*Note: Here be spoilers for these demonic movies*
Of all the creatures in the world of horror, demons might be the scariest. Demons possess us, robbing us of our volition over our bodies. Demons manipulate us, using our own human impulses and emotions to lure us down a doomed path. Demons tempt us, reaching deep into our hearts and laying bare the black truths we don’t care to admit.
We think of demons almost exclusively in a religious context, especially considering how the three major monotheistic world religions have shaped the lore. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have their differing views about demons—how the present themselves, how they became demons, how they wield influence over the human realm. But they all agree that demons are malevolent spirits who have turned away from God.
Through multiple religious texts as well as some literary works, a common narrative has emerged: demons are ruled and led by Satan, a fallen angel. When God created man and exalted him above even the angels, Satan refused to obey God. For his insolence, Satan was cast out of Heaven, forever denied God’s grace. Ever prideful and bent on vengeance, Satan has spent every moment since his fall on a crusade the tempt humanity to turn away from God.
It’s a good story, right? If we’re looking purely at narrative mechanics. We’ve got the war to end all wars, pitted against the omniscience of all creation by a fallen angel so full of hubris he thinks he can take on God. And humanity’s collective soul hangs in the balance.
Every class of horror monster embodies a particular and specific human fear. It’s clear that, as cultural archetype, demons embody a religious fear of temptation and sin, threatening all kinds of terrible punishments both spiritual and existential.
But demons also symbolize non-religious concepts as well. It’s no coincidence that demons and other “evil spirits” have been blamed when things go wrong. How many times have you heard a child exclaim that the devil made them do it, or heard a politician say that he was tempted into sin? How many times have you read a historical account where some catastrophe hit a town and the townspeople, grasping for an explanation of any kind, blamed bad spirits? Demons symbolize all the ways we might fail to live up to social and cultural expectations, especially when the circumstances are beyond human control.
Demons might be hellish monsters, but their depiction as anthropomorphized beings betrays what we really think of them – they are degraded versions of ourselves, their human light and goodness polluted.
A demon is a way to put a face and a name to an uncontrollable force. It is the first step towards regaining a measure of control.
If you know the demon’s name, you can cast it out.
I’ve chosen eight demonic movies to demonstrate how horror uses the demon to explore a common set of themes, such as loss of control, self-sacrifice, and man’s inherent capacity for evil.
Enjoy! Leave any recommendations in the comments!
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
A young wife comes to believe that her offspring is not of this world. Waifish Rosemary Woodhouse and her struggling actor husband Guy move to a New York City apartment building with an ominous reputation and odd neighbors Roman and Minnie Castavet. When Rosemary becomes pregnant she becomes increasingly isolated, and the diabolical truth is revealed only after Rosemary gives birth.
I’ve written about this movie a fair bit, because it’s awesome and frightening and full of nuance. There are lots of layers to explore. It’s not a movie about possession per se, but just think about how messed up it is that the antichrist grew inside of her for a nine months. Maybe it’s a possession after all, especially when the film’s one-two punch of an ending tells us that Rosemary’s soul was at risk the whole time.
Rosemary’s Baby confronted fears about childbirth and motherhood in an era when pregnancy was treated like a pure, wholesome, feminine experience. Motherhood was the pinnacle of female achievement, but that achievement focused on how a woman was still expected to give herself to others—as a woman, she is expected to give her husband children just as she is expected to execute a flawless performance of selflessness for her children.
Forget that pregnancy is scary in general, and consider that Rosemary is never in control of her pregnancy for the entire course of the movie. Her body becomes a literal possession of her husband, her Satanic neighbors, Satan himself, and her little Antichrist baby. The most horrifying part is that, in the end, Rosemary ends up acquiescing to the cult and caring for her baby. We are left wondering if she lost control over herself in those last moments or she truly intended to side with the satanists.
The Exorcist (1973)
“One of the most profitable horror movies ever made, this tale of an exorcism is based loosely on actual events. When young Regan starts acting odd — levitating, speaking in tongues — her worried mother seeks medical help, only to hit a dead end. A local priest, however, thinks the girl may be seized by the devil. The priest makes a request to perform an exorcism, and the church sends in an expert to help with the difficult job.”
