Possession Films and Misogyny


It all begins with The Exorcist. Arguably, one of the scariest movies of all time, The Exorcist is masterful at taking a vulnerable female victim and turning her into an demonic perversion. The source material for Blatty’s work, however, involved a young boy—Roland Doe—not a girl. So why change it in the dramatization?

That question has haunted Blatty for decades. Careful observers of the book have noted that the main protagonists are two women who don’t have men in their lives. They are then saved by two priests who must literally sacrifice themselves in Christ-like fashion in order to rid the young Reagan McNeil of the Pazuzu demon that possesses her.

While I confess this was not my original reaction to the movie, and, in fact, I consider it to be the best piece of religious horror ever written, this Amanda Marcotte piece correctly notes that Blatty himself was very orthodox in his approach to Catholicism and decried the liberalization of his former alma mater, Georgetown University. She reads the The Exorcist as a reactionary diatribe against progressive feminism:

The symbolic puberty young Reagan endures turns her from an adorable — and asexual child — into a disgusting monster who spews fluids, pants, and does seemingly impossible things with her body. Just in case the grim view of the sexually mature female body isn’t obvious enough, we actually get to see Reagan masturbate with a cross. At that point, the message “female sexuality is Satanic” stops even being subtext and might as well be printed in subtitles across the screen.


She has a point. Most possession movies do feature young women who, in some cases, have been the victims of sexual assault and, in other cases, are sexually liberalized outside the norm procreative paranoid religious sex.

However, she loses me when she says:

Beyond its offensive misogyny, “The Exorcist” is also a piece of crap. The dialogue is laughable, the horrors comical, and the plot tiresome. Its weakness as a film is even more pronounced when you compare it to the plethora of genuinely scary and often sublime horror films that came out in era spanning from the late sixties to the early eighties

Yes, it’s offensive when held under the light of Blatty’s often histrionic displays of Catholic normativity, but it’s a genuinely frightening film. The room that Reagan occupies is itself the stuff of nightmares. When she’s on screen you do get the sense that you’re in the presence of evil. You also have the sense that the Reagan is an innocent victim of the forces of darkness.

Nonetheless, you get the sense for why the possession sub-genre in general has not aged well. Despite that, possession movies continue to be made with each one the degraded copy of the original Exorcist.

When writing The Revulsion of Angel Walker, I wanted to move away from the sorts of anti-women undertones that plague religious horror. In fact, it can be easily argued that I reversed this trend and targeted male sexuality in the same way that Blatty’s novel targets female sexuality.

I did this for several reasons. First, female sexuality (from the vantage of paranoid religious sex) tempts. Male sexuality in its darkest aspect coerces, punishes, and violates.

What’s more frightening that that?