Feb 5, 2006

the truth behind The Exorcism of Emily Rose

When I last discussed the movie, I approached it mostly on an aesthetic level. Frankly, it stinks, in a derivative, dull, stinky way.

But because people keep clicking through to my site, and because Andrew Selby of Mere Orthodoxy has written a positive review of the film, I thought I might discuss why it fails on an intellectual level as well.

Selby writes, "...[Y]ou really ought to see this film because it will challenge your preconceived notions of what is fiction and what is fact..." Ironically, Selby also later points out exactly why this is the case: the story has been sexed up for cinema. "The actual story is less inspiring and more gray than the film," he admits.

The real Emily Rose, a German girl named Anneliese Michel, was devoutly Catholic, the daughter of devout Catholics. As Eric Hansen writes in the Washington Post,
Michel was raised in a strict Catholic family in Bavaria, which rejected the reforms of Vatican II and flirted with religious fringe groups. While other kids her age were rebelling against authority and experimenting with sex, she tried to atone for the sins of wayward priests and drug addicts by sleeping on a bare floor in the middle of winter.
In most possession stories I've read, victims are those who experiment with the occult, dabble with ouija boards, attend seances, read horoscopes, listen to heavy metal. As Bob Larson, one of the U.S.'s premiere demonologists* puts it, "Generally, the person who has a demon knows he has serious spiritual problems that have defied all of his efforts to rectify."

Anneliese Michel's case, as it should be obvious, was atypical. In fact, it's frightening to think that God might allow demons to attack someone so clearly on His side (though readers of the Book of Job already know how this works; perhaps Michel was on the losing end of a divine wager).

Problems of theodicy aside, was Michel really possessed? I mean, really possessed, genuinely beset by dark spiritual forces, battered by demonic entities? Or was she just mentally ill?

Every article on the subject notes that all those who were near her have no doubts that Michel's manifestations were horrifically real. Of course, as devout believers, they'd have little reason to believe they weren't--hence the denial of standard medical care (which, in the 1970s, it must be acknowledged, might not have had as powerful weapons against temporal lobe epilepsy, schizophrenic delusions and obsessive / compulsive behavior all in one overwhelming package). The denial of medical care that ultimately precipitated Michel's death. She starved to 68 pounds before passing at the age of 23, seven years after symptoms first appeared.

To the skeptic, Michel's case clearly fits into the rare-but-hardly-miraculous category, as a tragic incidence of mental illness. Even religious believers, though, might have a hard time accepting aspects of Michel's possession. As Hansen notes,
Sometimes the demons identified themselves -- as Cain, Nero, Judas, Lucifer, Hitler and others -- and even answered the exorcists' questions, explaining what was wrong with the church or why they were in Hell. "People are stupid as pigs," spat Hitler. "They think it's all over after death. It goes on." Judas said Hitler was nothing but a "big mouth" and had "no real say" in Hell.
Absent the physical violence and bizarre behaviors--which were likely exacerbated by her parents' refusal to allow sedation--the thought of bickering spirits is comical. It should be noted that the Catholic church refused to perform an exorcism for several years, because Michel did not show the hallmark signs of possession, including speaking in a language she had never learned. (The film shows Emily Rose speaking Latin, and acknowledges, if I remember correctly, that Rose, like Michel, learned Latin in school.)

The Exorcism of Emily Rose is pernicious for two reasons. First, it mangles the purported circumstances of Emily's possession, blaming it on modern medicine and the use of antipsychotics. In "real life," Michel displayed signs of possession before seeking treatment. Certainly, medical science can't cure every malady, but exorcism, in Michel's case, was a cure worse than the disease. Second, Emily Rose employs standard Hollywood fare for demon flicks, including strange phenomena tormenting a skeptical lawyer on a precise schedule, always with a clock in view. No such hanky-panky was reported in Michel's case. So much for "realism." **

Michel's body was exhumed eleven years after her death. To the disappointment of some, her corpse had deteriorated naturally.

For more information: Read about temporal lobe epilepsy (and other forms) here. I'd like to find a copy of this paper, which goes into more depth on the strange delusions it can bring about. Added: And don't forget Michael Cuneo's American Exorcism, which provides a fascinating look into the world of demonology. Witness to scores of rituals, Cuneo sees a whole lotta vomit, but not much in the way of compelling evidence for demon possession.

*Keep a saltshaker handy.
**(added) The windstorm that accompanies the exorcism is another cinematic fantasy.

[fifty-fourth in a series]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i think that was really scary that it can really heppen to people