The True Exorcism Stories: The Exorcism of Emily Rose

In this blog, we’ve been talking thus far about the movies that in some way relate to The Exorcist.  There were the two sequels – the one with Regan and the one without her – that came from that movie, as well as the two prequels, and then the movie based on the non-fictional telling of the story on which The Exorcist was based.  All of these movies share the link to this one story, which purportedly is a real story, but this connection to reality is not something The Exorcist was focused on making.  The horror of the situation, the grotesqueness of a young person becoming the source of so much nightmarish pain and religious turmoil, was the draw for the first movie, and then beyond.

However, there is another series in exorcism cinema that that does relish and in some ways embellish the nature of the story as being based in reality.  At the turn of the millennium, horror documentaries had become a viable genre due to numerous financial successes, going back to the found footage smash of The Blair Witch Project (1999).  Horror suddenly became a lot scarier if it was perceived to be more realistic.  This perception of reality could come from the narrative being “based on” or “inspired by” a true life story, or from the use of the found footage filming technique that frames the narrative in real time, as happening to real people.

By some accounts, this focus on telling the true stories of the horrifically supernatural goes back to The Amityville Horror (1979).  And given that there is an exorcism, on a house, in that movie, we will eventually fold it into this series.  For now, we are starting with the movie that seemingly reinvigorated exorcism cinema in the 21st Century, after a thirty year span since The Exorcist had such an impact on horror cinema.  In this blog post, we will be examining our viewing of the film The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005).

Director and co-writer Scott Derickson did extensive research into the true story behind the fictionalization he would create.  Emily Rose is the fictionalized account of the true story of Anneliese Michel, a young German woman who suffered through an exorcism in the 1970s, ultimately dying.  Anneliese’s story has also been told in the non-fiction The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel (1981) and the documentary Anneliese: The Exorcist Tapes (2011), and since the release of Emily Rose, the story has received attention as an attempt to separate the fact of the story from the fiction of the movie.

Given that the film highlighted the real nature of its story, people became interested in the real story.  Since exorcisms have a history of being conducted, exorcism cinema can have a far more realistic approach to the supernatural than other horror genres.  Basing an exorcism film on a real story further blurs this distinction between reality and the supernatural, making people want to seek out the truth, to learn if the horrors they just witnessed could indeed happen, to them and those they love.  The tension between fascination and fear is heightened in these films, and people seek out more information in order to help them deal with the tension.  In the special features to Emily Rose, Derickson is interviewed on his interest in the story, and his fascination with exorcisms exemplify his dealing with the tension.  Given that he has directed another exorcism film, Deliver Us from Evil, due out this year, Derickson is still caught in this fascination/fear tension.

And, as a personal note, I will say that these realistic horror movies scare me.  They catch me with their realism, making me both afraid of the possibility of it happening, and fascinated with that same possibility.  If it says it is real or acts like it is real, then it is harder for my mind to believe that it is not.  And in those moments of uncertainty, I am caught in that tension, and the scares are scarier.  Which is why I initially found Emily Rose so fascinating.  And, upon a second viewing of it, which the liveblogging below reflects, I found other aspects of it to be fascinating, especially given our project on the tensions in exorcism cinema.  What follows then are my thoughts, and the thoughts of others, while we watched the movie.

The Exorcist has been criticized by some as being misogynistic by blaming the mother’s sexual liberation for bringing the devil into the house, and for showcasing Regan’s puberty as being, well, hellish. Trying to scare men about women, in a sense, and put women in their place.

Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) was a happy person, “normal,” and dare I say “innocent girl”, in the rural Midwestern life, until she went away to college — to the big city. And yet, the priest, Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), desires to allow her story to be told, to allow her experience to be voiced. I think we can see in these movies the tension between anxieties men, and women, have about female sexuality, along with the desire to speak, to rebel, to be heard against the patriarchy.

The challenging thing about Emily Rose is that the main narrative occurs after Emily’s death.  At risk now is the priest, who’s freedom is under threat. Again, the priest becomes the protagonist, and the priest’s faith is put on trial — in this case literally — and it is up to the movie to prove that the priest was right all along to believe in God and the Church.  The woman is relegated to the enemy, to the one who should be silenced.

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As the District Attorney points out, Emily has no voice during the trial. Emily’s only voice comes through flashbacks, through people’s recollections of her. Her agency has been completely taken away in this movie, even before we get into the exorcism.  We hear her screaming, but those become the wails of the demon — and without knowing her before the possession, we are left with the spectacle of the scream and not the identification with the pain that is behind it. We sympathize with Emily due to knowing the outcome, not because of the process. We sympathize with Regan from The Exorcist and women in other exorcism cinema because we can see what they are going through, and the pain it is causing them.  Here we know Emily’s outcome, and we feel for her because of that outcome.

