The devil is a woman

by Kate

Sex, women and demonic possession

There is an odd feminist strain running through horror movies about the devil. These films aren’t just about the Beast encroaching on the (usually female) body, but often examine human systems as well. The evil forces oppressing the central woman’s physiognomy are paralleled with the traditionally patriarchal structures of western medicinal practices and religion. Not surprisingly, most of the films under discussion here were made during a time when a woman’s choices during pregnancy were limited, or when government control over her body was a not-too-distant memory. Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanksi, 1968) was released in a time when abortion was still illegal in most states. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) and Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976) came out in the wake of the landmark Roe Vs. Wade case that legalized abortion in Jan. 1973. Even today, women are not safe from legislations that would determine what they can and cannot do when faced with an unwanted pregnancy.

Carrie movie

Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)

As a rule, the women who become victims are young, often on the edge of fertility. As portrayed by an 11-year-old Linda Blair in The Exorcist, Regan has grown to the point where adolescence will soon begin to overtake youthful innocence. In a way, this movie could be purely a metaphor about puberty, with the fear of sexual change manifested in demonic possession. When Regan violates herself with a crucifix, the blood that emerges reflects the primary signal of female maturity in obvious ways.

While not strictly a movie about the devil, the amount of religious imagery in Brian De Palma’s Carrie earns it a place in this discussion. The conflation of menstruation and sexual danger is even more apparent in this film, where the psycho-kinetic ability of the titular character (Sissy Spacek) arrives along with her womanhood. Carrie’s period, her mother (Piper Laurie) tells her, represents the mark of desire and the first sin. In the same regard, the scene in which Rosemary (Mia Farrow) initiates sex with her husband (John Cassavettes) on the floor of their new apartment is paired with the only other sexual encounter in the movie—the hallucinatory rape sequence. With their pleasureful tryst, the newlyweds mark the central arena of Rosemary’s future torment.

The Exorcist

The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973).

After evil rears his head, then comes the encroachment of the system to cleanse the woman of her evils, however they are manifested. In The Exorcist, Regan MacNeil’s body is subjected to a number of inhumane-looking tests. In scenes that almost appear like precursors to contemporary torture porn, she is prodded and stuck with long needles that are shoved into her face with excruciating precision. Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), begins to understand the true nature of her daughter’s predicament, but struggles to find anyone to believe her story. When faced with the systematic logic of the hospital, Chris has only her intuition as a mother to guide her. As such, her insistence upon a paranormal explanation makes her appear hysterical. In The Exorcist, the women turn to Christianity to be saved. While the priest’s willingness to sacrifice himself is a reaffirmation of Christ’s original sacrifice, we know that while Regan has only been passed over for the moment; the evil forces are still at large. 

De Palma’s movie contains a more direct indictment of western religion. Carrie escapes the hospital, but falls pray to the dogmatic beliefs of her own mother, Margaret White, whose oppressive worldview cannot accommodate both sexuality and faith. Determined to put an end to her daughter’s evil, Margaret stabs Carrie with scissors. Her daughter retaliates by puncturing Margaret’s body with flying kitchen knives, leaving her splayed out across the kitchen in a grotesque perversion of the crucifixion. 

Rosemary's Baby

Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)

Similarly, Rosemary’s condition puts her in the position of being constantly monitored by doctors. The top physician recommended by the neighbors gives her treatment she begins to suspect is ill-advised. This is not surprising, given he has been appointed by a council of witches to guide her pregnancy into demonic fruition. When Rosemary intuits that something in her pregnancy is off, her husband and neighbors persistently deny these insights, leaving Rosemary’s body to deteriorate as a baleful entity grows inside her.

These movies portray female bodies as sites upon which patriarchal fears of sexuality are played out. The physical properties of pregnancy and menstruation undermine the woman’s positions as a demure object of the gaze and provide a reminder of the raw procreative power of femininity and sexual desire. When stricken with outside forces, medicine and religion are imposed upon the woman’s body. In these nightmare scenarios, our bodies are and are not our own. Between the Madonna and the whore is the possessed woman, who is forced to navigate the spaces of western religion and medicine to be cured of the evils inflicted on her body. In the end, there is no real escape from these predicaments. Carrie, The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby are classics that still invoke unease. In a time when some are arguing for fetuses to have constitutional rights independent of the mother, and the victims of rape are often blamed for it, these movies feel more relevant than ever.