Thursday, April 24, 2014

Possession in the United States Film Industry

     Possession, the supernatural event where an invading spirit takes control of a person or thing, is a rather common trope in modern horror here in America, from the obvious exorcist movies (Exorcist, The Last Exorcism, the Rite, Possession to name a few) to the ghost movies that use possession as a tool for the oppressive spirit to act (Paranormal Activity, Haunting in Connecticut, Oculus, Evil Dead to name a few more). The very idea of an invading spirit has pervaded numerous cultures across the world, across time. So why do we find it frightening?

     In the case of devil or demonic possession, we fear this because of the religious connotation that comes along with it. These entities are after something eternal, something grander than us; our very souls. To even think of such a thing brings in the idea that there must be a good force that opposes these evil spirits, which is always the case. In The Exorcist. The Rite and The Last Exorcism, holy water and religious icons have an obvious effect on the possessed, an effect that is almost always negative. In the Rite, when Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins) is possessed by Baal, he is able to corrode the leather straps holding him down and even bend a cross using his mind alone when the acting priest, Michael Kovack (Colin O'Donoghue), doesn't show enough faith for these items to work. In all other Exorcist-related movies, the priests have an utter faith in God that is generally unflappable, but here we have an instance where the holiest of items can be defiled. All because Baal wants Kocack to doubt, and remain doubtful. This of course fails when Kovack stops questioning the science behind it all and just deals with the exorcism as a priest would. The same could be said for for Father Merrin (Stellen Skasgard) in Exorcist: the Beginning, when the Devil manifests itself in the young nurse he has taken a liking to. This priest who has fallen to the wayside once again accepts God, and is able to best the Devil in a one-on-one confrontation that leaves the possessed for dead. In both cases of doubtful priests, the possessed is punished by playing host to a powerful evil that lays claim to the victims in the end, even when bested.
     In the second case of possession, we have the spirits of the dead possessing people in ways that allow them to attack others, and pursue their own ends. In Paranormal Activity, Katie (Katie Featherstone) ends up possessed for all of the films, kills her boyfriend, her sister and their family, and enables a foul spirit referred to as "Toby" to act against those that would oppose her. She steals children and brings them to covens of witches that are, apparently, raising an army of first born males with the spirits of the damned residing within them. Apologies for those who have not seen all five movies, but that is a quick synopsis. Now in this case, Katie injuries herself with a cross, and a cross with anointed oil seems to be able to drive away the evil spirit for a time, only long enough for you to cast the spirit at someone else.
     This of course is a bad idea, as it comes back to haunt you again, this time possessing a person to perform their ill deeds (Paranormal Activity Two).
     In more recent films, we've seen spirits possess people as a means to a diabolic end, or at least one involving the devil in one way or another. The Conjuring and Possession are both prime examples of this, showing the power that creatures devoted to a spirit most foul possess when controlling a human host. In The Conjuring, the spirit of Beth Sheba takes over the body of the mother in numerous cases across the past hundred years to kill their children in the name of the devil. In The Possession, a box contains an evil spirit that possesses a child in an attempt to come to life and cause havoc.
     Now there are cases where the invading spirits are more benign in nature. In The Conjuring, there is a spirit of a sacrificed boy that has taken control of one of the youngest numerous times in an effort to have her go to his hiding spot hidden behind a dresser. In The Haunting in Connecticut the spirits of the dead that have been bound to the house are the aggressive ones, being held in check by the spirit of an old medium who possesses the protagonist to try and right the wrongs of the past by burning down the house containing the defaced corpses.
     So why does this all matter? The idea of possession is such a unique experience that is universally feared because of, when it boils down to it, the loss of control. To lose control like the girl from Evil Dead is such a terrifying venture because the invading spirit makes the characters do things that they normally wouldn't do. The loss of control is such a great fear we have that virtually any movie that uses it as a method of suspense automatically gets a begrudging amount of respect.
     Should we offer these films respect so blindly? I am surprised to say yes, yes we should. And I'll tell you why.
     Stories, be they literary or cinematic, of the horror genre bet away with their work by building suspense and unleashing it in small scares throughout, usually with three "big" scares within that can count as the climax of the story, if need be. And sense we continue to fall for these films time after time because of the same old trope of possession, Hollywood will continue to use it. And should we blame them? Their putting this particular fear through its paces and eventually we will become numbed to it, which will be around the time they break out an older trope (Vampires or Zombies or whatever). This is just how the entertainment field works, and it works well. True for every one amazing movie (The Rite) we have two or three not so amazing ones (Exorcist: the Beginning, The Last Exorcism, The Unborn). 
     So pull on your big boy pants and go watch some possession movies a la Netflix or Redbox, or dare I even suggest, the actual movie theaters! Go read the original Exorcist novel as it puts the movie to shame. Go forth, my scattered readers, and enjoy what the world of horror has to offer in the form of these possession's most foul. And as always...
     Sweet Dreams

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