Personal interview with Director Scott Derrickson and actresses Laura Linney and Jennifer Carpenter of “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”

by Kenneth R. Morefield, Ph.D.

Copyright, Sony Pictures
See our film review page on “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”

Peruse a list of major studio releases for the Fall 2005 season, and you will find a film from a relatively new Christian director whose first major release was given the green light by Sony Pictures the weekend that “The Passion of the Christ” was released. Look again and you may notice it’s a horror film from the director of Hellraiser: Inferno.

On their own, neither project would be particularly odd, but when you realize that both blurbs are describing the same film—Scott Derrickson’s “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”—you may begin to ask questions.

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Jennifer Carpenter acting in “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”

Will Christian audiences embrace a film that depicts the central character as a devout Catholic who may (or may not) have become possessed by six demons? Will secular viewers flock to a PG-13 horror movie that spends more time in the courtroom debating whether demons exist than it does grossing out the audience with make up or special effects? Will Roman Catholics welcome a film that suggests the ritual of exorcism can be ineffectual when the victim of possession is influenced by consciousness-altering drugs? Will Protestants accept a heroine who has a vision not of Christ but of the Virgin Mary?

In the wake of such inevitable questions, the film’s participants are doing everything they can to pitch “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” as an exploration rather than an explanation of spiritual themes, emphasizing their desire to get audiences to contemplate important questions without forcing the answers upon them.

Copyright, Sony Pictures
Director Scott Derrickson on the set of Sony’s “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”

Copyright, Sony Pictures
Laura Linney in the courtroom.

Copyright, Sony Pictures
Jennifer Carpenter in the movie.

Copyright, Sony Pictures
Director Scott Derrickson and Jennifer Carpenter on the set.

Derrickson claimed in his press briefing that he “wasn’t trying to persuade people” with the film, insisting that his goal was to make a film that “wasn’t propaganda.” Citing Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” as a favorite personal example, he argues that films that explore varying perspectives can be “fascinating” and “compelling.” Of “Emily Rose”, Derrickson said: “My intention is to make a film that provokes people to ask themselves what they believe about evil, what they believe about the demonic. Inevitably when you ask questions like that you end up asking yourself what you think about God, what you think about morality, and what you think about the nature of memory and truth.”

The desire for a balanced treatment of conflicting opinions was crucial to Laura Linney in deciding to participate in the film. “I wanted to make sure that both arguments were fully and completely explored, and it was balanced …I wanted to make sure the movie was not telling people what to think or believe, and that it presented two complete sides to this question [of whether or not Emily is possessed by demons or delusional].” Linney also stressed her hope that the film would help proponents on different sides to listen to one another, declaring that as humans, there is “so much we don’t understand.”

Even Jennifer Carpenter who plays the title character, declared herself uncertain as to whether Emily is actually possessed. To prepare for the role Carpenter said she “read several books on possession and exorcism and did some study on epilepsy” but also trained “like an athlete” for the role’s physical demands. She claimed she thought the script did a good job at keeping the audience “on the fence-including myself.” Whether or not Emily is possessed, Carpenter stressed that Emily “truly believes her will is not her own.”

One challenge facing Carpenter was that the film provides only one scene of Emily before her transformation. By showing the responses to Emily’s ordeal, however, Carpenter hopes the film will impress upon audiences the tragedy of Emily’s fate, saying that she was “someone’s girlfriend, someone’s sister, someone’s daughter, and she’s loved and cared for by so many people” both before and after she was “robbed” of her dreams for the future by “this horrible thing.”

Was that horrible thing a demonic possession or a tragic mental illness? The film ultimately doesn’t say, but it does present a critical and potentially controversial scene towards the end which attempts to explain how and why God might allow a devout follower to be possessed by demonic spirits. It is an explanation that Derrickson recognizes may be difficult for many Christians to accept. “I do not believe that a spirit-filled Christian can become demon possessed,” Derrickson says, choosing his words carefully. “However, what I will say, is that for every one of those theological rules that we like to systematically create there are often exceptions, and I don’t believe that God will tell me to go commit a sin, but he told Abraham to murder his son. I think that there are sometimes exceptions to the rule like that.”

Relevant issues

Can Christians be demon possessed? In what ways can Satan and his demons influence believers? Answer

Is Satan a real person that influences our world today? Is he affecting you? Answer

Demoniac (Web Bible Dictionary)

Exorcist (Web Bible Dictionary)

Satan (Web Bible Dictionary)

Demons (Web Bible Dictionary)

Miracles (Web Bible Dictionary)

Having tried to address the more specific theological questions that Christians might raise after watching the film, Derrickson quickly returned to the point that the intent of the film is to raise questions for those who may not have considered these issues rather than to confirm the answers of any group that has. “This movie is intended to stretch and provoke everyone who sees it, including Christians.”

Derrickson’s response reveals an attitude that is indicative of how the film is being marketed. He hopes that the audience will include Christians, but it is not intended exclusively nor even primarily for them. Whether he is successful, as a Christian director, in stretching and provoking a mainstream audience will have a lot to say about how successful “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” becomes.

The ideal audience response may be similar to that of Jennifer Carpenter, who said of making the film: “It made me ask a lot of questions that I haven’t asked for years.”

See our REVIEW of “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”