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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.

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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 anyawrites.com, and follow her shenanigans on Twitter @BookishPlinko.