Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

I. Introduction

I first ran across The Exorcism of Emily Rose in a movie review in World Magazine. Unlike the two Exorcist films I recently reviewed, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is roughly based on a “true story”–the exorcism of Anneliese Michel.

Of course what, exactly, is true about the true story is a matter of interpretation. And that’s part of what makes this interesting.

Not only is the film based on the case of Anneliese Michel, but the source material for the script seems to be drawn primarily from The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel (Resource Publications 2005) by Felicitas Goodman. For instance, one of the characters (Dr. Sadira Adani) is clearly modeled on Felicitas Goodman. And other details are clearly cribbed from the book.

If that’s correct, then we have three layers to consider: the historical case itself, the documentary record of the case in Goodman’s monograph, including her ethnographic interpretation, and the cinematic adaptation of Goodman’s monograph–among other things. So this post is part book review, part film review.

II. The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel

i) Because of her access to so many primary sources materials, Goodman’s monograph remains an indispensable resource. However, there are also a number of problems with her monograph:

ii) To properly interpret the phenomenon, it’s essential to know who said what when.

a) Sometimes Goodman will attribute a statement to a particular speaker, but at other times we’re left in the dark regarding the source.

b) Sometimes she’ll make a summary statement, but leave out crucial details which are necessary to evaluate the statement.

c) Some of her material is drawn from Michel’s letters and diaries. But while Michel’s own statements supply important, firsthand evidence, that doesn’t settle the correct interpretation. For if Michel was mentally ill, then her perceptions and self-perceptions are often delusive. So while they reveal her state of mind, they don’t reveal the extent to which her perceptions square with reality.

iii) It’s also clear throughout the work that Goodman has her own agenda.

a) Goodman has a decided bias which may owe something to her Hungarian Catholic background, as well as Hungarian folklore–which she specifically references

b) Goodman was a cultural anthropologist who specialized in “trance possession.” As such, she’s predisposed to interpret the case of Michel as a genuine case of possession–in light of her cross-cultural paradigm.

c) Goodman is using the case of Michel to launch a general attack on the “scientific tradition,” which places a premium on ordinary states of consciousness as the norm.

d) Goodman takes a more than professional interest in “trance possession.” She founded a New Age type of “institute” which is dedicated to inducing states of altered consciousness. In the book she makes favorable use of Carlos Castaneda’s material. Yet Castaneda was a notorious popularizer of the occult. In the same book she also makes favorable reference to Kundalini yoga, which–once more-–is plainly occultic.

So this all creates a certain slant to her coverage.

iv) There’s a basic problem with Goodman’s ethnographic paradigm of spirit-possession. While cross-cultural studies may indeed reveal the reality of the phenomenon, they fail to reveal the reality underlying the phenomenon. They simply describe the phenomenology of “possession.” But whether these symptoms attest the actual invasion of a human host by some discarnate intelligence is a different question.

v) The distinction is more than pedantic, for in many cases there is clearly an autosuggestive dynamic in play–where impressionable subjects assume the role which their culture or subculture assigned to play. Both the precipitating factors, as well as the interpretation thereof, are shaped by their social expectations.

That doesn’t mean we can discount their testimony out of hand. But it also doesn’t mean that we can take whatever they say at face value.

vi) Michel died in 1976, at the age of 23. Diagnostic testing was less advanced back then. So it’s possible that she had a neurological condition which went undetected due to the more primitive state of medical science at that time.

Let’s review some of the symptoms and explanations which Goodman cites. She describes Michel as a sickly child (7). Followed by examples of adolescent moodiness: “There were occasions when her sisters would find Anneliese crying in her room about yet another time that she had been forbidden to go dancing” (10).

Followed by examples of loneliness and homesickness when she was sent to a sanitarium (16-17), and later went to college (50).

In addition: “For Anneliese the excitation was often so unbearable when she was a teenager that she became sick to her stomach; as the mass reached its high point she felt like she had to run out of church or else she would scream” (203).

This suggests the possibility of a mundane explanation. We’re dealing with a highly excitable, impressionable girl. A girl prone to hysteria.

