House of Exorcism: Possession, Exorcism, and the Family in Eurocult Films, 1974–1979

by Paul A. J. Lewis

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

[page 167] Abstract: This article examines “Eurocult” films about diabolical possession made in the years that immediately followed the release of The Exorcist. European films about diabolical possession are relatively under-discussed and often regarded as disreputable examples of paracinema. While many of the films featuring diabolical possession as a narrative motif are horror pictures, the theme of possession has a cross-genre appeal. Exploring the significance of the “Eurocult” label for these pictures, the article considers the manner in which Eurocult possession films frame diabolical possession as a “day of reckoning” for the bourgeois family and the institutions of church and medicine. While medical doctors and priests wage ideological battles over the causes of the possessed individual’s aberrant behaviors and bodily slide into the abject, the possessed individual spits out “home truths” for the members of their immediate family. Ultimately, these films are simultaneously rebellious and conservative.

Keywords: Eurocult, possession, cinema, diabolical, horror

“And don’t forget: that stranger sitting in the seat next to you, could be me,” the Devil whispers offscreen. Thus begins Chi sei? (Ovidio G. Assonitis, 1974), one of the earliest “Eurocult” films to exploit the international success of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). European films about diabolical possession were popular for at least a brief period during the 1970s; they articulated key cultural anxieties of the period. Nevertheless, this cycle of European diabolical possession films has received little attention from academics and critics. The genre is generally dismissed as symbolic of an Americanized “pollution” of popular European cinema and set against the work of European genre-auteurs of the 1960s. This article will examine European diabolical possession films of the 1970s, highlighting [page 168] how the films frame diabolical possession as presenting a “day of reckoning” for the bourgeois family, and the institutions of church and medicine. Reflecting on the complexities surrounding the label “Eurocult,” it will argue that the term is appropriate to use in reference to these films in the sense that many of these films are hybrids of several genres, tied to transnational European film production rather than a specific national cinema; and owing to poor theatrical distribution for many of the films, their reception is inextricably linked with the “cult” consumption of European exploitation films during the early home video era. It will also explore the position of diabolical possession films within Eurocult cinema with attention to why this subgenre has been regarded with contempt, and argue that this is largely because diabolical possession films, owing to their basis in an American model (The Exorcist) and present-day settings, were considered a pollution of more “respected” trends such as the Italian Gothic cycle. 

Discussing American horror films, Douglas Cowan has stated that the “fear of supernatural evil ... emerges in three basic cinema horror themes: possession and exorcism, insemination and naziresis, and incarnation and apocalypse” (172). For Cowan, these themes are “embodied in ... The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby [Roman Polanski, 1968], and The Omen [Richard Donner, 1976]” (172). This article will attempt to define the key narrative paradigms of European diabolical possession films as localized variants of the trends that Cowan identifies in US cinema. The majority of Eurocult diabolical possession films were made in Italy, likely owing to the novelty for that country’s filmmakers/audiences of a theme that until the 1970s would have been condemned by the Church. This social context underpins the films’ examination of diabolical possession as presenting a specific challenge to institutions such as the Catholic Church and the family. In depicting this, the films are both conservative and rebellious, challenging the censorious sensibilities of the Church while also suggesting that the libertinism of the young must be contained by the intervention of figures of authority who are most often repre-[page 169]sentatives of the Church. Within the films’ narratives, great trauma is enacted against the family; parents are absent or uncaring, and their children are rebellious and vulnerable to the influence of the diabolical. This article will focus specifically on Italian films—that is, films made with a chiefly Italian cast and crew—about possession. This focus is motivated by a desire to contain the topic, though one must acknowledge that diabolical possession films within “Eurocult” cinema extend to films produced in France (Jess Franco’s Les possédées du diable, 1974), Spain (Jorge Darnell’s El juego del diablo, 1975), and West Germany (Walter Boos’ Magdalena, vom Teufel besessen, 1974).

Defining Eurocult

Eurocult is a relatively recent label, an amalgamation of “European” and “cult” that is applied retrospectively to a range of exploitation films from a variety of genres made in Europe between the 1960s and 1990s. Oliver Carter has highlighted the ways in which fan and academic discourses have dovetailed to explore the parameters of the European cult film. Carter uses the term “fancademic” to denote the overlap of academic analysis and fan discourse: fancademic work is “either the product of scholar fans, or fan scholars, aiming to make up for the lack of recognized academic work on the subject” of Eurocult (92). Carter argues that Eurocult (or his preferred term, “European cult cinema”) gained traction as a response to the negative connotations of another phrase, Eurotrash (86). The use of the label “trash” to refer to some exploitation cinema had come into use within some critical circles; Jeffrey Sconce employed it to denote “a fluid category” of films made “in opposition to the mainstream” (quoted in Carter 86). Admitting that “the term cult can have connotations that are as derogatory as trash,” Carter nevertheless concedes that the trajectory “from European trash to European cult cinema reflects not only its distinct and active fan following, but also the inadvertent construction of a category of film” that prior to [page 170] this labeling, “did not exist” (89). Eurocult “was never a category used by the formal industry, but instead emerged inadvertently from the cultural and economic activity of fans” (89). It is a convenient category inasmuch as many European diabolical possession films are not pure examples of a specific genre but instead hybridize two or more genres: the films are often a hybrid of horror, the lacrima/tearjerker, sexploitation/ pornography, the thrilling/giallo, and, in some cases, comedy (Ciccio Ingrassia’s L’esorciccio, 1975). Perhaps this is fitting for a cycle of films most directly inspired by The Exorcist, a film whose director did not at the time of its production consider it to be a horror film (Friedkin, quoted in Parker). 

