Article

Peter T. Chattaway


The Devil Is Real. Therefore

Evidence that demands a verdict.

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For some, the existence of evil is one of the great arguments against the existence of God; for others, it is one of the great arguments in his favor. Many films about demonic possession and exorcism fall into the latter camp, and the film that defines this genre more than any other is, of course, William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973). Based on the bestselling novel by William Peter Blatty, it draws a strong contrast between modern scientific rationalism—depicted as cold, harsh, and mechanical, a view of the world that reduces body and mind to a mere collection of parts—with a more traditional worldview that boldly affirms the supernatural. Ironically, while there is something dehumanizing about the medical treatment that a possessed young girl is subjected to, the demonic possession itself affirms her personhood, as well as the reality of a mysterious unseen world beyond what science can prove or explain. And Blatty's original novel makes a point of linking the cosmic conflict to more familiar forms of evil, reminding us that evidence of this spiritual battle is before our eyes all the time. The novel begins with a page that cites the Holocaust, the persecution of Christians, and similar examples of real-world cruelty, as if to say, Why do we need a "sign" such as demonic possession in order to believe that this struggle is real?

Nevertheless, this generation asks for signs, and writers and artists step up to provide them. Blatty called Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ "a tremendous depiction of evil," and Thomas Hibbs, author of Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from "The Exorcist" to "Seinfeld," noted that Gibson's film, like Friedkin's, set "primitive" faith against the smug skepticism of post-Enlightenment culture.1 The latest example is The Exorcism of Emily Rose, directed by the openly evangelical Scott Derrickson from a script he co-wrote with Paul Harris Boardman, who is more skeptical; the longtime writing partners joke that theirs is a Scully-Mulder sort of relationship, with Boardman providing the doubts that complement Derrickson's beliefs. The two have collaborated on several screenplays, primarily horror films like Dracula 2000, Urban Legends: Final Cut, and Hellraiser: Inferno (all 2000), the last of which Derrickson also directed. For his part, Derrickson has said that his interest in this genre is fueled by C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters—a didactic but entertaining collection of letters written by a senior devil to one of his underlings—and Walker Percy's Lancelot, in which the protagonist says the search for something "purely evil" is "the only quest appropriate to the age."

But if The Exorcist responded to modernity by taking us back to a premodern sensibility, The Exorcism of Emily Rose forges ahead into the even murkier waters of postmodernity. The Exorcist was the story of a demon-possessed girl, but The Exorcism of Emily Rose is the story of people who tell the story of a demon-possessed girl—and competing versions of her story, at that. All of this is complicated further by the fact that the film, which is loosely based on actual events, blurs the line between reality and fiction. Between 1968 and 1976, a young Bavarian woman named Anneliese Michel experienced symptoms that she came to believe were a sign of demonic possession. Eventually the local Catholic bishop authorized an exorcism, which lasted several months—but she died of malnutrition and pneumonia, and her parents and two priests were tried and found guilty of negligent manslaughter. The film preserves and transmits a number of the facts involved in Michel's case, but revises many of them and adds its own fictitious details, too; and then, in the closing titles, it speaks in the past tense of the film's characters as though they themselves had actually existed. So the movie encourages the viewer to seek the truth behind cases of possession like Michel's, but it also gives the viewer one more screen of fiction to cut through in search of that truth.

The Exorcist, as Hibbs notes, was a hybrid of sorts: part classic horror film, part murder mystery. Likewise The Exorcism of Emily Rose, in which classic horror elements are framed within the narrative conventions of a courtroom drama. Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson), the priest who has been charged with criminal negligence in the death of Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), cares little about his freedom or reputation; he just wants to tell Emily's story. Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), the lawyer assigned to his case, cares more about legal strategy, and initially takes the job because she thinks it will help her make senior partner at her law firm. Father Moore comes across as naïve and uncritical; the Catholic church is officially skeptical with regard to claims of demonic possession until certain criteria have been met, but if Father Moore ever subjected Emily to that process, we don't see it. Erin, however, is an agnostic who drinks too much, keeps a Carl Sagan book on her bedside table, and speaks glibly about the way she recently defended a killer who is now "sunbathing on a Miami beach." Naturally, it isn't long before cracks begin to show in her cynicism.

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