Possibly, Michel was a neurotic teenage girl who never outgrew that condition but, instead, sank deeper into mental illness due to isolation. In fact, Goodman herself classifies Michel as a “hypersensitive.”

On the other hand, this doesn’t preclude a religious interpretation. For these factors may have created a susceptibility to possession or “circumsessio” (60-61).

Although she was lonely and homesick in the sanatorium, she was sent there after her first episode. So her stay in the sanitarium can’t, itself, be the precipitating event–although it might be an aggravating factor.

Likewise, there’s a reference to a “fall on the forehead” (18). That might suggest the possibility of a neurological disorder.

On the other hand, an autopsy didn’t reveal any brain damage. But this is also ambiguous. It could either mean there was no brain damage, or it could mean an autopsy was too crude a procedure to reveal subtle evidence of a neurological disorder. I’m not qualified to say.

We’re told early on that Michel’s EEG revealed an “irregular alpha pattern” (20).

Is that symptomatic of a neurological disorder–or the inference of an alien personality?

Goodman mentions that, when “possessed,” Michel emitted a “stench.” Is that paranormal, or does it have a biochemical basis? I’m not qualified to say.

Quoting a fellow anthropologist, Goodman says: “Women experience possession more frequently than men” (223).

Assuming this is accurate, that raises a question. Does this mean that women are more susceptible to genuine impression? Or that women are more impressionable? Autosuggestive?

Goodman says that at one point Michel’s “whole body seethed with heat” (82).

In principle, that might be an indication of something paranormal. However, we need more details. Was this objectively measurable, or is this a statement of Michel’s subjective impression?

Later in the book, Goodman says: “Peter measured her temperature before Fr. Renz started. It was 38.9 centigrade” (175).

But while a temperature of 102 (Fahrenheit) is feverish, it’s hardly paranormal.

We’re told that “muscle power that was close to superhuman. Peter saw her take an apple and effortlessly squeeze it with one hand so that the fragments exploded throughout the room. Fast as lightening she grabbed Roswitha and threw her on the floor as if she were a rag doll” (82).

Superhuman power would be consistent with possession. However, I don’t see that these examples are superhuman.

In reference to Michel’s corpse, Goodman relays some vague, conflicting reports about the odor of sanctity” (181).

That would be evidence of something paranormal if the reports were more consistent or better confirmed. But there’s no evidence that Goodman interviewed the alleged witnesses.

At one point, an exorcist, who had been a Chinese missionary, questions Michel in Chinese. And xenoglossy would be evidence of possession.

However, the reported response of the “demon” was: “I am not tell you anything, you damn dirty sow!” (101).

This invites a mundane interpretation. The “demon” couldn’t answer back because there was no demon. Instead, it was just Michel, and since she didn’t know Chinese, that’s all that she could say.

This would also be consistent with Michel faking possession, although I imagine it would be equally consistent with a mental patient.

We’re also told that “In one astounding instance the demon himself suggested what might be most unpleasant for him: the recitation of the Litany of the Five Sacred Wounds” (231).

I don’t see why a demon would assist the exorcist by volunteering helpful information. Seems awfully accommodating. This is more like what I’d expect a Catholic schoolgirl to say.

We’re also told that Michel was a stigmatic. If true, that would be a paranormal symptom.

However, as Goodman also reports, Michael would mutilate herself. So the “stigmata” might just as well be a case of self-injury.

At least, Goodman’s record doesn’t supply enough information to eliminate either possibility.

We’re told that “There were clouds of flies that appeared and then vanished unaccountably, and shadowy little animals that scurried about…after a while, even her family saw them come and pass” (83).

i) Assuming that this description is accurate, the fact that she “saw” it first, and others at a later time invites an autosuggestive interpretation.

ii) However, assuming that they really saw spectral animals, how does that implicate possession? Wouldn’t that be a case of “infestation”? That’s consistent with a hex, or haunting, or poltergeist.

At least, more than one paranormal explanation seems to be in the offing.

We’re told that in her later stages, she was “telepathic, knowing, for instance, who was praying for her in some other town and at what time” (236).

