This month, Eli Roth and a guest list that includes Jamie Lee Curtis, Jordan Peele, Bruce Campbell, and many, many more, are looking at the history of horror, primarily in films. They’ve looked at zombies, and have spent two full episodes looking at the slasher genre. This week, Roth and co. looked at demonic possession.
This episode started out on a unique note, with a rector talking about the possibility of demonic possession in real life. His take? “There’s more to the universe than that which meets the naked eye.”
Until The Exorcist in 1973, demonic possession was generally avoided because it was considered indecent. So, of course, the episode really starts off with The Exorcist. The film is, of course, about the possession of a young girl by a demon, but it is pointed out that it also reflected the time, that of social upheaval and generational conflict. Linda Blair, the actress who played the young victim, talked about some effects that led to convincing performances: in a scene where the demon Pazuzu is supposed to be bouncing her on the bed as she begs for it to stop, the harness bouncing her fractured her spine. The begging and screaming is real.
One of the best moments during this segment–maybe during the whole episode–is when actress Sara Paxton (The Last House on the Left, 2009) says that the movie scared her so badly that she believed in the Christian devil, despite being Jewish. She slept with a rosary next to her bed! Quentin Tarantino also briefly spoke of stories of people being driven to suicide or to asylums after viewing the film.
Steering away from big budgets and special effects, Paranormal Activity has a moment to shine, and then it’s off to Jennifer’s Body. In the case of Jennifer’s Body, the movie about possession became a way to talk about being a teenage girl in a society obsessed with appearance, the way teenage girls are objectified, female sexual appetites, and puberty as a transformative time. A botched Satanic ritual gets Jennifer possessed into something akin to a succubus, leading her to literally become a man eater. One other standout comment described the movie as a “way to say as a culture, we are terrified of women and girls.”
Because the movie walks in the sometimes gray area of horror comedy, things segue to the first two Evil Dead films, which involve girlfriend possession, protagonist possession and protagonist’s hand possession. According to Bruce Campbell, Sam Raimi approached these movies with the intent of offering up a new take on the scream queen–making a man scream as if he was a scream queen.
Bruce Campbell as Ash in The Evil Dead is a regular guy pitted against demons, but Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby doesn’t fare so well. Although the young wife isn’t possessed by the devil in the way we think of possession, she is raped by him and is possessed by his spawn in her pregnancy with it. Like The Exorcist, it came at a time of social unrest as a new wave of feminism caught fire, and many began looking at alternative religions and the occult. Almost worse than the actual demon baby is the fact that no one believes her or will listen to her, including her husband, who gave her up for the rape in order to advance in her career. The movie is also described as being about the relationship between men and women. I wouldn’t argue it!
Accordingly, The Omen, the movie about toddler demon spawn, comes next. As we saw in “Slashers, Part 2,” Silence of the Lambs gave the slasher subgenre, and the horror genre in general, more legitimacy, as it was a big Hollywood production with a star-studded cast that won Oscars. The Omen had a similar legitimacy and effect.
In this section, a member of the crew talks about how Harvey Stevens, Damien, got his role in the first place. I won’t spoil it, but you probably won’t be surprised at what he did to get the role.
This episode ends with Get Out. Most of these movies feature possession from the devil or devils–Get Out features possession by “the white devil,” as Eli Roth puts it. Jordan Peele laughs about a prank his mom would play on him as a kid, where she would pretend to be possessed by saying, that his mother wasn’t there right now.
Just as Jennifer’s Body and Rosemary’s Baby play on fears that teenage girls and expectant mothers might have, Get Out plays on black fears. The sunken place from the film is credited as giving the language needed to describe a state of suppression where you’re aware of the situation, but there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s also noted that anyone can be in a sunken place, as long as someone doesn’t have the ability to speak out. Eli Roth pretty much ends this segment–and the episode–on the idea that horror films give us “a way to discuss the undiscussable” and unpack unpleasant truths in a way that feels safe for the viewer.
This episode gave great, in-depth reads of standouts of the subgenre, instead of spreading itself too thinly for the greater library of possession movies. It seems as if the series is getting deeper and more intelligent as it continues, which is a great trend, especially when discussing movies that may not have resonated with the viewer originally.
Episode five of Eli Roth’s History of Horror, “Killer Creatures,” will be airing November 4 at midnight.