At the Midwest Popular Culture Association‘s 2014 conference, Chris and I presented the first analysis from our exorcism cinema project. The presentation is titled: Feminist tensions in exorcism cinema: Case study analysis and comparison of The Last Exorcism and The Last Exorcism Part II. What follows are the notes for the presentation, which constitute an early draft of a paper for this analysis.
This project is concerned with a subset of horror cinema that deals with a specific type of monster, that of the possessed person. According to Noel Carroll from The Philosophy of Horror (1990), monsters provide the foundation for horror movies by being contradictions. In horror stories, monsters are seen “as abnormal, as disturbances of the natural order” (p. 16). Thus monsters are impure, unclear and threatening because they are frequently presented as “categorically interstitial, categorically contradictory, incomplete, or formless” (p. 32). Monsters embody opposing binaries by simultaneously embodying features, themes, and metaphors that represent either good or bad – vampires and zombies are dead yet animated creatures, aliens are physical unknowns, werewolves are humans made animal, giant insects are the miniscule made large, and possessed people are humans yet demonic.
These stories model fear and disgust as the natural reaction to this unnaturalness, and thus position audiences to react with “horror” to abnormal manifestations just like the characters do. Horror movies are horrifying because they contain monsters that “are not only physically threatening; they are cognitively threatening. They are threats to common knowledge.” (p. 34) Therefore, viewers become scared emotionally because they fear the illogic of what they see embodied in the monster.
Across horror films, women often are relegated to two types of roles that render them as the “other”. More often than men, Women tend to be the victim of the monster without also becoming the hero that vanquishes the monster by the end of the film. Aside from the Last Girl or Survivor Girl trope, women tend not to be the hero of a horror film; meaning, in comparison to the male heroes of such films, they can be seen as the other, as the one without agency in need of saving. Women are also othered in horror films when the film positions them as a threat who needs to be stopped. According to Barbara Creed (1999, p. 257-8), the “monstrous-feminine” positions the woman as a threat to patriarchal society, symbolically representing the woman as non-human to position her as such. The woman as monster is an abjection, existing outside the boundaries of good, symbolic, patriarchal society. The woman is othered by being a monstrous representation of what should not exist and must be undone, silenced, stopped.
This othering of women by representing the monstrous-feminine happens across various subgenres of horror cinema, from Aliens to Carrie to Cat People to Carnival of Souls. Our argument is that the monstrous-feminine is particularly apparent in the subgenre of exorcism cinema. In this subgenre, it appears that women are othered as both the victim and the monster. Women in exorcism cinema are seen as monsters due to the abnormality of possession; they are human yet demon, representing two distinctly opposed identities in one body. This monstrousness represents the tension between innocence and temptation as it relates to the Western religious conceptualization of the virgin/whore dichotomy. These tensions illustrate how the innocent, virginal woman is the victim to the whorish temptress. While this representation of women happens across the horror genre, it is perhaps best exemplified in exorcism cinema.
Exorcism cinema consists of movies in which the central plot is concerned with the possession of an individual and the subsequent performance of a ritual to cast out that demon or evil spirit. These films tackle the subject of possession and exorcism from a variety of religious affiliations, and they seem to have mainly occurred in two key time periods: the 1970s and the 2000s. The movie that started it all, The Exorcist from 1973, is still considered to be one of best examples of this subgenre to date. Following the theatrical re-release of The Exorcist in 2000, more exorcism movies emerged, starting with The Exorcism of Emily Rose in 2005. This project focuses on our readings of the representations of the characters, discourses, and tensions in each film, and what these representations mean for how such films reflect, reinforce, and/or challenge notions of feminism, gender appropriateness, sexuality, power, hegemony, patriarchy, religion and science.
Thus far, the majority of scholarship regarding this subgenre has focused on The Exorcist, with some consideration of other films released around the same time. Carol Clover (1992) discusses the connection between these films and the Christian Bible and the treatment of women in Western society, from the fall of Man due to Eve to sibyls, witches, and psychics. According to her analysis, women are portrayed in these films as possessed because women have commonly been portrayed as the entry point for Satan into our world. Specifically in regards to The Exorcist, Clover analyzes the film for how Regan’s experiences were not the central story of the film; instead, her suffering was only important in that it allowed for the resolution of Father Damien Karras’ spiritual anxieties and crisis.
Barbara Creed, on the other hand, focuses on the metaphorical battle about femininity and sexuality being waged through Regan’s possession and exorcism. According to Creed (1993), while the spiritual crisis is central to the movie, “it is secondary to the film’s exploration of female monstrousness and the inability of the male order to control the woman whose perversity is expressed through her rebellious body.” (p. 37). In other words, Regan’s duality of virgin/whore, victim/monster represent a threat to the proper order of society – i.e. patriarchal notions of proper behavior for women – and thus, being abnormal, she needed to be expelled so that propriety could be reestablished.
