Authors Paul Tremblay and Grady Hendrix join editor Jordan Hamessley London to discuss demonic possession in the horror genre.
Grady Hendrix is the author of such books as Occupy Space and Satan Loves You, and his novel Horrorstör, about a haunted IKEA, is being developed for television by Gail Berman, producer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. His new novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, is out now.
Jordan Hamessley London is a Senior Editor of the Children’s Division of Insight Editions. She is the former editorial director at Adaptive Books, and has also been an editor at Grosset and Dunlap and Egmont USA, where she worked with authors such as E.C. Meyers, Adam-Troy Castro, and Ben H. Winters.
Paul Tremblay’s novels include The Little Sleep, No Sleep Till Wonderland, and, his latest, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. His novel A Head Full of Ghosts, about a reality TV show exorcism, has been optioned by Focus Features, and Stephen King said that the book “scared the living hell out of [him].”
This panel first appeared in May 2016 on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.
When I think of demonic possession in horror, obviously the first thing that comes to mind for me is the movie The Exorcist. Let’s start off with Jordan. What do you think overall of The Exorcist?
Jordan: I think that my opinions of The Exorcist changed as I got older. It was one of those movies where I was told you’re not allowed to see it as a kid because it will horrify you so much that you’ll never sleep again, and so I waited like a good little teenager until I was seventeen to see it, and I watched the director’s cut that came out in like 2003 or so. I was just like, “Oh, this isn’t that bad. This is totally fine. I don’t get what the big deal is.” And now, I am no longer seventeen and invincible, and it’s much more upsetting. I think that’s how I feel about demonic possession narratives in general. As a younger person who didn’t have a sense of mortality, I was all about it. “This is great. These are scary but fun.” And now, I see that there’s a lot more going on than just, “Oh, you’re possessed by the devil.” It’s, “Why is this happening to this specific person?” And so that’s kind of always been my thing with The Exorcist. It’s like the quintessential exorcism story: why this family, and could it happen to me?
That’s really interesting, Jordan, because I had a similar experience. When I was growing up, my dad told me, “Oh, this is the scariest movie ever made. You couldn’t pay me to watch that movie again.” So I didn’t watch it until I was out of college, I think, and so it was not as scary as I had built up in my mind. I haven’t rewatched it now that I’m older, so maybe I would find it scarier again. Grady, what did you think of The Exorcist?
Grady: You know, I don’t remember when I first saw it, but I loved it from the moment I saw it. I never watch horror movies to be scared. I like the genre. I like the trappings. I like the blood, and the barf, and the ghost, and the houses, and all that stuff. So, I loved it, and I do remember . . . and you guys are pretty hardcore, because I vaguely remember watching it as teenager, and I remember I was with friends. We watched horror movies together a lot. And the scene where Linda Blair is jamming a bloody crucifix up her vagina that’s hemorrhaging blood, and then smears her mother’s face across her crotch. I don’t know, man. It didn’t scare me, but you guys are like, “Yeah, whatever, I see that every day on the seven train.” I remember we all sort of looked around the room, and like, we were nice boys from South Carolina, and we’re like, “Whaaaat?” And also, I’ve got to say, a little shout out—the book is great. I do feel like The Exorcist is one of those cases where the first big book and the first big movie are pretty much perfect, and they kind of cast a shadow on everything that comes after them. There were haunted house books before Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, but there really wasn’t a big exorcism book before The Exorcist. It’s really hard to get out from underneath it.
Right, but Grady, with the jamming the crucifix up her vagina and stuff, a lot of that stuff, like the head spinning around, and the projectile vomiting, was a lot more slapstick to me than I had expected the movie to be.
Grady: [Laughter] I am so glad I didn’t grow up in your house, dude. You are tough. Thinking back on it, that was the moment that really horrified all of us, because that was when I thought the filmmakers crossed a line. Now, realize, I was watching this in the ’80s, so maybe we were all more innocent back then, but I had never seen onscreen a person jam their mother’s face up their bloody vagina, and we were like, “Holy crap, this movie is going to go places that we’re not prepared for, because they’re willing to violate a very basic rule about movies having to do with mothers and their daughters’ vaginas.”
Jordan: I think it’s also that Linda Blair was a child.
Grady: Yeah. Well, exactly. She’s a child, and also The Exorcist is so good because it’s a slow build, so by the point you get to some of the freaky stuff, whether you like the movie or not, you’re believing the onscreen relationships. You’re not sitting there like, “Oh, that’s Ellen Burstyn and that’s Linda Blair. Oh, there’s Max von Sydow.” You went, “Oh, that’s her mom. That’s the daughter.” You know what I mean? You’re sold on the movie and its relationships by the time this stuff happens.
How about Paul? What do you think of this stuff?
Paul: It’s funny, I feel like I had the experience closer to Grady’s than yours and Jordan’s. I don’t remember exactly when I saw it, but I first saw it in the ’80s as well, when I was either a young teenager or had just become a teenager. It absolutely scared the hell out of me. I find actually now that I’m older, movies definitely scare me a lot less than they used to as a kid. As a kid, I was a card-carrying scaredy cat. I would sleep with stuffed animals around my head to protect myself from the boogey man up until like, age . . . I don’t know . . . up until last week. It was funny—yesterday, I happened to randomly be talking about The Exorcist with a friend of mine Jordan knows, Jack Haringa, critic and scholar. It seems very hard to find the actual, original, theatrical release of The Exorcist. What people have been seeing, really, since the mid to late ’90s is the director’s cut, which I think is less of a movie than the original. Because in the director’s cut, I think it makes sense why they cut it out the stuff that they put in in the first place. I think it takes away from some of the effect of the movie. Particularly, the spider-walk scene down the stairs looks so fake compared to everything else that happens in the movie. As a kid, I definitely bought into the transgression in the film, and like Grady said, I had never seen anything like that in northern Massachusetts. That’s for sure.
Grady: Yeah, and you know, fuckin’ Friedkin, man. This is what he does with all of his movies. He recuts and reedits them. It’s almost impossible to see the original versions. It’s such a drag.
Jordan: I think director’s cuts in general have more content than they should have, just because things are cut for a reason, and I do remember thinking as I watched it for the first time, there were all of these super-imposed demonic images. That took me out of it because so much of the fear for me in these stories in general is the question of, “Is this real or is this something happening in someone’s head? Or is it abuse? Or what?” And so, when you literally superimpose demonic images, you’re telling the audience, “Oh no, this is real.” And that took some of the energy away from me, because the question wasn’t there anymore. It was understood that I should be thinking this is real.
Paul: Did you think it was real when the head was turning around?
Jordan: I did.
Paul: Sorry, I know what you meant.
Jordan: I think it just was cheesy.
Paul: Right, no, I hear you.
Jordan: So much of great horror films are in the silence and in those quiet moments when you don’t know what’s happening, and so to have a quiet moment where a camera is panning down a hallway, but then there’s a like a creepy demon thing, removes that energy for me.
Grady: I’ve got to say, I really agree with you. I really feel like, and this is such an elderly thing to say, but I do think there’s a real syndrome where movies are overdirected these days. Like, you have access to so much technology in the editing room and on the set, and when you look at a movie from the ’70s, they look very simplistic compared to what you have today. I actually think that works so much better for horror. The more something seems real in a horror movie, the more it seems naturalistic, and the better it is. I kind of think that’s why found footage movies have been such a big thing in horror is because they’re taking away all the directing choices a lot of directors can make now. Paranormal Activity, another possession movie, is “here’s a camera on a tripod with a single shot and it’s not going to move.” So, yeah, I agree with you Jordan. Too much directing kills horror.
Jordan: Although, I will say, I don’t know if you guys will agree with this statement, but I really enjoyed The Conjuring because it felt like it was shot in the ’70s.
Grady: Yeah, well, that’s what I mean. They toned it down.
Paul: I enjoyed parts of it.
Jordan: There were crazy slow zooms in The Conjuring that just made me feel like I was back in the ’70s.
