Romney is VERY much a Robert-type, by the way.
Sean: TOTALLY. But more because I couldn’t believe all the parallels to The Shining!
Kristine: Oh yeah, I was thinking about that.
Sean: Both movies end with a father figure trying to murder his son.
Sean: But in one, we’re rooting for him, and in the other we’re rooting against him. Danny/Damien are like yin and yang. I’m just fascinated by how patriarchal violence and an “abusive” father can be cause for celebration in one movie, then condemnation in another.
Kristine: I wasn’t really rooting for anyone in The Omen but I see your point, definitely. And the mother figure in both movies just runs around being baffled.
Sean: Tricycle/Big Wheel.
Kristine: Both boys are being protected by bigger forces…
Sean: Yes, they’re both uncanny, supernatural kids and both kind of androgynous and a bit wicked. “Tony” is almost like a kind of devil/possession.
Kristine: Right, and when Danny is standing all in a trance over Wendy, holding the knife…
Sean: Totally. There are Halloran/Mrs. Baylock parallels also. So you hated this movie?
Kristine: I thought it was “meh” with a few good scenes. And you?
Sean: I rate it “Total trash… I loved it!” Anything with this much Peyton Place in it is my bag.
Kristine: Ha! I hear you. I rate it, “This movie is dumb but I had fun watching it (and I don’t know why).” I understand why you picked it, but preceding it with The Shining really makes its flaws apparent.
Sean: Oof! Gah!
Kristine: Truth talk.
The Girl’s Rating: This movie is dumb but I had fun watching it (and I don’t know why).
The Freak’s Rating: Total trash! I loved it!