an explanation for the rise and rise of the possession film in Hollywood

By Kaitlin Hooper

The Devil Inside Me: no kidding
In the last five years alone there have been more movies about possession than in the previous thirty. As of now there are five possession films currently being shown in theaters: Paranormal Activity 4, Sinister, V/H/S, The Possession and The Apparition. The sheer number of these films begs the question of why Hollywood is cranking out so many of these movies and, more interestingly, why we are choosing to go out to see them, rent them and anxiously await the next one. The answer is both simple and complex, or, better put, the simplicity of the answer manifests itself in multiple ways. We are in the midst of extreme social, economic, political and cultural change and not only is it happening fast but it’s also requiring us to reassess our lives and the world in radically different ways over and over again. Possession is the perfect metaphor for rapid change and it’s appealing because it happens on such a personal level: to people we know, religious authorities, boyfriends, girlfriends and our children.

You can’t get a faster form of change than possession and it easily stands in for all the sudden shocks that we have had to endure on a daily level for at least the last decade. In almost every possession film the transformation is so sudden that it leaves everyone associated with the possessed in state of shock. That’s purposeful. It is the witnesses to possession, not the possessed, who are the subjects of these films. They are the ones who deal with the aftermath of a shocking transformation and their responses are always both emotional and intellectual. Of course, this is what happens when we experience rapid change and have to find ways to adapt. Possession movies condition us to accept this change: if we can develop ways to handle the possessed, we can handle any kind of transformation. One of the interesting aspects of possession films is how malleable the genre is and it is that flexibility that has made it an especially potent cultural force. The possession movie is radically adaptive and is really a genre of sub-genres.

Possession of Children

The popular sub-genre of child possession captures the conflict between generations in a rapidly changing world. These films are all about not understanding our children and watching them literally become demons right before our eyes. The most recent and notable of these films include 2012’s The Possession (a little girl becomes possessed by an old box), 2011’s Insidious (evil spirits possess a young boy and send him into a coma) and perhaps the best possession movie of the last three years, 2010’s Case 39, which follows the trail of carnage and shock left by Lilith, a possessed child who is “a demon who feeds on emotion.”

Yes, this little possessed girl feeds on emotion
In Case 39, Lilith’s parents come to the startling conclusion that she is possessed and decide that the best solution is to cook her. I guess just killing her isn’t enough. When they are caught in the middle of this rather drastic form of culinary punishment, Lilith is saved, mom and dad are convicted of attempted child cooking, locked up and sent to the nuthouse. One wonders if they joined a child cooker’s support group. Lilith is then adopted by, and this is perfect, a social worker and her name is, and this is also perfect, Emily—you couldn’t come up with a better do-gooder name. Hi, my name is Emily would you like to sign my petition? As the movie goes on Emily begins to realize that Lilith is actually an evil killing machine, just as Lilith’s nutty parents before her had.

Emily places Lilith under psychiatric evaluation, which undermines her sense of parental as well as professional authority. The figure of the social worker is often portrayed as the savior of abused children. Think of Mariah Carey’s role in Precious, or should I say, Precious: based on the novel “Push” by Sapphire. They step in when biological parenting has failed. Emily cannot handle Lilith, a child she has with good reason taken from her parents, and it is in this detail that Case 39 becomes a true symbolic horror story. If the state can’t step in when the normal processes break down, then we are going to be left with real social breakdown, or, in the case of Case 39, demon children who feed on emotion and then kill for fun and sport. Why do I suddenly think of Charles Manson and his “family”?

This is where it began
With this in mind, movies dealing with the possession of children always come down to one idea: in a rapidly changing world, people feel alienated from their children, whether biological or adopted. It’s interesting that the early 70’s were the birth of child possession movies with The Exorcist and it’s satanic variant, 1976’s The Omen. Again, it was a time of great social upheaval where the younger generation was so alienated from their parent’s world that they actually seem possessed. Case 39 ups the ante. When parents fail, the state steps in as the last and most rational choice and it is the state’s failure that is truly terrifying: if the government can’t save its youngest citizens, what hope do we have? As a society we can’t accept the possibility that we have failed, and therefore we have to find some other explanation. Instead of accepting blame we find a force that is truly extraordinary and out of our control, that the fault is in the fact that the child is possessed and therefore cannot be saved. Our children are our future, and with the world changing so rapidly, possession is the most logical way of explaining away both a generational divide and extreme social rupture.

