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, 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

The Exorcism of Emily Rose: Interview with Paul Harris Boardman & Scott Derrickson

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) group in the barn

As part of an American Film Institute series at the ArcLight Cinemas, the screenwriting team of Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman answered questions after a preview screening of their film THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, before it opened in theatres on September 9, 2005. The film had garnered attention because it claims to be based on a true story; but in fact, Derrickson and Boardman admitted that they used the bare outlines of an actual case as a structure to create a RASHAMON-like courtroom drama in which different characters present their interpretations while leaving the conclusion open enough for viewers to draw their own conclusions.
Boardman, who also produced the film, began by explaining that he and Derrickson got the idea while researching another project, when a New York police officer (who also styled himself as a paranormal investigator) played them an audio tape of an exorcism.
PAUL HARRIS BOARDMAN: It was very scary, and told us a little bit about the story related to that. When we got back from the trip, we started researching and found some public domain things, articles and eventually a book that was out of print. That was our jumping off point for this. After we got into it, we ended up fictionalizing it and turning the story into something [else]. We took certain dramatic license with it, but we took the basic events and the basic structure of that case as our inspiration.
SCOTT DERRICKSON: Once we decided to tell the story, in the real case I think it was the idea of a girl having died and a trial following an exorcism that presented obviously what we tried to do in the movie, which was to combine two genres of film. That was what excited us about doing it initially—to see if we could make it work, to blend two genres that we love into one film.
PAUL HARRIS BOARDMAN: We both thought right away that the courtroom was a great arena for debate. We like the film RASHAMON. People talk about ‘RASHAMON this and that,’ for all these movies, whenever there’s multiple points of view. In this case it’s actually much closer to that structure, where you present evidence. By doing that, you get to look at something in several different ways. That was something we wanted to do from the beginning. We decided pretty early to start with her dead and go backwards—sort of the SUNSET BOULEVARD approach. It’s an interesting challenge for a film, because you can have a character who’s already dead but you have to be interested. [helped make film different from EXORCIST]
SCOTT DERRICKSON: We tried to put at the center of the movie the question of why did she die, and what is the truth behind this phenomenon? And ultimately to not answer it.
PAUL HARRIS BOARDMAN: We have a Scully-Mulder approach to this material, with me being a little more the skeptic and Scott the believer. We approach it and try to be very fair and even-handed to both points of view, to our points of view. That’s how we approach it analytically.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose Jennifer Carpenter strapped to the bedIn order to get up to speed on their subject matter, Boardman and Derrickson found it was necessary to delve deeply into research.
SCOTT DERRICKSON: It wasn’t until the initial excitement had passed that we realized we didn’t know a lot about exorcism and possession; we didn’t know a lot about courtroom procedure either. So there was a tremendous amount of research. I read maybe two dozen books on possession and exorcism, from a variety of perspectives, from skeptical psychiatric perspectives, Catholic perspectives, Protestant perspectives. It didn’t matter what the perspective was; the material was incredibly dark and deeply disturbing. To read so many of those books in a row, that was the only time I felt a little weirded out.”
PAUL HARRIS BOARDMAN: He actually took all the material, brought it to me, and said, ‘Look, this doesn’t bother you quite as much as it bothers me. I don’t want it in my house.’
SCOTT DERRICKSON: All my exorcism tapes are in his garage!
PAUL HARRIS BOARDMAN: I’m Hell Central now!
SCOTT DERRICKSON: It was interesting. I was surprised at how many documented cases are out there, how much information is available about this subject. We viewed videotapes of real exorcisms. The whole 3:00am thing—there was a number of books that talked about this idea that 3:00am was the demonic witching hour. After I read that, I kept waking up at 3:00am—exactly! It started to freak me out a little bit; that’s why it ended up in the script. For me, that was the only strange thing that happened, and that was during the research phase. Once we got into the writing, then it became creative and fun. Making the movie was real positive. We don’t have great mythological stories about the “Curse of The Exorcism.”
PAUL HARRIS BOARDMAN: That 3:00am thing is a perfect example: Is that the power of the Devil or the power of suggestion? Or is it both? It was working on him, on some level.
SCOTT DERRICKSON: There was one guy in New York who has this vault of stuff. Of all the things he showed us, the one Paul and I found most compelling was not a videotape of an actual exorcism or had any paranormal phenomena. It was a tape this cop had made, interviewing an Italian family in New York who were having all this demonic activity in their house. He interviews them separately, like a police officer, to see if their stories match up. It was probably the most disturbing. The level of fear that these people had, all of them—you could feel how terrified they were. By the time it was over, all you could think was, ‘They’re not lying.’
PAUL HARRIS BOARDMAN: It was actually very striking for me. My angle is, even if I don’t believe necessarily in demonic forces, I think it’s cavalier to dismiss people’s beliefs when they have real credibility about what they feel and what they believe. It’s a character study: What makes someone that afraid? You see this girl who’s terrified, and she didn’t seem coached to me. I thought, ‘That terror is very real.’ So however you examine that, our character is going through that kind of terror. That’s an incredibly empathetic character for me.