In this sense, as a term produced by fan/academic/fancademic discourse and applied retroactively to a group of films, parallels may be drawn between the use of “Eurocult” and such widely accepted designators as film noir and folk-horror. Film noir, of course, began as a label used by French critics to describe a diverse series of American films that were seen as interconnected owing to their exploration of certain themes and use of a similar photographic style. Likewise, folk-horror is another term that has entered popular usage since its retrospective application by filmmaker Piers Haggard to his 1971 film The Blood on Satan’s Claw (Simpson 165). One may debate the extent to which individual filmmakers have subsequently been cognizant of the use of any of these terms and have attempted within their filmmaking practice to conform to the perceived paradigms of these forms. 

The qualities of a cult film are impossible to classify in any objective sense. Peter Hutchings has suggested that cult cinema is “excessive” in the sense that it offers “scenes of spectacle that exceed any narrative function and which go beyond the scenes of licensed or permitted excess found in the mainstream.” A cult film may also feature contentious subject matter and/or breach “conventional notions of good taste” along with demonstrating a “potential for transgression” that offers “a challenge to norms, whether these be the aesthetic norms of commercial mainstream filmmaking or broader social [page 171] and ideological norms” (“Argento” 132). Cult cinema is also “marginal,” either in its association with “disreputable genres such as horror, or marginal in terms of box-office failure” (132). That said, even though the arena of cult cinema has become accepted territory for analysis, Eurocult is still a comparatively under-explored field; and the European cult film is regarded through a “negative definition” that emphasizes its “clear difference to other cinemas” (Carter 2, 90).

In terms of this negative definition, Eurocult cinema is often viewed against European art cinema movements that it developed alongside. Contrasted with these more “legitimate” productions, Eurocult films have often been “deemed unworthy of study by academics” (Carter 90). Even within this paradigm, some popular genres associated with Eurocult have attracted more attention than others: these tend to be those that dominated Italian popular cinema during the 1960s, and which are associated with filmmakers regarded as genre-auteurs. These include the Italian Gothic horror film, associated with the films of Mario Bava (La maschera del demonio, 1960) and Riccardo Freda (L’orribile segreto del Dr Hichcock, 1962); the western all’italiana, sometimes referred to by the pejorative label “Spaghetti Western,” characterized by the films of Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964); and the thrilling/giallo all’ italiana (Italian-style thriller), associated again with Mario Bava (Sei donne per l’assassino, 1964). 

Against these, some Eurocult genres are still regarded as disreputable. Italian cinema tends to dominate discussions of Eurocult: Carter acknowledges that Italian productions are “the privileged object of focus within European cult cinema” (91). However, given that the majority of Eurocult films tended to be international co-productions between companies based in countries including Italy, France, West Germany, and Spain, labeling Eurocult films as examples of a specific national cinema can be inaccurate. The transnational nature of Eurocult productions often results in films featuring cast and crew members from different nations and entails a plethora of edits of the same picture for consumption in different countries. [page 172] Some of these edits emphasize sexual content, while others emphasize violence, and so on (Shipka 10). Edits and dubbing imposed for various local markets sometimes shifted the focus of a film’s narrative considerably. As an example of films about diabolical possession, Un urlo dalle tenebre (Luca Damiano/ Angelo Pannacciò, 1975) exists on video versions in a number of different edits and was released under a confusing range of English-language titles too: The Exorcist III and Return of the Exorcist, two titles clearly intended to capitalize on William Friedkin’s model; The Possessor; Naked Exorcism, emphasizing the nudity/sexual content of the picture; and Cries and Shadows, which references the Anglicized title of Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972).

The genres of Eurocult that have attracted the most attention from academics and critics (Italian Gothicism, the western all’italiana and the thrilling/giallo) proliferated during a boom in European film production: Danny Shipka has noted that post-war Italian cinema was characterized by a particular “popularity and fluidity” (20). This was facilitated by overseas sales: following the Paramount decrees of 1948, cinemas in the US could exhibit an increasing number of European productions. These European imports appealed to audiences because they were “socially provocative” and, increasingly throughout the 1950s/1960s, more explicit in terms of sex and violence (4–5). Productions associated with art cinema movements such as Neorealism were accompanied by Eurocult productions that “relied on shocking and titillating audiences” (5). However, during the mid/late-1970s Eurocult productions faced a series of challenges, including apathy by previously supportive state apparatuses, competition from television, and a decline in cinema attendance: in Italy, between 1976 and 1979, cinema ticket sales slumped from 514 million to 276 million lire (112). Shipka has asserted that this decline was owing to “deep neglect by the state, both institutionally and financially,” compounded by increased competition from television (112). [page 173]

