Forensic and Experimental Estrangement: Investigating the Supernatural Body

by Octavia Cade

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article. 

[page 97] Abstract: Horror is a genre defined by destabilization: it undermines the expected and causes individuals to become estranged from the world around them. Through confrontation with unfamiliarity, those individuals are forced to reassess the beliefs that they once held to be paramount and to reorder their understanding of the universe. This characteristic is particularly evident in horror films focused on a supernatural body. The Exorcist (1973) and The Atticus Institute (2015) both use medical science to examine their living patients, while The Possession of Hannah Grace (2018) and The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) are centered on the forensic investigation of a supernatural body. In each of these cases, the possessed body becomes an experimental subject, and the failure of scientists to understand the results of their investigations is highlighted.

Keywords: destabilization, exorcism, psychology, estrangement, experimentation

Horror films engage with the practice of exorcism in varied and interesting ways. Primarily, such exorcisms are intended to restore the integrity and selfhood of a possessed body, but the effectiveness of such a restoration, and the methods used to ensure it, are increasingly interrogated within the genre. While exorcism is often used within horror narratives to indicate the advantages of a religious rather than a scientific approach to the possessed body, it is particularly noticeable that the scientific, forensic examination of the supernatural body in horror films increasingly leads, in the twenty-first century, not only to the failure of science but to the failure of every expected remedy ... including that of religion.

This is in direct comparison to what is perhaps the most archetypal of the embodied supernatural films, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Released in 1973, The Exorcist follows the possession of a twelve-year-old girl, Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair). Initially suspecting a medical cause for her daughter’s [page 98] increasingly disturbing behavior, Regan’s mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn), has her daughter examined by several medical doctors. Multiple tests and scans are performed, each more extensive and horrifying than the last. The combined result of the tests is to effectively excavate Regan’s biological self, to strip back the layers of her body using scientific methodology similar to that employed in the archaeological excavation that both opens the film and prefigures Regan’s possession (Cade 65). When no physical cause is found to explain Regan’s behavior, she is referred to a psychiatrist. When that also fails, Chris seeks a more spiritual solution in the form of the titular exorcism. Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Father Karras (Jason Miller) are able to end Regan’s possession when medical science cannot; even Karras, a psychiatrist himself and initially skeptical about the possibility of Regan’s possession, is ultimately wholly convinced of the need for religious intervention.

There have been several studies on The Exorcist that comment on the essentially conservative elements within the text; one argues that such conservatism is there to “establish the need for traditional forms of religious authority” (Jancovich 94). Regan’s disruptive behavior, for example, can in these interpretations stem from the breakdown of her family unit and her subsequent status as the child of a working single mother and an absent father (Renner 181). The influence of the Church, in the form of priests literally referred to as “Father,” restores the balance within the home, and Regan is successfully restored to her former self, ending the film as a healthy, happy child. 

The Exorcist, therefore, can be interpreted as arguing for the principle of non-overlapping magisteria: the idea that both science and religion have areas of expertise that the other cannot wholly encompass. Science, so often helpful and appropriate when addressing medical issues, is essentially incompetent when it comes to the spiritual realm. Not only does the scientific investigation of Regan’s body turn up nothing useful, but science has no part in breaking her possession. As a result, The Exorcist both queried the certainty of rationalism and [page 99] undermined the increasingly entrenched reliance on scientific explanation as a means of understanding the universe.

In its portrayal of non-overlapping magisteria, The Exorcist comforted its audience with the prospect of religion succeeding where science could not. The best efforts of modern medicine might have failed, but there was a solution to Regan’s possession, a cure for her invaded body, and one which allowed her to return to a normal life. In the twenty-first-century horror films of the embodied supernatural, such a victory is no longer certain. In these narratives, as in The Exorcist, science is proven a failure—but unlike The Exorcist, religion can also prove a failure. The response of recent horror films to the possessed body may be one of determined and continued estrangement—an estrangement not only from the body but from all previously accepted methods of dealing with the undermining of, and destabilization of, that body. There is no longer any reliable solution resulting in a return to normal life, and the trauma that possession inflicts on the body is unremedied. What this says about how contemporary audiences perceive the embodied supernatural is particularly interesting. It is well-illustrated by three recent films, each dealing with the prolonged scientific investigation of a possessed or otherwise supernatural human body.

