Sense of Wonder: The Exorcism of Emily Rose – Fact or Fiction?

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) horizontal poster

This upcoming release of THE LAST EXORCISM on Friday has fans of cinefantastique thinking back, inevitably, to THE EXORCIST (1973), the Oscar-winning horror classic that really upped the ante in terms of mainstream movies willing to pull no punches when it came to shocking viewers. (THE LAST EXORCISM even contains a clever dialogue reference to the older film: the minister Cotton Marcus [Patrick Fabian] notes that, when it comes to exorcism, the Roman Catholic Church gets all the press, “because they have the movie.”) However, THE LAST EXORCISM actually bears a stronger similarity to THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005), in terms of setting, circumstances, and tone. In particular, both films strive to unnerve audiences by playing with the concept of “reality”: THE LAST EXORCISM is presented as a faux-documentary; THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE IS presented as “inspired” by a true story. This breaking down of fictional barriers adds an extra layer of tension, but in the end the makers of THE LAST EXORCISM do not seem intent on presenting their film, a la THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, as if it were the genuine article. What about the makers of THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE? Since the possibility that movies may be “real” seems to hold endless fascination for viewers (judging from the number of hits this website gets from visitors seeking to learn whether PARANORMAL ACTIVITY is a “true” story), I want to take this opportunity to delve into that question.
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is a serious, sincere effort to combine horror with the structure of a courtroom drama. The result is that the story is told with a level of conviction often missing from modern horror films, allowing viewers to become emotionally involved and thus far more vulenerable to the scares when they strike. Perhaps the film works so well on viewers because of the true story claim, as much as its own inherent qualities, and this is where I start to draw the line. The attempt to make a believable horror film is laudable; the fact that the horrific events have consequences for the characters (instead of serving simply as gratuitous set pieces) lends the story credibility. However, we should not let that fool us into thinking that what we see on screen really happened.
It didn’t. At least, not the way it is portrayed in the film.
I have no problem with filmmakers taking inspiration from real life and then fictionalizing it (that’s what William Peter Blatty did with THE EXORCIST), but there should be no pretense that the fictionalization is in any way authentic.

Tom Wilkinson as the priest on trial for the death of Emily ROse
Tom Wilkinson as the priest on trial for the death of Emily ROse

My objection to the “true story” conceit of THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is that the story is framed as a courtroom drama. We all know that Hollywood never lets reality get in the way of a good story, but generally speaking, you can usually depend on films about court cases to be a bit more accurate, because trials have official transcripts that can be used as a basis for a screenplay, providing an accurate account of what was actually said under oath. By presenting the story in flashbacks, based on what we hear from the witness stand, the filmmakes seems to imply that they are giving us an accurate account of what was said to have happened. The film then portrays many of these scenes in different ways, according to the interpretation of each witness. In a sense, the filmmakers seems to be saying: we are offering up the facts of the case and leaving you to be the jury who decides whether Emily was sick or possessed. Which would be okay if we were getting the actual facts. But we’re not.
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE EMILY ROSE has a credit at the beginning, telling us that the film is “based on a true story.” Before the closing credits, there are also a few title cards, telling us what happened to the characters next. One even informs us that one of the characters in the film cooperated with an author who wrote a book that served as the basis for the film. Yet the actual credits for the movie’s script reads “written by” rather than “screenplay by.” The Writers Guild of America makes a clear distinction between the two credits: “screenplay by” is used for adaptations of existing material; “written by” is used for original scripts. In other words, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is an original story, not an adaptation of a non-fiction book.
To their credit, Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman (who also directed and produced, respectively) are honest and forthcoming when discussing the extent to which their film is fictionalized, making it clear that there was an actual case that gave them the idea of making a “courtroom horror film,” which they then developed, creating characters and using ideas derived from other research into the phenomenon of possession.
When asked at a recent preview screening about the misleading title cards (which seem to suggest that the film’s characters are real people), co-writer Paul Harris Boardman replied, “Many people have remarked on the epigraphs at the end of the film. Even though it’s inspired by a true story, the characters have been fictionalized. That [title card] only really says how [the defense attorney played by Laura Linney] facilitated getting case files to a person who wrote a book that inspired the film. Those were actually very true to the underlying [story]. Erin Bruner’s character was almost completely fictionalized. There was a female defense attorney in the case. She did help the author of the book get information—that’s about all we know about her, so she’s completely created. In terms of the others, there are a lot of instances in the film that parallel things that happened—a lot of the broad strokes of the exorcism things, the manifestations of the possession, the behavior she had. The structure of the story, the way it unfolds, is very much what we created. Through some other sources, we had researched some real exorcisms to pull some things about how these exorcisms unfold and what characteristics the people would have. It’s pretty close. We tried to be true to a lot of what [we researched].”
Curiously, Boardman did not mention the book’s title. When I asked him why, he explained that the book is actually titled The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, and although he and Derrickson did purchase the screen rights to the story, the people involved in the real case wanted to keep the connection to the film quiet. Although a doctor involved with the case is given a screen credit, the story of the film does not have much in common with the book, except for the general outline of events. (For example, only one rite of exorcism is performed in THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE; in the Anneliese Michel, daily exorcism were performed over a series of months).
Jennifer Carpenter as Emily Rose, the fictional stand-in for Analise Michele
Jennifer Carpenter as Emily Rose, the fictional stand-in for Analise Michele

You can read details about the real-life case here: “Was the real Emily Rose Truly Possessed?” and “The Real Emily Rose.” Both articles seem to be regugitating the same basic information; I’m not sure which was written first, but I recommend you read at least one to get a good idea of how different the film is from its source material. (Surely the more amusing of the two articles is the first one. The author, a self-proclaimed paranormal investigator, claims there is “no evidence whatsoever for the idea of demonic possession.” This would not be amusing in and of itself, but it becomes amusing when he immediately follows up by insisting that there is “good evidence” for ghosts,hauntings, Big Foot, and other psychic phenomena.)
In the end, what Boardman and Derrickson have done is not all that different from William Peter Blatty, who told me during an interview (as he has told many others, before and since) that he was inspired to write THE EXORCIST by an actual cases of possession he had read about in 1949. “I was a graduate at Georgetwon University at the time,” he recalled. “It stuck in my mind. I thought, ‘If I ever do go ahead and write, I’d like to write about this, non-fiction.’ But I never wrote a word.”
Blatty, despite what you may read on the Internet (including the usually reliable www.snopes.com), never pretended that the novel he eventually wrote was a true story. And neither the book nor the film of THE EXORCIST made any such claims, either in the advertising or in the credits. (Director William Friedkin may have made a few careless statement to the effect that the novel was based on a true story, but he never pretended he was making a docudrama.)
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is a good film that seeks to address the topic of faith in a manner somewhat similar to THE EXORCIST, presenting us with horrible events that may or may not be supernatural in origin and asking if the presence of the demonic, ironically, does not also suggest the existence of the angelic. Although the film cannot hope to match its historic predecessor (director Derrickson calls THE EXORCIST his favorite horror film of all time), THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE stands on its own feet as a worthwhile successor. Not only is it better than the ghastly rip-offs that followed THE EXORCIST (e.g., BEYOND THE DOOR), it is much truer to the spirit of THE EXORCIST than last year’s official sequel, THE EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING, which tried to turn the material into a typical special effects horror franchise. THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is not a true story, but it is a very believably-told story. That is an all-too-rare thing in the horror genre, and it makes EMILY ROSE perhaps the best horror film of this year.

This article is updated from an earlier article, copyright 2005 by Steve Biodrowski

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