Paranormal & Supernatural in Review: The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Written by Paul Harris Boardman, Scott Derrickson
Starring: Jennifer Carpenter, Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson
This review contains spoilers.
Review by: Kayleigh Marie Edwards
I love horror films but as an atheist, possession movies don’t normally tickle the terror nerve for me. I don’t believe in Satan or spirits or the possibility of being possessed, so as much as I am entertained by the idea of it, it doesn’t scare me as much as, say, Mikey standing in the corner facing into the wall (you know, because forest witches are definitely real). However, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is not just another run-of-the-mill possession movie about a teenage girl in a dirty white nightdress spouting Latin in dual voices. Well… I mean… it is actually, but it’s also so much more.
This film is built on atmosphere and story, and contains tremendous scenes of horror without relying on jump scares. Additionally, it’s shot beautifully, the camerawork is creative, the direction is great, and the performances – particularly by Jennifer Carpenter – are something special. All of these factors really work to the film’s credit and, in my opinion, set it above most others of its kind, but what mostly sets it apart is its structure and the running notion and theme of ‘possibility’ and moral obligation.
Emily Rose is a tragic young adult who believed, along with her family and her priest, Father Moore, that she was possessed by not one but six entities, including Lucifer. Father Moore attempted to exorcise the demons but ultimately Emily suffered and died from physical issues such as malnourishment. Afterwards, Father Moore is charged with negligent homicide.
The film is structured so that it’s grounded in the courtroom and revolves around Father Moore trying to ‘tell Emily’s story’, and his defence attorney Erin Bruner as she attempts to convince the jury that Father Moore acted in Emily’s best interest, despite several doctors testifying that Emily in fact had epilepsy and a form of psychosis, and that her death was actually caused by Father Moore because he encouraged her to stop taking her medication. Inter-spliced with these current-day scenes is Emily’s so-called possession, the events that lead to Father Moore’s involvement, and the exorcism itself.
What’s particularly interesting about this film is that though it’s ‘based on a true story’, it doesn’t present Emily as possessed, but instead either possibly possessed or possibly suffering from a form of epilepsy accompanied by mental illness.
If you look up the case that this film is based on, you’ll find information about the tragic case of Anneliese Michel, a German woman who died at the age of 23, after approximately 10 months of regular exorcisms by two Roman Catholic priests. Michel had a long history of suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy, a variety of mental illnesses, including depression and psychosis, and stays in mental institutions. Though she remained medicated for the duration of her life, she concluded that her real problem was demonic possession and she developed an ‘aversion’ to religious symbols such as crucifixes. The Catholic Church originally refused to intervene but eventually agreed to performing exorcism rites when Michel started partaking in behaviour such as self-harm and eating insects. After her death, Michel’s parents and the two priests were found guilty of negligent homicide.
The way the story is tackled is respectful to Michel and creates a very sympathetic character in Emily Rose. While the film (of course) used artistic license for dramatic effect, Michel’s basic situation and the following events remain intact. The real genius in how the story is presented, however, comes directly from the writers. Though the film does imply that the supernatural is at play (it’s a horror film after all), The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a debate about the supernatural vs. medical fact, alternative possibilities vs. medicine, moral intention vs. unfortunate consequence, and of course, good vs. evil.
Was Emily possessed, or was she ill?
Either way, the viewer is in for some splendid horror. If you’re a believer in the supernatural, then she’s possessed and that lack of personal agency and feeling of violation is already truly horrifying, not to mention the confirmation of the existence of absolute evil. If you side with medical logic, then Emily was ill enough to feel the terror of truly believing that she was inhabited by several demons, suffered complete personality changes that caused her to terrorise her family and herself, eat insects, and harm herself. The idea that one could suffer such an illness really is no less horrifying than the idea of possession, and regardless of the truth, Emily suffered an untimely slow and painful death.
The possession scenes, regardless of which way you lean, are very well done and utterly horrifying to watch, which is why the film’s structure is so effective. The courtroom acts as the logical side of the argument, or the ‘Ordinary World’, as Christopher Vogler would put it. The flashbacks of Emily’s torment make more of a case for the supernatural, or the ‘Special World’, where anything could happen. When you’re watching this poor girl’s body snap and bend at weird angles and hear the voices coming out of her, it’s hard to believe anything else but that she’s possessed, in that moment.
We cut back and forth so that just when we think we’re going to side with logic, we’re thrust into Emily’s world of painful-looking body contortion and black eyes. Then, just when we’re shrinking into the gaps in the sofa cushions and cursing ourselves for switching off the lights, we’re flung back into the harsh lights of the courtroom, which acts as a reprieve from the horror.
Overall, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a worthwhile watch and a well-executed horror movie that quite respectfully adapts its unfortunate source material. Though it does contain certain tropes of the demonic possession sub-genre (speaking in several voices at once, unnatural rage and strength, and of course, the old-fashioned white nightgown), it tackles the subject matter in a different and more interesting way that makes it more commercially accessible to a wider audience without diminishing the horror. There are several characters to care about and empathise with, each with their own unique journey, separate from each other but also linked by the common theme of morality, obligation, and responsibility. If what you prefer is a fast-paced, jump-scare fest with lots of blood and guts then this isn’t for you. If you enjoy being forced to subconsciously puzzle through moral dilemmas and reflect on your own actions, all while being scared to death, then this is definitely recommended.
Kayleigh Marie Edwards is a horror writer from South Wales and lives in a town where everyone says ‘defiantly’ when they actually mean ‘definitely’, and despite the current trend, no one knows what an avocado is. She spends her life in a constant state of being perplexed by arguments about which Pennywise was better, and what kind of people like the Star Wars prequels. She wishes she was as smart as Sherlock but she just isn’t, and that annoys her because she enjoys feeling superior to people (see the above avocado comment). She also likes bagels.