Theological Horror: The Exorcism of Emily Rose
On a bleak, cold, dark November day, a man arrives at an isolated old, sinister-looking Victorian farmhouse situated in the middle of nowhere. The farm and house look abandoned at first, but a priest appears in a second floor window and beckons to the man below. Inside, cats screech, an old clock ticks steadily, statues of saints and a crucifix look down on a woman and her teen children. The man is the medical examiner come to pronounce a nineteen year-old girl, Emily (Jennifer Carpenter), dead. The sheriff is already there and takes the priest into custody. Fr. Moore (Tom Wilkinson) is charged with negligent homicide because it seems that he convinced Emily to stop taking her medication in favor of an exorcism to heal her of her affliction.
The Catholic archdiocese hires Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), an ambitious and agnostic attorney to defend Fr. Moore on condition that he takes a generous plea agreement. However her boss, Karl Gunderson (Colm Feore), tells her that if he goes to trial and insists on taking the stand, the archdiocese will refuse to pay his bail. Erin tries to convince the priest but he insists on going to trial and taking the stand. He says the only thing that will give Emily’s death meaning is for him to tell her story. The prosecuting attorney is Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), a practicing Methodist who believes only in facts.
The trial begins and the tale of demonic possession is told through flashbacks. When Emily gets a full scholarship to a university to become a teacher, her tired mother seems to have a premonition that something ominous is going to happen. Indeed, one dark, stormy night, Emily is alone in her dormitory and is wakened at 3:00am. She smells smoke. When she goes to explore, she is greatly frightened by banging doors and loud sounds and runs back to bed. She is overtaken by a heavy presence that presses on her chest and then invades her. Her face is distorted and her body goes into impossible contortions. When the doctor examines her, he finds an epileptic focus in her brain and prescribes medication. Even though she takes it, the “seizures” do not stop. She is unable to eat and is losing weight. She is then diagnosed as psychotic as well. Eventually she must return home for care.
Mr. and Mrs. Rose (Andrew Wheeler; Marilyn Norry) call in Father Moore, their parish priest. He asks Emily if she would agree to an exorcism. He requests and receives permission from the archdiocese to carry out the exorcism. Emily agrees and in the presence of a psychiatrist, Dr. Cartwright (Duncan Fraiser), Mr. Rose and a school friend, Jason (Joshua Close), Fr. Moore performs the exorcism. It is All Hallow’s Eve when, the priest later explains, the spirit world is traditionally more agitated. But the exorcism of Emily’s six devils does not work; Emily bursts from the room and flees to the barn where the cats scream and she eats roaches and other insects. The next day, she writes a letter to Fr. Moore asking him to tell her story. She dies with horrible wounds soon after.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose is not a remake of The Exorcist, though like its famed predecessor, now a horror classic, it claims to be based on a true story. In 1976 two priests in Bavaria convinced a 23-year old woman named Annaliese Michele to stop taking her medication and submit to an exorcism. When she later died they were convicted of negligent homicide.
Theology of Horror
This is Presbyterian director and co-writer (with Paul Harris Boardman) Scott Derrickson’s fourth feature-length foray into the cosmos of demonic horror, beginning with Hellraiser: Inferno in 2001. Emily shows that Derrickson has not moved far from the via negativa approach he has to salvation or spirituality for that matter. These two films in particular try to show that God exists because the devil does. Both films are apologetic in nature, though Emily shows Derrickson’s continuing sophistication as a filmmaker and what a much bigger budget and an A-list cast can do.
St. Augustine defined theology as “faith seeking understanding.” To do this, The Exorcism of Emily Rose juxtaposes several elements or themes to create a dialectic: the faith of a gothic-looking and living rural Catholic family with the citified legal system and courtroom, the agnosticism of one attorney, and the belief in facts of another, the testimony of a non-Christian anthropologist, Dr. Adani, played by Academy Award nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog) who testifies that primitive and undeveloped cultures believe in evil and the demonic because they experience it with the testimony of a neurologist. Dr. Adani’s testimony underpins defense attorney Bruner’s strategy to prove that the possibility of the devil and possession exists. In interviews, director Scott Derrickson refers to listening to tapes of an exorcism that took place in New York, a technique he uses in the film to great effect to help the jury, and us, experience the demonic presence even if we cannot see it.