The Possession of Hannah Grace (Diederik van Rooijen, 2018) begins with what horror audiences have come to recognize as a typical exorcism in film. A young woman (Kirby Johnson) is tied to a bed, exhibiting several abnormal and disturbing behaviors. Surrounding her are three fathers. Two of these are spiritual—the Catholic priests performing the exorcism (Guy Clemens and Gijs Scholten van Aschat)—and one biological, as Hannah’s distraught parent (Louis Herthum), also present, pleads with his daughter to fight the demon that has overtaken her body. The expected result of such a scene is the demon’s expulsion, and the exorcism initially appears to be successful. “Daddy?” says Hannah, weakly, but this brief respite is revealed as a trick, as the demon within Hannah’s body uses telekinesis to impale one priest and choke [page 100] the other. The exorcism is a total failure, and Hannah’s father, wanting to spare his daughter any more suffering, smothers her with a pillow ... except this too is proved ultimately futile.

Three months after the prologue events, Hannah’s mutilated body is delivered to a hospital morgue. She appears to be newly murdered, and Megan (Shay Mitchell), on duty at the time of delivery, is responsible for beginning the forensic examination of the body. Not a medical examiner herself—the autopsy will have to wait for a qualified professional—Megan still uses science as a means of investigation. She has two primary tasks: photographing the body, particularly the areas of injury, and recording Hannah’s fingerprints. Given the long-established failure of science in the face of the supernatural, typical of possession narratives of this type, it is no surprise to the audience that, when Megan tries to photograph Hannah’s body, the camera fails and will not work again. She can use ink and paper to record Hannah’s fingerprints—a method low-tech enough to remain viable—but when Megan tries to scan the prints into a computer database, that system also fails, with the program pronouncing the prints illegible. 

The failure of two pieces of scientific equipment, one for each forensic task that Megan must perform, is not coincidental. In real life, such systematic equipment failure might be attributed to inadequate maintenance resulting from budget cuts, for instance. Still, in a supernatural horror film such as this, the audience knows precisely what is happening. The failure of science to properly investigate the body is, to that audience, the expected outcome. There is no surprise to it. The surprise has already occurred in the prologue, where the exorcism of Hannah Grace failed. Films like The Exorcist have primed audiences, when presented with the supernatural body, to expect the success of the religious method following the failure of the scientific one. Hannah Grace leads with the failure of religion and follows it up with the failure of science. 

This is fundamentally destabilizing on more than one level. Of course, the existence of the supernaturally possessed body is and always has been a destabilizing prospect. Contemporary [page 101] audiences, particularly those with limited spiritual beliefs of their own, find the prospect of undermined bodily autonomy to be a disturbing one; James Clifton comments that much of horror is “predicated on threats to the body: its destruction, dissolution, fragmentation, usurpation, and so on” (377). The imagined prospect of a supernatural incursion into the body, when contrasted with the highly rational world which so much of the audience inhabits, is so appealing in horror precisely because it undermines that rational world. Furthermore, the established expectations of narrative are overturned when the exorcism—which is frequently the climax of possession films, and the successful climax at that—is presented first and fails. Destabilization in Hannah Grace, therefore, is threefold. First, in undermining the individual body; second, in undermining both religion and science; and finally, in undermining expected narrative structure.

The failure of forensic science to fully understand the supernatural body is also highlighted in The Autopsy of Jane Doe (André Øvredal, 2016). Here, the body being examined is not that of a possessed person; initially appearing like that of any other human, the body that the medical examiners are investigating is discovered to be that of a witch. The supernatural status of that body remains, however. Unlike Hannah Grace, which limits its forensic examination, attempting to document only the outer surface of the body, the examination of the body in Jane Doe is far more advanced.

