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Possessions and Exorcisms: Seven Movies Worth Watching

Posted on July 13, 2012 by ari


A still from Exorcismus

Why would a utopian like movies about possessions and exorcisms? The vast majority of them are about an old white male priest (or charlatan, or researcher, or whatever) trying to get to the bottom of a mystery surrounding a usually-pretty young white woman, driven wild by whatever’s inside her (or whatever she, or the people around her, think is inside her, or are pretending is inside her). The old white man has to call on God, basically another old white man in the Catholic tradition, to help give him the authority he needs to counter this threat, which usually involves vulgar language, sexual movements, knowledge of obscure languages, and masculine voices coming from within a female exterior – i.e., extremely “unladylike” behavior. The women who contain this wildness have to be freed, or found out, or saved, a process that sometimes (or even often) results in their deaths.

As a feminist coming from an anthropological perspective, this variation on the wild woman archetype is interesting to me on a social, cultural level. What are we being told about women, women’s bodies and their self control, and men’s authority? Why are the characters in this narrative almost invariably white, and why is the girl in question usually young, attractive, and thin? Why is this trial of masculine faith in God usually centered on a woman writhing in a bed?

As in most horror films, something is going on here that’s more complex than meets the eye. Exorcism movies let us ask big questions like “Do I believe in God?”, “Do I believe in evil?”, “What would it be like to lose control?”, “Is there some way I could behave badly but be forgiven for it?” and “Are the people around me honest and good?” Just as these movies question female sexuality and behavior, they also question the motives and capabilities of men, even of authority figures in general. And increasingly, the genre is diversifying, genders and ages switching around to raise all sorts of interesting new questions. (Let’s hope race is next – if you know of any more diverse exorcism stories, let me know!)

Here are seven films about possession, which all happen to be available on Netflix; all but Emily Rose can be watched online.

  1. The Last Exorcism- A preacher who doesn’t trust himself encounters a case that’s realer than he anticipated. The girl’s father is part of the plot, and his motives are in doubt until the last moment of the film. This one is creatively filmed in a found-footage style, under the premise that the preacher is allowing a crew to document his work.
  2. Exorcismus- The moral of this one seems to be “don’t trust priests, and don’t leave them alone with your kids.” Not too surprising, given the news these days, but the film doesn’t stray into creepy territory. It’s about priests and power and belief, and it’s full of twists and turns (and particularly good and subtle effects) that kept me on the edge of my seat. It’s Spanish, but written and acted in English.
  3. Case 39 – In this one the danger comes from a little girl, not a young woman, but she’s still a real threat. In another twist on horror convention, Renée Zellweger is our stalwart hero; Bradley Cooper plays her powerless love interest. Check out the scene where he tries to exert his influence on 10-year-old Lilith (great name choice!) – it doesn’t go well.
  4. Insidious- I wasn’t sure if I should include this one in the list because it’s more of a haunting / astral projection situation than a possession. Aaaaand it’s got a weird ending with some pretty silly moments that probably could have been better planned. But I decided to put it in because it’s got some genuinely scary scenes in it that made me jump, and because it too switches up the genders and ages of the major players.
  5. The Ceremony- Dark and psychological, this one will keep you guessing for a long time. It’s also notable for being the only title in this list that’s all about men. No girls, no women, just a dude and another dude. Mostly one dude. But man does he have a scary time in his big empty (?) house.
  6. The Exorcism of Emily Rose – Based on the sad, insane, true story of Anneliese Michel, a real life victim of exorcism, and starring Tom Wilkinson, Laura Linney, and Jennifer Carpenter, this one is worth watching despite its occasional over-use of CGI. Carpenter’s frightening contortions, on the other hand, were achieved without the use of special effects, which is pretty amazing. This film does a good job of questioning the power of the Church, and brings up lots of good questions as all of the characters grapple with faith and reason.
  7. Requiem – My favorite film on this list is this German title directed by Hans-Christian Schmid and starring Sandra Hüller as another fictionalized representation of Anneliese Michel. It may be more of a drama than a horror film, but it’s terrifying. Watch this one to see what faith can make people do to themselves, and how religion can control our actions.

Previously: Five scary movies set in interesting houses

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  4. VIDEO: Women healing the world
  5. Need a gift idea? Here: Homemade art and movies.

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