We love to talk about why there are so many horror movies featuring demonic or otherworldly possession. Stories of demonic possession go back centuries, with everything from the Roman Ritual of 1614 to the novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde touching on our fear of completely losing control to something powerful and insidious. This collection of the best possession horror movies ever made barely scratches the surface of what’s out there.
Possession horror movies get a lot of their power from forcing us to confront what it would be like to completely lose control. You can’t stop this force that’s coming for you. The best you can hope for is that someone saves you before it’s too late. Many of the examples we’re covering here focus on a single individual being taken over. However, in some cases, dozens or even hundreds of people are being absorbed into a ravenous, murderous collective. That’s a breed of chaos that often puts the whole of humanity at risk.
Let’s take a closer look at the shared qualities and stark versatility of horror movies about possession.
The Best Possession Horror Movies
13. Event Horizon (1997)
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
A spaceship known as the Event Horizon utilizes a highly experimental engine in humanity’s ongoing quest to explore the cosmos. Things go awry, however, when the engine creates a rift in the space-time continuum. When you have problems with the space-time continuum, you’re going to have problems with demonic entities. That’s just the way it goes.
Event Horizon wasn’t particularly successful at the time of its release. It has since gained significant appreciation for its visuals, performances by cast members such as Sam Neil and Laurence Fishburne, and for offering a truly unique approach to the possession element in a horror movie. Demons capable of incredible manipulation, gleeful cruelty, and destruction is one thing.
When you combine them with the endless void of outer space and all its potential for utterly terrifying mystery, the results are something brutal in its effectiveness. Event Horizon is a unique entry in 90s mainstream horror.
12. Demons (1985)
Director: Lamberto Bava
Demons is as wildly decadent and entertaining as it is utterly senseless. A group of people are given tickets to a movie theater in Berlin offering a special screening of a movie no one even knows the name of. As the movie begins to play, Rosemary (Geretta Giancarlo), one of the women in the audience, begins to transform into a demon.
Why? Because she scratched herself on a mask in the theater lobby, which also happens to appear in the film everyone is watching. Now fully transformed into a horrifying, gooey demon, Rosemary soon begins to infect everyone else in the theater. The patrons then find that they can no longer escape.
That’s pretty much the entire plot of Demons, which isn’t really all that concerned about story or character to begin with. This is simply a gross-out carnival experience in the form of a decidedly visceral splatter-fest possession horror movie. You know what? That’s perfect.
11. Jennifer’s Body (2009)
Director: Karyn Kusama
High school can go straight to hell. We can all agree on that. Jennifer’s Body takes this thought to a delirious and extremely entertaining place.
A popular girl named Jennifer with all the physical attributes you might expect (Megan Fox, who’s better here than some people want to give her credit for) becomes possessed by a demon. This gives her some pretty neat powers, an appetite for destruction and revenge on her school’s lesser males, and a craving for human flesh. It’s your standard coming-of-age story.
Jennifer’s Body is messy, well-written, and boasts several contributing performances. In particular, Amanda Seyfried as Jennifer’s best friend Needy offers a stark and engaging contrast to the creature Jennifer eventually becomes. Their relationship gives this film a unique center that supplements the expected elements of a demonic possession horror movie nicely. After a decidedly mixed reception at the time of its release, it’s no longer unreasonable to count Jennifer’s Body among the best possession horror movies.
10. Burnt Offerings (1976)
Director: Dan Curtis
Released to mixed reviews in 1976, with everyone either loving this haunted house possession tale or strongly disliking it, Burnt Offerings forever deserves more affection from fans.
Starting with an utterly stacked cast that includes Oliver Reed, Karen Black, Burgess Meredith, and Bette freaking Davis, Burnt Offerings doesn’t just deal in the possession aspect. This is also very distinctly one of those fun-loving yarns about a family that moves into a weird house and inherits a whole grab bag of paranormal problems.
Based on a novel by Robert Marasco, Burnt Offerings benefits from the direction of Dan Curtis. The director of The Winds of War and the creator of Dark Shadows, Curtis built his long career on horror. He seemed to have a particular talent for spooky abodes, ghosts, and the notion of one being possessing the will of another. This is one of his more vicious, bleak works, and that’s definitely something else in this gem’s favor.
9. The Shining (1980)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Like Burnt Offerings¸The Shining is not first and foremost a possession story, although possession unquestionably plays a major, essential role in their DNA. The Shining in particular is one of the best horror films ever in many other regards.
Chances are, you’re at least familiar with the basic premise. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson at his crazed best) accepts a winter caretaker’s position at a hotel in the Colorado mountains, bringing his family. Things get off-kilter from there, with the extreme isolation and possible influence of malevolent spirits overwhelming Jack and to an extent his young, psychic son Danny.
Regardless of how you interpret The Shining, you can’t deny its powerhouse tone and approach to the horrors present in this adaptation of Stephen King’s most personal novel. It’s a fundamentally unsettling experience every single time.
8. The Evil Dead (1981)
Director: Sam Raimi
Everything in the Evil Dead franchise deals in possession to one degree or another. The original Evil Dead however is a little different because it’s actually pretty scary. The only one in the series to come close to this would be the 2013 remake.
The Evil Dead in general doesn’t have nearly as much humor as the sequel films or TV series. This grisly, low-budget classic involving a group of students who find themselves assaulted from all ends by supernatural forces in a cabin in some desolate woods is meaner and darker than its successors. This is also the film that introduced us to writer/director/producer Sam Raimi, who’s still going strong to this day, and Bruce Campbell who is now one of the most beloved and iconic horror names of all time.