The decline in Eurocult film production coincided with the increased availability of many Eurocult films on then-new home video formats. Shipka has suggested that Eurocult’s descendance was tethered to the growth of VHS and Betamax formats (10). This was ironic inasmuch as, as Hutchings has argued (in specific reference to the horror genre), these home video formats brought Eurocult productions to a wider audience in territories where the films “had not readily been available before, either because of the vagaries of film distribution or because of censorship constraints” (“Resident” 16). Concomitant with this was the development of “fan cultures based around the obtaining” of these home video releases, particularly in territories like the UK where Eurocult films acquired a certain countercultural cachet owing to their suppression following the 1984 Video Recordings Act (16–17). Fans of Eurocult productions both resisted dominant ideas about taste while distancing themselves “from a popular entertainment market perceived as socially conformist and trivial” (17). During the 1980s/1990s, much fancademic analysis of Eurocult films displayed an “expected distancing from American mainstream culture”: Eurocult cinema was “defined through marginality and resistance, ... through its extreme difference from more readily available entertainments, as the space where the prevailing norms were challenged or simply did not apply” (18).

A Hollywood Influence

Faced with declining cinema attendance during the 1970s, Eurocult productions looked towards established Hollywood properties for inspiration, “creat[ing] niches … that were adapted from the easiest, most audience-tested, most successful products available” (Shipka 112). In the mid/late-1970s, this included The Exorcist, which had been a surprise international hit (Curti 3, 55). Unlike the Eurocult sub/genres of the 1960s, the Eurocult sub/genres of the mid/late-1970s have attracted less fancademic analysis and are sometimes regarded as a [page 174] pollution of the form, at least partly because of their obvious basis in the kinds of American models from which early fancademic engagement with Eurocult was so keen to distance itself. These include trends in nunsploitation (Sergio Grieco’s Le scomunicate di San Valentino, 1974), Nazisploitation (Sergio Garrone’s Lager SSadis Kastrat Kommandantur, 1976), sexploitation/pornography (Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle nera, 1975), and of course, diabolical possession films.

The Exorcist’s international success had a precedent in the popularity, in Europe, of Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971). Both Russell’s film and The Exorcist have been cited as stimulating production of Eurocult films about faith, giving birth to the nunsploitation and diabolical possession cycles, which sometimes overlapped (Shipka 139). This fusion of nunsploitation and diabolical possession is perhaps best characterized by reference to Spanish filmmaker Jess Franco’s films Les démons (1973) and Die Liebesbriefe einer portugiesischen Nonne (1977); these films combine a diabolical possession motif with narratives which, like that of The Devils, take place largely behind convent walls. Many of the Italian diabolical possession films also looked backward to Rosemary’s Baby (1968) for in-spiration, marrying diabolical possession with the idea of a child conceived in an unholy union with the Devil (or other diabolical entity); yet others drew on the “bad seed” paradigm exemplified by Robert Mulligan’s The Other (1972) or, later in the cycle, The Omen (1976), with their focus on malicious children who may or may not be possessed by a diabolical spirit.

The “gleefully blasphemous spirit” of Italian nunsploitation and diabolical possession films was calculated to shock audiences who had been used to depictions of the Catholic faith that had been vetted by the Church (Shipka 141; Brook 31–32). Prior to the 1970s, attracting the disapproval of the Church could severely affect a film’s prospects of distribution; however, the Church’s influence on film production and distribution began to wane in the late 1960s following Pope John XIII’s stated desire to modernize Catholicism beginning with the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962 [page 175] (Shipka 2141; Brook 32). Thus, the nunsploitation cycle of the 1970s, in particular, combined a depiction of life behind convent walls with explicit sexuality: Shipka states that such explorations of sexuality in 1970s cinema appealed to an audience that was “ready to suspect that something had to be going on behind the closed doors of nunneries” (143).

Similarly, diabolical possession films featured key roles for members of the priesthood, or sometimes nuns, who were depicted as being compromised by their sexuality. Andrea Bianchi’s Malabimba climaxes with the possessed teenager Bimba (Katell Leannec) seducing Sister Sofia (Mariangela Giordano). The spirit that has possessed Bimba—that of Lucrezia, Bimba’s libertine mother—transfers to the body of Sister Sofia, who commits suicide by throwing herself from a height. Sister Sofia’s sacrifice is clearly modelled on that of Father Karras (Jason Miller), who, in the final sequence of The Exorcist, coaxes the demon Pazuzu from the body of Regan (Linda Blair) before throwing himself down a flight of stone steps. Before she dies, Sister Sofia hears the voice of Lucrezia imploring her to “Enjoy life, your body, your senses.” Despite the films’ outward challenge to the Church, in terms of the sexploitative depiction of Catholicism, Italian diabolical possession movies invariably culminate in a suggestion that the temptations of libertinism—represented by the diabolical presences within the films’ narratives—must be stamped-out and repressed.1 

