Possession is one of the most common story elements in horror films. Some of the most iconic in history revolve around the concept whether it’s due to a demon, a ghost or even the devil himself taking control of a physical human being. It’s so common in fact you could make an entire subgenre out of it and thus we have my list today. This weekend’s only new major release is a horror film that embraces this very premise called “The Possession of Hannah Grace” and I thought it would be fun to close out the month of November with a look at some of the best horror movies to work possession elements into their stories. These are my picks for the Top 10 Possession Horror Movies.
For this list I looked at only horror movies that include a possession element in their plot, meaning at least one human character has to be possessed by a ghost or demon as a major story element of the movie. I did not include movies about the devil’s spawn or anything like that because their evil is inherited and not due to possession. So “Rosemary’s Baby” for example won’t be found here.
I used the term possession loosely when defining these films. As long as the movie features a character who undergoes a physical or personality transformation due to the influence of an outside evil force I considered it although to be fair the term possession usually specifically consists of an entity entering and taking control of an individual.
All that said it should be mentioned a SPOILER ALERT is in effect as this list does focus on the final acts of many of these films.
What is your favorite movie focused on the horrors of possession? Let me know in the comments below and look for my review of “The Possession of Hannah Grace” coming soon.
10. “The Shining”
This Stanley Kubrick classic starts off this list in such a low spot mostly because it’s never truly revealed whether or not Jack Torrance is possessed, but he does commit his heinous acts against his own family through the influence of spectral beings so for this list it counts. With the Overlook Hotel that he was charged with watching abandoned, save for himself, his wife and his son who has the ability to communicate through a special skill called “shining”, Jack loses his mind and attempts to kill his family after numerous experiences with the ghosts of the facility. Even if his acts were only due to a mental breakdown the fact that it took these haunting beings influence him to commit the crimes is enough to consider him possessed and more than enough to add this legendary horror classic to the countdown.
The newest entry on this list and one I’ve warmed up to a lot since my review of it earlier this year, “Hereditary” turns its slow burn of a horror story into a spectacular journey into the possession of a family after a tragic event leaves them shattered and a secret family history comes to light. By the end of the film we are introduced to a demon called Paimon and see several members of the family fall victim to possession leading to one heck of a strange and memorable conclusion. “Hereditary” is not the most entertaining horror piece you’ll ever see but it does use the concept of possession more perfectly than many other modern projects and is certainly one of the most creative stories to use this approach. If you can get through all the buildup the finale makes good on all the movie’s promise and takes possession to a whole new level.
8. “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”
There are a LOT of movies about exorcisms. I could actually make a whole list about that trope as well. “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is one of the better ones. Based on the real life possession and exorcism of Anneliese Michel this story is told through flashbacks and a trial as the exorcism and suspected demonic possession of the titular character is explored. It’s an intriguing film that delves into how possession is seen in modern society and how difficult and near impossible it is to justify possession as a legitimate affliction of a victim due to its religious aspects. Aside from the court room drama that forces those who uphold the laws to form an opinion on something they would normal steer away from, the flashback story also offers viewers a dramatic and uncomfortable look at an innocent whose life was destroyed by forces beyond her control all inspired by actual events.
7. “Session 9”
Probably one of the least known films by anyone reading this list, “Session 9” is a criminally underrated psychological horror film from 2001 that explores possession using a group rather than a single person. It focuses on an asbestos abatement crew working in an abandoned asylum while revealing through session tapes the history of one patient who may or may not have been possessed. It all leads to the crew having their own haunting experiences in the asylum as the evil hidden within the building and the session tapes influences them. “Session 9” is one of those horror experiences you really have to see to appreciate with shocking twists and turns that make the viewer, and the characters, question what is real and what is not.
