History of Demons, Possessions, Exorcisms, and the Films They Inspire

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Horror Mystery and Lore Scary Movies and Series

History of Possession and the Church

On the topic of possessions, it is widely believed that a person’s mind and soul can be possessed by spirits, whether by man, demon, or god. Prior to the biblical explanation of possession, in ancient Greece, the pagans put an emphasis on the belief that the gods would interfere with their daily lives. Their idea of possession was when a God would cause them to act in a certain manner, or simply inhabit their body to achieve an end of their own. Buddhist and Hindu beliefs considered possessive interference by gods and demons to be everyday occurrences; African tribal religions and their respective offshoots consider possession the way that their gods and secondary deities show favor and proof of their power. Christianity over the centuries has been very vocal in regards to possession, declaring that true possession was only ever the work of, “unclean spirits,” either a minion of hell or the Devil himself. There are rare references to possessions by the divine spirit, just as Jesus Christ’s disciples were reportedly overcome with the Holy Spirit after his crucifixion. Alternative theories of this suggest, however, that possession by the divine spirit is actually just the Devil in disguise, in an attempt to fool the vulnerable. Early theologians denied there was ever an instance of possession being anything but the Devil’s handiwork.

St. Francis of Borgia Exorcising a Demon
St. Francis of Borgia – Exorcism by Goya

The Christian culture continues to dominate when it comes to popular theories of demons—any average person is going to associate demons with the Devil and his origin in Christianity—this can be troublesome to those deeply immersed in the religion, as it is still an incredibly popular topic in possession movies. Popular demon culture is the driving force for how we continue to see them in books and films and is what is most concerning to people with respect to horror culture. After all, there’s nothing more terrifying than the thought that a malicious spirit or demon has complete control of your body and mind—that you are what goes bump in the night—and showing signs of unusual behavior or expressing radically different ideals that what was common for the day would essentially damn an individual to being accused of possession. Luckily in the modern era, individuals are given more leeway to change up their perspectives, and essentially change the way their lives are going without being considered to be under demonic possession. Surprisingly, an aspect of possession theory that is not fully explored is exactly how the Devil or his minions claim their victims in the first place. There are two popular explanations within possession lore, that the spirit can pass directly into a person’s mind and soul or by using a witch to curse the victim. Of course, the Church’s position on the method of possession was that the Devil preferred to enlist the help of the evil individuals to do his dirty work—so witches would transmit the demons to the vulnerable through charm, potion, amulet, and most frequently food. The food of choice is the infamous apple—not just the symbol of the fall of man, when Eve took a bite of the apple of Eden, but also a popular symbol elsewhere in folklore, such as the original Germanic tale of Snow White. The only formal rite of exorcism is practiced by the Catholic church, which to this day recognizes clairvoyance, abnormal physical strength, blasphemy, and levitation as proof of demonic possession—the only salvation from possession is a formal exorcism.

The Spiritualist Movement

Many practices began gaining momentum with the spiritualist movements, including the act of psychic mediums inviting possession in order to speak to the dead—the belief is that the possession is temporary and controlled by the medium and their spirit guides. These possessions typically would take place within a séance, in conjunction with other practices such as the use of Ouija boards, or automatic writing.

The Exorcism of Roland Doe

Horror culture classic The Exorcist (1973) was actually inspired by a true story; a thirteen-year-old grief-stricken boy, under the pseudonym of Roland Doe, had recently lost his spiritualist Aunt Harriet a woman who had taught Roland how to use Ouija Boards, as well as many other taboo practices.  Directly following his Aunt’s death, in January of 1949, Roland began to experience troubling things—scratching and other inexplicable sounds echoed from the floors and walls of his room, and his bed would jerk around suddenly. Psychiatrists and their local church were of no help to Roland’s family, but they still sought the help of a local Catholic priest who received permission to perform an exorcism which ended in the priest being slashed by the boy. Roland was still in trouble, scratches appeared on his skin, at night after going to sleep for the night, the boy would scream out, trash about his bed wildly, and speak in tongues. After many failed exorcism attempts, he was finally moved to a hospital where the boy underwent one final attempt, during which he screamed that Satan was with him until the priests called upon St. Michael to rid the boy of his demons. From that day forward, Roland no longer experienced any strange happenings and went on to live a normal life.

Exorcism Movies and TV Shows that you need to see!

Do you have any movies or tv shows about demonic possession and exorcisms you’d like to see on our list? Let us know about them in the comments!

Telling the Difference Between Demonic Entities

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Horror Mystery and Lore

Possession movies, even when they are highly religious in context, bring in huge crowds of fans, starting with The Exorcist (1973) and continuing on throughout the years, we never really get down to the brass tacks of demonic entities, who they are—or might be—and the people they have affected. Demon lore is complex in every religion and affiliated culture, there are elaborate organizational schemes for demons dated back from the 16th and 17th centuries and yet we still have so little understanding of them. For the many ills and misfortunes that plague the human race, there is the possibility of a demonic association that leads to exorcisms in many cultures. Specifically, in Catholicism, exorcisms deal with demonic possession, in which demons are said to battle for control of the soul of the victim they have targeted, these practices date back to 1614.