If true, that would be a paranormal ability. However, this statement lacks the detailed information which we need to properly assess the claim.

Who was praying for her? A friend? Stranger? Did she know this person? Did this person know her? What was the content of the prayer? And so on and so forth.

We’re also told that “She began divining” (236).

If she exhibited genuine precognition, then that would be a paranormal ability.

However, Goodman also reports false prophecies which Michel uttered. So was this precognition? Or hit-and-miss guesswork?

“He attempted to lift her from the bench, but she had become so heavy that he could not budge her…She stiffened up and become so heavy that the men had difficulty carrying her to the car” (166).

If true, then this would be the clearest example that something paranormal was afoot.

Goodman also mentions dilated pupils (19; 211). But that doesn’t strike me as paranormal.

In fairness, it can be a bit misleading to interpret each symptom in isolation. Even if each symptom could be explained in mundane terms, yet the cumulative effect of so many odd symptoms might be too unusual to plausibly suggest a mundane explanation. There’s a point at which a series of “coincidental” incidents becomes just as extraordinary as a supernatural explanation.

At the same time, we also have to examine each piece of evidence on its own merits. And from what I can tell, most of the evidence is fairly ambiguous.

We’re told that Michel “blacked out” at school (13). Then:
“That night, shortly after midnight, she woke up and could not move…A giant force was pinning her down. It pressed on her abdomen…Then, nearly a year later, during the night of August 24, 1969, whatever it was struck again, exactly as before. There was the brief blacking out during the day…And in the middle of the night that frightening paralysis” (14).

“It was then that she was struck again, on a Wednesday night, June 3, 1970” (17).

To my knowledge, this would be a classic case of Old Hag Syndrome. That, of itself, is not equivalent to possession. From my reading and observation, many individuals have experienced Old Hag Syndrome, yet that never developed into anything like full-blown possession.

Perhaps we’re to view this as a precursor to possession. And, in some cases, perhaps it is.

I don’t know what to make of the claim that she blacked out. There may or may not be a physiological explanation. It would be interesting to see a physician or psychiatrist comment on that reported experience and its relation to the subsequent experience.

Goodman cites some people who classify Michel’s experience as a case of “penance possession” (172). On this view, she suffered possession to atone for the sins of her iniquitous contemporaries.

Whether or not one regards that as a viable or plausible interpretation depends on other things:

i) Even on Catholic terms, does the Church of Rome officially acknowledge this type of experience? Or does a “penance possession” simply reflect the private option of some theologians?

ii) There’s something oddly dualistic about the spectacle of a teenage girl who becomes the battleground between Jesus and the Virgin Mary, to one side, with Lucifer, Nero, Hitler, Cain, and Fleischmann (a dissolute priest), to the other.

Surely these aren’t evenly matched opponents. If Michel was really receiving visions and apparitions of Jesus and Mary (as the book reports), it doesn’t seem like much of a battle. Wouldn’t Mary and Jesus have the devil and his minions outgunned?

In the Gospels, we don’t see a prolonged tug of war between Jesus and a demoniac. Jesus speaks, and out comes the evil spirit. Omnipotence versus creaturely might is no contest.

Likewise, if Mary really is the Queen of Heaven, then surely the Devil is not match for her.

iii) The notion of a “penance possession” assumes the insufficiency of Christ’s atonement. While that’s acceptable for Catholics, that’s unacceptable for Bible-believing Christians.

iv) For God to allow a pious Catholic girl to become the victim of possession is a pretty counterproductive way to promote her salvation or sanctification.

On another front, we’re also told that one of her exorcists (Fr. Alt) was a “douser,” with telepathic and precognitive abilities (45).

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is true, it raises questions about his own situation. Were these occultic powers? How did he acquire them? Is this a case of the dark side exorcizing the dark side? Isn’t that a stalemate?

Early on, Goodman says: “They also talk of women in Klingenberg, women who have evil powers…They are no longer called withes these days, but there are those who are envious, who can utter a curse and imbue it with life. Long after they are dead it may sicken an innocent person or rob him of his mind, and no doctor has any cure for it. There were those in Klingenberg who thought that Anneliese was the victim of such a curse” (5).

