Penny Dreadful and The Exorcist: Demons Are So Clingy

I am about to discuss an extremely creepy topic during a thunderstorm, in a dark room.  (Why is the room dark? Oh, wouldn’t you like to know, Theoretical Reader, wouldn’t you like to know!) This week I am blending two different stories that share a conflict: possession.  No, not that possession; I’m referring to the one that involves either extreme psychological phenomena or non-corporal-but-sentient-beings, depending on whether or not the characters believe in ghosts, demons, and/or spirits.  In Penny Dreadful and The Exorcist*, characters become actors in deadly conflicts that turn their bodies and minds into war zones.

In Penny Dreadful, the possession consists of Vanessa vs. The Devil (or some other demonic being) and in The Exorcist, the possession includes Regan vs. …The Devil (or other demon claiming to be the Devil…. guys, what if Satan was the original victim of identity theft?)  In both cases, I will be assuming that the possessions are caused by actual malevolent beings that are separate from the people they are possessing.  This is for three reasons: 1. In my opinion, the stories indicate that these are “real” possessions, 2. I have not studied psychology and don’t feel qualified to analyze psychological struggles like these and 3. It’s October, I love Halloween, and demons are spooky.

In both stories, the conflicts involve similar physical struggles: violence towards others that neither Vanessa or Regan can control, sexual behavior or actions, symptoms of illness such as vomiting, and potentially fatal exhaustion and dehydration.

The source of the conflict is unclear in both cases.  In a sense, the conflicts are both resource-driven, if you consider the human bodies of Vanessa and Regan to be resources.  The goals are incompatible between the parties involved.  Vanessa and Regan do not want to share their minds and bodies with demons, but the demons want to control them. The subjugation of their free will could even be considered the trigger event of the conflicts, since other goals involving Vanessa and Regan’s cooperation could have perhaps been negotiated, preventing the conflicts from becoming violent (at least between these two characters and the demons).

There are some important differences in the parties involved in the two cases.  Regan is a young child (eleven-ish) while Vanessa is an adult when the demon first possesses her.  Regan’s demon insists that it is punishing her for something she did, but never gives more information about the supposed crimes she committed.  Vanessa’s relationship to her demon is slightly more complicated.  In one scene in episode eight, the demon implies that Vanessa is voluntarily letting the demon inhabit her; at the end of the series, Vanessa is confronted with the fact that if she is free of the demon, she will be “normal” …something she may consider to be a worse fate. Vanessa’s history with her demon is also much longer than Regan’s.  For years, she has fought to keep the demon from controlling her, making her possession a pro-longed conflict. Regan’s possession is shorter, but does last for several months, which is longer than some wars.

The history of a conflict is important since it sheds light on the causes of the conflict, both material and emotional.  A conflict may start out as a relatively simple disagreement, and then escalate as each side blames the other for subsequent events.  The history and relationship between the parties involved can also provide information on the actual goals.  I say “actual” since sometimes a party involved may not even be conscious of what they really want (such as Vanessa’s struggle to choose between being ordinary and subletting her mind to a demonic creature).

Vanessa’s demon doesn’t just want to inhabit her body though; it(he?) claims to have a plan to bring about Hell on Earth, destroy or enslave all living things, and rule whatever’s left.  It/He wants Vanessa to rule by his side (but does not specify how that would work if he is possessing her body… I suppose it is implied that if she cooperates with him, he would not need to control her body…but I need to rewatch season 1).

Regan’s demon’s goal is a little less clear, thus making it a more realistic struggle. It claims to not want to go back to the void of being body-less, but also threatens to kill Regan when others try to cast him(it) out; this is possibly a bluff, but still seems counter-productive.  Why did the demon possess her and perform actions and behavior that would obviously draw attention to its possession? Perhaps it had no choice, perhaps that chaotic and violent motivation are just part of the being’s nature – there is not enough information to tell.

Regan’s conflict is won through spiritual and physical battle, ending when a priest invites the demon to inhabit his body, and then kills himself.  Vanessa’s conflict has reached more of a standstill than a resolution, and we have yet to see if peaceful negotiations will bring about a mutually beneficial ending or …not.


*Please note that I have not see the movie based on The Exorcist, I only read the book an,d there may be differences in the adaptation that could affect a discussion of the conflict.

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