I want to start by saying that I'm not the first person to point out the connection between possessed female bodies and burgeoning adolescent female sexuality. The 1973 film The Exorcist, which I would argue is the exorcism tale upon which all other contemporary exorcism stories are based, has been the center of many critiques about what this popular story is saying about the fear of female sexuality.
It's a tale as old as time, really. Girl meets demon, demon takes over girl's body, girl begins to say sexually suggestive things to terrified adults, girl masturbates with a cross, and the terror just escalates from there. In the end, the demon must be exorcised from the young innocent girl's body by a priest, an older male priest to be precise, so that order can be restored. The young innocent girl's tarnished body can only be made right again by the "power of Christ," suggesting the adolescent female body is unclean and this can only be mitigated by submitting to the patriarchal religious leader.
I know I'm harping on The Exorcist here, but that's only because The Exorcist, to me, is the movie that created the demonic possession film genre as we know of it today; the list of movies that follow this pattern of adolescent female possession is ever-growing. And this isn't just Hollywood misogyny; a lot of people believe there is religious precedent for this. Most recently, in the extremely disturbing Netflix docu-series The Keepers, we were shown how religious beliefs about the uncleanness of adolescent female bodies can play out in extremely destructive ways. Women's bodies and minds are traditionally seen as more vulnerable, more susceptible to evil, which is why women need the help of a pious man to guide them away from their demonic predilections.
Or do they?
So I guess literature is good for something after all.
Paul Tremblay's A Head Full of Ghosts includes all of the demonic possession tropes that we've come to know and love. Teenaged Marjorie is shown vomiting at the dinner table. She watches her little sister Merry sleep and tells her frightening stories of death and destruction. She masturbates in front of her family members and accuses her father of wanting to be sexually intimate with her. Finally, a priest is brought in to exorcise the demon when nothing else seems to be working. While Tremblay does bring more contemporary issues such as Internet culture and reality television into the mix, in the beginning this story seems to be familiar fare.
What makes A Head Full of Ghosts interesting is that the presence and threat of the father is often just as dangerous, if not more so, than the demonic possession itself. The father's fear of his daughter's condition does more harm than good, and by the end, readers are left questioning if Marjorie was even possessed at all or if we were dealing with a situation more reminiscent of the very real and tragic Anneliese Michel case. The father's fear of his daughter's sexual awakening and journey into adulthood might very well be the thing that puts his whole family in danger.
While the presence of actual demons is left ambiguous in Tremblay's novel, My Best Friend's Exorcism is explicitly supernatural. In his follow up to the popular Horrorstör (which we cover on our podcast, available June 19), Grady Hendrix turns the exorcism genre on its head to send a surprisingly effective and even--dare I say--positive message about female sexuality and the power of friendship.
I'm going to attempt to make this as spoiler-free as possible because I absolutely adore this book, so even if you haven't read My Best Friend's Exorcism yet, read on, and then go pick up a copy of this book as soon as you're done.
Conceptually, My Best Friend's Exorcism is what you get when you cross Heathers and Mean Girls with The Exorcist. On the concept alone, I was completely sold and prepared for a fun and light Halloween-y listen on my drive to Nashville last October (thanks, Audible -- no they're not paying me... yet); however, by the time I got to the end of this book, I realized that Hendrix is accomplishing a great deal more with this novel than what I was originally expecting, especially when comparing this to other exorcism stories.
Yes, sexuality and religion play a role in this novel (would it really be a demonic possession if they didn't?). Abby Rivers is horrified to discover that Gretchen Lang, her best friend since the 4th grade, has been possessed by an evil demon after a sleepover gone wrong (including LSD and a scary nighttime-in-the-dark-woods scene). But even from the beginning of this possession, everything feels different. When lucid, Gretchen is able to describe her terror to her best friend; for instance, at one point she explains to Abby why she hasn't been showering: "I can't change clothes... I have to stay covered. I have to sleep in my clothes and I can't shower because when he sees my skin, he tears it. I can't give him a way in. I have to keep him out. Do you understand?" Moments like this between the two friends reveal Gretchen's struggle to maintain control of her own body and her sexuality. Rather than needing a male force to reign in her body and sexuality, she is trying to keep that patriarchal force out, confiding in her female friend instead of in a priest or another male figure.
When Abby feels as if she might be in over her head, she does turn to an exorcist to try to help her, and it's no coincidence that the exorcist of this story is a hyper-masculine body builder as well as a servant of Christ. By making this very conscious choice, Hendrix pokes fun at the uber-patriarchal nature of the traditional exorcism model. In the end, without giving too much away, the super-jacked muscular macho man exorcist is not strong enough to defeat the demons within Gretchen. Only Abby is.
In an interview about the novel, Hendrix said, "I realized that the one thing that could combat the Devil in the modern world, when we aren’t as religious as we used to be, would be the power of friendship." More specifically, this novel is about the power of female friendship. But while Gretchen and Abby's friendship is strong enough to defeat the gnarliest of evil demons, it's somehow not overly romanticized either. Their connection is intense, meaningful, and yet tenuous at the same time, falling victim to time and distance as many high school friendships do. The significance of the friendship is nonetheless never downplayed. It's important, it's meaningful, and its imprint will last a lifetime on both of the girls involved, exorcism or no exorcism. I am impressed that in a novel filled with explicit gore and horror, more than anything the power of Abby and Gretchen's friendship is what really sticks with me.
Exorcism stories are traditionally misogynist and fearful of the female body, but with novels like A Head Full of Ghosts and My Best Friends Exorcism, it looks like we might be moving into a more nuanced, more (dare I say) "woke," version of demonic possession. What's the next step for exorcism fiction? I can't help but notice that both of the novels I've mentioned are written by men about adolescent girls, which still suggests a level of horror, disgust and potential misunderstanding about the adolescent female body. What would an exorcism story written by a woman look like? What would a exorcism on a male body look like?
If you've read (or seen) any good versions of an exorcism plot written by a woman, please send it my way. I would love to report back with an answer to my own questions one of these days.
And (shameless plug alert) -- if you're interested in reading My Best Friend's Exorcism by Grady Hendrix, don't forget to enter our giveaway. I'm telling you right now the prize box is going to be kick-ass. The giveaway runs until June 24th!
About the Blog
The authors of this blog are four women with opinions about pop culture. That's all you really need to know.