One Of The Most Important Films Ever Is Hardly Known

‘The Exorcism Of Emily Rose’ puts the supernatural and faith on trial

Seaborn Hall
May 18 · 9 min read

One of my favorite classes in seminary was a course called, ‘Spiritual Warfare Seminar (SWS).’ SWS was team taught by a missionary with substantial field experience, an experienced psychiatrist with clinical and academic credentials, and a tenured New Testament professor.

The class consisted of multiple case studies of potential demonic possessions — or mental illnesses — that the instructors recounted and class members listened to, studied, and analyzed. Students proposed solutions that were then compared with the real life outcomes and your grade came appropriately. As Dr. Richard Gallagher of Columbia Medical School recently described in a Washington Post article, he has been doing the same sort of work professionally and for real for over two decades.

So it was that I stumbled across a cable rerun of ‘The Exorcism Of Emily Rose,’ one cloudy Sunday afternoon with interest. Described as a “2005 American legal horror drama film directed by Scott Derrickson and starring Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson,” — and Jennifer Carpenter before her ‘Dexter’ fame, as Emily Rose — the film is loosely based on the true story of Anneliese Michel. In the film, a priest is accused of homicide after performing a failed exorcism on either a sick and psychotic, or possessed girl. Which she is, and the fate of the priest, is what the outcome of the trial will decide.

According to Eric T. Hansen in a Washington Post article around the time of the film’s release, “The trial went to the heart of faith: If the Bible is true, then the miracles must have really happened, and Satan must be real.” If he is, then the supernatural is real and we live in a world much different than the one most people believe in most of the time. What if the world we live in is not only dualistic, but governed — or at least influenced — by a spiritual world that is also dualistic?

Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 45% critic and a 65% audience rating, something I attribute to the anti-supernatural bias that permeates parts of our culture. It deserves a much higher rating, not only for the entertainment factor, but for the way it accurately portrays the Catholic ritual of exorcism and tears back the veil between this world and the spiritual.

Explaining Away The Supernatural

The real ‘Emily Rose’ lived in a small German town during the 1970’s. One could claim that it seems as if Germans have been attempting to rationally explain away the supernatural since at least 1835 and David Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu (The Life Of Jesus, Critically Examined). This may seem like a harsh statement to direct only towards the Germans — but, wait for it.

Strauss characterized all of the supernatural elements of the gospels as mythical in nature. Through Strauss, the origins of this view can be traced back to the German, Reimarus, who died in 1768. Strauss’s book was a sensation across Europe, eventually leading to Albert Schweitzer’s work on the life of Jesus that defined a whole period of scholarly research on the subject, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. In fact, it could be said that from Germany much of the anti-supernatural theology of the post reformation period spread across Europe, then the Atlantic and infiltrated most of the major American denominations.

When supernatural religious experience manifested throughout the early Colonial period — and then, blossomed later — Presbyterians, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalians, and Catholics were no match for the Jesus Movement of the 1970’s for one simple reason: what would become known as the secularized ‘Historical Jesus’ plague had bled the relevance and the excitement out of denominational church life. In many churches Jesus was no longer God, just another good man to be emulated — if somehow you could find the motivation and moral strength.

During the 1960’s young people looked elsewhere: sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but beginning in 1967 from Haight-Asbury in San Francisco, to simple, supernatural Christianity. During the 1970’s, Calvary Chapel church in Costa Mesa, led by Chuck Smith and catapulted into the limelight by a young hippie preacher-healer, Lonnie Frisbee, changed the face of American denominations and revolutionized the American church.

Though others were also instrumental, Chuck Smith’s church birthed a movement and explosions of religious faith, songs, and miracles as young people met on beaches, in churches, and eventually came together in stadiums, like Explo 72 in Dallas, Texas. The Calvary denomination resulted and subsequently birthed Kenn Gulliksen’s and John Wimber’s Vineyard movement and Greg Laurie’s Harvest Church and the non-denominational stream. Then much larger churches began springing up around the nation: Bill Hybel’s Willow Creek Community in Chicago, and Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Southern California are two of the best known examples. The seeker-friendly church came into its heyday.

