Gender Bashing: The Exorcist Series and the Male Body in Possession Horror - Dread Central
Connect with us


Gender Bashing: The Exorcist Series and the Male Body in Possession Horror



It’s weird being both a woman and a horror fan. While the genre boasts the inclusion of strong women in prominent roles, the usage and treatment of women in horror films has also been, at times, dismissive and regressive. The possession film is one such example.

Not to be confused with the science fiction-horror film which often has a foreign presence occupying a male body (see: The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien), the possession film is overwhelmingly concerned with the male psyche, with the female body undergoing various trials and tribulations to facilitate the arc of that male psyche. Carol J. Clover’s monumental 1993 book on gender in horror cinema, “Men, Women, and Chainsaws”, dedicates an entire chapter toward this concept, and provided the basis for my appreciation of “The Exorcist” TV series for its unorthodox use of gender. In The Exorcist, young Regan MacNeil becomes possessed by Pazuzu, but the story is about Father Karras and his potential loss of faith. Witchboard. Beyond Evil. The Possession. The Exorcism of Emily Rose. The formula has become an occult film standard, with some notable exceptions.

Rosemary’s Baby sees its protagonist, Rosemary Woodhouse, as both physical and psychological focus of the story, with her sellout husband Guy in a secondary role to her struggles. The Amityville Horror’s central protagonist, George Lutz, becomes host to an evil entity and the spotlight remains on him and his attempts to deal with the problem at hand, while his wife is a bewildered bystander for most of the film’s 119-minute runtime. John Carpenter’s Christine has outcast nerd Arnie Cunningham taking on the usually feminine role of possession victim, only this time he’s under the control of a female (the ‘59 Plymouth Fury bearing the film’s title is referred to as a “she” as most vessels are), and is himself gendered feminine by his introverted nature (of note: his schoolmates give him the emasculating name of “Cuntingham”), becoming more aggressively masculine as the film goes on. In much of horror (especially slashers and body horror), aggression is coded as masculine, while emotional impressionability is coded as feminine. Recently, the Insidious films have put a man in a position of spiritual vulnerability towards evil. But for the most part, the female form-as-possessive-object is the norm for occult films.

The first season of “The Exorcist” is a continuation of the tradition. The victim is the youngest of the Rance household, Casey Rance (Hannah Kasulka). Though her sister Katherine suffers heavy loss with the death of a loved one and subsequent judgment from the local community, it is Casey who becomes occupied by the same “Captain Howdy” that fans of the ‘73 film are already familiar with. Normally bright-eyed and loving, Casey becomes increasingly aggressive and distant (which the horror genre codes as masculine traits) as time and possession progress. Meanwhile, both her family and her exorcists, Fathers Marcus and Tomas (Ben Daniels and Alfonso Herrera, respectively), take the opportunity to have their personal revelations and confess their sins and hug it out. Though the season has several amazing twists and turns, we know this basic plot structure. We’ve seen this structure in occult films time and again; woman corporally suffers, man spiritually redeems himself.

The second season of “The Exorcist” leaves the well-trodden path of female possession to follow widower and foster parent Andrew “Andy” Kim, played with quiet intensity by John Cho. Andy is the strong, silent type, but provides a loving home to his five at-risk foster kids. As with all occult films, the body to be possessed has to be vulnerable to that dark force. Like a vampire, the demonic entity has to be invited in, in so many words. Season two is a tale of emotionally vulnerable men: Andy’s processing of death, Father Marcus’ wavering faith as it relates to his sexual orientation and his place in God’s plan, and Father Tomas’ inability to reconcile his lets-save-everybody naivete with the scorched-earth realities and collateral damage of demonic possession. Occult stories have normally gendered emotional openness as feminine, and secular pragmatism as masculine. Think of Mr. Freeling in Poltergeist. Micah in Paranormal Activity. Robert Thorn in The Omen. In these films and more, the women are the first to point out that something otherworldly is at play while the men shake their heads and search for secular scientific explanations until it’s far too late. Andy occupies both of these roles, as both the possessed vessel, and by his refusal to acknowledge the spiritual takeover or seek help for it until it’s far too late. It’s here that Andy shares a common kinship with George Lutz of The Amityville Horror. But does that closed-off introversion effectively gender Andy as feminine, as it does to the young men of Witchboard, Christine, and A Haunting in Connecticut? Not necessarily.