The Popularity of Diabolical Possession Films

The Exorcist was released in Italy in September 1974. In the two years that followed, six Italian films closely modelled on it were released.2 The first of these was Chi sei? in October 1974; this was followed by Alberto De Martino’s L’anticristo and Mario Gariazzo’s L’ossessa (both in November 1974). 1975 saw the release of La casa dell’esorcismo (producer Alfredo Leone’s drastic re-edit of Mario Bava’s Lisa e il diavolo) and Massimo Dallamano’s Il medaglione insanguinato, both in April; Angelo [page 176] Pannacciò’s Un urlo dalle tenebre in August; and Ciccio Ingrassia’s parodic L’esorciccio. Of these, Chi sei?, L’anticristo, La casa dell’esorcismo, Un urlo dalle tenebre, and L’ossessa achieved notable theatrical distribution outside Italy: each of these films would go on to have a significant presence on home video during the 1980s. L’esorciccio was the only one of these not to find distribution outside Italy: this was presumably owing to the fact that, though the film is a parody of a recognized international property (The Exorcist), its humor is very localized to Italian culture and is directed by (and stars) one half of the Italian double act Franco and Ciccio.

Production of diabolical possession films was a relatively short-lived trend when compared to other, more sustained Eurocult genres: for example, the western all’italiana and the thrilling/giallo. The bulk of Italian diabolical possession films were made in 1974 and 1975, the two years following the release of The Exorcist. The cycle gradually fizzled out during the late 1970s, though overlap with other sub/genres sustained the theme, albeit often in a diminished capacity. Notable productions focused on the theme of diabolical possession from the late 1970s onwards include Malabimba, L’osceno desiderio (Giulio Petroni, 1978), and Un’ombra dell’ombra (Pier Carpi, 1979). Diabolical possession is a minor element within Mario Landi’s Patrick vive ancora (1980), though the film asserts its similarity with The Exorcist via a score (by Berto Pisano) that is very obviously modelled on Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells.” Bruno Mattei’s L’altro inferno (1981) marries diabolical possession with the nunsploitation cycle in a narrative that focuses on a nun who, in an unholy tryst with the Devil, conceived a child with supernatural abilities. Possession featured as a key motif in two notable 1982 productions: Mario Bianchi’s La bimba di Satana, a reworking of Piero Regnoli’s script for Malabimba; and Lucio Fulci’s Manhattan Baby. By the late 1980s, the diabolical possession cycle had all but disappeared, with only a handful of notable productions being released: Marco Bellocchi’s La visione del Sabba (1988); Lucio Fulci’s Aenigma, Il fantasma di Sodoma (both 1988), and Demonia [page 177] (1990); and Claudio Fragasso’s La Casa 5 (1990).

If, for its fans (and fancademics), Eurocult is defined by its opposition to mainstream Hollywood models, the diabolical possession film—with its very clear basis in The Exorcist and other Hollywood productions such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Devils—represents something of a challenge. Along with other Eurocult genres popular in the mid/late 1970s, the diabolical possession cycle is generally regarded as a pollution of the Eurocult sensibility, pitted against the Italian Gothic horror films of the 1960s. Where Italian Gothic horror films had largely been set in the past, the Italian diabolical possession cycle was firmly rooted in the kitsch of the 1970s. All of the key Italian diabolical possession films take place in the present day, though some feature points of analepsis to periods in the past: for example, L’anticristo includes flashbacks to suggest parallels between the possessed Ippolita (Carla Gravina) and the execution of one of her ancestors as a heretic; L’osceno desiderio also features extensive flashbacks to clarify the 400-year-old curse enacted upon the family of Amanda’s (Marisa Mell) new husband, Andrea (Chris Avram).

This sense that the diabolical possession film symbolizes a polluted version of 1960s Gothic horror cinema is perhaps best illustrated by La casa dell’esorcismo. The film began life as Lisa e il diavolo, a mysterious film by Mario Bava, one of the Italian directors most closely associated with 1960s Gothic horror cinema. Lisa’s narrative revolved around encounters between Lisa (Elke Sommer) and the enigmatic Leandro (Telly Savalas), whom Lisa comes to believe is the Devil after recognizing his similarity to the depiction of the Devil in a fresco. However, Lisa’s producer, Alfredo Leone, failed to sell the completed film to AIP, who had distributed several Bava’s pictures in the US (Heffernan 155). Hoping to salvage the project, Leone staged reshoots and re-edited the picture: capitalizing on the popularity of The Exorcist, Leone used footage from Lisa within a new story where Lisa collapses after viewing the aforementioned fresco; rushed to hospital, it soon becomes apparent that Lisa is possessed. She undergoes a lengthy exor-[page 178]cism conducted by Father Michael (Robert Alda), during which the film replays several memorable moments from The Exorcist. These include the expulsion of green vomit, the impossible rotation of the possessed individual’s head, and vulgar/blasphemous language intended to provoke the exorcist (“There’s your fucking daily bread! Eat it ... like you did those whores’ cunts before you became a priest!”). The changes made to Lisa e il diavolo were an attempt to rework the film into something that would appeal to US distributors: Lamberto Bava, Mario Bava’s son, said that his father told Leone, “I don’t care about this thing. If you want to do it on your own, for the American market, it’s fine by me” (quoted in Curti 89). The reworking by Leone of Gothic auteur Mario Bava’s Lisa into La casa dell’esorcismo, a film heavily based on a Hollywood model, may be seen as an emblem of the manner in which Eurocult productions of the 1970s are seen as polluting the work of the genre-auteurs associated with 1960s Eurocult cinema. Curti has said that 

