[SPOILER ALERT] The Exorcism of Emily Rose [SPOILER ALERT]
It’s day fourteen of the Horror Movie Marathon! We’ve actually paid for a monthly subscription to Starz so that we can watch this movie, so we clearly have high hopes for it.
Title is rated PG-13 and is available on Starz. At the time of our viewing, it has the following online ratings:
Rotten Tomatoes 45% critics, 60% audience
It’s late morning on another beautiful day. We both take notes throughout the movie. Afterward, we conduct a simultaneous interview/discussion via Google Docs. Fair warning: this one is long, but I think it inspired some interesting discussion.
Mikey: “I object, your honor! On the basis that it is silly.” That’s not Monty Python, that’s Emily Rose!
Solee: This movie was terrifying in a so many ways… but none of them the typical “ooh! Ghosts are scary” way most horror movies aim for. This shined a big old spotlight on the fact that our country is based on individual beliefs and choice and that sometimes means we’re letting uninformed or mentally incapacitated individuals make faulty decisions about their health.
Mikey: It’s true, and that does happen, but what it made me think of is actually a few cases that have happened in real life recently: where people’s religious beliefs or non-religious adherence to a strict diet, resulted in them letting a child die. In every one I can recall, the people were convicted.
Solee: I really struggle with this. On one hand, I think it’s necessary to protect people from themselves if they are actually incapable of making safe decisions. On the other hand, it’s very easy to cross over into “I don’t like your decisions, so I should make decisions for you” territory. Whether someone is incapable of taking care of themselves is often open to interpretation.
Mikey: It definitely is interpretation. It’s one of those things where people who think you can set strict rules for how the world works and it will all just work out are so wrong. You have to take every case and decide it with good judgment rather than a specific single standard, and even then you can’t always be right.
Solee: In this case, I ended up feeling as though there really wasn’t a case. Normally, I’m on the other side, but Emily Rose was an adult and while she was still capable of functioning normally, she chose religion as her solution. It’s not as if she were a minor whose parents refused to let her get medical treatment, or as if she were being held against her will. Even near the end, she chose to keep suffering so that her story would become known and spread the word of God. I thought the priest was pretty much in the clear. You?
Mikey: I think if what we saw on-screen was really what happened (and this movie didn’t really act like it was unreliable), then he didn’t do anything wrong. He didn’t malnourish her or abuse her. However – that’s something I have a little bit of a problem with. This Hollywood drama is actually based on a true story for real (for once), and in the true story, the facts seem very horrifically different. That girl underwent 10 months of exorcisms, and I think (without knowing anything beyond Wikipedia) that that kind of ignorance of actual care most definitely led to her death. That’s horrible, and it’s awful to think that this movie exists to sort of whitewash that. Less awful if you just think of this as an unrelated story, but they did make a point of connecting it.
Solee: I was just looking at some info about the real case and I agree… this movie, while “based” on a true story, probably doesn’t give anything close to the truth of the story. I’m not sure how much of that is because it’s impossible to tell a “true” story, with all the real complexities and contradictions, in movie format and how much of it was because someone had an agenda to peddle and how much of it was because this made for a more saleable flick.
Mikey: That’s one thing I was kind of thinking about towards the end: in the story of this movie, this was definitely a real demon, and all that (as usual in movies). Though it does kind of leave room for the mental illness option, there’s a lot of imagery of real demonic stuff seen by people other than the victim (like the guy who gets bus-bussed by a demon!). So what’s the difference between this mainstream horror movie and a Christian proselytizing movie like God’s Not Dead? Because it’s not just a real demon – there’s a whole element of “let’s tell the world so they know the wonders of God!”
Solee: I’m not sure there is a difference, and that’s honestly what was scariest about it. If we accept that Emily (or Anneliese) believed she was possessed by demons and agreed to how the treatment went, that opens a new question for me. What responsibility (or right!) do we have as a general public in ensuring that children are educated in science and reality? Is it okay to allow children to be indoctrinated within a specific religion’s beliefs to the point that they deny generally accepted science? Today, that is definitely how things are done. But I have an issue with it. Especially since, again, we end up on a very slippery slope between beliefs that give comfort and beliefs that cause problems. I’m sure it’s not something with an easy answer, but I think it’s important to talk about it.
The story was obviously quite thought provoking. Were there other aspects of the movie you thought were noteworthy
Mikey: Well one comment about the “Christian Movie” angle: did you notice the prosecutor was such a jerk? That kind of screamed propaganda. Somebody being that nasty and snippy at the jury wouldn’t make an effective lawyer at all.
Solee: He was clearly represented as a Christian, though. Maybe an example of what a non-Christian Christian looks like?
