The Exorcism of Emily Rose

My new hobby is watching scary YouTube videos before bedtime. My personal favorite is the creepy clown subgenre. There are few things better in life than watching drone footage of a guy dressed up as a clown running through a Nebraska cornfield.  Anyway, most of these videos are goofy. Some are obvious fakes. A few are genuinely disturbing, although maybe not in the way you might think.

Like YouTube videos, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is very loosely based on EVENTS THAT REALLY HAPPENED. Hollywood is way too free with the phrase ‘based on true events,’ btw. You could say Godzilla is based on true events – the fire-bombing of Tokyo really happened. There was no enormous radioactive lizard, which is a pretty big omission, but whatever.

From my point-of-view, what really happened in The Exorcism of Emily Rose is that a mentally ill woman died while undergoing an exorcism. Other people think differently, of course, which is fine, because it’s supposed to be a free country and all that, but when the person in question might have died because of medical neglect then it becomes a different story.

There was a court case. The Exorcism of Emily Rose is based on that court case. It’s totally fictional, obviously, because the filmmakers want us to believe that Ms. Rose is possessed by a devil(s). Of course, maybe I believe Emily is mentally ill because I’m biased. The Catholic Church has devils of its own. A good example of that is here.

Anyway, the movie wants us to believe Emily was possessed. So she was possessed. Emily is a farm girl who goes off to medical school on a scholarship. Her family is religious – the house is full of cats (11 of them!) and religious memorabilia. The actress who plays Emily is great. She shrieks and grimaces and contorts. I was impressed by the contorting –did you ever notice how people possessed by Satan or whatever are great at yoga? Because that’s what they’re doing. Full wheel seems to be the pose of choice. I find this to be irritating, because I did yoga for years, and there’s nothing demonic about it, so maybe movie directors and artists should stop picking on other cultures!

Since The Possession of Emily Rose takes place in the 20thcentury, there are medical explanations for Emily’s issues that don’t include demonic possession. Epilepsy, mental illness, malnutrition, starvation, dehydration. There’s even the possibility that Emily’s meds are making her hallucinations worse, and also hindering the exorcism, which leads to her stopping those meds. I can buy the first explanation, but the second is bogus.

From what I know about exorcism – mostly gleaned from reading Malachi Martin’s execrable Hostage to the Devil – the host is not responsible for any actions committed while possessed. The host is totally powerless and thus does not dictate the outcome. The fight is a mano-to-mano clash between priest and demon; being powerless, the victim is also extraneous and may not even be aware of what’s happening. What’s the difference if they are medicated? BTW, Mr. Martin was a Catholic priest who supposedly performed a number of exorcisms. Later in life he left the church, so take what you will from that.

The prosecution’s argument is that the priest a. caused Ms. Rose to stop taking her meds and b. didn’t provide adequate medical treatment while she was under his care, making him responsible for her death. I think this is a great argument, but the movie never takes it seriously. Ironically, Ms. Linney (the defendant’s lawyer) is agnostic while the prosecutor is deeply religious. He’s not Catholic, obviously.

The Possession of Emily Rose is effective at what it does. It doesn’t hold a candle to The Exorcist, the granddaddy of exorcism movies, but what does? It scared the crap out of me, even though I thought a few of the plot points were melodramatic and silly. Ms. Linney’s character is troubled by things that go bump in the night, as is the priest who performed the exorcism. At one point Say-tan even kills an important witness in a car crash. I didn’t know his Satanic Majesty cared about court cases, but I guess I was wrong.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose has believability issues. I don’t mean the exorcism. Plenty of people believe in demons and exorcisms. No, there were other things in the movie that drove me nuts. Ms. Linney is supposed to be a hotshot attorney, yet she’s woefully unprepared. She’s surprised about witnesses and doesn’t even know her client’s full story. Other believability issues: the movie is set in America in a religious community and it’s the Catholic church. The good Father wouldn’t be spending his evenings in the klink, and they’d have to move the case somewhere else because of possible bias. Are these nitpicks? Sure. Did they hinder my enjoyment of this movie? No, not really.

However, The Possession of Emily Rose’s biggest flaw is that it treats Emily’s pain and suffering as some sort of half-assed plot device, a flaw mirrored by many, many exorcism books and movies. This is exploitation, especially since many of the victims of demonic possession seem to be women. As Paul Tremblay correctly pointed out in his excellent novel A Head Full of Ghosts, many depictions of exorcisms seem to boil down to a creepy old guy tying a younger woman to her bed. Like I said, earlier – disturbing, although maybe not in the way you might think.