What the movies teach us about possession

As Deliver Us From Evil lands on disc in the UK, we look back at key lessons the movies teach us about possession...

The idea of demonic possession goes back thousands of years, to before we had film. Most religions carry their own interpretation of what it means for a person to be ‘possessed’ by a demon or a spirit and it’s a complicated, arcane subject shrouded in mystery and ritual.

The Sumerians, thousands of years before Christ, believed all diseases were caused by ‘sickness demons’ and had their sorcerers attempt early exorcisms as cures. The Quran talks extensively of Jinn (demons) that can drive people to insanity and may only be expelled via worship. In the Bible, Satan and his demons are very much at large using human beings as vessels for devilish deeds. Jesus casts a whole bunch of them out before he’s accused of being demon-possessed himself (arguably an early example of The Shyamalan Twist?). By the 1500s, the Catholic Church had its own official guide book to exorcism, The Rituale Romanum, an important text that could only be used by highly trained priests under very strict controls. It’s all a very serious business for believers, but if you don’t have the time for all that, you can learn all you need to know from the movies.

A healthy diet counts for nothing

Sadly, you can eat all the pea soup you like and it won’t stop demons from entering, as Linda Blair famously proves in The Exorcist (1973).

It’s hard to believe but, despite possession existing as a belief for thousands of years, The Exorcist was the first time a film had used it as a central concept. While there’s an exorcism in lightweight biopic The Reluctant Saint (1962) and William Burroughs reads a banishing rite at the start of his 1968 voiceover for Haxan (1922), The Exorcist brought the idea of possession to the masses.

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Perhaps it’s a sign of how seriously the idea was taken that no one dared tackle it before? Instantly controversial, The Exorcist upset audiences and authorities alike and was banned in Britain for years. Rumours that the production was cursed still perpetuate and many film fans rank it among the scariest films of all time. From this cautionary tale of a young girl possessed by a Mesopotamian demon, we learn that there’s really not much you can do to stop this, although playing with Ouija boards is ill-advised, cursed amulets are probably a no-no, and unless you can find a tortured priest willing to sacrifice his soul for yours, you’re pretty much screwed.

Exorcise regularly

Controversial as it may have been, The Exorcist was extremely successful and in its wake came a slew of amazing rip-off films from around the world. Italy, as always, pulled through with the good stuff. In Beyond The Door (1974), we get all the vomiting, head-spinning antics from The Exorcist but with the added bonus of our possessee (Juliet Mills) being pregnant. Needless to say, possession is right up there with smoking and drinking as something one shouldn’t do in this state, as there’s a good chance your child could wind up being the actual Antichrist.

Turkey produced an incredible version of The Exorcist in Seytan (1974) which combined eastern melodrama with Islamic demonology, and explored the severance of contemporary Turkish society from its religion, with a secular minded doctor pitted against the demon in place of a priest. Although this teaches us similar lessons to The Exorcist about possession, we also learn that copyright means nothing in Turkey. Not only is the story identically structured, but a badly taped ten second excerpt from Tubular Bells is looped tirelessly throughout the film.

Do watch out with that copyright thing in America though. William Girdler’s blaxploitation version, Abby (1974) prompted legal action by Warner Bros for plagiarism, and was considered ‘lost’ until the early 2000s. In this version, the Yoruba spirit Eshu is unleashed by archaeologists in Nigeria and winds up in the body of a young American girl. The usual mayhem occurs, but what we learn here is that Eshu is quite a force to be reckoned with. Not only does the film’s ending suggest that Eshu’s greatest trick is – like the Devil’s – convincing the world he doesn’t exist, but the film’s production was plagued with tornadoes and storms that halted filming and terrified the cast. Pretty spooky considering that Eshu is the spirit of whirlwinds and chaos, huh?

Your sex is on fire. No, really!

Being the 70s, it wasn’t long before the Devil got his sexy on and sexploitation films started using possession as an excuse for copious nudity. Franco Lo Cascio’s Naked Exorcism (1975) was shamelessly released in the UK on video as The Exorcist 3 (long before the official threequel) and tracks a horny teenage boy who finds a cursed amulet in the woods and becomes possessed by an even hornier demon. The possession here acts as an excuse for him to fondle his mum, hallucinate many nude nuns and flashback to ancient sex rituals which took place in his house many years previously. What do we learn from this one? Not a lot, except maybe that lusting after your mother might be a good way to invite demons into your mind. And that Italians hate clothes.