the sad destiny of Lisa e il diavolo, reedited and altered in order to become some sort of The Exorcist rip-off, illustrates the mocking decadence of Italian Gothic, absorbed and overwhelmed by its smarter twin, the demonic thread. ... [T]he stories drew from contemporaneous American horror cinema, and bastardized their sources, piling up the elements of excess, such as blasphemous sexuality. (3)

In Italian films about diabolical possession, characters suffering possession were often in their late teens or twenties (in comparison with Regan’s age of 12 in The Exorcist), thus enabling filmmakers to place greater emphasis on forthright expressions of sexuality as a “symptom” of possession. This lurid emphasis on depictions of sex acts (in some films more graphic than others) remains one of the key paradigms of Italian diabolical possession films. [page 179]

Recurring Narrative Paradigms

In studying European diabolical possession films, a number of recurring narrative paradigms can be identified. A key narrative paradigm in Italian diabolical possession films is the possession of a young adult. This theme is particularly evident in films that are closely modelled on The Exorcist and appears in five of the nine relevant films made between 1974 and 1979: L’anticristo; L’ossessa; L’esorciccio; Un urlo dalle tenebre; and Malabimba (Lewis). In The Exorcist, the target of possession, Regan, is 12 years old; in most Italian diabolical possession films, the target of possession is a young female in their late teens or early twenties. In one notable exception, Un urlo dalle tenebre, the possessed individual is a young male.

This upward adjustment in the age of the victims of possession in relation to The Exorcist enabled filmmakers to work in scenes of more explicit sex, overlapping the theme of diabolical possession with sexploitation motifs. Curti has suggested that Italian horror films focused on diabolical possession “follow[ed] the trend launched by The Exorcist with a plethora of crazed, dirty-talking and sexually precocious teenagers” (55). In L’anti-cristo, the virginal paraplegic Ippolita is sexually frustrated and harbors an incestuous jealousy towards her father Massimo’s (Mel Ferrer) new lover. Ippolita becomes possessed after having intercourse with an invisible, diabolical interloper.3 The event seemingly cures Ippolita’s paraplegia, if only temporarily. Once possessed, Ippolita seduces and murders a young man on a tour of the Catacombs in Rome; seduces her uptight brother, Filippo (Remo Girone); and speaks lewdly in the presence of her father and uncle, Bishop Oderisi (Arthur Kennedy). Oderisi offers a psychiatric diagnosis of Ippolita’s behavior (as “sexual frustration that brings on hysteric phenomena”), but as the narrative progresses, the characters are forced to acknowledge that Ippolita is possessed and has been impregnated with the child of the Devil (the titular Antichrist).

Subsequent films follow a very similar model to L’anti-cristo. In L’ossessa, art student Danila (Stella Carnacina) be-[page 180]comes possessed after purchasing a life-sized statue of the crucified Christ from a deconsecrated church. Danila’s behavior becomes increasingly sexualized and antisocial: she attempts to seduce her father, telling him “There’s no such thing as incest. It’s only the invention of priests.” When her family seeks the help of Father Xeno (Luigi Pistilli), Danila tries to seduce him too. Malabimba renders this theme more explicitly, featuring the adolescent Bimba who, after being possessed by her libertine mother, seduces various members of her family and extended household. (Malabimba also exists in an edit with hardcore pornographic sequences, making this theme of incest even more graphic.)

Though its possessed character is male rather than female, Un urlo dalle tenebre also conforms to the template established in L’anticristo. Its story is told in flashback, after opening with Piero (Jean-Claude Vernè) in a psychiatric hospital where a doctor insists that Piero’s strange behavior is caused by hysteria rather than demonic possession. An extended analepsis shows how Piero came to be possessed after photographing a mysterious naked woman near a waterfall and finding a strange medallion where she was standing. Haunted by visions of the woman, Piero exhibits increasingly anti-social behavior; this culminates when he sexually assaults his mother, leading to her death. The recurring theme of medical versus spiritual diagnoses of the possessed individual’s behavior appears in scenes of Piero being subjected to high-tech medical scans. (These echo the sequence of cerebral angiography in The Exorcist.) However, as in all of the films in this cycle, science fails to explain what is happening to Piero, with the priest/ exorcist (Richard Conte) dryly asserting that “You scientific men think only of scientific methods.”

