An unholy female is hardly an unusual character in American films. These women act out in ways that are socially taboo, threatening the 'order' of things and requiring a form of punishment in the end. Female iniquity is frequently explored in the horror genre, transporting its own set of genre conventions that create a formulaic representation of the 'unholy feminine.' And within the horror genre exists a subgenre: the possession film. Arguably one of the most famous examples of this subgenre is William Friedkin's 1973 classic, The Exorcist. Numerous iterations of this film have been produced and reproduced over the decades, sometimes gaining success and sometimes not. But an unlikely match comes in the form of Robert Eggers' The Witch (2015). Both films deal with a family torn apart by an infiltrating force of some kind, whether it be the Devil itself or forces of black magic and witchcraft. Horror movies that deal with the subjects of witchcraft and possession do so by depending on and reinforcing the gender binary and patriarchal structures, especially when considering two bastions of patriarchal order: i.e., the church and the home. However, I argue that The Exorcist and The Witch both subvert this genre history and redefine the possessed woman as an agent for her own empowerment and resistance to male control.
The possession film and its genre conventions have been subject to much debate and scholarship. Various critics have noted, however, that these genre conventions tend to place the male protagonists at the center of the narrative. Barbara Creed writes, "Although a great deal has been written about the horror film, very little of that work has discussed the representation of woman-as-monster. Instead, emphasis has been on woman as victim of the (mainly male) monster." The focus is typically on how men influence the story. However, these narratives are rooted in the feminine. The conventions introduce a possessed woman who must undergo a ritual of purification to restore the patriarchal order. Creed continues her criticism with, "The presence of the monstrous-feminine in the popular horror film speaks to us more about male fears than about female desire or female subjectivity. However, this presence does challenge the views that the male spectator is almost always situated in an active, sadistic position and the female spectator in a passive, masochistic one." The genre conventions almost require the men to be agents of change and purification. The possessed women are not only frightening to the audience, but to the men who must control them. While the typical possession film places emphasis on the male efforts to restore female purity and patriarchal order, this is not the case in The Exorcist or The Witch. I argue that these 'possessed women' should really be read as agents of their own will, rather than the will of whatever male is controlling them. The conventions The Exorcist and The Witch subvert and redefine then become a vehicle for narratives of female resistance rather than a regurgitation of yet another restoration of patriarchal repression.
To understand the subversion of genre conventions in The Exorcist and The Witch, we must first understand why these women are possessed. I argue that women are the foundation of the home, and repressed sexuality is the glue that holds this home together. The possession of the female characters in the two films, Regan and Thomasin, respectively, occurs because they begin to possess their own sexuality. Rather than a possession by an exterior, infiltrating force, they undergo an act of self-empowerment and ownership of sexuality that threatens to topple the foundation of the homes in which they reside. And in both films, they do.
Both Regan and Thomasin are introduced as pure, innocent young women. They are susceptible to possession, or ownership of sexuality, for several reasons. Regan lives in modern Georgetown, portrayed as a city outside of religious rule. Her father is absent, her mother is single and the two share a rather affectionate relationship. Although she begins as an almost pure character, we see the first signs of 'bad behavior' in the doctors' office. She immediately begins cussing, acting disobediently and harboring resentment for male characters. Thomasin's susceptibility appears much sooner in The Witch. She is beginning to 'tempt' her younger brother with her new womanly body, defies the authoritative rule of her parents, and thinks for herself.
Both Regan and Thomasin undergo transformations that allude to their sexuality and empowerment. Creed writes, "Regan's transformation from angel into devil is clearly a sexual one; it suggests that the family home, bastion of all the right virtues and laudable moral values, is built on a foundation of repressed sexual desires..." The strength of the home is dependent on patriarchal order; the men allow the women to express sexuality only when it benefits this order. Regan and Thomasin, both on the cusp between girlhood and womanhood, are also deciding between sexual repression and sexual expression. Their choice, sexual expression, manifests itself as a possession. This time between girlhood and womanhood represents the paramount time in which a new family is built and an old family is abandoned. The exploration of sexuality therefore threatens the household. We see Regan's sexual transformation occurring gradually as her possession takes effect. She makes sexual comments to her doctors, grabs the genitals of a hypnotist, and in a climactic scene, forces the face of her mother into her bloodied genitals. The bed is also the center of her transformation. It is the location of her sexual empowerment, growing more volatile as she grows more possessed. Regan's sexual transformation is perhaps most explicit when the doctor tells her mother, "Mrs. MacNeil, the problem with your daughter is not her bed. It's her brain." The male doctor attempts to condemn her sexual behavior as a matter of abnormal mental behavior, rather than an expression of the female form. Thomasin's transformation is also sexual. As she grows more defiant and outspoken, she entertains the sexual curiosity of Caleb. Though hers is less gradual than Regan's, her final transformation occurs when she sleeps with the Devil, strips naked, and wanders into a circle of dancing naked women. She effectively owns her own sexuality, completing her transformation from girl to woman.
Regan and Thomasin's ownership of their sexuality threatens to topple the foundation of the home built on repressed sexuality. However, the mothers in both films are able to own their own sexuality while still playing a role in the patriarchal order. It is just the women undergoing transformations from girls to women that can destroy this order. The mothers' abilities to be both sexual and patriarchal are attributed to their benefits to patriarchal order. Though Chris, Regan's mother, is supposedly in an extra-marital relationship with her director, she is still beholden to the patriarchal structures of the church and the home. She requests the help of the male priests and believes in their ability to purify her daughter and restore order. Katherine, Thomasin's mother, delivers a particularly sexual speech when she speaks of Christ's "affection far exceeding that of the most affectionate husband." However, her position in the patriarchal order is protected because of her attempt to repress Thomasin's newfound sexuality.
If The Exorcist and The Witch were beholden to genre conventions of the possession film, then the possessor would be a male force. However, neither Regan nor Thomasin are possessed by a male devil. Rather, they are possessed by sexual liberation and empowerment as an act of their own agency. Creed writes, "In films depicting invasion by the devil, the victim is almost always a young girl, the invader the male devil. One of the major boundaries traversed is that between innocence and corruption, purity and impurity. The Exorcist is usually seen as involving a case of possession by the male devil. However, I will argue that the devil, in this case, may well be female." If Creed's assertion that the devil possessing Regan is incorrect, then Regan is just another possessed girl who must undergo a ritual of purification to return to a place of patriarchal order. If her assertion is correct, which I argue it is, then Regan is an agent for female resistance to patriarchal order. Invasion by a male devil would reinforce the patriarchal order because of the inherent male-on-female violence. But Regan, possessed by a female devil, commits female-on-male violence that destroys this order. This violence against men, from grabbing genitals to tossing them out of windows, exposes her female resistance. When Damien plays a recording of the devil's voice backwards, it is Regan's voice. Regan's possessor is in fact a female devil, and one that sounds quite a bit like Regan herself. The devil in The Witch is clearly male, revealed in the end to be the family goat, Black Phillip. But is this the infiltrating force possessing Thomasin? I argue that the peril of the family, the destruction of the Puritanical home and the sexual transformation of Thomasin have nothing to do with Black Phillip or the witch of the wood. The infiltrating force is actually the dissolution of faith and patriarchal order. Again, genre conventions are subverted because Thomasin is not possessed or compelled by an exterior, male force. The horror of the film occurs at the behest of a patriarchal family collapsing in on itself.
In the end of each film, the sexuality of both Regan and Thomasin is fully expressed. However, the final frames of each film exposes a divergence of their overarching subversion of genre conventions. In The Exorcist, Regan's sexual transformation is a monstrous one. She becomes grotesque. In the final sequence, the last living priest character walks past the stairs where many of her victims died. This not only alludes to the danger of Regan's newfound sexuality, but also leaves her 'purity' ambiguous. I argue that her purity is not restored, but her sexuality is not entirely liberated either. Regan, as a woman, is still an object of suspicion. Thomasin's sexual transformation is not monstrous. She remains feminine, floating light as air towards the sky in her most female form. Her naked body is unmarked and she appears joyous and completely empowered. Creed writes, "Central to these imitations was a strong sense of the vulnerability of the body and its susceptibility to possession. They also focused attention on the graphic detailed representation of bodily destruction." Again, Regan's monstrous transformation marks her entire body. However, still in line with subverted genre conventions, her grotesque image is healed when she has destroyed the remaining pieces of patriarchal order, i.e. Father Damien. Thomasin's body, unmarked, does not suffer this typical graphic representation of transformation. Her only physical, graphic representation comes in the form of her naked body floating above the circle.
If the foundation of the home is built on repressed sexuality, then both homes have suffered from the liberation of this sexuality. Regan's home is not destroyed nor restored of patriarchal order, just moved to a different location. This also alludes to the ambiguous ending and her status as an object of suspicion. Thomasin's home is completely destroyed with no chance of restored patriarchal order. Once her entire family has died, she re-enters her home to undergo the final sequence of transformation.
