In 2018, The Atlantic published an article about a recent and alarming trend showing an uptick in exorcism requests. The increase has reportedly led to the Catholic Church training new priests in Chicago, Rome, and Manila on how to properly perform the exorcism ceremony for real-life battles against demonic possession. According to writer Mike Mariani’s findings, the U.S. had fewer than 15 known Catholic exorcists in 2011, and well over 100 in 2018.
Pope Francis has declared that “we should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea,” but rather as a “personal being who assails us.” The thought that demons and the devil himself could be preying on the souls of the living is like the scariest horror movie come to life—which is precisely why possession movies are so effective. What’s scarier than an encounter with true evil that could actually happen?
Below, we’ve compiled a list of 13 of the best possession horror movies that are Vatican-level terrifying. We’re not suggesting you cross yourself before watching these, but it probably couldn’t hurt.
This 1973 classic is most likely the first film to come to mind when you think about possession movies. Linda Blair stunned audiences with her portrayal of a pre-teen girl named Regan who becomes possessed by a demonic entity that may or may not be the actual devil. The film is based on William Peter Blatty's 1971 novel of the same name, and both versions have brought about a great deal of discourse over just how young Regan came to be possessed. The most widely agreed-upon explanation is that Regan communed with an evil spirit via a Ouija board, and it latched onto her so that it could defile her innocence as an ultimate act of revenge against God.
The Exorcist is no joke. To this day, it’s widely considered the scariest film ever made, in no small part due to Blair’s performance and Mercedes McCambridge’s outstanding vocal work as the demonic Regan. The hold-no-punches creepiness of seeing a young girl dissolve into a cussing, urinating, green-goo-spewing vessel of demonic energy will stick with you for a lifetime.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose
This 2005 possession horror movie stars Jennifer Carpenter (Dexter) as Emily Rose, a young woman who ultimately dies during a grueling exorcism. What sets this film apart is its ability to make you deeply sympathize with the main character as she loses herself to external forces in control of her body. The film’s story is loosely based on the case of Anneliese Michel, a young German woman who died in 1976 after exhibiting signs of demonic possession. It was later determined that she was afflicted with temporal lobe epilepsy, a far more natural illness.
The Last Exorcism
Marketed as a found footage film comprised of cases documented by an evangelical minister, The Last Exorcism is a cult favorite among fans of possession horror movies. The story centers around two filmmakers who shadow the minister, a Southern man named Cotton Marcus, as he attempts to debunk exorcism as a legitimate practice. When a farmer gets in touch and asks for help with his young daughter, who slaughtered the farmer’s livestock and has been displaying other unusually cruel proclivities, the team investigates. However, they get way more than they bargained for.
The Devil’s Doorway
This 2018 cult favorite from Ireland is one of the best examples of the found footage method. When two Roman Catholic priests set out to investigate a supposed miracle that took place in a Catholic asylum, they come face to face with the exact opposite of what anyone would consider holy or miraculous. In a New York Times review of the film, writer Jeannette Catsoulis said, “employing the simplest of scares — a child’s feet whispering past the camera lens; a ghostly hand sliding from beneath a bed — the movie sometimes evokes a budget blend of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. But it’s the sincerity of the emotions that impresses.”
The Rite stars Anthony Hopkins as Father Lucas, a Welsh Jesuit exorcist, and Rutger Hauer as Istvan Kovak, the owner of a funeral home. When Istvan’s son Michael is roped into attending an exorcism course in Rome, he meets Father Lucas and stands witness to his attempts to exorcize a teenage girl who is not only thought to be possessed by evil spirits, but is also pregnant by her father. When Father Lucas himself falls under the influence of demons, Michael steps in to perform his first exorcism. Directed by Mikael Håfström (Evil) and edited by Peter Boyle (The Thing), it’s a perfectly scary popcorn movie.
The Taking of Deborah Logan
Visually and thematically haunting in every way, this 2014 found footage movie tells the story of a documentary crew that sets out to make a film about elderly people suffering from Alzheimer’s, and instead comes in contact with a woman who’s suffering from quite a lot more. This one has an ending that’s sure to give you nightmares for days.
The Devil Inside
Directed by William Brent Bell (The Boy), The Devil Inside is yet another extremely effective horror movie that uses the found footage format. Playing out as though it were a documentary, a woman submerses herself in the knowledge and practice of exorcisms to get a better understanding of her mother’s own battles with the dark side.
The Possession of Michael King
First released in Singapore, with a limited theatrical release in the States, The Possession of Michael King centers on a documentary filmmaker named Michael King. When his wife passes away, Michael is left with many questions regarding life after death and good vs. evil. While still grieving the loss of his wife, he sets out to make a film proving that there’s no afterlife, and finds pure hell in doing so.
The Vatican Tapes
In his New York Times review of The Vatican Tapes, writer Nicolas Rapold praised actress Olivia Taylor Dudley in her role as Angela, a woman possessed by evil entities. “The director Mark Neveldine deploys queasy lighting and a trembling score, but his best choice is to let Ms. Dudley stare at us,” writes Rapold. “She conveys unnerving shifts in self-awareness and sinister intent with her eyes. Her flick of an eyebrow or odd change in posture is more gripping than the film’s usual scare tactics.” From the threat of baby drownings to violent outbreaks of speaking in tongues, this one doesn’t go easy on viewers, and it’s a whole lot of terrifying fun.
A lesser-known gem within the possession horror movie genre, The Assent (2019) is a newcomer on the scene. Joel, a single father with a troubled son, comes to question whether or not something sinister is behind his kid’s bad behavior. He goes after the truth, while being terrified to actually find it.
The Devil and Father Amorth
The Exorcist director William Friedkin was at the helm of the 2017 documentary, The Devil and Father Amorth. The impressively eerie film captures the story of an Italian woman, “Cristina” (not her real name), who is about to undergo her ninth exorcism. Father Amorth agrees to be filmed by Friedkin and his crew as he attempts to do what the eight priests before him could not.
This 2012 release is like a greatest hits album of possession horror movie tropes. Partially filmed in a former mental institution, the plot centers on the discovery of a dybbuk box, which is a wine box that is said to hold a restless spirit that should never be let out. You can probably guess what happens next, but you could never in a million years imagine how horrifically the will and intent of that spirit plays out when it’s released into the world.
Directed by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), this 2005 prequel to The Exorcist shares more or less the same plot as Exorcist: The Beginning, but is considered by fans to be the better of the two prequels. Roger Ebert reviewed the film favorably, saying, “The movie is drenched in atmosphere and dread, as we'd expect from Schrader, but it also has spiritual weight and texture, boldly confronting the possibility that Satan may be active in the world. Instead of cheap thrills, Schrader gives us a frightening vision of a good priest who fears goodness may not be enough.”
Featured still from "The Taking of Deborah Logan" via Bad Hat Harry Productions.