An interview and commentary by Jeffrey Overstreet, originally published in SPU’s Response magazine.
Do You Believe in Demons?
In “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,”
a Christian filmmaker challenges audiences to face the horror of the devil.
Do you believe that people today can be possessed by demons?
That’s a question you might not want to toss out during the family dinner, or on the bus with strangers. Most Christians would not hesitate to say they believe in spiritual warfare, but when it comes to the specifics, and whether or not the endeavors of the devil in Scripture continue as a literal reality today – well, that makes most people nervous.
Not Scott Derrickson. The director and writer of “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” puts the subject of demon possession right out on the table for everyone to engage. His horrific fiction is loosely based on fact; a young German woman named Anneliese Michel who willingly submitted herself to an exorcism in 1976 after several years of severe afflictions – seizures, demonic visions, speaking in different voices and personalities. Despite the priests’ efforts, she died, reportedly of starvation. This generated a fierce controversy. What was Anneliese’s primary condition? Possession? Psychosis? Epilepsy? The matter was settled in court.
Rewriting the story so that it stands as a fiction that invites us into difficult questions about spirit and science, Derrickson frames the film as a courtroom drama similar to an episode of TV’s “Law and Order.” His story follows Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), a defense attorney who appeals to a jury by backing up the claims of her client – the accused Father Moore. In short, she argues in a court of law that poor Emily Rose was, indeed, possessed. This clashes with the argument of the prosecutor (Campbell Scott), who insists that the priest is guilty of negligent homicide for denying Emily the medicine and professional care that she needed, and for accelerating her deterioration under a psychological affliction.
Linney plays Bruner as a conflicted public servant, an agnostic who begins to wonder about seeming coincidences in her own life as she works the case. Are there dark forces following her to prevent her success, as the priest believes? Or is she merely becoming paranoid? It’s a complex character, and Linney’s work is engaging and impressive. Scott plays Ethan Thomas as a temperamental “man of faith” whose anger embitters him over the course of the case, so that he stands in stark contrast to other characters. While his profession of faith and his refusal to treat possession as a serious subject is an interesting contradiction, Scott can’t overcome the poorly scripted character, and Thomas ends up as nothing more than a villain to boo. Tom Wilkinson, on the other hand, is extraordinary, a convincingly conscientious and noble priest put to the test before a skeptical jury, burdened with a personal mission to “tell Emily’s story.”
The film avoids gratuitous gore and the kind of shocks that provide the backbone of most horror films. Sure, the flashbacks to Emily’s “attacks” are horrifying – especially because Derrickson eschews digital effects in favor of a powerfully creepy performance. (Playing Emily, Jennifer Carpenter twists herself into alarming contortions.) But this director is clearly more interested in the serious questions at hand and the sufferings of those caught up in the case. Audience members are thus likely to come away discussing and debating the merits of the Catholic church’s teachings on the devil, instead of chatting about their favorite thrills. That should please Derrickson, whose goal is to confront audiences with a vision of darkness that might nudge them toward rewarding discussion, perhaps even to the light.
Response spoke with Scott Derrickson about making “Emily Rose,” about how a Christian artist could devote himself to making horror films, and about his experience as a Christian working in Hollywood.
Response: Was it hard to get studio support for “Emily Rose”? Or did the success of “The Passion” make things easier?
Scott Derrickson (SD):
I don’t think it’s a coincidence the movie was green-lit the Monday after “The Passion” opened. [laughs]
I was fortunate that the gatekeeper on the project, Clint Culpepper, [president of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Screen Gems unit,] was somebody who just understood what “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” was really meant to be. He understood the spiritual significance of it. And he understood that there’s an audience out there that is not only unafraid of that kind of material, but has a great appetite for that kind of material. He knew that it was a scary film, and he knew that it was gonna be marketed as a scary film – as did I – because … anybody who goes to see this movie is, hopefully, going because they want to watch a scary movie.
Response: But it’s not a conventional scary movie.
It’s an art house horror film. It’s certainly an art-ful horror film. It’s not an exploitive horror film. It’s something unique. It’s also a courtroom movie.
Response: It takes spirituality more seriously than most horror films as well.
There was never any pressure to remove that. I think that there were a lot of questions by studio executives involved, and by cast members – particularly Laura Linney – who wanted to know where I was coming from, personally, regarding the material.