The medical examiners in Jane Doe are father and son Tommy and Austin (Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch), and the autopsy, portrayed in increasingly gruesome detail, initially appears to be unexceptional. It is notable that the body of the young woman, identified as Jane Doe due to her unknown identity, has no external trauma. There are no apparent injuries, readily visible wounds, bruises, or scars. Aside from traces of peat underneath her fingernails and in her hair, her body is pristine and lacks even traces of dirt, which is surely unusual for someone just unearthed from a basement floor.

As the autopsy moves beyond a surface inspection of the [page 102] body, however, the trauma experienced by Jane Doe is uncovered. Her wrists and ankles have been broken. Her tongue has been severed. A tooth has been removed, and other objects have been forced into her stomach. Injuries to her genitalia are consistent with sexual assault. Her internal organs are severely scarred, and her lungs are blackened and indicate exposure to fire. Yet, to the shock and disbelief of the examiners, none of this trauma is shown on the surface of Jane Doe’s body. “This amount of lung damage, I’d expect the body to be covered in third-degree burns,” comments Tommy in complete bemusement. “It’s like finding a bullet in the brain, but with no gunshot wound.” The evidence is grossly inconsistent. “Imagine all this internal trauma was reflected externally,” muses Tommy. “What would she look like?” The answer is clear: “She’d be mangled. Disfigured beyond recognition. But she’s not. I mean, how the hell do you even do this?” They agree that the object of the injuries was suffering: the maximization of pain through the maximization of trauma.

They continue their examination, collecting evidence, taking samples, and recording their efforts in accordance with the scientific method. They reference scientific texts, trying to explain their findings. They conclude from the objects found inside the body that there are “religious, possibly ritualistic” elements to the death. “Every ritual has its purpose” comments Tommy, and it is interesting to note that he too is engaged in what could be called ritualistic practice. The autopsy itself, informed by method and purpose, is an organized, codified, and meaningful sequence of events designed to navigate the rational occurrences of a rational world. This scientific ritual, increasingly disrupted by threatening paranormal events, is abandoned when the two scientists become too horrified to continue. When the threat does not abate, Austin argues for the re-examination of the body: “If we can just figure out how she died, maybe we can figure out how this can stop.”

This is the reasoning of a man trained in the scientific method: if cause precedes effect, then rigorous examination of the cause may allow an investigator to predict the effect and, [page 103] potentially, influence or mitigate that effect. It is the application of reason to the unreasonable, and in the face of the supernatural—as any horror audience could tell them—it is doomed to fail. The supernatural, by definition, is beyond the natural world and so cannot be adequately explained by methods or technologies specifically designed to interrogate that world. 

If Jane Doe shares its failed forensic examination of a supernatural body with Hannah Grace, it also shares a preceding failure of religion. The scientists examining Jane Doe’s body find evidence that dates her (apparent) death to 1693, the second year of the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts. These trials, fundamentally religious in form, born out of religious belief not only in the existence of witches, but in the necessity of their extermination, resulted—so the medical examiners presume—in the torture and murder of the body they have been examining. That the hideous injuries inflicted upon Jane Doe—injuries that should have killed any natural body—have failed to do so implicitly references the failure of religion to adequately address the supernatural body. This failure exists before any scientific examination of the body occurs. In fact, it is only because religious ritual failed in each film that the subsequent scientific examinations were able to occur. Had religion ended the possession of Hannah Grace, she would have returned, as little Regan did, to normal life. Had religion ended the life of Jane Doe, her body would have decayed naturally, and any remains found after several hundred years would certainly not have been mistaken for a recent murder victim and assigned to medical examiners for autopsy. 

