From Reaffirming to Challenging Traditions: A critical comparison of The Last Exorcism and The Last Exorcism Part II

This post is based on a presentation that I delivered along with Dr. CarrieLynn D. Reinhard at the MPCA/ACA annual conference which took place October 3-5, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. This paper is part of a larger project exploring how exorcism films deal a variety of cultural tensions, including female subjugation/rebellion, colonialism, and more. We hope to develop this project as a book, and recently submitted a prospectus and a version of this sample chapter to a publisher. As always, I welcome any and all feedback, so if you have an suggestions or questions, please leave them in the comments below the article. In any event, thanks for reading.

From Reaffirming to Challenging Traditions: A critical comparison of The Last Exorcism and The Last Exorcism Part II

 Introduction

This paper examines how The Last Exorcism (2010) and The Last Exorcism Part II (2013) differ in their representation of the concepts of possession and exorcism. While The Last Exorcism makes use of the found footage conceit to project the illusion that the events onscreen are real, the film’s narrative reflects what we have termed the “traditional exorcism narrative” initially established in The Exorcist (1973). Beat for beat, The Last Exorcism presents a savior priest attempting to exorcise a helpless woman whose possession makes her at once a monster and a damsel in distress. Thus, the film’s innovation primarily lies in how it portrays these events, rather than in its content. In contrast, The Last Exorcism Part II rejects the found footage conceit in favor of a more straightforward Hollywood narrative structure. The film’s portrayal of exorcism, however, problematizes the traditional exorcism narrative due to the way it ultimately resolves the central character’s possession, because it represents the rare occurrence of a possession narrative that does not align with the idea of oppressing or suppressing feminine power, sexuality, and agency.

Comparative analysis of these two films reveals that when taken together they function as a commentary on traditional prevailing sociocultural narratives regarding women, femininity and female propriety; chiefly, these films deal with the conceptualization of women as damsels in distress in need of saving. Our analysis will demonstrate that while The Last Exorcism aligns with this narrative, The Last Exorcism Part II subverts it by empowering the possessed woman to embrace her power, her sexuality, and her sense of self, and subsequently overthrow her oppressors. Moreover, the sequel’s ending, which can be read as empowering, represents a potential signal of the changes occurring in American society and culture during the time of the film’s production. These changes involve reflecting on the need to allow anyone the ability to determine their own identity and take control of their own life.

The Horrors of the Possessed Woman

This paper considers two examples of the cinematic horror subgenre we refer to as “exorcism cinema.” The central plot of such films chiefly concerns the possession of an individual and the subsequent performance of an exorcism ritual to cast out that demon or evil spirit. Such films tackle the subject of possession and exorcism from a variety of religious affiliations, and seem to have occurred primarily during two key time periods: the 1970s and the 2000s. Prior to the 1970s, only a handful of exorcism films existed, including such notable examples as Der Dybbuk (1937) and Naked Evil (1966). The subgenre did not truly take shape, however, until the release of The Exorcist (1973), which remains perhaps the most popular and recognizable example of exorcism cinema to date. In The Exorcist, a preteen girl, Regan (Linda Blair), becomes possessed by the demon Pazuzu and threatens the lives and livelihoods of her family and friends (Fig. 1). Two priests, Father Karras (Jason Miller) and Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), join the battle for the young girl’s soul, but lose their lives in the process. Following the theatrical re-release of The Exorcist in 2000 (complete with deleted footage re-inserted into the film), a new wave of exorcism movies emerged. Nearly all the films in this subgenre, both domestic and international, owe a debt to the success of The Exorcist, particularly in how they represent the struggle between possession and exorcism.

Fig. 1: In The Exorcist, as in most films that comprise the exorcism cinema subgenre, a demon possesses a young girl and renders her a threat to those around her.
Fig. 1: In The Exorcist, as in most films that comprise the exorcism cinema subgenre, a demon possesses a young girl and renders her a threat to those around her.

In the decades that followed, exorcism films from around the world would attempt to replicate The Exorcist’s plot, to the point that it would become the de facto narrative convention of the overall exorcism cinema subgenre. The repeated use of this particular narrative convention requires analysis due to the way it portrays a girl or young woman as both a threat to those around her and a victim of forces beyond her control. In these narratives, the possessed girl or woman becomes a site for fear, a representation of an evil that a male savior, usually a priest, must act to dispel or suppress so that normal, decent life may resume. At the same time, she represents a passive figure unable to save herself from demonic possession, and therefore must rely entirely upon the efforts of the heroic priest savior. Thus, the possessed woman becomes both monster and damsel in distress, and we believe this altogether problematic representation of femininity requires unpacking.

According to Noël Carroll (1990), monsters provide the foundation for many horror movies because they embody contradictions. Horror stories regularly portray monsters as manifestations of the “abnormal, as disturbances of the natural order” (Carroll 16). Thus, monsters exemplify the impure, unclear, and threatening, and film and literature regularly present them as “categorically interstitial, categorically contradictory, incomplete, or formless” (Carroll 32). Monsters, then, represent opposing binaries because they exemplify features, themes, and metaphors that simultaneously connote either good or bad qualities. For instance, vampires and zombies occupy a liminal space between the living and the dead, while werewolves inhabit the space between humans and animal. Other examples include aliens (physical unknowns), giant insects (the miniscule made large), and possessed people (human yet demonic). Horror stories and films model fear and disgust as the natural reaction to this unnaturalness, and thus condition audiences to react with “horror” to abnormal manifestations along with the characters. Horror movies inspire fear primarily because they contain monsters that “are not only physically threatening; they are cognitively threatening. They are threats to common knowledge” (Carroll 34). Therefore, viewers become scared emotionally because they fear the illogic of what they see embodied in the monster.