Structuring the story as a courtroom drama was one way to avoid the inevitable comparisons to THE EXORCIST — and also to avoid any semblance to the coutless terrible movies that followed in its wake (which includes everything from BEYOND THE DOOR to THE EXORCIST II).
The Exorcism of Emily Rose WilkinsonSCOTT DERRICKSON: In cinema, you have to be crazy [to make an exorcism film] after THE EXORCIST. It’s my favorite horror film; I think it’s the best horror film ever made. You’re not going to make a better movie than that. People who tried to imitate that movie have pretty notoriously failed. It’s daunting. Why it’s not more a topic of discussion in popular culture, I don’t really know, because it happens more often than you think, in both Catholic and Protestant churches.
PAUL HARRIS BOARDMAN: For better or worse, that is the shadow of THE EXORCIST. It was actually a very good film. A lot of people remember the state of art of shock special effects at that time, like pea soup or the spinning head. That’s what people relate to, and they relate to this slew of films that came since then that try to out-exorcist THE EXORCIST. In some ways, what we’re trying to do is show more respect to the people who do look at this more critically. When you look at all these true-life cases, whether you believe in possession or not, there are very valid, credible cases. We found that to be very frightening. We try to go back to cases we’ve read about and stay close to what has been documented.
SCOTT DERRICKSON: For me the singular challenge wasn’t the creative element of moving back and forth between courtroom drama and horror; that was hard, but I think the biggest challenge was how to take the subject matter seriously and somehow give it some kind of even-handedness, knowing that people would want to see that scary, crazy stuff happen. So part of the challenge was trying to give all of that and make that interesting and realistic, but also try to be even-handed with the ideas. Paul and I really do have different views of the world, and we wanted to pay respect to both of those ways of looking at the world. The goal was to make something entertaining and scary, and also give people something to dialogue about when the movie was over…to just get some questions on the table without popping in an answer or trying to persuade an audience how to think about these things. It’s not easy to get into a conversations possession—at least no intelligent ones.
PAUL HARRIS BOARDMAN: We’re both disturbed by the fact that religion has become very polarized and politicized in this country. Religious ideas and the examined life and this questioning what life is all about, are very personal. We wanted this film to cast a wide net, so that people could come at it from all sorts of points of view: mine, his, and various others. It has been gratifying in preview screenings that different people find the film stimulating and challenging.
Although THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE eschews projectile vomiting, levitation, and rotating heads, it does work up a good head of steam as a horror film. In fact, according to Derrickson, the film narrowly avoided an R-rating just on the grounds of its disturbing intensity.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose Jennifer CarpenterSCOTT DERRICKSON: Watching Jennifer Carpenter work herself up into hysteria [as Emily], I think everybody got very energized. We actually got an R-rating on the film when we first submitted it to the MPAA. I think we cut less than, maybe, ten seconds out to get a PG-13: little things here and there, like the autopsy photos were in color; we had to make them black-and-white. They were all relatively painless. One of the things we had to cut was in the barn exorcism. When she first sits down on her knees and growls at Father Moore with hatred — when we shot that, her face contorted so severely, it was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen. I was sitting next to Tom Stern, our director of photography, next to the monitor, and he kept saying, ‘Oh my god! Oh my god!’ It kept getting worse, until she looked like an alien. Finally, the scene was over and I yelled cut. Steve Campanelli, the camera operator, put the camera down—it was a hand-held shot—and walked over to the monitor. He was white. He said, ‘Did you see that? Did you see that? Do you know what was going through my head? I thought, she just became possessed—we got to get out of here!’ It was so great; that was one of my favorites. That was hard to cut. The MPPA was like ‘It’s too disturbing.’ I remember arguing with them: ‘So, if I had a worse actress, I wouldn’t have to cut this. That’s what you’re telling me.’ No make-up effects, no special effects. It will be on the DVD, I’m sure.
The fact that THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE takes a serious approach to its subject matter is not an indication that Derrickson is afraid of the horror genre label; in fact, he is quite a horror fan.
SCOTT DERRICKSON: I think the horror genre needs fresh air. Luckily, Asian cinema has given it a boost that’s kept it going.
PAUL HARRIS BOARDMAN: Scott was really fascinated with Dario Argento’s films, in terms of the cinematic qualities, particularly SUSPIRIA.


SCOTT DERRICKSON: I actually showed SUSPIRIA to Tom Stern. His response was ‘Well, it’s total crap, but he had a really good idea.’ Which kind of made him excited. I don’t think SUSPRIA is total crap, but I thought [Stern’s reaction] was interesting. What he thought was a good idea was the idea of trying to combine bright saturated colors with beautiful art design and untypical aesthetic beauty in a horror film. That inspired him to do something that was interesting and scary, rather than going the typical Gothic route. It’s very funny. The studio really wanted a campus that was Gothic. We’ve seen that in every horror film ever made! We ended up fighting that; we went for a very modern [approach]. It did my heart good on the set when Tom said, ‘Why don’t we Argento this window over here?’ It made me so happy!

Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski