Signs and Portents

Horror movies are, of course, more than escapism. Although it’s taken many years academics are starting to pay some attention to them. Because of a conversation with a colleague this past week I felt compelled to watch The Omen again. The current political situation merits such viewing, in any case. Interestingly, the first time I saw The Omen—which was during a spate of unemployment—it didn’t scare me much. Like most classic horror, the scenes that had everybody talking in the mid-‘70s had been described so often that they failed to shock. All that was left was a dispensationalist tale of the end of the world—non-biblical, and the fright only came from belief. This time, however, I could see it as nothing but a film about a political takeover.

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With the open admission on the part of Steve Bannon that his administration—let’s not kid ourselves here—intends to dismantle the government we’ve had in this country since around 1776, we can see that this election was only an excuse. Knowing that this dark side of human nature (some call it the Devil) won’t be given a chance again—they didn’t win the popular vote this time around and unless they silence the media they won’t win the next one—Bannon’s crew, like Damien, has to deconstruct quickly. The Republican establishment, unless it opens its eyes soon, will find itself locked outside as well. Ironically, it’s the public that can see this, not the elites. It’s as if George III were back from the grave. Power, as The Omen intimates, is incredibly seductive. The GOP, wrongly supposing it will share it, goes along with nominations that have now been openly declared agents of destruction. Where is Revelation when you need it?

The Omen is all about Satan getting a back-door entry to the White House. The politicians are all easily duped. Evangelical Christians have been brainwashed into thinking that only by voting Republican can they prevent abortion and gay marriage—two decidedly non-biblical issues. You see, the Devil works that way. Scripture says he can disguise himself as an angel of light. People who don’t educate themselves are very easily fooled. We’ve followed the script rather precisely. Satan’s greatest tool, it’s said, is that people don’t believe in him. So after you finish reading 1984—which we all should—watch The Omen. Ponder what inviting evil to take over the one remaining superpower might really mean.

Mark of the Beast

namingantichristI grew up believing in “the Antichrist.” As I came to realize that much of the New Testament pointed to contemporary problems (for them) with the Roman Empire and that what appeared to be predictions were actually safe ways to discuss forbidden topics, I began to worry less. It was about the past, not the future. Recent political events have ratcheted up my anxiety level again—maybe there is such an evil after all. Robert Fuller’s Naming the Antichrist: The History of an American Obsession is an important book in this regard. Although end-time worries have diminished among some now that we’re safely into a new millennium, for the true believer none of that matters. The Antichrist is a great motivator. I hadn’t realized until reading this book just how much of contemporary culture has grown from this fabricated fear.

Let’s get this straight from the beginning. In the Bible there is no figure known as “the Antichrist.” The generalized word antichrist is used only twice and in neither instance is the book in question Revelation. Early Christians speculated that the beast of Revelation might be “the Antichrist” but that identification wasn’t solidified until the beginnings of the Fundamentalist movement in the late 1800s. By the time Fundamentalism was a fully developed system, by about the 1920s, believing in the Antichrist and trying to identify him had become a cottage industry. I grew up in the shadow of Hal Lindsey and the pressing concern that “the Antichrist” was alive in the world today. Face it, The Omen loses something if he isn’t. This strange, non-biblical belief has come to define a large number of true believers.

Fuller’s book is important for the insight he brings into why some “Christians” are avowed enemies of peace, toleration, and the improvement of human conditions. Those who believe their tribe is the only correct one hold the double standard of ethical treatment of those inside and scorn and hatred of those without. This view believes that the world is to be condemned, natural resources used up, wars started, and civil rights suppressed, in the name of Christ. Perhaps you may begin to see why a chill ran down my spine as I was reading this book. We need to try to understand this perverted way of looking at the world in order to understand the forces that would rather see a dictatorial billionaire run the country than an eminently qualified woman. Reason’s got nothing to do with it. It’s all about conviction. Failure to understand that is perhaps the surest way to bring about the end of the world. We ignore religious thought to our own peril.

Omen, O Man!

