Poltergeist Girls, Part 3: Fact and Fiction in The Exorcism of Emily Rose

Emily Rose

The Exorcism of Emily Rose was released in 2005; this was long after the 1970s heyday of the poltergeist girl subgenre, but the film nonetheless has its roots in that era. It was based on a real-life incident that occurred in 1976 – one far more horrific than the 1949 case that inspired The Exorcist.

At the centre of the tragedy was Anneliese Michel, a young German woman who suffered from bodily seizures and hallucinations of demonic faces. Medical treatment did not end these complaints, and so Anneliese and her devoutly religious family turned to the church for help. With the blessings of Bishop Josef Stangl, the priests Wilhelm Renz and Ernst Alt embarked upon a series of exorcisms over the course of several months. During this time Anneliese’s health continued to worsen, and she eventually stopped eating. Finally, the emaciated, 70-pound Anneliese died of starvation, aged just 23. The two priests were convicted of negligent homicide, as reported in the Press-Courier:

Presiding Judge Elmar Bohlender, reading the verdict, said Miss Michel’s constitution was so sound that, despite her weakened state, she would have survived if given medical treatment as late as 10 days before her death. Instead, he said, she died of “advanced emaciation” coupled with the strain of the exorcist rites, in which she would often ram her head against the walls and floor of her room during fits.

The judge said the courts accepted that the defendants firmly believed she was possessed, “but this belief does not exclude recognizing other facts too,” he added, saying they should have known she needed medical treatment.

The case remains controversial, and is widely used not only to condemn the exorcists involved but also the entire concept of exorcism. Science writer Brian Dunning devoted a 2011 episode of his Skeptoid podcast to the Anneliese Michel case, condemning exorcism as “a brutal, heinous, medieval torture ritual justified only by ignorance” and arguing that the Vatican had done far too little to reform after the tragedy:

After Anneliese’s death, some within the Catholic church made an almost scientific effort to reform church laws governing the use of exorcism. When an exorcist speaks imperatively to the demon, instead of to the patient (to say “I command thee, unclean spirit,” or some such thing), it confirms the patient’s belief that they are indeed possessed by a demon. This confirmation by an authority makes the psychological problem much worse. Aware of this complication, a commission of conscientious German theologians petitioned the Vatican in 1984 to ban this part of the ritual. It took 15 years for the Vatican to render a decision. When they finally did revise the exorcism formula in 1999 (the first time it had been reviewed since the 17th century), it still allowed for exorcists to directly address the alleged demon. Thus, the Catholic exorcism rite remains contemptuous of basic ethics and any pretense of considering the patient’s welfare to be important.

The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel by Felicitas D. Goodman

Religious anthropologist Felicitas D. Goodman, in her 1981 book The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, offered a different perspective. She proposed that Anneliese had entered a “religious altered state of consciousness”, something that may be psychological in origin but is recognised by religions around the world and can conceivably be cured through ritual: “exorcism, as well as the curing rituals of the same class in many different non-Christian religious teachings, aims at switching the brain activity from the holistic to the linear processing mode, bringing the trance under control by enforcing a linear structure.” A more simplistic but broadly similar argument is actually made by a sceptical character in The Exorcist, who recommends ritual exorcism as a sort of placebo. Goodman’s analysis blames the death of Anneliese Michel on the medical establishment’s attempts to cure her with drugs, with the exorcists perhaps sharing some capability: “It was their timidity, their shilly-shallying that… drove her back to [her physician] Dr. Lüthy”.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose borrows many major details from the case but transports them from 1970s Germany to present-day America. It also creates a cast of fictional characters to stand in for those involved with the actual events, so that Anneliese Michel becomes Emily Rose and the two priests are conflated into Father Richard Moore. For a protagonist, the film invents a completely fictional character in defence lawyer Erin Bruner.

An unusual mixture of supernatural horror and courtroom drama, the film is set during Father Richard’s trial, with the events leading up to Emily’s death occurring in flashback. In a technique recalling Akira Kurosawa’s influential Rashomon (1950), the flashbacks are presented as subjective accounts rather than literal occurrences, and their events differ depending on who is narrating: one flashback shows a stormcloud morphing into a demonic face as Emily looks out of a window; but the next re-stages this incident with Emily staring in horror at an empty sky, any apparitions being consigned to her own imagination.

The portrayal of Emily during her possession is based partly on the recorded facts of the Anneliese Michel affair, and partly on earlier horror films. Emily is shown speaking multiple languages including Latin, and sometimes talking as though with two voices simultaneously; these details are drawn from the real-life case. The character of attorney Ethan Thomas, used in the film as the voice of scepticism, offers mundane explanations: Emily may have come across these languages at high school or during religious education, while the two-voice effect can be generated through using the false vocal cords. These points are, likewise, relevant to the case of Anneliese Michel.

More spectacular, however, is the film’s depiction of poltergeist phenomena, particularly in the first flashback. Here, Emily is awoken by a jar of pencils sliding its way off her desk, before an unseen hand pulls her bedclothes away and tries to roll up her nightgown; when she has a seizure, it is likewise portrayed as though an invisible assailant is attacking her. The moving objects are a cinematic invention: the Anneliese Michel case has nothing to do with poltergeists or telekinesis. While she was plagued with hallucinations, these took the form of hideous faces (as depicted in the film’s second flashback) rather than objects moving by themselves. This element of the film owes more to The Exorcist than to anything else, and serves to add Emily Rose to the ranks of cinematic poltergeist girls.

