Demands for exorcisms are on the rise in the United States. While exact numbers are hard to pinpoint, there are approximately 150 active exorcists working in the US. They receive calls for help from men and women, people of all ages, races, and religions. For those of us who love scary movies, this diversity may come as a surprise. In possession films, victims tend to be young girls whose faces are contorted in evil sneers or – more horrifying still – evil nuns.
Why is this? If you dare, I invite you to follow me on a spooky journey into the possession horror film subgenre, the true stories behind the tropes, and the most terrifying specter of all: The Patriarchy. (Warning: You may have to sleep with the lights on.)
Editor’s Note: Please read with discretion, as this article contains sensitive content.
The Exorcist and The Monstrous Female
“Is there someone inside you?” a psychiatrist famously asks young Regan in the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist. In addition to being terrifying, the question is uncomfortably suggestive, a juxtaposition that foreshadows how Regan’s body is treated throughout the rest of the film.
Although undeniably a masterpiece, The Exorcist cemented virtually all of the genre tropes we recognize today. Its screenwriter, William Blatty, based the screenplay on a true story about a young boy whose exorcism took place at St. Louis University in 1949. Blatty, who was not Catholic, claimed that the story cemented his belief in God. While Blatty never explicitly commented on his decision to change the gender of the victim when writing his film, clues from the movie suggest a distressing explanation: little girls are just scarier.
Feminist film critic Carol Clover coined the phrase “female openness” to describe the concept that “the female body is an open vessel and that, biologically, women are capable of taking objects into their inner space.” Because it is porous, penetrable, and full of slimy mucus, the female body is monstrous.
Throughout The Exorcist, Regan is kept tied down on her back, in bed, with her legs spread. She projectile vomits. She climbs backward down the stairs, her gaping mouth open where her vagina should be. Most infamously, she masturbates with a crucifix, injuring herself in the process. While the devil is nominally the villain, it is Regan’s female body that provides the source of the horror.
Fifty years later, little has changed. The 2023 sequel The Exorcist: Believer might feature an extremely rare Black lead, but both victims are still little girls. (To date, only one possession movie has ever featured a Black victim, the “Blaxploitation” B-movie Abby, now out of print.)
The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Good Victim
Like its cinematic predecessor, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is loosely based on a true story. Anneliese Michel was born in 1952 to a traditionalist Catholic family. Anneliese’s mother had given birth to her oldest daughter, Martha, out of wedlock and she forced both of her daughters to pray and fast constantly in repentance for this sin. When Martha died at a young age, the full burden of this sinfulness was heaped onto young Anneliese, who was made to sleep on a stone floor. She also contracted several serious diseases, including Scarlet Fever, at a young age.
When, at the age of 16, Anneliese began having blackouts and convulsions, she was diagnosed with grand mal epilepsy. Contemporary articles from The Washington Post reported that “[w]hen, after four years of medical treatment, her condition and mental depression worsened, she and her parents eventually became convinced that demons or the devil possessed her.”
Anneliese was put through a rigorous and terrifying exorcism process, during which she was starved and beaten. Court records state that “Michel ripped the clothes off her body, compulsively performed up to 400 squats a day, crawled under a table and barked like a dog for two days, ate spiders and coal, bit the head off a dead bird and licked her own urine from the floor.” After a whopping 70 exorcism attempts, Anneliese Michel died of dehydration and malnourishment at the age of 23. Two priests were found guilty of negligent manslaughter, but their six-month jail sentences were suspended to probation.
This is, unquestionably, a terrifying story fit for a horror movie, but the 2005 film dispatches the truth entirely in favor of standard tropes. In the movie, there is no question that the possession is real. Emily Rose is the quintessential “good victim.” Innocent and pure, her death is a sacrifice that saves the world. The film sacrifices the real Anneliese’s story in the service of a marketable box-office hit. In this version, the good priest is found innocent. He saved her soul, after all.
Whether or not you believe that Anneliese Michel was really possessed (many do), the sloppy adaptation exemplifies the way in which female suffering is commodified for mass consumption. Fortunately, there is another movie about Annelise. The 2006 German-language thriller Requiem tells a far more nuanced and heartbreaking version of the story. With a stunning performance by Sandra Hüller as the afflicted Michaela, the film is well worth the subtitles.
Nunsploitation and the Exotic Other
As a good friend once asked me, “What’s up with all the possessed nuns?”
So-called “nunsploitation” films – movies featuring nuns in bloody, graphic, or even pornographic contexts – peaked in the 1970s, largely as a means of challenging Catholicism. After Vatican II and the shift away from traditional habits, nuns became a source of perverse fascination. According to film scholar Michelle Pribbernow, “The nun, a rare sight in post-Vatican II U.S. and a symbol of opposition to modernity and women’s liberation is an exotic Other, even when not monstrous, and her strangeness opens her up to use by both sides of the struggle.”
One of the most important and well known nunsploitation films is The Devils (1971). This “tortured masterpiece” is loosely based on real events. Centuries ago, there was a wave of alleged mass possessions in convents, the most well-known of which was the “Loudun Affair” and subsequent witch trial in 1632. After an entire convent succumbed to demonic possession, a priest named Urbain Grandier was found guilty of making a deal with the devil and then executed. However, many historians believe that Grandier’s true crime was angering Church authorities. According to Medium, he “had been allegedly involved with several women and fathered at least one extramarital son, and had advocated against the mandatory celibacy for priests.” He also got into a legal dispute with the local government. Unsurprisingly, most modern scholars attribute the events at Loudun and other convents to mass hysteria, similar to the infamous dancing plagues of the same period. A life of boredom and restriction interrupted only by violence and plague is believed to be the true cause of the chaos – or maybe it was the devil.
Whatever the true story, The Devils depicts the Loudun Affair as a failed attempt at liberation by the nuns, tragically resulting in disaster and graphic death. Pribbernow explains, “The Devils, filmed during second-wave feminism and great cultural attention to women’s sexual liberation, depicts nuns as sexually frustrated women who attempt to use their special social status and vocation to gain attention but are instead used and manipulated by male authorities.”
Although nunsploitation as a genre declined with the rise of “little girl” possession movies, it’s back in a big way with movies such as The Nun (2018) and The Nun II (2023). Although both were critically panned, these additions to The Conjuring cinematic universe were both major box office hits. As long as women – and nuns in particular – are seen as “Other,” nunsploitation films are here to stay.
Can Catholics Watch Scary Movies?
Those of us with a love for the horror genre might feel some degree of tension. From the blatant anti-Catholicism to the violent and sexual images, there’s plenty to argue against viewing horror and especially against watching possession films. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that the Church advises strongly against it.)
But despite their tenuous roots in true possession stories, these films are rarely about the demonic. Instead, they reveal something deeper about our society. With a critical eye, a rational mind, and a strong heart, we can identify what is actually taking place in the possession subgenre of horror.