Halloween is but two days away. Kids everywhere are putting the finishing touches on their costumes, parents are wondering if they’ve eaten too much of the candy originally bought for trick-or-treaters, and all the decorations are spooky and fun. I feel the spirit of Halloween flowing through my body…forcing me to do things…horrible things. Wait a minute! This might be the telltale signs of possession! For those who are religiously inclined, possession movies can be extremely horrifying, reminding them of the darker sides of their faith. For those who are more secular, possession movies can still pack a wallop, introducing the concept that a fearsome beast or demon can take over your friends, loved ones, or even your own body. The idea of an unseen force controlling your actions has ties to rape, emotional abuse, and a host of other unappealing phobias and fears that make films about possession popular in the horror genre. As I put the finishing touches on my pretty princess costume, here are my picks for five possession films that both scare, and make you care:
1. The Exorcist
Yes, the father of all possession movies, and ironically enough it’s focus is about the removal of said uninvited guest. Many people forget that Linda Blair is not possessed by the devil himself, but of a lesser demon named Pazuzu. You just don’t notice that kind of detail because you’re so focused on voiding your own bowels in fear. A film that continues to age well due to its subject matter and low-tech filming techniques (i.e. no stupid CGI), this is the benchmark for all possession movies. “Scary as The Exorcist” is the critic blurb that most horror filmmakers dream about.
Let us not think this is a happy story. Everyone knows that an old priest and a young priest perform an exorcist for a little girl. Both men die, one mainly off screen behind a closed door, and the other in an act of self-sacrifice to rob the demon of a vessel. The heroes lose, though I suppose their victory of saving the little girl is the silver lining. Still, for such a famous movie to have a decidedly hollow victory ending makes you stop and think: if it takes two deaths for every life saved from possession, humanity isn’t on the winning side.
2. The Conjuring
Skipping forward to a more contemporary tale of demonic possession, we have this film. Norma Bates and Night Owl are two paranormal investigators who come to the aid of a family that’s having them ghost problems. In this situation the possession is the house at first, and then moves to the mother. The film does an excellent job of creating suspense and dread, not just relying on cheap jump scares. The concept of the paranormal investigators having a room in their house dedicated to cursed objects too dangerous to exist in the world at large was so delicious to movie producers that they already made a spinoff about a creepy doll called Annabelle. It was not a good movie, but this one totally is.
What’s truly sad in this film is the two paranormal investigators (you know, the ones with a room full of supernatural nukes?) have a daughter. It’s not sad that they have a daughter per se, but it’s clear they have to keep reminding her not to go into the horrifying death room. It’s not even a question of if that child will eventually lead to her own demise through sheer curiosity; it’s a question of when.
3. The Exorcism of Emily Rose
Long story short: the sister from Dexter gets herself possessed. The actress’s natural buggy-eyes and fantastically large mouth when she screams really go a long way to conveying the horror of this possession. Told mostly in flashbacks while the priest who attempted to perform the exorcist stands trial (yep, the girl didn’t make it and he got blamed), we learn that Emily was possessed by not one, not two, and not even five, but SIX different demons including Lucifer. I mean, it was a party in her soul and everyone was invited. No wonder the exorcism didn’t work, that’s a powerful bunch to try to take on alone. The movie is scary in its matter-of-fact take on the possession, both telling a story about convincing a jury that possessions exist as well as the movie audience.
The sad in this film is a brief moment of clarity that Emily gets when apparently visited by the Virgin Mary. Emily is told the demons aren’t going anywhere and things aren’t going to be pretty. A quick death is declined by Emily, wanting her possession to be proof that those things in fact exist. Did she make the wrong decision? Well, do you believe in possessions?
4. The Prince of Darkness
A very weird line, this film walks. It’s simultaneously several different things: a scientific approach to evil and horror, a John Carpenter body horror film, a Primer-like film that a plot synopsis on Wikipedia is necessary immediately upon viewing, and a possession film. A group of students, a priest, and a joke-in-there-somewhere try to decipher data being emitted from a canister full of swirling green goo, later identified as Satan. Evidently Satan is trying to summon “Anti-God” from the anti-matter universe (why not?) and the green goo possesses several people to do it. There’s even a tachyon-induced time-traveling message from the future about stopping the evil, I mean this movie has everything!
As much as I can understand the ending, the good guys eventually lose. Dreams and future-broadcasts walk a fine line of real or imagined, but a protagonist is lost in the anti-dimension, and then the dream shows that character as the possessed destroyer of worlds. Do the math.
This is my pick for best possession film, because if you want sheer volume of possessions, this takes the cake. A demon/fallen angel named Azazel can not only possess any host touched by his current host, but even float to new hosts in the nearby area. When Azazel finds that Denzel Washington is just too damn sexy for possession to work on, he spends the remainder of the run time ruining Denzel’s life. Framing him for murder, possessing family members, and overall being a dick. The end is almost satisfying because Denzel almost kills the demon, but the plan doesn’t quite work.
We are forced to rewatch the movie and realize we were told at the beginning it wouldn’t end well, and that the demon wasn’t going to die. It’s sad, especially because not only did Denzel die, but so did John Goodman. That man is a national treasure and should never be forced to die, in film or real life. LONG LIVE THE GOODMAN!