‘My Best Friend’s Exorcism’ Star Elsie Fisher on ’80s Horror and the Legacy of ‘Eighth Grade’

“Doing a literal exorcism scene is a career goal, and I went there, and it was great,” Fisher told TheWrap

Elsie Fisher in "My Best Friend's Exorcism" (Prime Video)

In an industry that frequently sees 20 and 30-year-olds playing high schoolers, Elsie Fisher is the rare performer who acts her own age. To that effect, she’s made a name for herself with her tenderly studied portrayals of unlikely teen protagonists: the soft-spoken Kayla Day in Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade”; the daughter of Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s “Castle Rock”; and Lila, the “final girl” in 2022’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

With “My Best Friend’s Exorcism,” Fisher brings humanity to horror once again as Abby, a sophomore hell-bent on rescuing her best friend Gretchen (Amiah Miller) from demonic possession. Based on the book by Grady Hendrix, the film is a fresh take on the exorcism and teen horror flicks of the ‘70s and ‘80s, weaving in subjects like sexual assault, religious repression and queerness from a contemporary perspective.

Like “Jennifer’s Body” and “Heathers” before it, “My Best Friend Exorcism” is hard to pigeonhole — which, to Fisher, was part of the appeal.

“It’s hard to describe because it feels [in] a lot of ways like a coming-of-age movie, but it’s also a horror, but it’s also sort of a campy horror comedy,” Fisher, who has no pronoun preference, told TheWrap. “There’s something so special about horror movies from the ‘80s, where they have this sort of campiness that maybe was a little bit intentional. But they can still really freak people out.”

Having already experienced starring in a slasher, Fisher welcomed the opportunity to act in a subgenre that allows for “more grounded moments.”

In addition to checking off the classic exorcism tropes (projectile vomiting, full-body contortions), Gretchen’s devil makes her exploit her friends’ deepest secrets and insecurities. The public humiliation she inflicts feels closer to “Pen15” or “Freaks and Geeks” than your typical exorcism movie. As Abby comes to terms with what’s happening to her friend, she grapples with survivor’s guilt and the frustration of not being taken seriously by the adults she turns to for help.

For a longtime horror fan like Fisher, “doing a literal exorcism scene is a career goal, and I went there, and it was great.”

When it came to the big moment, the production team used practical effects wherever possible, even employing a body double for Miller.

“That was great, having an actual visual for some of the freaky things that were going on,” Fisher said. “Because sometimes you have to act to an orb on a stick or something, [which is] more challenging as an actor.”

Admittedly, there were “definitely times” she envied Miller for getting to play possessed. If given the chance to act in another exorcism movie, Fisher said she’d be “so down” to reverse roles.

“I feel like I’ve had a really good run [of playing] protagonists, and I think I could do a good creature,” she said. “You know, I could be a scary little guy.”

Rather than rewatching “The Exorcist,” Fisher prepared by watching “Killing Eve,” the show director Damon Thomas had previously worked on. Beyond that, Fisher had “free rein” to do what they felt was right for their character.

“Since the film itself is, in a way, an homage and a reference to ’80s horror, but also its own thing, that’s where I also fell in terms of trying to make Abby not cliche as much as possible,” she explained. “Because I think there’s probably a world in which that role is played sort of more on the page.”

“My Best Friend’s Exorcism”s approach to its characters and their struggles – both natural and demon-driven – illustrates how far stories about young adults have come over the last few decades.

“I’m not someone who grew up in the ’80s, so I don’t really have a perspective on that. Really, what we have is our films,” Fisher said. “I mean, you go back and rewatch ‘Sixteen Candles,’ which is heralded as the coming-of-age movie of the time, and it’s amazing… That being said, there’s parts of it that aged really [badly]. There is a scene where she gets pretty much sexually assaulted and that’s kind of played for laughs.”

40 years later, “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” looks at that topic and other ‘80s teen movie tropes through a modern-day lens. What makes the film realistic and important in Fisher’s eyes is that it addresses these things “in a manner that the movie itself isn’t necessarily condoning.”

Overall, the 19-year-old thinks film still has a long way to go when it comes to depictions of teenagers. “I think a lot of films portray teenagers as a whole separate group of people,” she observed. “[As a teenager], you fall into this strange in-between space where you’re still a kid, but you’re also on the cusp of adulthood, and you have mature, fully formed thoughts, but then you can’t always express them, right? Like you have good intentions, but you can’t quite do the right thing.” Ultimately, “adolescents want to have more agency than they’re allowed,” and their onscreen counterparts should reflect that.

With less than a year of teenagerhood left to go, Fisher has been thinking a lot about their “younger years.” In the nearly five years since “Eighth Grade” came out, they’ve had time to reflect on starring in one of the era’s definitive coming-of-age indies.

“The movie itself felt so visceral and real to me at the time, and especially when we were sort of promoting it,” Fisher said, noting that they haven’t seen the film since then. “I feel like, instead of seeing myself, sometimes I can now almost see the character, just because I’ve grown so different. I think also I’m able to give myself a lot more sympathy, like that age really was so crazy, and now it’s just one of those things where you really have to grow a bit older and step away to be able to see that.”

The relentless pace of culture and technology has already rendered the 2018 film as something of a time capsule, and by that nature somewhat obsolete. Many of the memes it referenced have been gathering dust for years, while TikTok has dethroned YouTube in the realm of social media.

Fisher said they’re curious to see how “generation alpha, or whatever they’re called, the robot generation” will look back on “Eighth Grade.” “If our film sort of survives past then, I’d love to hear what they think,” they added.

Though they believe “the turnover rate of how people [consume] movies is a lot faster than it used to be,” Fisher is confident that the works of horror maestros like Jordan Peele and Ti West will withstand the test of time.

From personal experience, they know a thing or two about making horror that lasts. “I think one of the biggest pitfalls of horror is like having protagonists that no one cares about,” she said. “But if they’re funny, charming and have life, people will actually care about if they die and be scared.”

“My Best Friend’s Exorcism” is now streaming on Prime Video.