Mikey: Well, he was going against God’s Plan in the movie, so he had to be evil. He represented the evils of secularism. But another noteworthy thing I found was that you made me pause the movie about 400 times so you could take a picture for consideration of your drawing later. Does that mean this movie had good cinematography?
Solee: This movie had some very striking images. The house, with all its lines and angles out in the stark gray of winter, and the numerous stained-glass windows caught my eye in particular. There were also many recurring themes I noticed, one of them being the drinks representing the different aspects of the characters. Emily’s mother served tea from a very formal looking set, the lawyer drank martinis when in more secular states of mind, and of course, the water glasses present in the courtroom. I’m not sure if this was an intentional motif, but it stood out to me.
Mikey: That wasn’t water, it was moonshine. But that’s quite an observation! You’re a movie pro, much deeper than me. All I saw was that there was a wild cat attack in this movie just like we’ve had multiple times already this month!
Solee: Indeed. It never doesn’t look like someone throwing a cat.
Mikey: Speaking of animals, I had this other thought when in the barn. All of a sudden, rats started running around, snakes came in from nowhere… oh and a tarantula crawled around. Now think about it: those are just classic symbols of evil, that’s why the movie included them. But you know what they really are? Animals. Perfectly fine, normal animals that don’t want to hurt anybody. If you think about the real ‘magic’ in these scenes, it’s just really weird to imagine these ordinary animals suddenly getting possessed or something (or formed out of nothingness? Were there really 3 snakes in the barn?) and having to … well, just sort of wander around looking scary. Such maligned creatures.
Solee: Yes, snakes are one of the more abused and misrepresented animals in movies. Our human brains are just so programmed to be frightened of them!
The scene in the barn with the conveniently-timed lightning and the overly-dramatic animals really pulled me out of the story. I actually made a note about how unrealistic it all was and how it comes across, not as the story of a possession, but as an extreme exaggeration of what was probably a normal seizure. And probably not all that intentional, at that. I have been in situations where something unexpected or scary happened and it was so quick that I didn’t REALLY know what had happened. My brain immediately started to fill in the blanks with something that would explain how scary it felt.
Mikey: You mean you imagined snakes and spiders because you didn’t know why your brain felt so scared?
Solee: No. But I know I’ve imagined more aggressive tones or body language than really existed in certain situations. And there’s one instance of a car accident happening in front of me: I wasn’t looking in the right spot to see what really happened. One minute I was parked at a stoplight waiting to make a turn and the next minute there was a car sticking out from an electric pole. As far as my brain could tell it appeared out of nowhere. That’s not real, but that’s how it felt. It just APPEARED. I can absolutely see how a more traumatized or fractured brain could create snakes and rats out of shadows or instill horses with demonic strength rather than just normal scared of lightning and shouting people strength.
Mikey: I didn’t feel like there was anything weird about those horses, they were being severely traumatized!
Solee: The door to the stall flew across the room in one piece! Realistically, I believe a scared horse could have broken out of that stall, but the door would be hanging by a hinge or cracked in half or whatever. It was exaggerated to the point of looking silly to me.
Mikey: You object on the basis of silliness.
Mikey: I think that is just Hollywood magic. Just like when cars explode in balls of fire when they get shot. But also, what we were watching was the priest’s telling of the story, so there is that element of not knowing what really happened, or how it really felt or looked. I think between that element – the unreliability of memory – and the kind of unreliability of actual senses that you were talking about, we come full circle to where we started: that’s why you can’t have hard and fast rules for everything. Because everything is subjective, and nobody can really ever be sure the exact specifics of any event, even when it’s caught on tape really. There are subtleties, context, angles you missed, so much more. The world is infinitely complex and can’t be boiled down into simple rules.
This movie inspires long diatribes.
Solee: Indeed. There’s a strange paradox in our world right now. It’s become fairly common knowledge that memory is unreliable and susceptible to all kinds of influences. But instead of applying that knowledge to ourselves and recognizing that what we think MIGHT not be true, we instead apply it solely to our understanding of what other people are saying, thinking or feeling. Everyone is becoming deeper and deeper entrenched in their own interpretation of the world and becoming more and more aggressive in their defense of that ONE interpretation.
Mikey: Oh yes, polarization. So, now that we’ve not talked about this movie at all, but have been inspired extensively by it, what is your rating of it?
