Based on the novel of the same name by Frank de Felitta
Starring Barbara Hershey and Ron Silver
Running Time: 125 minutes
The film, released in 1982, explores the domestic abuse/woman-as-masochist stereotype by veiling it as a supernatural horror film. But what made the film’s uncomfortable hypothesis impossible to dismiss was that it was based on a true story.Kier-La Janisse, House of Psychotic Women
Janisse precipitates her analysis of The Entity by talking about her earliest memory – unknowingly interrupting her mother’s rape by breaking out of her locked room and responding to her mother’s cries. Later, she also remembered overhearing a conversation in which her mother told a friend how much The Entity had frightened and disturbed her. This was a common reaction among the film’s female audience, for many reasons. My own mother mentioned the film when we talked about the movies that she found frightening. Janisse believes that the film is an allegory for domestic abuse, but it also touches on a specific trope regarding a woman’s experience with fear which we see reoccur throughout the genre.
In the film, Carla Moran (Hershey) is being haunted by something brutal and completely focused on terrorizing her. It’s described at different points as a ghost, a poltergeist, and even a demonic presence. It violently moves objects and creates lightning-like electricity, but its main infliction of terror occurs through rape and sexual assault. We watch this happen, so the audience knows that there is indeed an unseen force attacking Carla, but everyone around her is skeptical and advises her to seek psychological help. She does so, as she recognizes how illogical her story sounds. She’s adamant about wanting the experiences to stop, and is willing to accept that she might be causing them if that will make them go away.
As a female horror fan, I was struck most by how the film illustrates something we’ve seen in many horror films before and since The Entity‘s release – the dismissal of a woman’s fear, and more specifically, her idea that something otherworldly is occurring. We see this with Chris MacNeil’s assertion that her daughter is possessed (The Exorcist), Rosemary Woodhouse’s belief that Satanists are trying to kill and/or kidnap her unborn baby (Rosemary’s Baby), and Johanna Eberhart’s discovery that the women in her neighborhood are being replaced with robots (The Stepford Wives). We’ve also seen it very recently with Amelia’s struggle to protect herself and her son from evil in The Babadook.
The Entity specifically addresses something that we only get hints of in those other films, however. While the usual “it’s all in your head” attitude is taken by her psychiatrist and the panel of doctors he enlists to help out, they also directly say that the occurrences they believe to be hallucinations or delusions are related to her gender and traumatic sexual experiences she may have endured as a child. The word “hysteria” is mentioned, and while it has a more generalized meaning in modern medical parlance, the context in which it’s used in the film directly ties to the old-school definition – “female hysteria”.
Even when people begin to witness Carla’s attacks – her children, her best friend, her boyfriend, and skeptical parapsychologists – the psychiatrists attribute it to mass hallucination, as if that is somehow more plausible than all of those people witnessing legitimate events. Carla feels powerless when no one believes her, but begins to gain confidence when she is supported by the people around her. Her confidence is what weakens the entity, not the psychiatrists’ methodical attempts to get her to face her own metaphorical demons and not even the parapsychologists radical science experiments. It is only when she refuses to let the entity have power over her that she feels her power restored.
While our fears are not usually supernatural in nature, I think it’s safe to say that most women (and some men, I’m sure) have had the experience of being dismissed when talking about being afraid. I know that I’ve heard “Don’t worry!” or “Nothing will happen!” when I’ve expressed trepidation at taking public transportation at night, or being alone at night in my apartment when my husband is away. The fact is, things do happen. We see and hear about it all the time. Having those kinds of fears dismissed does make me feel like I’m being silly, even when they’re actually fairly legitimate. But it also makes it easy to empathize with Chris, Rosemary, Johanna, Amelia, and Carla, even though their experiences are “impossible” and so far afield from my own.
I think that’s part of why I love horror so much. Skillfully done horror allows us to compartmentalize real (usually scary) experiences and look at them through the lens of fiction, without taking away the honesty and sincerity of what they represent. Horror movies speak to us because they project what we’re already feeling in an entertaining and artful way that masquerades as escapism.
Do you have thoughts on The Entity or Kier-La Janisse’s analysis in House of Psychotic Women? Let me know in the comments below!
“Doris Bither and the Real Story Behind the Movie The Entity” from Before It’s News
“The Real Entity Case” by Dr. Barry Taff (one of the actual parapsychologists involved)
“Women and Hysteria in the History of Mental Health” by Cecilia Tasca, Mariangela Rapetti, Mauro Giovanni Carta, and Bianca Fadda, from Clin Pract Epidemiol Ment Health. 2012; 8: 110–119
Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing by Isabel Cristina Pinedo, pgs. 25, 76-77
I’ll be watching Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity, which is available for rent or purchase via Amazon Video’s streaming service.