Alberto Martino’s The Tempter (1974) explores the link between sex and possession with more thematic depth than Naked Exorcism, but still allows for ample sleaze (and as the DVD box promises, “the notorious goat orgy scene!” which is basically a bunch of nude hippies prancing around in circles as an uninterested goat looks on). Here we learn that the protagonist’s problems with apparent possession may just be that she is sexually frustrated. Gianfranco Clerici’s script attempts to explore the Catholic church’s uneasy relationship with sex but the point is lost beneath all the goo-spewing, milky contact lenses, howled obscenities and heavily implied incest and bestiality. Leading lady Carla Gravina was overlooked at awards season but she really does give it some welly here.

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While most films promise a lot and deliver little, Mexican exploitation masterpiece Alucarda (1977) provides everything you could possibly want and more. Here we learn that you’re not safe from demonic possession even in the apparent safest place of all – a convent. Two young nuns form an unhealthy friendship, conjure a goat-like demon and possession swiftly follows. Visibly inspired by Ken Russell and Alejandro Jodorowsky as much as The Exorcist, Juan López Moctezuma delivers perhaps the most extreme and heightened film about possession you’ll watch. Once it kicks into gear, it’s a near constant stream of jaw dropping hysteria, sex and violence, culminating with an orgy of nuns on fire. The blasphemous imagery is undeniably still provocative.

Don’t go in the woods

This lunacy paved the way for the early 80s, when we learned that demonic possession wasn’t just a solo pursuit any more. Mass possession was the order of the day in Sam Raimi’s intense The Evil Dead (1981) as a bunch of happy-go-lucky kids read an ancient grimoire and turn their idyllic country getaway into a non stop puke party for five. Unlike their 70s counterparts, these 80s flicks tended to eschew actual religion in favour of non-specific evils. While the summoning book in The Evil Dead is ostensibly Sumerian; the ways and means of ridding the body of its demons are arguably secular – dismemberment, decapitation and burning. Far showier than just shouting “The power of Christ compels you!” a few times.

While few could capture the hyper-kinetic vibe of Raimi’s film, it’s not to say they didn’t try. Kevin Tenney’s Night Of The Demons (1988) is a particularly fun one, in which teens open themselves up to possession through the tried and tested Ouija board method. On Halloween, no less, so they really should know better. The spirits get right up in ’em in this one, turning the all-American boys and girls into a bunch of pig-faced nightmares intent on evil. Night Of The Demons borrows The Exorcist‘s idea of demons using the human body to perform weird, gratuitous tricks. While Linda Blair had a creepy spider-walk, here Linnea Quigley manages to make a stick of lipstick disappear into her nipple via a startling, memorable special effect. What can I say? It was acceptable in the 80s.

The truth is out there

With modern audiences being so savvy and demanding, 21st century filmmakers have turned their attentions away from the more flamboyant and are, in that sense at least, returning to the spirit of the original Exorcist: presenting demonic possession as a ‘real’ threat. This explains the boom in found footage exorcism films from recent years.

The Last Exorcism (2010) and The Devil Inside (2012) both showcase this technique with studio budgets (although they couldn’t seem to afford a proper ending for the latter) whereas, at the other end of the spectrum, there’s a bevy of micro-budget camcorded possession flicks like The Exorcist Tapes (2011) haunting the shelf of your local supermarket. Recently, getting closer to the action than ever before, we even got a ‘first person POV’ take on the genre in the form of Grace: The Possession (2014), which finds Alexia Fast possessed in a way that mostly involves her looking into an awful lot of mirrors.

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Ever distancing the genre from the gothic style is Scott Derrickson, who previously turned exorcism into a courtroom thriller with The Exorcism Of Emily Rose (2005), a technique also used successfully 20 years earlier in the epic pulp novel Son Of The Endless Night by John Farris. In his latest film, Deliver Us From Evil (2014), Derrickson uses the gritty premise of a soldier who returns from Iraq convinced that he and his (now dead) buddies were possessed by demons in a cave over there. It’s up to a tough talking atheistic New York cop (Eric Bana) and a priest (Edgar Ramirez) to banish the demon, a dynamic reminiscent of the believer/non-believer approach used in Seytan, which suggests that while the delivery is far more focused on realism and ‘real world’ issues, the filmmaker’s fear that audiences have strayed from their faith and need scaring back to it is a long standing one.

Many of the above films are religious in their message that good conquers evil and that people should beware of letting the devil into their minds and bodies. They use the tried and tested methods of lurid, grotesque imagery to make their points, yet the concept (and appeal) of possession goes beyond this.

As these films explore, it can be used metaphorically to address all manner of real demons, from PTSD to acute sexual frustration – fears and problems that effect non-believers and believers alike. Whichever way it’s used though, the ‘evil inside’ is a concept that’s been richly mined over the past 40 years and is showing no sign of going away any time soon. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the genre here, but what we can take away from all of this is that thousands of years from the first recorded instance of demonic possession, we all still have an awful lot to learn.

Deliver Us From Evil is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.