First things first—the horror archetype of the Catholic priest who is experiencing a crisis of faith is a cliché. However, it’s only a cliché because of this film. While Regan is the possessed character, the movie is really about Father Karras and his struggle to accept his life choices. He took risks in his life, choosing to pursue the church instead of something more lucrative, which led directly to his inability to provide care for his dying mother. Throughout the film, his guilt eats away at him, and the demon seizes upon it, doing everything in its power to undermine Father Karras. The demon is quite good at it.
The movie may not have aged terrible well, but as an exploration into one man’s struggle to regain his life and redeem himself The Exorcist is as compelling as ever. One would expect a priest, certain a priest who performs exorcisms, to be resolute and confident in his faith. To witness otherwise is shocking. If a priest, who has dedicated his life to the Church, cannot stand firm in defiance of a demon, what hope do the rest of us have?
But The Exorcist has a happy ending, it its own way. After being kicked out of the ritual mid-exorcism, Father Karras steps up to the plate. After a climatic showdown with the demon, Father Karras is able to find the strength of his faith to literally beat the demon out of Regan. In true Christian fashion, he offers himself to the demon, sacrificing himself for Regan’s soul and then throwing himself out the window to prevent the demon from wrecking anymore havoc. It was a terrible battle, but Father Karras eventually gained back his faith and told the demon to go fuck itself in the most Christian way possible.
The Omen (1976)
“American diplomat Robert adopts Damien when his wife, Katherine, delivers a stillborn child. After Damien’s first nanny hangs herself, Father Brennan warns Robert that Damien will kill Katherine’s unborn child. Shortly thereafter, Brennan dies and Katherine miscarries when Damien pushes her off a balcony. As more people around Damien die, Robert investigates Damien’s background and realizes his adopted son may be the Antichrist.”
The Omen is one of the most famous satanic horror movies ever. It also stars one of the most iconic creepy horror movie kids. I’ve always loved this movie for the music, for Gregory Peck, for the way it’s violence still shocks forty years later. I’ve also been haunted by a central idea presented in the film—if you knew a child was going to usher in the Apocalypse, would you kill that child? It’s a compelling moral conundrum. Not only does Gregory Peck contemplate killing his own adoptive son, but he kills another woman in the process. Is he guilty for her death? Was it a sin? No, no he shouldn’t be.
It seems simple at first, but The Omen sets off a whole series of moral quandaries that cannot be easily answered. How much proof would you need that a child is 1) the Antichrist and 2) should be murdered immediately? How many people could be sacrificed to stop the Antichrist? And what does it mean to be the Antichrist? Damien is a creepy kid for sure, and thoughtless and dangerous, but there’s no indication that he’s aware of his destiny. Could Damien be turned away from his demonic fate? Or do we live in a Calvinist universe of predestination?
It’s easy to sit here and say you would be able to kill a child for the good of Christendom, but could you really? If the antichrist presented himself as an adult, the choice would be far easier. But such is the insidious nature of the devil’s power to manipulate your emotions and use your relationships against you. Among other things, The Omen sheds light on how familial bonds make us vulnerable instead of protecting us. The worst part is that, if you had the strength to make such a difficult moral choice, your sacrifice might be for naught, as was Gregory Peck’s on that ill-fated night in the church.
The Evil Dead (1981)
“Ashley “Ash” Williams, his girlfriend and three pals hike into the woods to a cabin for a fun night away. There they find an old book, the Necronomicon, whose text reawakens the dead when it’s read aloud. The friends inadvertently release a flood of evil and must fight for their lives or become one of the evil dead. Ash watches his friends become possessed, and must make a difficult decision before daybreak to save his own life in this, the first of Sam Raimi’s trilogy.”
