POSSESSED

How the ‘Exorcist’ TV Show Is Breaking Ground for Diversity in Horror

The excellent horror show, now in its second season, predominantly stars people of color—now including John Cho—setting a standard for effortless inclusion on TV.

How the ‘Exorcist’ TV Show Is Breaking Ground for Diversity in Horror

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, released in 1973, is still one of the most iconic horror films of all time. This is both a blessing and a curse for the Fox TV series that serves as a continuation of the story: it’s got brand awareness to give it a little boost, but it also needs to be damn good to live up to that name. Luckily, the show has all that, and more.

The big reveal in the show’s first season was that Angela Rance (Geena Davis) was the grown-up Regan MacNeil. She’d changed her name to escape the demons that had plagued her as a child, but no such luck —the demon Pazuzu possessed her daughter, and then her, before finally being driven out by priests Tomas Ortega (Alfonso Herrera) and Marcus Keane (Ben Daniels). The second season picks up not too long afterward: Marcus is training Tomas to become a full-fledged exorcist without tapping into his ability to step into the minds of others—a method that’s effective, but leaves him vulnerable to the demons at play. Meanwhile, there’s still the matter of demons in the Vatican, and now also in a foster home in the Pacific Northwest.

In explaining its connection to the original Exorcist, the show has also divested itself of the constraints of a franchise, and the potential for what lies ahead is thrilling. Even in its first season, The Exorcist quietly pushed the boundaries of what was expected on network television. The narrative is weighted toward women—as is the creative team, relatively speaking—and the cast is predominantly made up of people of color without ever treating it like an abnormality. It’s just true to life. Tomas and Marcus are aided by Father Devin Bennett (Kurt Egyiawan) and, with John Cho joining the cast as Andrew Kim, a foster father to a flock of kids including Brianna Hildebrand and Alex Barima, and Li Jun Li as social worker Rose Cooper, the show is only leaning further into that territory.

People of color rarely fare well in horror. There’ve been endless jokes made out of the fact that the only person of color in any given cast—usually black—will always be the first to bite the bullet. Then there’s the strange in-between space occupied by Asian characters, whose presence in Western horror is a rarity on the whole. Asian horror is its own genre, after all — The Ring and The Grudge are some of the best-known examples—and it’s informed by a cultural background that’s distinct from the Christianity-based horror of franchises like The Exorcist. But there’s a middle ground. Last year’s The Wailing, for instance, was a Korean horror film that blended old-school Korean shamanism with Christian ideas of the supernatural to chilling effect. It proved a point: horror isn’t an inherently exclusive phenomenon, so why keep it an exclusive genre?

The second season of The Exorcist is exciting for how clearly it makes this case. There’s not a single scene in the premiere that centers on the backgrounds of its characters beyond their relationship to spirituality. The tensions come from adolescent anxiety, a learning curve, and frustration with an unfair system (fitting in its own way), even though it’d be easy to fall back on less progressive mores. And given how caring the show’s creative team has been so far about giving everyone a fair shake—the role of Andrew was notably written with Cho in mind—things can only get better.

The premiere affords a good sense of each piece on the board. Everyone in Andy’s home—including Andy himself—has suffered some loss that makes them vulnerable to possession, and the ghost stories they tell each other are truer than they realize. There’s something malevolent in the woods of the island they live on. There’s also a clever emphasis on everyday scares before any demons even begin to come into play—one kid sleepwalks, one is shy to the point of preferring to wear a (somewhat creepy) mask, another is dealing with the knowledge that she’ll soon age out of the foster home system. But then, the familiar has always been the best jumping-off point for horror.

Even exorcism as presented in the show ultimately boils down to something that’s not really supernatural at all. Tomas’ ability to help others is dependent upon opening himself up to them, the good and the bad. At the risk of sounding too navel-gaze-y, it’s a neat metaphor for human interactions on the whole.

Accordingly, the best scares in the series come from the little details. The little kid’s mask serves up the first jump scare in the new season, for instance, and the lengths the kids are willing to go to in order to feel like they’re a proper part of the family are easily the most suspenseful part of the premiere. But that’s not to say that there aren’t horrors to be found in the supernatural. Tomas’ dives into a possessed mind are terrifying in how unpredictable they are, and the end of last week’s premiere—which revealed Tomas’ vision of the handprints decorating Andrew’s home and succinctly linked the two storylines together—is utterly unnerving.

In its first season, The Exorcist proved worthy of the horror pedigree it inherited, and by all appearances, it may exceed it in its second. Headed by the superlative Herrera, it’s a flag bearer for progress in the genre—and on TV as a whole—and only seems to be pushing those boundaries and conventions going forward.