When William Peter Blatty was looking to write a story, he learned of a family in Maryland who claimed to have been one of the few, if not the only at that time, documented and thus official cases of exorcism in the United States. Blatty contacted the exorcist in charge of the ceremony, researched the incident, and studied exorcisms. But when it came to writing the story, Blatty had to change the story, inventing the characters, settings, and tensions that would become immortalized in The Exorcist. And, most famously and importantly for our project, he changed the possessed child’s gender.
However, the boy’s story would later be told. Mark Opsasnick, of Strange Magazine, has a four part series exploring the truth behind the story of the exorcism, including detailed information about media coverage and the timeline of events. However, germane to our research project is the historical account given by Thomas B. Allen in his non-fiction book Possessed. Published in 1993, it purported to tell the true details of the exorcism that captivated and inspired Blatty, while still retaining the anonymity of the child and his family. Set in 1949, the story uses the firsthand accounts of the priests who performed the exorcism to provide the information on the sequence of events that led to the boy being determined to be possessed and requiring an exorcism. Given the interest in exorcism generated by the re-release of The Exorcist in 1998 for its 25th anniversary, Allen’s book was optioned and produced for premium cable network Showtime, starring Timothy Dalton, Henry Czerny, and Christopher Plummer as the priests tasked with saving the boy’s immortal soul.
Although Possessed (2000) is a ostensibly a television movie, it was released on a premium channel, meaning that it was produced and distributed as structurally similar to a feature film, and has been released on DVD. Given that we have a focus in this project on the series of movies based on or related to The Exorcist, it is necessary to include this movie in that series, as it purports to show the actual story on which the fiction was based. What makes it an interesting addition to this series is how the exorcism is about a boy, which is rare in exorcism cinema but has been seen in The Exorcist prequels, which were released after this movie. Is more acceptable now to show a boy being possessed? But if that is true, then why are all of the Modern True Stories exorcism cinema focusing on women being possessed?
To answer those questions, we can look at Possessed as a means to segue from The Exorcist Series to the Modern True Stories Series, especially as Possessed identifies itself in its text as based on a true story of the only documented case of exorcism in the United States, a feature and marketing tactic seen repeatedly in the modern exorcism stories. Given this link the movie provides, we watched it, and I include the thoughts and observations it generated in the order that they occurred.
The movie begins with depictions of World War II, with German soldiers killing wounded British soldiers while “Ave Maria” plays. Father Bowden (Timothy Dalton) is a priest in the war, and is introduced performing last rites on dying man, only to be injured by Germans. He awakens from this nightmare to be shown as reliant on alcohol. So not exactly setting up the protagonist as a strong, moral man. Pretty much in line with all the other depictions of the priest who has lost his faith and needs it to be rekindled by exorcism.
We are introduced to the boy, given the pseudonym Robbie Mannheim here, reading horror comics. Robbie has red hair, as Regan did in the book. More interestingly, he is identified as German, which would add in the tensions of WWII to this story.
Bowden is giving a lecture on evil and on Satan at St. Louis University, a Jesuit school — remember, Georgetown University, featured in The Exorcist, is also a Jesuit school. Bowden is preaching about the need to be aware of Satan’s actions in real life – so he doesn’t seem to have lost his faith, just that he has problems coping as a veteran of WWII. Or he is just giving lip-service, saying what he thinks he needs to say. Later, someone throws a rock through his window, and we are introduced to the timely issue of integration/segregation that seems a little early for 1949 — there are people protesting allowing blacks into the school, going so far as to burn the cross on campus — so, not exactly a very religious group of students, I’d say, which could be why they need to be preached to about the evils of Satan — and could also be the same as Blatty’s assertion that people have strayed too far from Catholicism and holiness. Anyway, Bowden attacks a cop who calls the integration supporters “niggers” (honestly, the movie used the word). Bowden claims he is defending the faith, but people know of his drinking habits and think that he might have been drunk when he attacked the cop. Again, this is our protagonist — a flawed, white, religious man.
Robbie is seen consulting the spirits using the Ouija board, just like Regan does. The Ouija warns about a danger from hell, and the first case of telekinesis occurs as the reader flies off board. Robbi’s mom calls it gypsy hocus pocus, and Robbie is shown as disobedient to his mother. Indeed, Robbie seems always happy until his mother shows up, and his mother claims Robbie has no discipline. So Robbie is positioned as a disobedient child, a child struggling against the oppression of his parents and his mother in particular. An innocent perhaps in terms of age, but definitely not an innocent in terms of temperament, as Regan was characterized. Robbie almost seems to be deserving of his possession, as a form of punishment for his disobedience. Robbie’s Aunt Hanna (Piper Laurie), identified as German and not German-American, was playing Ouija with him and encouraging him to experiment and be disobedient — not a good influence.