Solee: Well, I thought the directing showed lots of inspired thinking… the tone of the movie was established well and it felt as though a lot of thought had gone into the more subtle aspects. The acting felt real, if you look past the melodrama inherent in the story. And as stories go, true or not, it was pretty captivating. It was told in a way that kept me unsure what the final verdict would be and left me not entirely sure (in a movie sense) what had happened to Emily Rose. This all leads me to give it high marks. I’m going to go with 4.5 out of 5. I’m not entirely sure why I’m not giving it a 5… but it just didn’t have that extra WOW factor, I guess. What about you?
Mikey: I am surprised from how this conversation started to hear it at the top like that! I agree about the sheer quality of the production – it was a well made movie, and it kept you interested and guessing. But where it falls down for me is the actual plot: I always get angry when a movie is premised on being irrational as the right answer. And right here, we have a movie that is attempting to teach viewers that they should just listen to other people, trust them, and go with it. Don’t think. Thinking is hard!
Solee: Huh. That’s not what I got from it. I think that was presented as an option… but in the end, the jury found the priest guilty. They didn’t buy the “demons are real” argument, in my opinion.
Mikey: But the movie bought it.
Solee: I’m not sure what that means. I don’t feel like we can blame the movie for the hysterical tendencies of humans.
Mikey: From what I saw, this movie was aiming in one direction: that (in the context of the movie) the demons were real, and therefore those who don’t believe are wrong. Which is generally fine – it’s an appropriate horror movie direction. But in this movie, it’s taking a real case of someone who absolutely was not possessed by a demon, and putting the demon filter on it. And presenting this hopeful story of “I hope everybody listens to Emily’s story” (and tells us how her grave became a shrine)… the priest got the most minimal conviction possible (and I think he was innocent, so that’s not my issue), it was a “well, we can’t make it a perfect ending!” moment. I don’t know how to express it except to say that this movie had a point of view, and that point of view was “don’t believe evidence, believe anecdotes”. Which is the opposite of critical thinking.
Solee: I think I see what you mean. I guess I took all that as “this is what SOME people thought” rather than “this is what YOU should think”. Maybe I’m cutting it too much slack. Or I’m just too set in my belief that the demons were not real to comprehend that people could watch this movie and believe she was possessed. I know people did just that… but my rational brain writes them off as wrong. That’s pretty judgemental of me, I know.
Mikey: Don’t worry, I’m the one being judgmental! And I judge this movie, which was well-made and interesting, but not remotely scary in any way, to be a 3 out of 5.
Solee: One last note about level of scary… the scariest thing was how twisted and broken looking Emily Rose got when in the middle of her seizures. I felt pain, not just for her character, but for all the people who suffer from seizures and experience that kind of thing on a regular REAL basis. And for Jennifer Carpenter who played Emily Rose, having to recreate that kind of pose.
Mikey: OH! That is at the heart of my discomfort and anger at this movie: We have a real problem in the world with people applying witchcraft to serious conditions like epilepsy. And this movie (I feel) is saying, sure, go ahead and try magic, it’s probably what they need. I think I would’ve greatly preferred the same movie but ending with some dumb little gimmick where they DNA test her bones or something and find out she definitely had epilepsy. You know, “you guys screwed up and she didn’t have to suffer. BLAMMO!” Blammo is how I end movies.
Solee: That reminds me! I kept thinking about the book I read – The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman . The poor little girl in that book had seizures and there was a whole cultural misunderstanding that caused a breakdown in her medical care. There is an unspoken element of worry that her seizures were actually uncontrollable while still allowing for normal function, though. Like, they could stop the seizures, but only by depressing her brain activity to the point of near-catatonia. I feel like maybe there’s an element of that in the Emily Rose story, too, since for much of the story she WAS on medications and they were ineffective.
Mikey: Oh yes, that is so much all the issues we talked about through this whole massive conversation! And in the book and movie, her parents believed in the magical solution, and there was some merit to the parents in the book, right? Every case is special, no hard and fast rules!
Solee: Yes, one of the common threads was that everyone involved cared deeply for the child but they couldn’t properly communicate or understand each other’s perspectives or motivations. Being a human being is HARD.
Mikey: And that potential of a problem so bad that there is just no fix in the real world is what is a never-ending drive for people to turn to magic. If nothing real works, at least we’re going to give this magic a shot. Which is totally fine, if they’re not hurting you with it. But I’m all in favor of rational evidence-based solutions, and it’s just sad that there isn’t always a real solution to everything.
I wonder if anybody will actually read all the way through this massive book we just wrote. The secret code is Panda Bear.
Solee: Haha. Well, I suspect tomorrow’s movie won’t be quite so deep. It’s called #Horror. Any title that includes a hashtag is bound to be ridiculous.
Mikey: It sounds deep to me. #deepthoughts #hashtag
*If you have comments to leave specifically for Mikey, you can see this same interview/discussion posted here, on his website.