In 1973, the world was rocked by William Friedkin’s blockbuster hit The Exorcist. One of the few horror films to be recognized by the Academy, The Exorcist took home not one but two Oscars and was nominated for a third in the 1974 Academy Awards. The film stands as a horror classic and undeniable part of the horror genre canon that introduced the religious/spiritual subgenre of horror that seems to be monopolizing the Hollywood market today. Stuart Rosenberg’s Amityville Horror (1979) and its 2005 remake directed by Andrew Douglas, Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2007), Mikael Håfström’s The Rite (2011), Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism (2011), and, most recently, Zak Bagans Demon House (2018) are just some of the films that form part of this increasingly popular horror subgenre. But what it is about possession that both terrifies and entices us? Surely, its connection to religion, more popularly with Christianity, has something to do with it. Faith makes religion a more probable and proximate danger than say the monsters and creatures that dominated the genre from the 1940s to the 1960s and the psychopathic slasher that ruled from the 1970s through the early 1990s. Furthermore, there aren’t any conditions to the existence and preying patterns of religious evil. Michael Meyers shows up on Halloween, Freddy Kreuger in your dreams, and vampires at night; religious evil is unpredictable. As Father Lucas states in The Rite, “Choosing not to believe in the devil won’t protect you from him.”
Of course, there’s more to it than the prevalence and influence of religion. The spiritual has been at the core of horror since its emergence as a cinematic genre. According to James Kendrick in his essay “A Return to the Graveyard,” “The supernatural/spiritual horror film has a long history in the American cinema” and, initially, emphasized the “psychological and the spiritual over the material and physical” (143); something films revolving around possession certainly do. However, without the representation of psychological and spiritual effects on the physical and tangible, the spiritual would not seem as terrifying, which is why many religious/spiritual horror films present “the intersection of the physical and spiritual worlds” (Kendrick 151). Possession stands as the perfect embodiment of this intersection; when the possessed and their believers are dismissed as mentally unwell by society, the situation intensifies and results in the physical injuring of those affected.
The intersection of the physical and spiritual also serves the purpose of communicating “the idea that the spiritual world has something to tell us” (Kendrick 151). This is where our fascination comes into play; the intrigue of an invisible spiritual realm filled with insights and secrets that could potentially shed light on questions regarding life after death, the existence of a higher power, and our place in the universe is hard to deny. However terrifying and traumatic these revelations could be, they still hold the promise of approximating us to an elusive otherness that has captured the imagination of humanity for centuries.
Despite the great influence of faith and religion, many of us have a hard time believing in the existence of the spiritual often saying things like “If I haven’t seen it, how can I believe it?” and “I want to believe, but there’s no real evidence.” For this very reason religious/spiritual horror films employ the Freudian concept of ‘the return of the repressed,’ which, according to Kendrick, “is often identified as a crucial component in modern horror by numerous scholars” (151). For Kendrick, this Freudian concept is present not just “in how the spiritual dimension had been largely repressed in horror films in favor or visceral physical violence throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but also [in] how characters within the films themselves tend to repress or deny the existence of the spiritual” (Kendrick 151). The latter seems the most important when thinking about the intrigue and terror caused by the depiction of possession as, to my knowledge, all films involving possession depict characters that are initially resistant to accepting the supernatural. The Exorcist clearly demonstrates this skepticism in its characters which, in turn, embodies what Judith Hess Wright believes is the most prominent conflict depicted in horror films: the tension between the supernatural/spiritual and thus irrational and the scientific/rational. As confirmed by all movies involving possession, the conflict is only resolved once the supernatural is accepted. Kendrick cites The Exorcist as “the most incisive example and direct model for so many subsequent horror films” in this regard” (151), a fact that is evident in the similarly-themed films that proceed it.
Another reason possession films both fascinate and horrify is because they take elements form the subgenre of “body horror,” which, according to Kendall R. Phillips, was spearheaded by directors such as David Cronenberg who directed The Fly (1986). “Body horror” is another form of the “unconstrained body,” initially pioneered by horror masters like George Romero with the Night of the Living Dead franchise, which emerged in the 1980s (Phillips 18). According to Philip Brophy, “body horror” films play “‘not so much on the broad fear of Death, but more precisely on the fear of one’s own body, of how one controls and relates to it’” (qtd. in Phillips 18). Directors of religious/spiritual films treating the subject of possession take a similar route as that Phillips claims body horror directors like Cronenberg take by using “the fantastic body as a means of imagining what Kelly Hurley calls ‘the human-becoming-other’” (18).
While the possessed is not fantastic in the same way a doctor being transformed into a human/fly hybrid is, it is fantastic in that it becomes a demon/human hybrid bearing much of the same supernatural abilities often attributed to demons and the Devil himself: super strength, telepathy, telekinesis, and limitless linguistic knowledge, to name a few. It is far more difficult to deal with an external threat than it is to deal with one that is inseparable from the self. Possession thus represents the horror within, the uncontrollable evil lurking within every human being. Furthermore, the seriousness with which it is usually depicted suggests the possibility that there is in fact spiritual malevolence that can overtake us at any moment. You can escape a serial killer, but you cannot escape yourself. Therein lies the horror of possession.
The Rite and The Last Exorcism are perfect contemporary examples of religious/spiritual films that demonstrate a knowledge of and appreciation for horror convention and human psychology. As a consequence, these films not only successfully terrify but make you think while maintaining a high cinematic quality. They differ from other possession films in the unique way they present the subject matter. That is not to say they don’t take inspiration from established formulaic storylines, motifs, imagery, and conventions, only that they do so in a refreshing and not explicitly derivative way. The Rite and The Last Exorcism both follow skeptical protagonists who paradoxically have made religion their career.
The emphasis in these films is not so much on the malignant presence and its horrific effects on the people it victimizes, but on the tension between believing and not believing, rationality and insanity, faith and cynicism. The audience is invited to investigate the curious matter at hand by sifting through the potentially true or false evidence that could prove or disprove the credibility of the possessed and those that believe them. The focus on the issue of credibility instead of the act of possession itself moves the films away from being dismissed as pointless gore, pure shock value, or exploitative. Instead, the films present a psychological and moral dilemma that both the characters and viewers must personally resolve. The films push the viewers to question how much they are willing to believe before presenting them with the decisive resolutions in favor of the spiritual, irrational, and thus traditional. In this way, the films also maintain a longstanding status quo that privileges tradition and faith; that is, they resolve the conflict in favor of religious faith and the more traditional and primitive values of humanity. There is no scientific or logical explanation, only faith.
In the end, there is a plurality of potential meanings in spiritual horror films that treat the subject of possession, and what you choose to believe is up to you. Nevertheless, the effects and influence of these films are irrefutable and reflect our deepest, darkest fear: the evil that might lurk within.
Hantke, Steffen, editor. American Horror Film. University Press of Mississippi, 2010.
Phillips, Kendall R. Dark Directions: Romero, Craven, Carpenter, and the Modern Horror Film.
Southern Illinois University Press, 2012.
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