Education In Horror: Possessions and Hauntings

One of the most popular elements in supernatural horror is the hostile takeover of our own minds, bodies, and souls. Another is the impossible battle against forces that exist on some other plain. This Education in Horror post focusses entirely on films with one of these two elements, I present to you some of horrors best in possession and haunting.

The Haunting (1963)-

A horror film primarily because of its supernatural elements. A great film because of it’s deep, neurotic, nuanced and well-constructed characters and story. The scenes and camera work are dark, gothic and very eerie, with a few good jump scares built in. This is one of the original haunted house films and it certainly set the bar high.



The Exorcist (1973)-

In this film, a young girl is acting strangely and getting worse. Her behavior is so erratic that her mother calls in a local priest to help. Things continue to worsen and the priest becomes convinced that there may be a demon involved and calls for backup in the form of a more experienced priest. Chaos and horror ensue as Regan and the priests are tortured by the malevolent demon. The original story written by William Peter Blatty was based on real events, namely the 1949 exorcism of a young boy. This film packs one hell (pardon the pun) of a horror punch and is cinematically powerful as well.

The Exorcist is filled with incredibly crafted suspense and more than enough jump scares to leave you feeling twitchy long after you’ve shut it off and turned the lights back on. The acting is on point, especially in the case of the young Linda Blair as Regan. Her portrayal of innocence turned to pain, eventually falling into demonic rage, power, and hate as the devil takes more control is pretty incredible to watch. As far as the directing and cinematography go, the attention to detail is amazing, there are moments where the worst part is whats not shown, or revealed only in shadows, and others where the evil is so in your face you almost have to force yourself not to close your eyes.

The Amityville Horror (1979)-

This film follows the Lutz family on a terrifying descent into madness as their dream home reveals its true nature as the haunted and insanity-inducing hall of horrors it is. The history of this haunted house story is told early in the film by a series of mind-jarring and shockingly loud flashbacks of the events that took place before the current residents move in. Supposedly based on a true story, the events of The Amityville Horror build slowly in intensity, and we are taken along for the ride.

The film is very atmospherically creepy and fairly well shot, with a solid amount of creep factor in the music as well. The acting is a bit campy and over the top at times, but that’s true of most of the movie. The horror moments, such as swarms of flies, oozing walls, and the like are generally fairly pointed and visually stomach churning, but overall a series of disconnected shocks, with a fairly unimpactful climax. Despite the somewhat flawed pacing, and red-herring sub stories, when all is said and done the movie is decent viewing, and is a late 70s horror must see.

Poltergeist (1982)-

This horror classic is well written, well acted, and well filmed. This horror classic delivers a fright-filled experience that sticks with you in a very real way, I know some people that still can’t stand to see or hear the static of an off-channel television. Similar to The Amityville horror in the way the events unfold and escalate this horrible house tale follows the Freeling family on their fearful adventure as increasingly strange and scary things keep happening. A bird dies suddenly, strange rainstorms, earthquakes, evil clown dolls, and even skeletons, the build-up is methodical and makes the viewer care about all of the characters involved. This results in feeling much more connected with the horror as the climax is finally reached.

Child’s Play (1988)-

Deranged serial killer and voodoo practitioner Charles Lee Ray is trapped in a doll factory by the cops, knowing he may meet his fate soon, he uses an incantation to send his soul into the only nearby vessel, ironically a “good guy” doll. The doll is purchased and given to a young boy named Alex. When “Chucky” starts up on his killing spree again, Alex is the only one who knows the truth, of course, no one believes him.

The movie succeeds at being a silly and funny almost spoof of itself while maintaining a good amount of tension and fright factor when it wants to. Some of the dialogue is obviously trying to play for bad puns and low hanging fruit type jokes but is usually entertaining. It is definitely well within slasher film range and is pretty brutal at times, but was a very entertaining film. The pacing and camera work are good, and the scares are sharp and pointed. The movie’s finale is well earned after pushing the tension up like a roller coaster’s first hill for so much of the film.

Fallen (1998)-

Starting at the end with a flashback narrated by Denzel Washington, we get an opportunity to meet the serial killer sentenced to death, possessed by a demonic entity “Azazel”, and with a certain Rolling Stones’ tune stuck in his head. Once the sentence is carried out the demon is free and begins to pass from person to person at the touch of a hand, making the new killer especially hard to identify.