This clip from The Howling (1981, dir. Joe Dante) demonstrates how the interstitial nature of monsters inspires horror in viewers.

Horror films tend to situate women in two primary roles, both of which position them as the “Other.” Whereas men frequently tend to assume the role of the hero that vanquishes the monster by the end of the film, women in horror films chiefly function as the victim. Aside from the recurring “Final Girl” or “Survivor Girl” trope, horror films generally do not position women as the hero; meaning, in comparison to the male heroes of such films, women tend to occupy the position of the Other. Women become Othered in horror films either through a lack of agency that situates them as relying entirely upon the efforts of the hero, or through positioning as a threatening figure the hero must stop, repress, or destroy. Conversely, horror films frequently Other women by positioning them in the role of the monster itself. According to Barbara Creed, the “monstrous-feminine” (251) positions the woman as a threat to patriarchal society, symbolically situating her as a deviant, non-human creature as a way of establishing this positioning. Creed contends that the “purification of the abject” represents the central concern of horror films (257). By directly confronting the abject through the regular depiction of dead bodies, excessive bodily wastes such as blood or vomit, and the monstrous-feminine as described above, horror films re-establish a sense of order and stability by demarcating distinct boundaries between human and non-human. Thus, the woman as monster represents an abjection that exists outside the boundaries of good, symbolic, patriarchal society. Women become Othered through positioning as a monstrous representation of what should not exist and therefore must be undone, silenced, and ultimately erased from existing.

This Othering of women via the representation of the monstrous-feminine occurs in nearly all the various subgenres of horror cinema. We argue, however, that the notion of the monstrous-feminine as a threat to patriarchal order represents the central concern of the exorcism cinema subgenre, which routinely positions women as the Other by situating them as both the victim and the monster. Women (mainly young women) and girls in exorcism cinema regularly appear as monsters due to the abnormality of experiencing possession; they exist simultaneously as human and demon, representing two distinctly opposed identities in one body. This monstrousness represents the tension between innocence and temptation as it relates to Western cultural and religious conceptualizations of the virgin/whore dichotomy. While this representation of women recurs throughout the horror genre as a whole, it often represents the dominant theme of the films that make up the exorcism cinema subgenre. This virgin/whore dichotomy reflects systemic and institutionalized paternal notions of female propriety and feminine behavior. Such notions frequently result from the influence of predominantly patriarchal institutions like the Church.

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Of course, we acknowledge that the term patriarchy represents a problematic and altogether simplistic designation in and of itself, and thus we would like to briefly explicate our use of the term throughout this paper. As Seemin Qayum and Raka Ray point out the term patriarchy now functions primarily as a “loose descriptor rather than as a useful analytic frame” and that “the conceptualization of patriarchy as a unitary universal phenomenon obscures more than it reveals” (112). At the same time, however, the term invokes notions of systemic sociocultural attitudes regarding masculine domination normalized and reinforced through popular cultural texts, such as horror films. Thus, we believe that terms such as patriarchy or patriarchal institutions represent useful foundational concepts through which to approach our discussion of exorcism cinema films, which reinforce and challenge dominant notions of feminine propriety primarily established by a culture heavily influenced by prevailing masculine attitudes and ideals. While the tensions caused by the interplay of patriarchy and feminism appear throughout the horror genre, we believe these films in particular highlight such tensions by directly confronting them.

Drawing upon Carroll’s definition of monsters and horror as a foundation, we argue exorcism cinema positions women as monsters due to the abnormality of their simultaneous representation of female innocence and sexual temptation. This simultaneity aligns with the perception of women in the context of Western religious and sociocultural conceptualizations of the feminine, which often position women along a dichotomy that includes the virgin on one end and the whore on the other. In Christianity, for instance, the figures of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene together exemplify this dichotomy. Thus, from this perspective, women embody both the role of the innocent lover and the dangerous temptress. As presented in exorcism cinema, possessed girls and young women actively embody this dichotomy, and thus come to epitomize the categorically interstitial as described by Carroll. In other words, exorcism films situate the possessed girl or young woman as a monster meant to terrify and horrify. In particular, exorcism films routinely position girls and young women as figures of horror that explicitly threaten the male protagonists, and thus female agency and sexuality become a site of male anxiety. Therefore, the narratives of such films tend to situate the male priests as saviors of innocence and patriarchal tradition by restoring the possessed girl or woman to her previous state of innocence and respectful obedience through an act of liberation that doubles as an act of repression (Fig 2).

In films such as The Rite, possessed women become positioned as a threat to male dominance and patriarchal institutions.
Fig. 2: In films such as The Rite (2011, dir. Mikael Håfström), possessed women become positioned as a threat to male dominance and patriarchal institutions.

