A new wave of films about possession have swept across Hollywood, taking Satanism and demonic possession back into the mainstream once again.
Director Mark Neveldine (Director of “The Vatican Tapes”) says Pope Francis is helping the new interest in exorcism due to his Jesuit roots, and the fact that he believes in the reality of Satanism and the battle between light and dark in the literal sense.
The new wave of possession films could take scary movies even more into the mainstream. Possession is more personal than vampires and zombies—the threat comes from within. Teenagers especially relate to the notion of one’s body and mind being taken over by an uncontrollable force they can’t understand.
Belief in a demonic presence is a part of many religions, notably Catholicism. Mark Neveldine, who directed this summer’s film “The Vatican Tapes,” says Pope Francis is helping drive the new interest in exorcism. The pope is a Jesuit, whose members believe in the everyday reality of Satan. To them, their order has a special mission to fight demonic forces on earth.
“Francis is dead serious about the devil,” says the Rev. Thomas Rosica, an English-language attaché to the Holy See press office. The church has for centuries had instructions in place for the purging of demons. When the Vatican in 1999 revised its guidelines in part to help priests distinguish demonic possession from mental illness, it didn’t budge from its view that Satan is real and can be expelled.
A 2013 video of Pope Francis praying over a man whose body eventually goes slack went viral on YouTube, with many claiming that the pontiff was casting out a demon. At the time, the Vatican responded to the furor by saying: “The Holy Father had no intention to perform any exorcism. Instead, as he frequently does for the sick and suffering persons who approach him, he simply meant to pray for a suffering person who was presented to him.”
Possession and exorcism aren’t exclusive to the Catholic Church. “It’s a primal fear that goes back thousands of years, and it’s still practiced in all religions and all cultures today,” says horror filmmaker Eli Roth. The 2012 movie “The Possession,” produced by “Evil Dead” creator Sam Raimi, features an ancient Jewish demon called a dybbuk.The 2010 found-footage-style movie “The Last Exorcism” and its 2013 sequel, both produced by Mr. Roth, incorporate other Christian perspectives. “Outcast” is rooted in evangelical Christianity in the American South. “There are Baptist exorcisms, there are Protestant exorcisms of all shapes and sizes,” says Robert Kirkman, who also created “The Walking Dead.”
Possession stories can also resonate in a society worried about moral decay in general, a growing inability for individuals to take responsibility for their actions and be held accountable. Paul Tremblay, author of this summer’s exorcism novel “A Head Full of Ghosts,” thinks fans who identify with the possessed get some comfort from the idea of deflecting blame.
“There’s almost like a weird little thrill to the idea that the devil did make me do these horrible, terrible things, and I’m not responsible,” he says.
The ring of authenticity to possession makes these subjects ripe for reality TV. Not so with zombies and vampires: They’re fantasy. Mr. Kirkman says of his TV zombies: “No matter how much you like them, it’s never going to happen. People can’t come back to life.”
Today’s possession stories have a powerful ancestor in “The Exorcist.” William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel about Catholic priests battling an evil entity within a child was No. 1 on the best-seller list for 17 weeks, and in the top 10 for 57 weeks. Mr. Blatty, who declined an interview, has said it was based on real incidents near St. Louis in 1949 when Jesuits are said to have performed an exorcism on a 13-year-old boy.
When the motion picture version opened the day after Christmas in 1973, it was an instant phenomenon—and often a disturbing one. Moviegoers fled theaters, others fainted and many sought spiritual comfort in church. It was nominated for 10 Oscars, winning two. Adjusted for ticket-price inflation, it is the biggest-grossing horror film of all-time (if you don’t consider “Jaws” a horror movie), according to Box Office Mojo. Its actual domestic gross of $232.9 million translates to $922.4 million in today’s dollars.
Mr. Kirkman is evoking “The Exorcist” in “Outcast,” a comic-book series and coming television show. The 10-episode first season, premiering on Cinemax in 2016, follows the story of Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit of “Gone Girl”), a West Virginia man who has been surrounded by possessed loved ones his whole life. Eventually, along with an evangelical preacher, he decides to strike back against the demons. Mr. Kirkman says the show will start off with tropes familiar to fans of “The Exorcist” and the genre, such as the possessed speaking in strange, taunting voices and showing superhuman strength. “Then it will be really fun to flip it and surprise people,” he says.
The taste-making female market for young-adult fiction will be key to how the genre keeps growing. This audience turned Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” novels and its movie versions into sensations; her best-selling “The Host” about a young woman (Ms. Ronan) being possessed by an alien was also a movie.
Stories about demonic possession, including “The Exorcist,” are often told from a perspective skewed toward men, specifically authority figures like priests and doctors who cast out demons possessing young women. Scholars and Hollywood storytellers say these themes reflected male anxiety about girls who are growing into their sexuality. Contemporary YA fiction can subvert that by viewing these scenarios through perspectives of the girls instead.
“The Merciless,” a 2014 novel by Danielle Vega (a pen name for Danielle Rollins), is a bloody horror novel that’s also about being a teenager. It was inspired by headlines a few years ago about teen exorcists in Arizona. The ritual in the book involves no clerics, but a group of superficially pious but vindictive girls performing a violent ceremony on a rebellious outcast. The narrator, Sofia, is torn between going along with the ringleader or trying to help the pariah.
“From what I remember of being a teenager, there’s almost as much emphasis on the unattainable best friend, that girl who’s everything you want to be, and you just really feel like you need to be friends with her in that group,” Ms. Rollins says of Sofia’s dilemma.
Penguin imprint Razorbill plans two “Merciless” sequel novels, one due in July 2016, and a prequel. I. Marlene King, the creator of ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars,” is writing a film adaptation of “The Merciless” for Lionsgate, the studio behind such YA franchises as “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent” and “Twilight.” She’s determined to make her movie keep the focus on the young woman.
“I love ‘The Exorcist,’” Ms. King says. “It’s a great book and a great movie, but that story has been told.”
When Mr. Tremblay wrote “A Head Full of Ghosts,” he grappled with the legacy of Mr. Blatty’s creation, but updated it for the age of Google, Wikipedia and reality television. Sales of the book increased after author Stephen King tweeted: “Scared the living hell out of me, and I’m pretty hard to scare.” In an interview, Mr. King said its first-person, reality-TV style made it more intimate and heightened the sense of dread. Published in June, the novel is in its second printing; Focus Features beat out two other production companies for the movie rights.
While Mr. Blatty, a Catholic, wrote his book from a religious perspective, Mr. Tremblay’s is a secular narrative told from a skeptic’s point of view. It uses flashbacks and horror-trivia-packed blog posts from the adult perspective of Merry, who witnessed her older sister Marjorie’s exorcism being turned into a documentary show.
“Once I decided there was going to be some kind of commentary going on, I really wanted to not only embrace the movie ‘The Exorcist’ and so many of the horror movies that have come before, but just make this monster that is pop culture a part of the story,” Mr. Tremblay says.
Pop culture continues adding to the possession boom. On Friday, “Exorcism Live” airs on Discovery’s Destination America, a network known for shows about tourist spots, the cooking competition show “BBQ Pitmasters” and dozens of supernatural-themed reality programs.
The network is following up with “The Demon Files,” which premieres the day after Halloween. It features former New York City police officer Ralph Sarchie, the self-described demonologist on which the 2014 film “Deliver Us From Evil” was based.
If all goes as planned, the live special will feature a ritual to purge evil spirits from a house in the St. Louis suburbs that purportedly played a part in the real-life events which inspired “The Exorcist.”