Since black magic and possession, if real, are both paranormal phenomena, this explanation has as much antecedent probability as possession. Yet, if she was hexed, then that’s not equivalent to possession–much less a “penance possession.”

Perhaps Goodman might argue that possession was the result of her accursed state. That her curse took the form of possession. In principle, maybe so.

On the other hand, to judge by what I’ve read on the subject, these can have very different symptoms and outcomes.

So what’s my personal opinion? I don’t know enough to have a firm opinion, but this is my provisional assessment:

i) If we stipulate to the accuracy of Goodman’s presentation, then I think a malefice is a more likely explanation than possession. It better accounts for peripheral phenomena like spectral animals. And it better accounts for some features which appear to be inconsistent with possession (see above).

ii) At the same time, I think we must also make allowance for the fact that Goodman’s coverage is deficient. She’s often vague at the very point where she needs to be precise. And she’s using this case to advance her New Age agenda. So the coverage is skewed.

With that in mind, it’s possible that Michel was just a mentally unstable girl who fell into a tragic spiral of self-destructive insanity–with religious fanaticism as an aggravating factor.

I’d note that both interpretations are available to the reader from the book itself. I don’t have to introduce my own presuppositions into the discussion to offer either one.

III. The Exorcism of Emily Rose

The film is several notches above the average horror film. A thoughtful and respectful treatment of a religious theme.

In its favor:

i) The principals are all well cast. That includes a virtuoso performance of the lead. Not only does the actress have the dynamic range, but the physical plasticity for the part.

ii) It’s scarier than the average horror flick by showing less. Special effects are minimal. It relies on acting and subtle photography to create the unnerving atmosphere. It also benefits from the pitiless landscape.

iii) But the film also has a tradeoff. It tries to be very evenhanded. Open to more than one interpretation.

In large part, we see the action through the eyes of Emily. But even though we see what she sees, what are we seeing? Reality–or her hallucination?

At one level this is potentially interesting, since the audience is left to decide whether or not Emily was really possessed.

On the other hand, in playing it safe by playing it straight down the middle, it lacks the dramatic flair or tension that comes from the risk of taking sides. Studied neutrality can be philosophically interesting, but dramatically uninteresting.

The closest thing to a deal-breaker in the film is where the star witness sees a malefic apparition, which remains invisible to the defense attorney, then backs into an oncoming car–killing him instantly.

The “accidental” death of the star witness, triggered by the vision of some malefic specter, seems a tad too coincidental to happen naturally. Still, the audience doesn’t see what he sees. And being run over by a car is out of the ordinary, unlike freak accidents in The Omen. So even this preserves a measure of ambiguity.

iv) In principle, the director could turn this to dramatic advantage. After all, diabolical evil might well be ambiguous. Favor a degree of concealment. Now you see me–now you don’t!

But that would require the director to distinguish between the viewpoint of the omniscient storyteller and the viewpoint of the characters–where the storyteller knows more than the characters, and tips his hand to the audience.

Yet it seems more like the director wanted to be “fair” by presenting both sides. That makes it a bit more like a classroom lesson than a compelling drama.

This is a bit ironic inasmuch as the director found the experience of making the film quite unsettling. As he explains in an interview:

DERRICKSON: It wasn't until the initial excitement had passed that we realized we didn’t know a lot about exorcism and possession; we didn’t know a lot about courtroom procedure either. So there was a tremendous amount of research. I read maybe two dozen books on possession and exorcism, from a variety of perspectives, from skeptical psychiatric perspectives, Catholic perspectives, Protestant perspectives. It didn’t matter what the perspective was; the material was incredibly dark and deeply disturbing. To read so many of those books in a row, that was the only time I felt a little weirded out."

BOARDMAN: He actually took all the material, brought it to me, and said, ‘Look, this doesn’t bother you quite as much as it bothers me. I don’t want it in my house.’

DERRICKSON: All my exorcism tapes are in his garage!

