Just not feeling “yourself” today? Here are 5 films you might find relatable.
The Exorcist (1973). Dir. William Friedkin. US.
It isn’t really possible to put together a list of possession films and leave out The Exorcist, so here it is. In my blog on TV horror 2014-present I talked about the race politics of the demonic possessions in both the film and TV versions of The Exorcist. In short, The Exorcist plays on the long-held ideology that men of color are, by nature, sexually aggressive and dangerous for white women. Furthermore, white womanhood and sexual purity become excuses to demonize, dehumanize, and eventually kill men of color. This is why, even though the antagonist in The Exorcist isn’t technically human, demons are the logical extension of racial rhetoric that denies men of color personhood, transforming them into demons.
Burnt Offerings (1976). Dir. Dan Curtis. US.
Unlike so many others in the sub-genre, Burnt Offerings is about a house, rather than a person, that is possessed by…something…it’s never explained with certainty. The film follows through on the idea that women are more susceptible to possession than men—because vaginas and periods, and other such biologically essentialist girly things. While each family member exhibits some signs of possession and/or behavioral changes, the matriarch, Marian Rolf (Karen Black) is the house’s ultimate target. Her role as caregiver is weaponized in order to kill her family. Just like the 2002 miniseries Rose Red, the house is sentient and feeds on violence and conflict. As the family gets more upset, the house begins repairing itself. By the end of the film, once everyone except Marian is dead, the house looks new again, so that her sacrifice and her betrayal of her own family have restored the sanctity of domestic space.
Jennifer’s Body (2009). Dir. Karyn Kusama. US.
Diablo Cody gets a lot of crap for this movie’s screenplay, but it’s honestly one of my favorites. In my college sophomore English class I was finally allowed to write about a film of my choosing, and Jennifer’s Body was it. While I don’t know that it passes the Bechdel test (the movie has to have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man), it is significant that the film’s primary characters are women. The men in the movie are incidental, a refreshing change for the sub-genre. There’s additionally quite a bit of commentary in the film about menstruation, constructions of womanhood, and virginity. This commentary comes up in both the narrative/dialogue and in the film’s aesthetics, moving Jennifer’s Body into the much-lauded “form follows function” category of films. The next time you put this movie on, keep an eye out for visual cues that hint at menstruation like red tights and small references to Little Red Riding Hood.
The Rite (2011). Dir. Mikael Håfström. US, Hungary, Italy.
My favorite Carol Clover quote is from “Opening Up” in Men, Women, and Chain Saws: “It is in the realm of the occult that issues of masculinity and male sexuality come under long and hard scrutiny. On the face of it, the occult film is the most ‘female’ of horror genres, telling us as it regularly does tales of women or girls in the grip of the supernatural. But behind the female ‘cover’ is always the story of a man in crisis, and that crisis is what the occult film [… is] about” (65). The Rite solidifies Clover’s theory, in addition to supporting a lot of Barbara Creed’s assertions in The Monstrous-Feminine about possession films. Creed discusses The Exorcist in particular, and how it fits into somewhat lofty ideas of abjection and semiotic order. Similarly, The Rite fits all of these tropes, as well as the criteria Clover lays out for her discussion of The Exorcist. The Rite does have a few named female characters, it is primarily about Michael Kovack’s (Colin O’Donoghue) relationships with his own father, Istvan (Rutger Hauer) and his mentor, Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins). Many possession films are about a crisis of faith at least in part, but this is yet another mask for some more important crises: how men relate to each other, their understanding of masculinity, and how male (hetero)sexuality is constructed.
The Possession (2012). Dir. Ole Bornedal. US.
Whereas possession films in the cinematic canon (and the horror canon) primarily focus on Catholic mythology, The Possession draws on the Jewish mythology surrounding dybbuks. Dybbuks are malicious spirits, usually of dead folks (although in some texts they’re described as demons), that attach themselves to people in order to accomplish a task. The Possession’s dybbuk is named “Abyzou,” which translated in the film to “Taker of Children.” That’s…not really a correct translation and is a misinterpretation of the actual mythology around Abyzou. She is a demon, sure, and she specifically causes miscarriages and infant mortality out of envy because she’s infertile. Technically, this can be read as “taking children,” but that’s disingenuous. In the context provided by The Possession, “taking” means possessing, taking control of, removing from family, rather than killing (as with miscarriage). Furthermore, the young girl in The Possession, Emily Brenek (Natasha Calis) is not an infant, she’s in elementary school, removing her further from Abyzou’s envy-because-of-infertility motivation. Much like with the other films Sam Raimi’s worked on—The Evil Dead (1981) and Drag Me to Hell (2009) in particular—The Possession hints at non-Christian religious traditions without actually acting on the proper research to support the film’s story.