As with the other movies, we have the attempt to bring in science as the alternative explanation to the possession. And as with The Exorcist,  there is calling into question the validity of religion and religious beliefs, such as the attempts to undermine the validity of Emily Rose’s beliefs.emilyrose03

The actress chosen to play Emily Rose was chosen because she was a dancer, able to contort her body, which is used to represent her periods of possession.  Her body then becomes her expression, her way of giving voice to her experience.  She is literally objectified for our viewing pleasure.

People are speaking for Emily — and yet the flashbacks provide far more of Emily’s subjective experience than would be possible given other people’s recollection.  We get to see things from her perspective, but without being told that Emily gave this accounts of her visions and her feelings to others.  So the flashbacks are for our viewing pleasure, and not to bring agency to Emily.  They are spectacle for horror purposes, not information for identification purposes.

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Emily’s voice is first heard, first used, after she is possessed with a tone that is both as threat and as helpless — thereby we have the tension of exorcism cinema.  Women as threat, women as helpless.  In both instances, the Church and patriarchy is positioned as the salvation — either from the threat to others, or from the helpless of the self.

The attorney defending Father Moore (again to help the Catholic Church save face), Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) is a single woman, an agnostic, who the priest says is in danger of demon attacks for being on this case. Why would the District Attorney not be in similar danger? Women as more prone to demonic possession because they are more prone paranoia, hysteria? Very Freudian.

In fact, how much could the Freudian idea of hysteria be used to explain why the women are being possessed? Possession as simply hysteria.  They used to burn women at the stakes for being demonically possessed — same as how they treated women who were thought to be witches — mostly these were women who were not following the desires of the patriarchy, i.e. the Catholic Church. Hysterical women in Freud’s time could have been seen as the same way: people who could not handle living within the oppression of the patriarchy.

The classic exorcism indicator of “speaking in tongues” is speaking in Latin in the film, which is portrayed as the voice of the demon inside Emily. It could also be seen as speaking in a way the patriarchy does not approve. She also speaks German. The District Attorney says she had knowledge of languages spoken: Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, German.

From a colleague: I have not seen all of these movies, but there also seems to be a pattern of possessed women in houses here which can be traced back to 18th and 19th Century Gothic representations, infamously symbolic for societal and cultural fears in response to the dissolution of tradition, gender roles, oppression, and race, etc. Not sure if you want to go that route…but it perked my interest.

Back to me: I think it is, because I was just thinking about how this could all be a more modern day retelling of what Freud was studying with hysteria, and going further back to the witchhunts that burned women at the stake. It could all be tied to the idea of how women are seen as sensitive to paranoia and emotionality which can be due to their attempts to act out against the oppression of the patriarchy in which they live.

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From a colleague: Yes, it would be interesting to see how these movies are reinstating those past anxieties about women and sexuality or if there are any inversions or responses to these traditional representations, in the same way as the the female Gothic (although I think this genre is somewhat impasse now). Anyway, very interesting, made me think of the bed ridden women such as in the “Yellow Wallpaper” and in this really eerie short story, “El almohadón de plumas” by an Uruguayan short story writer (Horacio Quiroga), where a wife is kept on her bed by her husband as her life is waning and in the end…there is this really creepy revelation…don’t want to spoil it for you, I’ll see if I can find a version you might enjoy reading.

Back to liveblogging: What is the importance of the burning smell? Both Regan and Emily mention it.  Does it represent the fire and brimstone environment of the demons?

Why does Catholicism say demonic possessions occur? And is there more history of women being possessed and treated by Catholic exorcism?

Also in exorcisms a woman seems to have strength she should not have — but is that more a supposition on women being weak when they actually contain more strength than they are allowed to normally show?

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The experience of the exorcism of Emily Rose is through the priest’s recollection — she has no voice as a man speaks for her, which he feels is necessary to get her story out. He is showing compassion, or he is trying to save himself?  What does it say that the only time we truly hear her subjective experience is in a letter? Writing a letter is often discoursed as a feminine act.  Father Moore says having Emily’s story told will defeat the demons. This apparently was done by having her letter read. This shows the power of voice to overcome.

The epithet on Emily’s grave is “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” or, as it could be read, seek your own path towards overcoming oppression through difficulty.

10 thoughts on “The True Exorcism Stories: The Exorcism of Emily Rose

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