In these films, both religious intervention and the scientific method prove incapable of managing or eliminating the threat posed by the possessed subject of their investigations. The supernatural body that is Jane Doe murders both of the medical examiners, and while the supernatural body that is Hannah Grace is ultimately destroyed by fire, the film’s ending implies that Megan, her forensic examiner, has potentially become host to the demon that possessed Hannah, thereby becoming the new supernatural body of the text. If there is no solution [page 104] to the supernatural body, as these contemporary horror films argue, then how should that body be approached? The safest action appears to be to get as far from the body as is practicable and, if at all possible, to foist the thing on someone else. Needless to say, this is not the usual practice in horror, and not only for narrative purposes—what kind of horror film would it be, for instance, if the protagonist recognizes the tropes for what they are, repairs from the scene, and lives happily ever after? 

Notably, the scientific investigation of the embodied supernatural, like the religious response, frequently has an ethical duty attached to it. Both Jane Doe and Hannah Grace have, apparently, been murdered. They are initially perceived as the helpless, innocent victims of violent crime, and therefore in need of restitution, justice, and respectful care. The ability of scientific investigators such as medical examiners to assist in applying justice is commonly acknowledged. Forensic evidence gathered from the body is frequently necessary to locate the guilty party and obtain their conviction. Without the work of forensic examiners like Tommy and Austin in Jane Doe, or Megan in Hannah Grace, the crimes that they help to investigate might go unsolved. These scientists, therefore, have an ethical duty to perform a thorough and practical examination of the body. They are the victim’s advocates, much as priests who perform exorcisms, for example, consider themselves to be advocates of the violated person whom they are trying to restore to uncompromised selfhood. Those priests, whether Merrin, Karras, or the quickly dispatched duo of Hannah Grace, are perceived within the context of those films, even by the atheists in the audience, to be on the side of good, in that they are attempting to aid a person whose bodily autonomy has been undermined by their experience of the supernatural.

That both priest and scientist, in these recent films exploring the embodied supernatural, have been placed in the roles of good-but-useless is significant. Arguably, the lessening influence of religion in contemporary society, combined with the distrust that is the product of numerous sex scandals within the Catholic Church, has undermined social trust in, and reli-[page 105]ance on, priests as a source of legitimate power. Their continued presence in supernatural films, particularly those films about the supernaturally possessed body, is therefore indicative of just how disturbing that body is to the audience, that so potentially compromised an authority is resorted to. It is the changing perspective of the scientist, however, that is perhaps more interesting, as “good-but-useless” is an assessment indicating change on two counts.

Typically, scientists in horror films have trended more towards the effectively evil. These scientists often completely eschew ethical standards to conduct their (frequently unsanctioned) research: the primary example of this is, of course, Victor Frankenstein, who experimented on the bodies of stolen corpses without the prior consent of the subjects or their families. Scientists in horror have, amongst their other sins, reanimated the dead, created mutated hybrids, and inflicted deadly diseases on the people around them. They are frequently both hideously effective and amoral, and constitute a destabilizing, untrustworthy element within the narrative. In a world where scientists have become ever more influential and science is increasingly the foundation of everyday life, this undermining of science and scientists is a popular horror trope. 

That threatening, unethical science was so frequently found in horror films of the twentieth century does not, however, mean that all scientists in horror films of that time were depicted as evil. Some, as was the case with the team of doctors in The Exorcist, were well-meaning but ineffective. That at least two critics described the medical examination of Regan as being especially distressing—it was an “intensely graphic, and uncomfortably visceral” scene (Scahill 50) that leaves the viewer “particularly disturbed” (Young 114)—certainly underlines the trope of horrifying science, but at least the tests that Regan endured were intended for her benefit and performed with her mother’s consent. Other test subjects in horror films have been less well-served. 