In her analysis of The Exorcist, Carol Clover asserts that possession has been historically gendered as feminine (70). According to Clover, films depicting possession and exorcism represent a storytelling tradition that extends all the way back to the Bible (71). Indeed, from the story of Eve and the snake, to ideas regarding the sibyls and prophetesses of the Middle Ages, to the psychics and New Age women of today, woman frequently function as the devil’s portal into this world (71). Additionally, the virgin/whore dichotomy often takes on a supernatural connotation because the “supernatural and psychosexual intersect: cause a girl enough pain, repress enough of her rage, and – no matter how fundamentally decent she may be – she perforce becomes a witch” (Clover 71). Thus, any virgin could potentially become a whore, particularly if she engages in sinful behavior. Because all women hold the potential to transition from virgin to whore, they therefore represent a form of abjection, and as a result they come to represent the monstrous-feminine that threatens society at large.

Horror movies, and in particular those that comprise the exorcism cinema subgenre, represent women as the monstrous-feminine by exploring concerns regarding feminine sexuality and agency. These films position women as monsters due to their embodiment of the virgin/whore dichotomy, which manifests through the struggle between possession and exorcism; at the same time, this struggle between possession and exorcism serves as a site to examine how the struggle reflects social and cultural anxieties regarding notions of female sexuality and agency. We argue this struggle primarily represents the tension between a feminine innocence and the sort of overt female sexuality that patriarchal institutions appear to fear and seek to control. These cinematic possessions tend to afflict women primarily during the period in which an innocent girl transitions to a sexually active young woman. The possession essentially represents the fear that the sexually active identity has perhaps manifested too early given the biological age of the girl and/or the character’s innocence in relation to sexual activity. The exorcism, then, serves to return the young woman or girl to this stage of pre-sexual innocence, where she no longer threatens herself or those around her.

This subtext exists in nearly every exorcism cinema text that emerged in the wake of The Exorcist. Exorcism films regularly position the act of possession as a metaphor for the emergence of an empowered woman, and this includes both The Last Exorcism and its sequel. Across the exorcism cinema subgenre, possession most often affects girls and young woman who have not yet become sexually active or aware, and thus these possessions appear to metaphorically position a woman’s burgeoning sexuality as a danger to those around her. In discussing The Exorcist, Creed contends that the connection between feminine desire, sexuality, and abjection provides an excuse to display aberrant feminine behavior – that is, their sexual desire – as depraved and wrong (31). Thus, according to exorcism films, a woman’s innermost sexual desires, being depraved and immoral, leave her vulnerable to a demonic attack and the subsequent possession of her soul. In other words, a woman’s sexual desire represents a threat to both herself and to those around her, and therefore requires containment or outright elimination. Male figures representing patriarchal institutions, such as priests and other religious leaders, often become tasked with this job in order to restore the natural paternal order.

According to Barbara Creed, films like The Exorcist position female sexual desire as aberrant or depraved behavior.

Indeed, many exorcism cinema films barely concern the possessed girl or woman, and instead focus on the struggles of the male priests tasked with saving her. Traditional exorcism narratives position the priests as the heroes of the story, and therefore focus on chronicling their subjective experience of dealing with the possession and subsequent exorcism. In her analysis of The Exorcist, Clover underscores this point by emphasizing that while the horror originates through Regan’s actions as a possessed woman, the film’s tensions primarily arise from Father Karras’ tortured relations with his mother, his fellow priests, and even God (85); indeed, the narrative portrays the struggle with a possessed Regan almost entirely as the means for Karras to rediscover his faith in God. According to Clover, “for all its spectacle value, Regan’s story is finally significant only insofar as it affects the lives of others, above all the tormented spiritual life of Karras” (87). The figure of the male priest struggling with his spirituality recurs throughout the traditional exorcism narrative, and represents a central trope of the subgenre overall. As a result, exorcism films frequently downplay the subjective experience of the possessed girl or woman, and her predicament functions primarily as motivation for the male hero to rediscover his faith and allegiance to patriarchal institutions.

The tensions that recur throughout the exorcism cinema subgenre do not simply reflect a woman’s emergence, embracing, and expression of her sexuality, however, but also the idea that through such expression they enact and take control of their power and agency. By exerting control over their sexuality, women become empowered in their own lives, and potentially gain power over the lives of men. This empowerment appears to manifest in the act of possession, which grants the girls or young women the ability to speak their minds without fear of repercussion, since it was not they but the demon that spoke. The possessed girl or woman not only speaks freely about her emerging sexual desires, but also gains the power and agency to express unguarded, insightful, and potentially insensitive comments about the people around her. Thus, we argue the use of demonic possession in the exorcism cinema subgenre does not simply reveal the tensions that exist within modern societies and cultures regarding female sexuality; it also demonstrates that sociocultural tensions occur when women discover their voices and their power to take control of their own lives. The act of possession metaphorically creates an empowered woman, and the exorcism ritual metaphorically represents the idea that the protagonist, most often a male priest, must actively repress this possessed woman and thus remove the threat she represents to the normal, decent, and primarily patriarchal society.