For this project, we focus on the struggle between possession and exorcism, and look at how this struggle reflects social and cultural anxieties regarding female sexuality. Primarily, we argue this struggle represents the tension between a feminine innocence and sexuality that the patriarchy fears and seeks to control. These cinematic possessions tend to occur within women who are in the transitional period of moving from innocent girl to sexually active woman. The possession essentially represents the manifestation of the sexually active identity perhaps too early given the biological age of the girl and the character’s innocence in relation to sexual activity.
However, the tension is not just about women’s sexuality and expression of sexuality; it is that through such expression their power and agency are enacted, and that is why their sexuality must be repressed. By becoming sexually active, women become empowered in their own lives, and potentially gain power over the lives of men. This empowerment appears to manifest in how the possession gives the women the ability to speak their minds without fear of repercussion. They may speak their minds about sexual desires, but also to express unguarded, insensitive, insightful comments about the people around them.
Thus, we argue, the use of demonic possession does not simply reveal the tensions modern societies and cultures have about female sexuality; it also demonstrates the tensions about women finding their voice and their power to take control of their own lives. The possession metaphorically creates an empowered woman, but the exorcism metaphorically presents, in the form of the male priest, a protagonist who must remove this possessed woman and the threat she represents to decent society.
For this presentation, we focus on two more recent movies: The Last Exorcism and The Last Exorcism Part II. As a found footage movie, The Last Exorcism does not position itself as being based on or inspired by a real story of exorcism. Instead, it positions itself through its structure: the narrative conceit of being part of a documentary about Reverend Marcus, who wants to illustrate the fictional and dangerous belief in and practice of exorcisms. Viewers are led to believe that on this last case, something terrible goes wrong during the attempted exorcism of shy farm girl Nell, as recorded via this documentary.
Interestingly, the sequel refers back to this framing device while being a more straight forward exorcism narrative. Released only last year, the film starts immediately following the ending of the first, picking up after the Satanic ritual that seemingly released a demon in the world through the supernatural pregnancy of Nell. Gone is the documentary crew from the first film, as well as Marcus, all either presumed killed by the demon or the demon’s worshipers. Gone is the found footage structure, replaced by a more traditional narrative structure. With these structural differences, we also see differences in the representation and metaphorical treatment of possession and exorcism.
While the first movie innovated in terms of format, it was traditional in terms of how it represented the tensions. In this movie, the plot aligns with the straight forward narrative of exorcism cinema: a young woman is possessed by a devil and it is up to the intervention of a heroic priest, who is questioning his faith, to save her. The focus is on getting to know who Marcus is, and while he discusses in his sermons about how the Devil is everywhere, he doesn’t really seem to totally believe in what he is saying. Nell is introduced as a quiet girl: plain, shy, sweet, soft spoken, and innocent. Now 16, she lost her mother at 14 when she was just coming into womanhood. Nell may not be as innocent as she seems, however, as the film reveals her pregnancy. Her father claims she is a virgin, and indeed she is, as the pregnancy is supernatural in nature, and the reason for her possession.
Nell is positioned as needing saving, with Marcus embodying the role of the savior. But Nell is not powerless. At one point she takes the documentary crew’s camera and wanders the farm, ultimately killing a cat with it. During this time, she has the power to see the unseen, to look at what the regular camera man would not, and with this new power she is also able to kill. We suddenly experience her view of the world, as a possessed person. It is the most insight the viewer gets into her subjectivity up to that point, as it is her voice saying “kitty, kitty” before killing it. The camera represents her agency, just as it represents Marcus’ agency through his efforts to expose exorcism as a sham. The viewer’s ability to know this world is through the camera – whoever controls the camera controls how the viewer experiences the world. This is its power. For the majority of the film, Nell is without power and continuously silenced, as even her words during the exorcism attempts are challenged for being fake by Marcus. Nell is merely a vessel, either for her father’s wishes, the demon’s wishes, or the cult’s wishes; she has no control over her body or her power.
At the end of the film, Marcus and the documentary crew stumble upon a clearing where a Satanic ceremony is occurring. Nell’s father is tied up as people force Nell to give birth. The cultists remove something obviously not human from Nell. They call it Abalam, and throw it into the fire, which explodes with growls. Narratively, the film references other films like Rosemary’s Baby and Constantine, where a woman is used as a conduit to release a demon unto the world. That is the true horror: rather than the possession, the pregnancy represents the real threat to mankind. But the threat still deals with Nell’s burgeoning sexuality, which is tied into the power of a woman to be life-giver. The tension, however, is that any life could be a death-bringer, such as Nell’s demonic offspring. It is up to the priest to insure that this danger does not harm the world, and the last glimpse of Marcus sees him rushing to face Abalam, his faith completely restored.
Thus, the central tension of the film focuses on the threat of Nell’s sexuality and power and contrasts it with the order and safety Marcus represents. The ending of the film does not provide for an easy resolution of the tension, as it cuts to black without any clear indication that Abalam has been stopped. But the last shot of Marcus stepping forward, powered by his renewed faith in God, indicates that he has taken the correct step toward restoring order by seeing the need to vanquish the threat that has emerged from Nell.
