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Literature / A Head Full of Ghosts

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A Head Full of Ghosts is a 2015 novel by Paul Tremblay. A blend of Gothic horror and family drama, Tremblay's book won the 2016 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Novel.

The book's perspective regularly flips between the childhoods of sisters Merry and Marjorie in the early 2010s, and a the mid 2020s, in which horror vlogger Karen and journalist Rachel Neville discuss Merry and Marjorie. Marjorie is famous because she was supposedly possessed and a cult classic reality TV show was produced surrounding her exorcism. The two adult women wind up uncovering many things not yet known to the public, and try to uncover if Marjorie truly was possessed or of she just had an untreated mental illness.

The book has purportedly been optioned for a film.

Some examples of tropes appearing in the story include:

  • Abusive Parents:
    • John, the father of Merry and Marjorie, is suspected of abusing Marjorie, though it's just suggested that he can't handle what might either be her severe mental illness or her possession. While his behaviour is very concerning and definitely abusive at times - like the reality show - Tremblay goes to lengths to show that he's genuinely trying to help them to some extent.
    • Sarah, their mother, is a full-blown Alcoholic Parent and Lady Drunk by the middle of the novel, but it's caused by all of the stress of keeping her family together.
  • Ambiguous Situation: Throughout...
    • Who is possessed? Marjorie? Merry? John? None of them? Marjorie claims that all of them except Merry were possessed at various points in the book, but it's at least heavily implied that Marjorie at least thought Merry was possessed.
    • Who killed the family? Marjorie gets the blame In-Universe, but she warned Merry that this was John's plan, so it appears to be a Cassandra Truth. But Merry is the Sole Survivor, and there are heavy hints that Merry is possessed throughout, so it's distinctly possible that she's lying about all of this or most of it.
      • Related to this, was John ever intending to kill them, or was that just a Red Herring?
    • Is it possession or mental illness that torments the family?
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Merry, to Marjorie.
  • Big Sister Instinct: Subverted in Marjorie's behaviour, except in several possible interpretations of the ending where it's played straight, for Nightmare Fuel. Marjorie may have faked her possession because she knew that it was actually Merry who was possessed and she wanted to help her. It's also heavily suggested that, if Marjorie is behind the familicide at the end, that she deliberately spares Merry because of this.
    • At one point Marjorie tells Merry that she faked everything so that her family could get out of their financial rut by selling their story, but the scene is framed so that it's unclear if Marjorie herself even believes what she's saying.
  • Big Sister Worship: Merry looks up to Marjorie. She wants to do the things Marjorie does (like be a soccer star), and when Marjorie changes her room around, so does Merry.
  • Break the Cutie: Both Marjorie and Merry, but more so Marjorie.
  • Bucket Boobytrap: When Marjorie tells her she's been sneaking into Merry's room, Merry rigs an orange can to fall off the door and create enough noise to wake her.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • Spaghetti, of all damned things.
    • Crosses. John is mentioned cleaning a cross obsessively over and over after the reality show. Marjorie argues that he's going to use the cleaning fluid to massacre them. Merry only later finds out that it might have been because he was just cleaning them.
  • Creepy Child: While Marjorie is 14, she is definitely creepy.
  • Dawson Casting: An in-universe example, lampshaded. During the reality show, a 23-year-old actress is cast as 14-year-old Marjorie.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: Played with. Word of God says that the ending is intentionally ambiguous, but all the hallmarks of demonic possession return, revealed to be Chekhovs Guns, and applied to Merry, which leaves Rachel with the impression that Merry might be either her family's killer or the one still possessed, although it's never confirmed.
  • Epistolary Novel: Played with. The structure of the book is in the form of various points of view, including Merry's first person narration about the events fifteen years in the past, the stories the girls like to make up, and blogs devoted to the reality show.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: Merry's fate in the past timeline. Her whole family dies except her and she hides under the table for days until her aunt rescues her.
  • Family Theme Naming : Sisters Marjorie and Meredith (Merry). When Merry makes up a story about ants, she mentions the ants will all be given "A" names.
  • Freak Out : Marjorie gets a spectacular one early on, including punching holes in the walls and climbing them like a spider.
  • The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry : Marjorie and Meredith start with normal amounts of this, but it gets scary quickly.
  • Hollywood Exorcism: Marjorie's. "Karen", aka older Merry, heavily discusses it and points out all the ways that it qualifies.
  • Hollywood Satanism: In-universe discussed as the blame for Marjorie's mental health "issues", and one of the main reasons that Merry thinks it was a delusion.
  • Intrepid Reporter : Rachel Neville, who is working on a book about the family.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Once the show starts airing Marjorie and Merry start getting made fun of.
  • Lampshade Hanging : Quite a bit, particularly during the "blog analysis" sections. The things that happen to Marjorie are common depictions in "exorcism" fiction, and the blog sections are ready to point this out, making the story self-referential.