Grady: The problem with The Conjuring is the frickin’ Warrens are onscreen, Ed and Lorraine, who are you know, Ed, the self-styled exorcist who I really hope is burning in hell right now. Just the worst human beings, and it kills me every time one of those movies comes out because they’re not bad, but the fact they’re about the Warrens makes me want to set the movie theaters on fire.
Paul: I was just going to say the same thing, Grady. I’m not going to name a name, but I know someone who . . . I know of a writer who worked on some of those Warren books, and they flat out told him, “You have to put this stuff in.” That didn’t happen. It was all bullshit. So, I’m with you. I had a hard time detaching from that in the movie.
Paul, I’ve heard you say in interviews the same is true of The Exorcist, that it’s based on a true story that’s also complete bullshit.
Paul: Yeah, I mean, jeez . . . I forget the name, I should have looked this up before the podcast; I apologize. But, there’s a great essay that’s included in Centipede Press’s The Exorcist: Study in the Night Films volume. It’s from a journalist who goes back and actually tries to suss out where this real case came from, and the short of it is, he concluded that the priest who supposedly did it never existed, and they couldn’t really find the boy that it was based on either. He came to the conclusion that it was all essentially made up.
Grady: I guess everyone calls it the Mount Rainier exorcism, which actually didn’t happen in Mount Rainier. It’s supposed to be based on that one back in the ’40s. But, I know exactly what you’re talking about, and it’s really interesting because Blatty swears up and down that he read the diary of one of the priests who assisted on this exorcism, and that’s where he got a lot of his stuff. And I kind of think they’re non-exclusive, that it largely may not have happened at all, in any way, shape, or form the way that it was reported. Blatty may have read a diary by someone claiming to be there that had all this stuff in it, which is kind of crazy. It turns into this meta-hall of mirrors.
It’s interesting, this issue of fraudulence in these possession movies because that comes up in the ones we just mentioned. I watched The Exorcism of Emily Rose in which the priest is on trial for performing this exorcism where the possessed girl died, and the whole point of the movie is to question whether this thing happened at all. I just Googled the true case that this was supposedly based on. In the movie, they perform the exorcism for one night, but in real life it was ten months, so that jumped out at me as a pretty major difference.
Grady: What’s Emily Rose based on? Do you remember the case? I don’t know the movie.
It’s the Anneliese Michel, or something like that.
Grady: Oh, yeah, okay.
Do you know anything about that?
Grady: Yeah, no, I know that case really well. I hate to sound like a pretentious snob, but there’s a great German movie called Requiem that is about this, and back when I was reviewing movies for The New York Sun, I was so low on the totem pole I reviewed movies that no one else wanted to see, and so I had to go see this movie called Requiem, and I knew nothing about it. I go, and I sit in the screening room, and it’s this very slow paced art film from Germany about a girl, and she’s sort of somewhat religious, and she goes away to school for the first time, and then it turns into the Anneliese Michel story like halfway through. And it took me totally unawares. I’ve got to say, even to this day, it’s not a perfect movie, and if I’d gone in knowing what it was about I might feel differently, but it was such a powerful experience. To be like, “Oh yeah, of course she’s getting an exorcism at this point,” because you see everything that leads up to it. “Of course she thinks she’s possessed by demons from hell. That makes total sense.” It was really interesting. That case is fascinating, because she participated in it and basically starved herself to death. It’s crazy.
Jordan: I describe The Exorcism of Emily Rose as a Law and Order movie with an exorcism. I remember sitting in a theater when it came out, and there were possession scenes and the exorcism sequence, but then it was just like scene after scene of courtroom drama, and it was not at all what I was expecting as the person I was back then who saw every horror movie on opening night. I don’t know how I would feel about it now that I’m older and spooked more easily, but my biggest takeaway was, “Oh, this is just a courtroom drama with some exorcism bits.” Although, is that the movie where they keep waking up at 3:33 in the morning, and that’s when the devil is around?
It’s 3 a.m., but yeah.
Jordan: 3 a.m., okay, because I consistently wake up at like 3:33 in the morning, and I always think of that stupid movie. Like, “Ah, the devil is around.” This just goes into my overall feelings into how these movies have affected my ability to be sane about possession.
Grady: But, that’s also stolen right out of The Amityville Horror where everyone wakes up at 3:14 a.m. every night, the time of the supposed DeFeo murders. This stuff just feeds on itself.
I thought it was because that’s pi?
Grady: Oh my God. I haven’t seen The Exorcism of Emily Rose, but it’s interesting how many movies that are supposed to be exorcism movies aren’t actually possession and exorcism movies. I don’t think of the Paranormal Activity series and The Last Exorcism as possession movies. To me, those are much more conspiracy movies. They’re like paranoia films because they both involve cults manipulating things behind the scenes, and they’re not really about the relationship between the exorcist, the demoniac, and the people around them.
Jordan: I think that the Paranormal Activity series has grown into something like that, with all of the cults and stuff because that, at least in the first initial movie, was nowhere to be found.
Grady: You’re right. You’re one-hundred percent right. Well, except for the time travel later.
Jordan: But we don’t know any of that is happening in the initial movie. That’s what I’m saying. The first movie was just this found footage thing of a woman being creepy and unsettling and doing things when she was asleep that she didn’t know she was doing.
Paul: Right, but by the end of it though, that was sort of the reveal. I saw Paranormal Activity before the hype machine got going, so I had no expectations going into it.
Jordan: What ending did you see?
Paul: Spoiler. No, I saw the ending where at the very end she goes into the camera and you see sort of a demonic face.
Jordan: And she jumps, yeah?
Jordan: Because there were three alternate endings. I think they’re on the DVD now, but when it first happened, there was the one where she gets shot at the end by the cops, and then there was one where she slits her throat.
Grady: Yeah, I don’t know anyone who’s seen those in the theaters.
Paul: Me neither.
Jordan: That was the final moment. I think Spielberg was the one who said she should attack the camera. The story is that Spielberg got a copy of it and put it in a trash bag, or something, because it freaked him out so much. But he said, “You shouldn’t kill her at the end. The demon needs to win.” And so he gave them the idea for that final shot of her looking at the camera.
Wait. Why did he put it in a trash bag? Does that protect you from the movie if you put it in a trash bag?
Jordan: It freaked him out.
Grady: Trash bags are demon proof. Duh. Double-ply.
Jordan: [Laughter] Duh.
Grady: But, that’s such a problem with horror too. The less you know about the horror movie—and a book too, but a book is much more of a produced object these days—the better it is, like the first The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity, or when audiences first encounter The Exorcist, or even like when I first saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That movie didn’t scare me because of anything that happened in the movie. That movie scared me because I was like, “The people who made this movie, something is wrong with them. This is dirty, and sweaty, and disgusting.” And, it just felt vile. Then once it becomes a franchise and you know the release date, and you see the trailer and everything, it’s less scary. It’s more of a party.
Paul: No, I totally agree. In a way, I think one of the triumphs of The Exorcist is—obviously it doesn’t work for everybody—that it commits to in your face, this is what’s happening, and I do think in some ways that’s much harder to do in a film than it is to be very ambiguous, which is pretty much what I do with my own work. Regardless of the politics of The Exorcist, it sort of stays true to its message, even if you don’t agree with its message, and there’s something to be said for that.
Grady: I agree, totally. I think one of the reasons The Exorcist works so well in both the book and the movie is that Blatty is a believer. He really believes in God, and evil, and the devil, and he makes a really good passionate, reasoned argument for all this stuff. And it’s weird to look at possession stuff because if you look at where it falls on the scale of how much Christianity is in this possession book, Sara Gran’s Come Closer is at one end. I don’t think there’s any religion in that book. It’s not really posited as a Christian template. It’s “this is a possession” and it has more to do with that character’s fears about mental illness and what’s happening to their identity. Then, at the other end of that, you’ve got something like Ray Russell’s The Case Against Satan, which came out a couple of years before The Exorcist, that is super religious, and it’s a terribly boring book because it gets into all these really deep theological, very minutia kind of things that who really cares about outside of the Catholic church?
