I’d be a liar if I said I don’t enjoy a good supernatural story in which one of the main characters becomes possessed by a demonic entity. Back when I watched Supernatural, the most exciting moments for me were when the heroes had to make a decision to either save the human vessel or destroy it along with the demon inside, a decision that muddled the seemingly clear-cut lines of morality and the value of human life. These lines became muddied again with the loss of the self that occurred when angels entered the mix in season four – the battle between heaven and hell forced us to consider if it is “right” to give up one’s body to a potentially murderous, morally grey entity if it’s in the pursuit of “good” and the security of the human race. These questions are exciting to me because there’s no right answer, and they continue to pop up in a number of other forms, not just Christian-themed mythological storylines: the Nogitsune’s possession of Stiles’ body in season three of Teen Wolf, the Phoenix Force in various X-Men adaptations, the Spectre that inhabits Jim Corrigan’s body in the DC universe (though I guess that’s also “Christian”), June Moone in the recent Suicide Squadfilm. All of these characters present the potential for complex moral dilemmas while the beings inside them heighten the horror in a number of different ways: not only do the entities put our natural, human world in touch with the mystic or cosmic otherworld, but they also deprive humans of the one thing they can count of to have control over – their bodies. These characters are faced with a kind of terrifying Lovecraftian reality that the universe is home to not just mortal human beings, but also they face the threat of being dominated in a way that the human cannot always reasonably or easily protect itself from.
Of course, possession is not without its perks. Possessed characters often get to enjoy a number of different superpowers, from telekinesis to teleportation to immortality; but even with these abilities, the humans often long to get back to their original state. The resulting angst and the tension between the conscience of the human vessel and the goals of the entity allow for writers to build towards “larger” themes in the work – questions of morality, the human condition, the self, etc.
It wasn’t until I read Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda that I realized there’s often a sharp divide between female characters that are possessed and male ones, especially in comics and their film/tv adaptations. When male characters become possessed, the story revolves around the questions that interest me above. Possession is an opportunity for reflection, and the original male character whose body becomes a vessel is never deprived of their worth as a human being or a character worth following. Female characters, on the other hand, often have to be saved. The entities that take over their bodies endow them with superhuman powers, but because they’re female, that power is portrayed as too much for them to handle, and the narrative is all about finding someone (usually a man) to save them from this power. Take the following examples of Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider, Jim Corrigan/the Spectre, and Jesse Custer/Genesis versus Jean Grey/the Phoenix and June Moone/Enchantress. These patterns show that the damsel in distress narrative is far from extinct, even in more contemporary works of “nerd media.” Though these women have extraordinary abilities, they still need to be rescued, and the resulting impression is that women are less equipped to handle great power and even less prepared to deal with the moral and psychological aftermath. But all is not lost – from there, I’ll turn to Monstress and argue how it is disrupting these patterns by giving readers a female character whose possession follows the narrative arc often given solely to males.