New movie's balanced presentation of exorcism: The Exorcism of Emily Rose

New movie's balanced presentation of exorcism: The Exorcism of Emily Rose

Shannon Donahoo

If you talk about the devil today people tend to look at you strangely. After all, we are scientific people and the idea that demons exist doesn't fit with being scientific. Demons belong to the Middle Ages, along with beliefs in leprechauns, dragons and wizards.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a new movie by Scott Derrickson that examines whether or not a belief in the "forces of darkness" fits in with the third millennium.

Based on a true story, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is the tale of a young woman who claimed to be possessed by demons. An exorcism was performed but failed and Emily later died. The priest who conducted the exorcism is put on trial for negligent homicide. The movie follows the trial, flashing back to the exorcism as people take the stand and testify in court.

The jury must decide whether or not Emily was really possessed by demons (or was she mentally ill) and did Father Richard Moore contribute to Emily's death?

Naturally this film will be compared to the classic 1970s horror movie, The Exorcist, which also tells the story of a young girl battling demonic possession. Aside from that, the movies are very different. There is no floating in mid-air, head-spinning or projectile vomiting in The Exorcism of Emily Rose. And there are no subliminal ghost faces popping up in between frames either.

The Exorcist looks and sounds like a documentary, until the final scenes, slowly drawing you into believing that a young girl is possessed. The Exorcism of Emily Rose instead offers two explanations for Emily's increasingly odd behaviour - a medical one and a spiritual one. This movie takes a step back to address the question: do you have to be crazy to believe in the devil?

If only crazy people believe in the devil, then Jesus was crazy. After all, the Gospels contain dozens of passages where Jesus talks about demons or performs exorcisms himself. In fact, before he begins moving around and teaching, Jesus prepares by praying and fasting in the desert for forty days and he encounters the devil.

Based on this story alone we must reason that Jesus believed in the existence of evil spirits. If Jesus believed in demons, but none existed, then Jesus cannot be the Son of God because he would have been deluded.

Believing that the devil exists is essential to Christianity, e.g., "For this purpose the Son of God appeared, that he might destroy the works of the devil" (1 John 3:8). Yet most Christians don't talk about this aspect of their Faith. It is easy to talk about the need to love each other and be hospitable because everyone - Christian and non-Christian - can see the advantages in that. But what is the advantage in believing demons exist?

That is one of the questions raised by The Exorcism of Emily Rose. The advantage is strikingly simple: if you know that something is dangerous, then you can avoid it. We don't believe in demons because it is fun or frightening. We believe because it is true, and it is always better to know the truth than not. In The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the trial of Fr Moore is about a search for the truth: Was Emily really possessed? Had demons literally taken control of her body?


The real Emily Rose was a devout young woman named Anneliese Michel, who lived in Klingenberg, Germany. Just like the fictional Emily, Anneliese saw visions of horrible faces and claimed to be possessed. She also sought out psychiatric help before turning to the Church and undergoing a series of exorcisms. During the exorcisms, Anneliese claimed to be possessed by Cain, Nero, Judas, Hitler and Lucifer himself. Anneliese also claimed to see and speak with Mary and Jesus.

Seemingly because of the exorcisms, Anneliese died on 1 July 1976. The two exorcists, Frs Alt and Renz, and Anneliese's parents were convicted of negligent homicide and sentenced to six months jail, suspended for three years.

Anneliese's grave has become an unofficial shrine, and in death she has attracted a small following of those who believe that Anneliese offered herself as a living sacrifice to God; they believe that she endured the possessions so that other souls would be saved.

Anneliese Michel's story attracted worldwide attention three decades ago during the trial, and again twenty-four years ago when Dr Felicitas D. Goodman's book The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel was published. Professor Goodman's account is an anthropological report - not a novel - and it examines the science and psychology behind Anneliese's experience. It was this book that inspired the film, and Goodman served as chief consultant to the filmmakers.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose deals with topics that many people find frightening, and the movie itself contains quite a few scenes that are disturbing. However the producers should be thanked for choosing to make a horror movie that is scary because of its content, and not because of any gore, violence or special effects. Emily Rose seeks to do more than tell an interesting story or scare the audience: it tries to make the audience think.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose raises many questions and is a good movie to see with agnostics and skeptics, because the movie itself is open-ended and lends itself to deep discussion. While there is a concrete outcome to the trial, the decision about whether or not demonic possession is real is left for the audience to decide and discuss, so it is a useful resource for young adult groups.

As far as the Church is concerned, demonic possession is real. Our weapon against the "wickedness and snares of the devil" is prayer, and it is refreshing to see a movie portray Christians - especially priests - as men of integrity and conviction, rather than as superstitious cowards.

Shannon Donahoo teaches at a Catholic secondary school in the Melbourne Archdiocese.

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