William Peter Blatty’s 1971 blockbuster, The Exorcist, recounts the demonic possession of adolescent Regan “Rags” MacNeil in Georgetown, D.C., and how a beleaguered Catholic priest deals with it.
Regan becomes involved with a spirit entity known as Captain Howdy by using an Ouija board. She receives seemingly cogent answers from him. But spiritualistic manifestations soon commence: rapping at night, temperature changes, noxious smells.
As her physical and mental condition worsens, she’s briefly left in the care of director Burke Dennings, a jerk who ends up dead with his head turned halfway around. This demon means business.
When medical and psychiatric evaluations are depleted, Regan’s mother Chris turns to a Jesuit priest and psychiatrist, Damien Karras. Karras, who’s undergoing a crisis of faith, also exhausts his medical and psychiatric excuses for not acknowledging demonic interference nor wanting to perform an exorcism. Where The Exorcism of Emily Rose fails in its due diligence, Blatty covers all the bases. We learn much about psychiatric maladies and the history of Catholic exorcism. By examining and eliminating each possible earthly cause, we’re left with demon possession as the root of Regan’s deterioration.
Although Karras still doesn’t trust this diagnosis, he goes through the process of gaining permission from the Bishop, who calls in missionary priest Father Merrin as exorcist.
After a grueling days-long rite, Merrin dies of heart failure, leaving Karras to finish the job. Finally fueled by compassionate and righteous anger, Karras challenges the demon to infest him instead—then immediately leaps out the window (like Emily Rose will do) to his death, gaining faith and absolution before he passes.
By approaching a spiritual and religious solution from the POV of a man who’s seemingly lost his faith, Blatty avoids over-simplification, self-righteousness, and propaganda—the damning faults of Emily Rose. When Karras is forced to consider the demon’s unfair cruelty causing Regan’s plight and imminent demise, he becomes truly human and thus salvific, willing to offer all he has to deliver her. Despite the utter vulgarity of the demon’s speech, actions, and underhanded tactics throughout act two, the climax brought me to an inspiring catharsis. I caught a glimpse of Christ’s victory (Col. 2:15).
I found this novel to be thoughtful and thorough. Although the dialogue at times is insipid and could have been cleared of the countless “ohs” and “wells” and exclamation points, Blatty knows how to tell an ironclad story. And his employment of omniscient viewpoint (I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow analysis this time) is flawless. It’s no wonder this book is still in print.
Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist. Harper Paperbacks, 2011.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose
Director Scott Derrickson’s 2005 film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, also deals with exorcism from a Catholic viewpoint but its ham-handed treatment amounts to little more than religious propaganda.
In the opening scene, we see shots of a crucifix on the wall and a figurine of a nun; the Rose family are devout Catholics. They’ve just lost their daughter Emily to a battle with demonic possession, and the attending exorcist, Father Moore, is accused of her death.
Moore’s goal is to validate possession in a court of law. The movie focuses on the trial and testimony of various experts, pitting materialistic science, including education and medicine, against faith, which in this case means Catholicism.
Although also a so-called man of faith, prosecutor Ethan Thomas isn’t Catholic. “Methodist, I think,” says Erin, Moore’s defense attorney. Between the lines: Thomas is a Protestant, which amounts to being an unbeliever. During the trial, attorney Thomas harasses a witness (showing how Protestants mock the true faith).
Emily was happy before she “went away to university” (read: beware the dangers of higher education, which will shipwreck your faith and open you to demons). She also went to a dance, a worldly activity of which her mother disapproved. A presence enters Emily’s dorm room and attacks her, but possession actually occurs at the hospital (a place of demonic infestation?). A neurologist examines her and suspects epilepsy. Emily discontinues medical treatment because she believes the cause is spiritual and consults exclusively with her priest. Moore advises her to stop taking the (fictional) medication Gambutrol (perhaps because medicine is a gamble?).
Erin calls an “expert” witness to the stand, although I would seriously question the expertise of anyone who appeals to Carlos Castenada… Why did the demons invade Emily? Dr. Adani believes it was because Emily was a “hypersensitive.” And why did the exorcism fail? Because of her medical treatment—specifically, taking medication. Gambutrol, it seems, locked her into the possessed state.
It turns out that Moore wasn’t as negligent as we were led to believe. He invited Cartwright, a medical doctor, to attend the exorcism. However, to meliorate any reliance on science or medicine, Cartwright is a Catholic and former parishioner of Moore’s. This doctor claims that Emily wasn’t schizophrenic or epileptic. And the horrors he witnessed during the exorcism started him praying again (science and medicine bow to faith). Cartwright says he’ll testify and gives Erin a cassette tape from Fr. Moore of the exorcism.