Paul: That book, The Case Against Satan, was just reissued by Penguin Classics with an introduction from Laird Barron, and when I read it, I was totally not expecting these philosophical treaties. I don’t know to what extent, but with some of the proto-Exorcist stuff, there was some legal wrangling between Blatty and the Ray Russell camp for a while.
Grady: Was there really? I didn’t know anything about that. That’s fascinating. What happened? Was Russell suing Blatty?
Paul: I believe so. I don’t know how far it got or to what extent. I had a writer for the Wall Street Journal filling me in on this because I had no idea.
Grady: Oh wow. The thing about The Case Against Satan that I think is so great is because as a book it’s sort of up and down. It’s an interesting read. It didn’t blow me away or anything, but it’s got the best chapter titles ever. It sounds like an Iron Maiden concept album. It’s like “Enter Diabolus.” “He Ate His Children All But Three.” It’s so great.
I was going to say, I heard that William Peter Blatty didn’t actually think The Exorcist is scary because he said, “Well, you know, if there’s a devil, then there’s God, and that’s really comforting, so this whole story is just kind of a comforting story for you.”
Paul: Oh, absolutely, and the failing of The Exorcist, ultimately, to me, is the last five minutes of the movie. It’s part of the reason why I wrote my book, because after Father Karras takes the tumble down the stairs and all this stuff has happened, the last five minutes of the movie are bright sunlight. Regan is happy and healthy and doesn’t remember a thing, everyone smiles, and everything has been restored to fit Blatty’s religious world view. As a horror fan, that’s where it failed to me because the best works of horror—after the reveal of the ugly truth, or the affect, or the big scare—the interesting part is what are these characters going to do now? How have they been fundamentally changed? Regan and her mother and the other priest would be fundamentally changed by what they just saw, and so my book, in a lot of ways, is a big reaction to those last failed five minutes of Blatty’s book and The Exorcist the movie.
Grady: That’s really interesting. Did you ever see Exorcist III?
Paul: I did, yes.
Grady: Which I love. I think it’s amazing. But Blatty directed it, and he’s sort of just based it on what he feels like is the failings of the final five minutes of The Exorcist. He originally had that scene in the screenplay that he wrote where the cop, Kinderman, and Dyer, the other priest, sort of are like, “hey, you know, the world’s not all bad. Let’s go see a movie together.” And he really felt like you had to restore this. Friedkin wanted to end it on a darker, more ominous note. III, I think, is fascinating because it does deal with all the emotional fallout of that movie in a way that Friedkin kind of walked away from.
Paul: I’ll have to rewatch it because, to be honest, I saw it once, and I was probably in my early twenties, and I thought it was decent, a couple of good scary scenes. I didn’t catch the deeper parts of that.
Grady: Rewatch it. It’s not a perfect movie. It’s got a lot of problems, but, it’s really interesting because in a way it’s like what you’re saying. It’s like another work that’s based on a reaction to the end of The Exorcist and how unsatisfying that is.
It’s funny, because before we did this panel I asked Grady and Jordan what possession movies I should check out, and you guys kind of said, well, there aren’t a ton of great ones. Jordan, do you want to talk about that? Like why do you think there’s so few homeruns when it comes to these sort of possession movies?
Jordan: I think part of it is the inevitable comparison to The Exorcist that no one really wants to deal with. And it’s hard to do something completely new. A lot of these stories are young women who are being subjected to these exorcisms because they are experiencing something different in some way. With The Exorcist, she gets her period and then she becomes possessed. So, I think that there are a lot of tropes that are so strong that it’s hard for people to overcome them and overcome the comparisons, and it’s hard to really break out and do something different, and so I think that that’s why a lot of the stuff that we see nowadays is more commentary. Having read both Grady’s exorcism book and Paul’s exorcism book, I say that’s how I view both of their books: They’re taking the exorcism idea and putting it in a metatextual, critical light while writing things that are scary and dark.
Did you see The Last Exorcism, Jordan?
Jordan: No. I don’t let myself see exorcism or possession movies anymore. Paul’s laughing at me, but it’s true.
Because that movie did some interesting things with what you’re talking about with young women and—
Grady: Yeah, I think it’s a good film.
Jordan: I definitely appreciate its existence. I do go through phases where I might allow myself to see something, but Paranormal Activity did a number on my brain, so I don’t put myself in situations where I’ll be overly spooked by possession narratives anymore. I can handle it just fine in fiction, but I don’t like seeing it onscreen, and so I remove myself from the situation.
Paul: I was going to mention The Last Exorcism; I really enjoyed the movie until the last five minutes. In some sense, I can intellectually sort of appreciate that they sort of went for it, but I thought it fell totally flat with the tone of the rest of the movie. To me, that was like one of those twists that doesn’t work. A good twist has to sort of recontextualize everything that you saw in a believable way, and that didn’t work for me in The Last Exorcism.
Well, for me, I was really into the movie. There were two twists at the end, and the first of those twists totally just obliterated my suspension of disbelief. And so, going into the second twist, they had already lost me. I think I would have been alright with the second twist if it had been built up to better, but it’s hard to talk about without spoilers.
Grady: Are we allowed? I mean, it’s like a six-year-old movie now, isn’t it?
All right, spoiler warning, go ahead.
Grady: So, what was the first twist for you?
Where it supposedly turns out that she was faking the whole time, and she was just ashamed of having had sex, and was just pretending to be a demon because she couldn’t deal with her religious dad.
Grady: Then, for you, the second twist was when they found out from the guy that she never even knew him? The guy she said she had sex with, right?
The second twist is the satanic cult.
Grady: Okay, okay, got it.
Paul: Yeah, it was the cult, yeah.
My problem with the cult is—and this is one of the problems with exorcism and possession movies, and I had a really hard time with it—you’re dealing with demons and satanic cults, but what the hell does a demon want? What’s its motivation? Why is it bothering with some fourteen-year-old girl in the middle of nowhere? Why does it give a shit? The thing with The Last Exorcism that killed me in those last five minutes was why the hell is there a satanic cult in the middle of nowhere? What does it promise them? Better reception on their satellite TV? “Muahahaha, kill babies for me, and you will get new four-walled radial tires.” What do these people have that’s so great?
Jordan: Or not great that they need here?
Grady: Yeah, right, but like, if those people were in a satanic cult, and it had been Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, Mark Wahlberg and Mark Zuckerberg, like, okay, fine, I get it. They’re rich, and they’re powerful, and their IPOs did well because they worship Satan, but what the hell? These people don’t even have houses that are that great.
Paul: There’s your next novel. Mark Wahlberg worships Satan.
Grady: One of things that The Exorcist had in spades is the issue of belief. Blatty wanted this movie, and it was really driven by his engine that he believed this stuff, and I’ve got to tell you, I don’t think the people making The Last Exorcism or Emily Rose or any of this stuff believe. They just want to make a scary hit movie. As much as I like Last Exorcism, it has a hollowness to it. It’s funny; they suddenly throw in this satanic cult. What? What does that have to do with a possession? Or a demon? Or anything?
Actually, Grady, I want to pick up on what you were saying about “What is the demon’s motivation” because that was something that really hit me watching The Exorcism of Emily Rose, because everyone who comes in contact with this has their faith in God strengthened, so it seems like the demon is being completely counterproductive. It seems like the demons ought to be possessing people and then either telling them that God isn’t real, or telling them that God is evil, or like, trying to portray themselves as sympathetic, or something, but they just possess people and act all crazy and spooky and evil. I’m like the most hardcore atheist there is, but if that happened to me, I’d be like, “Okay, Jesus, here I come.” So, what is the point of these demons?
Grady: Lots of people get exorcisms in real life, and deliverances, which is the Protestant version. And, I’m all for that. You go, girl. But to talk about them in fiction, they’re a metaphor, and they’re a metaphor in the Bible. There is not a single exorcism or possession in the Old Testament. They’re only in the New Testament because the point of the story in the Bible is that Jesus beats the demon. This is supposed to solidify your faith in Christ. That’s the whole point of it. You’re right. You’re supposed to see the demon and go, “I’m out of here. Where’s heaven?” And it’s interesting because—I can’t remember where I read it—there’s a guy who studies exorcisms, and he was speaking to someone who does them, and they said science, expertise, and professionalism have no place in an exorcism. The exorcist has to enter this arena. This battlefield with evil armed with nothing but love of Christ and faith. This is where you test your faith because in Christian theology, the second you say, “Jesus Christ banishes you. Get out,” no demon can resist the power of God. They’re gone. Boom. Done. This is my read on it, but the reason they go on and on and on, and the reason I think believers believe they go on and on, is that it is a place to test your faith. This is where you go to see if you really believe in God or not. You’re right. They’ve kind of got it the wrong way around.