The Last Exorcism and The Last Exorcism Part II

In this paper, we examine two recent exorcism films: The Last Exorcism and The Last Exorcism Part II. Unlike other films in the subgenre, The Last Exorcism does not position itself as based on or inspired by a real story of exorcism. Instead, using the found footage narrative conceit popular during the time of its production, the film positions itself as a documentary about Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a troubled evangelical minister who lost his faith in God and now seeks to expose what he considers the fraudulent and dangerous belief in demonic possession and the practice of exorcism. Early in the film, Reverend Marcus receives a letter from an evangelical farmer named Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), who believes his shy, quiet daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell), has become possessed and requires an exorcism. While Reverend Marcus sees this as an opportunity to expose yet another incidence of fake demonic possession, he and the documentary crew following him instead become involved in a larger conspiracy based in rural Louisiana and centered on the reserved and altogether emotionally unstable Nell. Reverend Marcus eventually finds himself called upon to stop a satanic cult from unleashing a destructive demonic force upon the world.

Interestingly, The Last Exorcism Part II refers back to the original film’s found footage conceit while at the same time functioning as a more straightforward exorcism narrative. Released nearly three years after the original, The Last Exorcism Part II begins where the first film ends, immediately following the satanic ritual that seemingly released a demon into the world via Nell’s supernatural pregnancy. The sequel abandons both the documentary crew from the first film and the character of Reverend Cotton, all presumably killed by the demon or its worshipers. Thus, the sequel replaces the found footage structure with a more traditional cinematic narrative structure. With these structural differences come differences in the representation and metaphorical treatment of possession and exorcism, and these metaphorical differences comprise the focus of our analysis in this paper.

As noted above, The Last Exorcism makes use of the found footage narrative conceit. Found footage horror films tend to rely upon the implication that ordinary people or would-be documentary filmmakers shot the onscreen footage while investigating unusual circumstances that eventually led to their demise. Later, someone discovers the footage left behind by the filmmakers and assembles it for the purpose of distribution. According to Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, the found footage subgenre rose to prominence precisely because its “particular brand of filmmaking aesthetics have opened it up to a range of production budgets” (3). Similarly, film critics Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias of the website The Dissolve point out that found footage films increased in popularity following the release of The Blair Witch Project in 1999. Following a wildly successful and innovative internet marketing campaign, The Blair Witch Project grossed $248,639,099 worldwide against a reported $60,000 production budget (BoxOfficeMojo.com). Similarly, Paranormal Activity (2007) grossed $193,355,800 worldwide against a reported production budget of only $15,000 (BoxOfficeMojo.com). In other words, these two films not only demonstrated the technical and narratological feasibility of the found footage narrative conceit, but also proved that it held great commercial potential as well. Thus, the subsequent wave of found footage films most likely results from “the changing economics and tools of filmmaking” as well as the success of “left-field hits like Paranormal Activity” (Phipps & Tobias). When combined with the increased affordability and availability of high-end, prosumer filmmaking equipment, it becomes clear why so many directors choose to construct their horror films to follow the found footage, pseudo-documentary narrative conceit.

From a critical standpoint, The Last Exorcism received generally good notices; according to the aggregation site RottenTomatoes.com, critics certified the film as 72% fresh based on a total of 150 reviews culled from various online sources. In contrast, the film’s audience score currently stands at 34% rotten based on 72,855 user ratings, indicating that general audiences (at least, those who use RottenTomatoes.com) did not care for it as much. Nevertheless, the film grossed $67,738,090 against a $1.8 million dollar budget (BoxOfficeMojo.com). Thus, The Last Exorcism could be considered a substantial commercial success in terms of worldwide box office gross, and therefore the studio quickly rushed a sequel into production. Unfortunately, The Last Exorcism Part II did not fare nearly as well as its predecessor with either critics or audiences. Rotten Tomatoes deemed the sequel 16% rotten based on a total of 65 reviews from a variety of online critics, while its audience score currently stands at 27% based on a total of 21,490 user ratings. Furthermore, the film’s box office seems to reflect this widespread critical and audience rejection, as The Last Exorcism Part II grossed a mere $15,179,302 worldwide against a $5 million budget (BoxOfficeMojo.com).

Ultimately, The Last Exorcism and The Last Exorcism Part II approach similar material in decidedly different ways (Fig. 3). The two films not only differ in terms of stylistic conventions and box office success (or lack thereof), but also in terms of how they represent exorcism and the possessed woman. Whereas use of the found footage narrative conceit distinguishes The Last Exorcism from most exorcism films (including its own sequel), the film’s narrative nevertheless aligns directly with the traditional exorcism cinema narrative established by The Exorcist, particularly in the way it explores issues of female rebellion and the subsequent repression of female sexuality. The Last Exorcism Part II, on the other hand, abandons the found footage narrative conceit in favor of a more traditional cinematic narrative that does not seek to blur the lines between fantasy and reality. As a result, the film both visually and structurally conforms to the sort of stylistic and narrative conventions commonly found throughout the exorcism subgenre. At the same time, however, The Last Exorcism Part II thematically and symbolically positions the act of demonic possession in such a way that the entire film potentially functions as a subversion of the traditional exorcism narrative, particularly given the thematic significance of the film’s final shot, which appears to represent an overt endorsement of female rebellion and sexual liberation. The following sections illustrate and explicate these differences through analyses of the films’ representations, metaphors, and themes.