The cops besmirch Bowden, imply he is gay, which serves to further destablize the protagonist as a sound, moral man. There is also a link made of his drinking to a potential mental illness. This is one weak priest.
Aunt Hanna dies, and Robbie makes a ventriloquist dummy – side-note, ventriloquist dummies freak me out. Robbie’s father says Robbie is not doing enough with school work, furthering the idea that he is disobedient. Perhaps the dummy is a way for Robbie to express himself, to be heard against his oppressive parents who won’t let him indulge in the fantasies he likes?
Robbie sees a distorted room, hears voice of his aunt saying there ix another way to reach the other side, i.e. the spirit side, other than the Ouija – but was it really his aunt? Since she was already positioned as a bad influence on him when she was alive, it would make sense to continue this bad influence from the afterlife.
Robbie gets mad at fellow classmates, and then his desk moves by itself, attacking the students, his teacher, and goes around the classroom. However, afterwards at home, his parents do not believe he did not move the desk himself. There does not seem to be a lot of care shown by the parents to Robbie, about his feelings, just saying he needs to do well in school to not be a “deadbeat.” His father even wants to whip him with belt, but then a chair starts moving on its own, and they still think Robbie did it – they seem freaked out but not willing to move and comfort Robbie as they try to find a logical explanation for what happened. Is the idea being that a young boy, especially in the 1950s, has to learn how to take care of himself, to be a man, and confronting an evil like a demonic possession is just something he has to learn to stand up to, to man up and handle it?
Robbie dresses the dummy as a woman, as his aunt Hanna, and tries to use it to reach the spirit side. The dummy’s eyes move on their own, and he hears his aunt’s voice coming from it — not helping me not be freaked out. A chalk board spells out “you have been chosen.” Robbie starts yelling and cursing a blue streak. As time goes by, his mother wants to do something, get some help, and begs his father, but his father reminds her they are not made of money. So here we have the mother losing all of her power. She had power to discipline her son, but that is gone, and she is powerless in deciding things, as that is up to the father.
Finally they call in a priest, Reverend Eckhardt, who suggests a poltergeist, and says this is something known to clergy and science. This is all because there is bruise on the mother, Robbie is throwing temper tantrums, and it has all been getting worse since he was suspended from school because of the telekinetic desk incident. Eckhardt takes Robbie home with him to observe him, as he has an interest in things like poltergeists, psychic phenomenon – he wants to write up the story of Robbie as a psychoactive prepubescent. Thus he has ulterior reasons for studying Robbie, surrounding Robbie with audio recording, video recording, photography – he’s cross with Robbie, just wants to use the boy for his own fame.
Knocking noises, which makes Eckhardt happy – then things start flying, Robbie is dragged under the bed and attacks Eckhardt. Indeed, it looks like a case of pedophilia when his wife walks in. Later he says he is not sure of anything now, and that they need to take Robbie to the Catholics. However, Robbie attacks Eckhardt with a bed spring, ripping into him, and his wife calls Robbie a bastard. Robbie is returned home and, I kid you not, a mob appears at the parents’ house, including a dude with a rake, lol – just like an old monster movie. Robbie foams at the mouth, letters on his chest, he has a seizure – and the letters are SLU, meaning St. Louis University (apparently), which leads them to our exorcists.
Robbie’s father swore he would never step in a church again, and makes Robbie’s mother go talk to Catholics – so they are not exactly good Christians. Robbie hears the basketball game, gets his father to go with him, although father looked dubious at him and makes a joke about God and sports teams – yeah, definitely not model Christians. Robbie, possessed, stares at Bowden, who was coaching the game, as apparently he is the one the demon seeks. Robbie’s mother confesses to Father McBride (Henry Czerny) that she is terrified of her own child. Robbie apparently makes Bowden strike a referee, as afterwards Dalton looks around as if hearing/sensing something. So again we get the idea that the demon possesses a child just to get at a priest – this has occurred in numerous exorcism movies now, as if the child is not important, but what the child does to the priest is.
McBridge goes to see Robbie at their home and witnesses superhuman strength He conveys his thoughts that Robbie is possessed to Bowden, who doesn’t believe in it and thinks it could be mass hysteria; so science being used to explain the supernatural. McBride says he sensed evil not as a force but as a presence in the house and he wants Bowden as a second opinion.
The mother is putting out jack-o-lantern, which means it is around Halloween – interesting because the legend of lack-o-lanterns is to ward off evil spirits, although it comes from a pagan ritual. Bowden speaks with Robbie, says he likes comics. Robbie says his mother had said comics are evil, but Bowden scoffs, as he is bonding with Robbie. Bowden sees the rocking chair moving, apparently hears voices from toy soldiers, flashbacks to the time at war as Robbie asks if Bowden can help him. Robbie says he doesn’t remember doing any of the things, but knows he has done bad things because his parents have told him. He says he isn’t evil, he’s just a kid. Bowden doesn’t sense anything supernatural with Robbie, and the father says thanks for nothing. This father is a real hard-nose, hard-ass, mean guy.