Meanwhile, theological liberalism spread and grew into the ‘Historical Jesus’ movement. Look no further than any Easter from the 1960’s on and the covers of magazines like Time, Newsweek, and US News & World Report to see the divinity of Jesus explained away — and given academic support — in full view. It was pseudo-rational, and anti-supernatural. As Yale archaeologist and professor, Millard Burrows has said, “The excessive skepticism of many liberal theologians [to the Divinity of Jesus and to the Virgin birth] stems not from a careful evaluation of the available data, but from an enormous predisposition against the supernatural.”

Today this ‘historical’ perspective continues to explain away the miracles of, not only the Gospels, but of anything that points to the Divinity of Christ. Because if Jesus was God and He really did miracles and He really did rise from the dead, then maybe man does commit sin and maybe there is a devil that tempts him. If Jesus is God, then the devil is real — because Jesus testified of his reality (see John 8:44; Luke 10:18, and numerous other passages).

Rituale Romanum — The Roman Ritual Of Exorcism

First published in 1614, The Rite For Exorcism begins on page 474 of the Latin version of Rituale Romanum [Roman Ritual]. [For Table of Contents, see here]. It is an amazingly comprehensive composite of what the New Testament and early church history seem to prescribe for those so afflicted. Reading it took me right back to that SWS course, one that was taught at a Non-Denominational Seminary with more Protestant roots and leanings than Catholic.

The flashbacks of Emily’s exorcism portrayed in the film also do justice to the rite presented in the pages of the Rituale: a holy priest who is known as someone of integrity, fasting in preparation, prayer, reading of Scripture, dealing with the spiritual rather than the person, questions put to the demonic entity or entities in the person as to kind, number, and origin, the presence of a few others as witnesses, the use of the Cross and Holy Water, and finally prayer commanding release. Though there may be some differences in what has also become a Charismatic/Pentecostal tradition of exorcism, they are slight.

The film, The Exorcist, was released in the US in 1973, and in Germany in 1974. Some have drawn parallels between the exorcism in that film and Anneliese’s, suggesting that she copied scenes from the movie. But, as one source comments, that does not explain the many prior years of symptoms leading up to Anneliese’s exorcism. She first began experiencing phenomena and problems as early as 1969, at the age of 17.

What Happened In Germany?

Even in 2005 shortly after the film’s release, the small Bavarian German town where Anneliese was raised and then exorcised was embarrassed by her case. According to one 2005 UK Telegraph article, because of her experience there are no more exorcisms performed in Germany.

According to Hansen, in the Post article, in 2005 Germany was the most secularized nation in Europe. Both France and Italy had about 70 practicing exorcists and 350 people attended an exorcism conference in Poland. But Germany had only two or three practicing exorcists who plied their trade in secret. According to a Jesuit priest there, the culture had become too “cerebral.”

According to the Telegraph article, in 2005 there were 350 practicing exorcists worldwide. A recent article describes “exorcisms booming” (According to Gallagher, about 50 exorcists presently practice in the US). About a half a million Italians sought exorcisms each year, though the practice in Germany was almost non-existent. Other reports dispute this suggesting that the rite, though not practiced by the Catholic church there, has gone underground. Largely due to the Anneliese case, the Vatican published an update to its exorcism rites in 1999 and now requires priests who perform the rite to undergo medical training.

As described by the same Telegraph article, ‘Emily’ was raised by a strictly religious mother who, as it turns out, had something to hide. Anneliese’s older sister was illegitimate and when this became known in her early childhood Anneliese was taught to do penance. She became increasingly religious and guilt-ridden as she aged, never feeling like she had done enough to pay for her family’s sins. This, even though she remained a virgin and, by all accounts, was more devout than most nuns or priests.

