He didn't see heads spin 360 degrees or volcanoes of pea-soup vomit. He was, in the end, convinced that demons are real. The results went into The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a chilling movie that Derrickson hopes will make believers think twice about what they believe, and doubters have doubts about their doubts.
“The research phase was horrible,” he said, during press events preceding the September 9 release. “I am glad that I know so much about it. That's good knowledge to have. As a writer, it certainly is. I also feel that for me, as a Christian, it is good to have that knowledge. But I will never do that again.”
The movie was inspired by the story of Anneliese Michel, a German college student and devout Catholic who died during exorcism rites in 1976. Doctors said her seizures and visions were caused by epilepsy. Her family was convinced otherwise and their bishop agreed to allow a series of exorcism rites.
The ordeal eventually took her life. State officials prosecuted the parents and their priests for criminal negligence, leading to a trial that divided skeptics and believers then and now.
Derrickson and co-writer Paul Harris Boardman moved this story to the American heartland, changing scores of details. The result wraps a horror movie inside a courtroom drama, with Emily's story told in flashbacks. The big question: Is this a story of fatal abuse caused by superstition or an inspiring account of a battle with evil incarnate?
After weeks of terror, Emily writes a letter in which she describes a heavenly vision. In it, the Virgin Mary tells her that she can die peacefully or struggle on, enduring more pain but proving that demonic possession is real. On the witness stand, the family's priest reads this letter and emphasizes this passage: “People say that God is dead. But how can they think that if I show them the devil?”
The movie is light on special effects and heavy on scenes that blur but do not erase the lines between faith and science, the natural and the supernatural. The Exorcism of Emily Rose is not a film for moviegoers who avoid the sound of creaky wooden floor planks, the scratch of fingernails on plaster walls, the howling of hellish voices in ancient tongues or the crunch of insects between human teeth. Is this insanity or spiritual warfare?
The timing was good for a movie built on spiritual questions, admitted Derrickson. A studio executive read the script and gave it a green light days after the release of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.
The key, said actress Laura Linney, is that the movie doesn't tell “people what to think or to believe.” Instead, it shows how people with different beliefs view mysterious events in different ways. The cast and crew included people with a variety of religious beliefs, as well.
Linney plays a doubter who defends the priest. The prosecutor is portrayed as a progressive Christian, a Bible-reading modernist who is repulsed by this encounter with what he considers an ancient, irrational and dangerous form of faith. Similar conflicts are dividing many religious groups today.
The goal, said Linney, was to open up “one of the big mysteries: Where does evil come from? Is it stuff in our brains or is it something outside of ourselves? Some people have very strong opinions about it, one way or the other.” Hopefully, this film “will cause both sides to re-evaluate and to listen to the other side,” she said.
In the end, Derrickson said he hopes moviegoers will dare to ask tough questions about good and evil, God and Satan.
“Right now, there is plenty of amorphous belief out there about God,” he said. “Lots of people are saying, 'God is within us. God is a force. God is everything. God is everywhere.' They don't really believe in a God who makes demands, who judges, does things that make us uncomfortable. They're vague about evil, too.
“What we tried to do was make an entertaining movie that scared people. But I also wanted people to stop and think about all of that.”
Terry Mattingly teaches at Palm Atlantic University and is a senior fellow for journalism at the Council For Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.