Richard Donner’s The Omen. The 1976 classic occult horror movie about a satanic plot to implant the Antichrist into the world of American politics via the dynastic Thorn family. Pretty straightforward, and certainly iconic (an increasingly rare example of the word being no exaggeration!).
Beyond the relatively simple plot however, and like all the best horror, The Omen also explores deeper issues. The premise of the whole story essentially hinges on the massive deception perpetrated by Ambassador Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) and the consequences of his isolated, presumptive decision. Donner, and writer David Seltzer, are examining the importance of truth within a loving relationship, and the fallout when trust is broken.
Robert’s choice to keep from his wife that their child is not in fact their own flesh and blood causes huge damage. In the grand scheme of things, it ultimately leads to death and destruction, the rise of the son of Satan, and Sam Neill sporting one of the sharpest side partings in the horror canon. But on a more intimate scale, Kathy Thorn (Lee Remick) struggles intensely with feelings of inadequacy as a mother, confusion over a lack of bonding with her son Damien, and questioning her own sanity and even safety.
“Please, I have such fears.”
The film reckons with the decision that Robert made to adopt Damien and keep it secret, not just because the kid turns out to be the Antichrist, but because of the consequences borne from lying about this hugely significant life event.
It could be argued that Kathy is being gaslit. Personally, I don’t see it that way. I think gaslighting very much comes from a place of wanting to deceive and seeking to manipulate, and that’s not what Robert’s doing.
One of the things that I love so much about The Omen is there are certain scenes and conversations that say so little with words but the audience is able to pick up so much from an apparently throw-away line or subtle glance. All that Robert says to the priest in the hospital is that Kathy wanted a baby so badly and they’d tried for so long, and it builds the entire picture. We are quickly led to understand her desperation for a child, and why the news of his death would destroy her, to see that Robert would do anything to protect her from that devastation.
“Darling, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I just don’t seem to be able to… I don’t know.”
When the film jumps forward five years, Kathy is experiencing things she can’t explain and suggests she doesn’t know how she feels about Damien. As she believes that he’s her biological son, she doubts her own maternal capabilities, whereas actually if she knew her misgivings likely have their roots at a biological level she may be able to better deal with how she felt. Again, he doesn’t need to be the Antichrist for her to sense something is up.
The fears she has that Damien in fact isn’t hers further solidify her confusion, while really her instincts are exactly correct and should be trusted. The film is showing us the harm that can be done to someone working on false information to try to make sense of the way they feel.
Even Kathy’s decision to abort a pregnancy is based on her belief that there’s something wrong with her first born. She admits to her psychiatrist that she fantasises Damien is alien, that he’s evil. The use of the word ‘fantasises’ is important; to Kathy, that Damien is her own son is a hard fact. She has no knowledge of the Satanic backroom shenanigans that went on after she’d given birth, and no reason to suspect her husband would be hiding anything from her.
Robert refuses to agree to the termination; apparently not because he won’t let Kathy take control of her own body but because he won’t allow ‘the omen’ to come true. It was foretold that the baby would be killed and he therefore needs to protect the pregnancy. But by deceiving Kathy from the start, he has backed her into a corner. He has essentially taken away her choice over the pregnancy as much as he would have if he objected from some moral or macho standpoint. He won’t agree to it because he knows all the facts and therefore he has all the power.
“What would I tell her? What would I say?”
Gregory Peck is cast perfectly in the role of the Ambassador, husband and father. He’s effortlessly dependable, solid, stoic but also affectionate, warm, concerned. For Lee Remick’s Kathy to be truly vulnerable and believable as dealing with this inner turmoil, we need to believe that she has absolute faith and trust in her husband. And that’s what makes his deceit so much more tragic.
Remick and Peck have wonderful chemistry on screen. We believe the fortitude of their relationship because they portray it in such an easy and open manner; they’re loving, sexy and playful. The couple is obviously head over heels for each other and very happy. But what so many of the people around Kathy know, but not Kathy herself, is that what’s lacking is truth and true partnership.
Perhaps because it’s the 1970s or because Robert is a politician, but we see no real consultation or joint decision making within their marriage. The big one about adopting a mystery baby from a spooky priest with no paperwork is an obvious example, but we also see it with the move from Rome to London when Robert secures the ambassadorship. There’s no contention – it’s not shown to be a big deal and Kathy is clearly delighted – but what it does illustrate is that there’s no conversation about the big choices that affect their life as a family.
“Your wife need never know. It would be a blessing for her, and for the child.”
Is Robert really to blame for the events that unfold, and for Kathy’s doubts? After all, he doesn’t know that he’s giving his wife the Antichrist. Seltzer and Donner successfully position that Robert is making this decision from a place of love and concern. And let’s not forget it’s all engineered – the satanists murder the Thorns’ newborn son to create space for this situation. Robert, too, is working on lies and false information – as far as he’s aware, his baby died in childbirth.
Even if Robert’s decision is made from a place of love and wanting to protect his wife, it also completely removes any of Kathy’s agency. I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe that if he’d told her the truth and let her grieve and come to terms with their loss they could have continued to have a happy little family being super rich in the English countryside. But tragically because this is a horror film they both end up miserable and then, inevitably, dead.
So the moral of the story? To all the husbands, wives, life-partners, besties, housemates – don’t hide things from your significant other because it’ll most likely cause way more harm than the truth. Oh, and stay away from creepy priests whose offers seem too good to be true.