What Lady Ghostbusters Have In Common With 17th-Century Nuns

A sexy priest who had earned the enmity of Cardinal Richelieu, demon-possessed nuns, and a fiery execution: it sounds like the premise of a period swashbuckler. The story was even written up by Alexandre Dumas. But the events at Loudun really took place: in 1634, a whole convent of nuns was publicly exorcised in front of thousands of spectators, and the priest accused of bedeviling them was tortured and burned alive.

Although these particular events were unusually grim, mass possessions were a regular occurrence in early modern Europe — and they were universally mass possessions of women. Women have always fought evil spirits. Evil spirits have always tried to possess our bodies.

***

The demons at Loudun inhabited many of the nuns, including the prioress, a 30-year-old woman called Jeanne des Anges. Jeanne revealed to the priory’s confessor, Father Mignon, that she and other nuns had been approached by a local priest, Urbain Grandier, in their dreams at night. He had bewitched them, Jeanne said, and allowed them to be possessed by demons; there was no other way to explain their vulgar dreams, their sexualized ravings.

Father Urbain Grandier was considered to be very handsome, and it was already rumored that he was involved with local women. He wrote and published a treatise against the celibacy of priests, a decent sign that he was not taking those particular vows too seriously. And now, apparently, he was starring in the corrupting dreams of nuns, causing them to endanger their own vows.

Exorcisms were not usually public, but the exorcisms of the nuns of Loudun were. The women were seated on a raised platform and tied into chairs. The bonds were kept loose to allow visible movement. Under questioning they swayed and bucked, screamed, answered questions in demonic voices, made sexualized motions, felt blows from unseen hands, and laughed uncontrollably. The devils revealed themselves as the servants of Urbain Grandier, who had secretly made a pact with Satan, and was summoning the demons to infest the Ursuline nuns. The pact itself was even revealed, stolen by the demon Asmodeus from the devil’s pact cabinet. Each signature has a different decorative flair, as if the demons had practiced their signatures again and again in spiral bound notebooks. Hell really is junior high.

Grandier’s trial for witchcraft was a forgone conclusion. He was guilty; he must be, or the trial would never have been called for. He was tortured and then burned at the stake. His death in 1634 eliminated an embarrassment to the Church and solidified its power against the competing Protestant forces arrayed in the battle for souls.

***

Life under seventeenth-century Catholicism was a daily struggle with the devil — and in monasteries and convents, the battle for one’s own soul became even more pronounced. Ecstatic religiosity, giving your body over to God’s control, offered both radical piety and radical danger: saints were always on the verge of heresy and heretics often on the verge of saintliness. Too much devotion, like too much of anything else, verged on self-indulgence. Bernini’s famous statue, “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa,” portrays Teresa of Ávila on her back, her head lolled back, her mouth slightly parted, her eyes half-closed. An angel stands over her, pointing a spear at her body as if to penetrate it. Religious ecstasy can resemble more carnal ecstasy all too easily.

This porous boundary between sacred and profane transport made demonic possession an open possibility. The body that was ready to receive Christ might be tricked into receiving a fallen angel instead — and the more pious you were, the more Hell wanted you. Holy possession and unholy possession looked awfully similar, and the heights of religious fervor could lead directly to a fall.

Women were thought to be especially susceptible to demonic possession throughout the early modern period, and mass possessions were an exclusively feminine phenomenon. The female body was more open to entry, the female mind more susceptible to seduction. Although demonic possession was not necessarily sinful or evidence of sin, the erratic, unsettling behavior of demoniacs was more associated with deviant femininity than masculinity.

Although this interpretation might relieve women of responsibility for otherwise unacceptable behaviors, it also opened the door to interpreting all aberrant female behavior as demonic. Claims of divine possession in female subjects needed verification to prove that what felt divine was not actually infernal.

***

The Ghostbusters franchise tends to mush together demonic possession and ghostly haunting. This is a historically common overlap; like holy and demonic possession, spirits of the dead and demons often look alike. Language contributes to this layered understanding; the word “spirit” is where a lot of different ideas of being come together and can combine. The word “ghost” itself entered the English lexicon with the Saxons, and likely originally meant something more like “rage.”

In the original 1984 Ghostbusters, Sigourney Weaver’s Dana is the subject of possession in multiple ways. She is constantly beset by men who refuse to acknowledge her disinterest, and by a movie plot that dictates Dana must eventually choose a man who will be rewarded with her body. And then she is literally possessed by a Mesopotamian demigod called Zuul.

When Dana becomes Zuul, she loses Dana. Like many possessed women before her, her movements become more sexualized, her body’s femininity played as a weapon against the forces of good. Zuul uses Dana’s body to try to seduce Bill Murray’s Dr. Venkman, who — aware that she is under malign influence — instead sedates her with Thorazine. One wonders why he brought so much Thorazine to a date.

Dana’s body is then used to seduce the similarly possessed Louis Tully, a neighbor with an unrequited crush on her. Since Dana’s new seductive power is turned on two men for whom she’s previously expressed disgust, it is hard to frame this as a win for untrammeled female sexuality. It plays more like a parable of rape culture.