Fig 3: The Last Exorcism and The Last Exorcism Part II
Fig 3: The Last Exorcism and The Last Exorcism Part II represent two recent and prominent examples of the exorcism cinema subgenre, though one makes use of the found footage whereas the other aligns more closely with traditional Hollywood narrative structure.

The Last Exorcism’s Damsel in Distress

While The Last Exorcism innovates in terms of format, it nevertheless conforms to the conventions of the traditional exorcism narrative with regards to how it represents prevailing cultural tensions concerning a girl or young woman finding her voice and taking control of her sexual agency. The film’s plot aligns with this narrative primarily in how it situates a young woman as the monster that a man must defeat to restore order and save the world from potential destruction. The Last Exorcism positions Reverend Marcus as the central character, and provides the most insight into his motivations as a man who purports to preach the word of God, yet does not seem to actually believe his own rhetoric. His motivation essentially consists of his desire to disprove the authenticity of demonic possession and the effect of exorcism. As with Father Damien Karras from The Exorcist, Marcus has lost his faith in God, and seeks to uncover a non-supernatural reason for Nell’s behavior. In a way, he appears to want to empower Nell, and to help her escape the oppression of her father. While his attempts are well-intentioned, he nevertheless acts as the savior to her damsel-in-distress. At the same time, the film positions Nell as a monster due to the implication that she has engaged in premarital sexual activity that results in a pregnancy through which a satanic cult attempts to deliver a demon into the world. Nell’s supernatural pregnancy results from her possession by a demon named Abalam, who seeks to merge with her. With Nell as the antagonist, the film positions Marcus as the protagonist who endeavors to banish the demon and thus suppress the threat Nell comes to represent. Thus, the film’s central conflict revolves around Marcus and his struggle with this woman turned monster, which thematically represents tensions regarding female sexuality and empowerment (Fig 4).

Fig. 4: The Last Exorcism positions Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) as the central character, and thus his struggle to end the threat Abalam represents functions as the central concern of the film's narrative.
Fig. 4: The Last Exorcism positions Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) as the central character, and thus his struggle to banish the demon Abalam and save Nell’s soul functions as the central concern of the film’s narrative.

The film establishes Nell as a quiet, plain, shy, sweet, soft spoken 16-year-old girl who lost her mother two years earlier. In alignment with the traditional exorcism narrative, Nell’s characterization focuses on her innocence so as to highlight the difference between who she was and what she becomes as a result of her demonic possession. While Nell does not completely succumb to Abalam’s demonic influence, she nevertheless displays increasingly unusual behaviors that recall those exhibited by Regan in The Exorcist. As Abalam’s influence grows, Nell uses explicit language, she becomes violent toward herself and others, expresses overt sexual desire, and her body contorts in inhuman ways. The film contrasts these behaviors against Nell’s innocent nature to highlight the idea that possession represents an abnormal state of being, and to reinforce the idea that normal or proper female behavior does not include such violent and erotic impulses. By highlighting Nell’s innocence, the film textually and metaphorically positions her as a non-threatening, sexually inexperienced young woman. When Nell begins to exhibit signs of possession, however, she assumes the role of an empowered young woman who has found her voice and summoned the will to take charge of both her life and her sexuality. Thus, she comes to represent both a physical and metaphorical threat to the established patriarchal status quo.

As Nell succumbs to her possession, she displays increasingly erratic behavior.

The threat represented by Nell’s burgeoning empowerment manifests itself most prominently during a sequence in which she steals the documentary crew’s camera. During this sequence, Nell gains the power to see the unseen, to look at what the regular cameraman cannot. The viewer’s ability to know the world of the film comes through the subjectivity of the camera: whoever controls the camera controls how the viewer experiences the world of the film. Nell takes control of her newfound power and demonstrates that she represents a physical threat to those around her when she uses the camera to kill a cat. She would not possess the camera, however, if Abalam had not taken control of her during this sequence. Thus, the film makes it clear that Nell’s power results from the demonic possession.

In spite of her burgeoning sexuality and agency, the film frequently renders Nell powerless or actively silences her. For example, Nell attacks Reverend Marcus, and he attempts to perform a second exorcism on her. Unlike the first attempt, which Marcus staged, he now considers Nell a genuine threat, and thus preforms a more authentic ritual to confront and hopefully banish the demon (Fig. 5). During this confrontation, Nell makes awkward sexual advances toward Reverend Marcus, who questions the authenticity of these advances and accuses her of speaking falsely. This rebuttal seems to indicate that Reverend Marcus does not believe Nell actually harbors such desires, but rather that she says these things only because she thinks they are what he wants to hear. This sequence exemplifies Nell’s positioning throughout the film as a vessel, either for her father’s wishes, the demon’s wishes, or the cult’s wishes; she has no control over her own body or power.

Fig. 5: Initially, Reverend Marcus stages a sham exorcism on Nell (pictured above). Later, however, Marcus comes to consider Nell an actual threat, and he performs a second, genuine exorcism on her in an attempt to free her from Abalam's temptation.
Fig. 5: Initially, Reverend Marcus stages a sham exorcism on Nell (pictured above). Later, however, Marcus comes to consider Nell an actual threat, and he performs a second, genuine exorcism on her in an attempt to free her from Abalam’s temptation.

