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From The Exorcist to Talk to Me, Possession Films Teach Us To Fear the Wrong Things

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From The Exorcist to Talk to Me, Possession Films Teach Us To Fear the Wrong Things

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Published on August 16, 2023

“Hollywood has traditionally given us so few iconic female horror villains, and nearly all of them became what they were after being brutalized by men or possessed by male demons. Still, who doesn’t love a good exorcism?”  —Maeve Fly (Maeve Fly by CJ Leede)

A24’s latest horror sensation is Talk to Me, an Australian possession film from Danny and Michael Philippou, the brothers behind the wildly successful RackaRacka YouTube channel. Talk to Me features teens who have discovered a hand which, when held, provides spirits of the dead to possess the hand-holder. The teens use the hand as a sort of party drug, taking turns being possessed, filming one another and posting the clips to social media. It’s all harmless fun, until it’s not. While Talk to Me offers a fresh vision of the possession film, ultimately, it delivers the same fears that have animated depictions of possession for generations.

Talk to Me is earning well-deserved praise for how different it feels from most possession films. Talk to Me is a horror film that’s thoroughly Gen Z. Already being hailed as an “instant classic,” this film might become the definitive Gen Z possession film, much as The Exorcist is for baby boomers.

Possession films are inescapably religious. What that means changes from generation to generation (and from culture to culture, as fans of South Korea’s The Wailing can attest). The Exorcist is undeniably the grandfather of possession films as a subgenre. Directed by William Friedkin, The Exorcist was released in 1973 and is based on a book of the same name, written by William Peter Blatty, that was released in 1971. The Exorcist was a box office juggernaut, becoming the highest-grossing horror movie of all time (a title it held for 40 years) and receiving 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

The Exorcist tells the story of a single mother, the androgynously named Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn, set to reprise her role in this year’s Exorcist: Believer), and her daughter Regan (Linda Blair). When Regan falls ill and the doctors are stumped, Chris finally calls in a priest—Father Merrin (Max von Sydow). He and his partner, Father Karras (Jason Miller), determine Regan is possessed by a demon and, though it costs them both their lives, they are finally able to cast out the demon and save Regan.

The Exorcist is a baby boomer horror movie through and through. The good guys here are the institutional Church, embodied by the two priests. Both the book and film were released in a time of cultural anxiety, particularly with regard to religion. The FDA authorized the birth control pill a decade earlier, in 1960, which gave women control over their reproductive system for the first time in history, with predictable outcomes—not just the free love movement of the ’60s, but a massive change in marriage habits: in the 20 years after the Pill was released, divorce rates more than doubled, while the percentage of adults over 18 who are married plummeted.

Into this milieu, Blatty and Friedkin give us the story of a broken home in which a young girl is tormented by puberty a demon, and can only find solace when a Father comes into the house. As Jude Doyle explains in Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers:

[Regan’s] smooth baby skin erupts and scabs over into a weeping, discolored mess. She has outbursts of temper, insults and resists authority figures, makes displays of sheer pointless defiance… She talks obsessively about sex, mostly to shock people… She masturbates. She bleeds from her vagina. In other words, Regan becomes a teenager… Her demon is puberty.

The Exorcist is famously based on a true story, an exorcism performed in St. Louis in 1949. The real child was a boy, not a girl, and he came from a two-parent home. The framework that resonated so strongly with moviegoers in 1973 was entirely artifice, a reflection not of the true story but of (White) American anxieties.

Broadly speaking, the majority of baby boomers continue to identify with religious institutions. Their generation of possession films embody that loyalty, insisting that what makes us susceptible to outside forces is straying from the cis-hetero patriarchy centered on religious institutions. Thus we can only be safe by returning fully to the fold, placing ourselves back under the protection (and authority) of the Father.

Compare that to James Wan’s 2013 The Conjuring, also based on a true story. Though set in the early 1970s, The Conjuring embodies the anxieties of millennials rather than their boomer parents. The film introduces us to the Perron family, who move into an old farmhouse. After experiencing multiple spooky events, the Perrons reach out to paranormal investigators Ed and Lorrain Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), who discern that the house is haunted by the spirit of a woman named Bathsheba, an accused witch who had lived there in the mid-1800s.

The Warrens contact the Catholic church to obtain an exorcism, but because the Perron family isn’t Catholic, approval for the rite must come from the Vatican—and the Warrens are convinced the family won’t survive long enough for that approval to come. After protesting that he is not qualified because he is not a priest, Ed eventually agrees to perform the exorcism and, with his wife’s help, is successful.

Like Chris MacNeil, the Perron parents are not part of a church—a decision Ed Warren pointedly suggests they should consider changing. And while the parents are married, the father (Ron Livingston) travels for work and so is absent the majority of the time. So again, the film features a (functionally) single mother and her four daughters who can only be saved by a stable outside influence, this time by a husband and wife.

In the film’s version of events, Bathsheba Sherman was a Satanist who sacrificed her own infant to the devil. In reality, the child of another family did die in Bathsheba’s care, and she was tried for murder, with rumors swirling that she had sacrificed the child in an act of witchcraft. The court found her innocent, however.

