I’m Not Myself Today: Possession Horror

Last September, my husband and I visited the Museum of Shadows in Omaha, NE. Voted the most haunted museum in the world, this destination is home to over 3,000 verified haunted artifacts sent from all over the globe. It was deliciously creepy and the museum staff made things extra nerve-wracking by handing us flashlights (the building was kept dark), having us sign waivers promising we wouldn’t touch anything, and warning us cameras would be monitoring our activity if we dared to disrespect any artifacts. 

When we paid our fee and entered into the eerie, dark bowels of the building, we were met with weathered dolls, foggy mirrors, rusty antiques, creepy masks, a wall of Ouija boards, all said to be haunted. I loved every minute of it! 

But then we made our way down a dark staircase to the museum’s basement where the “extra haunted” artifacts were kept. I kid you not, there was a single spot where my husband’s flashlight kept flickering and malfunctioning…as if someone was displeased by our intrusion. We came to a section of the basement that was blocked off by a small gate with a sign that warned us not to cross the threshold without rinsing our hands with holy water (yes, holy water was provided). Why? Because this was the section of the museum where artifacts were vessels not for sad, lost spirits, but for demonic entities. And this was where my husband drew the line with a big fat “NOPE”. When I laughed at his objection, his genuine response was “Woman, if you get possessed by a demon, I’m leaving you.” 

Nothing unsettles my husband more than possession by the unknown. It rightfully terrifies a lot of people! That’s why possession horror makes such a compelling and scary sub-genre in both film and fiction. Unlike a vengeful ghost, you can’t put a malevolent demon “to rest”. You can’t put a bullet through its brain the way you might do so with zombies. It’ll stop at nothing to claim your mortal soul. 

But it’s deeper than that! 

Possession in horror represents a psychological fear of danger dwelling inside our sacred bodies. It’s not a killer we can keep out with locked doors or a monster that only appears during a full moon. In the foreword to the Indigenous dark fiction anthology Never Whistle at Night, author Stephen Graham Jones equates possession with the “colonization” of one’s body. It is taking without consent, it is a loss of control. From a queer or feminist perspective, possession represents a loss of bodily autonomy. For others, it represents a religious battle within the self or a consequence for “living in sin”. Regardless of the reason, it’s fascinating and terrifying and (surprise, surprise) it's one of my favorite horror sub-genres. So here are a few recommendations for brave readers should they dare to explore the forbidden realm of the occult.


The Exorcist

“God never talks. But the devil keeps advertising, Father. The devil does a lot of commercials.”

Reading The Exorcist--which has since become one of my favorite horror novels of all time-- felt like a variety of strange circumstances. It was like getting stung by something terrible, then looking at your wound and feeling pride for not blubbering like a baby. It was like closing your eyes and putting an insect in your mouth, feeling the discomfort of insect legs between your teeth, but realizing it tasted better than you expected. (Fun Fact: I was actually brave enough to try a bug appetizer at a restaurant. Am I cool yet?)

Beloved movie star Chris MacNeil has had a very busy film career, one that leaves her very little time for her twelve year old daughter Regan. When Regan's body is invaded by a malevolent and powerful evil, Chris's only hope lies in the hands of psychiatrist and Jesuit priest Damien Karras. 

I can honestly say there wasn't a dull moment for me in this book. From the very beginning it jumps right into the creepy. But what I find most interesting about The Exorcist is the varying struggles many of the characters have with religion. The book is ripe with spiritual turmoil ( fun fact: the author of this book was Catholic ) and there is a lot of grappling with one's faith, whether it can stand the test of spiritual warfare or whether doubt serves as the Devil's stumbling block for the righteous. Be you a person of religion (like Father Damien Karras) or of no religion at all (like Regan's mother), you will be rooting for the same outcome, you'll want and hope that an innocent girl will survive an unspeakable evil.

If you think you might be able to stomach it (like I did the insect) this is a horror classic must-read. 


