the Possession Story formula

This week I am examining the common formula for a story about demon possession, using the following 5 movies:

The ExorcistThe Exorcism of Emily Rose The Last Exorcism The Possession The Devil Inside

Start with a young woman, just hitting puberty.

  • The Exorcist: Regan is a 12-year-old girl
  • The Exorcism of Emily Rose: Emily is college-aged young woman
  • The Last Exorcism: Nell is a teenage girl
  • The Possession: Em is a teenage girl
  • The Devil Inside: Maria is a young mother

You might want to base your exorcism story on something in Real Life:

  • The Exorcist: based on the real life case of Roland Doe (a pseudonym), who was approximately 13 years old
  • The Exorcism of Emily Rose: based on the real life case of Anneliese Michel, who was about 20 when her possession started
  • The Last Exorcism & The Devil Inside: while not based in real life, both of these movies is shot in documentary style

Dress your main character in a white nightgown:



Said young person might innocently dabble in the occult:

  • The Exorcist: Regan plays with a Ouija board (Roland Doe does the same)
  • The Possession: Em finds a dybbuk box (said to imprison a Jewish demon) at a yard sale

We need some foreshadowing:

  • The Exorcist: Regan has an invisible friend named “Captain Howdy”
  • The Exorcism of Emily Rose: Emily sees objects move on their own
  • The Possession: Em has an invisible friend, a woman

The parents seek medical or psychological help for their child:

  • The Exorcist: Regan is taken for a number of medical tests
  • The Exorcism of Emily Rose: Emily is diagnosed with epilepsy and depression
  • The Possession: Em is taken in for an MRI

Crazy shit goes down, according to the four typical signs of demonic possession (from Wikipedia):

  1. manifestation of superhuman strength
  2. speaking in tongues or languages that the person cannot know
  3. the revelation of knowledge, distant or hidden, that the victim cannot know
  4. blasphemic rage and an aversion to holy symbols or relics
  • The Exorcist: (1) Regan’s head spins and she levitates (2) she speaks in French, Latin, and backwards (3) she knows information about Father Karras’s mother (4) she cringes away from Holy water and the crucifix
  • The Exorcism of Emily Rose: (1) Emily holds contorted positions for hours (2) Emily speaks in Hebrew, Latin, ancient Greek, German, and Aramaic
  • The Last Exorcism: (1) Nell stabs her brother and kills a cat (4) screams at the sight of a crucifix
  • The Possession: (1)Em stabs her father with a fork (2) she speaks in a deep voice (4) when her father reads her the Torah, the book is thrown out of his hands by an invisible force
  • The Devil Inside: (1) Maria murders several people during an exorcism attempt (2) she speaks in different accents (3) she knows that her daughter had an abortion years ago

In addition, make your possessed character contort herself:


Gross stuff comes out of their mouths:

  • The Exorcist: Regan vomits pea soup
  • The Possession: a swarm of moths fly out of Em’s mouth

Words or marks appear on their skin, or you can see stuff crawling around under their skin:

  • The Exorcist: The words “Help Me” appear on the skin of Regan’s stomach
  • The Exorcism of Emily Rose: Emily develops stigmata
  • The Possession: a hand moving under Em’s skin is visible
  • The Devil Inside: Maria has cut inverted crosses into her skin

Give the demon a name:

  • The Exorcist: Pazuzu (an Assyrian demigod)
  • The Exorcism of Emily Rose: 6 demons, including Legion, Belial, and Lucifer
  • The Last Exorcist: Abalam
  • The Possession: Abizu (“Taker of Children”)

Bring in the religious expert, in a recognizable costume:

  • The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Devil Inside: Catholic priests
  • The Possession: a Hasidic Jewish rabbi
  • The Last Exorcism: a reverend

And remember, the demons always win [spoilers!!]:

  • The Exorcist: Pazuzu returns in the movie’s sequel Exorcist II: The Heretic and possesses Father Lamont; in the book’s sequel (and subsequent movie) Legion/Exorcist III, Pazuzu continues to possess Father Karras’s corpse, among others, to commit serial murders.
  • The Exorcism of Emily Rose: The demons harass the lawyers defending Emily’s exorcist
  • The Possession: As the rabbi exorcist leaves the scene with the demon trapped in its box, he is in a fatal car accident – leaving the box unharmed and ready for its next unsuspecting victim.
  • The Last Exorcism: Nell has been possessed at the command of the cult her family belongs to, and they kill the exorcist
  • The Devil Inside: The demon causes a car wreck and is presumably at large

I have been plotting my own take on a possession story… which will turn all of these cliches on their heads!

One thought on “the Possession Story formula

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