When we hear the phrase “based on a true story” we often go into a film or tv series with apprehension, especially when it comes to horror...
...Too often we have seen films labeled with that tagline only to find that the story in question either isn’t true at all or the events in the film play out completely different from what really happened.
Then there are the films that take the source material of the true events that surround the story and make the tale one the audience connects with and/or enjoys. An example of this would be The Conjuring films, which are based on the case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren. While the stories told in those films are your typical ghost haunting fanfare, it is the heart and humanity of the film that keeps you invested. The Conjuring films’ successes are due in no small part to the performances of Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as Ed and Lorraine.
The Conjuring series is not the only instance of effectively bringing a real case to the screen, however. To celebrate its 15th anniversary this month, I took a look at the heart of 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the “true story” behind it.
Written and directed by Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Doctor Strange), the film takes what would be another ordinary exorcism tale and moves it into the courtroom as we are told via testimony and flashbacks the tragic story of Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), a young student who tragically passed away during an exorcism. Standing trial for her death is one Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), the Catholic priest responsible for performing the exorcism that took Emily’s life.
Rather than lean heavily on the supernatural elements in a similar vein to The Exorcist, this film prefers ambiguity, giving us a story we may never know the answer to through both logical and theological theories as to the cause of Emily’s condition. Derrickson leaves it up to the audience to decide for themselves whether it was simply a medical condition that went unaided or the devil himself that tormented her.
As the trial and story unfold, we see little things occurring reminiscent of The Amityville Horror, from Laura Linney’s character waking up at 3:00 a.m., explained in the film by Father Moore as the witching hour or the devil’s hour, when witches and demons were at their most powerful. It is intriguing that most of these instances only seem to happen to the defense. We don't see that much in the way of the supernatural happening to the prosecution, further allowing the audience to draw a clear line between skepticism and belief.
Exorcism of Emily Rose boasts an amazing cast with Laura Linney delivering a fantastic performance as our main character, skeptic defense attorney Erin Bruner. Linney and Wilkinson balance the often-seen dynamic of skeptic and believer beautifully. They aren’t the only ones dedicated to their performances, however. Perhaps what makes the film really stand out amongst the rest and keeps it very much in tune with its earlier counterpart The Exorcist is that the actresses playing those used and abused by demons deliver physically and emotionally draining performances. Carpenter shines as Emily, giving us the heart of the film as we watch a normal girl eventually spiral into pain and torment. The way she was able to contort her body and deliver what was no doubt an exhausting performance is a highlight of the film.
Two scenes of this performance stand out above the rest. First, the exorcism scene, which slowly builds to this crescendo as it escalates in intensity to become one of the most memorable exorcism scenes ever put to film. Second, Emily’s fog-filled dream. Overflowing with dread, it is here that we get a glimpse into Emily’s psyche and her inner turmoil. Images from this sequence would later become part of the promotional material.
In the end, the film makes you question your own beliefs in much the same way as the true case that inspired it…
The case of Anneliese Michel is familiar to almost anyone with an interest in the supernatural and true crime, and a simple Google search after watching The Exorcism of Emily Rose leads you tumbling down a rabbit hole.
The case took place in Germany in the 1970s. Anneliese’s parents, alongside the two priests that participated in her exorcism, were charged with manslaughter resulting from negligence and were sentenced up to 6 months in prison, which was then suspended.
While the film does take some artistic liberties with the case, notably setting it in the United States and bringing it into a more modern time, there are some things about both Emily and Anneliese’s cases that remain the same. Both were believed to have some kind of psychological or neurological disorder like epilepsy, while the parents and priests believed both presented traits similar to the signs of demonic possession.
Perhaps one of the most chilling aspects of their connection is the tapes. In the film we are presented with a tape of the exorcism, just as in the Michel case. The tapes of Anneliese Michel’s exorcism are readily available should you choose to go looking, but a word of warning from someone that has listened to them, they are incredibly unnerving. To listen to them is to hear a girl put through unimaginable hell. We hear her grunts, her cries, and her voice changes, all of which are very similar to Emily’s in the film’s exorcism scene. It is not something I recommend someone listening to if they are easily triggered by these sorts of things.
The biggest difference between fact and fiction lies in that the film sort of glances over the medical and mental issues that Anneliese had; by 1970 she had been staying in a psychiatric hospital to try and treat her seizures by way of numerous drugs.
Reading up on the Anneliese Michel case, we are left with the very same questions present in The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Was this demonic possession? Was this neglect of a seriously ill person? Many have their own views on the subject and the case is still often talked about even today—especially in Bavaria where it occurred—and as recently as 2013 when the abandoned house the Michel family once lived in caught fire and burned to the ground.
No film is ever able to tell the whole story truthfully. While we may scoff at the tagline “Based on a true story”, from time to time films like The Conjuring and The Exorcism of Emily Rose challenge and surprise us by delivering an unexpected amount of heart along with their scares and thrills. But you know what they say...the devil is in the details.
By Kalani Landgraf