The Warrens were Roman Catholic, and—as the The New York Times reported upon her death, Lorrain believed a lack of religion left one open to assault from the spirit world. “When there’s no religion, it is absolutely terrifying,” she told the Irish Independent in 2013. “That is your protection. God is your protection. It doesn’t matter what your religion is.”

The Conjuring is as conservative in its own way as The Exorcist. It’s hard not to hear echoes of the debate over reproductive rights in the screenwriters’ choice to have Bathsheba kill her own infant (screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes are Evangelicals who see the film as a way they are able to wage spiritual war). They end the film with an evangelistic quote from Ed Warren warning against the dangers of not following God.

And yet the film is decidedly not as hopeful about the institutional church as The Exorcist. The machinery of the Catholic Church moves too slowly to address the Perron family’s crisis. Instead, Ed must have faith in his own abilities, despite the fact that he’s not authorized by the institution. Unlike Father Karras, Ed Warren is successful not because of the Church, but despite the Church. What matters in The Conjuring is not religious affiliation but belief, a particularly millennial attitude embodied by the phrase “spiritual but not religious”. Nearly a third of millennials claim no religious affiliation, compared with just 13% of boomers (and 20% of Gen X, whose defining possession film might be the middle finger to the American Dream that is Beetlejuice). The Conjuring warns that maybe being spiritual isn’t enough—after all, spirits can be evil as well as good. Maybe, The Conjuring suggests, we’d all do well to get baptized and get some of that old-time religion.

So we return to Talk to Me, the Gen Z horror movie. Unsurprisingly, Gen Z is even less religious than millennials. They’re also less spiritual—Gen Z is the least likely to believe in any sort of god or to be part of a religious institution. To generalize a bit: Boomers love Church. Gen Z rebelled against Church. Millennials look for spirituality outside of Church. Gen Z doesn’t think about Church much at all.

What happens when someone without a religious framework encounters the spirit world? Talk to Me thinks it’s going to go badly almost immediately. The story opens in familiar territory: Mia comes from a broken home, and her mother passed away two years prior to the film’s opening. But possession isn’t a religious issue in Talk to Me. For these Gen Z teens, possession is a new party drug. There are no priests, old or young. When things go badly, the kids don’t find an informational guide to demonic possession on a surprisingly well-built website (while we’re on the topic, who pays those hosting fees?). There’s no matronly figure offering secret knowledge or a friend-of-a-friend’s psychic to consult. Authority figures, from parents to the police, are not simply unhelpful but clueless.

Mia and her friends don’t have a real explanation for what the hand is or why it works. The origin story of the hand is hearsay, as are the rules for how the possession ritual functions. The teens are distinctly uncurious about the origins or the mechanism for how the hand connects them to the spirit world. Such questions don’t occur to them, even after things go very badly.

Daniel, the only character in the film to have any explicit religious affiliation, is as excited as the rest of the teens to try out the hand. His Christian faith—which is the reason he gives for not even kissing his girlfriend—doesn’t prevent him from allowing a spirit to possess him. Jesus, I should note, did a lot of exorcisms and didn’t really talk much about kissing. The teens in Talk to Me aren’t anti-religious. Religion simply isn’t a significant thread in the fabric of their lives. It’s not there to pull on when things begin to unravel.

The horror of Talk to Me belies an underlying anxiety about the growing irreligiosity of Western culture. Like The Exorcist and The Conjuring before it, it’s hard to watch Talk to Me and not wonder if Mia and Riley and the rest might have been better off if they’d called in Daniel’s youth pastor to bring in the power of Christ to compel some of these spirits.

But then…is that true? After all, the largest and most influential church in Australia is Hillsong, the global megachurch that is reportedly rife with sexual abuse, discrimination, and money laundering. The Catholic Church has yet to grapple with how it sheltered and protected sexual abusers, and the largest Evangelical denominations in the US, the Southern Baptist Convention, has also harbored and protected sexual abusers, ignored calls for racial reforms, and just recently expelled a number of churches because they have female pastors. Moreover, all of those organizations are anti-queer. One could argue that the behavior of these institutions has been as harmful, even demonic, as anything depicted in a possession film, so how can they serve as a source of protection?

It’s perhaps an unavoidable feature of possession films that they teach us to be afraid of the wrong things. Often what’s implicitly demonized is equality and dignity—single parents, female sexuality, grief (we didn’t even cover how Insidious: Chapter 2 demonizes transgender people). Possession films, whether intentionally or not, communicate that a world without institutionalized faith is a world where we’re at the mercy of evil powers that wish to do us harm. But when the institutions we’re told should protect us prey upon us instead, maybe it’s time to take our chances. Possession films—even those as groundbreaking as Talk to Me—are conservative at their heart. But maybe Gen Z has the right of it—perhaps these institutions that have proven themselves so untrustworthy aren’t worthy of conservation.

JR. Forasteros cut his teeth on Goosebumps books and Sword of Shannara. These days, he’s a pastor, author of Empathy for the Devil and scifi/fantasy junkie in Dallas, TX. Once he makes it through his to-read list, he plans to die historic on the Fury Road. Find him on Twitter or Instagram, or on the Fascinating Podcast where he is a co-host.

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