‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’: The True Story Is More Terrifying Than the Movie

Most modern horror movies have a similar structure. They’re low-budget affairs set in a single location, such as a haunted house. Their trailers often feature predictable jump scares. Studios like Blumhouse have made a considerable profit churning out inexpensive yet popular films fitting that format. But some horror movies have bucked the trend. One was The Exorcism of Emily Rose, starring Dexter actor Jennifer Carpenter. 

The 2005 film was absolutely horrifying. And one of the scariest parts was based on a true story more terrifying than the fictionalized retelling. Let’s take a look at the film and the real-life story that inspired it.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose star Jennifer Carpenter in 2005. The Exorcism of Emily Rose: true story or fiction?
Jennifer Carpenter | Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

What is ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’ about?

In the vein of its precursor The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose tells the story of a woman seemingly possessed by Satan and the priest who attempts to help her. According to IMDb, the film also stars Tom Wilkinson as the priest, Father Moore. It’s a fresh take on the exorcism motif used in films before it. 

While it paid homage to movies like The Exorcist, it also had its own unique approach. The Exorcism of Emily Rose is actually told as a legal drama. At the beginning of the movie, Emily has already died owing to her possession, and Father Moore is on trial for her death due to the exorcism he performed. Laura Linney plays his attorney. The film’s narrative framework is that the audience flashes back to Emily’s story throughout the trial. 

It’s equal parts scary and fascinating as a drama and mystery. In addition to terrifying viewers at multiple points, The Exorcism of Emily Rose also raises the moral question of whether Father Moore is responsible for Emily’s unfortunate demise. 

The true story behind ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’

Part of the reason the filmmakers could make the movie seem so realistic is that it’s based on a true story. The source material is the tale of Anneliese Michel, and what happened to her is more gruesome and tragic than what actually made it on screen. 

According to Grunge, Michel was a German woman born in 1952 who died in 1976 at the young age of 23. In 1968, she began having blackouts and walking seemingly in a trance. Her behavior became increasingly unhinged as she participated in disturbing activities. Eventually, she received an exorcism after medical interventions failed to help her symptoms. She underwent 67 exorcisms, a grueling process. After starving herself and refusing medical attention to “atone for her sins,” she died. 

Though aspects of this story appear in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the reality is much grimmer. It likely would have made a much harder movie to watch. Audio from some of Michel’s exorcisms is truly terrifying to hear. As scary as Emily Rose is, the true story is much worse. 

Is it a good movie?

The Exorcism of Emily Rose has average to below-average Rotten Tomatoes scores. While critics gave it only a 44% fresh rating, audiences rated it at 60%. The film was also a major hit at the box office, raking in $75 million on a modest budget. 

So what made the film a success? According to the critics who enjoyed it, The Exorcism of Emily Rose worked because it took a terrifying scenario (exorcisms) and grounded it in a sense of reality. Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post said it best: 

“There’s no green vomit, and nobody’s head ever rotates a full 360; we stay in the natural world and never enter a movie world, and that makes the movie a lot better.”

The Exorcism of Emily Rose is available on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

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