The Exorcist and The Witch subvert genre conventions through their portrayal of sexuality and the foundation of the home. Also central to these two films is their representation of men and women. The conflicts in both films arise from a power exchange between men and women, rather than Christ and the Devil or purity and impurity. Centralizing the conflict between men and women, again, subverts genre conventions of the possession film and places the power in the hands of the female characters.
In The Exorcist, Regan is constantly at odds with male characters. Creed writes, "Various patters and conflicts in The Exorcist suggest that the central struggle is between men and women, the 'fathers' and the 'mothers.' This struggle is played out in relation to the black-garbed crones/witches and Father Merrin; Chris MacNeil and her husband; Father Damien and his mother; Father Damien and the abandoned women in the hospital; Regan and the fathers of the Church as well as the men of the medical profession. The wider struggle is played out or concentrated in the relationship between Regan and Father Damien. Whereas Regan-as-devil is powerful, Father Damien as a representative of God is weak and impotent. Not only has he lost his faith, he is thinking of leaving the Church." Not only is the central conflict played out between men and women, but men are portrayed as weak and unable to defeat the empowered woman. A similar conflict plays out in The Witch as Thomasin clashes with her father and Caleb, and between her mother and father.
In both films, the women and men are portrayed as either powerful and threatening or weak and impotent. The women in The Exorcist are all portrayed as abnormal and threatening. In the opening with Father Merrin, he encounters only toothless, old women clothed in black robes. They stare with scrutiny at him, and he grows more and more threatened by their presence. Regan, while seemingly innocent and pure, possesses some characteristics of an already empowered young girl. Her name even recalls King Lear's daughter, the serpent-like girl who disobeys her father. In The Witch, the women are portrayed as doubtful and scrutinizing. Thomasin, although virtuous and well behaved, questions her father's decisions and attempts to control her family. Her mother is also quite empowered, constantly clashing with her husband and even striking him. The men in The Exorcist and The Witch are all infected with some form of impotence. In The Exorcist, the priests are unable to do anything about Regan and the doctors are completely stumped. Her father is absent and doesn't call her on her birthday. In The Witch, Thomasin's father can't grow corn or hunt; he cannot control his spiteful wife or provide for his family. All of the men also suffer from a lack of belief and faith. Father Damien questions his faith until he sees an image of his dead mother within Regan. Thomasin's father accuses himself of being prideful.
The central conflicts of each film originate at the hands of the patriarchal order. An absent father and impotent priests and doctors make way for Regan's complete ownership of her sexuality. A prideful father delivers Thomasin and her family to the brink of collapse. His blind ignorance of the danger he puts his family in becomes clear when he tells Caleb on a bed of dead corn, "We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us." His wife attempts to alert him of his pride when she tells him, "You've cursed this family." Placing the fault on her husband only solidifies the rising conflict at the behest of the patriarchal order he refuses to let go of. He neglects to admit fault for the damage he has done until his daughter is accused of witchcraft, at which point he shouts, "Corruption! Thou art my father!" Again, the patriarchal order is at fault for the conflict, placing the corruption in the hands of the father.
The patriarchal structures and institutions that attempt to control these conflicts are unable to do so in both The Exorcist and The Witch. According to Ian Olney, these films "...openly celebrate transgressive femininity by making both the possessed and the possessor women, and by refiguring possession as a transmission of female excess that representatives of religious or patriarchal authority are, more often than not, powerless to prevent." Regarding the church, the hospital and the home as patriarchal structures exposes their inability to prevent collapse when one possessed female arrives. Regan and Thomasin are powerful, their religions and homes are powerless. We see this powerlessness in The Exorcist when every priest who comes in contact with Regan dies. The doctors also suffer when they are unable to understand Regan's transformation. They stare at her as her body violently convulses in an act of sexual aggression, powerless at the sight of a woman owning her own body. When Regan and Damien are fighting in the final climax, she tears off his St. Joseph medallion, the symbol of the universal church and fatherly protection, and then kills him. Although Regan returns to her original state, she is not cured nor purified by Damien's act. Damien is simply disposed of. In The Witch, her father's attempt to restore Puritanical religious order fails and he dies at the hands of Black Phillip. His impotence is fully expressed when the most sure-of-faith character is killed by the devil himself.
The power exchange between male and female causes conflict for the characters. Possession film genre conventions construct the feminine as something that must be controlled, and this control is restored through a ritual of purification. The ritual restores the patriarchal order, but neither Regan nor Thomasin undergoes this purifying ritual. In The Exorcist, the order is not restored because all of the men are dead, the father is still absent, and the female devil is not banished. In The Witch, Thomasin blossoms in the absence of patriarchal order. Her transformation, that of pure empowerment, is untouched by a ritual of purification. The conventional representation of a woman going through a ritual of purification is subverted when both women flourish in the absence of patriarchal order. This blossoming is most evident in Thomasin. In the first frame of the film, we see Thomasin's face. The camera is placed above her, so the audience looks down on her in a position of power. Gradually throughout the film, this shot is repeated. However, the camera moves gradually downward until the final frame when we are looking up at her in the position of the powerless. This represents her absolute empowerment and agency in the absence of patriarchy.