Robbie is screaming just as they are leaving, swearing, things fly around room as Robbie convulses on bed, hell scrawled on chest, and he speaks in tongues in a demonic voice that is definitely an older male, then falls quiet – so that was basically all symptoms at once – “Minister of Christ, can’t you see, I’m the Devil” is what Robbie said in Latin. And yet, Bowden is still not convinced it is possession, saying it could be just a cry for help, as Robbie could have seen a Latin book – we are seeing just as much doubt as Father Karras had in The Exorcist. Bowden says they need to bring the case to the archbishop, Hume (Christopher Plummer).
Hume is on a campaign to bring the Church into the 20th century — this modernization attempt is a repeated theme in exorcism cinema — and he does not want to approve a medieval treatment like an exorcism. Bowden and McBride argue they just want an investigation, and a moral imperative to investigate. Hume, however, is worried that the spectacle of exorcism would destroy Catholicism’s progress to show they are American and modern. Bowden argues that a soul of child may be in jeopardy — but wasn’t he just telling Robbie’s parents he didn’t believe it was possession?. Hume argues the need for patience, but will allow the rite of exorcism as long as Bowden does it because he is not on the archdiocese roster, he is on the university roster, with McBride assisting – this way they can keep things confidential, unconnected to the archdiocese – to which Bowden replies “Are you shitting me?” — which he says, in a church, as a priest…yeah, definitely not a very upstanding, moral priest.
Research time! At the library, Bowden and McBridge discuss the three stages of possession – infestation, obsession, possession – and agree that Robbie is currently in the obsession (which, again, confused, as I thought Bowden didn’t believe any of this). According to the holy texts, in the possession stage, the last hope is the “time of changing”, which they do not know, but could be the change of host (which was in The Exorcist). We are getting a lot more scientific rigor in The Exorcist, and there is no real discussion of mental disorders here as an explanation for what is happening to Robbie. Did twenty years — from the 1950s to the 1970s — change how much we thought about mental disorders? They find a book detailing the exorcism in 17th century France which SO MANY movies have referenced. The account describes forcing the demon to name itself to make it susceptible. In the account, they made the demon confront the priest directly, but the priest died, which is foreboding to Bowden. If the references to the 17th century case was in this original story, which was then first adapted by Blatty, then that could be why it was so commonly seen in all subsequent movies, as each movie learns from and in some way replicates or builds upon The Exorcist.
At this point, I must say, this movie is long and meandering. The horror is no where near the same as The Exorcist, and the story is not as engaging. Just saying. I do not think it is because a boy is possessed. I just think the story is not as engaging.
They go see Robbie, and from his point of view we see the world as distorted as the possession begins, which means getting the subjective experience of being possessed, something not seen in any other exorcism cinema. With this POV, we are able to get some identification with the possessed child, which allows for some sympathy and empathy for what the child is enduring.
The first attempt at the exorcism during the night. And of course we get projectile vomiting, bed moving, urinating all over them, taunting them with “what’s the matter, boys, you can’t walk on water?”, growling like an animal. He grabs Bowden’s crotch, cackles “how’s that for a nutcracker”. When hearing the demon voice, we hear Robbie’s voice as well as a deeper, more raspy voice, and we also hear Hannah’s voice at times, so he is also speaking with an older feminine voice, indicating a crossing of gender identities. Bowden keeps asking for he demon’s name and time of departure – so getting subjective experience and many signs of possession seen in other films.
But the next morning Robbie comes down hungry. So he does not have continuous possession, as Regan did, and he does not remember what happened, except as a dream. He is not tied to the bed like Regan and others would be at this point in the movie, indicating that he is not seen as much as a physical threat as those women were. Robbie is given more focus, more agency as a non-possessed person, as well as a possessed person, in comparison to his female counter-parts. That agency, and our possibility for empathizing with him, could very well be due to his gender identity.
Somehow, Bowden is still not believing while the others say the time of changing is perhaps All Saints’ Day, which corresponds to the WWII scene at the beginning. Bowden goes to see Eckhardt, who is in a mental institution. Eckhardt warns Bowden that Robbie is just bait, that Bowden is the real target, as the demon wants to suck him down into hell. This aligns with Merrin as the real target in The Exorcist – again, the priest is set as the protagonist, who must do battle with a demon that is using a child, an “innocent”, to get to him. And, ironically, all of this occurring before the scandal of the sex abuse broke and began to hinder the Catholic Church’s image around the world. Hard not to read such dynamic between priest and child in these stories.