The theme of sexual repression and the liberation of sexuality through diabolical possession is common among films that feature this narrative paradigm. The producer of L’anti-cristo, Giulio Berruti, claimed that his film “displayed a sexual frustration that the audience can identify with. My film doesn’t have shocks like you would expect from a horror film; the [page 181] audience does not scream. Instead they see the sexual frustration and understand the feeling” (quoted in Curti 144). Daryl Jones has suggested that The Exorcist explored the “profound antipathy toward the body” associated with Christian beliefs (quoted in Cowan 41). Extending this, Cowan states that the theme of sexual temptation in films about possession/ exorcism is an exploration of a key theme in Christian art: “the fear that faith will ultimately fail and prove unable to counter the demands of the flesh” (9).

The young people who become possessed in these films are invariably from privileged backgrounds. In L’esorciccio, the key targets of possession are Barbara (Barbara Nascimbene) and Luigino (Romano Sebenello), the adolescent daughter and pre-teen son of Pasqualino (Lino Banfi), the mayor of a small rural town. The trappings of wealth within the mayor’s large house are articulated through the film’s mise-en-scene and juxtaposed with the poverty of most of the town’s inhabitants. Within this context, the diabolical possession film, along with other Eurocult genres of the 1970s, explored a broader cultural anxiety which Curti has described as “the feared dissolution of the bourgeois family, shaken by the disintegration of the Catholic moral and the violent rebellion of the sons against the fathers and society, from the 1968 student protests to the rise of armed terrorism” (3). Within the framework of a decade wracked by political and social violence, from the activities of the Brigate Rosse to the 1975 Circeo massacre (in which three young men from privileged backgrounds kidnapped and tortured two young women), stories about bourgeois young people behaving rebelliously and committing acts of violence became commonplace in Eurocult. A theme explored most directly in Italian poliziesco films such as Come cani arrabbiati (Mario Imperoli, 1976), this anxiety about young people and the factors that drive them to commit antisocial acts underpins the diabolical possession cycle too. 

In diabolical possession films, the perceived tendency for bourgeois young people to become enticed into criminal acts and political terrorism is dovetailed with panic over sexual lib-[page 182]ertinism, motivated by the association of “free love” and countercultural motifs. Arguing that “the Italians saw that corruption of youth as a sign of the burgeoning independence of women,” Shipka asserts that “these films used religious iconography to express a twisted view of the conflicts of sexual freedom” (156, 144). The majority of possessed individuals in these films are young women; their “wayward” behaviors are in almost all cases corrected at the end of the films by the interventions of an authoritarian male. “[W]oman acts up, woman gets possessed, woman needs man to put her in her place,” Shipka suggests (146), connecting this panic over sexual libertinism to broader cultural anxieties surrounding women’s roles in society and argues that the films represent “a patriarchal view from a point in time when the roles of women were changing” (156).

The second key narrative paradigm within this cycle of films is the possession of younger children, sometimes linked to a theme of unholy conception. (The latter manifests itself in a depiction of pregnant women who are carrying the Antichrist, conceived in an unholy union with the Devil.) These intertwined themes can be found in six of the nine key Italian films about diabolical possession made between 1974 and 1979. Films that conform to this narrative paradigm include L’esorciccio, L’anticristo, Chi sei?, Il medaglione insanguinato, L’osceno desiderio, and Un’ombra nell’ombra. In the films’ exploration of the motif of unholy conception, we see the overlapping influence of both The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Ba-by; the activities of possessed small/younger children draw on the “bad seed” trope, focusing on murderous or deviant chil-dren, prevalent in some American films. (These would include Mervyn Leroy’s The Bad Seed [1956]; and Robert Mulligan’s The Other [1972].) Later entries in the Italian diabolical possession cycle, such as Un’ombra dell’ombra, draw from a more recent American model, Richard Donner’s The Omen.

In Chi sei?, the progenitor of this trend of Italian diabolical possession films, Jessica (Juliet Mills), becomes pregnant. Her pregnancy progresses at an abnormally rapid rate, and super-[page 183]natural phenomena take place around her, much to the consternation of her over-indulged young children, Gail (Barbara Fiorini) and Ken (David Colin, Jr). Jessica is carrying the Anti-christ as the result of a pact made between her former husband, Dmitri (Richard Johnson), and the Devil. Il medaglione insanguinato follows widower Michael (Richard Johnson), who journeys to Italy with his daughter Emily (Nicoletta Elmi) with the intention of making a documentary about diabolical art. However, Emily becomes possessed with a diabolical spirit that is attached to a pair of medallions bearing an occult sigil and a strange painting that mysteriously appeared 200 years previously, following the death of a young girl named Emilia. In L’osceno desiderio, Amanda falls pregnant after her marriage to Andrea, despite his apparent impotence. It becomes apparent that this is an unholy conception: the child is the Antichrist, conjured up by rituals conducted by Andrea’s gardener and family friends. Un’ombra nell’ombra focuses on Daria (Lara Wendel), revealed to be the daughter of a demon: her birth was the result of a diabolical pact made by a coven of witches to which Daria’s mother (Anne Heywood) belongs.

