“You need spiritual realignment— you’re too far from Christ,” has become an increasingly rare statement to hear in contemporary horror films, yet in this year’s Godless: The Eastfield Exorcism— in which a woman with diagnosed schizophrenia is subjected to a violent exorcism of her internal “demons” that goes awry— once again, we’re being confronted with just how scary it must be to completely lose autonomy over one’s own body and belief system. Exorcism movies enjoyed a long streak of popularity in the mid-2000s and early 2010s, as movies like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Last Exorcism, and anything else with the “E” word in the title seemed to attract both the casual and devout horror crowds and dominated box offices. But for the last handful of years, mainstream horror has largely evaded these types of movies, save for The Conjuring franchise and things less Catholic and more complicated like Hereditary.
Now, that avoidance seems to be over.
Godless is one of several new films to tackle the exorcism/possession subgenre, as 2023 has fascinatingly witnessed a glut of these movies, with the likes of The Exorcist: Believer, The Pope’s Exorcist, Talk to Me, It Lives Inside, and When Evil Lurks being unleashed to varying degrees of religious motifs and critical reception. If the original The Exorcist film was released in a “post-religious” state 50 years ago, we’re really in a post-religious state now, as recent research finds the number of Americans ditching their Christian faith (known as disaffiliation) before the age of 30 rising with every generation, and the number of American adults who identified as Christian substantially dipping in general in the last decade. Yet, here we are, getting movie after movie about exorcisms and the questioning of faith in the horror space, which is often considered to be the cinematic world’s most reflective genre of the times. Is the reason for this merely just a cyclical horror trend repeating itself once again, or does something about them indeed still scare us, no matter how cynical we’ve become?
For some of these new films, plots that take place in previous decades are utilized to either make a God-fearing belief in demonology feel more relevant or to remind us not to repeat mistakes from the past through a modern lens. The Russell Crowe-starring The Pope’s Exorcist is set in peak 1980s Satanic Panic era, to correctly reflect the period in which the real Father Gabriele Amorth lived in— and allegedly performed tens of thousands of exorcisms— that Crowe’s character is based on. By that Panic-stricken decade, according to the controversial exorcist Amorth, “People (had) lost the Faith, and superstition, magic, Satanism, or Ouija boards have taken its place, which then opened all the doors to the presence of demons.” And a late ’80s setting even matches his character’s joking persona, which can feel reminiscent of an eighties teen comedy sidekick character. Aside from an uncommonly snarky priest as its protagonist and a less dramatic tone, Pope’s Exorcist doesn’t reinvent the wheel in terms of exorcism movies, as it follows much of the beats as William Friedkin’s 1973 classic, except, this time, the unholy robs the body of a young boy, who spews nasty, shocking dialogue with Hulk-like supernatural strength.
As its title would suggest, Godless updates the exorcism subgenre by deliberately calling out the dangers of religious rites, instead of inflating them to look like Catholic superhero movies (unlike the sugarcoating portrayals of the Warrens in The Conjuring films). Set in 1994 Australia and also based on real people and events, Godless uses a more grounded approach to cinematic exorcisms, as similarly savage language is also used, (including a certain hard “C” word that seems to be said throughout many of these movies, thanks to The Exorcist) but the maybe-possessed woman in question doesn’t have a spinning head, cracked skin, or upside down crosses across her forehead, probably because she suffers from mental illness and not demonic possession. And instead of a heroic Catholic priest as her savior, the exorcist in the film is an egomaniacal villain with abusive practices and an aggressive nature more aligned with a cult leader than a spiritual one. When it comes to her exorcism, she has no agency or consent to him and his cohorts handling her body— and it ultimately ends tragically. Unafraid to criticize the Catholic Church for delusional thinking and its history of child abuse, Godless warns against unsanctioned exorcisms against women and children, before listing names of several real victims throughout the years.
“Exorcism films are usually about the closest people around you, trying to destroy a supernatural enemy,” Godless director Nick Kozakis explains. “But the more I began to read into real life horror stories, I realized that the ‘cure’ was often more horrifying than the symptoms. I wanted to get away from the spinning heads and green spew and make a film where the real enemy is those closest to you— the ones you should trust the most.”
And a frequent movie demon trope seen throughout these films is the trick in which the demon manipulates its hosts by pretending to be the people they trust the most. This trickery is at the crux of the story in Talk to Me, in which a teenager is so convinced the spirit of her dead mother is inhabiting a peer in her friend group during a popular Ouija-like hand game that she unleashes havoc upon everyone else around her (and herself) in order to be close to (what she thinks) is her mother again. While Talk to Me may not be a possession story in the traditional religious sense, it’s still a story about the desperation we feel during grief and the power of a belief in the supernatural so strong that it can completely destroy us if we allow it to. Bored teens dumbly messing around with Ouija-like propaganda is nothing new, but the innovation of these kids so freely getting off to the feeling of their bodies being possessed (and recording to post the antics on social media) feels unique and authentic to real Gen Z teens. Doesn’t hurt that the physicality of the young actors’ performances and the visuals of the demons feel less generic and a tad scarier than some other recent films of the same ilk.
Another teenage girl is forced to confront her own personal belief system and culture in It Lives Inside, as a demonic spirit has attached itself to her childhood best friend. Because the protagonist internally fights against her East Indian heritage in favor of her suburban American high school life, she’s dismissive and hesitant to help her friend initially before gradually embracing her culture to help save her friend and become the exorcist (of sorts) herself— instead of looking towards an expert or a priest. Lives Inside may not subvert possession subgenre expectations per se, but a story told through an East Indian-American perspective (and not a Caucasian and Catholic one) is necessary and refreshing.
