Immaculate, The First Omen, and the Blessed Rise of Pro-Choice Horror Movies

We examine why pro-choice horror movies are on the rise and in an increasingly religious context following the release of Immaculate and The First Omen.

Sydney Sweeney in Immaculate versus Nell Tiger Free in The First Omen
Photo: NEON / 20th Century Studios

This article contains multitudes of The First Omen and Immaculate spoilers.

One cannot envy the strange limbo Arkasha Stevenson’s The First Omen finds itself in this weekend. A macabre and fiendishly urgent spin on old school religious horror, it’s a film dripping with passion and fire despite its origins as a franchise installment. Unfortunately, it’s also a movie that uses an Italian setting awash in crucifixes and constrictive nun habits during a moment where another zeitgeisty chiller appears to be doing the same thing in the theater next door.

Yes, there is plenty of overlap between The First Omen and Michael Mohan and Sydney Sweeney’s Immaculate, right down to the setup of a sheltered American novice traveling to the Eternal City to take her final vows to Christ, and instead finding a lot of white collared men demanding a controlling interest in the marriage. And yet, a much more interesting thing about the films’ synchronized releases is what their similarities say about our moment right now. For not since the days of the religious horror movie craze from half a century ago, which clearly inspired both 2024 films in question, have we seen mainstream cinema so brazenly, and harrowingly, wade into the subject of what happens when control over a woman’s body is commandeered by a group of men. Not since Rosemary’s Baby have we had such fascinating, and chilling, pro-choice horror films.

The influence of Rosemary’s Baby on both movies is undeniable. That landmark nightmare, which was written and directed by Roman Polanski and adapted from an Ira Levin novel of the same name, came out more than 50 years ago and still feels in many ways unsettlingly timely—especially in the last five years.

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During the film in question, a young married New Yorker (Mia Farrow) slowly discovers to her mounting terror that her husband (John Cassavetes) has joined a secret coven of witches on the Upper West Side—offering her body up to the Devil himself. By drugging and facilitating Rosemary’s rape, the husband’s career is aided by the powers of Hell, and the coven gets their desired Antichrist. Rosemary, meanwhile, is saddled with a demonic child she didn’t want but is forced to raise. She even begins feeling maternal affection toward the hellspawn despite the audience being cryptically warned, “He has his father’s eyes.”

When Rosemary’s Baby released in 1968, the necessity for women having the right to choose whether they want to go through with pregnancy was at the epicenter of the culture wars. Since the end of the American Civil War about a hundred years earlier, entirely male state governments—often at the urging of various churches and religious organizations—had begun the process of banning abortion state by state across the U.S. By 1910, abortion had been made illegal from coast to coast. Abortions of course still occurred: in back alleys; in basements; in stairwells, and over closet hangers, often to the great risk or death of desperate women who could not or did not survive becoming mothers.

Yet in the same decade Rosemary’s Baby was written as a novel and adapted as a film, this began to change with 11 states liberalizing abortion laws. The real seismic cultural shift occurred in 1973 though when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion throughout the country with a 7-2 ruling on the landmark Roe v. Wade case. But what was settled law for the next 49 years obviously did not prove to be settled in the culture wars, with many religious groups, including outspoken leaders in the Catholic Church, toiling for decades to overturn the decision and change the ideological complexion of the judiciary.

They got their wish in 2022 when a different Supreme Court reversed Roe in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling, and allegedly sent the question of abortion and a women’s right to autonomy over their own bodies back to state governments. It’s also worth noting in relation to the current wave of pro-choice horror cinema that all six justices who overturned Roe v. Wade are Catholic. The one who wrote the majority opinion even quoted a 17th century English judge who hanged women for witchcraft.

The world’s obviously changed a lot between 1973 and 2022, or for that matter between 1968 and 2024. But not as much as some folks might have previously believed since the highest court in the land condemned America to retrace the same fights of previous generations, not to mention countless women potentially for generations to come being sentenced to die from pregnancy complications or simply to carry to term unwanted children—even if they are the products of rape or incest.

In the case of The First Omen, it is revealed that Damien—the Antichrist from the original 1976 Omen movie which released in the shadow of Rosemary’s Baby—is a product of both such depravities. In a retcon of the ’76 movie’s canon, we learn Damien was born from a young woman named Margaret (a fantastic Nell Tiger Free), who had no plans of becoming a mother. In fact, she ironically is a devout Catholic with every intention of becoming a nun.

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Thus in a real subversion of the film’s religious horror roots, Margaret discovers her paternal church fathers secretly raised and nurtured her with the intention of always seeing her impregnated by a familiar of the Devil, a demonic jackal who we learn was also Margaret’s father. In other words, because the film’s Church believes it will empower their institution if the Antichrist appears (and thereby cause a secular world to return to Catholicism for salvation), they force Margaret to carry to term an unwanted child that was created by both rape and incest. The Church even aids this defilement by drugging her like the witches in Rosemary’s Baby and offering her body up to violation by a demon who is also her own father.

The metaphor is not subtle nor should it really need to be. In the five decades between Roe and Dobbs, the issue of abortion never really left the culture war frontlines, even if more folks turned a blind eye. And it was occasionally expressed in cinema, including of a genre variety, over those years—although often in more secular terms. In Ridley Scott’s 2012 Alien prequel, Prometheus, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), manually extracts (read: aborts) an alien monstrosity in her body after her nefarious A.I. doctor (Michael Fassbender) attempts to drug her so she’ll carry the beastie to term. It’s the most disturbing and electrifying scene in the movie. In David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly (1986), the film is entirely sympathetic when Geena Davis realizes she is pregnant with larvae due to the mutating genetics of her beau (Jeff Goldblum).