Sam Raimi’s low budget horror classic is an exercise in genre-bending, since The Evil Dead is equal parts slasher and demon monster flick. Protagonist Ash must struggle against two obstacles in order to survive the night and leave the woods. First, there’s the very real danger that one of his possessed friends will slaughter him in painful, blood-drenched frenzy. Second, as his friends are possessed one by one there’s a strong element of “who’s next?” since he most likely will have to kill that friend next.
Like The Omen, in which the Devil exploited personal relationships to protect his evil plan, the demon in The Evil Dead loves to toy with its victims, possessing individuals, but not always making obvious its possession. Who would ever expect that a book could unleash such evil? Who would expect a demonic battle when going out to the woods? Serial killer, maybe, but demon?
In keeping with my overarching thesis that demons help us tell stories about losing control, I think it’s very telling that Ash and his friends didn’t do anything wrong. Sure, in the context of a horror movie, everyone reading this blog knows that you don’t read aloud from freaking-looking books in the middle of the woods, but is that really such a crime? It’s just a cruel trick to lure unsuspecting people to their doom, forcing them to fight for their souls or die trying.
Event Horizon (1997)
“When the Event Horizon, a spacecraft that vanished years earlier, suddenly reappears, a team is dispatched to investigate the ship. Accompanied by the Event Horizon’s creator, William Weir, the crew of the Lewis and Clark, led by Capt. Miller, begins to explore the seemingly abandoned vessel. However, it soon becomes evident that something sinister resides in its corridors, and that the horrors that befell the Event Horizon’s previous journey are still present.”
This is such an underrated movie! Event Horizon has its many flaws, but it’s conceit is inspired and deserves credit. What if hell wasn’t just a religious concept but a place that could be physically accessed through an ill-fated triumph of human engineering? That’s the question Event Horizon asks. It’s a curious blend of Alien, The Shining, and Hellraiser, complete with messed up imagery and a delightfully demented Same Neill chewing scenery like his life depends on it.
Neill’s character, Dr. Weir, designed the Event Horizon, which somehow accessed another dimension that may or may not be the biblical hell described in countless religious texts. While the idea of Hell in this film isn’t presented as religious, it’s still just as much a threat to the people on board. The malicious presence inhabiting the ship has the power to exploit the crew’s regrets. Every crew member is tortured with terrifying visions of loved ones and revolting bloody depravity, but only Dr. Weir is possessed.
I always thought that was important. Dr. Weir was an extraordinary character, acting like a pretentious douche about his missing ship when really he’s deeply haunted that his work on The Event Horizon became his obsession. He took his wife for granted and ignored her in favor of his work, which led her to commit suicide. And I just have to wonder, how freaking busy was this guy that he drove his wife to commit suicide? He sounds terrible and awful. That the demonic presence is most drawn this potent brand of guilt and hubris suggests that evil lurks in the heart of every person. It’s only waiting for something to set it loose.
The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
“Aspiring Florida defense lawyer Kevin Lomax accepts a high-powered position at a New York law firm headed by legal shark John Milton. As Kevin moves up in the firm’s ranks, his wife, Mary Ann, has several frightening, mystical experiences that begin to warp her sense of reality. With the stakes getting higher with each case, Kevin quickly learns that his mentor is planning a far greater evil than simply winning without scruples.”
I won’t argue that The Devil’s Advocate is straight horror, since it is more of thriller with supernatural elements, but I’ve always found the film extremely unsettling and horrific. (It’s also one of Keanu’s most overlooked roles.) Additionally, I’m a lawyer, so I know a thing or to about the depths to which human beings can sink to, both in the legal profession and outside of it. Not that all lawyers are terrible human beings! I swear! The vast majority of lawyers are good people who want to help. Certainly, defense attorneys more times than not fight the good fight.
The Devil’s Advocate is all about how the Devil thrives not by tricking a person into sin, but how he gives a person just enough rope to hang themselves with. I think the choice to focus on the legal profession is an important one. Yes, lawyers are the butt of many jokes. But the truth is that lawyers are powerful. Very powerful. Lawyers study for years and learn to think in ways that the average person doesn’t. Lawyers wield enormous influence, drawing up contracts, writing laws, arguing on behalf of a client in a literal life or death situation. There’s a reason why people don’t like to be “lawyered,” and why lawyers like me find it sooooo satisfying when someone tries to mess with me and I can give them a firm legal backhand to put them in their place. I admit it.
