Interest in Satanism and the occult was similarly big in the US, where Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan boasted mainstream presence, including Hollywood adherents. Publicity hungry LaVey even scored a technical advisory role and a cameo in the 1975 B-movie, The Devil’s Rain.
William Friedkin’s The Exorcist generated critical acclaim as well as a storm of condemnation from religious groups, making it the second highest grossing film of 1973. Satanism was also a staple trope of the many television anthology horror programmes that flourished at the time. One of these, a November 1974 episode of The Night Stalker, even featured a plotline involving an ambitious politician who makes a deal with the devil and who could take the form of a murderous Rottweiler.
Seltzer told the Canadian magazine Rue Morgue last year, that when he wrote The Omen: “I had been influenced by Rosemary’s Baby, and I hadn’t even realised it until people started making comparisons. Certainly it [The Omen] was impacted by The Exorcist…” Like The Omen, the power of these films derives from their subversion of the notion of the young as innocents and the rupture this creates in the way adults see themselves and their offspring.
The origins of this cinematic trope can arguably be traced back to films like Mervyn LeRoy’s influential The Bad Seed (1956), the tale of an apparently sweet natured girl suspected by her mother of murdering a classmate on a school outing. The mother’s concerns are heightened after discovering one of her own biological parents was a serial killer, leading her to fear her daughters’ homicidal behaviour may be genetic.
Directed by Roman Polanski, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) depicts a pregnant woman (Mia Farrow) who realises, too late, her ambitious husband has made an agreement with a satanic coven in their apartment building and the true father of her child is the Devil. The depiction of Rosemary as a complete ingénue, adds to its air of menace, as does the conclusion’s disturbing take on the notion of motherly love in the face of all obstacles.
Confronted the demonic possession of her teenage daughter (Linda Blair) in The Exorcist, Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn) experiences a similar trajectory to the Thorns; denial, fear, followed by gradual determination to do something, convincing a priest (Jason Miller) to perform an exorcism. The manifestation of the satanic possession is given added force by the way Friedkin skilfully weaves the theme of loss of faith – the mother’s in medicine, the priest’s in his faith due to his job counselling abusive clergy – into the story.
As is the case with Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, it is the possibilities created by the idea that our children can be a source of evil and we as adults may be in some way responsible, either deliberately or by accident, which makes The Omen still chilling to watch today.