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the exorcist
Linda Blair as possessed 12-year-old Regan in The Exorcist

Why did Satan start to possess girls on screen in the 70s?

Films such as The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby reflect Cold War paranoia and the feminist discourse of the era – women subjected to motherhood, marriage and misery

Satan had his biggest career revival in the late 60s and early 70s. As religion’s popularity declined and church attendance began to diminish in the wake of the countercultural and sexual revolutions, Lucifer decided he’d had enough of the small-time circuit of pulpits and confession boxes and hit Hollywood. In 1968, Rosemary’s Baby, starring Mia Farrow, began a running trend of supernatural horrors in which the devil manifested himself on earth through children. In 1973, he took possession of Linda Blair’s body when she played 12-year-old old possession victim Regan in The Exorcist. In The Omen – directed in 1976 by Richard Donner – another Antichrist was born into the family of the American ambassador to Britain.

Why was this genre so popular? In the current news cycle which increasingly presents a divided world – right and left of politics polarised, global terrorism and violent war – it is quite common for people to darkly joke that we are living in apocalyptic times. In fact, believing you are living in the end times is such a recurrent belief throughout history that we ought to be comforted. Many German Anabaptists of the 16th century believed they would live to see the end times. The Victorian fin de siècle featured anxieties about modernity that suffused its literature. Stoker’s Dracula is a classic example, as is The Turn of The Screw – which, like the satanic films of the 60s and 70s, presents concern about the future of society through the emergence of demonic children. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that at the height of the Cold War, when many believed nuclear apocalypse was just a button-push away, this same belief reappears in cinema.

Feminists will perhaps recognise that it is common for changing roles of women in society to be at the forefront of fears about the apocalypse. Whether it is Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Stephen King’s Carrie, the use of female empowerment as having the potential to affect the destiny of the world is common. In Rosemary’s Baby, Mia Farrow’s Rosemary represents a shift in social and sexual mores that was beginning in the 1960s. A newlywed to a struggling actor, Rosemary is a housewife in a new era in which birth control and greater bodily autonomy for women is possible. Early on in the film, she says that she “plans” to have children – the very suggestion of planning itself is a hint at a changing sexual landscape.

But in Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary eats a somewhat suspect chocolate mousse which drugs her into a sleep, allowing Satan to rape her. In many ways, the psychological horror of the film is in no way supernatural. It is the horror of what marital violence and unwanted pregnancy itself can do to any woman. As Rosemary’s pregnancy advances, she experiences pain and sickness, increasingly convinced her body is no longer her own. It would be five years until the American Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v Wade would grant American women the right to terminate unwanted pregnancies, and Farrow’s depiction of a woman whose personhood is entirely subjugated to the domestic horror of motherhood and marriage arguably mirrors much feminist discourse of the time.

In The Exorcist, what’s perhaps more interesting than the link made between a pubescent girl’s arrival at adolescence and demonic possession is the effect that it has on her single mother, Chris MacNeil. Linda Blair plays 12-year-old Regan MacNeil, the only daughter of a successful actress (and therefore a financially independent woman). Chris – given a deliberately gender ambiguous name – is, arguably, the herald of a new type of family structure: one that does not necessarily require a father. However, it’s when she is out working that her unsupervised daughter begins playing with an Ouija board which will ultimately see her possessed by the Devil and masturbating violently with crucifixes. Warning to all career women: you cannot have it all!

What Rosemary and Chris both experience as the mothers of demon children is ultimately a submission of themselves to patriarchal forces. At the end of Rosemary’s Baby, after two hours of defiantly trying to uncover the truth about her own sinister pregnancy, Rosemary discovers the truth. Instead of this being a vindication and victory, the film’s disturbing ending leaves us with the impression that her discovery has made no difference. Horrified by the child who has “his father’s eyes”, Rosemary ultimately has no escape. Unable to refuse her role as wife and mother, she acquiesces and the film ends with her rocking its cradle. She will raise Satan’s child in the world he will one day destroy.

“Rosemary ultimately has no escape. Unable to refuse her role as wife and mother, she acquiesces and the film ends with her rocking its cradle. She will raise Satan’s child in the world he will one day destroy”

In The Exorcist, far from the modern, fatherless family unit we see at the beginning of the film, the MacNeil house is taken over by religious patriarchal figures in the priests who are brought in to exorcise the child. Chris, an atheist, has no choice but to bow to this authority – a round punishment for her “negligence” as a mother. Ultimately, Regan is saved – unlike the devil inside Rosemary’s baby, the demon is banished – but Chris has been pulled from the exterior world of the film set and showbiz back into the domestic realm. Her personhood has been entirely restrained back into motherhood for the benefit of the world. What the two films show is that, whether the women at the centre are lost to Christianity or to Satanism, both are lost anyway.

What is interesting about this film genre is that existential fears about the future of society are not explored through the manmade mechanics of nuclear war or superpower-race imperialism that actually made people more fearful, but instead through the bodies of women. It is misogynistic, sure, but perhaps understandable – if the future of society is children, then motherhood has always been the cultural concept we have used to rigorously enforce the maintenance of social values. Whether we believe that societal evil is the product of nature or nurture, we can blame women and motherhood for both. Women’s shifting cultural roles, especially in terms of reproduction, can be interpreted as both a symbol of progress and an atavistic desire to return to a golden age of social values which never existed.