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.
Arguably, the most famous Marvel character who is, in fact, possessed by a demon is the original Ghost Rider, Johnny Blaze (first appearing in 1972). Johnny sells his soul to Satan to save his father from death, but in return, he is bonded with the demon Zarathos, who desires nothing more than to torture and devour souls. Although Zarathos is a demon, Blaze turns the bloodlust into a force for good, afflicting criminals with “bad souls” with his hellfire chains and using the “Penance Stare” to make his victims feel all the pain he/she had ever inflicted on others – all this while experiencing a regular dose of guilt so things don’t get too easy. In this way, Ghost Rider achieves a kind of harmony despite two opposing consciousnesses: the demon gets to destroy souls while Blaze doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of killing innocent people. Subsequent riders are also bonded with supernatural entities: Daniel Ketch is united with the Angel of Death/Judgment (a force for “good”) and Robbie Reyes is inhabited by the ghost of Eli Morrow (not technically a spirit of vengeance, but he gives Reyes Ghost Rider powers all the same) – again, all entities that bestow power and allow the hosts to turn that power against the criminal underworld. Each Ghost Rider consists of a human/supernatural entity hybrid that gives the host superpowers, and each Ghost Rider has his own “demons” to face, the powers being an excuse or tool for self-reflection. As a classic anti-hero, Ghost Rider allows readers to derive pleasure from watching him punish the wicked, but the human host forces us to ask questions about morality and purpose. Is it our place to be the judge of who suffers and for what crimes?
We see a similar bout of moral uncertainty in Jim Corrigan whenever the Spectre is let loose. Jim Corrigan is a DC universe cop whose violent death leads him to be bonded with the Spectre – sometimes, it is portrayed as a superhero, sometimes as an antagonist. In either case, the Spectre is known as the Wrath of God whose mission is to destroy evil and punish sinners. John Ostrander’s 1992-98 run, we see Jim in constant conflict with the entity to the point where he turns to the church, and later, he loses touch with humanity as the Spectre dispenses “justice” to everyone, not just the “bad guys.” The same reckless, brutal justice reappears in the New-52 title Gotham by Midnight,where Jim Corrigan constantly tries to diffuse highly emotional situations and eliminate paranormal threats so that the Spectre does not appear, because if he does, whole cities can be wiped out in an instant – after all, everyone is a sinner. Like Ghost Rider, the Spectre gives its host some pangs of guilt. In the climatic issues of Gotham by Midnight when the Spectre wreaks havoc on Gotham, readers are treated to a reflective moment in which Jim realizes that the Spectre was only acting according to Jim’s dark desires. With this loss of control, Jim realizes he actually has some level of power over the Spectre, and when he finally owns his dark desires – his buried rage and guilt – he is able to reign the entity back in.
In both cases of Ghost Rider and the Spectre, the host characters are given a kind of agency that balance out the power and terror of the entities possessing them. In All-New Ghost Rider, Robbie Reyes takes Eli Morrow’s compulsive lust for blood and turns it into a weapon against evil. Even if Reyes has no control over the fact that he must kill, he exerts power over who he kills. In Gotham by Midnight, we constantly see Jim Corrigan doing his utmost to prevent the Spectre from coming out, and often times, he’s successful. Even when he isn’t, the Spectre shifts from something possessing him to a metaphor for his inner darkness. The Spectre kills those who Jim would see as getting in the way – people who commit crimes and poison Gotham with their existence. But in defeating the Spectre, Jim gains control over himself.
Even in non-DC/Marvel titles male characters get to wield awesome power that’s not entirely their own. Vertigo’s cult classic Preacher by Garth Ennis (this year adapted to a tv show on AMC) follows Jesse Custer, a small-town preacher who controls the Word of God, later revealed to be an aspect of a demon-angel hybrid creature named Genesis. With the ability to make anyone do anything he says just by hearing his words, Jesse travels across America with his companions, Tulip and Cassidy, in order to find God and make him answer for his neglect of humanity. Particularly in the AMC show, Jesse’s power is shown to be corruptive – for a brief time, he decides that God has given him Genesis and thus, anything he decides to do with it can’t be wrong, it must instead be God’s will. After accidentally condemning a boy to hell, Jesse brazenly defends his actions in a desperate attempt to absolve him of guilt, but eventually, he comes back around and agrees to let a pair of angels try to extract Genesis from his body. It fails, but the show successfully establishes this power as too dangerous to be in the hands of one man, and though Jesse resolves to use his ability for “good,” there’s no telling whether he’ll stick to the moral straight and narrow in upcoming seasons.
In short, possession of male characters is an opportunity for exploration. Rarely do these characters die as a result of their possession, but instead, they learn to control the entities inside them and eventually turn their powers towards “good.” This relatively stable coexistence allows writers to continually explore a morally grey area while showing men to be simultaneously badass and insecure without being weak.