Eventually, Dana loses her body entirely, transformed into a Terror Dog by the demonic energy that Zuul has unleashed. When she is saved by the machinations of stream-crossing Ghostbusters, she cannot remember her time as Zuul. Her purpose is fulfilled. Her struggle is literally erased.

***

There are a few ways to read the story of Loudun. One is the way it was read by the Catholic Church and its adherents in 1634: The heroes were the exorcists, who successfully fought and outed the demons and exposed an evil sorcerer nestled in the bosom of the Church. You can also read it as the heroic story of Urbain Grandier, an innocent man just a little too handsome and clever for his time. Throughout his tortures, Grandier never confessed, and his death was horrific. This is the position taken by Alexandre Dumas, whose version of the story is titled “Urbain Grandier.”

But there’s also third way to read it: the story of the nuns. In the Church’s version, and in Dumas’ version, the nuns are tools: either vessels used as tools by demons, or pawns of a corrupt Church. But what happens if we look at the story as one that belongs to the nuns first and foremost?

Jeanne des Anges, the prioress, described her initial reaction to one of the exorcists as demonically driven:

“To my great confusion it happened that in the first days after Father Lactance was assigned to me as director and exorcist, I disapproved of many little things in his way of acting, however good they were, but it was because I was wicked…I thought to myself that it would be better to follow the methods of other priests. As I negligently lingered on this thought it came to my mind that in order to humiliate the Father the demon had done something irreverent to the very holy Sacrament.”

Possession, in the 17th century and in Ghostbusters alike, is read as the struggle between good and evil for dominance over a woman. The woman possessed; the man who cares for her soul trying desperately to save her from the evil that inhabits her body. The woman as object; the man as subject. The struggle is between man and demon, with woman there only as a vessel.

But read Jeanne’s words again. Without the demon, this just sounds like a woman who hates her new boss and cannot justify it in a system where her boss is divinely ordained. Jeanne des Anges knows that she, a bride of Christ, is meant to submit to the priest, and yet, she does not like “many little things in his way of acting.” A good nun would not be critical of a holy priest, and Jeanne des Anges is a good nun. But she is already known to be possessed, so this wicked thought can be blamed on her unwelcome inhabitant.

When Jeanne des Anges spits a communion wafer in her confessor’s face, then, this is not a woman’s expression of contempt for a man who has outsized power in her life, but the heroic struggle and failure of a woman to suppress the demon inside her. If we take the scene from Jeanne des Anges’s point of view, it is she who is engaged in the battle, she who is fighting the wickedness threatening to overwhelm her.

The struggle, though framed as one between priest and devil, is first and foremost a struggle between woman and devil. Its battlefield is the body, and the first line of defense is the body’s original inhabitant.

Dana’s possession could have been about Dana. But there is no Dana; only Zuul.

***

The new female Ghostbusters have inspired outrage from the moment their movie was announced. To give women the power of exorcism is to give women agency without constraint or necessary subterfuge, to make them unequivocally the heroes in a story, maybe even to imply that it was always theirs to begin with. If women are no longer objects to be possessed by demons or by men, then maybe they belong to themselves.

This sort of thinking doesn’t sound radical, but looking back on the childhood movies that defined heroism for a generation, it’s hard to think of one in which women are subjects rather than objects. Women as protagonists are dangerous to the narrative that women are a prize for men — or more than a prize, the battlefield itself, a space to be fought in or wrested by men from evil. What does it mean when women are not possessed, but fighting possession?

***

In the final arc of her personal hero’s journey, Jeanne des Anges triumphed. The final demon driven from her body, the names of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and the saintly François de Sales appeared on her hand. She toured France with the miraculous signs on display, and went on to write an autobiography apparently modeled on that of St. Teresa of Ávila.

Like Dana, moving within the constraints of a cinematic world built on the male gaze and the female body as reward, Jeanne des Anges was moving in a world built on masculine power and female shame. To press against those boundaries was as much as either could do. Dana’s resistance is often absent from her dialogue, but present in her body language. We know she doesn’t want to make small talk with Louis, however pleasant her voice might be, because her mouth tightens and she darts a glance at her door. We know that Jeanne des Anges didn’t like the way her confessor behaved, even though she can’t take on the agency for that dislike.

Within the bonds, however, there’s still room to move. To buck, to sway, to protest in the voice of a demon. When that room is all you have, sometimes you take it. Sometimes you tell your own story to remind everyone that you are the protagonist in your own life.

***

I saw the new Ghostbusters with my 11-year-old daughter. It was the first movie she’d ever seen in which a team of female heroes are never subjected to the male gaze — in which they are always the agent, never the possessed. It was the first movie like that I’d ever seen, too.

There is spirit possession in the new Ghostbusters: you’ve seen one scene in the trailers, where one of the Ghostbusters is briefly possessed an evil ghost but quickly saved by one of her colleagues. Female friendship, female cooperation, is enough here to drive out evil. When women’s bodies are the battleground, women just as quickly become the warriors. Nor are women uniquely susceptible to possession: the hunky male receptionist is possessed, too, and must be saved.

The first Ghostbusters movie suggested to boys that if they just hung around long enough, women would see that their other options for possession were far worse than just giving in. The new Ghostbusters movie tells girls that there’s another option. They can possess themselves.

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