When Anneliese went off to The University of Wurzburg in 1973 emotional pain, turned-in spirituality, and odd events all converged. Subsequent experiences and perception led to fasting, emaciation, Catholic Exorcism Rites, pneumonia, and finally, death, from malnutrition and dehydration.

Anneliese predicted the day of her own death and died on that day — July 1, 1976. She left a letter explaining her wish to forego further exorcisms and detailing a vision in which the Virgin Mary appeared to her.

Why is the town and the church ashamed of Anneliese and her death? Like most of modern culture, perhaps they have been brainwashed and shamed into believing in the ridiculousness of the devil. Or maybe they view Anneliese’s religious zealotry and that of her family as the irrational cause of her demise.

According to Hansen in the Washington Post article, in 2005 a third of baptized German Catholics and about half of baptized Protestants did not believe in life after death. Germans during the period explained Anneliese’s story by suggesting that she needed a way to justify her symptoms and that the exorcists gave her that means.

In other words, she wasn’t really possessed — she was only taught to believe that she was possessed. This is a similar argument that critics of Dr. Gallagher make today.

Why Did ‘Emily’ Die?

The author of an article describes listening to the existing 40 plus hours of audio of Emily/Anneliese exorcisms as listening to “sounds like somebody dropped a microphone into hell.”

In a 2008 summary of a case of possession, Dr. Gallagher notes the Roman Ritual’s description of demonic possession:

“The case of Julia illustrates a number of the classic signs of possession. The venerable Roman Ritual (Rituale Romanum of Pope Paul IV, 1614) lists as strongly suggestive signs, prominent among others, hidden knowledge, the ability to speak an unknown language, and abnormal physical strength…[additionally] expressions of hatred of the sacred, blasphemous and vituperative language, the ability to discern (and recoil from) blessed objects, the phenomenon of levitation, and, most importantly, a trance-like state interrupted by the presence of what appears as an independent, intelligent entity (or entities), and the expressed desire of this intelligence not to leave the afflicted.”

Anneliese/Emily manifested all of these symptoms. Gallagher concludes, “Many of these individual features, let alone the full constellation of this overall “syndrome,” are, to state the obvious, simply inexplicable on psychiatric or medical grounds.”

According to Gallagher, who is on the board of the Rome based International Association of Exorcists, “Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century mathematical genius, was an ardent student of human nature and religious history. Recorded in the Pensées is his astute reflection that “there would be no false miracles were there not true miracles.” With this statement, Pascal, through Gallagher, confirms a modern-day element of logic in debate: a counterfeit always reflects or points to some reality.

If the devil is real, then the supernatural is real and we live in a world much different than the one most people believe in most of the time. If we live in a dualistic world influenced by the spiritual reality of evil, then, “What do we do with the devil?”

The answer and the power behind exorcism is the power of the Cross, the Resurrection, and the Divinity of Christ. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me (John 14:6).” According to the New Testament Jesus came that “through death He might render powerless the one who had the power of death, that is, the devil (Hebrews 2:14).”

Why did Anneliese/Emily die? According to the film and other sources, “throughout the course of the Exorcism rites Anneliese underwent, she took powerful psychotropic drugs prescribed to her by doctors. It is believed today that these drugs prevented the mental concentration she needed for the Exorcism to work.” Felicitas Goodman embraced this view in her comprehensive and riveting book, The Exorcism of Anneliese Michal.

Great art not only raises the level of human discourse, but points us back to our true origins — to our intended relationship with God. Even in her death, Anneliese/Emily testified to the reality of the supernatural and to her faith in God. The movie ‘Emily Rose’ does the same and is valuable viewing.

Seaborn Hall has a degree in management from Georgia Tech, two masters degrees in theology and has studied at the doctoral level. Formerly he was a regional director at a national top-50 RIA; he currently manages a family investment company, writes, and publishes Common Sense Interpretation.

Seaborn Hall

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Investment manager, publisher, writer living in Los Angeles