Still from The Exorcism of Emily Rose
The Exorcism of Emily Rose, showing Laura Linney as Erin Christine Bruner and Tom Wilkinson as Father Richard Moorey. Screen Gems (2005)

Protagonist Erin is is initially agnostic about the nature of the phenomena, but over the course of the film she warms to the spiritual side of the argument. This occurs partly because she encounters implicitly supernatural phenomena in her own home: she is woken up by the inexplicable smell of burning and later by a cassette recording of the exorcism that begins playing by itself. She also chances upon a locket bearing her initials, which she takes as a sign. Father Richard, meanwhile, has visions of a sinister black-cloaked figure. Both he and Erin are awoken at 3 AM, which the priest explains is an hour beloved by demons who want to mock Christ’s death at 3 PM. The character Dr. Cartwright, who turns up as last-minute witness, is hit by a car before he can testify; immediately beforehand he is shown staggering about gazing in fear at something apparently visible only to him. Once again, none of this is based on the facts of the Anneliese Michel case, with such material being instead derived from horror film convention; the death of Dr. Cartwright in particular recalls the diabolical, poltergeist-like slayings from The Omen.

Unusually, one aspect of the case was actually toned down by the film rather than sensationalized, likely because it would simply have been too bizarre for audiences. The transcripts of Anneliese Michel’s exorcism show that the spirits allegedly speaking through her identified themselves by multiple names, the first three being Lucifer, Judas and Nero – a familiar Christian rogues’ gallery. But then three more spirits manifested, including some rather more surprising identities, as Goodman outlines in her book:

“How many of you are there?” the priests would ask. “Really only four,” they would mock, and then they would give the names of five, when by then they had confessed that there were six, with Cain, Hitler, and a fallen priest by the name of Fleischmann having also joined up.

Later in the transcripts we find the different entities confessing to their respective sins before being driven out. “I have slain my brother,” admitted Cain. “I killed the Christians, I lived a lecherous life,” said Nero. “I killed so many, and killed myself, and now I am condemned—oooh”, ventured Hitler. The idea of a person being possessed not only by Lucifer but also by the ghost of Adolf Hitler would have been too outrageous even for a horror film, and so The Exorcism of Emily Rose replaces Hitler and Pastor Fleischmann with the more conventional demons Belial and Legion. Cain, Judas and Nero, meanwhile, are listed as the demons’ previous subjects of possession, rather than their literal identities.

Still from The Exorcism of Emily Rose
The Exorcism of Emily Rose, showing Jennifer Carpenter as Emily as she is exorcised. Screen Gems (2005)

The Exorcism of Emily Rose never conclusively comes down on either side of the debate. Through the character of Ethan Thomas — a Christian, but skeptical about the existence of demons and the effectiveness of exorcism – it provides a mundane explanation for every seemingly supernatural event. Meanwhile, Erin is depicted as sympathetic but flawed: during the course of the narrative we learn that she wrongly acquitted a murderer in a previous case.

However, the film does tend to nudge the viewer towards the supernatural explanation. Erin is centred as the audience identification character, meaning that Ethan – no matter how well-argued his points – defaults to antagonist. As the film’s understanding of the supernatural is non-denominational, Christian and non-Christian audiences alike can play along: while Emily has a vision of the Virgin Mary, the character of anthropologist Dr Adani (possibly based upon Felicitas D. Goodman, but perhaps also evoking the character of Tangina from Poltergeist) points out that the concepts possession and exorcism can be found in many belief systems. These details, along with the many colourful to additions to the Anneliese Michel case, leave The Exorcism of Emily Rose weighted towards the supernatural explanation. That said, the film is about as balanced in its treatment of belief and skepticism as can reasonably be expected from what is, at the end of the day, an entry in a subgenre of supernatural horror.

The Exorcist has a viewpoint of Catholic traditionalism; Carrie’s outlook is one of cynical materialism; Poltergeist exists in a world of populist, non-denominational spirituality. The Exorcism of Emily Rose, confronted with the real-life tragedy of Anneliese Michel, attempts a fourth stance: one of ambiguity, with the viewer invited to draw their own conclusions from the evidence on show.

At this point, it may seem as though the theme of the poltergeist girl had been thoroughly explored by Hollywood. But there was one more case that would prove fruitful for horror cinema. A case that reminded one researcher of the plot to The Exorcist; a case that occurred shortly after the death of Anneliese Michel, and was in its own small way impacted by that tragedy; a case with enough intrigue to withstand being fictionalized for the screen multiple times. The final post in this series will examine the cinematic legacy of Janet Hodgson and the Enfield Poltergeist.

Series Navigation<< Poltergeist Girls, Part 2: From Carrie to Carol AnnePoltergeist Girls, Part 4: The Enfield Variations >>
Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at dorisvsutherland.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland or ko-fi.com/dorvsutherland.