What’s Behind Culture’s New Obsession With Possession?

This fall, Fox is rebooting one of the most infamous horror titles ever produced by American pop-culture: The Exorcist. Based on the 1973 film (which itself was based on a novel), the show follows two priests who find themselves facing off with the demonic, as a local family pleads for their help after they come to suspect evil forces are at work in their home.

Warning, the trailer below is disturbing.

One of the things that makes The Exorcist different than some of the other recently popular shows in the horror genre (like The X-Files, The Walking Dead, True Blood, etc.) is that it isn’t based on supernatural lore, sci-fi, ghosts or aliens. It’s based on Christian notions of horror, specifically, demonic possession.

And it’s not alone. AMC’s current hit Preacher—which is based on a comic book series—follows a minister who receives supernatural abilities after he becomes possessed by a demon/angel hybrid. In Cinemax’s Outcast, which, you guessed it, is based on a comic by Robert Kirkman, is about a minister (along with another protagonist) and, you guessed it, strange encounters with demonic possession.

None of these are overtly Christian shows in any way. But they all rely on clear religious imagery and themes in their plotlines.

Even on the big screen, the possession genre is having a moment. The recent installment in The Conjuring franchise—which is about, that’s right, demon possession—recently surpassed the $300 million mark. As Deadline notes, that makes it the third highest-grossing horror franchise of all time.

Behind the Trend

In an interview with RELEVANT, Carey Hayes, one of the screenwriters of the Conjuring films—who also happens to be a committed Christian—suggested that the newfound popularity in the genre was because people were becoming more aware of real stories that deal with possession.

“I think that social media has really exploded the ability to look at somebody else’s experiences firsthand,” he said. “You’re having the Vatican announcing that they’re training more exorcists, and [the demonic] is becoming more prevalent in our consciousness today. I think that awareness is heightened because of a deep-rooted curiosity.”

To a degree, he’s right. Social media and the internet are exposing people to new kinds of stories and experiences, but the same thing could be said for almost any topic. What if there’s something else behind the trend? Something that tells us more about culture than it does about the genre.

Deeper Anxieties

Part of the reason why the horror genre continues to be successful, is because it provides a safe way to explore deeper social anxieties, without having to face them head on. Because, in many cases, real-life concerns are even scarier than the stuff of fiction.

The subjects of horror TV shows and movies often serve as surrogates for real world fears, and understanding trends in the genre can help us understand the issues plaguing the cultural psyche.

Take one of cinema’s earliest horror hits: Godzilla. The city-leveling monster emerged as a sensation of Japanese cinema shortly after the end of WWII. On the surface, the films—and their fire-breathing, unrelenting force of destruction—are about a monster that devours cities. But, dig into the metaphor, and the movies are really about grappling with the aftermath of two nuclear attacks that wiped out cities at the end of the war and the bombs that mankind is now capable of unleashing on each other.

In post 9/11 culture, a new kind of horror fixture emerged, as the world grappled with the ever-present threat of not only terrorism, but also with how the fear of terrorism would change our values. Yes, the enemies in films like 28 Days Later and shows like the Walking Dead are flesh-eating zombies. But, the real threats in those stories are how the fear of those monsters can make us the monsters. Characters in zombie films are willing to do terrible things to each other because of the fear of zombies and the urge for self preservation, while, in the real world, things like the use of torture (or “advanced interrogation”), preemptive war and drone strikes were being debated as options to fight a threat even scarier than zombies: terrorism.

So, what does the most recent trend in the horror genre—demon possession—tell us about today’s social anxieties?

Part of what makes demon possession so scary—especially for religious audiences—is that the Bible says it’s real. Unlike ghost stories, vampires or zombies, scripture has actual accounts of possession. But, beyond the heightened realism of possession stories, there seems to be something else at play. Many people believe that possession is real, but it can still serve as a metaphor.

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Possession Obsession

Recent studies have uncovered an interesting dichotomy: The number of Americans who believe in God, who regularly pray, attend church or believe in the divine nature of scripture are at all time lows.

But, strangely, even though culture is becoming less “religious” by most measurable standards, the number of people who believe in an afterlife is at record numbers.

An author of one of the studies, Jeane Twenge of San Diego State University, told NBC News, “It was interesting that fewer people participated in religion or prayed but more believed in an afterlife.” She speculated, ”It might be part of a growing entitlement mentality—thinking you can get something for nothing.”

Maybe she’s right. Maybe it’s that entitlement culture is responsible for people foregoing religion but embracing the hope—or fear—of an afterlife. But, no matter what the reason, there is a tension that exists in today’s culture: People want salvation, but not God.

People, especially millennials, increasingly distrust the Church and organized religion. But, at the same time, they hold on to hope for some sort of life after death. They want an escape from death, but are unsure of the means to be free from it.

Maybe that’s why “possession” is having such a moment. Yes, the shows are about demons and priests who fight them. But they’re also about spiritual forces that are difficult to understand and the tension that’s created when we abandon “religion” yet still want to rely on it’s promises. That’s when we become souls tortured by the need for salvation, but a reluctance to embrace Christ.

The shows feature “demon possession,” but they’re really about something deeper: Being possessed by a repulsion of religion while still needing the saving grace of the salvation only it can offer.

In his conversation with RELEVANT, Conjuring co-screenwriter Chad Hayes explained, “These stories cross over into virtually every religion with good versus evil.” Though, in the movies, good still wins out: “We love the idea of happy endings in these movies. They’re still scary. They’re still truthful.” He says ultimately, stories like The Conjuring are scary, but in the end, are about “beating the Devil.”

If the trends shows us anything, it’s that finding hope from spiritual torment through the church and the promises of God is a message that culture needs—even if that is a scary thought for some people.

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