Should none of the above be important to you, understand these possessions are violent and disconcerting in equal, memorable measures.
7. The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
Director: Scott Derrickson
The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a good reminder that there are some excellent, scary movies using this story beat that are not called The Exorcist.
This movie is about a lawyer (Laura Linney) defending a priest (Tom Wilkinson at his best) whose exorcism may or may not have left a young woman (Jennifer Carpenter in an absolutely astonishing performance) dead. The Exorcism of Emily Rose is partially a courtroom drama, but its supernatural elements create a uniqueness that you generally don’t find in movies with major trials deciding someone’s fate.
The other end of this story is Emily becoming possessed by a demon, which must be flawless in its presentation to give the courtroom scenes any weight. You won’t be disappointed.
Loosely based on a real-life event, The Exorcism of Emily Rose takes this story to a pretty surprising place theologically-speaking. Redemption is explored for several characters in highly fascinating ways.
6. Hereditary (2018)
Director: Ari Aster
Hereditary is pretty darn aggressive in its desire to freak you out. While not without its detractors, many praise Hereditary for its performances, pacing, and trust in low levels of energy to whip the viewer into a frenzy when the more intense moments come along. Hereditary may rub some the wrong way simply because it’s a possession story with a lot of other things going on around it.
One of these things is a deep and dark story about motherhood and what a curse can do to our understanding of familial relationships. Hereditary forces you to contend with all of this while also telling an emotionally punishing and visually striking possession story.
The family in Hereditary, including characters played by Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, and Milly Shapiro, is likable and basic enough. The death of a grandmother however opens the door to a new and wholly destructive presence.
5. Sinister (2012)
Director: Scott Derrickson
One more for director Scott Derrickson, who seemingly has a talent for possession horror movies. Sinister represents his best work on the topic to date, anchored by a scene-stealing Ethan Hawke as an author of true crime books.
It’s been a long while since the last one that made decent money, and that pressure compels Hawke as Ellison to move his family into a home where some deeply disturbing and vicious murders occurred. Discovering videos of what transpired, Ellison is soon pulled into a story with a high probability of supernatural coercion.
All of this naturally puts his family at risk. It also opens Ellison up to becoming possessed by the ravenous and cruel spirit that seemingly inhabits a home that’s struggling for other reasons to find stability. Hawke’s performance aside, Sinister builds its mystery nicely, and saves the most sadistic bits for its go-big-or-go-home ending. It’s all effectively told and constructed.
4. The Exorcist III (1990)
Director: William Peter Blatty
Calm down, this isn’t the only time an Exorcist movie is going to be in our conversation about the best possession horror movies.
The Exorcist III received decidedly mixed reviews upon release, but has since come to receive praise for not only being the best Exorcist movie beyond the first one, but for being an outstanding and singular horror masterpiece in its own right. You can even go so far as to pretty comfortably watch this story about a police lieutenant (a towering George C. Scott) discovering connections between an ongoing serial killer investigation and the death of a dear friend and priest (Jason Miller) on its own.
Of course, The Exorcist III, based on Exorcist creator William Peter Blatty’s novel Legion, hits a little better when you’ve seen the 1973 first film. What’s interesting is that despite their shared universe, as we mentioned before, there’s nothing quite as frightening or sublimely surreal in its duplicitous depiction of normalcy.
What can we say? The man knows how to tell a story about a university professor (Victor Wong) and his students teaming up with a priest (Donald Pleasence) to prevent a jar of green goo in a church basement from allowing Satan to implement doomsday. One of Carpenter’s most appealing skills as a filmmaker is to create creepiness in surprising modes and atmospheres. No other film has quite the same backdrop of an unstoppable apocalypse as Prince of Darkness does.
The movie’s oddness is its greatest strength. Dozens of people become possessed by this unfathomable and otherworldly evil, adding deeper layers to a horrific world on the brink of catastrophe. The ending won’t provide you with any comforting or clear answers either.
2. The Exorcist (1973)
Director: William Friedkin
No other film on this list is as influential as The Exorcist. In fact, many people to this day consider this massively successful horror classic to be the scariest movie of all time.
If you haven’t found time to see this film about a little girl (Linda Blair) whose demonic possession comes to the attention of two priests drawn to the case for different reasons, don’t let the hype intimidate you. At the very least, you can expect an entertaining horror movie with a phenomenal cast, a compelling script, and a masterful build to the nightmarish exorcism itself.
The Exorcist builds slowly, giving us plenty of space to develop connections to most of these characters, including Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) and Father Lankester Merrin (Max Von Sydow). While delivering horror essentials, The Exorcist is also very profoundly about faith, and is just as invested in the people we meet.
1. Possession (1981)
Director: Andrzej Żuławski
While not the most famous movie featured here, Possession forces us to contend with the most visually upsetting depiction of possession ever put to screen.
This is because the movie puts us on a tight, claustrophobic journey into complex madness with its primary protagonist Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and her spy husband Mark (Sam Neil, once again showing up in a movie about possessed peoples). Anna decides she wants a divorce. Simple enough, but this decision seemingly sets in motion a chain of events that will not only cause Anna to question her sanity, but those of us who are watching this brilliant film, as well.
Possession gets into some pretty heady territory pretty quick, but we never really leave Anna or Mark. Other people populate this movie, in more ways than one, but Possession expertly runs a troubling relationship story next to its supernatural elements. Their relationship and Anna’s increasingly dark transformation give Possession a story that will stay with you long after you’ve finished watching.
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