DERRICKSON: It was interesting. I was surprised at how many documented cases are out there, how much information is available about this subject. We viewed videotapes of real exorcisms. The whole 3:00am thing—there was a number of books that talked about this idea that 3:00am was the demonic witching hour. After I read that, I kept waking up at 3:00am—exactly! It started to freak me out a little bit; that’s why it ended up in the script. For me, that was the only strange thing that happened, and that was during the research phase. Once we got into the writing, then it became creative and fun. Making the movie was real positive. We don’t have great mythological stories about the “Curse of The Exorcism.”

BOARDMAN: That 3:00am thing is a perfect example: Is that the power of the Devil or the power of suggestion? Or is it both? It was working on him, on some level.

DERRICKSON: There was one guy in New York who has this vault of stuff. Of all the things he showed us, the one Paul and I found most compelling was not a videotape of an actual exorcism or had any paranormal phenomena. It was a tape this cop had made, interviewing an Italian family in New York who were having all this demonic activity in their house. He interviews them separately, like a police officer, to see if their stories match up. It was probably the most disturbing. The level of fear that these people had, all of them—you could feel how terrified they were. By the time it was over, all you could think was, ‘They’re not lying.’

DERRICKSON: Watching Jennifer Carpenter work herself up into hysteria [as Emily], I think everybody got very energized. We actually got an R-rating on the film when we first submitted it to the MPAA. I think we cut less than, maybe, ten seconds out to get a PG-13: little things here and there, like the autopsy photos were in color; we had to make them black-and-white. They were all relatively painless. One of the things we had to cut was in the barn exorcism. When she first sits down on her knees and growls at Father Moore with hatred -- when we shot that, her face contorted so severely, it was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen. I was sitting next to Tom Stern, our director of photography, next to the monitor, and he kept saying, ‘Oh my god! Oh my god!’ It kept getting worse, until she looked like an alien. Finally, the scene was over and I yelled cut. Steve Campanelli, the camera operator, put the camera down—it was a hand-held shot—and walked over to the monitor. He was white. He said, ‘Did you see that? Did you see that? Do you know what was going through my head? I thought, she just became possessed—we got to get out of here!’ It was so great; that was one of my favorites. That was hard to cut. The MPPA was like ‘It’s too disturbing.’ I remember arguing with them: ‘So, if I had a worse actress, I wouldn’t have to cut this. That’s what you’re telling me.’ No make-up effects, no special effects. It will be on the DVD, I’m sure.

v) Another problem with refusing to present a clear viewpoint is that it makes the story artificially symmetrical. The evidence and counterevidence are evenly balanced. But real life tends to be asymmetrical.

vi) Likewise, an unbeliever plays the defense attorney whereas a believer plays the prosecutor. This is supposed to be interesting because it presents a role reversal–with the believer prosecuting the exorcist and the unbeliever defending the exorcist.

And up to a point that has some dramatic potential. The defense attorney starts out as an agnostic, but she has some “spooky” experiences in the course of the trial which cause her to take the whole notion of possession more seriously.

Mind you, this type of enlightenment bit of a cinematic cliché, but as clichés go, it retains some potency.

On the other hand, this isn’t quite as successful in reverse. For while there’s character development in the case of the defense attorney, there’s no corresponding development on the prosecutor.

The idea of making a Christian character act out of character by prosecuting the believer is a gimmick. Too clever to be clever. And it’s not a trick that improves with repetition.

In addition, this is another case where an artificial symmetry is introduced into the story. Again, though, real life tends to be lopsided and ragged around the edges. The story would benefit from less sense of being tightly controlled by the hidden hand of the director or screenwriter.

Finally, the idea of depicting the prosecutor as a devout believer is unwittingly subverted by the fact that he doesn’t come across as a devout believer, but as a militant sceptic.

In the film he’s more than a man doing his job. He’s an avenger or scourge. From a dramatic standpoint, it would be more effective to make the prosecutor lapsed churchgoer who has a personal grudge against men of the cloth due to a bad experience with the church. That would give it more edge and evident motivation.

