After she foolishly plays with a Ouija board, an innocent and cheerful early-adolescent girl begins showing a distinct change in personality. Her behaviour becomes strange, even sinister. Before long, she is the focal point of apparently supernatural phenomena: objects around her are moved by unseen forces, while her body undergoes hideous transformations. All the time she speaks in a distorted, masculine voice, threatening those around her. The girl’s mother seeks medical advice, to no avail; in desperation she finally turns to the church for help. Following a tense exorcism, where men of the cloth battle demonic forces head-on, the girl is saved.
The above is a rough outline of the classic 1973 film The Exorcist, although it could almost as easily be describing any number of the film’s imitations, homages, and parodies. The Exorcist is one of those rare films to establish a genuine cinematic archetype. As the core work of a whole subgenre, it remains influential to this day. With the success of The Exorcist, the vampire, the zombie, and the scientist-necromancer were joined by a new member of the horror film pantheon: the poltergeist girl. Spiritual possession is, strictly speaking, distinct from poltergeist phenomena, yet there is a significant overlap between the two, both in horror films, and in the allegedly true events that inspire them.
In The Exorcist, the supernatural phenomena manifests primarily in the bodily corruption of the girl, Regan MacNeil. But the film also depicts what could be termed poltergeist phenomena. The first onscreen example is the scene where Regan’s bed is violently shaken by an unseen force. During the iconic scene where Regan masturbates with a crucifix and turns her head 180 degrees, we see objects falling from shelves, a chair sliding to block a door, and Regan’s mother being nearly crushed by a falling dresser. Finally, the climactic exorcism scene shows a bed floating off the ground and the room shaking so much as to produce cracks in the ceiling and door, along with Regan levitating. This imagery has haunted the imaginations of cinemagoers since the film’s release – but where did it originate?
The Exorcist was adapted from the novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty, which was published in 1971. Narratives of possession and exorcism go back far further, of course, so both Blatty and director William Friedkin had a deep pool of influences to draw upon.
The key possession narrative in Christian tradition is the account found in three of the four Gospels, in which Jesus encounters a man possessed by an unclean spirit (or, according to Matthew, two such men). The version given in Mark is the best-known:
And always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones.
But when he saw Jesus afar off, he ran and worshipped him,
And cried with a loud voice, and said, What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God? I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not.
For he said unto him, Come out of the man, thou unclean spirit.
And he asked him, What is thy name? And he answered, saying, My name is Legion: for we are many.
And he besought him much that he would not send them away out of the country.
Now there was there nigh unto the mountains a great herd of swine feeding.
And all the devils besought him, saying, Send us into the swine, that we may enter into them.
And forthwith Jesus gave them leave. And the unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea…
This narrative is an obvious reference point in the climax to The Exorcist. The priest, Father Karras, defeats the demon by prompting it to enter his body – whereupon he leaps from a window to his death, recalling the fate of the Biblical swine. The allusion is even clearer in the novel, where the demon refers to Regan as a piglet.
But the Legion incident is not exactly action-packed, as the demonically-possessed man never actually does anything beyond “crying, and cutting himself with stones” before running to Jesus for aid. Naturally, horror novels and films inspired by the story had to bring in more sensational elements from elsewhere.
In the case of The Exorcist, a major influence was a series of real-life exorcisms performed on a fourteen-year-old from Maryland in 1949. Amongst the priests involved were Fathers Thomas J. Bishop and William S. Bowdern, the latter of whom corresponded with Blatty prior to his writing the novel. A number of memorable moments in The Exorcist – the bed shaking; furniture sliding to block an exit; letters appearing on the subject’s skin; and the possessed adolescent speaking fluent Latin – were drawn directly from eyewitness accounts of these Maryland exorcisms.
The 1949 case is the subject of Thomas B. Allen’s book Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism, published in 1993 and expanded in 2000. Allen discusses the affair in connection to the theological tradition that demonic activity can be divided into three main varieties: infestation, obsession and possession. Infestation is when evil spirits occupy a location; obsession is when they externally attack an individual; and possession is when they take control of an individual. As Allen notes, the concept of demonic obsession as described by historical theologians such as Martin Del Rio clearly corresponds with poltergeist activity – and the Maryland case likewise included its share of poltergeist phenomena:
Del Rio, without noting it, was merging the folkloric tradition of the poltergeist with diabolical possession. Such historic models of ill-defined demons strengthened the thinking of Bishop and Bowdern. The family’s chronicling of the case, so carefully recorded by Bishop, showed a classic progression from infestation, the poltergeist-like siege around [the teenager] in Maryland, to obsession—menaced scratched, but not yet taken over. Next came possession itself.