Paul: I would say that’s a big part of the failing of these movies. A lot of these movies that we’ve talked about aren’t as successful, if we’re going to say The Exorcist was successful, is because they take a really lazy approach. A lazy appeal toward faith. They take for granted that most people believe in Christianity, at least in the United States, that most people watching are just going, “Oh yeah, there’s demons. They come after us. That’s what they do.” And that’s why these movies fail, because I do think they rely on that easy appeal to faith.
Grady: I agree. They don’t make the case for faith. They make the case for the devil, but they don’t make the case for faith.
Paul: There’s a movie called Kill List by Ben Wheatley. It’s not a possession film, but in terms of having this weird cult at the end, to me, it totally works because there is no real explanation to it, and there’s not that lazy appeal to faith. This is just a messed up crew of people that are sort of hinted at throughout the movie. There’s no reason, there’s no rhyme to it. Obviously, sometimes it doesn’t work, but just the way Wheatley sets it up, I totally bought it.
Grady: Let’s face it, not a lot of people were talking about exorcisms before The Exorcist. They’ve existed for hundreds of years. There are two interesting things that I’ve read that talk about why there is this huge resurgence of interest in exorcisms after The Exorcist came out. One is, it’s The Exorcist. You have all these movies piggybacking off all these books. Malachi Martin, the priest, wrote his Hostage to the Devil and all of his nonfiction stuff that were all bestsellers about Americans like you and me having exorcisms because Satan’s everywhere. But, there’s another thought that is, with the Vatican and the Catholic church modernizing, the priest can now face the congregation and not turn his back and they can do it in English instead of Latin. The church moved away from this idea that pain and suffering were evil. There used to be this idea that pain was evil, and you defeated pain. You defeated suffering. In this new version of Christianity that embraced therapeutic language, pain and suffering were now things you endured. They taught you things. Enduring them had positive, redemptive value. Like, “Oh, that’s terrible, but everything happens for a reason, and God has a plan and we’ll learn from this.” The Exorcism was this thing that went back to “No, this is evil. Pain is evil. Suffering is evil. And this is healing.” The exorcism is where healing happens. What happened to just healing yourself of this stuff and getting rid of it? Which, I don’t think is one-hundred percent why that happened, but I think it’s probably a factor.
Can I ask you, Grady, you mentioned people in China, or in the Old Testament times—if they get possessed by a demon, do they have any remedy if they don’t know of Jesus or if Jesus hasn’t come around yet? Is there anything else you can do to exorcise one?
Grady: In the Old Testament there are a few exorcisms—well, not really exorcisms—but demons are cast out by angels or by God directly. New Testament is the first time that a human working with the power of God can actually do this, and it becomes more of an exorcism situation rather than God intervening because this is a bad scene.
All over the world, possession is everywhere. You see it everywhere, even outside of Christian theology. And it’s regarded as almost a shamanistic thing. You invite this spirit in to give you knowledge, to reveal things, to put you in an ecstatic state where you speak with its wisdom. In that case, the spirit just goes away when the ritual is over. One of the big hits of last year in Korea was a movie called The Priest which is a straight-up, old school Catholic exorcism movie because ten-percent of the population of Korea are Catholic. The Philippines has exorcism movies that follow the standard format, because it’s a Catholic country. There’s a great one called Sapi from a couple of years ago that’s phenomenal. It either follows the Catholic model or it’s a more shamanistic, less Christian-based model where the spirt leaves when it gets bored.
Jordan, you mentioned that you don’t watch possession movies so much anymore, but you read possession books. Are there any possession literary works that you want to mention?
Grady: [Clears throat loudly]
Jordan: [Laughter] Yeah, so Grady and Paul’s books are the ones that I’ve been preaching about for a while now. I’m primarily a YA editor, and there’s not a ton of it in YA. It kind of got a stigma that you can’t sell it. There is a novel by Gretchen McNeil called Possess that follows a teen exorcist. She gets connected with a priest and then performs exorcisms with him and there’s demons. It’s really great. It was Gretchen’s first novel. For me, I think, it sounds like pandering because they’re here, but Paul and Grady’s books are the ones that I’ve really enjoyed and keep thinking about. I can’t see Paul in person and not go up to him and say, “Remember that horrifying thing that you had a character do in the exorcism scene of your book?” Because it stuck with me. The same thing with Grady’s. They’re both looking at this well-known trope and then playing with it and trying to explore what is actually happening. I think that that’s really cool. I recommend their books.
Paul, why don’t you say a bit more about your book because you mentioned it involves exorcism, and I mentioned in the intro that it also involves reality television. Could you talk about why you decided to combine those two things?
Paul: It’s funny, to go back to a little of what Jordan was talking about, part of the reason why I sort of had this eureka moment for the book is that I happened to be thinking about the horror market. I was reading essays about The Exorcist, which I mentioned earlier, and it sort of occurred to me that, “Jeez, there’s tons of zombie novels out there.” You can buy quote-unquote high literary authors. There’s been literary updates of the werewolf recently and the vampire. I had a really hard time thinking of someone really doing an update of The Exorcist or even a possession since at least since Sarah Gran’s, which was 2003.
I was thinking, “How would I write an exorcism novel?” And the place I wanted to start from was two places. One, I wanted to write a secular or skeptical exorcist novel. One that wouldn’t shy away from The Exorcist, the movie and the original novel, and take it head on. React to it. To do that, I came upon the two sisters of the story. Merry is the younger sister. She’s eight years-old. But her older sister Marjorie is either schizophrenic or maybe she’s possessed or maybe she’s faking. There’s a lot of possibilities there. It was going to be from Merry’s point of view. I knew this right away, so I wanted to put as many different filters on her narrative as I could, just to try to really build the ambiguity. Besides the fact that Merry is recounting most of the novel fifteen years after this has happened, so memory is an imperfect mental device, and I also decided to have the reality show come in to muddy up what’s real and what’s not. What’s staged and what isn’t staged. Even the fact that Merry a couple of years later watched these six episodes of reality TV, and that would totally mess with her memories of what happened.
Did you finish this book and you were like, “Ah yeah, this is going to scare the hell out of Stephen King.”
Paul: No, whenever I write anything—well, not everything I write is horror—but when I do write something that I think is dark or disturbing, I’m always like, “Man, I don’t know if this is scary.” But, the moment I knew it was scary was when I sent it to my agent, and he sent it out, and he got really strong reactions right away. He called me up to tell me that. A random editor, one he barely knew, called him up at 11:30 at night, didn’t say hi, didn’t say anything, she just said, “I just read the tongue scene, and I just had to hear someone else’s voice.” And then she hung up on him. I was like, “Yes, I guess it is scary.” But, no, the day, August 18th 2015, that Stephen King tweeted out that my book scared him was an amazing day, for sure.
Have there been any other memorable reactions to the book like that?
Paul: My wife cried because she thinks that Merry is our daughter. I took a lot of stuff from our daughter for Merry, but Merry is not my daughter. People have been very nice. It’s been a very fun year with people’s reaction to it. I love hearing people vehemently argue that nothing supernatural happened, and I have plenty of other people on the other side who vehemently argue that, no, Marjorie was possessed, and then there’s a subset of people who say, no, it was actually Merry who was possessed the whole time. So, I’ve really enjoyed that part of it, because I purposefully tried to build it so the reader could build their own case on either side. A compelling case on either side that either something supernatural happened or something didn’t happen.
I saw that now there’s a real exorcism reality TV show that came out.
