It’s my turn on the blog tour for Peter Laws’ new book, Possessed.
Without further ado, over to Peter to talk about movies!
In Possessed, Professor Matt Hunter is sceptical of exorcism. That’s no surprise. He’s an ex-church minister turned atheist academic after all. This means that any talk of Satanic influence tends to prompt his patented eyeroll. Yet when, in the book, he starts meeting people who claim to be controlled by demons, he’s immediately concerned. Not only is he worried these vulnerable people might be misdiagnosing mental health issues. He also suspects they’re unwittingly taking their cues from pop culture…and in particular, the cinema.
That’s right, movies have been the prime method by which our culture has learned ‘what possession looks like’. They tell us it must involve a sweary, wild-eyed, tongue-lolling victim (usually a woman), who gets strapped to a bed and strains away from the cross. All while spouting the type of sexually explicit one-liners that would make even the most laid back vicar blush.
So in a nod to the influence of these movies, let me offer five picks from what seems to be an ever-growing bank of possession movies. Note: these aren’t all chosen for quality reasons. In fact, some of them are decidedly ropey. Yet they’re all, in their own way, remarkable.
THE EXORCIST (1973)
No other movie has impacted our view of possession than this one – the story of a 12 year old girl in the grip of Satan. I read the novel as a young teenager and it gave me bad dreams. Then I tracked down the film, and that scared me too. It wasn’t just the idea of a rampant devil that creeped me out. The rational explanation was just as frightening. Could an otherwise normal everyday kid suffer a complete mental breakdown? Could they become, in a sense, a monster?
The Exorcist changed me. I was deeply antagonistic about church and Christianity at the time. Yet this story of a vomiting girl made me consider an insane question: what if the devil exists…might God exist too? It even showed the clergy not as useless weirdos, corrupt evangelists or paedophile priests…but as normal, flawed, human heroes filled with faith and doubt.
Course, not everyone was impressed with the film. An insightful Satanist called Nikolas Shrek said the films presentation of the devil was laughable. He may have a point. Satan does seem surprisingly juvenile in this. Contrast it with the brilliant Omen films (the Exorcist for protestants). In those films the devil is a master strategist, planning to dominate the world. In The Exorcist, he just likes swearing a lot and puking in faces. Who knows? Maybe possessing kids is just Satan’s idea of a fun night out. A way of letting off steam between world domination plans. Or maybe, the devil is so desirous of torment, that he’ll do anything to cause pain on both a large scale and a small scale. Whatever the case, The Exorcist is an amazing film, and it’s the key cultural signifier when it comes to possession, not least because it was so blatantly copied in other movies…as we’ll see.
Make no mistake. Seytan isn’t a homage to The Exorcist. It isn’t inspired by it. It’s a full on photocopy that replicates both plot and specific scenes with zero restraint. We even hear the unauthorised use of Tubular Bells in the opening credits! There are, to be fair, slight variations. For example, in The Exorcist, the little girl is first possessed by the spirit of Captain Howdy, speaking through the Ouija board. In Seytan, the Ouija voice is called Captain Larson.
Another new angle comes from the fact that Islam is the major religion of Turkey. Catholicism is, therefore, largely removed from the film. That’s not to say it’s replaced by clearly Islamic equivalents, though I did notice the exorcist turns up with some Zamzam water. That’s Muslim holy water, taken from a scared well in Mecca. It’d be easy to dismiss Seytan as a shameless rip-off as that’s precisely what it is. It also looks like it was made by sixth formers for a drama project, so it cant compare to the original. Yet for me, it ends up as an endearing, low-fi spin that fuses the Christian nightmares of the West with the 70s sensibilities of the middle east.
Note: Seytan was just part of a popular trend in Turkish cinema from the 60s to 80s known as Yseilcam (meaning Green Pine). Here, Turkey would simply remake Hollywood hits, because it was way cheaper than licensing the original. Fun fact: others copies include The Man Who Saved the World (Turkish ‘Star Wars’) Rampage (Turkish ‘Rambo’) Buddy (‘Turkish’ E.T.) and my favourite re-title Omer The Tourist on Star Trek (Turkish ‘Star Trek’).
Just look at the release dates of the last three films to see how there was an explosion of Exorcist imitators in the wake of the originals release. Abby was commonly known as the ‘black Exorcist’, where a young woman is possessed by an African sex spirit. I’ve got a soft spot for Abby, not least because it’s more of it’s own thing than Seytan is. For a start, in The Exorcist, the girl is trapped in her bed for almost the entire movie. In Abby, she’s out and about, sometimes in nice mode, sometimes in potty-mouthed demon mode, dropping into 70s discos and causing mayhem. It’s fun. Plus, the theology’s unique. The spirit that possesses Abby is Eshu, a God from the Yoruba religion (found in Nigeria, Benin, and Togo).