Possession of Old Technology

It is interesting to understand the different sub-genres of the possession movie, because it shows how complex change in our society has become, and it’s not just people but things as well. In 2012’s V/H/S, a group of delinquent boys steal several mysterious unmarked videotapes that not only are documented events of possession, but also are actually possessed. You don’t have to be a genius to know that they will unleash their wrath on the viewers of these tapes. This trope echoes 2002’s The Ring (again, possession of a VHS tape), 2008’s One Missed Call (possession of a cell phone) and 2006’s Stay Alive (possession of a video game), which are only a few of the many possession films that use various forms of technology as objects of horror.

Get rid of those tapes!
V/H/S is a great representation of this sub-genre as it involves many videocassette tapes, and shows that every single one of these many tapes is possessed and can become a lethal killing machine if viewed. In comparison, The Ring contains only one possessed VHS tape, and so you feel relatively safe, at least from a statistical point of view. In V/H/S a mysterious man hires these boys to steal videos from an abandoned house—another possession theme that we’ll look at in the next section. When these petty criminal kids get there, they discover the dead body of an old man sitting in front of a television. When this doesn’t seem to raise any alarms, they decide to split up to find the tapes, while one stays behind to watch the tape that was left in the VCR when the dead man died. They come upon a treasure trove of tapes in the basement and are unsure of which one their employer is looking for, so they return upstairs to watch them. When they get there they discover that their friend who had been viewing the tape in the VCR has disappeared. Another member of the group is then ordered to stay behind and watch the remaining tapes to find the correct one, while the others go in search of the first but not last of their friends to go missing.

In between this story of mounting stupidity and obliviousness, the audience views the cassette tapes as if they were the viewer in the film. Each one is gruesome and horrifying in its own way. The first tape follows three friends, one of whom is wearing glasses that are equipped with a hidden camera (we see the scene from his perspective) and who are out looking for girls and a good time and maybe both simultaneously. They go bar hopping and find some women who are willing to go back with them to their hotel room. After the ingesting of much drugs and alcohol they only begin to notice that one of the girl is strange and maybe not human. By the end of the night, she has killed two of the guys, transformed into a winged succubus and flies off with the last guy standing.

Bad date, get money back from Eharmony
This tape is just one of the five tapes that end up being shown in the film, and with each viewing worse things happen to the boys, eventually leading to the demise of all of them. With V/H/S the audience learns that they are not safe at all, that every videocassette in existence is a potential killer. The only solution is to throw them all away. By making videocassettes the locus of everything evil, V/H/S practically ushers us to the Apple store to update all our technology. The overriding message of these films is that old technology is dangerous and that if we don’t keep up, we will die. Of course, given the state of the world and our reliance on technology, that might be true.

Possession by Abandonment

Possession by abandonment is a common theme in the possession genre. All you need is a group of people, put them in an isolated setting and sit back and watch the mayhem. 2011’s The Innkeepers is one of the best. It follows two people hired to stay at a hotel during the last weekend of its operation. These two are alone in this huge old inn and it is their isolation, from other people and geographically, that leads to their demise. Both 2009’s The Haunting in Connecticut (family moves to possessed house that used to be funeral home) and 2006’s The Abandoned (a house on an island in the middle of nowhere in Russia) deal with possession by abandonment. In all these films you die when you attempt to live in buildings that people have left for good reason. There are no good real estate deals, even if the rent is cheap and the money is good.

This theme is at least thirty years old. 1979’s The Amityville Horror and 1980’s Stanley Kubrick/Jack Nicholson stunner The Shining both involve money-conscious homesteaders driven crazy by isolated, haunted mansions that they have no business trying to inhabit. In The Innkeepers, Luke and Claire are the only employees working the last weekend at the Yankee Peddler Inn, a hotel with a reputation for being haunted. They check in one guest, a one-time actress, now psychic, who warns them that the inn is teeming with evil spirits. Claire begins to hear noises and sees the apparition of a woman named Madeline who hung herself at the inn over a hundred years ago. The more Claire and Luke investigate, the worse it gets. At the climax, Claire finds her way to the basement, where Madeline’s body was interred, and sees her apparition. This causes Claire to suffer a violent asthma attack. While Claire suffocates, Luke tries to help her, but the cellar door won’t open, either because the hinges are rusted or otherworldly spirits are playing their usual games of I’ll let you in right after she dies. You can guess who controls the WD-40.