In some twenty-first century horror films concerning the supernatural body, that well-meaning ineffectiveness has been [page 106] updated to present a certain level of situational competence. The scientific investigation of the supernatural body, as illustrated particularly well in Jane Doe, marks an increase in effectiveness from the doctors of The Exorcist. Those doctors failed to even recognize the problem before them. After not finding an immediate biological cause of Regan’s behavior, they recommend that she be taken to a psychiatrist. Under any other circumstance, this would be a reasonable suggestion and one still within the realm of medical treatment and oversight, but Regan is not suffering from a mental breakdown. Ultimately, even though the medical doctors consulted about her condition recommend exorcism, it is not because they think that Regan is indeed possessed. Instead, they believe that she is suffering from a mental delusion that exorcism might cure. This, admittedly, is a thin distinction, but it is notable that their recommendations remain within the medical field: they continue to treat Regan as if she is suffering from ill health—albeit mental ill health rather than a condition such as epilepsy—instead of actual possession. Their experiments on Regan’s body having proved fruitless, they nevertheless retain their belief that her condition has a rational cause and is subject to rational remedy.

The medical investigators of Jane Doe, having peered even more closely into their subject’s body than Regan’s doctors ever did to hers, are quicker to move to supernatural explanations. The time scales of the two films are different, of course, with Jane Doe taking place over less than 24 hours while The Exorcist covers weeks, if not months, but the willingness of the scientists investigating Jane Doe’s body to jump from natural to supernatural explanation is marked. It is certainly not something characteristic of skeptical scientists in horror films, but even then it is a limited willingness. They may be willing to consider a supernatural cause, but they still believe that the scientific method can, ultimately, rationalize the supernatural: “If we can just figure out how she died, maybe we can figure out how this can stop.” Their conclusions are more accurate than those of the doctors in The Exorcist, but they are still un-[page 107]successful in bringing about a satisfactory conclusion. Indeed, further examination by the medical examiners arguably only hastens their deaths.

This is a punishment for curiosity typical of the genre. In situations where any sane person would leave the premises, the horror protagonist can frequently be seen going where they should not go or doing something that horror audiences can immediately see will be hazardous for their health. The genre would hardly exist without this insatiable curiosity ... even if that curiosity is motivated by such admirable impulses as professional duty or the procurement of justice. 

In the context of this paper, however, scientific curiosity not in the service of duty is particularly well-illustrated in The Atticus Institute (Chris Sparling, 2015). Here, the curiosity is more typical of scientists in horror, if apparently more restrained. The film is presented in the guise of a pseudo-documentary, with retroactive commentary from the central team of scientists interspersed with footage of the scientific investigation of the possessed body that is their subject. The Atticus Institute is a small independent research organization dedicated to investigating supernatural abilities such as extrasensory perception. Their efforts are largely fruitless until they begin to work with a woman called Judith Winstead (Rya Kihlstedt), who has been exhibiting sudden and disturbing behavior. The tests performed on Judith are initially harmless, as Institute staff use props like Zener cards—cards printed with one of five possible symbols used to test extrasensory perception—in order to determine her capabilities. As their understanding of her abilities grows and Judith exhibits frightening new abilities like telekinesis and pyrokinesis, the Atticus Institute teams up with the United States military, and the tests on Judith become increasingly unethical, increasingly harmful, and far more disturbing. 

This causes conflict between the Institute staff and the military. Viewers are clearly expected to identify with the former, as they are portrayed as well-meaning but entirely out of their depth when compared to the military characters’ unsym-[page 108]pathetic and exploitative behavior. Notably, the sympathy extended to Institute staff may be even greater than that given to Judith, whose behavior has become so threatening and so distressing that the eventual reveal of her as a victim of demonic possession is not all that surprising. Judith’s power grows as the scientific tests performed on her become more inhumane and demeaning, but it is eventually clear to all research parties that, while science has been useful in determining her capacities, it is fundamentally incapable of addressing Judith’s possession in any useful way. This follows the typical progression of possession narratives, where calls for religious aid follow the realization of the limits of medical science. As in The Possession of Hannah Grace, however, exorcism proves essentially ineffective. The exorcism results in Judith’s death, and the demon possessing her is transferred into the body of one of the scientists investigating her. This not only prefigures the end of Hannah Grace but allows the embodied supernatural to shift from subject to investigator after the failure of both religion and science to contain it.

This dual failure is not only an undermining of world view—of multiple world views. It is also a denial of comfort and the possibility of a solution or remedy. This is a fundamentally disquieting choice. Horror, of course, is a disquieting genre and one that is arguably based upon the destabilization of the world, a destabilization that can tend to the ruin not only of the protagonist but of everyone and everything around them. It is notable, then, that the determined failure of dealing with the embodied supernatural in some twenty-first-century horror films is so often linked with trauma. 

Megan, the protagonist of The Possession of Hannah Grace, may work in a morgue, but that was not her first career choice. Originally a police officer, the death of her partner in the line of duty—a death for which Megan blames herself—caused a traumatic reaction that led to her resignation from the police force, the end of her romantic relationship, a growing addiction to pills, and depression. Moreover, it is implied that her depression actively opens her to possession. Hannah, also suffer-[page 109]ing from depression, was vulnerable to the demon because of it, and by the end of the film, it appears that Megan and Hannah have come to share more than a history of mental illness. 

Similarly, the illustration of trauma in The Autopsy of Jane Doe links the embodied supernatural to the scientists who investigate it. As they peel back the layers of Jane Doe’s body, those scientists discover the extent of the trauma inflicted upon her by the violence of those around her—a violence that is not apparent on the surface of her body, which initially appears untouched. Jane Doe, however, is not the only character hiding trauma beneath the surface. Tommy and Austin are father and son, and as the autopsy goes on, it becomes clear that they are both grieving the loss of Tommy’s wife and Austin’s mother to suicide. “You put up this act for people,” says the son, worried that his father isn’t coping with their mutual loss. This secondary trauma, woven through the narrative, is underlined by the apparent implication that the suicide was totally unexpected, resulting from an unhappiness that neither surviving family member truly realized or understood. The incomprehension of violence links the two narratives: the medical examiners cannot understand the horror of the violence that took their wife/mother from them, and the perpetrators of the violence upon Jane Doe clearly misunderstood what that violence might accomplish. That initial ritual violence, religious rather than scientific—expressed in fire and knives as the medical examiners’ ritual violence is expressed in sterility and scalpels—is equally ineffective. Violence in Jane Doe is desperation and incomprehension and trauma, and no one is immune to the results of this.

It is notable that, in both Hannah Grace and Jane Doe, the violence perpetrated on the supernatural body is healed as that body inflicts similar violence on those around it. Trauma, then, is something to be shared. Moreover, it is something to be mirrored, something that can be recreated in bystanders and the more immediately culpable. That trauma, once shared, cannot be remedied, and the recipient suffers for it. Even when that suffering is voluntarily and deliberately taken on, there is [page 110] no reward for empathy. In The Exorcist, the deaths of Merrin and Karras are in the service of a role they have voluntarily taken upon themselves, an apparently necessary sacrifice that results in Regan’s recovery. However, when a similar sacrifice is offered in Jane Doe, it is not honored: hoping that Jane will spare his son, Tommy offers to take her pain upon himself. She gives it to him and kills his son anyway. Neither love nor duty is enough, just as neither religion nor science is enough. The embodied supernatural not only endures the offerings and rituals of both but also positively triumphs over them.

Trauma is also present in The Atticus Institute. Judith Winstead had suffered an accident several years before her experiences with the Institute. The accident damaged her back and left her in constant, chronic pain, as a result of which she had to move in with her sister’s family. They observed her gradual withdrawal and increasing isolation, as well as a growing number of disturbing incidents that led them to contact the Atticus Institute and essentially abandon Judith there. The implication is that the continued trauma of that accident provided an opportunity for possession, and it is notable that Judith’s pain and isolation are also experienced by chief Atticus scientist Henry West (William Mapother) and his family. Suffering, in the end, from possession by the same supernatural entity that targeted Judith, West abandons his wife and young children. His son (Gerald McCullouch), an adult when the pseudo-documentary is made, recalls the lingering effects of that absence, the way it rippled through generations. The connection is not so clearly made as it is in Hannah Grace and Jane Doe, where a mirrored bodily trauma links the supernatural body with those around it, but the echoes of family abandonment and isolation are similarly traumatic.

