Movies often make reference to current events without directly recreating them. Horror films, however, sometimes translate larger cultural anxieties into scare tactics. To that point, feminists have a love/hate relationship with horror films because horror as a genre has a love/hate relationship with women. Some feminists embarce films like Carrie, Scream, or Jennifer's Body, for example.
The portrayal of women in The Last Exorcism (2010) and The Exorcism (1973) doesn't meet that bar. In both films, female sexuality is vilified. The protagonist in both becomes possessed by an evil entity and create a hellish environment for those in her presence: extreme body contortions, self-mutilation, and gory murders. What is more terrifying than slicing off your own arm with an electric carver? Try slut-shaming by associating sexual desire with demonic possession.
Don't believe me? Read on.
In The Last Exorcism Ashley Bell plays a teenager named Nell who is the daughter of an evangelical farmer. Nell is sheltered by her father but nonetheless becomes possessed.
Then everything changes: Nell makes sexual advances towards the priest performing the exorcism; no longer is she an asexual, innocent child. She's a masturbating, sexual beast. The filmmakers show a dangerous innocent vs. guilty dynamic that associates sexuality with evil. In other words: women as either virgin or whore.
Even the body contortions reflect back on female sexuality: think of the backward bend as an exaggerated female orgasm. Actress Linda Blair who played the possessed child Regan in the original Exorcist masturbates with a cross. In this scene, it is pretty obvious what message the filmmakers wanted to send to young girls: “female sexuality is satanic.” Or, at least, the culture-at-large believes it is.
Amanda Marcotte argues in this great essay that women in exorcism movies are punished for being "sexual, single, working [and] agnostic." A perfect example is in The Exorcist: the mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, is an atheist and is punished through her daughter's strange behavior. As I watched this film, I wondered: "Is feminism the devil?"
Demons love to possess women, but luckily men are destined to save them.
In The Exorcist, the exorcism is performed by two celibate priests. They have dedicated their lives to saving the female body from herself.
The Catholic church's values are still deeply ingrained in modern culture, and men have long-held the highest positions within it . If anything, exorcism films show the danger of fearing women for being women — and we all live in a culture that does just that.