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I loathe horror movies. The last thing I want when I watch a film is to be frightened. Monsters, deformed creatures, distortions of reality and the like are a guarantee that I will get up and walk out of the theater. Much to the dismay of many, I walked out of the first film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and never came close to attending the other two. I simply cannot bear looking at the darkness and ugliness of evil, even when the powers of good and right win out. But that’s me.

So what was I doing watching “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”? One of the worst experiences I ever had in a movie theater came in 1974 when I stupidly went to see William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist”. I won’t go into details other than to say that I was spiritually traumatized for days in its aftermath. But “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is significantly different, not least in the fact that it is designed less to frighten the audience than to portray the dynamics of demonization and the delicate legal issues surrounding the “cause” of such bizarre behavior in those who claim to be spiritually oppressed.

This film was directed by a professing evangelical, Scott Derrickson, whose interest in the subject was stirred by his reading of C. S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters.” The film is very loosely based on the real-life experience of a young Bavarian woman named Anneliese Michel who, from 1968 through 1976, appeared to be the victim of repeated demonic attacks. She underwent a prolonged exorcism (several months in length) authorized by her local Catholic bishop and eventually died of malnutrition and pneumonia. Both her parents and two local priests were charged and found guilty of negligent manslaughter.

The accomplished actor Tom Wilkinson portrays Father Richard Moore, a priest who is charged with negligent homicide when Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) dies while in his care. He is defended by Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), an attorney who contends she’s an agnostic but takes the case in hopes that it will gain her a senior partnership in her law firm. The prosecutor, Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott, son of actor George C. Scott), is a church-going Methodist who displays an aggressive hostility toward Father Moore and a disdainful skepticism towards his claims of the supernatural.

My purpose here is not to review the film or comment on its artistic and aesthetic qualities (which are average, at best). Rather, I want to focus on the spiritual and theological issues that it raises. Among the controversial points addressed in the film are the following:

(1)Can a Christian be demonized? Emily Rose is portrayed as a devout Catholic who is not simply harassed by a demon but is supposedly possessed by the Devil himself.

(2)Should we use the word “possess”? Is this biblical language (by which I mean, does the term “possession” represent something in the Greek text of the New Testament or is it the result of less than accurate English translations)? Can Satan “own” or exercise total authority over anything?

(3)Is it biblically reasonable to think that Satan himself would indwell this one, rather ordinary and hardly influential, young lady? Yes, Satan apparently indwelt Judas Iscariot (see John 13:27). But why Emily Rose?

(4)Can a Christian be demonized who has evidently done nothing of a moral or spiritual nature that might have opened the door to demonic intrusion? Again, Emily is never said to have committed some sin, whether scandalous or mundane (is any sin mundane?), nor to have abandoned her faith or failed in any other significant way that would lead to such horrific consequences.

(5)Could Emily’s symptoms be accounted for by an epileptic disorder? Most of the film actually takes place in the courtroom where the prosecutor Ethan Thomas argues that Emily’s behavior was due to an epileptic condition that was aggravated by her failure to stay on her prescribed medication.

In numerous flashbacks, Emily’s experience is portrayed quite graphically (yes, I closed my eyes on several occasions): bodily contortions that would make an Olympic gymnast look stiff by comparison, the ability to speak in multiple languages (particularly Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic; although the prosecutor is quick to point out that Emily studied each of these languages, if only briefly, during her educational career), self-mutilation, superhuman strength, and a tendency to eat insects, just to mention a few.

(6)I have personally been involved with quite a few individuals who came for prayer and deliverance from demonic oppression. I’ve seen some bizarre behavior, but nothing quite like what is portrayed in this film. My point is simply that what we are given in the case of Emily Rose is hardly typical of what most victims endure on a daily basis. The vast majority of people who are demonized suffer from feelings of self-hatred, false guilt, addiction to a variety of sinful activities (often sexual in nature), deeply-rooted bitterness, unforgiveness, anger, tormenting nightmares, bouts of depression and the like.

In other words, my concern is that people who watch this film (or the “Exorcist”) will come away with the idea that all instances of demonic attack entail the bizarre extremes to which Emily Rose was subjected. This can only lead to a caricature of spiritual warfare and a failure to recognize the influence of the Enemy in less sensational, but equally debilitating, symptoms.

(7)One defense witness contends that Emily abandoned her medication because it anesthetized her and thus inhibited the degree to which she could respond to procedures of exorcism.

Are we supposed to conclude from this that the Spirit of God can operate effectively only in the absence of chemical influence? On the other hand, it also raises the question of the complicity of the victim. In other words, how much of the success in deliverance is dependent on the fully conscious and willful involvement of the person? What if they don’t want to be set free (which eventually turns out to be the case with Emily)?

(8)What does it tell us about Emily Rose, her symptoms, as well as the spiritual authenticity of Father Moore, that her exorcism evidently went on for weeks and ultimately proved unsuccessful? Is Satan that powerful? Or was Emily Rose not truly demonized? Or was Father Moore a fraud? Or is deliverance ministry typically this difficult? Or, . . . ?

(9)Emily claims to have seen the Virgin Mary and to have experienced the stigmata (bloody wounds in her hands, corresponding to those of Jesus on the cross). The prosecutor contends she got them by gripping the barbed-wire fence on her father’s farm. Emily tells Father Moore that the Virgin offered to take her into heaven, but she chose to remain alive and to continue to fight the Enemy without the aid of exorcism or medication. Why? Because, says Emily, “People say that God is dead. But how can they say that, if I show them the Devil?”

It would thus seem that the demonization of Emily has taken on an oddly apologetic role. Is there any evidence for this in Scripture? Does Mary have the power to usher believers into the after-life? Many Protestants would also contend that “visions” of the Virgin Mary and the stigmata are themselves symptoms of demonic activity rather than an indication of divine favor.

(10)Emily Rose dies. This is somewhat bewildering, at least in terms of how it unfolds in the film. If she truly saw the Virgin Mary and felt something of a divine commission to continue her battle as a way of alerting people to the reality of God’s existence, why did she die? If someone says, “Satan killed her”, I’m compelled to ask: “Is Satan more powerful than God? If God wanted her to live as a testimony to his presence (and this is what the ‘Virgin Mary’ evidently made clear), and Emily Rose herself embraced this ‘mission’, how do we account for her death?” This may be nothing more than an illogical element in the script (or my overly analytical tendencies), but I couldn’t help but wonder.

There are numerous other elements in the film that need not detain us (such as the apparent demonic attack on the defense attorney, ostensibly to discourage her from taking the case and about which she had been warned by Father Moore, as well as the untimely and bizarre death of a potentially persuasive witness for the defense). As for the final verdict, and Father Moore’s fate, I won’t give it away lest you decide to watch the movie for yourself.

These, then, are just a few of the more immediate questions and issues that came to mind as I watched the film. In subsequent installments in this series, I will try to answer a few of them. Stay tuned.