However, I don’t wish to leave the wrong impression. Because the actors are so good, they rise above the limitations of the material. It’s better on screen than it looks on paper.

vii) One thing the film develops from the book is making the exorcist advised Emily to stop taking her psychotropic medication because it insulates her from a successful exorcism. Whatever the objective merits of that advice, it makes dramatic sense.

vii) By contrast–in the film, God allows Emily to be possessed, not as a form of penal substitution, but as an apologetic display. Her possession demonstrates the existence of the Devil–and, by implication, the existence of the Devil’s heavenly adversary.

But whatever the dramatic merits of that rationale, considered in isolation, it’s sabotaged by the noncommittal perspective of the film–which is deliberately ambiguous about the true nature of Emily’s affliction.

By treating a naturalistic explanation as equally viable, the rationale loses its clear-cut apologetic appeal.


  1. Great stuff. Raised as a charismatic, I was constantly afraid of demons and the occult. Upon becoming Reformed, I realized that God is in fact more powerful than any demon, ghost or even the devil. Finding that there are varying theories on the name "Lucifer" also made mention of the name in exorcism claims laughable. Also, the fact that the Roman Catholic Church, with its idol worship, spurious mystical claims and mind-boggling superstitions is the one claiming most of these exorcisms makes their possibility as remote as the appearance of Fatima.
    Oliver Sach and other neurologist's books have presented the brain as a much more complex subject than we tend to assume. Chemical processes and pathology/deficiency can often produce the strangest symptoms. There's a case of a woman who, due to a brain injury, has lost all concept of "left". Nothing to the left of her midline exists, to find the left side of her plate of food she has to turn all the way around from the right until it comes into view on the right side. Such cases provide good basis for believing most claims of symptoms of possession as manifestations of physiological disorders, rather than actual demonic possession.
    That of course brings up a few questions, as Reformed believers, do we believing in in ongoing possession? Does the binding of Satan (for amil/postmils) suggest that it doesn't happen any more.
    Or perhaps such disorders could be caused by demonic activity, thus altering the idea of possession as less of an actual 'demon living inside a person' and more of ongoing attack? When one encounters the person struggling with advanced Tourette's syndrome, is not the first impression one of possession? Yet medical professionals explain the symptoms as an excess of dopamine in the body, a result of tumor or simple genetics. The manifestation is often exactly what we'd expect of demonic possession, the grunts, vulgar outbursts, uncontrollable movements and the like. Yet the condition can be often managed with pharmaceuticals. Possession, physical disorder, or... something between?

  2. 1.I agree with you that the Roman ritual of exorcism is full of hocus pocus. Trying to exorcise evil spirits through magic incantations.

    2.I evaluated Fatima a long time ago.

    3.I agree with you that we should try to rule out mundane causes first. But there are ambiguities and complications. Diagnostic techniques are still limited. To some extent, possession can mimic natural disorders while natural disorders can mimic possession.

    4.I expect that phenomena like possession occur wherever you find unbelievers. It diminishes to the degree that a country has been evangelized and discipled. It is prevalent or resurgent to the degree a country or region is cut off from Christian influence. And, of course, some individuals, cults, and religions explicitly traffic with the dark side (e.g. voodoo, necromancy).

    My prima facie presumption is to reject possession in the case of Christians. You can’t serve to masters, and if one is possessed, then the evil spirit is the master.

    At the same time, I think that Christians can be subject to various forms of demonic harassment.

    There’s also the possibility that occultic powers are hereditary. If so, then you might be a Christian who never dabbled in the occult, but because you inherited occultic powers, you still suffer from a degree of spiritual malaise. A cloud that hangs over you.

    5.There’s the question of whether psychotropic drugs restore a chemical imbalance, or whether they mask an underlying condition. Mental illness is still mysterious in many cases. Psychotropic drugs can provide symptom relief, but do they always get to the nub of the problem? Of course, our knowledge of the brain is still quite primitive.

    All and all, it's best to take a flexible approach. Experiment with different working theories. Keep our options open. Approach each situation on a case-by-case basis.