The Exorcist is fairly unique in that it is one of the few novels to cover all three points of what I call the horror triangle. By that I mean that it manages to combine socio-political, psychological and supernatural interpretations in one story.
Even if The Exorcist (the novel rather than the film) at times threatens to collapse under the weight of its own ambiguity (Is Reagan possessed or is she suffering from a psychological disorder? Could it be a disorder brought on by the divorce of her parents? Neglect by her career-minded mother? Teenage rebellion in the age of the generation gap?) it remains one of the most frightening horror stories because it can be interpreted in any of these ways.
The Last Exorcism - one of the better of the recent crop of Exorcist-inspired films - tries to achieve the same level of ambiguity as to whether the possession victim is truly possessed or suffering from a mental illness, but it also attempts a discourse on the ‘possession’ phenomenon itself as a social (rather than psychological or spiritual) problem. This is an interesting and potentially progressive development in the sub-genre of ‘demonic possession films’, although it ultimately presents a dilemma for the film-makers that they are not prepared to resolve.
Throughout history, exorcism, has, of course, been used as a particularly brutal form of repression, especially in Africa, parts of Asia and some Christian fundamentalist communities in the United States. The ‘possessed’ person (more often than not a woman) has ‘transgressed’ the rules of that society in some way and the occasion of sin has been blamed on an evil influence. However, what constitutes ‘sin’ in these cases of ‘spirit possession’ is often anything that threatens the patriarchal power structure. ‘The Jezebel Spirit’, for example, ‘one of the most common spirits in operation today’ according to one Christian fundamentalist website, ‘seeks to emasculate all men, and divest them of their authority and power over others’ and is ‘the daughter behind feminism.’1
Returning to The Last Exorcism, the ‘Jezebel’ in this case is a young pregnant girl in Louisiana, who is suspected of having been sexually abused by her father. The blame for the incest is being laid at the feet of the victim rather than the abuser, the film suggests, with ‘spirit possession’ masking the truth.
What is intriguing about The Last Exorcism is that it initially seems to want to debunk the belief in possession and discredit the fundamentalist values that underlie it. Cotton, the exorcist in the film, actually does not believe in possession and takes part in the ‘documentary’ to expose the fraudulence of exorcism. From there the film goes on seemingly to condemn the belief, obscuring as it does true social evils (in this case poverty, incest, rape). Using the ‘mock-documentary’ format reinforces this apparent agenda of exposing exorcism as a social issue that needs to be tackled. The film faces a problem, however, as it still wants to maintain the ambiguity of whether Nell is actually possessed or not. This presents the film-makers with a dilemma – if Nell is truly possessed the potentially progressive agenda of the film is lost. If she is not possessed but psychologically ill due to abuse, then this will surely disappoint the horror audience and the box-office will suffer.
Ultimately the film attempts to 'resolve' this dilemma by side-stepping it completely and presenting a third ‘explanation’. I won’t reveal what it is for those who have not seen the film, but I found the conclusion somewhat unsatisfactory and rather a loss of nerve on the film-maker’s behalf. A shame for a film which, for most of its running time, attempts to break new ground. Still, miles ahead of The Rite.