Whenever you are dealing with such overtly spiritual and religious material in this day and age when religion and politics seem to be so intertwined, if you say you’re a Christian, people automatically assume what your political agenda is. Laura wanted to know what my agenda was in making the film. And I assured her, as I did the executives on the project, that I wasn’t interested in making a piece of religious propaganda. I wanted to make an effective, entertaining, provocative movie that wasn’t attempting to offer the audience metaphysical or spiritual answers, but was provoking significant religious and spiritual questions. That is the agenda of the film.
My hope is that when people see the movie – no matter who they are, no matter what they believe – they’re going to come away asking themselves what they really believe about demons and the devil and, therefore, God.
Response: To you, then, the value of horror stories is their potential to provoke spiritual inquiry?
The potential value of the horror genre is that it forces us to reckon with the harder truths of life and the darker realities of life.
A lot of Hollywood films are escapist in their nature. They offer the audience a temporary denial of the difficult realities of life and the darkness that exists in the world. In the horror genre, the great potential of it is that it forces us to reckon with what we are afraid of. It forces us to admit an experience – that there is evil in the world, and in ourselves. There’s evil in nature. We’re not in control. I think it’s the genre of non-denial, and that’s fundamentally what attracts me to it.
“Emily Rose” is a movie that takes some of the darkest aspects of spirituality and portrays them in a realistic way. And the value of that is that I don’t think you can watch the film without asking yourself if you believe that these things are real, if you believe in spiritual entities or not. It’s valuable for the culture as a whole to be asking itself those questions. Because once you’re in that arena, you can’t ask yourself if you believe in the devil without ultimately asking yourself what you believe about God.
To dissect evil is ultimately to define good.
Response: And yet, films in this genre are almost always under fire from the Christian media as a negative influence. Is there any merit in that argument?
I think that you can become oversaturated with this kind of material. I don’t think it’s healthy for people to watch nothing but films like this. But I think that a dose of it in the artistic and entertainment diet is a really good thing.
I love the verse [that says] “Have nothing to do with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them.” In my Christian training, I was taught to “have nothing to do with fruitless deeds of darkness.” But I never really understood or was given much illumination, this idea of exposing them. I think the reason for that is that the act of exposing darkness involves some discomfort. [laughs] Christians don’t like to be made uncomfortable. I don’t. I’m not saying that as a judgment.
Response: So how do you determine when you’re exposing the darkness, and when you’re merely indulging in it?
I think that the story itself has to dictate to what level a filmmaker ought to go in, in the portrayal of evil and the portrayal of graphic material. When I made [“Hellraiser: Dominion”], I went as far in that film as I would ever go as a filmmaker in terms of the graphic nature. It’s a very grotesque movie. I don’t like that kind of stuff, graphic violence, personally. But I was making a movie about hell. One of my ambitions [with] that movie was to create a portrayal of hell that had some personal significance for me.
When Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus and used what I believe were the metaphors of flames and fire, he was trying to create a frightening, horrible, fear-inspiring place for listeners of that story. But those images of flames and the lake of fire, and even the devil, as we see him with his red underwear and his pitchfork… those things have little actual resonance now, because they’ve been so used up in pop culture and have become almost cartoonish. So [in “Hellraiser: Dominion”], I was trying to recapture – at least for myself – the depth of horror that a place like hell would inhabit. I was willing to go quite far with that kind of material.
In making “Emily Rose,” I felt like “The Exorcist” had … taken that same approach that I was just describing, of trying to create the most vulgar and nauseating and wretched experience that a filmmaker could possibly put the audience through. William Friedkin did that so effectively, I knew that trying to top that would be a disaster. [laughs]
Trying to go farther in that direction would either be so nauseating as to make the film unwatchable, or it would more likely just become laughable.
In my research for this movie, and reading about documented cases of possession and exorcism and deliverance, I’ve seen a lot of videotapes of actual possessions and exorcisms. I think that what actually happens is much less graphic [than “The Exorcist”], but equally frightening. I had to get rid of this exploitative vulgarity and grotesqueness, and focus, rather, on what is equally frightening, which is the sort of alien inhumanity of possessed people.
Whether you believe in possession or not … you can’t witness a person who is going through this whole process of possession and exorcism and not find it profoundly disturbing, even if you think it’s mental illness.