Another creative gem in season two of “The Exorcist” is the intimacies and affections shared by men, as a normal way of interacting. Without spoiling anything in particular, scenes of male confession and opening up are consistently interlaced throughout multiple subplots, among multiple characters. There is still plenty of secular pragmatism, but much of the dismissal of the supernatural is done by a woman. Rose has seen plenty of trials and tribulations in her time as a social worker, and when she first encounters Fathers Marcus and Tomas (and their attempts to save the soul of a girl displaying the symptoms of demonic possession), her response is to intervene and put a stop to it. It takes her awhile (a handful of episodes, in TV time) to warm up to the idea of possession and exorcism, putting her in the role that men often occupy in occult horror. Conversely, Andy is the one full of sentiment, affection, and hand-wringing worry— a feminine role, traditionally. But unlike occult stories of decades past, that in itself does not render him into a portal for the supernatural. Here, Andy’s grief for the loss of his wife and his stress over the responsibilities of fostering troubled youths are not what invites the demonic entity in. Andy’s ultimate downfall (and what allows the evil in) is his refusal to seek help—what normally amounts to the man’s role in occult horror. The writers of “The Exorcist” have complicated the formula, in a good way.

Often the possession victim’s torment is only significant to the extent that it affects the arc of those around them. In both the 1971 Exorcist book and the 1973 film adaptation, author William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin put Regan through hell as a means to an end— Father Karras’ end. Just as the title suggests, the story isn’t about her. It’s about the exorcist. And while both seasons of “The Exorcist” follow the two priests performing exorcisms, season two puts Andy’s strife with the death of his wife, moving on and showing intimacy with Rose, and with raising kids on his own on an equally important footing with the internal battles of Fathers Marcus and Tomas. Not only is he colonized and subjected to the scarring, the vomiting, the hallucinating, and the hysteria that is normally reserved for the fairer sex in this sort of cinema, Andy’s own heart and soul is showcased in a struggle to come to terms with his own feelings toward loved ones (both dead and alive), and with expressing them. This plot line takes up a fair amount of screen time, carving out a space in every episode alongside the priests’ spiritual warfare. In a subgenre overrun by stories exploiting women’s anatomy for the male psyche, Andy’s deeper, more prominent arc is a welcome change to the structural standard.

Season two of “The Exorcist” is singular in its recalibration of usual standard of gendered possession in film and television. In utilizing Andy’s body and making his psyche just as much of a focal point as those of the two priests who attempt to save his soul, Jeremy Slater, Jason Ensler, and the cadre of writers and guest directors have effectively bucked the usual genre customs. Hopefully, the show will serve as a creative trendsetter in the exploration of how we gender emotional openness in possession horror.

Anya Stanley is a California-based writer, columnist, and staunch Halloween 6 apologist. Her horror film analyses have appeared on Birth Movies Death, Blumhouse, Daily Grindhouse, and wherever they’ll let her talk about scary movies. See more of her work on, and follow her shenanigans on Twitter @BookishPlinko.




Zena’s Period Blood: Dying for a DEAD END



It can be difficult finding horror films of quality, so allow me to welcome you to your salvation from frustration. “Zena’s Period Blood” is here to guide you to the horror films that will make you say, “This is a good horror. Point blank. PERIOD.”

“Zena’s Period Blood” focuses on under-appreciated and hidden horror films.

How do you turn $900,000 into $77,000,000? Offer directors Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa the initial amount and give them the freedom to let their minds wander. In 2003, both directors accomplished this unimaginable feat with Dead End. Under the clouds of a small budget, typical poster and insubstantial trailer, most viewers forecasted one long stretch of boredom. However, 15 minutes in and I was as hooked as a pervert in a strip club with his tax refund money. In 83 minutes, the movie unravels and exposes intelligent craftsmanship with story, acting and location, introducing us to the Harrington family and their demise.

After 20 years following the same route, Frank Harrington (Ray Wise) decides to take his family down a shortcut to his in-laws home during Christmas Eve. Wife Laura (Lin Shaye) sings in the passenger seat, serving as the optimistic family unifier who is often ignored by her husband and children. Behind Frank is their oldest child Marion (Alexandra Holden), unnervingly sheltered under the arm of her soon-to-be fiancé, Brad. And forever mom’s favorite boy is Richard (Mick Cain), who rocks out to Marilyn Manson blaring in his headphones. After this brief introduction to the characters and their distinct personalities, we witness everyone fall asleep, including Frank, who refuses to let anyone else drive.

