Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Peter T. Chattaway

The Devil Is Real. Therefore

Evidence that demands a verdict.

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.

Their opponents include prosecutor Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), an active Methodist with a reputation for being anything but a choirboy in the courtroom, and a couple of medical experts, who come across as arrogant or at least a little too sure of their superior knowledge. Ethan himself not only doubts Father Moore's story, he is openly hostile to the priest and other witnesses for the defense, which makes him a less than appealing representative for those who may share his skepticism. And when Ethan tells the jury that Father Moore's beliefs are rooted in "archaic and irrational superstition," one cannot help but wonder if he is also meant to represent Protestant hostility towards certain kinds of Catholic belief. The film distances us from Ethan in other ways, too. While we share certain private moments with Erin, Father Moore, and Emily herself, we never see Ethan outside the public spheres of the courtroom or the bar where the lawyers gather and sometimes do business—and where, in yet another distancing move, Ethan turns down an offered drink and asks for water instead.

So while the film does present arguments for both sides of the case, the viewer is still aware that the conversation is being steered in certain directions. Every time a witness describes the strange phenomena Emily saw, the voices that came from her mouth, or the contortions her body went into, another witness offers a scientific or naturalistic explanation, and it is left to the viewer to decide which of these explanations makes the most sense. Often, both explanations are depicted in flashback sequences, but the film has been sold as a horror movie, so the more sensational flashbacks are longer and better developed. Even so, the filmmakers must have sensed that the courtroom scenes were outweighing the scary flashbacks, and so Erin is haunted by strange phenomena too, some of which—like the way spooky things keep happening at 3:00 am—feel a bit hokey.2 A subplot involving a frightened psychiatrist (Duncan Fraser) who witnessed the exorcism and dithers on whether to testify in Father Moore's defense also falls back on clichés, such as a car accident that happens at the worst possible moment.

However, it would be wrong to say that The Exorcism of Emily Rose offers a clear apologetic for the faith. In fact, there is quite bit to this story that might give a Christian pause. Dr. Adani (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a cultural anthropologist who specializes in demonic possession, testifies that Emily died not because her priest told her to abandon her medical treatment, but because the drugs the doctors gave her interfered with the "psycho-spiritual shock" that exorcism is supposedly intended to provide. The viewer may be gratified to see the medical establishment's logic turned on its ear, but is this not another naturalistic explanation for what is supposed to be a supernatural matter? Does the power of Christ compel demons only when chemicals stay out of the way? We are also told that Emily was a devout Catholic, but many Christians would assert that baptized, Spirit-filled believers cannot be possessed by demons. Father Moore goes even further and says that Emily will one day be recognized as a saint precisely because she was possessed by demons. He bases this on Emily's claim to have seen the Virgin Mary, after which she experienced the stigmata.3 In a letter to Father Moore, Emily says the Virgin offered to take her into the afterlife, but she chose to stay behind and cope with the demons instead—and to refuse further treatment, including further rites of exorcism. "People say that God is dead," Emily writes, "but how can they say that if I show them the Devil?"

Thus the film spells out what was only implicit in The Exorcist: by proving the reality of evil, we can prove the existence of God. But there are problems with Emily's argument, not the least of which is that many cultures have believed in demons and wicked spirits without believing in the Almighty God of Judeo-Christian faith. (In the film itself, this point is underscored by Dr. Adani's cross-cultural testimony.) I am also reminded that Linney starred in another recent movie about alleged real-life supernatural events, The Mothman Prophecies (2002). That film was based on a book by occult specialist John A. Keel, which concludes with a quote attributed to Charles Fort, the collector of bizarre stories whose accounts of raining frogs inspired P.T. Anderson's Magnolia (1999): "If there is a universal mind, must it necessarily be sane?" Thirty years ago, The Exorcist told a modern, mechanized world that the spiritual world is real. But today's postmodern world might need to hear something slightly different. Getting people to believe in the supernatural realm is one thing. Getting them to believe in God is something else.

Peter T. Chattaway lives in Canada and writes about movies.

1. Thomas Hibbs, "The Horror & The Passion," National Review Online, April 9, 2004; http://www.nationalreview.com/hibbs/hibbs200404090651.asp

2. Perhaps demons really have adapted to modern clocks and become so punctual, but scenes like these always bring to mind that moment in End of Days (1999) when Arnold Schwarzenegger asks which time zone a prophecy refers to.

3. Interestingly, the film's very first shot—of blood dripping from a barbed-wire fence—is taken from the skeptical prosecutor's explanation for the wounds on Emily's hands.

Most ReadMost Shared