Paul: It was like a one-day thing to go back to The Exorcist. It was like Destination America, like a cable channel you can only get if you buy the most expensive cable package, I think. They did a live exorcism of the supposed Exorcist house, the case that Blatty referenced in his movie. They went to that house and supposedly exorcised the house. I did not watch it though. I heard it was awful, which was not surprising.
Is exorcism . . . is that still something that happens? How common is that today?
Paul: Grady can probably talk about it, but in my research, I was sort of surprised to see that it seems to be on the increase. I wrote the book in 2013, and when I was doing research at the time, there were Spanish bishops and cardinals petitioning the Vatican to ask for more priests to be ordained as exorcists because the demand has been increasing. In a way, it sort of makes sense to me because maybe for a lot of people it seems like we live in a scarier time, so people turn to what they believe in. The idea of being able to take away pain and suffering through exorcism would certainly be a comfort to a lot of Catholics who are afraid.
One issue that comes up in The Exorcism of Emily Rose is that sometimes these exorcisms end up killing innocent people, right?
Paul: In my research, I didn’t delve too deeply, so I didn’t find any cases where someone had actually died through the process. I don’t know if Grady had found any cases in which that happened?
Grady: There was one, I think in the ’90s. Charity Miranda died. There’s one in Ontario right now, where a Mountie kept his kid chained up in the basement, and his brother was a priest, and they starved the kid. The kid when he escaped was like fourteen years-old and weighed fifty-five pounds or something insane. They were like, “Oh, he’s possessed. We do all these exorcisms.” It went on for years.
There are a good, significant portion of really upsetting cases where kids are killed in exorcisms. I actually think those are child abuse situations where the exorcism part is just a thin Band-Aid on it afterwards. Cases like Anneliese Michel, where it’s an actual official exorcism and they die, and I think she was nineteen or twenty when it happened, an adult—they happen, but they’re very rare. It’s a bummer. Because Paul is right. Exorcism and deliverance, which is the Protestant version, are on the rise. I think they’re not entirely bad. You’ve got a person who has a problem. Hauntings and ghosts in movies and books, and maybe reality, are someone else’s problem. You move into a house where some murders happened, and you’re stuck with the aftermath of this terrible thing. Demons are your problem. We even call them that, right? Like, you’ve got your own personal demons. If the problem that someone’s having is a demon, and you meet someone who is also looking at it that way who’s an exorcist, or a minister, or whatever, there is a real therapeutic exchange there.
That’s exactly what the fake exorcist in The Last Exorcism says, right?
Grady: Yeah, and there’s a guy, you might have read this Paul, Michael Cuneo’s American Exorcism?
Paul: I know of it, but I didn’t read it.
Grady: He’s a sociologist who went out in the field. I think he teaches at Fordham. He went out and studied real exorcisms and deliverances in America, and it’s a really great history of them. He’s like, “Look, I witnessed a lot of these things, and I witnessed a lot of people saying that this really helped them get over what they were going through at the time.” He’s like, “I’m not doing a medical study here. I didn’t do a lot of follow up.” To me, it’s kind of another form of therapy with a religious guise over it. What’s a lot of medicine but a ritualized placebo?
Paul: When I started researching, I did try to put it, like, “Is there a supernatural element?” I would describe myself as David described himself earlier, as someone who puts a lot more stock in science. Although, I am clearly not a psychologist, but particularly in the case of children, it just seemed to me all the cases that I read about, where these poor kids who had no choice in the matter were obviously having their mental illness symptoms conflated with proof of their having a demon inside of them. Even for adults, I would be interested to see a follow-up. I have a hard time believing that there isn’t some underlying medical or mental condition that maybe the exorcism serves as a salve or a balm for a year or two, but then what happens five or ten years down the line?
Grady: I agree with you. With children, especially, it’s not often even mental illness. It’s often, I believe, the mental illness of their parents being projected onto the kids. It’s really fascinating to read these accounts of deliverance ministry where it’s fifteen or twenty people in a room, and they’re having their demons cast out, and they’re all there to work on specific demons. The demon of pornography addiction, the demon of alcoholism, the demon of blasphemous thoughts, or whatever it is, and they puke, and they scream, and they holler. You can see these things. There’s some on YouTube. Maybe they have another one in six to eight months, but the language is so much like AA. It’s like, “You have a problem, but it’s not you. There’s something inside of you that’s doing this to you. It’s a disease. It’s a demon. And you have no control over it, but we can help you, and we will give you this structure, whether it’s the twelve steps or a ritual to expel the demon, and at the end of that, you will no longer have this inside of you. And you still have work to do, but you’re free of this thing.”
Paul: That’s a very seductive message to hear if you’re someone who is suffering. “Oh, it’s not my fault.” It relieves you of responsibility for potentially having to do difficult life changes and puts it in the hands of something or someone else.
Paul, can you explain to me, why is your book called A Head Full of Ghosts rather than “A Head of Full of Demons” or “A Head Full of Satan”?
Grady: Because it sounds badass.
Paul: Yeah. Well, honestly, I’m a big music nerd, and I get a ton of inspiration from music, and Bad Religion had just come out with True North like a month before I had the idea for the book, and on that album there was a song called “My Head is Full of Ghosts.” The lyrics mention something about possession and meta-cognition and stuff like that. To me, that became the soundtrack of my book. I started the whole book with the title first. It was originally “My Head is Full of Ghosts” and then we just tweaked it. It was very cool to get permission from the band to use it to quote them for the epigraph. I have actually had that comment a couple of times: “There’s no ghosts in here.” It’s metaphorical.
Grady: Can I just say that I was writing My Best Friend’s Exorcism when I heard about A Head Full of Ghosts, and I was so pissed off. I was like, “Goddammit, another exorcism book and it’s got a badass title. There is no way.” I was so angry. And I didn’t even read your book until I was completely done with the drafts of mine because I didn’t want to accidently rip you off or anything. I loved it. I was so happy to see that what you do is so radically different from what I was doing, but there’s so much fodder here that it can support so many different takes.
Grady, why don’t you tell us about My Best Friend’s Exorcism. What was your take on this idea?
Grady: Like Paul, it was originally a title before it was anything. I was just screwing around one day, and I was like, “My best friend’s exorcism, haha.” Then, also like Paul, I was like, “Well, there’s not a lot out there. There’s Sara Gran. There’s very little else.” There was a book by a woman . . . is it Danielle Vega? Called The Merciless. That’s a YA book, a couple of years ago.
Jordan: Yeah, the YA series that Razorbill publishes. With the hot pink cover?
Grady: Which is a good cover, I thought. There was that, but there really wasn’t a whole lot else. I was thinking about it, but the big problem is that exorcism books and movies all devolve to, “There’s a girl tied to a bed and an old man standing over her screaming at her.” That’s such a bummer. That dynamic is so screwed up. I wanted to know if there was a way around it, and so I was like, “Well, it’s my best friend’s exorcism. Friendship is obviously the strongest in high school. I’ll write about my time in high school and that was in the ’80s.”
I haven’t written a lot of novels, so to me, the process is still fascinating. The way that once you really start focusing on your book, things just seem to snap into place in a really almost eerie way. It’s like the world helps you. I’ll set it in ’88 because that’s when I was in tenth grade. Well, tenth grade was rough for me. Later, I talked to a bunch of teachers doing research and they’re all like, “Jesus Christ, tenth grade, it’s when kids go crazy.” Also, ’88 was the year of Geraldo’s Exposing Satan’s Underground. That whole satanic panic thing in America where we thought heavy metal albums had backward messages from hell: that was erupting.
Then, I was doing all this research on exorcism, and that quote about how this isn’t a place for experts. It’s for amateurs, and it’s all about having to enter the arena of diabolical battle armed with nothing but love and faith. In a largely secular world, where’s that love and faith? It’s not going to be with Jesus so much anymore. I was like, “Shit, it’s with your friends.” In high school, that was what I really had faith in, that these people I knew, who now I know were just as screwed up as I was, but at the time, I was like, these are the awesome people who are going to save me from myself, and everyone around me, and the whole world, and all these adults who are so horrible. I really focused in on that, and wanted to write something that deconstructed that model about exorcisms that are all about young girls at the mercy of old men.