In fact, the moment when Nell takes possession of the camera represents the only time in the film that she seems truly powerful and in control. This sequence allows the viewer to experience Nell’s point of view of the world as a possessed person, thus providing the viewer with more direct insight into Nell’s subjectivity than at any other point in the film. Furthermore, it represents one of the few instances in which an exorcism film actually provides the viewer with the subjective experience of the possessed individual. During this sequence, the camera represents Nell’s agency, just as it represents Reverend Marcus’ agency throughout the rest of the film as it chronicles his efforts to expose exorcism as a sham. Without the camera, Nell has no power; she remains silent, controlled, and oppressed by those around her, including Reverend Marcus. Like Father Karras in The Exorcist, however, Marcus comes to view the saving of Nell (and the subsequent suppression of her desires and her agency) as his redemption.

In the traditional exorcism narrative, the priest functions as the savior not only for the possessed girl or woman, but also for the entire world. The Last Exorcism repeatedly positions Nell as a helpless victim in need of saving, with Reverend Marcus assuming the role of the savior. Throughout the film, Marcus makes it his mission to save Nell, first from her father, then from the satanic cult, and finally from Abalam. In a sense, Marcus not only protects Nell from those who seek to control her, but also from herself and her inability to save herself. Only at the end of the film, however, does Marcus finally embrace his role as priest turned savior when he confronts Abalam during its attempt to enter this world through Nell. At this narrative point, Reverend Marcus clearly aligns with the traditional exorcism narrative as he acts to protect the world from the demonic threat the possessed woman represents. Thus, the entire film positions Reverend Marcus as the priest-savior standing against the possessed Nell, with only his crisis of faith preventing him from seeing the truth all along.

Metaphorically, Marcus assumes the role of a guardian who works to maintain the patriarchal status quo and protect the traditions, values, and institutions of this world from the threat of a sexually active and empowered woman. Narratively, the film’s ending references other horror films like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Constantine (2005), and Devil’s Due (2014) in which a young woman becomes an unwitting conduit that could unleash a demon into the world. Rather than the possession, then, Nell’s pregnancy represents the real threat to mankind. Thus, the true horror stems directly from Nell’s newfound sexuality, which the film links to the life-giving power of women. Tension results from the idea that any life could also bring death, and this tension manifests within the film in the form of Nell’s demonic offspring. In other words, while a woman possesses the power to bring life into the world, that life in turn holds the potential to cause death. The film seems to imply that leaving such power unchecked could potentially result in dire consequences for the entire world. Furthermore, the only way to suppress this power resides in the actions of the male priest savior, who represents systemic patriarchal institutions (such as the Church). Thus, his faith completely restored, Reverend Marcus rushes in to face Abalam during the film’s climax, and the film ends as he strives to halt this metaphorical threat that results from Nell’s burgeoning sexuality and empowerment.

Similar to the classic film Rosemary’s Baby (1968, dir. Roman Polanski), The Last Exorcism explores the idea that pregnancy represents both life and death.

Through the rhetoric of female innocence and the triumph of the male savior, The Last Exorcism thematically reinforces the notion that sexually active and empowered women represent a threat to the patriarchal status quo sustained by systemic and institutionalized notions of feminine propriety. The central tension of the film focuses on the threat of Nell’s sexuality and power, and contrasts this with the order and safety that Reverend Marcus represents. The film’s decidedly ambiguous ending does not provide for an easy resolution of the tensions regarding female sexuality, as the final shot cuts to black without any clear indication that Abalam has actually been stopped. The last shot of Marcus stepping forward, empowered by his renewed faith in God, indicates that he has taken the correct step toward restoring order by vanquishing the threat that has emerged from Nell.

The Last Exorcism Part II and the Emergence of the Empowered Woman

While The Last Exorcism reinforces the traditional exorcism narrative, The Last Exorcism Part II actively subverts it by focusing primarily on the possessed individual’s subjectivity and agency. In this film the possessed Nell assumes the role of the protagonist, and her attempts at establishing and claiming a sense of agency over her life represents the narrative’s central concern. Instead of allowing others to dictate the course of her life, as she did in the previous film, Nell actively chooses to succumb to Abalam’s influence, and thus she welcomes the possession and the power that comes with it. As a result, The Last Exorcism Part II represents perhaps the most feminist portrayal of a woman struggling with demonic possession in any exorcism film. The film does not center on a priest struggling with his loss of faith and using the woman’s unfortunate predicament to cement his belief in God and the power of the Church. Instead, the narrative focuses mainly on Nell’s decision to lead what she considers a good, normal life even as she becomes increasingly aware that the demon Abalam desires her for something more sinister. Unlike the vast majority of exorcism cinema films, this film focuses on the subjective experience of the innocent woman undergoing possession, and, in doing so, subverts the traditional exorcism narrative.

In a sense, The Last Exorcism Part II presents a possessed woman as both the protagonist and the antagonist, as the possession metaphorically represents an internal struggle of defining or developing one’s sense of self. Having lost her entire family during the satanic ritual at the end of the first film, Nell has repressed the memories of those horrific incidents and now attempts to establish and control her identity; essentially, she now has the power to control her life just as Reverend Marcus had wanted for her. As the film continues, however, the increased presence of demonic possession, as Abalam moves to merge with Nell, produces the film’s central conflict. Nell fears the possession and the loss of agency and sense of identity that she believes would come with it, but, as time passes, she also appears to enjoy the possession and the power and sexuality that come with it.