These films target liberal parenting styles: Chi sei? signals Ken and Gail as being over-indulged by the manner in which they address their parents with their first names, and by their casual use of vulgar language. The possessed Jessica is the embodiment of an abusive, unstable mother: before the possession manifests itself overtly, she behaves erratically and selfishly. In the early stages of possession, Emily behaves like a bratty, spoilt adolescent, as does Daria in Un’ombra nell’ ombra. Daria is surly, demanding, and prone to petty theft. Young children, particularly females, display inappropriate behavior toward their opposite-sex parents. In Il medaglione insanginato, Emily displays jealousy about her father’s burgeoning relationship with colleague Joanna (Joanna Cassidy); Emily kills her nanny (Evelyn Stewart) and makes an attempt on the life of Joanna. At the film’s climax, it is revealed that Emily, pre-possession, caused the death of her mother in a house fire. Shipka suggests that these “father/daughter incest scenarios” [page 184] are linked to the patriarchal connotations of the diabolical possession film: with “father figure[s who are] always stalwart and beyond reproach. ... Never in these films is it the father’s fault that the young girl or new mother ... is possessed; rather, it is the absence or lack of a strong, moral mother” (158).

Curti has suggested that child characters in Italian horror films, more generally, draw on the popularity of lacrima films: “tearjerkers centred on unhappy child figures” (3). Lacrima movies, such as L’ultima neve di primavera (Raimondo Del Balzo, 1973), focused on themes of family breakdown, poverty, and terminal illness in stories focalized through young children. In their focus on child victims of possession who are either possessed themselves or suffer because of a possessed parent, diabolical possession films similarly place emphasis on family breakdown. Mothers are either deeply toxic (Chi sei?; Un’ombra nell’ombra) or absent (Il medaglione insanguinato); children are over-indulged and refuse to respect authority; fathers are self-absorbed and distracted by their work (L’esorciccio; Il medaglione insanguinato; Chi sei?) or their masculinity is undermined in other ways, such as impotency (L’osceno desiderio). Toxic mothers sometimes return to possess their children and drive them to commit lewd acts: in Mala-bimba, the dead libertine Lucretia returns to possess the body of her daughter and through her seduce members of her family and household. Where mothers are present and active, they lose agency over their bodies owing to the theme of unholy conception, which Cowan suggests articulates anxieties around “the presence of a fetus ... as an intruder, an alien, something over they have no control and that slowly but surely takes over their lives” (186).  

The final major recurring narrative trope, appearing in four out of the nine films, is a possession that follows an encounter with a work of diabolical art. This may be a painting or a sculpture. As a parody of The Exorcist, L’esorciccio closely follows the structure of Friedkin’s film, which opens with Father Merrin finding a statue of Pazuzu during an archaeological excavation in Iraq. L’esorciccio’s opening sequence depicts the [page 185] discovery by the Exorciccio (Ingrassia), during an archaeological dig in Iran, of a small statue of Beelzebub. Possession of the statue leads to possession of the individual holding it: after the Exorciccio misplaces the statue during a junior football match, it is found by Luigino (one of the players), who subsequently becomes possessed. At Luigino’s home, the statue falls into the possession of Barbara, who also becomes possessed. At the film’s climax, a party is held to celebrate the re-election of the mayor; during this party, the statue passes from one guest to another, causing a comical chain reaction of outrageous behavior by a series of possessed individuals.

In Il medaglione insanguinato, the possession of Emily occurs as a result of her father’s investigations into a painting that he is claimed to be cursed, and Emily’s wearing of an occult medallion. Danila in L’ossessa becomes possessed after acquiring a lifelike statue of Christ from a deconsecrated church. In La casa dell’esorcismo, Lisa collapses after viewing a fresco depicting the Devil carrying away the souls of the dead; it is Lisa’s encounter with this fresco that triggers her diabolical possession. In Un urlo dalle tenebre, Piero’s possession follows his discovery of a strange medallion at a waterfall.

The films’ depictions of diabolical works of art and their nefarious impact on those who encounter/possess them are ironic inasmuch as the films are narrativizing the anxieties about artworks (including films) and their effects that, in the then-recent past, had led the Church to suppress certain motion pictures. Certainly, it is likely that some, if not all, of the filmmakers involved in these productions, were cognizant of this irony. The writer of Malabimba and La bimba di Satana, Piero Regnoli, had, during the 1940s and 1950s, worked as the film critic for L’Osservatore Romano, the daily newspaper of the Vatican. In 1948, Regnoli’s comments in that newspaper about De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette railed against the perceived anti-clericalism of the film, and what Regnoli saw as its depiction of “the Roman people ... as superstitious and ignorant—it would remain ... to express a judgement on the actions of those who approved such a film, and gave it access to the public” [page 186] (quoted in Wagstaff 361).