Part horror film, part noir-ish crime drama Fallen is visually rich in its use of shadow, focus, and composition. The sometimes franticness of the camera work is easily forgivable. The plot is well developed and brings in elements of religion and faith, the occult, and academia. The acting is elevated by all members of the cast, especially Washington who carries the film squarely on his shoulders through even the slowest of scenes. Which brings me to the weakest point of the film and that is it’s pacing. The story moves very slowly at times and could have used some heavier editing.

The Others (2001)-

In a secluded and fog-shrouded Victorian estate, a lonely mother waits with her two children for the return of her husband and their father. Never leaving the house for fear of harming the overly sensitive to sunlight children. The movie begins to share glimpses of the being the closed doors in the old house as the children begin to complain of the “others” who have been following them around, opening doors and curtains and talking to them from the shadows. 

It’s a stylish, spooky, and subtle ghost story. The story is well written and it unravels slowly, teasing the fear out of viewers. This movie is all about messing with your mind and focusses on common fears like loneliness, the dark, and unseen intruders in your home. An elegantly put together film, this one may make you jump less frequently than the rest of the list, but is more likely to want to sleep with the light on.

Paranormal Activity (2009)-

Part of the found footage indie-film genre, this movie follows a college-age couple who find moving into a house that isn’t entirely empty and at odds with something paranormal. The girlfriend, Katie, has experienced the supernatural since childhood and thinks she knows whats going on. The most logical response from the skeptical boyfriend, Micah, is to mount cameras in the home to disprove her fears. Realizing that things are escalating and that disproving an actual haunting may be difficult he sets out to try to catch evidence of what’s really going on.

Despite a very limited budget, this movie is actually pretty brilliant. The use of the fear that exists in the unseen and mundane is executed flawlessly, the acting (if one chooses to call it that, the characters are so subtle and on point with their improv) is exactly what is needed for this film. Some of the spookiest moments come from the time-lapse effects of the demonically possessed Katie staring for hours at her sleeping boyfriend, or the lights turning on and off and doors opening and closing unnoticed by the two main characters. This is another film that will have you sleeping (or not) with the lights on for a while.

Insidious (2011)-

The story is familiar. When a young, happy family moves into a creepy old house, everything seems fine at first. When their son begins to fall ill and eventually into a coma, the parents go to their literal wit’s end to save him. As the story progresses it becomes clearer that we are not dealing with anything from this plane of existence, and it may be too powerful for them to handle.

The writing and acting are both very good. The characters are people you believe in, feel for, and care about. In what felt like an homage to the genre, the film is filled with a creepy gothic atmosphere and scares aplenty. The movie echoes the style of Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror but does so with a flair all its own. More focus is placed on building and maintaining the edge of your seat tension than simple pop scares. The most stand out difference, in my opinion, is the creative and interesting use of unusual camera angles and compositions. The low angles and handheld camera work is just enough different from what we are used to seeing to be slightly off-putting (in a good way) but not so much as to instill Blair Watch Project type sensations. The team responsible for the Saw series, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell reunited to bring this twisted haunted house tale to life. 

The Conjuring (2013)-

Two famous paranormal investigators are called in to help a family in their desperate search for peace in a haunted old farmhouse. The fight commences to save the family and each other from the demons that are trying to consume them all.

A well woven haunted house tales that leans heavily on the tried and true horror movie go to gags. From staring down a dark hallway a little too long waiting to catch a glimpse of the baddie just to realize it is behind you, the door that creaks a little too slowly, this movie hits all the right notes and builds at a near pitch-perfect pace. Also a special mention here for sound designer Joe Dzuban, who avoided the booming and cacophonous overlay and managed to find just the right amount of silence to make viewers jump at the littlest sound. Clap if you can hear me… *shudder*

There are obviously dozens more film that could fit this category, please comment below if I missed your favorite ones.

Bradley Pierce

This geek is the co-creator of and producer for ZFO Entertainment, a writer for ZFOnline, and also a filmmaker and was the original voice of Chip in Disney's Beauty and the Beast, and actor from Jumanji, and The Borrowers.

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