Whereas the first film centers on Reverend Marcus’ conflict with the demon Abalam, the sequel focuses on Nell’s struggle to assert her own sense of identity and agency.

Initially, the sequel once again presents Nell as a shy, reserved, uncertain, and even weak young woman, indicating that she has apparently returned to a state of innocence following the horrific events of the first film. Moreover, Nell actively attempts to establish or reinforce her innocence during the early part of the film, wanting nothing more than to situate herself as just another girl trying to fit in. Her new life offers plenty of temptations, however, as she now lives in a group home in New Orleans with other teenage girls. In this setting the potential for corruption exists, both from the other girls at the home and from the young man with whom Nell becomes romantically involved. Additionally, Abalam’s continued attempts to possess Nell represent yet another form of sexual temptation. For example, while working as a maid in a hotel, she overhears people having sex in one room while cleaning another. The first time Nell hears these noises she experiences fear and discomfort, but the second time she submits to her own latent sexual longing. Visually, the film represents her burgeoning sexual desire as a form of corruption, as black tendrils seep out from her body onto the wall she hugs, while a dark figure watches from the doorway (Fig. 6). The film portrays these increases in sexual awareness as Abalam’s return, because the demon increasingly learns how to better seduce her; thus, the film links Nell’s fall from sexual innocence with demonic possession.

Fig. 6: Nell's desires manifest in the form of a black corruption that seeps out from her body, and a dark figure hovering near her.
Fig. 6: Nell’s desires manifest in the form of a black corruption that seeps out from her body, and a dark figure hovering in the background of the shot.

Along with becoming more in touch with her sexuality, Nell asserts herself more in this movie than the last one as she tries to convince the non-believers of her oncoming possession. She uses her voice to describe the supernatural events but others refuse to listen to her and thus render her powerless. Nell even seeks the help of a priest, only to have that confession seemingly increase the onset of the possession. Nell’s voice does not result from her possession, and thus does not represent an empowerment due to demonic possession. Unlike the girls or young women in other exorcism films, Nell does not speak out when possessed. Instead, she uses her voice in an attempt to prevent possession, indicating she does not wish to succumb to the demon’s influence. Furthermore, she actively seeks out help from others because she initially rejects the possession and the power it affords her (Fig. 7). In a sense, then, throughout the film, Nell’s use of her voice aligns with dominant patriarchal notions of female propriety and acceptable behavior. To maintain order through tradition, the patriarchy demands she seek help to prevent the possession, as willingly surrendering to the possession would indicate a desire to embrace immoral and altogether disruptive behavior, no matter how good or powerful she felt as a result.

Fig. 6: In The Last Exorcism Part II, Nell struggles with her awakening sexuality and sense of self, which clash with her desire to conform to hegemonic forms of male dominance represented by patriarchal institutions such as the Church.
Fig. 7: In The Last Exorcism Part II, Nell struggles with her awakening sexuality and sense of self, which clash with her desire to conform to hegemonic forms of male dominance represented by patriarchal institutions such as the Church.

Thus, Nell’s choice to seek an exorcism aligns with patriarchal desires for maintaining order by returning the woman to a state of innocence and thus removing the threat she represents. Instead of seeking a priest to perform this ritual, however, Nell seeks help from a female practitioner of a non-Christian religion. Thus, The Last Exorcism Part II offers the immensely rare instance of a female exorcist as savior, who attempts to save Nell from Abalam’s influence and the world from the threat the demon represents (Fig. 8). More often than not, exorcism films focus on the central male protagonist as he seeks to save the girl and kill the demon. As a result, the possessed girl occupies a secondary position as the monster, the damsel in distress, or the antagonist. Such is the case with The Last Exorcism. The sequel, however, presents Nell with far more agency; she assumes the role of the protagonist, the hero seeking to kill the demon, and the priestess attempts to help her fulfill this quest. In this film, two women seek to maintain patriarchal order, but they cannot succeed. Their attempt to perform the exorcism represents a subversion of the traditional exorcism narrative, one that suggests that only men can maintain social order. Neither of the women represents patriarchal institutions, values, or attitudes, and therefore their attempt at exorcism fails because they do not possess the power necessary to stop the horror threatening this social order.

Fig. 7: The Last Exorcism Part II offers the rare instance of a woman attempting to perform an exorcism ritual, which might account for the fact that it fails.
Fig. 8: The Last Exorcism Part II offers the rare instance of a woman attempting to perform an exorcism ritual, which might account for the fact that it fails.