The Demons that Invade Our Lives

Christian demonologist Johann Weyer estimated that there were nearly 7.5 million demons that served as minions to 72 different princes of hell. Each of these demons belongs to a class of demons; to name a few, there are demons that attack people in their sleep, drain vitality, or possess those who are struggling with their own identity. So, let’s take a look at the different types of demonic entities that go beyond the typical Catholic exorcism expectations.

Attractive demoness
Photography by Alice Alinari

The Succubus

During the Middle Ages, authorities within the Christian religion asserted the existence of sex demons, which they furthered that to insinuating that sex with such demons was a sign of witchcraft. Although it’s a widely accepted possibility in the paranormal community, the stories and theories of such acts are described as horrific to experience. To be clear, while this may sound like an exciting ride for some lonely people out there, it’s not something that anyone in their right mind would purposefully pursue—it’s never consensual.

The Djinn

Collection of Genie Lamps--don't summon a Djinn!
Photography by Louis Hansel

Between 100 and 400 AD, the Testament of Solomon was written, which served as a list for Hebrew, Greek, Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Persian demons. The Djinn are self-propagating, malicious, yet mortal demons. They are an invisible creature by nature but have shape-shifting abilities so they may better stalk their prey. Solomon was able to control these types of demons which he called djinn with his magical ring and he would frequently treat them as his own personal slaves by making them transport him wherever he wished upon their backs.

My Dream, My Bad Dream, Fritz Schwimbeck, 1915. Fritz Schwimbeck
My Dream, My Bad Dream, Fritz Schwimbeck, 1915.

The Nightmare

The story of this nocturnal visitor originated in the ancient world, in which a spirit or demon would come into the room of its sleeping victim, male or female, to incapacitate the individual and feed off of their vitality. In all reported cases, it is said the victim awakens to either a heavy weight on their chest or one that starts at their feet and progresses to their chest, either way, they are unable to move out from under the weight of the night hag. As they’re feeding off of the individual, the victim feels as if they’re suffocating and paralyzed, despite being fully conscious. Victims of the night hag end up reporting feeling groggy, sick, and otherwise exhausted both mentally and physically the next day.

Western-style vampire bears her fangs.
Photography by Rondell Melling

The Vampire

Now just wait, you’re probably conjuring up an image of Dracula hunched in a dark window of his castle in Transylvania, brooding and dangerous. The concept of the vampire in modern culture, especially since Stoker’s rendition, are the undead who return to kill and torture the living, but the actual origin is somewhat different. Older than the Slavic version of Dracula is a supernatural and demonic entity that did not actually take human form and it spans the world with small variations.

The Serpent and the Rainbow: Dissecting the Truth of Voodoo in Movies

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Reviews Scary Movies and Series
The Serpent and the Rainbow Movie Poster
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Even if you’ve never been buried alive, rest assured, this movie cannot hope to capture the terror that one must feel waking up to the darkness and heart-stopping fear of waking up in a coffin, with no possible hope of being rescued. If you have not yet seen The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), then perhaps it’s time—this movie has aged well, at the time of this posting, it’s nearly thirty-two years old, still relevant and pretty terrifying through the right lens. Given the fact that this movie was created in the late eighties, it stands to reason that if it were remade, it could be given new life, it definitely has the potential with a higher-rated actor and better cinematography to be a more nail-biting journey to have a glimpse into what zombification in the voodoo culture is truly about. The Serpent and the Rainbow was based on a book with the same name and directed by Wes Craven—a highly regarded thrill-maker in his heyday—and is given the attribute of being inspired by a true story, which is believable considering the attention to detail that was paid to even the most insignificant aspects of the story.

“In the legends of voodoo
The Serpent is a symbol of Earth.
The Rainbow is a symbol of Heaven.
Between the two, all creatures must live and die.
But because he has a soul
Man can be trapped in a terrible place
Where death is only the beginning.”

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Set during the political unrest of Haiti in 1978, Dr. Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman), an anthropologist turned field-researcher has just come back from exploring for medicinal herbs and plants; he’s hailed as a hero at the biological research company, at which he works because he’s brought back medicines that no one before has ever been able to collect. No rest is given for the weary though and he’s immediately asked to go investigate the mysteries of zombification in Haiti—they have just come across evidence of a case eerily similar to that of real-life Clairvius Narcisse. Christophe was a man who died and was brought back to life. So, Dr. Alan sets off to find this mysterious zombification powder, something his bosses hope to find useful in their medical research.