Several seconds pass before the Jeep Wagoneer veers into the opposite lane. Gradually, a honk pleads from an approaching car, startling the Harrington family and forcing Frank to fight with the wheel until he brings the Jeep to a stop. Wide-awake, the family begins to move forward, now entrapped on a new, never-ending road.

I could elaborate on so many scary details in the movie, but the never-ending road stands out the most. What makes it worse is that there are signs for a town called Marcott, with an arrow indicating the town is straight ahead. But the Harringtons never reach the town. This scares me because I believe that every human being has a mental list of things they are scared of or things they should keep an eye out for in certain situations. Unfortunately, this movie exists to expand that list. What sucks for me is that my husband likes taking back roads. Because I strive to have a happy marriage and a peaceful death, I usually fall asleep to avoid an argument and the grim reaper, both of which usually exist on these particular roads. However, I never imagined that a back road could become a never-ending road. Man that would suck!

Speaking of never-ending, the directors became devils of discomfort by never really showing the deceased’s mutilated body, leaving your brain struggling to piece together the unseen image long after the movie ends. Throughout the movie, the family and Brad are picked off one by one. We mainly suffer these devatations through the reactions of the family members that are still alive, sometimes witnessing them lift a severed ear or caress a charred hand. This movie taught me that I can still taste bile at the back of my throat when a mutilation is suggested rather than shown.

Directors Andrea and Canepa accomplished greatness in Dead End with little time and little money. It is a testament that imagination coupled with skill is the true combination to capturing a big budget feel. I hope that all the individuals behind this movie have a long, never-ending road ahead of them because they have delivered brilliance to the world. This is a good horror. Point blank. Period.

In addition to contributing to Dread Central, Zena Dixon has been writing about all things creepy and horrific for over six years at She has always loved horror films and will soon be known directing her own feature-length horror. Feel free to follow her on Twitter @LovelyZena.



Continue Reading


5 Zombie Films That Flipped The Script



The undead have long been a source of horror for cultures around the world. The thought of our loved ones returning from beyond the grave as shells of their former selves has filled countless people with feelings of dread, grief, and terror. Then there’s that whole pesky “they want to eat our flesh” thing going on. As if being in mourning wasn’t enough, now I’ve got to worry about remaining intact?

Netflix’s upcoming horror/thriller Cargo stars Martin Freeman as a man who wanders the Australian outback with 48 hours to live after being bitten by a zombie. The twist in this story is that Freeman has his one-year-old daughter with him and he needs to find a safe place for her before he turns.

Having seen the film, I can tell you that it’s pretty damn fantastic. The zombies are distinct enough that you’ll feel like you’re watching something new and the themes hinted at through the story, while not entirely unique, are so rarely touched upon in zombie films that it feels like a fascinating experience. Cargo has no issues bravely facing racism, xenophobia, environmental concerns, and the fear of loss, not only of one’s life but of all that will never be experienced. It’s horror with heart and it never shies away from that, for which I applaud it.

Because of the release of Cargo, we decided to take a look at five other zombie films that brought something new and exciting to the table.

Stranded in rural Australia in the aftermath of a violent pandemic, an infected father desperately searches for a new home for his infant child and a means to protect her from his own changing nature.

Cargo was directed by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke from a script written by Ramke. It stars Martin Freeman, Anthony Hayes, Susie Porter, Caren Pistorius, Kris McQuade, Simone Landers, and David Gulpilil.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

It may not seem all that original now but George A. Romero’s 1968 classic really was revolutionary upon its release. Prior to this film, zombies were mostly thought of in terms of the Haitian folklore that was seen in movies like White Zombie. In that film, zombies weren’t mindless ghouls intent on devouring the living, they were freshly dead corpses resurrected by a Bokor (a necromancer) who wiped the mind of the zombie and made them their personal slave. Romero changed all that by taking the same concept and removing all possibility of the ghouls being controlled. Rather, they became the shuffling corpses that are now cultural icons.