The second movie, however, problematizes the implied resolution of this tension. In the sequel, the possessed Nell becomes the protagonist, and her agency is the central concern of the film; instead of someone choosing for her, Nell chooses whether or not to be possessed and to gain the power that comes with it. The sequel focuses on Nell in her continued struggle with the demon Abalam, which makes for perhaps the most feminist portrayal of a woman struggling with demonic possession in any exorcism film. Here there is no priest dealing with his loss of faith and using the woman’s unfortunate predicament to cement his faith and the patriarchy of the Church. Here there is only Nell’s struggle to lead a good, normal life.
As the film begins, Nell has returned to a state of innocence even after what happened in the first one, as she is presented as shy, reserved, uncertain, and weak. City living – in New Orleans – becomes a setting for corruption, along with the introduction of sexual undertones, both lesbian and heterosexual. Nell downplays her innocence; however, she’s like any teenage girl, just trying to fit in, and the new life tempts her. For example, while working in a hotel, Nell hears sex in one room while cleaning another. The first time she hears the noises, they scare her, but the second time she is drawn to them. The film visually represents her desire for sex is a corruption, as a physical blackness seeps from her body onto the wall she hugs. The film portrays these increases in sexual awareness as the demon’s return, because it is learning to better seduce her; her fall from innocence is thus linked with possession.
Nell asserts herself more in this movie than she did in the last one, as she tries to convince the non-believers of the horrors coming. She uses her voice to speak truth but is powerless in not being heard. She also does not speak out when possessed as seen in other exorcism cinema: it is more her fear of being possessed, of changing, that causes her to speak. In a sense, then, she speaks out in alignment with what the patriarchy wishes in order to maintain order in society. Additionally, Nell is fearful because she realizes the possession is occurring, which is rarely seen in other films, since it is rare the viewer gets the woman’s perspective on being possessed. While the viewer experiences Nell’s subjectivity, it is only to be afraid for her, for the loss of order. She is not being empowered by possession throughout most of the movie.
Before Abalam can completely possess her, Nell seeks help from a voodoo priestess to perform an exorcism. So we get the immensely rare instance of a female exorcist as savior – which may explain why the movie has the exorcism fail. Often in these exorcism movies the priest is the main character, seeking to save the girl and kill the demon. The possessed girl is secondary; she is the monster, the damsel in distress, the antagonist. Unlike The Last Exorcism, the sequel presents Nell with far more agency; she is the protagonist, the hero seeking to kill the demon. The priestess is there to help her fulfill this quest. Because these are two women seeking to maintain a patriarchal order, however, they are positioned as doomed to fail. Only men can maintain this order, and thus, the exorcism fails.
Yet, there’s a twist: the exorcism fails because Nell chooses Abalam. Abalam seduces her by appearing as herself, saying she can embrace who she truly is. Nell chooses to accept a way of being that totally counters what the powers that be would want her to choose. When fully possessed, Nell licks a female friend’s face, saying “I know who I am now. And I know who I was meant to be.” She destroys all the people who represent the patriarchy and her oppression: medical men, authority, religious figures, the sisterhood of the teenage girls. Nell seems actively engaged in asserting her right, her power, to be whatever she wants to be, no matter what others say.
Then, in the film’s final shot, she smiles into the rear view mirror directly at the camera. Earlier in the film, Nell looked in a mirror and her reflection was fractured, but in the end, it’s not. This contrast could imply that she has determined who she is and embraced it. When Nell knows herself, she looks at the viewer through that mirror, challenging the viewer to say that she is wrong to have accepted the demon and thus the power.
In The Last Exorcism, Marcus confronting the demon is probably what stopped Nell from becoming possessed at the end of the film, and why Abalam continually chased her in the sequel, in an attempt to merge with her. Given how the second film ends, it could be said that Marcus effectively stood in the way of Nell receiving her power. Fulfilling the same role of all the other men of faith in exorcism cinema, Marcus represents the patriarchy and male oppression that prevents a young woman from reaching her destiny and becoming what she can be.
The central premise and the resolution to the conflict between the young woman, Nell, and the demon, Abalam, in both movies becomes immensely interesting and important for our consideration of the role and relationship these films have to our society and culture. Because, while the ending of the sequel may be narratively requiring us to be afraid of the threat that Nell represents, it is hard to not identify with this woman who finally has the power she needs to dictate her own life. While in the first movie we are meant to root for Marcus to save Nell, in the sequel, Nell appears to have saved herself by damning herself. In a world that seeks to celebrate individual decisions and empowerment, however, does Nell not choose correctly, despite what the film would have us think?
The Last Exorcism and its sequel demonstrate the range of tensions found across exorcism cinema. In these films and others within the subgenre, the most prominent tension involves emerging female sexuality. Along with this tension, there are related conflicts such the tension between liberation and oppression, and between a woman finding her voice and being silenced. Overall, these tensions suggest an issue between the oppression of women and their empowerment. These films can be read in such a way that the act of possession becomes a metaphor for female empowerment, with exorcism standing in for oppressive patriarchal notions of a woman should be and act.