A Head Full of Ghosts

“On the morning of the exorcism, I stayed home from school.”

A teenager named Marjorie is very sick and her parents are grappling with whether or not she has a mental illness. Doctors seem to be failing, medical bills are climbing, family tensions are rising. Enter Catholic priest Father Wanderly with a diagnosis for possible demonic possession and an offer for an exorcism. When a scheme also arises to put all the drama on television as a reality show, Marjorie's family feels it can't hurt to make a little money, pay off those medical bills and possibly free Marjorie of her demons. All of this is being witnessed by Marjorie's little sister Merry who later as an adult recalls all of this to a bestselling writer.

I loved how Tremblay laid this story out. As I mentioned in the synopsis, the reader is given an account of disturbing events by an eight year old Merry Barrett. And what better way to experience the exorcism of a teenager than through the eyes of an honest and terrified child. 

This story takes a very psychological approach to demonic possession. It’s scary but not in the traditional sense. There’s no violence, no senseless gore, and it won’t disturb in the way William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist will. But it is, however, very unnerving. There are a lot of scenes with eerie sounds, sudden shadowy movements, and disturbing imagery and you, along with the characters, are uncertain and confused as to what's happening. Like little Merry, you’ll start questioning and going back on your thoughts and having doubts! Was that Marjorie or just a shadow? Was that Marjorie or just the wind? Was that Marjorie or the demon within? 


My Best Friend's Exorcism

“By the power of Phil Collins, I rebuke you!”

Lemme start by saying I haven’t read a book centered around friendship and unconditional love this great since being introduced to The Loser’s Club in Stephen King’s IT. If I’m emotional by a book’s end, you’ve got me!

For those new to the horror genre and looking for an easy starting point that won't traumatize or overwhelm you, My Best Friend’s Exorcism is about Abby Rivers and Gretchen Lang, two best friends who’s unbreakable bond is put to the ultimate test when the devil gets involved.

This book gave me more than I could have asked for in a satirical horror novel: strong female friendships, teen angst, family drama, unspeakable horrors, tons of 80’s pop culture references, creative chapter headings that were not lost on me even as a 90’s kid and, an unconventional exorcism!

I recommend this book to anyone who might wanna start out light on books about demonic possession and for readers who love a good supernatural thriller with heart!


A Black and Endless Sky

"Standing on the face of this unfamiliar earth, underneath that cruel firmament, Nell listened to the words inside her head, and as she did, she saw something moving inside the void, just beyond the edges of the sky's blistered skin. A pale, grasping hand with too many fingers, a cracked and bleeding mouth, a knot of tangled bone above and eyeless face. Something inside was trying to escape."

Looking for a more unconventional possession horror story?  A Black and Endless Sky follows sibling duo Nell and Jonah as they crash head first into dangerous circumstances while on a cross-country road trip to New Mexico. When a mysterious occurrence takes place near an excavation site and there’s a gap in Nell’s memory, terrifying symptoms lead her to believe something is not right within herself. 

This is a great example of possession horror not necessarily requiring a demon to invade your body. In this case, the possession occurs by something older and more powerful. This novel had me hooked from the beginning. We’ve got multi-perspective storytelling, a complex brother-sister relationship, a cat-and-mouse chase across the country, desolate landscapes, a very peculiar exorcist, fast pacing, and cosmic horror! 

Looking to dive deeper into the sub-genre of possession horror? Here are more books and media to consume (at your own risk. Mwahaha!) 


[Honorable Mentions] 


Come Closer


My Darling Girl 

Boys in the Valley

All These Subtle Deceits 

Exorcist Falls   


The Penguin Book of Exorcisms

Demonic Foes

Field Guide to the Spirit World  


Paranormal Activity 

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

The Cleansing Hour

Evil Dead Rise

The Exorcist

The Exorcist

-Christina James is a Readers' Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.