As is to be expected, there are major differences between the 1949 affair and its fictionalisation in The Exorcist. The more spectacular transformations undertaken by Regan, like her famous head-twisting, are not on record in the Maryland case; nor did the true story have any fatalities attached to it. Another intriguing distinction is that, in the real-life affair, the family were reluctant to blame demons, and initially believed that the phenomena was the work of the teenager’s deceased aunt – an avowed Spiritualist who had introduced the Ouija board to the household before her death.
But as far as the archetype of the poltergeist girl is concerned, the single most significant difference between Regan MacNeil and her real-life counterpart is that the teenager at the centre of the 1949 affair was a boy.
This boy’s name has never been made public. Thomas B. Allen’s book relates how Blatty replaced the boy with a girl at the request of Father Bowdern in order to help preserve the individual’s anonymity. But whatever Blatty’s intention, his decision to make the child female reflected an established cultural association between adolescent girls and poltergeists.
In his 1945 book Poltergeist Over England, the sensation-seeking paranormal investigator Harry Price discusses the connection between poltergeists, age and gender. Price avoids drawing any specific conclusions as to the exact cause of poltergeist phenomena, but he is adamant on the detail that such phenomena tend to focus on adolescent girls:
If we know so little about the Poltergeist per se, we are certain that there is some connection between Poltergeists and puberty and that the mysteries of sex enter largely into their doings. And all the available evidence points to the fact that Poltergeists prefer little girls and girl adolescents to boys—the ratio is about 95% to 5% respectively. Though we know that there is this connection, we cannot explain it.
Price states that “if [poltergeists] are infesting a place one can be sure that the focus of the disturbances is in or near a girl’s bed”, an element common to a number of the cases covered in his book. “Bedsteads and little girl sleepers are frequently the foci of Poltergeist activities”, he points out. “Mr. Mompesson’s daughter, in the classic Drummer of Tedworth case; Hetty Wesley at Epworth Parsonage; Eleanore Zugun… all were disturbed during their slumbers, or when lying in bed, by the mischievous Geists.”
This last name – that of Eleanore Zugun – refers to a case that Price personally investigated, when the girl in question was twelve years old. He credits the Eleanore Zugun affair with popularising the German term “poltergeist” in the United Kingdom: “Eleanore left the Press a legacy in the shape of the word ‘Poltergeist’”, he writes. “Until her visit I never saw the term used in a British newspaper. After her visit the word became common. During her stay with us, all the dailies were full of the ‘Poltergeist Girl’ and her doings.”
But while Price describes the “poltergeist girl” Eleanore in quasi-scientific terms as a conduit of as-yet-unknown forces, the locals of her village in Romania believed that she was possessed by the Devil. As well as objects in her presence, tooth-marks mysteriously appeared on her body, leading her to claim that she was being bitten by the Devil – a concept that prefigures imagery later used in The Exorcist.
The line dividing a poltergeist girl from a victim of possession is hazy, as Price himself acknowledges. “Another remarkable fact”, he writes, “is that it was usually a ‘young girl’ who was the victim (or the pretended victim) in the sixteenth and seventeenth-century witchcraft trials. It was so often a young girl who became ‘possessed’”. He does, however, show scepticism towards religious solutions for poltergeist phenomena. “Poltergeists cannot be exorcised,” he says. “Prayers may make them quiet, but they won’t make them quit.”
In the poltergeist cases discussed by Price, one obvious possibility is that the youngster is merely playing pranks. It is entirely possible that similar mischief can account for certain cases of alleged possession. While demonic possession are often explained away as misdiagnosed mental illness – an explanation that would no indeed account for many instances, even the majority – there are cases that can be attributed to conscious trickery. This is pointed out by Philip C. Almond in his book Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern England (2004):
Possession provided an excuse for outrageous behaviour, and a complete mitigation of it. Far from being condemned, the demoniac received sympathy and concern. the language of demoniacs was clearly often obscene — at least to seventeenth-century ears.
