Almost fifty years ago, The Exorcist came out and my world, as a child amateur writer, changed forever. I had read the book not long after it came out, swiped from my older sister’s collection. I was terrified reading it. I remember sleeping with the closet doors open and making sure to shine my flashlight under my bed before laying down and fighting off sleep for fear. When the movie was released and my parents reluctantly allowed my older sister to go, I begged them to let me go. I got an absolute “no” from them because so much had been written in tabloids about the movie and how people were going crazy and even killing themselves after viewing it. And yes, I went against their wishes, promising my sister I would not tell. I remember watching the movie between my fingers as my hands covered my face and being relieved when the end credits rolled. I had never seen anything like it before – had never even imagined anything like it but remember wanting to go home and immediately write a story just like it; one that would scare the poop out of people.
Possession films began to roll, and it became a huge sub-genre. I began to search for those types of stories in books. I found some and my sister helped me, because she was into creepy shit back then too. Those movies and books shaped the direction of my writing and much of the reason that I created my own series of books with “Hauntings”, following the career of a rogue exorcist.
What is it about these possession movies that makes them so popular among fans? Polls have demonstrated that about 60% of Americans believe in demonic possession. There is no shortage of websites, books, or articles on the topic of either cases of possession or what to do in the case of a possession. Even the Vatican offers a course in exorcism and has opened it up to other Christian denominations due to the rise in demands for “deliverance” from demonic possession. As for the movies, well, we all like to be scared; it is exhilarating. We just like to know we are “safe”, like in the comfort of our home or in a theater with other people. We have a fear of the unknown, yet we are drawn to it like it is the center of a gravitational force.
With my love of horror and, specifically possession horror, here is my own personal list of the top possession movies ever made. Keep in mind, there are so many movies in this sub-genre that not all of them are going to fit in this article, so I’ve listed my very favorite ones. I’d love to hear yours if you have additions to the list.
- The Exorcist (1973) – This movie is still the most frightening movie ever made. Director William Friedken pushed the envelope on a lot of things that the public had never seen before. The scene with Regan “stabbing” herself with the cross was extremely controversial and they got away with it. This is the measuring stick for all other possession movies.
- The Omen (1976) – This movie was just plain scary and capitalized on the slogan suggesting we were near the end of the world. A rising politician who is manipulated into adopting an orphaned baby after his own son dies in childbirth. But he and his psychologically fragile wife, who doesn’t know about the switch, are soon beset by unexplained “accidental” deaths, while he is haunted by tormented figures who claim that little Damien is the Antichrist — the son of the devil, born into the world to bring about its end. They were able to cast a big named star, Gregory Peck, in a leading role and that was huge for the horror market. This was the first in the sub-genre to actually show the devil as a person walking here on earth.
- The Evil Dead (1981) – While this one and the remake are both very good, the 1981 version was amazing as an independent B-class movie that crossed over into mainstream. Ashley “Ash” Williams and his group of friends hike into the woods for an overnight stay in a secluded cabin. There, they find the Necronomicon book, which is filled with ancient texts that reawaken the dead. A flood of evil is released, and this movie became a classic.
- Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – This movie predated The Exorcist and was brilliantly filmed by Roman Polanski. he shot the entire movie without any supernatural events being filmed. The antagonist was the baby. The movie has you wondering if this chic is just crazy or there really is something evil going on and we don’t see a single shred of evidence of a supernature evil until after the baby is born. This is a timeless classic but watch the original, not the edited television version.
- The Conjuring (2013) – In this movie, a family, the Perron’s, summons the Ed and Lorraine Warren to the Perron house where a supernatural presence has made itself known to their five daughters. Another “based on true story”, this has some very good jump scenes and scary, creepy parts with the Perron mother who was possessed. Excellent in captured the process of a possession. I had the opportunity to chat with Andrea Perron, the eldest of the daughters, about their time in that house and it was very revealing.
- The Amityville Horror(2005) – The book was much more terrifying than the movie, but this movie does capture the essence of evil in the backstory, which is definitely true. Ronald Defeo murdered his father, mother, two brothers, and two sisters in their sleep. He said in trial, because he heard voices that told him to do it. The old, “devil made me do it” defense. The book and movie is about the Lutz family, who moved into the home after the incident and claim they, too, heard voices and felt a change in their family being influenced by evil. Much has been said about this being a hoax, but the case file by Ed Warren, which I also read, was very convincing. Whether it is true or not, the movie was creepy and a good possession flick. Don’t bother with the rest of this franchise, though.
- The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) – I’m not sure how I feel about this movie because so much is given away in the opening. The rest of the story is told through flashbacks and the evidence provided by witnesses at the trial. While the prosecution argued that Emily Rose suffered from Epilepsy and psychosis to explain her actions and events (even her speaking in tongues), there was compelling enough evidence to make you believe this truly was a possession. Yes, it was based on the true story of Anneliese Michel, a German woman who underwent 67 Catholic exorcism rites during the year before her death at 23 years old.
- Insidious (2010) – A couple’s son falls into an inexplicable coma. Frustrated at no answers, they begin to look at the possibly of paranormal and supernatural. They call paranormal investigators in and they feel the son has travelled to dark realm called “The Further” and the leader of the team must enter the realm to bring the boy back. This had a Poltergeist and a Conjuring feel to it, though predated The Conjuring. It was, however, directed by James Wan, so there may be the connection for the similarity.
- The Last Exorcism (2010) – This is a found footage movie, from the vein of Blair Witch. It follows two individuals who are documenting a reverend seeking to prove that exorcisms are one big hoax. The reverend even confesses he’s performed fake exorcisms. But when a farmer claims his daughter is possessed and they go to investigate, things go sideways quickly. This was a creepy movie.
- The Cleansing Hour (2019) – I may take some heat from fans for listing this in the top ten and all I will say is, watch the movie. Writer/Director Damien Leveck filmed a great possession movie and I have to say that much of the believability of this movie goes to the female lead, Alix Angelis for her brilliant performance as the possessed. The story goes, two childhood friends are streaming online exorcisms, fake of course, with one of the friends playing the part of the priest. However, something goes wrong on this night and what was supposed to be a scripted show becomes very real to everyone involved.