Train to Busan (2016)

South Korea’s 2016 zombie film received, rightfully so, wild critical acclaim and the love of horror fans across the globe. Wasting no time in getting into the action, Train to Busan felt like a breath of fresh air because it masterfully blended humor, over-the-top action, horror, social commentary, and genuine emotion. Elements of each of these traits have been seen countless times throughout zombie films but the culmination of everything made Yeon Sang-ho’s film one of the best entries in the genre in this decade, possibly this century.

28 Days Later (2002)

Raw, gritty, vicious, and undeniably beautiful, 28 Days Later is a masterpiece of intensity and emotion. The first zombie film in many years to truly make it feel like the world was over, it created a believable story and focused on interesting, nuanced characters. As with Train to Busan and Night of the Living Dead themes of class warfare and social commentary were most certainly present, creating a film that felt fresh and exciting. There’s a reason 28 Days Later was credited with revitalizing the zombie genre and it’s because it brought new, albeit infected, blood into the mix.

Maggie (2015)

Seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger in a dramatic role bereft of action or comedy should already clue you in that this movie is aiming to do something different but it’s the actual meat (no pun intended) and potatoes of the story that offers a fresh perspective on zombies. Schwarzenegger’s Wade is distraught and desperate after learning that his daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) is infected with the “Necroambulist virus” and has days left before she changes into a cannibalistic creature. Rather than focus on the terrors of what might be, Maggie opts to focus on what we know will be lost. Maggie will never know what an adult life will be life. She will never know a love that lasts the rest of her life nor will she have the chance to be a parent. Her grief at what she will never experience is matched by Wade’s overwhelming anguish that he cannot protect his daughter or be there for all those moments that could have been.

As King Theoden mournfully stated in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, “No parent should have to bury their child.”

The Girl With All The Gifts (2016)

What if the zombie was actually the character we, the audience, were pushed to care the most about? Enter Colm McCarthy’s 2016 brilliant film The Girl With All The Gifts and you’ll have that same experience. Never failing to bring scares, the film also isn’t afraid to ask how can we love that which can put us in so much danger as well as cause us so much pain? Sennia Nanua positively shines as Melanie, a young girl infected with a fungal disease that will send her on a mindless, flesh-hungry rampage were it not for a cream that remaining humans can rub on their arms to curb her appetite. As with 28 Days Later, The Girl With All The Gifts doesn’t shy away from commentary on race and class differences. But its true strength lies in its ability to make you feel for the very thing that should strike fear into your heart.

This post was sponsored by Netflix.


Continue Reading


Interview: Author Alex White on ALIEN: THE COLD FORGE



Titan Books new novel Alien: The Cold Forge finds a group of scientists conducting experiments on the titular beasts on a remote space station, and as you might expect, things don’t go so hot. While the basic setup may sound like familiar ground, author Alex White manages to twist and subvert expectations at nearly every turn, developing a book with some great characters, creepy horror setpieces and intriguing tweaks to the Xenomorph lifecycle.

I recently got to ask Alex some questions on Alien: The Cold Forge, covering how he got the job, alternate story concepts and if there was anything from the movies that was off bounds while he was writing the book.

Dread Central: Hi Alex. First off, could you give a quick overview of your writing career prior to Alien: The Cold Forge?

Alex White: I started out writing screenplays, which was a major part of my independent studies in college. Around 2005, I started seriously writing novels, and I sold my fifth book, Every Mountain Made Low, in 2015. My agent, Connor Goldsmith, parleyed that into the Alien deal for me, as well as my forthcoming three-book space opera, The Salvagers. The first book, A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe, arrives June 26th of this year.

DC: How did the concept for The Cold Forge come to you?

AW: My agent called me to let me know that I’d scored a pitch meeting with Titan editor Steve Saffel, and I had to come up with a couple of ideas, fast. I was at Adaptive Path’s UX week when Double Robotics did a presentation using their telepresence robot, and I was fascinated by the idea. What if you had one survivor in an alien outbreak who was cut off, only able to influence the outcome through telepresence? How would the other survivors react? Would they be grateful or upset?

I was also dealing with a lot of Silicon Valley tech bros at the time, and Dorian naturally evolved from the amoral folks that work at a lot of those companies. When we’re chasing profits, it’s important to ask: who gets hurt? Dorian doesn’t have that reflex.

DC: Did you pitch any other ideas for Alien stories to Titan for the book?

