Last night was the penultimate episode of Penny Dreadful, S01E07 “Possession,” and viewers well-read in the horror genre will recognize this episode as an unusual combination of Reagan’s exorcism from The Exorcist and the vigil Lucy Westenra’s suitors hold over her as she succumbs to vampirism in Dracula. While superficially the two scenes that inspired this episode would seem to be vastly different, they share much in common. Penny Dreadful, as is its wont, failed to really build on its predecessors so much as reduce them to the least common denominator. It was an effective, tense, and watchable hour, but one that did not strive to be more than that.
In Dracula, Lucy gradually fades away under the nefarious influence of Count Dracula. In a futile attempt to save her life, Dr. Van Helsing calls together the men who sued to win her hand and takes from them their blood to replenish Lucy’s failing supply. The girl, especially in later interpretations like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), is essentially punished for her sexuality, for she takes within herself the vital essence of many men, corrupts it, and threatens them with death until they finally band together and bond with each other through thrusting a pointy stick through her heart, sparking many gender-based symbolic readings. By contrast, the exorcism of the child Reagan seems very different at first since the girl is prepubescent, the men who try to save her are celibate priests, and the expression of sexuality is more blatant: The demon possessing Reagan famously masturbates her with a crucifix. (William Peter Blatty based The Exorcist on an alleged real-life event, but turned the possessed from boy to girl to better play on gendered stereotypes about the innocence of little girls.)
But the two scenes share thematic similarities. In both the supposed innocent core of a girl is threatened by a demoniacal outside force representing evil. In both, the girl is physical violated by that monster, mentally dominated by him, and confined to a bed where she is attended by multiple men looking to free her from this control. In both, the demonic force is represented (explicitly or implicitly) by sexuality, which is equated with extinction of the self, either in the form of physical or spiritual death, or both. And in both cases, Catholic rituals and rites are employed as the only effective way to combat the scourge of the devil. This is especially odd in Dracula, taking place as it does among Protestants, who explicitly comment on their discomfort with relying on Catholicism to save them.
Penny Dreadful draws on these themes but reduces them to their similarities rather than using them as a springboard to build something new. In this episode, Vanessa is possessed by a demon, and I must comment here that Eva Green does remarkable work portraying Vanessa’s turns between normalcy and full on possession. We need not speculate any longer that the demon is meant as a symbol of the evils of female sexuality; Dr. Frankenstein explicitly informs us that in his opinion, it activates (essentially) when she is sexually aroused.
But thematically, the show is an odd echo of the Dracula original. There, as I noted, most of the men involved in trying to save Lucy were in love with her, and all of them were sexually attracted to here. Here, however, the symbolism is different. Sir Malcolm essentially sees Vanessa as an object or a tool, one he loathes. Ethan Chandler sees her with sympathy, but like a rabid dog he wants to see put down rather than used as a weapon. Dr. Frankenstein pointedly has no interest in women whatsoever, as underscored when Ethan attempts to teach him to shoot and knowingly retracts an analogy between handling a trigger and brushing a woman’s neck when he recognizes Frankenstein’s ignorance. Even Sir Malcom—robustly, rapaciously heterosexual—claims to be motivated mostly by his desire to reassert his patriarchal control over the life choices of his daughter Mina and honor his dead son Peter. Therefore, unlike Dracula, the parallel scene here is stripped of its sexual overtones, leaving Vanessa’s sexuality as a monster with little external threat.
It is something to be tamed and controlled, of course—that theme carries over in each version. But here it is rather abstract. These men don’t really have a vested interest in the outcome; indeed, Ethan is ready to kill her before he performs and exorcism on her and (in theory) puts her sex demon back in the bottle and renders Vanessa nonthreatening again. Instead, we see Ethan and Frankenstein bond over shooting—could the phallic symbolism be more blatant? And Ethan explicitly identifies (though jokingly) Sir Malcom as their “Dad.” Even the revelation that Ethan had been having sex with Dorian Gray didn’t do much to phase the other men.
Perhaps the most important revelation in this episode is that the show has no real plan to tell a complete or coherent story in this eight-episode run. Instead, it is all set up for future seasons of a Gothic soap opera about the many and varied was men relate to one another, and how women seem to threaten this.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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