Altered States of Embodiment: Spirit Possession in Ethnographic and Feature Films

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Possession and other forms of altered states of embodiment are represented in both feature and ethnographic films, yet result in divergent illustrations. Ethnographic films dealing with possession (a la Rouch, Deren, Adair, Asch) suggest that it is a therapeutic phenomenon, often framed as a means of resistance to dominant socio-political forces. Yet, in feature films the possessed body is rendered as a passive recipient of diabolical forces. In the former case, possession signals empowerment, in the latter disempowerment. In addition to its portrayal as a form of resistance, religious supplicants in such ethnographic films as Rouch’s Les Maitre Fous and Adair’s Holy Ghost People, regard possession as a much-desired corporeal conduit between the physical and the metaphysical. Feature films, such as Friedkin’s The Exorcist and a host of Vampire and Werewolf films, depict altered states of embodiment as malevolently therianthropic, animalistic, or demonic, reinforcing religious fears about body contamination/infection by collapsing the perceived separation between animals and humans. Why is it that possession in film – whether depicted literally or symbolically – produces such a wide gap of representation? Further, it becomes curious to note that in this gap Hollywood rushes in to celebrate altered states derived through technological means. This is not nitpicking over the corruption of ethnographic findings. In fact, early forms of Christianity attempted not to eliminate possession, but rather, to replace “good” with “bad” forms of possession, and it wasn’t’ until the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern period that possession was regarded as something completely evil (de Certeau). In light of this blurry historical transition my concern is with how contemporary, negative portrayals of altered states of embodiment in feature films coincides with a rise in fundamentalist religious beliefs and with the growing popularity of accepted forms of body alteration, e.g. cybernetic and cosmetic body enhancement. Examination of a range of ethnographic and feature films dealing with possession and other altered states of embodiment illustrates the subtle and profound differences in how possession is portrayed cinematically, and how these varied portrayals are indicative of shifting attitudes towards religious beliefs, contamination, consumerism, and political resistance.