AW: I pitched three, but I only really remember two of them. There’s the one that eventually became The Cold Forge, and there was another that took place on a military academy on a planet overrun by aliens. The idea is that you have a bunch of troubled outcast teens who’ve been shipped away from home to get discipline, then an outbreak kills most of the adults. It sounds YA, but I wanted to turn it into full-on Lord of the Flies.

DC: Pretty much every character in The Cold Forge is flawed or corrupt in some way. Was it fun to write a story without any traditional heroes?

AW: Absolutely, because honestly, I think it represents the reality of a survival scenario. Also, can you imagine living with your coworkers for years at a time? I doubt I’d be able to survive that with a clean conscience, myself.

DC: Dorian Sudler has to one of the great all-time assholes in the franchise to date. How did you dream up such an odious character?

AW: I was dealing with a lot of Silicon Valley tech bros at the time, and Dorian naturally evolved from this utter prick of a venture capitalist who shared a cab with me one evening. When you’re dealing with big data in particular, it’s easy to violate privacy, manipulate people and outright disenfranchise folks (Check out Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil). On my product teams, we have a strict rule: “Don’t pitch me anything you don’t want used on you.” With any advancement, you might churn a good profit, but you also might end up ruining someone’s life. That’s why it’s important to ask: who gets hurt? Dorian, like that venture capitalist, doesn’t have that reflex.

DC: The relationship between Blue Marsalis and her android/nurse Marcus is also pretty intriguing, where she uses his body as an avatar to escape her own bed-ridden condition. Where did that idea come from?

AW: While I’ve already talked about Double Robotics, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that my friend’s father passed from complications of ALS around that time. Another friend of mine has a terminally-ill daughter, and watching the trials that poor kid has to endure is heartbreaking. I wanted the readers to feel the difficulties that come with a terminal condition, as well as the discrimination. Terminally-ill people are often treated as though they’re already dead. Friends drift away, unable to witness the pain unfolding before them.

Blue deals with all of that, especially the fact that her life is considered worthless by the others. If they’d managed to get to an escape pod, do you think Blue’s crewmates would’ve rescued her? If she’d died out there, who would’ve spoken a kind word?

DC: The Cold Forge reveals Facehuggers don’t actually implant an embryo but inject a black goo-like substance instead that rewrites DNA. Did you receive any pushback about making this change to their life cycle?

AW: Nope! It’s 100% in keeping with Alien: Covenant and you never actually see a larval injection onscreen. In fact, 20th Century Fox requested ZERO changes to the manuscript and sent a page full of compliments, which is probably a first!

DC: The book feels somewhat inspired by video game Alien: Isolation, including how the Xenos are depicted and certain passages like Sudler hiding in a weapons locker. Have you played the game?

AW: Oh, I absolutely did. My god, that game was a masterpiece. The thing that really stuck with me was the audible weight of the creatures. I’d never felt them so substantially in the movies.

DC: Are you a fan of any of the other Alien Expanded Universe stories, be it games, comics or novels?

AW: Oh yeah. In the 90s, I had every Dark Horse book and comic. I played all of the games, especially AvP and AvP 2 (and that badass Capcom beat-em-up that took all my quarters). Strangely enough, the creator of the AvP games was Rebellion, and their publishing arm is the company that bought my debut!

DC: Were there any story ideas that were off-limits while writing the book, e.g. mentioning certain characters or events from past movies?

AW: When I started writing, Covenant hadn’t come out yet, and Prometheus was considered a separate license, so I couldn’t use the black goo. About a month into my contract, Covenant came out and boom! I get to use everything I want.

DC: How have you found the fan response to the book so far?

AW: Incredible! They love it, and they’re so happy to tell me that. I’m really blown away by the kindness and excitement from this fandom. There are a lot of really great folks out there, especially the ones from

DC: Would you pay another visit to the Alien universe if the opportunity presented itself?

AW: You bet! I’ve always got a few more ideas in me. I’m also planning to do a commentary on my thought process while writing the book, which you can find in my newsletter.

If you fancy picking up a copy of the book for yourself, click this here link! If you like Alex’s work and you want to keep up to date with his next book, he can also be found on Twitter @alexrwhite


Continue Reading

Recent Comments


Join the Box of Dread Mailing List


Copyright © 2017 Dread Central Media LLC