Do you believe in demons? Scott Derrickson’s spooky new Exorcism of Emily Rose may have you up half the night pondering that very question. It’sbased on the true story of a 19-year-old college freshman (Jennifer Carpenter) who died during an exorcism. The story unfolds through a series of horrifying flashbacks as the priest (Tom Wilkinson) who was performing the exorcism stands trial for negligent homicide., The state claims that the girl was merely schizophrenic and epileptic, but the priest believes otherwise and takes the stand to clear his name–and to speak truthfully about the realm of spiritual darkness.
People love frightening movies, and there does not seem to be anything creepier than those that deal with demons and devils. With Emily Rose, audiences are going to see not only a scary movie, but an intelligent and serious one. Imagine an episode of Law & Order for the demonically harassed. Actress Laura Linney plays the defense attorney who attempts to defend the priest. The prosecution forcefully argues that the girl was merely mentally ill. The defense makes a case for the legitimacy of her possession. The jury has to decide if the priest acted responsibly. “I don’t think you can watch this film without asking yourself what you believe about the existence of the demonic, the devil, and the spiritual realm. Ultimately it forces you to question what you believe about God,” explains co-writer and director Scott Derrickson.
Derrickson is an interesting talent in Hollywood: an orthodox Christian who works on horror movies. (He and his writing partner Paul Harris Boardman wrote Urban Legends: Final Cut and Hellraiser: Inferno, among others.) When asked how all of his work on the demonic affected his faith, Derrickson had an interesting response. “In the course of doing the research, I absolutely became much more convinced of the actuality of [the demonic], not from a theological perspective, but from a rational perspective,” he said. “The evidence that’s out there is quite overwhelming.” He heard testimonials, watched videotapes of exorcisms, read two-dozen books on the subject, and interviewed those involved in the unique ministry of deliverance. You have to be very committed to an anti-religious dogma to deny this religious phenomenon.”
Although he came out of the research phase more convinced of demonic possession, it was a spiritually grueling process. “The research phase was incredibly unpleasant and I’ll never do it again, for that length of time,” he said. ” ‘Spooked out’ is probably not even the right term. I definitely would say that it was incredibly oppressive. I really felt the weight and the gravity of the subject matter, and I would get a little freaked out at times. It was not fun.”
Although Derrickson has a spiritual point of view (and it is not necessarily the same as his writing partner), Emily Rose (rated PG-13 for the graphic exorcism scenes) is not intended to be a theological treatise on demonic possession: Some will walk away believing that the girl was mentally ill; others will be convinced that she was demonized. But ultimately everyone will have to ask himself whether he believes in unseen realms that contain spiritual entities, ones that can affect us in the corporeal world. That’s certainlya complex topic, because it cuts to the very nature of reality, faith, and the world we live in.
Even so, Derrickson ’s goal is simple: “Entertain the audience. Give them a very scary, very cinematic experience. When it’s all said and done, let them leave with something significant to ponder.”
– Steve Beard is the creator of Thunderstruck.org and the editor of Good News magazine.