But these types of films tend to view the issue on an increasingly secular playing field: Fassbender’s robotic A.I. wants to force Rapace’s archaeologist into alien motherhood because he thinks he is entitled to seeing the offspring’s birth. He does it because he can, with the proverbial mother’s fate not even registering as an afterthought. Goldblum’s devolving Fly-Man, meanwhile, is reverting to a bestial state when he is enraged by the idea of losing a mother and child. The idea of the woman making her own choices breaks his disintegrating mind.

So it is telling, then, that after an entirely Catholic majority of jurists on the Supreme Court welcomed another century of men controlling women that both Immaculate and The First Omen are addressing the religious source for so much entitlement over women’s bodies. Which makes these movies the most forcefully pro-choice horror films perhaps ever.

Consider that even though these new movies are heavily inspired by Rosemary’s Baby, that film came out during a far more religious moment in the U.S. and was itself directed by a man who would one day drug and rape a minor. According to a Pew Research poll in 2022, only about 64 percent of the U.S. population now considers itself Christian, down from a whopping 91 percent in 1976. Furthermore, researchers predict Christians are projected to fall as low as 35 percent of the American population in the next 50 years. Perhaps not surprisingly, as the country has become more secular, support for abortion being legal in most circumstances has risen.

So in Rosemary’s Baby, the greatest evil is literally Satan and his followers, openly evil witches preying on the innocent and secular like Rosemary. Nonetheless, Polanski and Levin cannot imagine a scenario where the mother isn’t ultimately won over by the sight of her baby boy, even if he has his father’s eyes. Immaculate and The First Omen, meanwhile, provide a counterpoint. One (First Omen) is written and directed by a woman; the other while being written and directed by men is still produced by its star in Sydney Sweeney; and each has an exhausted ferocity that has no patience left for patriarchal platitudes or the often antiquated archetypes placed on women by those institutions and their ancient religious (pre)texts.

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In both films, it is not Satanists but members of the Catholic Church clergy doing the Devil’s work. In the case of The First Omen, it is through the old religious horror movie trope of fearing the Antichrist and end times, albeit Bill Nighy’s Cardinal Lawrence justifies it because the Church needs to do something to stop the secularization of the West. Immaculate might be even more subversive and provocative though, because it has nothing to do with literal devils. Rather a somewhat more convincingly insidious idea is raised when an Italian priest with a background in genetic science (Álvaro Morte) comes up with the notion that he could clone Christ by extracting what the Church believes is Jesus’ blood off a holy relic. And to skip the whole “end times” schtick, they’ll engineer the Second Coming of the Lord by artificially inseminating a novice nun (Sweeney).

They overtly attempt to force their notion of what a woman should be—angelic, helpless, quiet—onto Sweeney’s Sister Cecilia as they dress her like a medieval artist’s beatific ideal of the Virgin Mother. All in the name of doing Christ’s will—for Christ is promised to return in the scripture, no?—they convince themselves it is within their privilege and right to force Cecilia to term, deny her the chance to see a doctor of her own choice, and when all else fails, cut the baby out and leave the mother for dead.

It is not entirely a patriarchy in either film though. Each movie features nuns, young and old, who have subscribed to the dogma and propaganda. It is in fact a mother superior in The First Omen who orders Margaret and the daughter she birthed alongside Damien to be burned alive in order to hide the evidence (the secret cult of the film cares much more about boys than girls). Both movies seem to comment on how religion is used to control women if they’ll let it.

Hence why each film’s ultimate catharsis comes from main characters who do not allow themselves to be indoctrinated or seduced, even by the cries of a helpless baby like poor Rosemary. At the end of The First Omen, the beats of Rosemary’s Baby are played almost verbatim. Margaret didn’t want to be the mother of the Antichrist, but after the child is born she hears the babe’s cries and asks to hold him. It is repeated among the zealots that it’s important for a mother to bond with a newborn. So they hand the baby over. But when Nighy’s Cardinal Lawrence asks if Margaret hears the voice of God in the holiness of her actions, she curtly replies, “No. I only hear my own.” It is then she cuts through the priest’s windpipe and comes close to doing the same to little Damien.

Alas, the movie has to pull its punches because it needs to line up with a 50-year-old franchise, so Margaret hesitates in terminating the Antichrist; Damien gets away to set up the ’76 movie. This is also why Immaculate has the better, and some might say more disturbing, ending. 

We never know if Sister Cecilia gives birth to Jesus Christ II, a clone of a random stranger who had his hand nailed to a cross, or even the Antichrist (the noises we hear after the baby is born do not sound entirely human, do they?). All we see is an outstanding close-up of Sweeney’s face as she endures the agony of childbirth, and then rips out the umbilical cord with her teeth. The camera never cuts. We just sit with Cecilia as she makes up her mind. As the pain subsides, she looks down at the baby who came from her womb, the child she unwillingly was made the mother of by a double-dealing institution that uses two or three-thousand year old texts to dictate women’s medical care.

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And she picks up a rock and smashes the unseen child into what is surely a red smear.

Cecilia, like Margaret, is not beholden to many male writers’ idea of “maternal instincts.” They make choices for themselves. And one senses Sweeney and Mohan were delighted when one viewer tweeted, “It is profane and has a third act that spits in the face of all that is holy. Just… Evil!” After all, Immaculate started using the quote in their marketing

Both movies are obviously genre exercises, and they each take things to a lurid and heightened extreme where religious leaders who quite likely would be anti-abortion are either in league with the Antichrist or hypocritically acting just like that anticipated evil. Each film works as a very primal and unmistakable cry at the theological hypocrisies and justifications used to condemn women to death and unwanted motherhood all in the name of a God those women may not believe in.

They reflect a true horror in the world that is as resurgent today as it was in the late ‘60s. And we expect they won’t be the last horror films to find new ways of spreading the good word.