I’m going to breeze right by the usual set of mea culpas here and just say that tentatively, I am back writing for the fine folks of the CCH Podcast in what I am praying manages to be a more regular fashion.
What with the guys with microphones talking about The Exorcist, we figured it would be a good time for the guy with the word processor to weigh in on the topic of possession in pop culture. I don’t think there is a culture in the entirety of history that hasn’t had some kind of evil spirit or demon in its mythology that crawls into the flesh husks of us mortals to use as their meat puppets. The new testament has demons left and right, spiritual possession predates written language as a concept, and Supernatural can’t go for two weeks without possessing the hell out of someone for shits and giggles. The question then becomes: to what end do these tales and mythologies exist?
If you go to that whole “predating written language” thing that I was talking about above, the answer is pretty simple. People would get sick, suffer traumas, have hallucinations and psychotic episodes, and since medicine at the time literally was just “rub dirt on it”, when the afflicted failed to show signs of improvement, BAM, must be ghosts or something. Women bleeding out of their lady parts? Evil spirits. Man sees or hears things no one else does? Drill a hole in his head to get the evil spirits out. Whole town eats bread that has hallucinogenic mold and trips out for months? Mass hangings, burnings, and drownings will clear up those demons in you something fierce. Weigh less than a duck? Witch.
But time wore on, we got (slightly) less stupid, and demons and possession got relegated more and more to the realms of the spooky-scary, and their uses had to adjust. In my research which consists of looking up some Wikipedia entries and thinking really hard about movies and tv shows that I kind of remember, I have distilled the function of possession in media into two discrete categories: fear of the unknowable other, and fear of the unknowable self.
The Exorcist is a prime example of the former. Part of what makes it terrifying is that this possession happens for no reason, to someone who did nothing to deserve it, in a place where such things simply shouldn’t happen. The idyllic suburban setting made it all the more ominous when Regan (Linda Blair) started puking pea soup and molesting herself with a crucifix (side note: this is also why the prequel sucked so much donkey dick. These things are a lot less frightening when you’re in a creepy satanic temple to begin with). What we see is a perfectly ordinary setting and a completely indescribable horror happening without apparent rhyme or reason, and this is what taps into our subconscious fears so well: the idea that something this indescribably awful could happen to you. Obviously, most people aren’t afraid that they’ll be possessed by a vengeful demon, but how many of you have become fixated with a fear that something awful will happen to a loved one or to yourself over which you are completely powerless. Could be cancer from out of nowhere, could be your house spontaneously combusting, could be any number of things I take daily medication to keep from intruding into my brain. The Exorcist simply takes this fear and dials it up to 11, presenting you with the ultimate unknown, the ultimate evil, and the ultimate dismissal for assholes (“Your mother sucks cocks in hell”).
The latter is a little bit muddier to explain, but I’ll do my best, aided by my favorite source of emotional porn for 16 year old girls, Supernatural. If you’ve never watched it, it is fantastically campy and silly, and is basically a cross between The X Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with lazier writing. I mentioned above that people get possessed all the damn time on this show, whether it’s by demons or butthurt fallen angels or ghosts or shapeshifters… you get my point. Whenever the possessor is talking through the possessed’s mouth-hole, there is invariably some mention of how “I can hear them rattling around in here, but lo they are powerless etc. etc. etc.” The idea latches on to the fear of being a prisoner in your own body, trapped and looking out as you kill, rape, vote for Drumpf, whatever the thing riding along inside you makes you do. Should the host be lucky enough to be freed, there is then often the talk of “are these things I could do? Am I some kind of monster? Wasn’t that the title of a Metallica documentary?” OK, that last one may just be talk I have in my head, but you get my point. The old philosophical question about whether we are inherently good or bad is heavily at play here. Even though something was in your body and made you do bad things, are those bad things something you might find yourself capable of? The adage of not knowing one’s full potential cuts both ways. Maybe I have it in me to write the next great American… blog post, or maybe I have it in me to slice open someone’s throat when they chew with their mouths open and not miss a wink of sleep that night. These are things that will probably never happen, but because we don’t know what life will throw at us, we are plagued by the thought that simply boils down to, “what if I am secretly a monster?” (side note, I am calling dibs on that for an emo band album title). The potential within us for great good and immeasurable evil is not something we always recognize as such, but it is a constant source of anxiety to anyone with even a shred of a conscience. Shows like Supernatural or the absolutely stellar Denzel joint, Fallen place that fear front and center and address the nagging voices that some of us hear louder than others, but are there for everybody.
And honestly, this is what makes possession movies so great. Astute readers may note that my analysis can be boiled down to “we are all afraid of everything we don’t understand or know”, but with that broad scope comes a great deal of freedom to examine what we don’t know that scares us, then use that knowledge to scare the living fuck out of us.