During a struggle with doubt, Erin finds a locket engraved with the initials “ECB,” which happen to be hers—Erin Christine Bruner. Despite her previously professed agnosticism, Christ is in the center of her name. She takes the locket as a sign she’s where she’s supposed to be at this time.
As soon as she accepts faith, she wakes at 3:00 a.m. (the “demonic witching hour”—I rolled my eyes like Regan MacNeil) to Emily screaming on tape, the recorder having started on its own. (Note that it’s a “Realistic” recorder, underscoring the reality of demons and the supernatural.) Erin detects the smell of something burning. In the film, several shots of smoke alarms are used—indicating technology (science) that fails to warn about the dangers of smoke and fire (the dark denizens of hell).
Fr. Moore recorded the ritual to authenticate it and provide a record for later review. He warns attendants during the exorcism, “Above all, do whatever I ask without question.” This is the film’s Catholic propaganda in a nutshell.
Moore admits the exorcism was “a complete failure” and that Emily refused to undergo another. He never told her to stop seeing her doctor. But he did tell her to stop taking Gambutrol: “She had to see this through to the end by faith alone.” Not science, not medicine, but faith.
Emily spoke in foreign languages during the exorcism. She may have been exposed to them earlier in life. If not, speaking in tongues—which evidenced the early Christian disciples’ baptism in the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:2)—is instead treated as demonic.
When Dr. Cartwright reneges to testify (loses faith to fear), he’s immediately struck and killed by a car. Without the doctor’s medical testimony, they’ve lost. Moore insists on testifying to tell Emily’s story.
The Virgin Mary delivers the Bad News to Emily: “The demons will stay where they are. You can choose to come with me in peace and leave your body, or stay and suffer.” The reason: “Through you, many will come to see that the realm of the spirit is real. The choice is yours.” “I choose to stay,” Emily says, in essence sealing her fate as a martyr, albeit for the wrong cause.
In her final letter to Fr. Moore, Emily writes, “God will triumph over evil. People will know that demons are real. … People say that God is dead. But how can they think that if I show them the devil?” This is nonsensical reasoning.
If a true believer (here meaning a devout Catholic) remains in demonic bondage by no fault of her own, even after crying out to God for deliverance, and it eventually causes her death, people will actually say that God is powerless and uncaring because God chose not to deliver an innocent, faithful servant.
It seems (according to the screenwriter Paul Harris Boardman, at least) that Mary is advocating for the devil instead of her Son, who never failed to cast out unclean spirits. The Apostle Peter says, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, and because God was with him, he went around doing good and healing everyone who was oppressed by the Devil” (Acts 10:38 ISV).
Thomas’s closing argument pins a natural explanation on Emily’s stigmata (and all things Catholic); Fr. Moore’s beliefs are based on archaic and irrational superstition. “Facts are what must matter,” says Thomas. “It wasn’t the devil that did this to Emily Rose, it was the defendant.”
Erin counters with: “Sincere belief is what determined her [Emily’s] choices and his [Moore’s]. … Facts leave no room for possibilities.” This sounds like “alternative facts” and “fake news” we’ve heard so much about in recent years…
By the end of the movie, I was weary of the propagandistic treatment and hackneyed tropes of Catholic exorcism. What Blatty’s book examines jesuitically (pun may apply here), Derrickson’s film ruins. The only thing that redeemed the movie was its ironic ending: Fr. Moore is found guilty of negligent homicide and is immediately sentenced, the jury recommending a sentence of time served. He’s guilty, but free to go.
3 replies on “Catholic Faith in The Exorcist and The Exorcism of Emily Rose”
Faith versus medicine…that is a theme that just plain bugs me. Could we not argue that God is providing tools through medicine and doctors, that He is showing the way by providing these earthly options?
“Emily was happy before she “went away to university” (read: beware the dangers of higher education, which will shipwreck your faith and open you to demons). She also went to a dance, a worldly activity of which her mother disapproved.” Wow! I hadn’t picked up on this Lee. Very interesting. I agree about the movie. I wanted it to be better because the cast was excellent.
Absolutely fantastic analysis of Emily Rose. I agree with most of what you wrote here. I picked up on the messages that education is bad, science/medicine is bad. I didn’t get the reference to dancing though–I’ve never met a Catholic opposed to dancing. I thought that was a very specific flavor of Protestant thing.
Arguments of science vs. faith are sophomoric. A benevolent God would delight in humanity discovering and understanding all of the beautiful complexity in the world he created. If we are created in His image, our intelligence reflects His own. How can any thinking person consider any other possibility?
Good stuff as always, Lee.