Is it true, Grady, that your wife read the first draft and was like, “Uh, this sucks.” And you had to start over from the beginning?
Grady: I joke about it. That was such a rough day. I wrote about sixty thousand words of the first draft, and I was like, “This rocks. Oh my God, I’m like a writer.” I gave it to my wife. I was so proud of it. I so wanted to see that look in her eyes where she puts it down and she’s like, “Oh my God, you’re amazing.” And she put it down, and she was like, “Oh, we’ll talk about it.” We had to go to a friend’s party, and we’re on the subway, so I’m glad she chose a private place to tell me this, and she’s like, “This is really bad. This is pretty terrible. This is basically just a bunch of clichés, and it’s very shallow, and it’s awful.” People say hell is a woman scorned. No, a wounded male vanity is like one of the most toxic forces. I exploded. It was awful. I got off at one station. “I don’t want to be on this train with you.” I had to get back on at the next station. It was really stupid.
But she was right. I was honestly just recycling tropes of high school movies, and high school books, and John Hughes movies, and all this crap that was stuck in my head. She did me this huge favor. She gave me all of her letters, and all of her photos and diaries from high school, and I sort of hauled out mine that I’d been carrying around for God knows what reasons. I really just sat there and started reading them all. It was about two or three weeks. I would copy over letters that I’d written in high school, just rewrite them just to get into that mindset again. It was after about two weeks or so, I had an actual memory of what it actually felt like to be in high school in 1988, and then another one came, and another one, and they all just sort of came out. I finally felt like I was actually writing something real that didn’t exist before, rather than just taking someone else’s toys and gluing G. I. Joe’s butt onto Star Wars’ arms. She did me a huge favor, but it was ugly, man.
You’ve been handing out these stickers like a pink inverted pentagram with a unicorn in it all over New York. What’s the story behind that?
Grady: Cover design is so crazy with books, and so I really like Quirk [Books], even though they’re small, because they let me be involved with the design process a little bit. The original designs they were coming back with were good designs, but they were very like book designs. They felt very bookish. Then the designer just started going bonkers because my editor and I kept saying, “We want more. We want more.” So he started doing these crazy Lisa Frank things with the puppies and the kittens and all this. We finally went over his design, and we left the Lisa Frank stuff behind because we didn’t want to be sued, and she’s a little bonkers, and her style is so distinctive. But they were going to do stickers. That’s when we brought that back. That whole Lisa Frank, rainbow unicorns, and puppies, and pentagrams because everyone remembers Lisa Frank from high school.
Jordan, you said that you read My Best Friend’s Exorcism. Is there a thing you want to add about the book?
Jordan: It feels like high school. And, I think that that’s a testament to Grady doing the research. I’m good friends with Grady. I have spent time in his office. The research that Grady does is so extensive, and literally covers the walls of his office, and there were high school yearbooks, and photos of teenagers, not in a creepy way, but . . .
Grady: Bits of their hair.
Jordan: [Laughter] Yeah. You can feel the honesty and truth of it because Grady has put forth so much effort into the research. I think that a big thing for me as a horror reader and editor is being able to do that slow burn that, I think, is essential to a good horror story whether it’s film or books. I’ve had long talks with Grady about when do you go there with the abject horror, and the vomit, and the poop, and the blood, and all of that. I had talked to Grady about that, and then I read Paul’s book, and then I had a phone call with Paul’s agent about Paul’s book just because he knew that I liked exorcism books. I was sitting in an office surrounded by people talking about . . . and you know, the choice of when to use the vomit was really on point. I think that it’s just both of these guys are able to know when to go there. I think a lot of people when they approach these kinds of stories go immediately to, okay, it’s head spinning, and pea soup, and just disgusting abject horror. Really, so much of the darkness is happening before you ever get to the physical depictions of the horror. That’s what works for me. Both of their books, I think, are what I look for whenever I’m looking at these kinds of demonic possession pieces, it’s what do you do before you have your character puke.
Paul: I would say, just to build on that really quickly, in my book, what I really tried to do, I certainly had sort of the puke and the stereotypical stuff that you see in exorcism movies, but those scenes I tried to really make the most ambiguous. Is that real or is it not real? I even have a blogger in the novel sort of act almost as a Greek chorus who’s commenting on the action. It says, “Hey, this looks like The Exorcist, right? This looks like Paranormal Activity.” So hopefully the reader is like, “Oh, is that staged? Was that real?” To me, the exciting part about writing the book is because usually when I write a novel I have a scene or two in my head to act as the carrot at the end of the stick. I’m going to write this book because I want to get to this scene. Those are sort of my rewards. In A Head Full of Ghosts, to me, the two most horrific, disturbing scenes are the ones that are the least supernaturally tinged, if that makes sense. That was really important for the idea of the book.
Grady: I have to say with A Head Full of Ghosts, and I don’t mean this to turn into a human centipede of group ass-kissing, but the stuff I liked most in there was the stuff between the two sisters. I’m sorry, I’m terrible with the names of characters, but when the older sister is so just willfully cruel to her little sister, and when her little sister just keeps re-exposing herself to that cruelty. To me, that was the stuff that worked so well. You read a lot of books when you write books, and you so often read stuff that doesn’t feel like someone’s felt experience. It feels like, oh, this is this scene, and this is what’s supposed to happen here. That stuff felt real. That stuff felt observed, and it felt so different from so many other books. That’s the stuff I loved in your book. The puking is all great and everything, but the cruelty between the two sisters, that’s the stuff that really made my skin crawl.
Jordan: And everything with the Richard Scarry book. I remember I sent Paul a Facebook message that was like, “You managed to make Richard Scarry scary.”
Paul, I heard you mention in an interview a possession story called “Mother of Stone” by John Langan. I was just curious if you wanted to talk about that or any other literary possession stories that you can think of.
Paul: It’s a novella and it appears in his collection The Wide, Carnivorous Sky. John’s one of my best friends, but he’s also one of my favorite writers. It’s a weird novella to describe. It’s told in second person, and there’s this strange statue and awful things start happening to people within its proximity. It goes into a weird possession area story-wise, like any sort of possession or exorcism piece of fiction that I’ve read, at least in a long time. It’s funny, in my head I almost separate exorcist stories from possession stories because there’s a lot of stories, as Grady mentioned in particular in Asian cinema, where a spirit overtakes you. It’s not necessarily a demon. But, to me, they fit in the same ballpark. Session 9 from 2001 is one of my favorite movies. Partly because I grew up ten miles from Danvers State Mental Hospital where the movie was filmed, and that was the big joke when we were going up. “Where are you going to college?” “Oh, I’m going to Danvers State.” It’s a weird, subtle, you’re not sure what’s happening, maybe someone is actually possessed by an evil entity, or maybe not. I think maybe the one that most people probably haven’t heard about is one of my favorites called The Cormorant by Stephen Gregory.
Grady: Oh, I’ve never read it.
Paul: The novel was written in 1986. It’s just such a weird, messed up book. It begins with this English school teacher who leaves some urban environment in England to go write and live with this family in this quaint cottage in Wales that he just inherited from his uncle. The kicker is he gets to keep the cottage as long as he takes care of his uncle’s pet cormorant, which is this big, ugly black bird. Very strange. It’s hard to describe, but it’s just so bizarre, and the possession part of it is maybe that the uncle’s spirit is within the bird, and it eventually overtakes his son, or even himself. It’s a really bizarre, unsettling book. I highly recommend chasing that one down.
I was actually going to ask about that, because in the Bible there’s the story of the Gerasene demoniac where Jesus takes the demons out of the man and puts them in the pigs. I was wondering if possessed animals feature prominently in horror stories.
Jordan: The Witch.
Paul: I didn’t know that story. Yeah, The Witch.
Jordan: That goat.
Grady: I just thought the goat was evil. I didn’t know it was possessed. I thought the whole thesis of the movie was goats are bad news.