So that became the approach – to not focus on those more exploitive elements, but to really try to scare the audience with the psychological aspects of it, and to frighten them with what they don’t see, which is always, ultimately, scarier. I think the result is quite effective. The movie is very, very scary, without resorting to those more exploitative elements and without resorting to makeup and CGI effects in any kind of obvious way.
Response: What do you hope to accomplish, drawing viewers into this experience? Other than just scaring them, does the film offer any kind of redemptive hope, or leave them with any direction?
I don’t think that a true story of possession and exorcism needs to be justified. The fact that these things really happen out in the world, and happen quite frequently, means that it’s worth exploring in dramatic forums. In other words, telling the truth has value in and of itself.
But I think that your point is a really good one: What is the intended, desired effect of a film like this on the audience, and how do you leave them with something more than just despair and fear?
The film is premiering at the Venice Film Festival on September 1, and I had to write a Director’s Statement for it. In the last paragraph, I wrote that it was appropriate that the film premiere in Italy, because it was heavily influenced by two great Italians, Dario Aregento and Dante.
Response: Why Dante?
Dante understood that gothic storytelling can be a tremendous vehicle for spiritual and theological passion. And, you know, he was very theologically and religiously obsessed, that guy. [laughs] And yet, he took what I think he believed to be incredible moral instruction and incredible theological dissection, and offered that up to the audience through an incredibly frightening tale. And there was a higher purpose to the story than just scaring them. He wanted to take the audience into a spiritual and theological place, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. And I love that. [“L’Inferno”] is one of one of the great works of art in history. And, for me, what’s so great about it was that it is a genre piece. It’s a horror story. And, yet, it’s so creatively ambitious and so morally instructive.
In the case of “Emily Rose,” I didn’t want to make a morally instructive movie, and I didn’t want to make a movie that was bent on providing religious answers for the audience, because I am so resistant to that kind of propaganda myself. But I felt that this was the opportunity to help provoke the audience into asking the right spiritual questions.
I don’t think you can watch this film and not ask yourself very deeply what you believe about the existence of the spiritual realm. And I think that for popular culture to be provoked to ask those questions – “What do I believe about the existence of the spiritual realm?” “What, if anything, do I believe inhabits that realm?” – that can only result in progress, in spiritual progress, for those who see the film.
I didn’t want to try to tell a story that gave more of an answer because I think that when you’re dealing with … subject matter that’s volatile – like politics, religion, or race relationships – you’re dealing with things [about which people] have very harsh strong opinions. Once you begin to propagate your own point of view as a director, you begin to turn the audience off, even if they agree with you.
The template that I had in mind working on this movie was Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” Spike Lee has very strong opinions about issues of race relationships in America. And to the degree that he forces those opinions into his movies, his movies become, I think, for the most part, less interesting. “Do the Right Thing” was the greatest film of the 1980s, and I think one of the reasons why it was so great was because, rather than trying to instruct the audience of how they ought to think about these issues, he was forcing them just to think about them … period. He forced all of the issues onto the table in such a way that you [had to] engage the questions the film was asking. And people argued about that movie. People had varying different opinions about that film. But it was so great – he had people talking about something that they otherwise wouldn’t be talking about.
Response: The other “great Italian” you mentioned – Dario Argento – how did he influence you?
What inspired me about Argento’s work was that he understood that horror films didn’t need to be devoid of beauty. He understood that you could combine beauty and terror; you can combine aesthetic ambition with this genre. It’s something that’s very few horror directors have embraced. Horror films tend to be dark, gothic, or even ugly or uninspiring. He saw that terror and beauty have an interesting relationship when they’re combined. It’s a very rich experience to watch his films – even though they are, in my opinion, very average horror stories – because he’s giving you … astonishing aesthetics in the process of telling you these scary tales.
As a Christian, that speaks to me, because I find the cross to be the ultimate merging of beauty and terror. It’s a vision out of a horror film. A man … nailed to a plank. The blood imagery. At the same time, it is transformed by its meaning – and by its artistic representations through history – to become something profoundly beautiful.
The great potential of the horror genre is [in] that combination of aesthetic richness and meaningful subject matter… and spiritual significance. All these things combine with dark tales that scare us, that shake us to our core, that make us realize that we’re not sovereign in the world, that there are malevolent forces inside of us and outside of us. We are, ourselves, evil. And there’s evil out in the world, and that there’s evil in nature. I just think that all of that swirling around together in a good film is a wonderful thing to experience, [and audiences can be] enriched because of it – spiritually and aesthetically, and cinematically enriched. That’s the goal.
