More than 20 years ago, “The Exorcist” scared the daylights out of moviegoers and stirred interest in demon possession and exorcism.
In 1973, however, demon possession wasn’t playing just on screen. It was playing out in the life of a young German woman named Anneliese Michel. Michel was eventually declared demon-possessed by the Catholic Church and, after a series of exorcism rituals, died.
Screenwriters Paul Boardman and Scott Derrickson (who also directed the movie) were inspired by Michel’s case, and their movie, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” opens nationwide Friday.
“Emily Rose” combines the horror and courtroom genres, and it pivots on whether a young woman’s odd condition results from demon possession or something like epilepsy.
The film, which stars Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Campbell Scott and Jennifer Carpenter, pits religion against science, the supernatural against the natural. Answers are hard to come by.
Wilkinson plays a priest put on trial for negligent homicide after the exorcism rites leave Emily Rose, played by Carpenter, incapacitated and eventually dead. Linney plays Erin Bruner, the defense attorney who refutes the charges brought by prosecutor Ethan Thomas, portrayed by Campbell Scott.
In the courtroom, Bruner and Thomas go back and forth about theories accounting for Emily Rose’s erratic and frightening behavior, which include otherworldly voices and vicious bodily contortions—shown in flashbacks throughout the film.
A key element of the film is whether Emily Rose is demon possessed or suffering from a specific medical condition. Centuries ago and even more recently, epileptics, for example, were sometimes mistaken for the demon-possessed.
“I was terribly concerned that people would see epilepsy as the devil’s work,” Linney recently told a room full of religion press covering the film in New York. “I had a long talk with Scott about that. I was very, very concerned about that.”
“Epileptics have been branded for a long time,” she said, “and it’s horrible, terrible to do that.”
Linney, who has two Oscar nominations (“You Can Count on Me” and “Kinsey”), believes the film successfully navigated these waters by frankly discussing the issues at hand. The courtroom setting allows those discussions to take place.
“We just thought that the theater of the courtroom is the perfect place to debate these ideas” of religion, faith and skepticism, Boardman told reporters.
Boardman and Derrickson said they researched exorcisms and demon possessions—a task that included watching and listening to exorcism rituals.
“I probably read two dozen books on possession and exorcisms and viewed a lot of videotape on real exorcisms,” Derrickson told reporters, adding that he never plans to delve into this realm again on account of its intensity.
Linney said she too researched demon possession and exorcism when she took on the role. One of her stipulations for participating involved attention to both sides of the debate.
“I had a long talk with Scott Derrickson and then a long talk with Clint Culpepper [president of Sony Screen Gems, which is releasing the film] to make sure that they were on the same page and what they wanted to do with the movie,” said Linney.
“I wanted to make sure that both arguments were fully and completely explored and that it was balanced,” she continued. “I wanted to make sure that the movie was not telling people what to think or believe, and that it presented two complete sides to this question.”
Carpenter said she connected to the role of Emily Rose in a way she has with no other part.
“I have never as an actress felt more connected to anything,” said Carpenter, who appeared before reporters wearing a pendant her character wore in the movie. “This has been the most rewarding job I’ve ever had.”
Some Christians may take issue with the fact that, in the movie, Emily Rose is a devout Catholic—and yet her priest still believes she’s possessed by demons.
Derrickson, a professing Christian with a bachelor’s degree from Biola University and a master’s in film production from the University of Southern California, said he and Boardman considered that potentially sticky theological point.
“I do not believe that a spirit-filled Christian can become demon-possessed,” said Derrickson. “However, what I will say is that for every one of those theological rules that we like to systemically create, there are often exceptions.” Derrickson said, for example, he didn’t believe God tells humans to sin, but God did tell Abraham to murder his son.
Regardless, Linney said the movie is an opportunity for people to confront their own beliefs about good and evil.
“I think it opens the big question to one of the big mysteries,” she said. “Where does evil come from? Is it stuff in our brains, or is it something outside of ourselves? Some people have very strong opinions about it one way or the other.”
Added Derrickson: “This movie is intended to stretch and provoke everyone who sees it, including Christians, including believers, because it did that to me. That’s one of the reasons why I thought it was a worthwhile story.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
The movie’s official Web site is here.