Regan of The Exorcist is young, bright, and plagued by an absent father. Marjorie of A Head Full of Ghosts navigates financial trouble and an increasingly fractured family, while her sister Meredith must cope with the same destruction she is too young to understand. Finally, Sidney in Scream, which I analyzed for my Postmodern Horror Snapchat Story Project, still has not recovered from the rape and murder of her mother a year ago. Each of these heroines suffers from a direct possession, illness, or serial killer, but also from more abstract concepts that ground them in a reality to best frighten audiences.
Humans fear loneliness and instability. The most introverted of us crave grounding in the worldly context; doctors Baumeister and Leary described that “…a need to belong is a fundamental human motivation and…can provide a point of departure for understanding and integrating a great deal of…human interpersonal behavior,” in 1995, (Baumeister, Leary). This yearning can manifest officially in marriages and the forming of families, who become legally and, often, instinctively loyal to each other. Such bonds can of course function positively, but can also prompt or hinder the resolution of crimes: only thirty percent of the juvenile victims of sexual assault, for example, agree to tell and testify against their related aggressors (Psychology Today). In Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the remaining live members of a family keep up their usual routines despite knowing one among them must have killed the rest of their clan.
So, the prevalence and significance of familial ties explain how jarring Regan, Marjorie, Merry, and Sidney must find their scenarios. It also, though, speaks to the effect on the reader or viewer. We discussed in class how watching horror lets us experience thrills without the long-term consequences. That notion rings true– my reading A Head Full of Ghosts will not dissolve my family. However, the dissolution of families like our own in these books and movies introduces or exacerbates that the same fate might befall our’s. Exposure to an idea over and over again can cause its internalization (in fact, the motive of the killer himself in Scream, is that fictional characters would respond to his troubles by murdering). Observing the fall of the Barretts then, for example, reminds us that no family, however nuclear or seemingly perfect, is ultimately safe.
Another similarity between the afore-mentioned pieces of media lies in their feminine anxiety. The demon of The Exorcist apparently identifies as male and infamously compounds Regan’s purity through making her say expletives, perform objectively filthy actions, and masterbate with a crucifix. Most people have negative reactions to female masterbation itself, if they even acknowledge its existence, not to mention the perversion of the sacred regarding the crucifix. Her mother undergoes increasingly intense trauma as her daughter changes through the demon. Intriguingly, the demon Marjorie claims inside her is female. That difference supports that Marjorie is merely faking her predicament, as she spends much of her exorcism scene and the pages leading up to it pointing out the self-interest of the Father Wanderly and his underlings, Dr. Navidson, her father, and the show’s producers, all mostly male. Finally, the male killer in Scream harps on his maternal abandonment, prompted by his father’s affair with Sidney’s mother. Rather than consider the intricacies of that development, especially his father’s wrongdoings, Ghostface takes out his anguish on women, killing men only as part of his larger schemes to attack female victims.
Altogether, these and other horror narratives prey on audience anxieties: we shame, exalt, fear, and demean women within a male-designed context, and we deeply fear being alone. These are the real horrors, and the violence and supernatural occurences in The Exorcist, A Head Full of Ghosts, and Scream merely manifest them.