These films argue for the transmission of trauma from the supernatural body to the people around it—primarily onto those who have the temerity to think that, through science or religion, they can offer some justice or remedy to the supernatural body, and to those who may have some experience of trauma themselves. In twenty-first-century horror, trauma is [page 111] both contagious and destabilizing in its isolation. It is something that cannot safely be shared, because there is no remedy. Neither is it something that can be kept to oneself. The failings of individual and community responses to the destabilizing supernatural are revisited repeatedly, and that failure continues to haunt. Furthermore, it proffers the belief that compassion, active attempts to provide aid, and self-sacrifice, as a means of contributing to the community and ameliorating trauma in others, are redundant philosophies. That the individual cannot benefit others implies, also, that the individual cannot be benefited by others. This belief arguably contributes to an even more disengaged society, where the individual is continually traumatized by their inability to connect positively with others.

Does this experience of trauma, then, and its place within the horror narrative, contribute to a differing interpretation of the supernatural body and its estrangement from the world around it in some contemporary supernatural horror films? If so, it is perhaps a nihilistic perspective that places little consideration on hope or recovery. If neither religion nor science can adequately address the experience of trauma in present day life, might there be a third way, one that has the potential for increased success? None of the three more recent films discussed here offer any possibility of what that third way might be or even that such a way might exist. Mark Jancovich, recall, argued that the essential conservatism within The Exorcist reinforced the perceived necessity of religious authority—an authority that, as time goes by, is increasingly replaced by the authority of science. When that authority too fails, then perhaps the absence of a successor, as nominated by these three films, is signpost enough. Trauma, inflicted by religion or science (or both), no matter how well-meaning, cannot be healed by the intervention of either authority; furthermore, compassion and self-sacrifice, when actively channeled through those existing authorities, are insufficient. The mere presence of authoritarian figures is enough to both deepen the trauma and prove it contagious. Perhaps, then, one of the character-[page 112]istics of twenty-first-century horror, in its dealings with trauma as seen through the lens of the supernatural body, is a legacy of ignorance and failure, and an argument that relying on authoritarian methods for ameliorating such trauma is not only counterproductive but actively harmful.

Works Cited

The Atticus Institute. Directed by Chris Sparling, Universal Sony Pictures, 2015.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Directed by André Øvredal, Lionsgate, 2016. 

Cade, Octavia J. “Sifting Science: Stratification and The Exorcist.” Horror Studies, vol. 7, no. 1, 2016, pp. 61–72.

Clifton, James. “The Face of a Fiend: Convulsion, Inversion, and the Horror of the Disempowered Body.” Oxford Art Journal, vol. 34, no. 3, 2011, pp. 373–392.

The Exorcist. Directed by William Friedkin, Warner Bros., 1973. 

Jancovich, Mark. Horror. B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1992.

The Possession of Hannah Grace. Directed by Diederik van Rooijen, Sony Pictures, 2018.

Renner, Karen J. “Evil Children in Film and Literature II: Notes Toward a Taxonomy.” Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory, vol. 22, issue 3, 2011, pp. 177–196.

Scahill, Andrew. “Demon’s Are a Girl’s Best Friend: Queering the Revolting Child in The Exorcist.” Red Feather Journal, vol. 1, no. 1, 2010, pp. 39–55.

Young, Skip Dean. Psychology at the Movies. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Octavia Cade is an award-winning New Zealand writer with a PhD in science communication. Her academic work frequently looks at the intersection between science and speculative fiction, and can be found in journals including Horror Studies, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, and Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, as well as anthologies from Routledge and McFarland. Her most recent short story collection, You Are My Sunshine, was published by Stelliform Press. She was recently the Ursula Bethell writer in residence at Canterbury University and is currently the recipient of a grant from Creative New Zealand towards the production of her latest novel. 

MLA citation (print): 

Cade, Octavia. "Forensic and Experimental Estrangement: Investigating the Supernatural Body." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 9, no. 1, 2023, pp. 97-112.