6. “Paranormal Activity”
“Paranormal Activity” may not have aged well but it still remains one of the creepiest and most realistic possession films you’ll ever come across. The movie is a found-footage project that features a couple who set up a camera to capture unseen activity while they sleep. The film eventually introduces us to Toby, a demonic being who becomes the central antagonist of the entire franchise. It’s not until the end of the film that Katie is fully possessed by Toby, killing Micah and leaving audiences with a quick and effective jump scare, but the entire film builds up to this brilliantly as we see the activity progress from one night to the next. We even see early signs of Katie’s possession as she “sleepwalks” through the night and receives bodily injuries from Toby as her fear allows him access to her weakening mind. It’s a perfectly paced journey into the terror of what possession would probably be like in real life.
5. “The Conjuring”
“The Conjuring” changed the horror genre when it hit theaters in 2013 with James Wan utilizing his talents to introduce the world to a smoother and more sophisticated take on mainstream horror. Channeling themes and gimmicks from past films with a modern twist “The Conjuring” gave millennials a possession movie all their own through real-life paranormal experts the Warrens who try to help a family take on a demonic witch named Bathsheba. The film includes an epic exorcism scene as the family’s matriarch Carolyn is possessed by the witch leading to some great and terrifying moments including Carolyn being levitated upside down. The movie builds up to the scene by showing how the family is mentally tortured by their unwanted visitor and how Carolyn specifically becomes the host of choice. “The Conjuring” takes a simple trope and makes it feel fresh and new.
4. “The Evil Dead”
One of the most out of control horror movies in general, either version of “The Evil Dead”, the 1981 original or the 2013 reboot, could work for this list. I decided to focus on Sam Raimi’s original classic though which featuring a group of friends terrorized by demonic beings released from The Book of the Dead. As you can imagine possession plays a big part in this story including the possession of one of the characters via demonic rape. One by one the friends are take over leading to violent and gruesome scenes of body horror and gore that hold up surprisingly well today. Few films have managed to take possession to the ridiculous levels that “The Evil Dead” does and those who tried have seldom succeeded in providing an experience as perfect and memorable as this horror classic. It took a reboot to even come close.
3. “Insidious: Chapter 2”
The original “Insidious” does touch on the idea of possession a bit, but it’s the sequel that really goes all in with the concept. Picking up directly after the first film which explored the idea of The Further and astral dimensions, the second chapter sees family patriarch Josh Lambert possessed by an spirit who haunted him as a child as a result of his inability to return to his body in time from the astral dimension in the previous film. It sounds complicated but trust me it all makes sense. This second film focuses on the efforts of his family and others to expel the being and help him reclaim his physical being. It’s a trippy follow-up that ups the anti from the first film and combined the two movies give a very different perspective on the concept of possession that had never really been explored before.
2. “The Amityville Horror”
I couldn’t leave this one off the list. This 1979 classic might have numerous sequels and a remake but the original packs the most punch. Following the real-life story of the Lutz family who purchased the Amityville house in New York where a mass murder took place years ago, the story sees George Lutz begin to suffer from signs of possession and put his family in danger as real-life stresses leave him open to the influence of Ronald DeFeo, the killer who committed the original mass murders. George’s decent into madness is spectacularly well done and despite the over-the-top horror elements of its successors the original film feels much more controlled while still being terrifying in its own way. There’s a reason it became one of the highest grossing independent films of all time and still stands as one of horror’s most legendary films.
1. “The Exorcist”
Yeah it was the easy choice, but can you blame me? “The Exorcist” is the film that pretty much made possession a cliché in the horror genre. Released in 1973 it is the oldest movie on this list and took horror to new heights with a certain brutality and graphic nature that remains legendary even by modern standards. The film revolves around the possession of young Regan MacNeil by the demon Pazuzu and the attempts of religious figures and her family to exercise the being from her being. In the process we see the effects Pazuzu has on his new host, contorting her body and making her puke bile as well as showing incredible strength despite possessing a young girl. Many if not all of the tropes currently used to possession films today all originated or were popularized by this film and while every movie on this list has their merits none are as scary, relentless or as memorable as the granddaddy of all possession stories, “The Exorcist”.