Accidentally Christian: A Look at Richard Donner’s The Omen

Here’s a concept I learned in college: All truth is God’s truth.

In other words, because truth is an objective thing which exists outside of us, we can look at anything that makes a statement about life and affirm theparts of it which reflect objective truth.

You can look at Norse myths about Balder, the dying god who rises again at Ragnarok, and see how that idea of a dying god who rises again coincides with the Christian belief that a god really did rise again. C.S. Lewis credited his love for dying god myths with helping him understand Christ’s death and resurrection.

This also leads us to an interesting area in storytelling. We can look at works which aren’t overly intended to have spiritual takeaways and see things which coincide with spiritual truths. Sometimes we may even find those ideas where the artist was trying to go in a decidedly secular direction. Which leads us to a Halloween-worthy film.

Released shortly after several other “demon child movies,” The Omen tells the story of a diplomat who adopts a child and then comes to believe the child is actually the Antichrist. According to producer Harvey Bernhard, The Omen started with a conversation between him and his friend Robert Munger (who later served as religious advisor for the film). Both men made it clear in various interviews that they took the spiritual ideas very seriously, and saw it as an opportunity to create spiritual discussions.

In contrast, director Richard Donner found he couldn’t really believe in a movie about a child Antichrist, so he removed some Biblical imagery and supernatural elements (covens, gargoyles and similar material) from the original script. As Donner alluded to several times in a documentary about the film and his commentary for the film’s DVD version, he approached the movie as if it could be about a mental crisis (a family comes to believe they’ve adopted a demon child, which causes them to spiral downward and lose their minds). Donner has said various times that he takes this decidedly natural view.

As a result, The Omen doesn’t show anything overtly supernatural onscreen. No levitations or ghosts. No Satanic ceremonies. Instead, what viewers get is characters talking about supernatural evil, and then bizarre events happen which seem to prove that evil exists.

You’d assume this approach means The Omen lost whatever religious themes it had. After all, how can a movie talk about the supernatural when no definitively supernatural action happens onscreen? However, this approach didn’t actually remove The Omen’s religious themes.

For one thing, even though Donner removed scenes involving evil ceremonies and so forth, the script doesn’t set up events so that you can always dismiss the Antichrist references or proofs. As one film buff noted, seeing the movie on a natural level would require the script to be set up so that all the Antichrist elements (the 666 mark on Damien’s head, the freak deaths, and so forth) are either one person’s hallucinations or due a misunderstandings.

So, rather than a movie that could be about the supernatural or the natural, The Omen ends up being a movie that handles the supernatural in a subtle way. This arguably makes the religious themes more accessible.

You can talk about some fascinating religious ideas when you make a thriller about supernatural conflicts (demons and angels, Satan vs. God, etc.) and explicitly show supernatural things. However, you’ll be working with Christian imagery, and (assuming you’re making the film for Western viewers), your audience will be very familiar with those images.

Christian imagery has been part of Western culture for so long, every Westerner’s been exposed to it in some way. Even if you didn’t grow up in a religious home, a few hours of TV every week will show you dozens of winged angels, horned demons and “God figures” (old men with beards and robes sitting on clouds). Think about how many TV commercials or billboard ads have plots about people listening to an angel or demon on their shoulders telling them what to buy. We haven’t even talked about how many similar images you see on social media, billboards or any other media outlet.

We know Christian images better than we realize. This familiarity means that any time those images show up, if we want to we can easily dismiss them as fantasy. Just another nursery tale like Santa Claus (another image we know even if our parents didn’t introduce us to the concept).

So, a movie that overtly shows supernatural things always runs the risk audience members won’t take it seriously. This is especially true if the special effects used to create the supernatural elements fall flat. Several writers have argued this is the main problem with Terence Fisher’s film The Devil Rides Out: a devil that’s clearly a man wearing a sub-par costume isn’t that impressive.

But what if you set that same film in the normal world and imply supernatural things are happening? That creates a very different response.

Suddenly, we’re not talking about something familiar. We aren’t seeing the cliché images of horned monsters in fire pits, lightning hitting houses, pentagrams and crucifixes. Instead, we’re talking about the normal world – our world – and what might happen if something sinister broke in. Something we can’t fully reject as bad luck.

That kind of movie makes us push past cynicism and deal with religious questions in a fresh way. Despite the director’s intentions, The Omen accomplishes that.

One thought on “Accidentally Christian: A Look at Richard Donner’s The Omen

  1. Pingback: The Omen, Left Behind and the Value of Complexity (Sidetrails Pt 3) – G. Connor Salter

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