The Exorcism of Emily Rose, currently the top box office draw in America, claims to be based on a true story. Of course, whenever Hollywood claims a film to be based on a true story, you better know to take that with a grain of salt.
The real story behind Emily Rose is the exorcism of Anneliese Michel, a German girl from a devout Catholic family who was diagnosed with seizures and psychosis at the age of 16. Her parents believed she was possessed by the devil, and eventually managed to get the Catholic church to perform an exorcism. She died of pneumonia and malnutrition in 1976. Her parents and the exorcists were tried in court and sentenced to 6 months plus probation.
The Hollywood version, on the other hand, takes place in the Midwest and is more Law and Order than the Exorcist. Film critics David Edelstein and A.O. Scott dismiss the film as a one-sided battle between faith and secular science, with the supernatural winning out.
The case of Anneliese Michel was the last exorcism that was officially sanctioned by the Catholic church. While exorcism is something the church normally likes to keep mum about, interest in the practice has been increasing in recent years. In 1999, the Vatican updated the exorcism ritual, and a Vatican university is in it’s second year of offering a course on Satanism and exorcism. Currently, a convention of exorcists is meeting in Italy to which the Pope has extended his blessing.
Last year, a series of slayings by two members of an Italian death metal band called Beasts of Satan shocked and transfixed Italy. Among the victims was the band’s lead singer/guitarist and his girlfriend, murdered in 1999, and the ex-girlfriend of one of the killers, murdered in 2004.
In Catholic Italy, the case became a sensation, with details of purported Satanic rituals, imagery and violence appearing in the papers. Church officials and commentators saw it as an ominous sign of organized Satanism, with estimated figures ranging from 5,000 to as high as 600,000 practitioners in Italy.
Of course, there was no link to any sort of organized Satanism in the case. The band was obviously obsessed with the trappings of Satanism, but were otherwise simply a group of amoral, drug-addled youths who killed their own friends over petty disagreements. But the case has increased concern over supposed Satanic cults, and the Vatican’s latest forays into exorcism and Satanic studies are a response to the hysteria.