Beast of Burden

Liev and let die

Shortly after watching The Omenon network TV one night sometime in the late '70s, I stood in front of a bathroom mirror with my hair pulled back to reveal as much of my scalp as possible, peering intently for a sign that would prove me to be the greatest force of evil in this universe.

I still remember feeling a tinge of disappointment that Satan hadn't chosen me as his heir apparent. Not that I particularly liked the Prince of Darkness, but it sure would have set me apart from the maddening crowd.

For the next few days, I combed through classmates' hair, stopping only when I discovered something more disturbing than the dreaded number 666: a colony of weird bugs nesting in one poor kid's tangled curls.

I was in junior high, but unlike other kids I knew who had seen the truncated TV version of the Richard Donner-directed 1976 film, I didn't find The Omencreepy or thrilling, although it was certainly both. Jerry Goldsmith's ominous Academy Award-winning score, the constant procession of leering gargoyles and other frightening Catholic symbols, the gravitas of lead actor Gregory Peck's voice, the androgynous, A Clockwork Orange-like face of the spooky kid who played Damien, screenwriter David Seltzer's taut plot pulled from that seminal conspiracy theory tome, the Book of Revelation—all of it jelled marvelously into a wholly contemporary Gothic tale, a cross between Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Manson.

But The Omenwasn't just a horror flick to me. It was a factual, horrifying account of what I believed would soon happen: the rise to power of the Antichrist as predicted some 1,900 years earlier.

The Omenwas a perfect blueprint for something that my prepubescent brain was captivated by: fundamentalist Christian prophecy. I'd studied the major eschatological books of the Bible, Revelation and Daniel with a pastor of a Seventh Day Adventist church in Riverside, a pastor who, like many of his ilk (Adventists may be wholly progressive in terms of dietary guidelines and medicine but, 30 years ago at least, they were positively medieval in their paranoid, literal interpretation of biblical prophecy) yearned to save my soul by scaring the living shit out of me. He detailed the prophecies that had already come true, like Daniel's vision of the four terrible beasts, all representing major world empires, rising from tumultuous waters and enumerating all those that were in imminent proximity, including the most harrowing part of the entire Bible, Revelation 13, in which the rise to power of what is traditionally known as the Antichrist is spelled out.

The Adventists, as least the ones I studied with, were pretty clear about one thing: the Papacy would serve as the main instrument of Satan's evil machinations. Some figure within the Catholic Church, or with the church's blessing, would mercilessly run the earth for a time, including persecuting all those who didn't allow his mark of the beast on their foreheads or right hand

It was in my other favorite epic story as a kid, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings,in breathlessly impending real time, that a great malevolent evil was ultimately topped by goodness and justice, but only after a period of excruciating torment and sacrifice. It was clear-cut, exciting, thrilling, harrowing. A battle to end all battles, a chance to participate in the heroic climax of all human destiny.

And, of course, it was all bullshit. I eventually came to realize that this paranoid, Catholic-bashing, literal interpretation of the Book of Daniel and Revelation is merely one in an inexhaustible number of spins on two allegorical, fantastic books that serve as Rorschach tests for whatever one fancies. Look long and hard enough and whatever you want to see in them you will see in them: the Roman Emperor Nero was the Antichrist; the number 666 represents the last names of Hitler or Reagan; the 10 horns of the great beast are the barbarians who conquered Rome; Russia is the nation of Gog; the Great Whore of Babylon is Hillary Clinton; ATM cards are the mark of the beast.

Whatever one's take on these admittedly fascinating and cryptically worded works, this much is true: the same strain of paranoia and self-righteous persecution that created them in the first place as a way to help keep a nascent, fragile religion together in a united battle against oppressors has now filtered into the mainstream, with people who've never even cracked the Bible absolutely convinced of conspiracy theories of all kinds.

Propaganda, all is phony.

Unless . . .

Thirty years after the first Omenwe have a new version, one that, based on the previews, is even more steeped in end-of-the world symbolism than the first. Which makes sense. The first time The Omencame out may have been the last time this country truly felt at peace. It was 1976 and America was waking up from its long, national nightmares of Vietnam and Watergate. A token, utterly harmless Republican stumbled around the White House, national gas prices averaged around 60 cents a gallon and Love Will Keep Us Togetherwas the smash summer hit.

Thirty years later, notions of apocalypse and Armageddon don't seem like paranoid ramblings of Christian fundamentalists. Everything from the Middle East to the polar ice caps seems on the verge of exploding or melting away. And while war, famine, pestilence and death have always been around, the four horsemen have rarely ridden in more resplendent fury than these days.

Worse, we live in a nation where our commander-in-chief, if not completely convinced he's a force of Biblical prophecy, is dangerously myopic in his world view. And we have countless fundamental Christians running around screaming "apocalypse" in every geological fart. These are tense, anxious times; even if it isn't the apocalypse, there are enough wackos of all kinds eager to play some part in whatever ridiculous obsession they're cultivating.

Every believer in a conspiracy theory is, on some level, trying to explain his own sense of powerlessness in the face of existential anguish. They yearn for a purpose, a place, a mission, and if they can actually do something, like, say, help spark a race war like the aforementioned, deluded Manson believed he was doing, all the better.

It's all quite disconcerting. In a time when great personal changes must take place if we're to save the planet from environmental destruction (maybe that'sthe true Antichrist), we'd rather obsess over some fairy-tale battle between great supernatural forces that treat us like cattle and pawns. It's a collective sense of personal abdication. It's pointless, selfish and suicidal.

Unless . . .

Stay tuned . . . and check the foreheads of any spooky-looking kids while you're at it.

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