Some vague spoilers for The Exorcist: Believer and When Evil Lurks ahead…
Hands down the most divisive exorcism release of the year is The Exorcist: Believer, which makes sense, as the film itself seems to be divided in what exactly it wants to say and how far it should go. All films within this subgenre will inevitably be compared to the 1973 film, but as a direct descendant of it, Believer suffers from comparison the most. Right off the bat, Believer tells an atheist to “go outside of your belief systems,” because modern skepticism, it says, is tired. Yet, for a movie that preaches to us about keeping some sort of faith, it contrasts itself every time it chooses to curse this poor family every time they get “blessed,” especially by a non-Catholic priestess. With that said, brownie points are earned for attempts at incorporating a slightly wider scope of other belief systems aside Catholicism within an Exorcist movie, as the exorcism scene is polytheistic with a few religions represented— even if it drops the ball by failing to make the Haitian priestess the ultimate savior for a needed change. Unfortunately, however, all of it feels like checking boxes to appease audiences rather than making a real stance on well, anything, really.
The dual possession spectacles have a couple fleeting scares, as it’s obviously paying homage to its predecessor film with the pus, green discoloration on the girls’ skin, the crazy eyes, menacing voices, messages being written across body parts, the “c***ing daughter”— but they never reach the same degree of shock. Not that we expected them to come close, but perhaps a more simplistic approach with black, empty eyes and fewer jump scares could have really subverted our expectations of what we think we should get from an Exorcist legacy sequel. Instead, the almost-identical regurgitation of Regan’s appearance from the original film put upon the new generation of 13-year-old possessed girls feels too familiar and generic at this point. The exorcism scene— the scenes in which most of these films rely on— is anti-climatic, as it contains very little threat to the demons and ends on a whimper. We’ve seen this all before, and we’ve seen it done more effectively.
With all that said, Believer contains a timely subplot regarding a former nun character who chose to have an abortion and pursues a different career path. More than “good versus evil” or “faith versus doubt,” bodily autonomy, or the lack thereof, is the integral fear at the core of possession films, and the inclusion of, not only young girls losing control of their bodies, but, also, a woman making a decision for her own autonomy (and later having it thrown in her face by the demons) is interesting. As Believer’s production took place at the end of 2022, at the very least, it’s either completely coincidental or boldly purposeful that the film incorporates this subplot, immediately after last year’s Roe v. Wade decision, during a time in which real women have also lost their own bodily autonomies.
Unlike most of its peers, When Evil Lurks chooses to begin its story with a failed exorcism, as opposed to building up to one in its final moments. Instead of a small, easily exploitable child, the possessed person in question is a large grown man, whose body is so swollen with an evil demon growing inside him that it looks like he could explode at any minute. Treating the evil like an infectious contagion, with a strict set of near-impossible rules to abide by in order to avoid it, makes the possessions ruthless and impersonal. In the film, the evil is so powerful that God and religion are now completely inept. Lurks even alludes to the “damage” these characters in this world themselves have done to faith.
“The idea was, ‘What if possessions exist, but there are no more priests/faith to solve the problem?’” director Demian Rugna explains. “Because God is dead; religion lost the battle. It used to exist in this world, but it isn’t as effective as it used to be.”
And God or religion can’t save the children, either. While the possessed or “rottens” in Lurks range in age, the evil “likes” children, which seems to be the consensus for most of the films in this subgenre, as their vulnerability and the sheer shock value of watching them participate in horrible behavior have always made them malleable fodder for demonic possession. As evident in a particular scene involving a little girl and a dog, Rugna is unafraid to do more to the kid characters than simply make them vomit green stuff and spew obscenities. The quietly chilling children in the film will even go as far as to protect the rotten.
“As you can probably tell, I don’t have children, but I have learned from my family and friends to understand how something so small and so defenseless can be an angel or a demon in an instant, (transforming) from what you love the most in life to being the biggest problem you could ever have,” Rugna says. “In (my film), the children gave me the unsettling element while also giving my main characters an objective, which is to protect and save their lives. Usually, my stories deviate a little from the idea of the happy family, and they put everyone in the same blender— adults, dogs, children, etc.” Nobody is safe, and the evil relies on the characters’ fear of losing their loved ones. Everything feels bleak and apocalyptic. Lurks advances the mere theme of “having faith” from Believer further by serving as a cautionary tale for what spreading fear, hatred, ignorance, and anything else that plagues communities can do, before it spirals out of control. We’re all capable of being possessed if we allow ourselves to be, it argues.
And perhaps that’s the very reason we find ourselves drawn to these movies lately. We may collectively feel differently about faith than we used to; we may no longer define it in the same terms. But after some grueling recent years and our daily lives filled with so much uncertainty, we still need reminders to seize control of the evil—before it starts to control our autonomies and our wellbeing.
“Even if people are moving away from faith, there is still that fear of the unknown—people still want answers for things they don’t understand,” says Kozakis. “It’s the scary reality of losing control, and that’s what we’ve mainly focused on, from a mental health perspective.” So if watching spinning heads in movies can help us cope when it feels like our own heads are metaphorically spinning— possession horror will remain resonant.