Inner Demons: Why TITANS Is a Full Blown Horror Series
I’ve got to be honest: I wasn’t overly looking forward to Titans. The idea of a live action rendition of Teen Titans sounded great and the Robin suit looked fantastic, but that first trailer left me lukewarm to say the least. It looked like such a bizarre take considering how light and fun Teen Titans Go had been (not to mention the high quality of the previous animated series) and considering the fact that a movie was hitting theaters based on that cartoon only months before this very different show would make its premiere. Why make this of all properties into something dark, gritty and edgy? That’s all I could think about, was that there was going to be an attempt to turn Teen Titans into something like Marvel’s Netflix shows, like Daredevil or The Punisher.
Thankfully, I was way off on that. Titans isn’t trying to be a gritty, edgy superhero show because it’s not really trying to be a superhero show at all. It takes themes that have always been prominent in the Teen Titans lore and brings them to the surface, restructuring the entire concept as a full blown horror show. To be even more specific, it’s a possession show. And it works.
Even that sounds jarring, but DC’s always been great at Elseworlds stories that reinterpret the characters in different times, places, and even different genres. There was a comic in which Batman was bitten by a vampire, and Titans doesn’t seem too tonally far off from that. The smart thing with this show, though, is that even though it’s been light and fun for so long, those horror elements have always been there, they’ve just been suppressed so there could be more of a spotlight on the heroics. Titans simply reverses that focus.
Raven (though we meet her as Rachel, she’s not quite there yet) is a girl with a demon inside of her. That’s always been the case, and here it’s the thing that the entire series revolves around. This is treated very much like a possession in line with any movie dealing with the subject, even falling back on many of the black-eyed, open mouth possession stereotypes that have defined that type of film for the past decade. When we’re first introduced to the character, she’s screaming, waking up from a nightmare in a scene that echoes Tina’s introduction in A Nightmare on Elm Street. The girl is comforted by her mother, who still seems a little distant and a little nervous. As soon as the mother leaves the room, though, that’s when it first clicked for me what this show was going to be.
She steps out of the girl’s bedroom to reveal that the door is covered in crucifixes. After shaking for a second, one of them falls and then we cut to the credits. Making that the last shot of the teaser, more than anything, announces just what this show is aiming for. This single shot is a time honored possession trope that immediately brings to mind films like The Conjuring, Amityville II: The Possession and of course The Exorcist.
It’s that last, and most celebrated, that Titans seems to borrow from the most. Rachel is just like Reagan, an otherwise normal girl with a monster inside of her doing things that are completely beyond her control. Like Reagan, all she has is the comfort of her mother, and then that’s ripped away from her. That’s what throws her whole world out of balance. In The Exorcist, Chris’s love for Reagan drove the whole film, but in Titans that link is broken before it is even truly established, leaving the show to revolve around another relationship that entirely reflects that classic film.
That’s where the show’s interpretation of Robin comes into play. He’s the most drastic. After the trailer, he was the one people were most nervous about, and probably for good reason. But with the show’s complete restructuring as a horror series, he is against all odds the character that makes the most sense. It’s true that this Robin is more violent, more cruel and wholly more unbalanced than anyone would have expected from this character in particular. But that’s entirely the point. Robin is, when we meet him, very far from the person he used to be and is very aware of that fact. His methods are too far and he knows it. He doesn’t believe in the cause anymore. Robin is in the middle of a sincere crisis of faith. In this story, if Rachel is Reagan, Dick Grayson is Father Karras.
That completely puts the new approach in perspective. Robin was the boy wonder and he was good at it. But imagine growing up in Gotham City, imagine being raised by Batman and imagine the toll that that takes. Eventually, one could stop seeing the point without even realizing they’ve stopped seeing it. Dick doesn’t believe in the fight, at least not in the way he used to, and that loss of hope and focus has manifested inside him in a very violent way. But when stepping back and just looking at what Robin’s going through in general, he’s having exactly the crisis of faith that Karras had in The Exorcist, only with being a superhero instead of being a priest. Hell, in DC terms, saying “Fuck Batman” is basically the equivalent of turning your back on the church.