Paul: They are bad news. I was just telling a brief story last night that no one cares about, but I was at a petting zoo three years ago with my daughter, and it was all baby goats and one giant goat. So, first, why did they put the giant goat in the petting zoo, because the giant goat was preventing the kids from getting the feed. Every time a kid tried to put a quarter in to get feed, the giant goat would just come over and eat the food. So, I came over like, “I’m an adult here. I’ll take care of this.” So I sort of boxed out the big goat like I was playing basketball going for a rebound or something to let a kid put the money in, and the goat just totally rammed me in the back of the leg. It was horrible. His name was Black Phillip, I think.
Definitely sounds like a demon name.
Jordan: The Witch is one of the first movies I allowed myself to see in theaters because I assumed I would be able to get through it without being overly freaked out. But, what I found interesting about The Witch is that they show you the witch like twenty minutes in, so there’s no ambiguity as to “Is this girl crazy”, and I still don’t know how I feel about it, because I think that if we had never seen the witch, it would have been a completely different narrative. It would have been another “Is this girl crazy? Is she possessed? Is she a witch?” story. But because the creators made the decision to literally show the audience the witch eating a baby, it took away all of the questions of what is actually happening to this teenage girl.
Grady: I was going to say, it’s funny, that whole ambiguity, like “What’s really going on here?” thing, it’s really something I struggled with in My Best Friend’s Exorcism. Paul’s book, the gas in his tank is what’s really going on here. That ambiguity really drives the book. I was doing the same thing with My Best Friend’s Exorcism, and I had these huge fights with my editor because he would be like, “Everyone knows there’s an exorcism coming. It’s in the fucking title.” He had a good point, which was I could only get so far with that ambiguity before people would just start tapping their foot and being like, “Come on, man, we know the exorcism is happening. Where the hell is it?”
You should just change the title to My Best Friend’s Exorcism . . . or not?
Grady: Yeah, dot, dot, dot, question mark.
Paul: Even in The Witch, Jordan, I expect ambiguity at this point for a lot of these movies, if they’re not made in Hollywood. I thought the way that The Witch was shot, like that early scene that we’re talking about, felt kind of dreamlike to me. At a point where it was like, jeez, I wonder if this is the imagining of someone in the family who’s imagining what happened to the kid. That was probably my own sort of . . . just bringing that to the movie because it was appalling. Like, wow, she’s eating a baby.
Jordan: One thing we haven’t talked about, because it’s not fully possession, but falls under satanic horror, is demon children. I adore Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, the original Omen. I think that that feels, if I’m the devil, inhabiting a child or impregnating a woman with my son of Satan is a much more tangible way to get my point of view across.
Grady: But, the problem with that whole plan, because I agree with you, is that’s such a better idea for Satan, but then you have to grow up, right? I just read this book, it’s from the 80s, called Such a Good Baby by Ruby Jensen, who is this nice old grandma in Arkansas who wrote all these sort of really mass market paperback horror things. This is about a girl who gets Satan’s baby, and the baby is born, and the baby is evil. But, the problem is, it’s a baby. It can’t really do anything about it. It can’t even hold its head up by itself. So, you’ve got this baby that can barely crawl murdering all of these people because it’s so evil. It is the funniest thing. For a big chunk of the book, all it can do is vomit profusely and horribly because that’s all babies do, and it is amazing. Because think about it, if you are Satan-baby, that must be so frustrating. You can’t even get an erection until years down the road, and you’re like, “I want to be in an orgy in a black mass and killing virgins, and I’m having to eat strained carrots and wear a diaper and be carried around. This sucks.”
Paul: This sounds like a perfect adult kids book, like a pop-up book. Someone needs to make that. Satan’s Baby.
Jordan: Grady, that’s me and you. Our next book.
Grady: Totally. It’s just like Satan did not think this plan through. Like, here he is as a baby. “Goddammit.”
Aren’t those books like Satan’s First Birthday or something like that?
No, because there’s those books, Baby’s First Birthday, right? So this would be Satan’s First Birthday.
Grady: Oh, I’m totally stealing that title. That’s great.
Jordan: Damien is a TV show that’s on right now that looks at Damien from The Omen as a thirty-year-old man. So, much like Jesus became the Jesus we all know when he turned thirty. Damien in the TV show is starting to realize who he is, and it’s an interesting look at the character because at the end of The Omen, he’s just a creepy kid who’s about to live in the White House, and you’re like, “Oh no, he’s going to wreak havoc as a child.” The TV show posits that he’s just this guy who has been followed by darkness his whole life until he turns thirty and realizes that he is supposedly the son of Satan. I haven’t finished it, but it’s been an interesting show to watch because he’s your typical hot, tortured TV guy, but the question is—does he embrace his destiny being the person who brings about the apocalypse as the anti-Christ, or does he fight it? The show is doing a great job of feeling like an extension of the original Omen in terms of all of the gruesome, crazy death scenes that happen in The Omen and the TV show, but my big question from the pilot is, okay, well, are we going the traditional TV savior route of he’s going to save himself, or is this really going to be a show of watching someone accept their fate and totally embrace the darkness, which I think might actually be more interesting these days since we get so many redemption narratives. I think we’re all expecting Kylo Ren to get redemption in Star Wars, and I think that there’s something to be said for someone just not looking for redemption.
Grady: But, to me, it’s such a terrible thing because he’s got a choice, right? He could either be really, really great at being the son of Satan, or he can kind of be okay at preventing the apocalypse. Who’s going to care about the guy who made something not happen?
This gets back to my question about demon motivations because if God is omnipotent, what’s even the point of trying to fight him? The demons must know God is omnipotent, right? It seems like they should do something more enjoyable than try and fight God because they’re not ever going to win.
Grady: Did anyone ever see that BBC mini-series Ultraviolet with Idris Elba about the vampires? It’s really, really fantastic. It’s from a few years ago, and the guy who made that made a recent one that didn’t get as much attention because it doesn’t have Idris Elba in it, called Apparitions. It’s about demons from hell possessing people on Earth. The demon point of view is, “We just want out of hell.” It’s really, really bad there. And by not letting them come to Earth and possess people who have been braindead and in vegetative states in like comas, or people who are really severely mentally ill, or people who are not leading much of a life, they’re like, “You are perpetuating a holocaust against us. We have been doomed to eternal torture and suffering for no other reason than we’re demons. It is a complete holocaust against demons run by heaven, and all we’re doing, we are Jews escaping Nazi Germany and saying please just give us sanctuary here. And you want to send us back to Germany to die in the camps?” It’s kind of a fascinating way of looking at their motivation because you’re right, otherwise their motivation is pretty thin.
Paul: That does sound cool. I’ll have to watch it.
Another issue I wanted to bring up is in both Paranormal Activity and in The Exorcism of Emily Rose there’s audio tapes or video tapes of these things happening, and it just makes me wonder if exorcisms are a real thing, or if demonic possessions are a real thing that happens, how come there’s not videos all over YouTube of people like, “Oh, here’s my cousin. He’s possessed by a demon.” And the cousin definitely seems like he’s possessed by a demon.
Grady: Well, there are. There are videos all over YouTube and other places of people getting deliverances or exorcisms and stuff.
Paul: I know I tried to play with that with my book just having the reality TV crew and there’s even a part where Merry, the younger sister, is given a camera for herself to use as almost like a found footage treatment to it. She films her sister, and later on they’re watching her filming her sister, so instead of making things more clear, having all of those cameras with different perspectives just made everything more muddy.
Grady, is there anything where you watch it and you’re like, “Oh, that looks hard to explain by natural causes . . .” Is there anything supernatural got on tape ever?
Grady: I haven’t seen anything. I see what looks like people in genuine distress, but I don’t see anything supernatural.
But no like heads spinning around or crab walking or people on the ceiling?
Grady: No, although Michael Cuneo in the conclusion of that non-fiction book American Exorcism writes about his personal experience because he witnessed something like fifty or sixty exorcisms watching this. He says, “I never saw anything that didn’t have another, better explanation, but what was so weird to me is how different what I saw was from the people who were there participating in the deliverance or the exorcism.” They would say, “Well, didn’t you see them levitate? We all saw it. Everyone in that room saw them rise up out of that chair by five or six inches.” And he’d be like, “I’m sorry. I just didn’t see it.” And I really do think that depending on what lens you’re looking through, you’re seeing something radically different.