Response: At Seattle Pacific, our mission reads, “Engaging the culture, changing the world.” How would you encourage Christian moviegoers – especially those who are aspiring artists and filmmakers – to proceed in engaging with art and culture?
Part of the answer is … not viewing Hollywood, or any of the resources of artistic and entertainment output, as places to be “conquered for Christ.” They are places where Christians who are artistic and want to be creative must go and must be. And I think that is where the starting point needs to be.
Assuming that people have their spiritual life together, the starting point is not even about integration; it certainly isn’t about occupation; the starting point should be excellence.
The fault line running through Christian interests in the arts in America is that they don’t love the arts enough. The problem with Christians who want to be involved with Hollywood, for the most part, is that they don’t love movies enough. They don’t love them enough to demonstrate the kind of commitment to excellence that it takes to succeed in the field.
That is, I believe, our Christian duty [as artists] – is to create great cinema, and to write great novels, and to create great music. I believe that God is glorified by excellence. That’s why I believe that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is uniquely glorifying to God. It was made out of spiritual passion, yes, but it was a demonstration of the highest order of excellence in the realm of painting. And I believe that that skill and craft, as it is increasingly excellent, is increasingly glorifying to God. God is a creator and he made us to be co-creators with him.
Christians need to get their act together… and realize that it’s not about being better than the world. It’s about being as good as God intended us to be at creating things, and to become more and more creative, and more and more original, and more and more innovative. Insofar as we do that, we will inevitably impact culture. Impacting the culture shouldn’t be the goal – it will become the inevitable byproduct of glorifying God through the work itself.
I don’t think Flannery O’Conner sat down and thought, “Hm. How could I change the culture?” I just think that she loved books, and she loved words, and she loved stories, and she became as skilled at that as any writer of her day. And the result was that she wrote classic stories.
When Bono accepted a Grammy, I remember that he said something along the lines of [how] he wanted to thank God, but he always imagined God looking down and going, “No, no, no, no. Don’t thank Me; I hated that song.” [laughs]
If there’s a second part to the answer, it would be this: Christians must come to a point where they appreciate and embrace, wholeheartedly, a work of art because of its aesthetic qualities alone. [Christians] – even those who seem favorable towards cinema – tend to respond only to the content and the meaning of the content of the film. And I’m not going to disparage that; that’s a huge part of cinema. But it’s not necessarily the primary part of any given film.
It’s almost as though a fan of Renaissance art is standing in front of Picasso’s work, trying to extract the moral lessons of adultery from his paintings about his various exploits with women, and trying to dissect Picasso’s cosmology or anthropology. Yet what they’re missing is that the greatness of Picasso really has nothing to do with that. Is it there? Yeah, it’s there. Can you find it in there? Sure, I guess so. [But] the greatness of Picasso was form and style. That person standing there should just look and recognize that God breathed through this man and gave the world some of the greatest form and style ever put on canvas. That is as glorifying as the content of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
I’ve had so many arguments with people about “Kill Bill, Volume I and II.” I fundamentally reject the revenge ethic of “Volume I,” especially. It’s anti-Christian. It is an attitude toward the world that I think is [laughs] pretty destructive. And the movie borders on reckless violence. But all I can say is I love those films. I think that they are such masterful demonstrations of form and style, that they are almost completely redeemed by it. As a filmgoer and as a Christian, I don’t have to react violently against the fact that it’s a revenge movie. I know that I think revenge is bad. But I don’t know that that movie is going to propagate that idea in any kind of dangerous way. What I, as a Christian, respond [with] whenever I watch it is, “My goodness, what form! And what style! And what beauty! And, boy, I can just feel the creative passion and the excellence in that work!” I’m inspired by it. I take away something very rich and beautiful from it, and I feel better as a human being for having that experience.
That is a place that, that few Christians are living. It’s an important thing for us to get to a place where we really understand that form and style are sitting on the same level as content as things to be appreciated in cinema. My favorite films are films that embody both. I can make a good argument those are the best ones. It’s why Kurosawa is my favorite director, He was always hitting a “10” on the aesthetic and form meter, and he was always hitting a “10” on the meaning and content meter. He just never wanted to let one outweigh the other; he just wanted them both to be supreme at all times. And, and he made about 10 or 15 masterpieces because of that.