H.P. Lovecraft (1890 - 1937) was a master of weird fiction and among his many works wrote a treatise called Supernatural Horror in Literature in 1927. In it he addresses the nature of fear of the unknown: “uncertainty and danger are always closely allied; thus making any kind of an unknown world a world of peril and evil possibilities.” This fear extends into the unknown world of unexplained supernatural realities, that is, religion. Derrickson’s cosmos relies on the usual visual gothic horror techniques (bleak landscapes, darkness, cats, a full moon, the 3:00A.M. witching hour, an exorcism on Halloween), and on the dualism of metaphysical good vs. evil, expressed through Christian notions of God vs. the devil. God may be in his heaven, but all is not right with the world with Lucifer inhabiting an innocent young girl – and we had better pay attention.
Catholic or Calvinistic?
Certainly the Catholic visuals in the film let us know that we are in a Catholic household, though not a joyful one, even in the flashbacks. Tom Wilkinson as Father Moore is excellent and believable as the parish priest, but the heavy influence of the non-present archdiocese that abandons Fr. Moore doesn’t ring true, though it contributes to the malevolent ambiance of the film as well as a growing sense of loneliness. I have never attended an exorcism, but the ritual in the film that has Fr. Moore demanding to know the devil’s name seemed more important than commanding him to depart. The consent of the local bishop and the person to be exorcized is necessary, and the film respects these requirements very much. (The 1999 revised document De Exorcismus et supplicationibus quibusdam “Concerning Exorcisms and Certain Supplications” is only in Latin and has not been published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in either language for the general public.) I had to laugh when Emily’s knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew - languages she speaks through the presence of the devil - is attributed to her attending “catechism school” where these subjects are not taught. These are, however, details.
It is towards the end of the film, when Fr. Moore finally finishes telling Emily’s story, that a kind of Calvinistic determinism in revealed. Fr. Moore says that Emily died because she had “accepted her fate” to give witness to the existence and activity of the devil. Fr. Moore is resigned to his own fate as well. Moore chooses the epitaph for Emily’s grave marker from Philippians 2:12: “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” Given that this is a horror film we don’t expect much light. We accept the gothic darkness, but this kind of theology, “faith seeking understanding”, seems rather manipulative to me. Fear is a medieval way to bring people to God that does not invite a free response to faith, nor hint at God’s loving providence. Erin, the agnostic lawyer, who remembers that her middle name is “Christine”, wears a locket with her initials as a kind of charm to ward off the evil powers at work during the trial. But faith and Christian living are so much more than the sum total of fear of the devil on a dark and rainy night. This more than anything is why The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a horror film.
The Devil or Mental Illness?
In 2001 John L. Allen, Jr., author and Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter wrote in that paper about “knowing when to exorcise and when to refer for psychiatric treatment is a nagging problem for priests.” He quotes Detroit Father J.M. Mahoney who attests, for example, that what may seem like demonic possession may be multiple personality disorder. Mahoney believes that the process must follow the outline in the Roman ritual and that the diagnosis of diabolical possession must be confirmed by the bishop of a diocese before an exorcism can be performed, as is clearly demonstrated in Emily Rose.
The main debate in The Exorcism of Emily Rose is between those who believe that Emily’s condition was physical andmental and therefore indicated medication and the decision of Emily and Fr. Moore to forego the medication when it failed to stop her convulsions, screaming in Latin, and twisting her body into impossible shapes, especially during the exorcism itself. Fr. Moore is brought to trial over the very issue John Allen’s article addresses. How the film decides this debate in the final courtroom scene has the potential to evoke conversations between the faith and scientific community. To blame it all on the devil, is perhaps, too facile and even a dangerous solution. To ignore the devil, is to do so at your own peril. There is no doubt about the filmmaker’s ideology.
Dr. William Sessions, author and scholar of English and American literature and friend of Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, did a great service to the consideration of art, the horror genre, and faith when he wrote:
“I think Flannery O’Connor would have agreed with the basic premise of composition of that product of British Catholic schools, the film director Alfred Hitchcock. ‘Ours is not to reason why,’ Hitchcock once said, ‘ours is just to scare the hell out of people.’”
The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a supernatural horror film that gives witness to the existence of the devil - and more than likely it will do for viewers just what Hitchcock declares.