I'll be the judge of that.

The Feminism of Demonic Possession Horror

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At the Devil’s Door is the new movie from IFC Midnight, by writer/director Nicolas McCarthy. On its face, Devil’s Door delivers a skillfully atmospheric story of demonic possession, at once familiar and fresh in its narrative. The film benefits from McCarthy’s labored minimalism, trading graphic visuals for a sense of smooth, unyielding uneasiness.

One of the film’s more interesting structural devices is its noticeable lack of a clear protagonist; rather than focusing merely on one character, the script revolves around the experiences of three women as they relate to a certain harassing demonic entity.

Within the tripartite story, each of these women represents a very specific feminine stereotype: naïve virgin, infertile spinster, and cynical whore. The film’s animating mechanism is in the different ways that each of these characters interact with male sexual aggression, as symbolized here by an obscene demonic intrusion on the female body.

It comes as no surprise that the fate of each woman is ultimately a tragedy. Hannah commits suicide, seemingly overcome by shame. Leigh is murdered, discarded as worthless for her inability to provide the reproductive function. Lastly, Vera (Naya Rivera) is physically trapped in an oppressive, paralyzing coma and flatly denied her choice to abort. (You’re having this baby, the male doctor informs her.) In each of these paradigms, we see the characters’ impossibility of escaping the boot of patriarchy, regardless of what “kind of woman” each chose or happened to be in life.

This is the way in which the film situates itself solidly within the demonic possession subgenre: by its continual representation of pregnancy and childbirth as fraught with anxiety and a deep lack of control. In this sense, McCarthy’s film has an obvious cultural ancestor in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Polanski’s flawless depiction of the gendered anxiety and alienation that pervaded pre-Roe American society.

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But if Rosemary’s Baby represents an antecedent to modern demonic possession horror, its true origin came a few years later with The Exorcist (1973). A valuable discussion of this horror classic comes in Barbara Creed’s book The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. The author here seeks to undermine the popular notion that the horror genre is principally one of male monsters and female victims. Rather, for Creed the concept of femininity is depicted as uniquely monstrous in at last seven different modes, including that of the “possessed monster.” Its paradigmatic depiction is of Regan in The Exorcist. Creed notes,

“Connections drawn in the film between feminine desire, sexuality, and abjection suggest that more is at stake than a simple case of demonic possession. Possession becomes the excuse for legitimizing a display of aberrant feminine behavior which is depicted as depraved, monstrous, abject – and perversely appealing.”

Regan’s “aberrant feminine behavior,” including masturbation and graphic bodily functions, is presented with such incredible frankness and extravagance that it remains shocking to this day. Creed’s key to understanding The Exorcist is “the film’s exploration of female monstrousness and the inability of the male order to control the woman whose perversity is expressed through her rebellious body.”

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Of additional importance here is the more obscure feature The Devil Within Her (1975), a derivative conflation of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist that is a B-movie masterpiece in its own right. The story concerns Lucy, who gives birth to a demonically possessed baby. The possessed infant is repeatedly described as hating its mother and actively resenting the fact of its own birth; indeed, the film’s provocative alternate title was I Don’t Want to Be Born.

The baby’s demonic hatred of its mother, as symbolized by the state of “possession,” represents a kind of punishment for Lucy’s failure to conform to a tidy maternal stereotype, for her “aberrant feminine behavior.” She is an erotic dancer, she has committed marital infidelity, and most damningly it seems, signals non-normative sexual inclinations through her ambiguous interest in a certain “pervert” dwarf.

At the Devil’s Door appears keenly aware of its subgenre’s feminist tradition, providing a thoughtful metaphor on the fundamental feminist issue of unwanted pregnancy and the way in which reproductive biology stands as patriarchy’s oldest and strongest ally. The “aberrant feminine behavior” on display here is the bold “unwantedness” of a particular pregnancy, a still socially frowned-upon notion that is negotiated here by the supernatural. As is the case in virtually every corner of the horror genre, this is the kind of allegorical censorship necessary to soothe the male ego, which by its nature insists on viewing any and all pregnancies as a gift (from men) that is rude/wrong to reject.

In addition to the film’s feminist concern on the bio-political level, the script also appears to be informed on the symbolic or psychoanalytic level. The film’s central thesis resides in the male demon’s motivating aspiration: “He wants to be all of someone.” This keys into the popular chauvinist conception of woman as the living embodiment of “lack,” eternally in need of a man to fill the void and provide positive identity where there otherwise would be nothing.

Through demonic possession, here an obvious metaphor for sexual intercourse and perhaps rape, the male demon’s giving of that which is missing comes in a specifically Freudian form: pregnancy and childbirth. A highly simplistic or literal reading of early Freud takes this exact form, conceiving of pregnancy as a consolation for lacking a penis.

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As such, the film’s ending delivers the subtlest of horrors, that being Vera’s brave and heartbreaking acquiesce to her fate as the mother of a profoundly unwanted child. Indeed, Rivera’s intelligent, brooding performance is one of the film’s enduring pleasures, perfectly capturing the ambivalence and resignation her character feels, while also exuding a well-practiced sense of feminine strength.

As this discussion merely hints at, the horror genre often provides a thrilling opportunity for feminist analysis. Of course, this form of feminism is not for everybody; it’s not the more conventional feminism that is so often espoused and debated today among pop stars. Rather, horror-based feminism reveals itself to be far more radical and subversive in its critique.

British feminist and psychoanalytic thinker Jacqueline Rose recently called for a “bold, scandalous feminism” capable of insight beyond the standard demands for dignity and equality. Rose continues,

Those claims are important but they tend to be made – loudly, as they must be – to the detriment of another type of understanding, less obvious but no less vital, that makes its way into the darker spaces of the world, ripping the cover from the illusions through which the most deadly forms of power sustain and congratulate themselves. This we might call the knowledge of women.

The films here provide viewers with precisely what Rose is asking for: a deeper, more disturbing, and ultimately more honest excavation of the darkest corners of gendered subjectivity than virtually anything else out there, a window into those dark unspeakable secrets that have tortured both self and society since woman first chose to speak up.

 

 

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