The Semiotics of Possession: Smartphones & Demons

Explaining the Upswing of Demonic Possession Movies

A strangely compelling explanation for the recent trend of demonic possession movies comes from a simple observation: We’re on our phones so often we’ve developed an identification with them. They have become part of us.

There is a complex interplay between a smartphone and its owner and it’s not clear who is possessing whom exactly. But the feeling that on some level we no longer exist as integral entities (but instead as tech-integrated entities) might naturally elicit certain anxieties.

There is now a part of ourselves that exists outside our body and thus beyond our control. Our souls can be hacked.

Or maybe they don’t even need to be hacked. Maybe Apple and Google have already taken possession of our inner lives.

Of course, this isn’t a perfect theory. I don’t want to push it too far. But, there is an undeniable surge in the popularity of demonic possession films. The trend has taken over as the zombie craze dies out. It makes sense to ask why.

Genre films have a special role in the cinematic arts. They tend to be better reflections of social anxieties than indie and art house films for a variety of reasons, offering a filter for our experience.

This was true for the monster movies of the 1950s and 1960s, which gave us both a catharsis and a metaphor for Cold War fears. This was true more recently for the sweep of zombie films that depicted a post-apocalyptic wasteland where people struggled to reclaim their humanity.

As a metaphor, the zombie trend seems best understood as a response to a sense that the world is moving too quickly for us to keep up. Our anxiety about being overwhelmed at the pace of change and falling behind is given dramatic and ironic relief when suddenly there’s an outbreak. The world stops in its tracks. Cars strew the freeway in permanent gridlock. All the progress that had tangled our nerves is shut down, replaced by a far more primal source of fear. Zombies.

It’s a picture of what we want and what we worry we are coming to. It’s a vision of a world where we can no longer relate to the mass of our peers because we’ve been left behind — or a world where humans have been subsumed and where science, technology and industry have left us no room to be ourselves any longer, a world that blows up in our face and sends us suddenly back to the woods. And that’s sorta, kinda nice.

It’s a deep compromise, this zombie apocalypse, but it resolves our anxieties about the pace of change in the information age pretty nicely.

*

The devil has been a figure in every era of cinema in one way or another, but recent years have seen a steady climb in the prevalence of demonic possession, Satanism and the darkest kinds of witch craft. A spate of well-crafted, critically successful and popular films have led the charge — Hereditary (2018), The Wailing (2016), The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015), The Witch (2015) Insidious (2010) — and they seem to pick up where the Paranormal Activity series left off — with a strangely specific satanic paranoia that envisions secret covens of devil worshipers hidden in our midst, doing bad things. But the most nefarious thing they do is facilitate possession.

These modern witches flipped the old notion that the noises heard in the old house at night are coming from a ghost. They transformed the idea of haunted houses into haunted people. A line from Insidious, encapsulates this trend perfectly. Elise Rainer, the medium the family has hired, gives them a take on their situation they didn’t expect: “It’s not your house that’s haunted. It’s your son.”

These films present a world where the devil is real, though usually ethereal. The incorporeal nature of the demon spirit in these films is fitting if the idea is to dramatize a societal anxiety relating to our electronic devices and a newly emerging, especially vulnerable element of our identity.

But are we haunted by our Smartphones? There are other explanations for the recent popularity of demonic possession in movies. The Atlantic ran an article in 2019 detailing a rise in exorcisms due to actual reports of Satanic possession in the United States. Maybe there is something far less metaphorical going on in these films than it’s comfortable to think…

Yet, there is reason to draw a connection between anxiety and smartphones. Writing for Anxiety.org, Samuel Hunley, Ph.D. points out that “Increasing evidence suggests that the negative effects of smartphone use might also extend into the realm of mental health.” Without their phones, some people experience withdrawal symptoms. Studies show correlations between smartphone use and depression too.

This is not exactly news. What we see here is a confirmation of an idea that these films pick up and run with — the idea that as individuals we are not “complete” in ourselves but instead are part of a new amalgamation. There is some spiritual alchemy that goes on when we become attached to an internet-capable electronic device. Mostly, it’s an innocent alchemy, but there is a subtle, sinking fear involved in it too.

We know we can lose our phone, one way or another. What happens then? The slot in our soul that the phone usually occupies can be filled by something else. Something sinister. And maybe, these films seem to warn, maybe it already is.

To play out the theory a bit more specifically, we can look at how phones feature prominently in some of these films. The Wailing presents smartphones as less a tool of communication and more a tool of distress. The protagonist gets news on his phone on several occasions and it all points always to the unavoidable realization at end of the film where (spoiler alert), yes, it was the devil inhabiting the body of his daughter and there is no getting her back.

In The Blackcoat’s Daughter it’s not a smartphone but a land-line phone in the hallway of a boarding school dormitory where the protagonist — an isolated and angst-riddled teen — receives a call from a demon. It’s all down hill and demon possession from there.

In the case of Hereditary, we see a different link to our digital lives. The protagonist here is an artist who creates realistic small-scale models. In other words, she creates and inhabits a virtual world that exists both within and outside of the real world.

One way or another, each of these films seems to point back to a similar conceit: the realities we occupy are subject to infiltration. They are imperfectly bounded. That means also that we are imperfectly bounded and subject to infiltration by other, perhaps infernal realities.

Perhaps this is true because we don’t live in a single, whole space anymore. Instead we live across a variety of digital and physical spaces. Part of us really is in and of our phones. Whenever there is a situation like this, where we transit back and forth between distinct realms, we’re crossing and re-crossing a metaphysical bridge.

Sometimes there’s a troll under the bridge.

%d bloggers like this: