A Fresher Possession- Rob Kirkman’s Outcast

From the creator of The Walking Dead comes Outcast: visually stunning and at times genuinely terrifying and creepy, this new horror television series aims to follow the success of The Walking Dead in reimagining an established but perhaps stale horror genre, although here the focus is not Zombies, but demonic possession. Adapted from the comic of the same name, Rob Kirkman’s Outcast follows Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit) as he returns to his childhood home in Rome, South Carolina, and reluctantly reconnects with Reverend Anderson (Philip Glenister). However, this is no ordinary reunion.

Re-united and it feels so good

Reverend Anderson is investigating a case of demonic possession, and as Kyle helps him to exorcise the demon from a young boy it becomes clear this is not their first demonic encounter. Moreover, it also becomes clear that the demon recognizes Kyle. This demon, and the subsequent demons he encounters throughout the series, identifies Kyle as ‘Outcast’. Although this label clearly pertains to the mythology of the series and Kyle’s relationship with the demons, it is also appropriately fitting for Kyle: having been adopted following violent abuse from his (possessed) mother, the now adult Kyle returns to Rome but without his own family, living as a kind of exile or social pariah, and followed by the rumors of his own domestic abuse.

Possession films form a significant part of the horror genre. Critically acclaimed, The Exorcist (1793) is often featured on lists of the best horror films, and since its release it has inspired a wealth of sequels, parodies, and other related possession films. The Exorcist therefore functions as an exemplar possession film; a forerunner establishing the conventions of the genre and the narrative structure that similar films would go on to typically adhere to.

Some say not to let the evil in… others say

This structure has arguably become somewhat formulaic: someone, usually a woman or a child, becomes possessed; their family and friends identify the possession, seek answers, and eventually discover the surrounding mythology of the possession; and finally, an authority from within this mythology is called upon to perform the exorcism. Following the Gothic’s fixation with Roman Catholicism, its rituals and aesthetics, the mythology used within possession films tends to be rooted in Catholicism, as is the case with The Exorcist. Typically, although not exclusively, the authority figure or exorcisor is a Catholic priest, and the demon is successfully exorcised with a combination of apotropaics, such as holy water, rosary beads, readings of scripture and, of course, the Roman Catholic ritual of exorcism.

This trend has continued into the twenty-first century with films such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), The Last Exorcism (2010), and The Rite (2011) which all follow the conventional structure of demonic possession and Christian/ Catholic exorcism. There are also several films that attempt to modify this conventional structure including The Unborn (2009) and The Possession (2012), which both situate their narratives, demonic possessions, and exorcisms within a Jewish framework. Though such films present some changes to the, by now, well-trodden conventions of the genre, they do not offer a substantial departure; while changing the aesthetics and mythology they continue to stay within the established formula.

Exorcism of a Jewish Dybbuk by a rabbi in The Possesion

However, Kirkman’s Outcast does offer a fresh reimagining of the possession genre. Arguable, this is in part due the medium of the television series which allows its characters, events leading up to and following possessions, and the possessions themselves to be developed and explored in greater length and thus detail. This contrasts with the medium of film which is not only limited in screen time but also tends to focus on a singular exorcism as the crux or the main event of its narrative.

For those who have already delved into Outcast, it is clear that Kirkman is not rushing his story. At times the narrative can seem slow paced, and each episode frequently lingers on extreme close ups, often of the eyes of its protagonists – but this simply contributes to the overall eerie and unsettling tone of series. Additionally, the television series is by its nature more intimate than film, which heightens this tone. Viewed alone or in small groups (unlike films which are geared towards the larger, communal audience of the cinema), the continual inclusion of extreme close ups, along with the often extremely visceral, violent, and even bloody possession scenes themselves, invade the private, intimate space of the viewer at home.

Quite simply, Outcast is unsettling. It unsettles the safety of domestic spaces, the family home, and even the intimate space of the bedroom; it unsettles the harmony of family, friend, and romantic relationships; and it even unsettles ownership of the body. While much of this can be credited to the supernatural textures of the series, the possessions are themselves woven into a story already laced with disturbing and unsettling events stemming from the natural world. Without giving too much away, the story of Megan (Wrenn Schmidt), Kyle’s adoptive sister, perfectly encapsulates the interweaving of natural and supernatural narratives that both contribute to the unsettling of domestic spaces and the body.

Domestic and bodily turmoil in an unsettling space.

Structurally, too, the medium of television allows for more a more detailed exploration. Here, possession is not simply a singular event initiated by an evil occupier that, once cast out, returns the possessed body and the surroundings back to normalcy, or at least a semblance of normalcy that post-possession allows the body and the individual to heal. Possessions and exorcisms are shown to be violent and brutal, the physical and psychological effects lasting far beyond the event itself and even, in some cases, causing permanent damage that cannot be reversed.

Finally, Outcast unsettles the traditional formula of possession and exorcism. From the first episode of the series, which is framed through the possession of a young boy Joshua (Gabriel Bateman), it becomes clear that the traditional formula of exorcism narratives may not be as effective as we have been lead to believe. Structurally, this episode most clearly appears to adhere to the traditional formula, with the opening scenes focusing on Joshua.

These scenes include several extreme close-up shots of Joshua’s eyes, open mouth, and a bug, along with a suitably eerie soundtrack; Joshua is leaning over his bed, scratching his hand and staring at the wall, before suddenly slamming his head into the wall, crushing the bug before proceeding to eat it, blood and all. With blood smeared down his face, we follow Joshua downstairs as he eventually gains the attention of his mother, but not without first attempting to eat his own finger.

This visceral, bloody scene signals the kind of possession we are to encounter in the series. Reverend Anderson is called in to help, and with his reputation within the community of Rome for performing successful exorcisms, fills the traditional role of authority figure/ exorcisor. Later in the episode, as we join Kyle in his reunion with Reverend Anderson, we follow them both into the bedroom of Joshua and witness seemingly traditional features of possession and exorcism: Reverend Anderson employs the apotropaics of the Bible, holy water, and sage, while the possessed Joshua inhabits the traditional physicality and sounds of a possessed child, both animal-like and very, very creepy. Yet, as the exorcism takes place, it is clear that Outcast is not following the tradition of established possession and exorcism narratives. In this case, Reverend Anderson’s attempts have not worked, and instead it is Kyle who successfully exorcises the demon. Moreover, Kyle’s exorcism is extremely unorthodox, and as violent and bloody as the possession itself.

As the series continues, the success of Reverend Anderson’s exorcisms is increasingly called into question, while his identity as preacher/exorcisor is further examined by the community and himself. Without the traditional Christian mythology, the formula of a religious authority figure and arsenal of religious items to protect the community from the threat of possession, the community of Rome, and indeed the viewer of the series, is left incredibly vulnerable. Indeed, the only real protection seems to come from Kyle himself, occupying the new identity of ‘outcast’ which produces more questions than answers. Why do the demons recognize Kyle, why do they call him outcast, why are they afraid of him: these are all questions raised throughout the series and left unanswered.

Kirkman is successful in offering a fresh perspective on the possibly tired possession genre. At times, his narrative seems to invoke parallels with Body Snatchers narratives, while the mythology and the identity of the Outcast he creates moves away from the traditional possession and exorcism formula. This is definitely a series worth watching, and, already renewed for a second series before the first episode of the first series aired, it is one to keep an eye on.

Mary ‘Slayer’ Going is a PhD Researcher at the university of Sheffield and member of Sheffield Gothic. Her research focuses on representations of Jewish figures in Romantic and Gothic fiction. Despite all evidence to the contrary, she is terrified by the original Exorcist film, and refused to have any pictures of Regan in this blog.