More importantly, the exorcism fails because Nell allows Abalam to possess her. During the exorcism, Abalam appears in the guise of Nell herself, and urges her to embrace her true nature. Whereas Nell initially attempts to prevent the possession and seeks to align with patriarchal values, during the exorcism she speaks out in defiance of patriarchal attitudes and chooses to accept the power Abalam offers her. Metaphorically, Abalam represents Nell’s inner desire for power, which she fully embraces during the exorcism. In allowing Abalam to completely possess her, Nell gains the freedom to have experiences and to express herself in ways often considered destructive or improper within the confines of paternal or patriarchal values. For example, she licks a female friend’s face, saying “I know who I am now, and I know who I was meant to be,” which indicates that Nell has finally embraced and asserted her sense of self and her sexuality. Throughout this incident, her friend looks horrified, but Nell appears pleased. Furthermore, Nell destroys all the people who represent the forces of patriarchy and oppression: medical men, authority figures, religious figures, even the sisterhood of the teenage girls who seek to live good, normal lives in accordance with the rules of the patriarchy. Nell seems actively engaged in asserting her right, her power, to at last take charge of her own life, no matter what others might say. In the film’s final shot, she smiles as she gazes out at the viewer through the rear view mirror of a stolen car. Earlier in the film, Nell stood before a cracked mirror and her reflection appeared fractured. By the end of the film, her reflection has become unified and clear. This visual contrast implies that by accepting Abalam and embracing the power the demon offers, Nell at last accepts her own sense of self and her true nature.

While The Last Exorcism Part II does not feature the trope of the male priest as a savior battling the threat the possessed woman represents, the majority of the narrative nevertheless initially appears to align with the underlying themes of the traditional exorcism narrative. Although the narrative focuses on Nell’s empowerment and her decision to make her own choices, it also presents her struggles in regards to her loss of power and control as Abalam’s power over her grows. In order to save herself from this threat, she seeks out an exorcism, which would return her to a state of innocence and remove the threat she represents to patriarchal society. Had Nell sought the assistance of a male priest, the exorcism would have most likely succeeded, as the film would completely align with the traditional exorcism narrative. Instead, the film’s climax clearly subverts this narrative and the common resolution it offers by having the woman consciously accept the possession as a way to define herself and her life. Through Nell’s acceptance of Abalam, The Last Exorcism Part II challenges this theme of the oppression and repression of women by allowing a woman to willingly embrace and accept the power offered by a demon, and as a result allows her to remain empowered through her assertion of her voice and her ability to choose. Thus, Nell actively establishers her own path in life, one that runs counter to patriarchal desires and values.

Conclusion

The Last Exorcism and its sequel demonstrate the range of tensions found across exorcism cinema. In these two films and others within the subgenre, the most prominent tension involves the emergence or awakening of female sexuality. In addition to this tension, however, The Last Exorcism and its sequel explore related conflicts such as the tension between liberation and oppression, and the tension that arises when a girl or young woman finds her voice and chooses to embrace it rather than remain silent. Overall, these tensions suggest an issue between the oppression of women and their empowerment in cultures and societies around the world. Thus, exorcism films potentially contain readings that position the act of possession as a metaphor for female empowerment, while the ritual of exorcism stands in for the sort of systemic and institutionalized patriarchal values that seek to dictate how women should behave and act.

In a male dominated, patriarchal society, sexually passive women frequently inhabit the realm of acceptable female behavior; dominant discourses frequently position such women as virginal innocents who passively await the arrival of their male saviors. The release from this virginal state, however, does not empower the woman and set her free. Instead, she must act within these often restrictive structures that determine proper female behavior. The act of possession, then, becomes a metaphor for the sort of awakening that allows a woman to struggle against the strictures and structures of male-dominated society, which often situates sexually active women as abnormal, dangerous, and/or inappropriate because they do not wait for the intervention of a male savior. Rather such women actively take control of their power, voice, and agency. In other words, sexually passive women more closely align with patriarchal notions of heteronormativity, while sexually active women enter the realm of the transgressive and thus represent a threat to society or culture.

In The Last Exorcism, Reverend Marcus’s confrontation with Abalam functions as the incident that saves Nell from remaining possessed at the end of the film, and the reason why Abalam continually chases her in the sequel in its attempt to merge with her. Given the resolution of the sequel, The Last Exorcism Part II seems to indicate that throughout the first film, Reverend Marcus effectively stood in the way of Nell receiving and asserting her power and agency. As such, Reverend Marcus appears to fulfill the same role of other men of faith in exorcism cinema films, and therefore he represents the sort of patriarchal values and systemic male oppression that prevents a young woman from embracing her power and taking control of her sense of self, thus reaching her full potential.

In both movies, the central premise and the resolution to the conflict between the young woman, Nell, and the demon, Abalam, become immensely interesting and important for our consideration of the role and relationship these two films have not only to other films in the exorcism cinema subgenre, but also to society and culture at large. For instance, the ending of the sequel may narratively require viewers to fear the threat that Nell represents, but it also situates viewers in such a way that they come to identify with this young woman who finally gains the power she needs to take control of her own life. Additionally, the first movie asks viewers to root for Reverend Marcus in his quest to save Nell, whereas in the sequel, Nell appears to save herself. Granted, she accomplishes this by damning herself, but in a world that seeks to celebrate individual decisions and empowerment, does Nell not choose correctly, despite what the film perhaps wants viewers to think? By situating Nell as the protagonist, The Last Exorcism Part II leaves audiences with a character who initially experiences fear and helplessness, but who at the end emerges as self-assured and fearless. As global societies and cultures increasingly embrace the tenets of feminism, then the empowerment of women becomes a central concern, and here, at the end of The Last Exorcism Part II, Nell represents such a woman. In this way, the film’s subversion of the traditional exorcism narrative aligns with the global contemporary struggle to define the parameters of appropriate female behavior.

Works cited

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