Peter T. Chattaway

The Devil Is Real. Therefore

Evidence that demands a verdict.

2 of 3view all

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.

icon2 of 3view all

Most ReadMost Shared

Seminary/Grad SchoolsCollege Guide