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Of the unholy trinity of late-60s to mid-70s horror movies Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976), the last always seemed the least effective to me. Having recently read about the Devil in American popular culture, and having a rainy Friday evening alone, I decided to give it a try again. Based as heavily on Hal Lindsey as it is, once one outgrows dispensationalism it is hard to be frightened by the idea of biblical end times. Everything from making up verses in “Revelations” to utterly bogus Holy Land geography (Megiddo is north of Jerusalem, not south—did the writers not even own a map?) contributes to a set of untenable tenets, even among the bibliterati. The film relies mostly on shocks and startles to earn its horror stripes, and after you’ve seen the movie once, these lose their power in subsequent viewings. Nevertheless, on this rainy May night, so close to June 6, I noticed new ways in which the movie undermines its own message.

The premise, of course, is that Damien, the son of the Devil (who apparently has a thing for bestiality), is plotting to take over the world through the means of politics. Having been watching the events of the past few months I have to wonder how the Devil could improve on progress through such channels. But I digress. His step-father Robert Thorn, US ambassador to London, discovers his “son”‘s identity and tries to kill him. With a strong anti-Catholic bias (the Antichrist is born in Rome, the seat of the church, and is protected by Roman clergy) the film nevertheless spawns sympathy for the Devil. As a child, Harvey Stephens hardly appears diabolical. Maybe it’s just because my brothers and I also spilled goldfish from their bowl once, but it seems to me he acts just like most little boys do. Who really wants to go to church at that age? As the movie approaches its climax, he’s represented as the biblical good-guy.

Thorn has to confirm Damien’s satanic identity. Like Delilah, he creeps up on the sleeping boy and cuts his hair. Convinced by a man who introduces himself “I am Bugenhagen” that he has to stab the boy, Thorn in a white car outraces police (so there might be a bit of prophecy here after all) to sacrifice the child on the altar. The movie casts Damien as both Samson and Isaac within a few short minutes. Apart from the film’s use of violence against women’s bodies (Thorn won’t allow an abortion, Kathy seems to have a penchant from falling from high places in slow motion, Baylock gets a fork in the neck) it actually seems ambivalent about the evil of the boy. An unfortunate birthmark does not a devil make. We’ve made it through the change of the millennium and many other hazards, yet dispensationalism is still with us, as is its anticlimactic Antichrist, Damien. He’s less scary than the real politics of an entirely secular age.

Dog Gone!

Religion is a strange attractor. Maybe not in the exact same sense as in chaos theory, but in reality it brings together mental states so bizarre that science fiction and fantasy writers have a buyer’s choice. Yesterday the New York Daily News reported on a South Carolina woman who hanged and burned a one-year old pit-bull puppy. Why? The bitch had bitten the woman’s Bible. Citing the animal as a “Devil dog,” the southern woman became a vigilante for the Lord. Now she’s being tried on charges of animal cruelty. This story touched me in a number of ways.

With family roots in South Carolina, I can conjure up images of this happening. Having known many, many Fundamentalists, it seems even more plausible. Given the constant barrage of contrary messages descrying the presence of evil in the world, all the sudden any mutt can become Mephistopheles. Begging off the Baskervilles, the demonic hound has a long pedigree in mythical imagination. It is well known that the Bible cites dogs as unclean animals, but it is their charnel character that leads to the development of the full-blooded hellhound. Prior to the Hebrew Bible, in ancient Ugarit dogs had an infernal connection. It isn’t seen clearly, but the association is there. Snatches of the underworldly dog appear long before Cerberus, and last well nigh into the twenty-first century.

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Unfortunately for the deceased canine, it is a myth. Hellhounds still abound in popular media, everywhere from The Omen to O Brother, Where Art Thou? Dogs, however, were among humanity’s earliest partners in the survival game. From about as early as I can remember, we always had dogs in the house, and nary a demonic encounter. We never put them on trial, even when house-training was in progress and an accident occurred.

The news story reminded me of an episode of Dragnet I saw as a child. A woman was arrested for murder, and Sergeant Friday, in his unflappable voice, told his partner it was because the victim had shot one of her books. In the final fade out, after Bill Gannon asked what book it had been, Friday holds up a Bible with a bullet-hole through it. I was a little confused. Was the woman guilty or was someone shooting a Bible just cause? The episode did not answer the moral dilemma. I can’t even remember the outcome. But in 2011 things haven’t much changed. If he goes to South Carolina McGruff better watch what he takes a bite out of, or it could be lynching time again.

