Think of the classic exorcist story reinterpreted with a modern hook: innocent girl turned evil, religious obsessives gone mad with thoughts of casting the demons out, documentary cameras filming every move. Even this doesn’t sound very interesting, because we know this story, right? Plenty of current movies chronicle this sort of thing. Even with that modern handheld camera twist, it’s already been done.
But now take it to a level of deeper awareness, in which the girl possessed may or may not be riffing off of those old classic films. In which the documentary film crew is from the same television station that brings you hits like Duck Dynasty, and they may or may not be staging the entire thing to make great TV. Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts nestles into a sort of self-awareness of its genre and its story that leaves its characters questioning themselves at every turn.
In small town New England, a family is being pulled apart from financial strain and something else. Something is not right with Marjorie Barrett. She’s either going through a serious case of teenage angst or she’s showing signs of a very dark and very creepy mental illness. Or, as her out-of-work blue collar father John concludes, Marjorie might be in need of a more religious variety of healing.
As Marjorie fights against normal psychiatrists and the Barretts savings dwindle, the sort of precarious agreement that makes fiction great is brokered between John Barrett’s local Catholic church and a documentary film crew. John wants his daughter saved and is convinced an exorcism is the solution, and is desperate for the money to do it. The church brings in the film crew to record the ordeal, thus saving the family from financial ruin while locking them in to an agreement to air their daughter’s struggles on nationwide television.
Thus, The Possession is created, a television documentary part-terrifying and part-homage to all the horror that came before it. A Head Full of Ghosts Marjorie’s illness and the making of the documentary about it through the eyes of her younger sister Merry. In the novel, a biographer seeks Merry’s side of the story fifteen years after the events of The Possession. Merry’s interactions with the biographer and her memories of childhood alongside Marjorie are spliced with blog posts from horror fangirl Karen, who analyzes both the intricacies and the gaping holes throughout The Possession.
If a novel about a fictional TV documentary has you thinking of that other book about a fictional documentary, House of Leaves, you’re correct in making the connection. Where House of Leaves never lifts the mask on its facade, A Head Full Of Ghosts picks up that eerie aura and throws it around, shines a light on it, then drops it down some stairs. This is mind-bending, very scary stuff that laughs at itself all the way to hell.