The Real Story Behind ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’ Is More Terrifying Than the Movie

Most horror movies released today have a similar structure. They’re low-budget affairs, many of which take place in a singular location such as a haunted house. Their trailers often feature predictable jump scares. Studios like Blumhouse have made quite a considerable profit churning out inexpensive yet popular films that fit this format. There have been other horror films in the past that have bucked the current trends, and one of those was The Exorcism of Emily Rose starring Jennifer Carpenter

This film, released in 2005, was absolutely horrifying. One of the scariest parts about it was based on a true story more terrifying than what made it to the screen. Let’s take a look back at the film and the story it was based on. 

Jennifer Carpenter smiling slightly
Jennifer Carpenter | Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

The premise of ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’

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 starred Tom Wilkinson as the priest, Father Moore. It was 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 movie is actually told as a legal drama. At the beginning of the film, Emily has already died due to her possession, and Father Moore is on trial for her death due to the exorcism he put her through. His attorney is played by Laura Linney. The narrative framework of the film is that the audience flashes back to Emily’s story throughout the trial. 

It manages to be equal parts scary but also fascinating as a drama and mystery as well. Along with terrifying viewers at multiple points, it also raises the moral question of whether Father Moore really is responsible for Emily’s unfortunate death. 

How was ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’ received upon its release?

RELATED: You Can Watch the Best Horror Movie You’ve Never Heard of for Free

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

So what made the film a hit? According to the critics who enjoyed it, the film worked because it took a terrifying scenario (exorcisms) and grounded it with a sense of reality. Stephen Hunter from The Washington Post, who reviewed the film positively, 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 real story behind ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’

Part of the reason that the filmmakers were able to make the film seem so realistic is that it is based on a true story. The film is based on 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 passed away in 1976 at the young age of 23. Beginning in 1968, she began having blackouts and walking around seemingly in a trance. Her behavior became more and more unhinged as she participated in disturbing activities. Eventually, she’d receive an exorcism after other medical interventions failed to solve anything. She underwent 67 exorcisms, a grueling practice. She starved herself and refused medical attention to “atone for her sins,” later dying of pneumonia. 

While there are certainly aspects of this story reflected in Emily Rose, the reality is much grimmer. It would likely have made a much harder movie to watch. Audio from some of Michel’s exorcisms exists, and it is truly terrifying to hear. As scary as Emily Rose was, in this case, the true story was much worse.