It’s bad enough to work in a high-powered, ultra-competitive firm, especially when everyone there is clawing their way to the top, unscrupulous and cutthroat. But having such power can corrupt a person. In a society and in a profession where success is largely determined by winning, by how an attorney controlled the proceedings and got his guilty client off, why wouldn’t the Devil look to make a killing there? Those types of people wouldn’t even need a push to fall over into darkness. They’re already leaning over the edge and about the slip. As Al Pacino’s Lucifer says, in between spitting out bits of chewed scenery, “I only set the stage. You pull your own strings.”
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
“Father Moore is prosecuted for the wrongful death of a girl thought to be demonically possessed, because he administered the church-sanctioned exorcism that ultimately killed her. Prosecuting attorney Ethan Thomas contends that the young woman, Emily, suffered from schizophrenia and should have been medically diagnosed. Meanwhile, defense lawyer Erin Bruner argues that Emily’s condition cannot be explained by science alone.”
I’ll admit I didn’t really appreciate this movie when I first saw it, but my opinion changed once I started law school. Once I studied the legal system in this country, this movie took on the fascinating conflict of the religious and secular worlds, both of which have their respective laws, both of which hold certain values in high regard.
Based on the real-life story of Anneliese Michel, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is really two different movies spliced into one: first is the story of Emily Rose and her possession, and the other is the story of the priest who believed her to be possessed and performed the ill-fated exorcism. Emily and Father Moore are set up as foils, which leads to some interesting comparisons. Emily’s possession is terrifying and excruciating, with plenty of shocking scenes that really drive home her plight. Father Moore’s trial is solemn and muted, underscoring the legal trouble he finds himself in and the secular judgement he risks by refusing to accept a plea offer.
Both characters were offered escapes from their ordeals. Emily was told by a vision of the Virgin Mary to leave her body in order to escape the pain. But if she is strong enough to endure her possession, she will help prove the existence of the Devil, and by extension God. Father Moore could have easily pled out of his trial, which is what the Church wanted him to do, despite their supposed dedication to defeating Satan. But Father Moore endures jail and risks further punishment in order to preserve the truth as best he can. It’s an interesting parallel to draw between these two martyrs and the systems that forced them to undergo such trials.
Jennifer’s Body (2009)
“When a demon takes possession of her, high-school hottie Jennifer turns a hungry eye on guys who never stood a chance with her before. While evil Jennifer satisfies her appetite for human flesh with the school’s male population, her nerdy friend, Needy, learns what’s happening and vows to put an end to the carnage.”
Much has been written about this black comedy horror movie; everything from it’s brand of feminism to the girl-on-girl make-out scene to its conflict between female empowerment and slasher genre tropes. Personally, I always thought that demonic possession was a fascinating narrative vehicle with which to explore the ins and outs of female friendship, especially when said friendship is toxic to say the least.
As discussed, demons and demonic possession can only exploit that insecurities, fears, and cruelties that exist in a person. Any awful behavior a person exhibits is because they have chosen to do so or given into the demon. So if you had a particularly pretty but vapid, mean, selfish BFF who became possessed by an actual succubus demon, I’d say that would probably put a bit of a strain on your already toxic friendship.
Jennifer’s Body exemplifies this, skewering the dynamic underlying “frenemies” and all the other ways girls find to be cruel to each other. At the beginning of the film, Jennifer is just your average hot cheerleader molded by years of being hot that she 1) doesn’t really have to be nice to people and 2) is actually very insecure about the fact that she doesn’t have many meaningful relationships. So she’s a bitchy to her less hot, more studious friend Needy (a little on the nose there, but I’ll allow it). And Needy is only too happy to be Jennifer’s friend, despite how mean she is. It’s an unhealthy, co-dependent relationship, and Jennifer’s possession helps take the relationship to its bloody and logical outcome. Friendship break-ups are the worst.