Ends and Beginnings

The Ninth Gate, a Roman Polanski film from a bygone decade, portrays a world the director doesn’t believe in. Typical of “devil movies,” the story involves a personified evil that not only seeks world domination, but who also writes books. I’ve been working on a book review for Relegere, the new online journal of Studies in Religion and Reception. In part the book addresses how the devil is portrayed in movies, although this particular film is not cited. Perhaps it is difficult to take seriously a film where the screenwriter is not a believer.

As a young teen I listened with horror as friends described The Omen, a movie that I never saw until just last year. The premise of the movie, that the Antichrist has already been born and is now walking the earth, ready to usher in Hal Lindsey-esque last days, is frightening to those who find a biblical basis for the idea. When finally watching the film the scariest part was viewing the extras. David Seltzer, author of both the book and screenplay, eerily tells the interviewer that he believes the Antichrist to be here now. His acceptance of mythology is admirable, but it is the problematic acquiescence to a modern reconstruction of disparate ancient views that is troubling. Like many late-twentieth century westerners, Seltzer has been influenced by attempts to construct a coherent account of the apocalypse from tattered bits of ancient traditions that never belonged together.

If education included a serious, critical look at how religious ideas developed, the world might be spared this sad predilection for seeking its own end. Apocalyptic ideas thrive in cultures of persecution, such as those very real torments of Jews under Antiochus and Christians under Nero. Their hopes for a brave new world of righteous rule, borrowing freely from Zoroastrian traditions of a new age, offered scraps of expectation of a better tomorrow to those dying today. When nineteenth-century evangelists saw the advances of industrialization and Darwin’s rational explanations of human origins, they felt the need to reconstruct the biblical demise of the world. Modern day apocalypticism, so evident in the Y2K, 9/11, and 2012 scares, is often ready to accept uncritically a supposed future already scripted by a sadly misunderstood Bible. If the world ends it will be our own doing, and maybe Roman Polanski will have to rethink whether or not a devil can actually write a book.

Lost Apocalypse

The Bible has many eminently quotable passages. I suspect that is one of the reasons it has the staying power that it does. Many critics of the theologies spun off by the Good Book have turned their vitriol toward the Bible itself, but I believe such hostility to be misplaced. Not everyone enjoys reading the Bible – that much is true for any book. The Bible, however, is foundational for not only our society, but the entire western literary tradition. Its influence on Shakespeare alone, who has, in turn, influenced just about every writer since the seventeenth century, underscores its literary importance. That’s why I’m always surprised with film-makers use concocted verses from the Bible when actual passages would produce the same effect. Granted, few Bible scholars comprise movie audiences and producers and directors seldom worry about writing the story for them. Last night I watched the “horror” film, Lost Souls, released in 2000. I’d read about the movie in Douglas Cowen’s Sacred Terror, so I wanted to see how it rated.

The movie begins with a false Bible quote: “… A man born of incest will become Satan and the world as we know it, will be no more. Deuteronomy Book 17.” Now granted, the movie failed to rock the critics, but the sheer weight of errors from pre-scene one should be the first warning to start from a better script. Beginning with an ellipsis for dramatic effect may be acceptable, but it serves no purpose – and what’s with the misplaced comma? A man born of incest in Deuteronomy is a non-starter because his potential parents could only be found dead, crushed together under a pile of hurled stones before the unfortunate could even be born. Satan as a devil is never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, let alone Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is almost never quoted by apocalypticists since it does not predict the end of the world, and Bible books are divided into chapters, not “books.” Well, the biblical illiteracy of Hollywood may be overlooked for a good story, but this is no such thing.

Lost Souls fails on the premise that a biblical “literalism” (and that is only if certain Evangelical interpretations are given unwarranted credence) about the coming of an Antichrist should be shored up by a fabricated quote from the Bible. I’m not trying to be a movie critic here, but a cultural one. The whole “end of the world” scenario held by many Evangelicals is a hodge-podge of biblical verses brought together by clever nineteenth-century clergy with little exegetical training. It is like trying to connect the dots while having to change pages constantly. The idea caught on amid the discarded lives left behind by advancing industrialism and the perceived threat of evolution. Apocalypticism has become its own industry as some otherwise unknown writers can attest. Movies like Lost Souls, or even The Omen, however, pale when compared to the antics of religiously motivated apocalypticists in the real world. Some of the rules in Deuteronomy itself are more frightening, if better written.