My recent post about women in horror movies sent my brain on a tangent regarding possession and exorcism. I held Regan from The Exorcist up as a a female character allowed to be monstrous, until I really thought about it, and realized Regan is a problematic example. Her body becomes monstrous, her actions are monstrous, and at no point is she in control.
Then I tried to come up with a possession/exorcism movie where a male character is the one possessed. I drew a blank. A quick internet search suggested The Amityville Horror and the Shinning as possible candidates. To my embarrassment, I haven’t seen the Amityville Horror, so I can’t speak to that one, but the Shining is pretty questionable. The possession issue is pretty open to interpretation, and I personally lean toward the he-just-went-bat-shit-crazy-no-demonic-possession-involved school of thought. So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that’s one male possession candidate, which I had to search for, whereas just off the top of my head I identified The Exorcist, the Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Devil Inside, and Stigmata, as movies featuring female possession.
Am I reading too much into this? Maybe. But that won’t stop me from rambling on some. Movies about possession feel like a variation on the kidnap theme: the female character is metaphorically stolen, and needs a man to rescue her. Has there ever been a movie featuring a female exorcist? None immediately leap to mind.
Perhaps it’s paranoia, but it’s easy to see disturbing messages underlying this trend. Women are more easily manipulated than men. Women are empty vessels, filling the same role as plot tokens in a horror movie. And possibly the most alarming interpretation in light of current debates about healthcare, contraception, and abortion – women’s bodies are not theirs to control. Hell, in cases of exorcism and possession movies, the message may as well be: women can’t keep control over their bodies if they try, so call in the church to set it right.
Back to The Exorcist. It’s probably the most famous movie about possession and exorcism. It’s based on the novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty who supposedly based elements of the book on a real life exorcism case. The possessed in question in the real-life case? A young boy. I recall reading somewhere the author made the gender switch because he felt a young girl would make a more sympathetic possession victim. The cynical read: Young boy? He’s probably making it up, because boys will be boys, those mischievous scamps. Young girl? Well, clearly she wouldn’t be clever or malicious enough to do that on her own, so clearly there’s something wrong with her.
The early scenes in the movie do throw the supernatural element into question, but by the time you get to spider-walking and head-spinning, it’s pretty clear this is not a hoax on Regan’s part. As I recall, there’s also some suggestion that she may be sub-consciously manifesting symptoms of possession, but even that takes her actions, and her body, out of her control. Plus, I don’t think you can sub-consciously defy the laws of spinal connectivity that way.
Thinking about the possession isue sent my brain on yet another tangent, to a pet peeve of mine – the depiction of powerful women in superhero comics. Within the Marvel Universe especially, it seems that the more powerful a woman is, the less control she has over her powers (Storm being the notable exception). Jean Grey is powerful, but she’s nothing compared to Phoenix/Dark Phoenix who, depending on the iteration, is either the victim of a massively powerful alien possession, the victim of manipulation, or a mutant who can’t keep her powers under control. Scarlet Witch is frequently depicted as completely out of control as well, and Rogue often accidentally steals powers, then can’t master them once she has them. Like horror movie women who can’t be monstrous on their own terms, these superheroes aren’t allowed to be powerful on their own terms. Their powers act through them, and they’re just along for the ride. Again, I know there are exceptions, and there are many variations on the characters depending on the era, the writer, the line, etc., but regardless, it annoys me.
Let’s see, did I have an ultimate point? Not really, just thinking out loud. I’d love some examples to prove me wrong, or to shore up my theory. And, as with my plea in the last post, help me identify the gaps in my horror movie knowledge that need to be filled post-haste!