Compare the above examples to notable female characters who must share their bodies with an uber-powerful entity, yet never get the opportunity to grow and struggle with the same issues. A classic example is Jean Grey, a telepathic mutant in the X-Men universe who is taken over by a primal universal force known as the Phoenix. While Jean gains limitless power over matter and energy, the fragility of her female mind and body serves as an excuse for never fully realizing her potential. Being a host for the Phoenix is always too much for her, and numerous comics and animated versions of the character have her reaching out to her male teammates for help in her brief moments of lucidity. In X-Men: The Animated Series, Jean constantly relies on her boyfriend, Scott Summers, to be her moral compass and to support her physically when she is overwhelmed by the amount of energy her powers require. This is not to say that characters can’t have support systems – they can, but women are portrayed as needing much more help from men than the other way around. On top of that, in almost every Phoenix storyline, Jean never learns to completely control her power. At the end of the famous Dark Phoenix Saga, Jean gives Scott an emotional farewell as she disintegrates herself with a Kree weapon, all the while struggling to contain the force’s monumental power. Fox’s live-action X3: The Last Stand replicated this death, only having Wolverine deliver the fatal blow after Jean tearfully asks him to end her suffering. Arguably, Jean does exert some agency in that she chooses her death, and the comics try to make it painfully obvious that this choice was her doing. But compared to someone like Jim Corrigan, Jean Grey is more of a damsel in distress than a figure who needs to reconcile her guilt. She never even has the opportunity to address her guilt – her stories end with death so that she doesn’t have to, and she becomes a tragic heroine rather than an anti-hero.
Similarly, the recent Suicide Squad movie exemplifies the degree to which this damsel in distress trope is still active in contemporary female possession narratives. In the film, June Moone, a young archeologist, serves as the host body for an ancient being known only as the Enchantress, a witch or sorceress of sorts who wishes to eradicate humankind as revenge for imprisoning her in a mystical container. Enchantress’ powers are quickly recognized as beneficial to the U.S. government – Amanda Waller, head of the black ops division, controls Enchantress and demonstrates the witch’s power by making her teleport into a secure Middle Eastern facility to steal military intelligence. When Enchantress isn’t active, her host, June, is constantly pictured as a frightened woman who relies on the strength and support of her boyfriend, Rick Flag. Indeed, we get numerous shots of her reaching out to him – the scene of her in the bathtub where she begs Flag to help her, the scene when she begs him to kill her if Enchantress should get out, etc. June is almost always enfolded in Flag’s arms, communicating a constant need for comfort and, on a literal level, the inability to stand on her own. Her only moments of control are when she summons the Enchantress herself, but even then, June disappears and has no control over her body. Once Enchantress breaks free of Waller’s supervision, the duration of the movie mainly follows Flag as he leads the Suicide Squad, his manpain obscuring any moral conflicts June may be having inside. When Enchantress is finally killed, June blissfully bounces into Flag’s arms, seemingly unaffected by the recent crisis, and even though she lives, she’s never seen struggling with her body being possessed after the threat has passed. Flag assures her that nothing Enchantress does is June’s fault – and that’s the end of that.
I’d always been irritated with the above female character possession narratives without really having issues with possession itself. I love an angsty, guilt-ridden antihero that shares a body with some dark force precisely because they dive into questions of morality and who is at fault for what crimes (if any) – but we almost never get a female character like this, at least in comics (that I’m aware of).
Marjorie Liu’s Monstress tells the story of Maika Halfwolf, who becomes possessed by an ancient elder god. Whenever this god manifests itself, whether through taking over Maika’s body or in a dream-like vision, the story always focuses on Maika’s darker nature. She describes a “hunger” which drives her, but she must resist. The god shows her visions of her painful past. Maika is constantly checking herself and controlling the force inside her while struggling with her own identity and darkness. All of this is done while giving Maika agency and without decreasing her badassery. Like the male characters above, Maika struggles but is never fully weakened. This is not to say that she doesn’t experience moments of weakness – like most well-written characters, she does – but there’s never a moment where her possession becomes too much for her to the point where she considers killing herself. She never asks a male character to help her, but instead, is intent on finding her own way and her own answers. Her arc, to me, thus far resembles those of Ghost Rider and the Spectre more so than Jean Grey and June Moone.
So why should we care? It’s all well and good to say that women should be equal to men. That’s obvious – but I also want to draw attention to the ways in which these possession narratives will help reshape our conception of women and power and reflection stories. When women are largely damsels in distress, even when they are possessed by entities with superhuman abilities, their stories are still reinforcing their powerlessness and giving the power over to the male character(s). After all, the Suicide Squad, led by Rick Flag, is able to defeat the seemingly all-powerful woman. Flag saves June. Flag is rewarded for his hard work. Jean Grey sacrifices herself, yes, but then she’s dead. Her story ends. She may be powerful enough to defeat the Phoenix herself, but she doesn’t get to enjoy that victory. And going forward, some of the biggest debates in the X-Men universe include who gets to have control of the Phoenix and its host. When women are repeatedly portrayed as needing to be controlled or needing saving, the narrative implies that they can’t be trusted with power.
On top of that, without the reflective moments that are present in male possession storylines, women are portrayed as pure, innocent pillars of moral certainty. They have to be “pure” and “innocent,” not dark, morally grey antiheroes, the narrative says. Jean Grey may commit some atrocities as the Phoenix, but she isn’t “really” in control, and she pays for them by dying. June does the same – it’s not “really” her that does all those terrible things, so all is forgiven. But women aren’t saints that exist to be moral guides for male characters, nor does a female villain or possessed female character who does bad things a “fallen woman” or a tragedy because her purity has been tarnished.
Comics need more possession narratives for women that challenge moral certainties and test them with unlimited power. Maika is a good start, but imagine how many new and exciting questions we’d get to ask if we take a woman who has been told she’s nothing her whole life by men (either in the story or outside of it, by sexist writers and readers) and suddenly give her the power to do what she wanted? What if we treated female characters with the same complexity that we do our male characters? I’m excited by these prospects, and I sincerely hope more creators will look to Monstresswhen next considering a supernatural storyline with the possibility for possession.