The typical act of ritual purification to restore patriarchal order leads to conflict in both films. The attempt to purify Regan ends badly for Burke, when he fills the absent father role and is thrown out the window. The attempt to purify Thomasin ends badly for her mother who tries to kill her. I argue that Regan and Thomasin ritually purify the patriarchal order rather than the patriarchal order possessing them. When Regan kills all the men who try to purify her, she is fully transformed into a liberated woman. The significance of only the men dying in the film alludes to a reversal of the ritual of purification; the patriarchy is 'purified' of its impotent men. Similarly in The Witch, Thomasin purifies the patriarchal order when she kills her mother. This effectively liberates her from her Puritanical future. Caleb also undergoes a ritual of purification in perhaps the most religious scene of the film. After he is led into the woods, an anecdote told by the mother about Christ earlier in the film, Caleb gives into his desire with the witch. When he returns, he spits out the apple that represents his 'sin' and is purified of all evil. He then recites a John Winthrop poem about love of Christ and 'enters heaven.' Caleb represents Christ being led into the woods by the devil and expelling this sin when he devotes his love to god. This purification, though fitting for their devout faith, comes at the expense of his life and puts the final touches on the destroyed patriarchal order.
This order, as argued in part one, is dependent on the repression of sexuality. Creed writes, "Woman is constructed as possessed when she attacks the symbolic order, highlights its weaknesses, plays on its vulnerabilities; specifically, she demonstrates that the symbolic order is a sham built on sexual repression and the sacrifice of the mother." Regan, upon sexual empowerment, effectively destroys her mother's career after killing Burke. Thomasin actually murders her mother. The expulsion of the mother is significant because it represents the other half of the patriarchal order; there is no patriarchy without the wife and mother. This symbolic order is expelled to make way for a new, liberated, sexual woman who has undergone a complete transformation. Thomasin's future diverges into two possibilities in the final sequence. She can either accept the symbolic order in place and become her mother, or kill her mother and become the witch. When she kills her mother, the witch becomes not only a principal character but also a representation of Thomasin's future. The witch is Thomasin the entire film. It doesn't become clear until the end when she makes her deal with the devil. The seduction of Caleb, loss of the baby, and murder of the twins are all accusations thrown at her by her family. They do not become the truth until she chooses her fate, effectively liberating herself from the scrutiny of her family and the Puritanical patriarchy.
Fearing the unholy female is paramount to the possession film and the horror genre. Capitalizing on the male fear of women who own their own sexuality, conventional possession films create a problematic narrative of female subservience to this symbolic order. However, The Witch and The Exorcist subvert these genre conventions in their narratives rooted in female resistance. Barbara Creed writes, "She may appear pure and beautiful on the outside but evil may, nevertheless, reside within. It is this stereotype of feminine evil--beautiful on the outside/corrupt within--that is so popular within patriarchal discourses about woman's evil nature." These dangerous women threaten the foundation of a sexually repressed home. The ownership of their own sexuality will tip the balance of girlhood and womanhood in a direction that does not favor the patriarchal order. Witches are scary because they are not beholden to the wills of men. Female devils are scary because they reveal the powerlessness of the strongest patriarchal structures. Both
The Exorcist and The Witch subvert genre conventions to argue that women are powerful when liberated or made agents of their own sexuality. Rather than condemn and punish them, they are freed from patriarchal chains. The unholy feminine is therefore redefined in Regan and Thomasin, revealing a new set of genre conventions that rely on female resistance and self-empowerment.
 Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York, Routledge, 1993), 1
 Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York, Routledge, 1993), 7
 Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York, Routledge, 1993), 35
 William Friedkin, The Exorcist, Film, directed by William Friedkin (1973; USA: Warner Bros.), DVD.
 Robert Eggers, The Witch, Film, directed by Robert Eggers (2015; USA: A24)
 Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York, Routledge, 1993), 32
 Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York, Routledge, 1993), 31
 Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York, Routledge, 1993), 37
 Ian Olney, "Unmanning The Exorcist: Sex, Gender and Excess in the 1970s Euro-Horror Possession Film." Quarterly Review of Film and Video 31 (2014): 561
 Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York, Routledge, 1993), 41
 Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York, Routledge, 1993), 42