Almond cites an episode from George More’s 1600 treatise on the alleged possession of seven people (two women, four girls, one boy) in Lancashire: at the sight of the Bible, some of the supposed demoniacs “fell to laughing at it, and said, ‘Reach them the Bibble bable, bibble babbell”‘. These certainly seem like the words of a child granted an excuse to mock authority, more than anything to be expected to a horror film demon.
As with the adolescents at the centres of poltergeist outbreaks, victims of alleged possession are often female. Blatty’s novel has Father Karras muse that demonic possession “mainly hits women”, and this observation is in line with historical records. Citing the work of nineteenth-century writer Justinus Kerner, the 1921 book Die Besessenheit by Traugott Konstantin Oesterreich (translated into English as Possession and Exorcism and actually mentioned in Blatty’s novel) notes a distinct gender bias: “Out of thirteen cases related by Kerner and in part observed by him, there are only two men, aged 37 and 71; all the other cases concern girls and women, aged, so far as particulars are available, 8, 10, 11, 20, 31, 32, 34, 36 and 70 years.” This phenomenon is international. In Possessed: Women, Witches and Demons in Imperial Russia (2001) Christine D. Worobec outlines how “[t]he feminization of possession victims in officially verified miracles continued apace so that, by the middle of the nineteenth century, demoniacs were exclusively women”.
The cultural association between possession and femininity can be traced at least as far back to the medieval period. Historian Nancy Caciola devotes an entire chapter of her 2003 book Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages to the topic, arguing that “medieval conceptions of the differences between male and female physiology constructed the female body—and with it, the female character—as fundamentally more changeable, more highly impressionable, and thus as more receptive to outside spiritual influences than the male.” Indeed, as she notes elsewhere in the book, “I know of no group of medieval sources other than manuals of exorcism that commonly uses gender-inclusive pronouns.”
With all of this in mind, it is easy to imagine women and girls – particularly adolescents – feigning demonic possession as a way of escaping from the strict social roles expected of them.
As well as conforming to a distinct historical trend, Blatty’s decision to make the possession victim a girl allows Regan to fit into a familiar character type: the damsel in distress, that innocent girl or young woman who must be protected from evil by a heroic figure. Put simply, twelve-year-old girls are easier to portray as innocents than fourteen-year-old boys like the one in the Maryland case, and Regan is granted a package of wholesome character traits that are not typically associated with male adolescence in cinema: she is cheerful despite a troubled home situation, artistically creative, and – despite a cheeky sense of humour – never mean-spirited. Even her usage of the Ouija board stems from naive curiosity rather than desire to dabble in the forbidden. Her role as innocent is further emphasised in Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) where an older Regan is portrayed as a saintly figure who can heal the afflicted, while the demon ultimately manifests as her sultry, seductive doppelganger: a classic virgin-whore dichotomy.
It is notable that many of the traits shown by the possessed Regan can be read – if layers of horrific exaggeration are peeled away – as typical traits of a child going through puberty. She undergoes weird vocal changes, develops terrible skin, demonstrates a marked reluctance to get out of bed, and begins showing an extremely disrespectful attitude towards parental and communal authority figures. She evolves from idealised preadolescent to demonised adolescent – frightening to adults but, perhaps, offering something more alluring to teenagers.
It has long been observed that one reason monster films appeal to adolescents is that, in fanciful terms, they articulate the emotions faced by teenagers. A substantial body of psychoanalytic writing exists on this topic (Walter Evans’ 1973 essay “Monster Movies: A Sexual Theory” is an influential example) but really, little analysis is necessary to see subtext in the werewolf’s alarming hair-growth, or the anger that Frankenstein’s Monster feels towards his creator. Can the poltergeist girl be read as a specifically feminine variation on this phenomenon – an adolescent girl’s rebellion, distorted through the lens of superstition, and repackaged as a cinematic commodity?
But while The Exorcist can in part be read as an exaggerated, even satirical portrait of adolescent psychology it does not encourage this reading. Its core character conflict is one of religion, with both Regan’s mother and the priest Karras torn between faith and scepticism; for this narrative to work, Regan’s condition must be taken as literal rather than figurative.
However, as other films began to explore the motif of the poltergeist girl, they frequently stepped away from religious orthodoxy and found new ways to interpret their central theme. The next post in this series will examine two subsequent poltergeist films with considerably different attitudes towards religion and spirituality.