The fear that demons will enter our bodies and make us do terrible things has inspired some of the most frightening films ever made, including the masterpieces Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist.
- Science tells us evil comes from within. It's often the product of childhood abuse or faulty brain chemistry. But many religions tell a different story: that there is a devil in hell who wants to destroy us. A devil whose demons enter our bodies and make us do terrible things.
The Exorcist (1973), widely considered the scariest film ever shot, made demonic possession a cultural phenomenon. A society that had begun to doubt the validity of religion became obsessed with the idea of being pawns in a battle between God and the Devil. But the film may have also resonated because the transformation of a young girl into a monster reflected the anxiety many parents felt in the wake of the '60s, when America's young people moved away from the conservative norms of society.
The Exorcist was a big-budget production from a Hollywood studio, but possession films don't always need amazing special effects, as Oren Peli proved with his terrifying micro-budget sensation Paranormal Activity (2007). By shooting his possession film in the "found footage" style with unknown actors, Peli made jaded audiences believe in the possibility of demons again.
Peli approached his material with utter seriousness, but many filmmakers infuse their possession films with black comedy and a heaping helping of social commentary. With Jennifer's Body (2009), feminist filmmakers Karyn Kusama and Diablo Cody told a story about a "popular" teenage girl who becomes a man-eating succubus - an acid commentary on sex, friendship, and the anger that lies beneath a woman's perfect surface. The crazed intensity of Jennifer's Body owes a big debt to Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead (1981). That film, about a group of clueless college kids who become possessed by violent, set the bar for over-the-top. By Evil Dead II (1987), Raimi had become a virtuoso director, inventing a dynamic shooting style that influenced a generation of filmmakers, including the young Quentin Tarantino.
If it was possible to laugh at the teens in The Evil Dead, one could feel nothing but dread for Rosemary in Rosemary's Baby (1968), who finds her marriage, her home, and her womb overtaken by Satan himself. Though the movie is about a supernatural assault, it's also a potent allegory for domestic abuse. The Omen (1976) picks up where Rosemary's Baby left off, showing the Antichrist as a boy adopted by a politician and his wife. Audiences were shocked to see Hollywood legends Gregory Peck and Lee Remick in a movie that included a priest being impaled and a very graphic decapitation. The Omen blatantly capitalized on parental fears that their "troubled child" might actually be Evil Incarnate.
At their core, possession movies are about the fear of a demon taking control of your body and your mind. In 2017, Jordan Peele's Get Out (2017) took that idea and used it to hold a mirror up to American racism. In Get Out, the demons are not from hell, they're rich white people who want to take over black bodies and minds.
Interviewees include Jordan Peele, Linda Blair, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Donner, Bruce Campbell, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jason Blum, Diablo Cody, Jack Black, Karyn Kusama, Marcus Henderson, Lil Rel Howery, Mary Harron, Edgar Wright, Leigh Whannell, Elijah Wood, Joe Dante, Ernest Dickerson, Sara Paxton, Bob Murawski, Oren Peli, Rob Zombie, and Greg Nicotero.