American History Faith History Movies Pop Culture

Demonic Possession and the American Dream

JR.’s paper from the Baylor IFL Faith and Film festival. Using Scott Poole’s Monsters in America methodology to examine two Scott Derickson films, JR. argues that possession films offer the Church a unique window into American culture.

Since the 1970s, possession films have shifted to become explicitly Christian stories of the demonic. Functioning as morality plays, the victims of possession are often guilty of not being good enough – they dabble in the occult or simply don’t attend Church. Following Scott Poole’s methodology in Monsters in America, this cinematic shift evinces a deeply conservative cultural backlash to the passing of Christendom in the wake of modernity. An analysis of these films demonstrates that we are deeply uneasy about the loss of religious certainty in our culture. By engaging these demonic stories, we can connect with the existential angst they speak to in their viewers, and address this deeply-seated anxiety.

Churches and the Demonic

Horror as a genre is eschewed by many Evangelicals; even among those who will tolerate a slasher-flick, some torture porn or a monster film, the one monster off limits is the Demon. Stories of demonic possession, though (especially in the last 30 years increasingly and explicitly Christian, are seen as dangerous and powerful.

The Evangelical attitude toward these stories has, generally, looked like postures of avoidance and condemnation. In fact, Churches typically read these stories at face value, treating stories of the demonic as just that: stories of demon possession.

I argue that Christians ought to take seriously the popularity (and pervasiveness) of these stories. We ought to engage them, listen to them, and learn from them. But not simply as stories of supernatural possession. Rather, stories of the Demonic offer a unique window into the spiritual condition of our culture.

Monsters: What are they good for?

What is a monster story? Why are they so popular and pervasive? Following Scott Poole (whose excellent book Monsters in America is available at the book table!), Monsters are manifestations of the dark underbelly of the American Dream. As he says in his introduction:

“The story of American monsters, and how they obsess American culture, allows us a look at the underground history of the United States…

“The monster reifies very real incidents, true horrors, true monsters. This is why they are always complicated and inherently sophisticated. The monster has its tentacles wrapped around the foundations of American history, draws its life from ideological efforts to marginalize the weak and normalize the powerful, to suppress struggles for class, racial and sexual liberation, to transform the “American Way of Life” into a weapon of empire.” — Scott Poole, Monsters in America

So what do stories of Demon Possession point us to? What values and identities are they critiquing? Bryne already explored issues of female identity, I want to look at 2 films that critique male identity.

Case Study: Sinister & Deliver Us from Evil

Two Scott Derrickson films illustrate how monster films (specifically possession films) offer windows into cultural anxieties about male identity.


Scott Derrickson’s 2012 film Sinister tells the story of true crime author Ellison Oswalt, who is still living off the success of his now decades-old debut book. In the interim years, Oswald has not been able to recapture the success of his first book, so in a drastic turn, he moves his family into a house that is the site of a famous mass murder.

As the film progresses, Ellison initially refuses to move, citing his struggling career as the motivation – he needs this book (about the murder of the previous family) to succeed.

Ellison eventually discovers a demon named Bughuul slaughters families by possessing one child, murdering the family and then taking that child into his realm (ostensibly to consume the child’s soul).

Ellison discovers this too late to save his daughter Ashley from possession, and the film ends with Ashley murdering her family and being taken by Baghuul to his realm.

Deliver Us from Evil

Derrickson’s next film, this year’s Deliver Us from Evil, features a story of actual police sergant Ralph Sarchie. Despite the fact that the film is based on Sarchie’s 2001 memoire Beware the Night, the film is not a story in the book, but an original story conceived by Derrickson and co-writer Paul Harris Boardman (which is significant).

In Deliver Us from Evil, Sarchie becomes convinced of the reality of the demonic through investigating seeming unconnected cases of domestic abuse and child abuse. Ultimately, Sarchie discover the cases are linked by an army veteran named Santino, who was possessed while deployed in Iraq. Sarchie and a priest named Mendoza exorcise Santino and become a sort of supernatural crime-fighting duo.

Denying the Demonic

According to Poole, Monsters are an opportunity for us to examine the underbelly of the American Dream. They are a window through which we can examine how our cultural values and identity dehumanize certain members of our culture (to say nothing of those we consider Other). 

So with these two Derrickson films, which show the monstrous underbelly of traditional manhood. Both films present men in traditionally laudable roles: the Breadwinner in Sinister and the Soldier in Deliver Us From Evil. But in both stories, these tradition male roles do not bring life, but suffering. In Sinister, though Ellison’s daughter is possessed and her soul consumed, Ellison’s extreme dedication to his career catalyzes her destruction.

Sinister functions as a sort of morality play in which Ellison’s commitment to “providing a life for his family” is revealed to be an evil choice. His commitment to his work invites a literal demonic presence into their lives. Ultimately, his commitment to bring life brings death.

In the world of 80-hour work weeks, the father who sacrifices his family on the altar of work has become almost cliché. And yet, it seems that we are more comfortable attributing the devastating effects of this achievement-oriented hyper-materialistic parenting to a Babylonian demon-god than acknowledge how we might be complicit in forming children whose identity is centered on achievement.

Similarly, Deliver Us From Evil shows us a man – Santino – who is deployed and comes home a monster. Again, the massive mental, emotional and physical disabilities that plague veterans of our Armed Forces are as well-documented as they are ignored. And yet we would rather attribute the violence of our returning soldiers to demons than admit that the way America acts in the world creates conditions under which our young men and women become less than human. We would rather blame spooks and spirits than face that we are complicit in the American War machine that consumes and discards our youth as so much excrement.

Our Values create the conditions under which people are transformed into Monsters. The Church has two options:

  1. Ignore these films (or by proxy accept them at face value).
  2. Listen to these films, acknowledge the deep-seated critiques of American cultural values they offer, and choose to be a prophetic voice.

Possession films offer us a unique window into the toxic potential of the American Dream. We ignore them to our (and our culture’s) detriment.

YOUR TURN: What do you make of possession films?

By JR. Forasteros

JR. lives in Dallas, TX with his wife Amanda. In addition to exploring the wonders that are the Lone Star state, JR. is the teaching pastor at Catalyst Community Church, a writer and blogger. His book, Empathy for the Devil, is available from InterVarsity Press. He's haunted by the Batman, who is in turn haunted by the myth of redemptive violence.