But, presumably if there was a camera it would not show the person levitating, right?
Grady: Yeah, I assume so, but I guess it’s funny; it’s one of those things where I think a lot of people who do this and really believe in this stuff would say that the principal of exorcism at the heart of it is faith, not knowledge, so if we did catch this on camera, well what’s the big deal? Here you go. There’s proof that there’s forces of the supernatural in the world, and now if you don’t believe in God, like you said earlier Dave, then you’re a dummy, right? Here’s proof. We’ve got it. There are demons. There’s a devil. There’s evil. There’s God. You’re an idiot if you don’t believe in God. I think for these guys, what’s more compelling is it’s faith. They’ve got to take it on faith. It has to be an issue of belief. That makes it about them. That doesn’t make it the subjective reality where they have to believe, but they make the choice to believe.
Right, but in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, she makes a choice to stay in her tortured body because that’s going to provide evidence that demons are real, which is going to help convert people to Christianity.
Grady: That’s a terrible idea. One of the things too that’s funny, and Paul gets into this a little bit in his book, and this is no slam on anyone, is it’s the way the world is. If someone had a video tape of an exorcism where someone’s head spun around, or they levitated, and they released it unedited to the world, the people who aren’t going to believe in it aren’t going to believe in it, and the people who are, are. You know what I mean? Even photographic evidence these days is not a one-hundred percent guarantee of anything. I certainly wouldn’t believe in it if I saw a head spinning around. I’d say, “Well, there’s some really clever special effects guys that worked there.”
Paul: Unless it was David Blaine. I would believe David Blaine is actually levitating.
Grady: Oh my God, what if David Blaine got possessed by a demon? Oh my God.
We’re just coming up with idea after idea for stories here.
Grady: This is gold. I just think there’s no way to make someone believe something they’re not inclined to believe in in the first place.
But, Grady, if there were possessions happening all the time and people were constantly catching them on film, that would persuade me, or at least I would be open-minded about that.
Grady: But there are. You know what I mean? That’s the thing. They’re not hitting my criteria to believe that there’s a supernatural agency involved. But, to the people who believe in them they certainly are.
I want to see these exorcisms. I just ask for five head-spinning-around videos. That’s my limit. That’s my criteria.
Grady: By the way, can I just ask Paul, when you were researching this stuff, did you ever come across those crazy teenage exorcists?
Paul: No, I didn’t.
Grady: Oh my God, I strongly encourage you. I thought you must have seen it, but it’s these three teenage girls, two sisters and their best friend, and their dad is this Evangelical priest, and they’re the exorcist team. It’s amazing. He wants to turn them into reality TV stars. You used to be able to find a lot of their sizzle reels on YouTube, but it’s so crazy. This dad, just because of the dad in your book, takes them to Ukraine because there’s a big exorcism scene in Ukraine, and he’s taking them to these terrible, terrible unsafe places. It’s really amazing. Definitely look it up if you haven’t seen it.
Paul: To me, even as someone who writes horror, that’s the stuff that just terrifies me. Other people, like those people just are totally frightening. Those poor daughters. I mean, I will have to look those up.
Grady: Can you imagine the dynamic between those three girls? Because they all have to be camera ready at all times, and they’re all very attractive, and they’re all very athletic. He makes a big deal in one of the reels I saw that they know martial arts. I’m like, because that’s so useful in an exorcism. Can you imagine the dynamic between these three girls? “Sherry’s not pulling her weight with the demons.” It must be so crazy.
Paul: That’s the horror of reality TV right there.
I also wanted to ask you guys, I assume you saw the trailer for the new Ghostbusters movie, and there’s this scene where the woman is slapping the other woman in the face and she says, “The power of pain compels you. Out, ghost.” Or something like that. I was wondering if there’s any providence to the idea that you can get rid of a ghost by slapping somebody in the face.
Grady: There actually is. There’s four stages of an exorcism. It’s kind of interesting. It’s like the stages of meeting your therapist. There’s the opening pretense where the demon pretends that the person is not possessed, and then there’s like the breakthrough where the demon reveals itself and says its name, and then you can get to the next stage which is the battle, the clash. Which is, you take it on directly and you wrestle with it. Then you expel it, right? It’s the expulsion. Going from the pretense to the break point is usually where people will bring in physical torture if they’re not balanced people. That’s where people will be like, I’ve got to force this demon to reveal itself so I’m going to make my child drink a gallon of vinegar, and the pain will cause the demon to come forward. Or, I’ve got to throw holy water on them, or salt. I’ve got to somehow subject them to physical extremity like kicking them in the stomach. There’s a horrible case from California where a Korean woman was basically kicked to death, just being stomped on her stomach over and over during an exorcism because they were trying to make the demon reveal itself.
Paul: Grady knows far too much about exorcisms. I think he might actually be a demon. I’m becoming a little concerned.
Grady: Where do you think I have to go at six?
Jordan: I think that that’s a big part of why I find all of these exorcism narratives so horrifying is that a lot of times it is just plain abuse under the guise of “we’re helping you.” Grady talked about the little boy whose Mountie father had him locked up, but a lot of the narratives are just teen girls and young women experiencing something, and then having men or intense mothers physically harming them for the good of their lives, in theory. I find that really disturbing. It goes back to hysteria back in the day of women having emotions must be the devil, so let’s beat it out of her. Oops, she’s dead now. Sorry. But, we won.
Grady: It’s just a woman, right?
Jordan: Yeah, so I think that that’s part of what’s so upsetting about these narratives. I think the reason I don’t watch them anymore is it’s about lack of control. Paranormal Activity was much more upsetting because the girl had no control over what she was doing in her sleep, and as a former sleepwalker, that freaks me out. I think that women these days are having control taken from them on all sorts of levels politically. This is not my down with the patriarchy speech, but I just think the fact that so many of these stories are predominantly young women is telling and upsetting, and we need to look at why the narrative that is so embraced is, “Oh, this girl is crazy. We’ve got to put her through something horrific to save her,” when maybe all she needed was a good therapist.
Paul: Right, and you can even look at it just through a lens of pop culture entertainment. That’s something that I tried to deal with in my book—how does this become our entertainment? This idea that these old white priests are coming in to do what they do to a fourteen-year-old girl who has just gone through puberty, and they’re weirdly sexualizing her and denying it at the same time. How come we find that so compelling as entertainment as well is an icky and tricky issue.
Grady: I think you can blame the patriarchy directly. It’s no mistake, or no coincidence, that the Catholic Church, however you feel about it, is a tremendously patriarchal institution and the fount from which all exorcism flows. And that deliverance ministry, which is the Protestant version, really came to prominence in the sixties and seventies when the women’s rights movement was coming to prominence. It’s interesting because it is a battle of control, and this is something that I think people who do exorcisms are very aware of. In some Protestant circles there’s a thing, they call them pyromaniacs, and they say that there are some people who are drawn to this because they like the power and the confrontation, and what they’re looking for is fireworks. They want the rush. The fireworks. The sexy sizzle of the woman tied to the bed, and I’m screaming, and she’s vomiting and speaking in tongues and all this, and I’m driving the demon out.
I think that’s a pretty good note to wrap things up on because we’re pretty much out of time. Does anyone have any final thoughts on possession?
Paul: Save Grady.
Paul: No, save Grady. Somebody.
Grady: I was just going to say, there is a troubling tendency in possession movies right now with demon’s names. You had the older movies where they actually used demon names like Pazuzu and stuff, and then now you have thing like in Paranormal Activity, isn’t the demon called Toby?
Grady: I just feel like we’re hitting a point where eventually demons are going to be named like, “Hi, I’m Jerry from accounting.” I would just urge anyone thinking of writing an exorcism book to please use real demon names and not name them Jerry or Frank.
Alright, so I think that’s a good note to end on. We’ve been speaking with Grady Hendrix, Jordan Hamessley London, and Paul Tremblay. Guys, thank you so much for joining us.
Grady: Thanks for having me.
Jordan: Thanks so much.
Paul: Thank you, David.
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