Though often described as a story about possession, Australian writer Victor Kelleher’s young adult novel Del-Del (1991) actually chronicles two types of “evil” children I talked about elsewhere: the possessed child and the “exceptional” or gifted child. In Del-Del, they are simply rolled up into one character: a young boy named Sam. For the sake of ease (and brevity), I’ll deal with these two “sides” of Sam in separate entries.
Del-Del is told from the point of view of Sam’s sister, Beth. Beth’s family is already struggling to cope with the loss of one child (Laura), who died of cancer a year before. When the book opens, they become newly threatened by the loss of Sam to Del-Del, an entity that seems to have taken over Sam’s personality and is intent on destroying him. Del-Del is possibly a demon (notice that “del-del” sounds like “devil”–gasp!), possibly an alien (reminiscent of John Wyndham’s Chocky ), and possibly something else altogether. The book’s central mystery is exactly what Del-Del is and how and if he can be stopped.
The possessed child narrative, along with the antichrist and the monstrous newborn, requires a supernatural element: a possessing entity. However, as I see it, the spirit need not be Satan, one of his minions, or anything as impressively evil as that; the child could simply fall under the spell of an angry ghost, a mythical creature, or maybe even a magical ring (if you interpret hobbits as symbolic children, as one of my students has argued). What’s important is that the entity’s influence causes the child to behave in upsetting ways that differ dramatically from his/her usual behavior.
What type of disturbing behavior does the possessed child typically display? Even if you haven’t seen any quintessential possession films like The Exorcist (1973), you can probably picture it: the possessed child swears, acts violently and/or sexually, spews all kinds of bodily fluids, and contorts her body into impossible postures. And, once things really get going, she may levitate, crab-walk up walls or down stairs, throw furniture around without touching it, and demonstrate impossible knowledge, such as the ability to speak in other languages or an awareness of the innermost secrets of those around her, their deepest guilts and shames.
Did you notice I stopped being gender neutral? That’s because it’s almost always girls who become possessed; Sam in Del-Del is a rare exception. (I’m not sure that spirits prefer girls in “real life,” though: the case on which William Peter Blatty based The Exorcist involved a boy after all; Blatty changed the gender for his novel and screenplay.) Carol Clover (who wrote A Really Important Book on horror entitled Men, Women, and Chainsaws) has said that females are more appropriate victims for a fictional possession because, in our heteronormative society, it would make more sense that a girl or woman could be more easily “penetrated” by a male spirit (and possessing spirits usually are male; demons almost always so).
I think it might be a bit more simple than that: our culture has a tendency to still (falsely) believe that girls are made of sugar and spice and all things nice, and so when they strike someone, flash their genitals, or say the f-word, it’s much more shocking to the average viewer. (Maybe this is less the case now in our post-Girls Gone Wild world.) Possessed girls may simply seem more offensive than possessed boys because girls aren’t supposed to act that way. (And perhaps it’s more believable that girls could achieve those cirque du soleil positions so necessary to possession narratives.)
My argument is that the spirits that take over the child in possession narratives symbolize other substances said to have negative influences on youngsters, like drugs, rock/rap, sexy music videos, or violent television shows or video games. I say this for two reasons. First, in the opening segments of the possessed child narrative that establish “normal” family life prior to possession, we almost always learn about some sort of disruption to the family unit: a divorce, a death, a breakdown in the parent-child relationship. As a result, the primary parent is distracted by his/her own thoughts and feelings, creating a lapse in vigilance and allowing A Very Bad Influence to enter. In “real life,” the bad influence is simply something to which the child retreats as a form of escape and perhaps as a way of getting his or her parents’ attention: booze, sex, Grand Theft Auto, Marilyn Manson music, whatever; in the possessed child film, bad influences are given supernatural form. As a result, The Very Bad Influence is not only scarier but undeniably at fault, and the child’s essential goodness thus remains uncontested. Of course the spirit (i.e., video game) is the problem; the child had no chance of resisting such powers.
The other reason I believe that possessed child narratives are really about Real Life Bad Influences is that the bad behavior the possessed child exhibits greatly resembles that which would supposedly result from Real Life Bad Influences–violence, promiscuity, bad language, and all kinds of illicit (because adult) knowledge and behavior.
In other words, the possessed child narrative is really a cautionary tale to parents and caretakers about the evils that will take over their children’s lives when they are not paying proper attention.
In the last decade, we’ve had The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), The Last Exorcism (2010, poorly titled since a sequel appeared earlier this year), Exorcismus (2010), Apartment 143 (2011), The Rite (2011), and The Possession (2012), among others. Odd that possessed child films are on the rise in an age during which parents have been criticized for ruining a generation of children by being, if anything, hypervigilant and overly involved. What should we make of this increase in possession narratives? Are they an admission that for all their helicoptering, millennial parents have failed to produce viable offspring? Or do these films let millennial parents off the hook and blame the narcisssism and sense of entitlement that some wise sages say characterize the millennial generation on our failing culture (too much technology/porn/materialism/focus on celebrities, etc. etc.)?
Kelleher’s Del-Del offers a much more child-centered approach to the possession narrative, one that allows the child to be more than merely an empty vessel or blank slate. Rather, Kelleher lets both Sam and Beth shape their own destinies. This makes sense, considering that Kelleher is writing for young adults, who surely would like to see characters their own age act with more agency. The possessed child narrative for adults says, “Your kids will go all evil when you’re not looking, but look back and you might have a chance to save them.” The possessed child narrative for young adults says, “You choose.”