One of Abby’s masterstrokes is having the brilliant William H Marshall play the exorcist, who manages to fuse both Christianity and Yoruba by wearing both a vicars collar and a traditional African ceremonial garb. Lovely. Marshall is best known for playing the dignified and powerful Blacula, from 1972 (yes, there’s a black version of Dracula…and it’s awesome). In Abby, Marshall’s bass filled voice is the perfect sound to cast out the mischevious spirit of Eshu…but is it really Eshu, calling the demonic shots here?
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005)
The Exorcism of Emily Rose strikes a Matt Hunter style chord, in that it keen to grapple with issues of faith. It’s unique too, being both exorcism movie and courtroom drama. Laura Linney plays a sceptical lawyer trying to defend a priest. He’s accused of killing a young girl through exorcism. Derrickson based the film on the horrifying 1975 case of Anneliese Michel – a young German woman who died during a series of catholic exorcism rites.
Linney starts experiencing strange phenomena as the case progresses, which she mostly dismisses it, absorbing it into her rational world views. Yet the audience is left wondering…what if there are such things? My Matt Hunter books live in that same netherworld too, so perhaps it’s no shock to learn that the film’s writer-director is Scott Derrickson, is a Christian too. He went on to direct hits like Sinister and Dr. Strange, and, like me, seems interested in exploring issues of belief through the horror and thriller genre.
DELIVER US (2016)
Finaly, we have Deliver Us (aka Liberami), a documentary that follows Father Cataldo Migliazzo. He’s an 80-year-old Italian veteran exorcist who finds himself in high demand these days due to the rising demand for exorcism (this genuine real-world boom is a key theme in my book). He has so many ‘clients’ that he carries out mass exorcisms every Tuesday with a three hour service. The film shows Migliazzo calling out the devil from the altar while people in the crowd start groaning and twitching. Some jerk in spasms on the floor, other wail and shake, speaking in chilling voices and animal sounds. A woman calls out, “I’ll never give her up! I’m taking her to hell!” In other words, we see the same behaviour form the movies above, in a real life documentary.
There’s no narrator explaining it all. No interviewer asking questions off screen. Just the priests and the possessed, and a camera you forget is there. It’s poignant too, like the haunting shot of a woman listening to hymns at church. We see a tear roll down her cheek – she’s desperate for God. Then a priest passes and she painfully flinches like she’s been slapped. This idea of the possessed flitting between shocking and ‘normal’ fascinates me. Which is why I made it a feature of my novel, Possessed.
Three Honourable Mentions:
Sam Neil worries his marriage to Isabelle Adjani might be collapsing. Is she having an outside affair…or an inside one? I doubt you’ll see another film like Possession. It’s a stunning, distressing and delirious blend of arthouse and horror. I loved it, and Adjani’s subway scene is simultaneously an acting masterclass, and a pure shot of nightmare fuel.
Toni Collette and her family face a sinister presence after the death of her strange and secretive grandmother. It’s not a possession movie in the ‘classic’ sense, but gosh it’s a good and horrible ride. Your heart-rate might suffer, so be warned.
As a teenager, I was deeply offended that Hollywood were decided to trash one of my favourite horror movies. ‘You’re turning The Exorcist into a goofy comedy?’ Said I. ‘How could you?’ Now I’m more mature, I can see the brilliance in having the great Leslie Neilsen limber up for his exorcism with a Rocky style training scene. He knocks back raw eggs, does some shadow punching, then he whacks his crucifix and holy water into a Rambo lunch box, ready to fight. Genius.
So there you have it, a bunch of possession movies who’s screams and wails rise just that little higher, than the others. Keep them in mind when you’re reading Possessed, and ask yourself: do you think that movies have taught people ‘how to feel and act demonic?’ Just like Matt Hunter claims? Or do these films simply reflect a chilling reality? After all, William Peter Blatty claimed that his novel, The Exorcist, was based on a true case.
I’ll leave it to you to decide. Assuming, that is, you can be yourself long enough to decide it. And if I left out your favourite possession movie from the list, let’s just say the devil made me do it.
When an unidentified and blood-soaked man is discovered with the name Baal-Berith scored into his flesh, Professor Matt Hunter is called in by the bewildered local police. As an atheist ex-minister and expert on religion, Matt can shed light on the ancient Canaanite demon known as the spirit of blasphemy and murder, but as he’s drawn into a frenzied murder investigation, a fury of media interest and a TV show documenting a mass exorcism, the situation follows a much murkier path. Striving to provide balance to the show’s increasingly sensational tone and rational support for the vulnerable ‘clients’, Matt cannot leave, even as events get seriously out of hand…