A series of bad reviews by film critics, echoed by many rank and file moviegoers, didn't stop The Devil Inside from doing extremely well at the box office. The film is but the latest in a string of films with the theme of demonic possession, forming a horror subgenre in their own right. This includes films like The Rite, The Last Exorcism, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Exorcist, and even films like Paranormal Activity. In the final scene of that film viewers see what appears to be a form of possession having taken place, which signals a shift in the film's narrative from paranormal ghost to demonic possession horror. Films in other subgenres have blurred the lines as well, as in [REC]2 which, as a sequel from an apparent contagion producing zombie-like victims morphs into demonic possession as the explanatory cause.
This raises the question as to why we are so fascinated by the idea of demonic possession, and in turn, why we produce so many horror films that build upon this premise (with little depth or variation). Psychology Today explores this topic with an essay by Dr. Stephen Diamond titled "The Devil Inside: What Fascinates Us About Exorcism and Demonic Possession?." Diamond introduces his topic with reference to The Devil Inside by asking
What does the astounding and unexpected popularity of this movie say about us and our culture psychologically? Why are high-tech, scientifically-minded, religiously secular twenty-first century cynics so fascinated with a (bad) film about exorcism, Satan and his demons?
A number of social, cultural, and religious elements could be explored in an attempt to answer such questions, but given Diamond's area of training, and the focus of the publication in which he is writing, Diamond challenges his colleagues in psychology to consider what belief in possession and exorcism might tell us about the human condition in this area.
Perhaps it's time psychologists start asking some of those same questions. What is exorcism? How does it heal? Can we learn something valuable about psychotherapy from exorcism? Are there certain techniques employed by exorcists that psychotherapists should consider when treating angry, psychotic or violent patients? Are there vital existential or spiritual questions addressed by exorcism--for example, the archetypal riddle of evil--that psychotherapy detrimentally avoids or neglects?
One need not necessarily accept either religious or psychological interpretations for what Diamond labels "possession syndrome" in order to benefit from an exploration of this topic through this essay. It serves as another reminder that horror films have much to tell us about our fears as well as how they are informed by cultural and religious ideas.