As we have repeatedly seen during this project we are calling Tensions in Exorcism Cinema, there appears to be a narrative made popular by the success of The Exorcist (1973). There is a reason we like to say that the 1973 movie is the one that started it all, even though there had been films before The Exorcist that depicted demonic possession and exorcism rituals. The success of the 1973 horror classic led to many other film producers, around the world and across time, to attempt to capitalize on its success by essentially redoing the film’s central narrative and conflict. A common narrative and conflict emerged across the movies that were released after The Exorcist. In our analysis of The Last Exorcism and The Last Exorcism Part II, we call this commonality the “traditional exorcism narrative.”
In this traditional exorcism narrative, a demonic or evil force possesses a girl or young woman, leading her to behave “badly,” as defined by society and culture. This afflicted person must then be saved, and thereby the danger to the rest of use removed, by some member of a religious order, usually a male priest, reverend, pastor or rabbi. This male religious figure can be read as representing a patriarchal order that seeks to maintain a status quo in which women are not a threat. By removing the possession and returning women to a state of innocence, the threat the woman represents is undone and traditional order is restored.
We have seen this pattern repeated over and over again, across time and cultures. Few films reject or subvert this narrative. As we have discussed, The Last Exorcism Part II does subvert this narrative. Additionally, while exceedingly rare, there are stories that focus on the possessed being male. Most of these films come to us by being associated with The Exorcist, and thus could be read as attempting to keep the franchise fresh. For example, The Exorcist III could be read at William Peter Blatty’s attempt to reignite the passion generated from the first movie. Furthermore, while Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist featured a possessed African boy, the movie was scrapped by the studio as the official prequel to The Exorcist, leading to Exorcist: The Beginning returning to the possessed woman as threat narrative. Additionally, the “true story” behind The Exorcist, Possessed, which featured a possessed young boy, only aired on Showtime. These three films, then show examples of trying to capitalize on The Exorcist by presenting twists on this traditional exorcism narrative, but none were financially or culturally successful.
Beyond this franchise, there have been occasions of men being possessed during the course of an exorcism cinema film, such as in The Devil Inside or The Rite. However, these possessions were secondary to the main female possessions that were at the center of the film or were the inciting incidents of each film’s narrative. Only in The Rite does the possession really feature the conflict between a possessed person and a man of faith how is struggling with his faith, this conflict being so central to the traditional exorcism narrative. In a sense, the presence of a possessed man in exorcism cinema is more novelty than commonality.