  • Laughing Mad : One of the indicators of Marjorie's mental collapse is her creepy giggling.
  • Loophole Abuse : When their father wants to say grace, Merry says they don't have to because they're at the kitchen table. She's fond of finding loopholes.
  • Magic Versus Science: Of course, but deliberately evoked in the differing reactions of Marjorie's parents - her mother firmly believes that only therapy can help the schizophrenic Marjorie, while her father borders on religious zealotry.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Deliberately invoked. There's enough evidence in the book to support the belief that the possession is real or if it is just Marjorie's madness. Or if Merry is possessed.
  • Mid-Season Twist: Although a book (and one about a television series), the revelation that Merry's family were the victim of a massacre occurs exactly at this point and turns it from just a postmodern exorcism story to a whodunnit.
  • Most Writers Are Writers : Both Rachel, the writer working on the book, and the adult Merry.
  • Mundane Solution: Posited as possibilities, but not answered.
    • Karen theorizes that this is how Marjorie was able to break her bonds during the exorcism. She didn't. Sarah loosened them because she was scared by the violence of the exorcism and angry at John's fanaticism.
    • There never was a demon. It took place Through the Eyes of Madness, and the family's mental health suffered.
  • Next Sunday A.D. : Merry's narration takes place fifteen years after the events of the reality show. Young Merry is obsessed with the show Finding Bigfoot, which first aired in 2011, which puts the present day in 2026 at the earliest.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed : If you consider the Westboro Baptist Church a celebrity, the sign-carrying protesters make an appearance but aren't named outright.
  • Old, Dark House : The family home is very old and rambling, with odd staircases and crumbling plaster. This also subverts the Reality TV Show Mansion trope.
  • Only Sane Man: Merry and Marjorie's mother, Sarah, who firmly believes that Marjorie is schizophrenic and needs psychiatric care, but is also the only person with a job and trying to keep the family together when John becomes increasingly obsessed with religion.
  • Rags to Riches: Once the show starts airing, the family's financial situation noticeably improves. They go from having to ration heir food and eat very little to being able to bulk buy groceries and eat big meals again.
  • Reality TV Show Mansion: Deconstructed and subverted in the family's house. There's a Confession Cam, it's huge, and it's considered a very appealing settling because of its Gothic architecture, but it's also falling to pieces, they can barely afford to eat most days, and they also live there after the show is finished until their deaths.
  • Red Is Violent: Why else does older Merry wear a red coat in the final scene?
  • Red Shirt: The "young exorcist" might as well be wearing one.
  • Reference Overdosed: An extremely rare example of this happening in-universe. Karen, a.ka. older Merry theorises that this is a direct cause of Marjorie's possession, that she is acting out stories and set pieces of other iconic horror movies, especially possession stories.
  • Sanity Slippage: Occurs to everyone. Obviously Marjorie is the most blatant example, but everyone suffers this under the stress of her illness/possession.
  • Satanic Panic: A postmodern update, in the context of The New '10s, especially the recession, after teenage daughter Marjorie appears to be possessed and they invite a reality show into their home for an exorcism. It's left firmly in the case of Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane, as it never firmly answers who is possessed, if anybody.
  • Shout-Out: The text is littered with direct pop culture references, such as Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist (there are a lot of Exorcist references, including a Wall Crawl), The Last Exorcism (which 'Karen' says is awful), and just about every other Satanic film that had been released at the time. Some of the more hidden ones are:
    • No coincidence that the psychiatric consultant Father Wanderly brings in is named Navidson.
    • Merry shares her name with another homicidal little sister, Merricat.
    • Marjorie likes hanging out in the sunroom, which which is constantly noted as having yellow wallpaper.
  • Show Within a Show : The girls are fond of writing their own stories about characters in Richard Scarry books.
  • Sole Survivor: Merry, of the familicide.
  • Stunned Silence : At the dinner table, after Marjorie says something very strange.
  • Take That!: Several, but particularly to The Exorcist and The Last Exorcism, with karen calling out the ending of the latter.
  • Tuckerization : Merry's tutor is named for Tremblay's friend and sometime writing partner, author Stephen Graham Jones.
  • Two Aliases, One Character: Older Merry is revealed to be 'Karen', the horror blogger.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: One possible interpretation, though Wordof God says it's deliberately ambiguous. If you believe that demons did follow the family, the last lines suggest that Merry, rather than Marjorie, may have been possessed, and she is still possessed.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Par for the course given that this is a possession horror story. Some highlights include:
    • Marjorie walking into the living room and masturbating in front of her family.note 
    • Marjorie punching holes in her wall and crab walking around on it.
    • Marjorie tricking her sister into poisoning the pasta sauce, telling her that it will just knock them out and then mockingly telling her how delicious it is at the dinner table. It's unclear how much of that was the truth, however.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot : At the dinner table, no less.
  • Wall Crawl: In an Homage to The Exorcist, Marjorie walls-crawls while on her period in front of her family.