When it comes to horror movies about demonic possession, there are enough options to make one’s head spin. Done right, however, and this horror subgenre can be quite the religious experience.
The rise of possession horror traces back to the 1970s, when a certain legendary filmmaker crafted one of the most terrifying theatrical experiences of all time. William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, based on William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name, had moviegoers leaving on stretchers and reaching for their rosaries.
Friedkin’s film established numerous silver screen possession motifs. But not every movie about demonic activity requires a prepubescent in a nightgown scratching satanic messages into hardwood floors or gnawing on creepy crawlies in the corner of her room.
From infestations of the soul to mind-altering psychological torment, here are six possession movies that thought outside the (dybbuk) box and contributed to the evolution of horror flicks about demonic activity. So read on if you dare—the power of Christ compels you.
1. Possession as a Metaphor for Puberty: The Exorcist (1973)
A woman’s coming-of-age is a recurring theme in horror. And there is no better use of this concept than in Friedkin’s film, The Exorcist. When Regan, our 12-year-old protagonist, is consumed by one of Satan’s hellions, her behavior goes from naïve youngster to a filth-spewing, crucifix-abusing shell of her former self. Many attribute Blatty and Friedkin’s focus on a female preteen possessed by malevolent forces as a metaphor for the nightmare of female puberty. It certainly established the possession flick template; for 43 years, countless filmmakers have tried to deliver the iconic Friedkin experience, and countless filmmakers have failed.
2. Animal Possession: Pet Sematary (1989)
In Stephen King’s classic morality tale brought to the screen by director Mary Lambert, a family overcome with grief turns to a burial ground that promises life after death. The only hitch? An evil spirit haunts this burial ground, and turns its dearly departed guests into reanimated forces of death. King’s horror is a bewitching cauldron of genre concepts, including necromancy, cannibalism, and sickness/body horror (Zelda, anyone?). But all of these concepts take a backseat to possession. We first encounter possession in the Creed family’s dead cat, Church, who gets the sematary treatment and returns a hissing, scratching, devilish ball of fur. The tabby’s turn to the dark side presages Gage, the family’s toddler, who comes back with a seriously stabby disposition.
3. Found-Footage Possession: Paranormal Activity (2007)
Director Oren Peli forgoes the gory and gross effects of most possession flicks and instead relies on everyday moments of horror to send chills down our spine. Stillness, darkness, unnerving behavior, and even the freaky use of a camera’s time stamp are all used to maximum effect here. Katy, a California girl who senses something sinister has been following her since childhood, turns on her home camera to investigate the activity. What follows is a voyeuristic, baby powder-flying good time.
4. “Satanic Panic” Possession: The House of the Devil (2009)
Ti West pays homage to the satanic panic that haunted American households in the 1970s and 80s. With vintage filming techniques and a keen eye for detail, the filmmaker delivers an unsettling watch that captures the anxiety of the era. About a babysitter who ends the night in the middle of an occult ritual performed by a witch-like devil worshiper, The House of the Devil, like most of West’s resume, is the definition of hellish suspense.
5. Object Possession: The Conjuring (2013)
Who needs a body when you have Mother Nature’s spooky cursed forests (The Hollow), Sam Raimi’s sexually assaulting tree limbs (The Evil Dead), and Andy Barclay’s creepy doll (Child’s Play)? There are plenty of everyday objects that go bump in the night, and filmmakers have taken note. Our favorite example comes from James Wan, who worked one-on-one with paranormal psychologist Lorraine Warren to construct a tale loosely based on the her own experiences exercising demons with her husband Ed. The demonic star of Wan’s film is Annabelle, a creepy doll possessed by pure evil. Annabelle is based on a real-life haunted doll that currently resides in Ed and Lorraine’s Occult Museum in Monroe, Connecticut—stored safely behind glass, of course.
6. Psychological Possession: Incarnate (2016)
Insidious, another entry from modern horror maestro James Wan delves into the idea of possession of the mind. Its characters when in a dreamlike state enter an alternate dimension littered with Satan’s soldiers. Similarly, Brad Peyton’s avant-garde possession horror, Incarnate, deals with matters of the mind. In it, a scientist has the ability to enter the minds of the possessed in an effort to free them from the claws of their demons. Told from the viewpoint of the scientist (Aaron Eckhart), this Blumhouse production is a fresh twist on the possession genre. Needless to say, we can’t wait. Incarnate hits theaters December 2, so mark your calendar and ready the rosary.
Featured still from "The Conjuring" via New Line Cinema