Surprisingly, much of the lore of voodoo is represented quite faithfully, which has a lot to do with the fact that most of the movie was filmed on location during a time of political and social unrest; the scenes in which voodoo rituals occur, they were actually filming voodoo practitioners who were in a trance state. The authenticity of these scenes sets this movie apart from any other movie about voodoo that is out there, it can’t get more realistic than this without being an outright documentary. The whole movie was based loosely around The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) a non-fiction book was written by Wade Davis. The author is to this day, an anthropologist who initially made himself famous by his research in the field of psychoactive plants; he was one of the first outsiders to gain access to the secrets of zombification and how the powder was created, which are highly guarded secrets in the community of voodoo in Haiti.

So, while simultaneously staying true to much of what voodoo is about and not intending to create a horror movie, director Wes Craven was somehow able to make the movie a psychological experience that kept it both interesting and entertaining, long enough to get to the meat and bones of the plot. Insights into the poorly staffed insane asylums and the psychological state of a person who had undergone the trauma of being drugged, declared dead, buried alive and then being dug up and made to serve a master, created an environment early in the movie that this entire expedition was going to be a dangerous one for Dr. Alan. Like a well-trained and eager anthropologist, our antagonist goes above and beyond what any sane field researcher would do, finding himself in graveyards searching for a mentally unstable resurrected Christophe, attending voodoo rituals in which he witnesses men chewing on fire and women eating glass, and running into an evil witch doctor, Peytraud, who does not want him to be successful in finding the secrets to zombification. It’s important to watch this movie without any lens of bias, as far as what valid religion and spiritual practice are, it requires people to be open to what is possible when belief in the strange and unnatural is strong and unwavering.

Possessing the knowledge that Wes Craven never intended this movie to be a horror flick, it’s quite easy to see past the dated effects and experience Dr. Alan’s nightmarish visions with the depth of fear that someone that has had the superstition of the land seeded into his brain. With an added element of complexity, Dr. Alan falls for the beautiful psychiatrist who aids him in his journey to the highly sought-after zombification powder, which allows him to be more easily manipulated by Peytraud who later has Dr. Alan in his clutches. The cinematography in the torture room of Peytraud is intense, especially considering the time in which the movie was made, the gore wasn’t a necessary element to induce fear in audiences. We know what is going to happen to our antagonist when we find him being strapped into a chair, with his underwear around his ankles, when Peytraud reveals a coffin nail and tells Dr. Alan that he wants to, “hear (him) scream.”

Dr. Alan drowning in blood in a nightmare
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Not to be deterred, we see the effects that Peytraud has had to Dr. Alan’s mental state, his nightmares and visions get worse—he’s being buried alive in his dreams, he screams as blood begins to fill the coffin and quickly consumes his body. Political tactics are taken to scare Dr. Alan into leaving Haiti without what he came for, which nearly works if it weren’t for his hidden ally who ends up sneaking it to him after he has been forced into a plane that will take him home. Threats of being arrested and executed have been levied on him, which means he has to leave his lover, Marielle (Cathy Tyson), behind despite the danger she would be in for her associations with him. The brief time back in Boston is punctuated with the powder having been researched, which the movie is also incredibly true to its source, noting that the subject would be aware of everything that was going on, while still appearing clinically dead. Peytraud shows himself through magical means, making it clear that he can reach Dr. Alan wherever he may be—his visions have not ceased since arriving back home. Dr. Alan returns to Haiti in order to make sure Marielle is safe, he finds the ally that gave him the powder has been executed for what he has done—this is where things truly turn bad for him.

Don’t let them bury me. I’m not dead.

Dr. Alan – The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

After having zombie powder blown into his face by one of Peytraud’s associates, Dr, Alan stumbles through the village and eventually falls to the ground, pale and apparently dying–he utters the words that the movie is famous for, “Don’t let them bury me. I’m not dead.” The fear in his eyes is not overplayed, in fact, this part was incredibly well done. After being declared dead in the hospital, we see Peytraud has taken control of his body and is seeing to it that Dr. Alan is put in the grave.

“When you wake up, Dr. Alan—scream.
Scream all you want, there is no escape from the grave.”

Peytraud – The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Before watching this movie, I read reviews of it, so this is always where I was led to believe that the movie ended—our hero, the noble anthropologist, seeking secrets for the future of medicine gets buried alive and that’s that—the ultimate fear of someone who is claustrophobic, meeting their demise in a cramped box with severely limited oxygen. Except, this isn’t where we end—Christophe, comes to Dr. Alan’s rescue when he awakens from his drug-induced trance and begins to scream. In a moment of unexpected vulnerability, Christophe consoles the anthropologist, “You’re alive. You see things the living can’t see. In a daring rescue of his lover, Dr. Alan squares off against Peytraud where he encounters several setbacks and finally overcomes the mind control of his nemesis, defeats the bad guy, rescues the girl, and saves the day. His visions cease and we’re led to believe that he goes on to live a happy and full life.

All in all, this movie has stayed relevant over the past three decades and is highly recommended for being both unique and authentic in its representation of zombies. You’ve got to check this one out!