But the motivations between Dick and Karras are so clearly the same. Just like Karras, he’s someone wrestling with metaphorical demons who finds a young girl dealing with very literal ones. And just like Karras, he believes that if he helps this girl, he could put his own demons to rest, that he could finally regain his sense of purpose.
Of course, being Robin, there’s a deeper element to it as well. As a fan of the underdogs in comics, Robin has always been one of my favorite characters and this part of his arc is where the core of the character I love shines through. I’ve always gravitated toward stories that highlight Robin’s strained relationship with Batman, dating back to the Emmy nominated “Robin’s Reckoning” arc of Batman: The Animated Series. There’s a tragic element to their relationship in that both of them are afraid of Dick becoming too much like Batman someday, but neither one of them ever feels like there’s anything they can do to stop that from happening.
That still, of course, feeds into his decision to help poor Rachel. There’s an element of his need to take care of her, potentially taking her in, so that he can succeed where Batman failed and be there for her in a way that Batman never had been. Which reflects the comic character while still feeling reflective of the inner conflict that led to Karras’ decision to help the McNeill family in The Exorcist.
There are heavy echoes of The Exorcist TV series as well. In fact, the show feels as influenced by that as anything else. From the abundant religious imagery, to the nuns, the cinematography and even the color palate, Titans almost feels like it could easily have just been released as the third season of that show. Like The Exorcist TV show, it doesn’t just tell a possession story but focuses on a larger, mysterious and clearly evil organization that wants to use this possessed girl for its own means, whether for some higher purpose or simply out of worship of whatever is actually lurking inside her.
As the series goes on, Rachel’s arc and the investigation of the group that’s after her even pushes us into The Omen territory, again strengthening the show’s horror connections, as it’s basically revealed that while Rachel is still a vulnerable girl dealing with things entirely beyond her control, she might also be the Antichrist. Or at least some DC Universe version of whatever that would entail. That’s such completely nuts territory for a show like this, based on these characters, to venture in that I simply can’t help but go along for the ride.
Each of the characters are given a distinctly horror spin without losing the core of who that character is. Dove, for instance, is perhaps the most pure superhero in the entire story—and there’s a reason for that. She’s the Father Dyer in this Exorcist narrative, she’s the one that still believes and is there to guide Robin through his crisis and hopefully direct him back toward the light.
Starfire and Beast Boy don’t fit with the Exorcist narrative all that much, but that’s because they’re both literally their own walking sub-genres. When we’re first introduced to Beast Boy, it feels just like the comics. There’s a green tiger bounding through the woods, but then when he begins to shift back into a human, the intent is made clear. We hear his bones snapping and reconfiguring, we see the pain of this transformation. The scene so heavily reflects An American Werewolf in London that it has to be intentional. And it makes sense because, as a shape shifter, that’s who Beast Boy is and that’s the kind of horror he goes through every time he transforms.
With Starfire, it’s harder to say because not everything has been revealed yet, but it looks like the series is building toward a very interesting twist on this character. When we’re first introduced to her, she has no idea who she is. She walks away from a car wreck that appears to have given her amnesia, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Other forces who have come in contact with her have referred to her as a “being” and that should make sense for people aware of the fact that, in the comics, she’s an alien. If I were to make a guess, I think that whoever this body belonged to actually died in that crash, and the show is giving us a really interesting Body Snatchers take on Starfire as an alien, something that slipped into this host body as soon as the previous owner slipped out of it.
There are so many genre homages in Titans, and they’re not just in the visual details or Easter Eggs, they’re in the core characters themselves. Everything has been reconfigured to be a horror version of the concept, reinterpreting the universe of Teen Titans through a genre lens. It’s still jarring, it’s still a totally unexpected approach, but—for now at least—the most surprising thing about it is still the fact that it’s actually good.