While it may not be a young woman seeking voice against patriarchal oppression, this possession could still be read as gaining power against oppression in the form of the parents and the ideologies of the time about what children are supposed to be – and the patriarchy still has to come in to restore order, to put the child in his place.
Robbie burns the dummy, saying in Hanna’s voice that we discard this carcass, that they are beyond it, which would seem to indicate possession is complete.
Robbie and Bowden walk the path of saints at St. Louis University, and Robbie exhibits knowing Catholic sacraments. He seems to be acting overly innocent, almost taunting Bowden with the idea that he cares, while tone indicates he does not care. Again, Hume is more concerned about politics and not having Catholicism linked with Communism, which confused me. Robbie runs off, and displays supernatural strength by busting through a chained fence. He is playing a game of catch with Bowden, who catches him but Robbie attacks and tries to drag them over a cliff, displays another male voice saying he will see Bowden in hell. Others arrive to drag them back to safety.
Now they start talking about psychiatry, as suddenly McBride is uncertain if this is a matter of possession or psychiatry. The problem is that when you compare this telling of the story to the one in The Exorcist, this one comes off as rather schizophrenic!
Bowden says evil comes amongst us to test our strength – that the possession is an act of the devil, not of God — thereby referencing the lecture he gave at the beginning of the film.
The second attempt at the exorcism. They try giving Robbie communion, which he vomits up, says “there’s your body of Christ, you eat it.” Many times we hear the possession in just Robbie’s voice, allowing for the confusion that it could just be Robbie acting, playing like a child would, but also allowing for it being Robbie’s character, his identity to be continuously coming through in a way not seen with the women who are possessed. That is really is just acting up and speaking out against those who are seeking to oppress him. However, in demonic voice, the demon declares its name as “Legion, we are many, I am the Devil” — so, yeah, back to this story. Robbie acts out various demons, evil people and forces, in a comedic tone, as if on a stage, but he also acts out a battle that completely unnerves Bowden, who says the kid knows, it knows what happened in the war. I guess that makes Bowden a believer now — although he kind of had been…and again we see the priest come to realize the true supernatural nature of the possession because of the demon’s ability to use the priest’s moral weakness and troubled past to taunt and torture the priest. It is the ultimate guilt trip.
Bowden takes Robbie to a monastery, not to imprison him but to free him. This is a first, because no other exorcism movie took the possessed to a holy place except for Exorcist: the Beginning, and that was more a holy place that had been made unholy by desecration. Bowden beseeches the Lord to help him not to fail another child, to gain knowledge to know what is going on with Robbie. Bowden is giving voice to the idea that God has forsaken him, but then McBridge shows up, as the sign Bowden asked for, to give Bowden a pep talk – and now they walk into action, bedecked, mimicking the walk of the astronauts in The Right Stuff – they have the righteous stuff.
Third try at exorcism but still Robbie is not tied down – why are they tying down the women? Do the women represent more of a threat, physical and symbolically, to the men? Is it also a sadomasochist thing? The idea that women need to be in bondage for their own good?
We are always seeing the distortion of the room from Robbie’s perspective just before possession begins. After the possession has started they finally tie him down with chains as he swears in Hanna’s voice. Bowden compels the demon to be gone; it is ten minutes til midnight, and Bowden wants to keep going, to not let Robbie rest, as Bowden believes the time of changing is at midnight. Robbie as demon pleads for rest as Bowden slaps him, still seeking its secret identity. And he gets it, Dominus. So Bowden is bullying the demon, calling it names, saying it isn’t scary, taunting it to do more. Robbie levitates, starts spinning and signing Ave Maria in a soprano voice, taunts Dalton back, and psychological torment, says “the fucker’s for real, fasten your seatbelt Beelzebub, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
Dalton’s overacting is funny. He seeks God to deliver them from the devil’s bondage and deception. Seeing a parallel with women and the traditional religious view on women, which is why it is interesting that Robbie is also speaking in Hanna’s voice. There is a transgender transgression, bringing in the idea of women being dangerous when he takes on Hanna’s identity. By associating with Hanna, who the mother disliked, he is taking on the bad qualities of Hanna, namely her German identity, her willingness to play with the occult, and her being a woman, all of which makes her unclean, and thus makes him unclean
But the exorcism is successful, and Dominus departs. Archbishop Hume is still seeking to keep things secret, to have no one aware of what allegedly happened, and even has sealed the room in which the exorcism occurred, declaring it sealed forever. The movie tells us all of this. It also tells us that Robbie’s true identity has never been made public, but that he went on to lead a normal life, and was even married by Father Bowden. So all’s well that ends well.
Overall, there is a lot of unpack about this movie. From the possessed person being a young, disobedient boy who’s possession involves gender transgression, to the positioning of the Church as desperate to appear scandalous, this movie is an interesting addition and link in this project. However, as an entertainment experience, it is not something I would recommend.