In hindsight, Un urlo dalle tenebre stands out from most Italian diabolical possession films in its focus on a young man who is the target of possession. Where there is a deeply patriarchal subtext within most diabolical possession films—in their examination of young women who, after becoming possessed, display sexual libertinism and often engage in incestuous interactions with their fathers (or father figures)—Piero’s possession in Un urlo… bucks this trend. L’esorciccio does likewise: Barbara, the late-teen daughter of the mayor, is one of the targets of possession in that film, and once possessed she does indeed transform from a coy young woman to a vamp, but many other characters (both male and female) become possessed in L’esorciccio too. Perhaps what Un urlo… and L’esorciccio point toward is a broader anxiety surrounding the possibility of privileged, middle-class youth turning against their parents’ generation. The possession cycle’s focus on encounters with diabolical art as the trigger of possession may be considered an ironic commentary, through the lens of the familiar “cursed object” motif, on moral panics that suggest young people may be “corrupted” by artwork such as horror films.

The diabolical possession cycle is difficult to define in terms of genre: Italian films exploring diabolical possession resist being confined to one specific genre. Some are horror films, others comedies, and yet others conform to the conventions of the lacrima/tearjerker subgenre. The cycle also crosses national boundaries: financing and cast/crew on individual pictures were often transnational; and other key contemporaneous diabolical possession films were made in Spain, France, and West Germany. (This is why the Eurocult designator is particularly appropriate when discussing 1970s/1980s cycles such as the diabolical possession film: it acknowledges the resistance of the films to be categorized by conventional genres and as the product of a specific national cinema.) With its roots in American imports so blatantly obvious, the diabolical possession cycle is often regarded by fans/fancademics as a pollution of the work of genre-auteurs associated with such genres as the Italian [page 187] Gothic, the thrilling, and the western all’italiana. However, the diabolical possession film arguably gives us access to, and understanding of, some key cultural anxieties of the period.

The tone of the films is simultaneously conservative and rebellious. The films’ challenging of taboos, and the censorious sensibilities of the Church, may be framed as a radical challenge to society’s repressive hierarchies. Much more reactionary, however, is the films’ suggestion that the libertinism of the young—often (though not always) represented through the liberation of female sexuality—must be controlled/contained within the diegesis by the exorcism and subjected to the male gaze. Reflecting on Bruno Mattei’s slightly later hybrid of the diabolical possession and nunsploitation cycles, Cowan argues that the film represents a “cautionary tale about the dangers of sexual repression ... driven by the collision between what the spirit wants and the body demands” (241). Despite this tension though, at the center of the diabolical possession films is a focus on domestic trauma and the disturbance of the family: parents are absent, deceased, or ineffective; children—young children and adolescents—are rebellious and prone to diabolical influences that are external to the domestic space. Within the diegeses of the films, the sanctity of the domestic space is punctured, and protective family members battle against external diabolical/ideological influences on the young. The possessed body becomes characterized by the vulgar and the abject (sores, vomiting), while family bonds are challenged and ripped asunder. What is exposed, inevitably, are the hollow hypocrisies of the privileged classes.


Works Cited

Brook, Clodagh J. Screening Religions in Italy: Contemporary Italian Cinema and Television in the Post-Secular Public Sphere. U of Toronto P, 2019.

Carter, Oliver. Making European Cult Cinema: Fan Enterprise in an Alternative Economy. Amsterdam UP, 2018.

Cowan, Douglas. Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen. Baylor UP, 2008.

Curti, Roberto. Italian Gothic Horror Films, 1970–1979. McFarland, 2017.

Heffernan, Kevin. “Art House or House of Exorcism? The Changing Distribution and Reception Contexts of Mario Bava’s Lisa and the Devil.” Sleaze Artists: Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style, and Politics, edited by Jeffrey Sconce, Duke UP, 2007, pp. 144–166.

Hutchings, Peter. “The Argento Effect.” Defining Cult Movies: The Cultural Politics of Oppositional Tastes, edited by Mark Jancovich, et al., Manchester UP, 2003, pp. 127–141. 

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Parker, Ryan. ‘“The Exorcist’ Director William Friedkin: ‘I Didn’t Set Out to Make a Horror Film.”‘ The Hollywood Reporter, 28 Oct. 2015.

Shipka, Danny. Perverse Titillation: The Exploitation Cinema of Italy, Spain and France, 1960–1980. McFarland, 2011.

Simpson, M. J. “An Interview with Piers Haggard.” Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies, edited by Andy Paciorek and Katherine Beem, Wyrd Harvest P, 2018, pp. 162–169. [page 189]

Wagstaff, Christopher. Italian Neorealist Cinema: An Aesthetic Approach. U of Toronto P, 2007.

Paul A. J. Lewis has lectured in Film Studies and Photography at the University Centre, Grimsby (UK) since 2001. He is also a freelance writer, photographer, and filmmaker, regularly writing for publications including Noir City, Horrified Magazine, Horror Homeroom, and numerous online outlets. He has contributed booklet essays, research, and extra features to boutique home video labels. He is the founder of the podcast Kill It With Fire–Cult Movies and Cult-Ure.

MLA citation (print): 

Lewis, Paul A. J. "House of Exorcism: Possession, Exorcism, and the Family in Eurocult Films, 1974–1979." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 9, no. 1, 2023, pp. 167-189.