Sometimes you'd rather be alone
This sort of film conditions the viewer to discard the idea of discarded housing. It practically orders us to live in new urban developments and teaches us that being in deserted places will result in our untimely deaths. These isolated areas are dangerous: there is no one around to help in case of emergency and definitely no one to hear you scream. Old abandoned houses are abandoned for a reason. They don’t live up to the standards set by modern living or at least modern building code compliance. With all the broken rotted wood and rusted locks, it is no wonder that these places are death traps. They don’t even need ghosts to kill you. By the year 2025 eighty-five percent of the world’s population will live in cities, where much of the housing will be fabulously new. This new urban society is a much more inviting habitat and possession movies ask us to give up on lure of returning to an older, more dangerous world, where the past is always ready to kill us.

Possession of Priest

The most dramatic of possession films tropes is the possession of the religious. Again, 1974’s The Exorcist set the template. 2012’s The Devil Inside begins with the story of a woman named Maria who kills two priests and a nun when they try to perform an exorcism on her, leading to her institutionalization in a Catholic psychiatric hospital in Rome. Two decades later, the woman’s daughter, Isabella, is still obsessed with this incident. While filming a documentary on exorcisms, she decides that there would be no better subject than her own mother. Isabella decides to exploit this opportunity and takes a camera crew to Rome to find out more about her mother and the history of exorcism. Along the way she is joined by a few priests and this quasi-religious band of documentary filmmakers start to film sessions with Maria, documenting and trying to figure out exactly how she is possessed. What they realize to their horror is that she is inhabited by many demons. During one of these sessions Maria breaks free from her restraints and attacks one of the priests, coming in contact with him for only a split second before she is restrained. Within the next few days the assaulted priest starts exhibiting stranger and stranger behavior until (Oh My God!) they discover that he is possessed as well.

When Isabella and the other priest visit the priest’s house to try to help him, they find that he is under the complete control of demons. If you need more evidence, there are shots of the possessed priest with eyes rolled back and covered in blood. When Isabella goes to help him, he shoots himself with a gun. This is a heroic act: somehow he is conscious enough to know that his body and mind are under the control of demons. He comes to the conclusion that suicide, although a grave sin is the only way to end this—at the very moment that he pulls the trigger that ends his life, Isabella is possessed too! As the remaining priest and a film crewmember try to help her, they realize she has been taken ahold of by demons. It is at this moment that we realize that demons are airborne pathogens, and that they infect bodies through the act of breathing.
Even the nuns are scary
It’s a brilliant move: to turn breathing, the most basic thing we do, into a means of demonic possession is to strike at the heart of our humanity. This is certainly a lot more terrifying than defunct housing or technology. We have been taught by movies how fast possession can occur in a religious context, such as 2010’s The Last Exorcism (a religious cult brings evil spirits into the world through a young girl) as well as 2011’s The Rite (a possessed priest, played by Anthony Hopkins, which, I guess, in terms of marketing is all you need to know). These films make possession unavoidable: Isabella is literally possessed by the last breath of a dying man.

Adam and Eve banished
In Catholic theology all human beings are born with sin: the result of Adam’s original transgression. It is during our life that we must repent for these sins. The question becomes how much repentance must one do in order to be released from this original failure? Regardless of the good that we do, are we no better than the nonbelievers who just live in a state of sinfulness? Does sin stay with us forever? Is it festering in us? Are we a demon or the devil himself? The Devil Inside tells us yes, that sin can both destroy us, and worse yet, infect others by the simple human act of breathing. In the end, this is what we’re left with in possession films: our lives are the perfect metaphor for evil. Religious possession is the epitome of the possession genre and it asks the most basic question of them all: what is happening to us and what are we doing to other people?

Think how we treat others
©The CCA Arts Review and Kaitlin Hooper

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