Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2006, Volume 26, No. 2
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


The Exorcism of Emily Rose, 2005. [Film]. Scott Derrickson (writer/director) & Paul Harris Boardman (writer). Screen Gems release. 114 minutes. DVD released December 20, 2005.

Reviewed by David Church, independent scholar

The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a horror film/courtroom drama about a pious teenage girl (Jennifer Carpenter) with epilepsy who believes herself demonically possessed. Emily's health is placed in the hands of Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), a priest who attempts an exorcism, but she later dies from malnourishment and self-inflicted injuries, having convinced herself of her own martyrdom. Moore is placed on trial for negligent homicide, defended by ambitious lawyer Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), an agnostic who becomes less skeptical as the trial progresses, arguing that the possible existence of the supernatural is grounds enough for acquittal. The plot is based upon the actual death of a young German woman with epilepsy under similar circumstances during the early 1970's, and the court convictions that followed (see Goodman, 1981).

Clover (1992) categorizes the "occult film" as a dual focus narrative concerning a female character as portal to possession (a penetrability coded as feminine), but more importantly, a male character (representing Western science/rationality) in crisis who must "open up" (i.e., become feminized) to the possibility of supernatural acts. (Although that typically "male" role is here filled by the female lawyer Erin, she is coded male through her initial allegiance to science/rationality and her ascension in a profession traditionally reserved for men, so a spiritual feminization is but a short step from her already feminine body.) If White Science (masculine) does not yield to Black Magic (feminine), then all is lost–and this opposition is often expressed in racial, class, and gender terms, "the most basic social tensions of our time" (p. 66-67). Although Clover uses psychoanalysis to theorize cross-gender identification, basic aspects of her categorization are applicable to disability since feminism and the disability movement are similarly based on fighting prejudices springing from bodily difference in a society that equates superiority/ability with masculinity and inferiority/disability with femininity.

Just as Clover notes that the female body in occult films is put to a formal trial (usually various medical tests) to give evidence of supernatural forces that science cannot cure (p. 82-83), Emily's disabled body is analyzed by different doctors who later testify in court that she had a physical and mental condition which made her unable to care for herself. Though a possible epileptic focus was found in her temporal lobe, Moore's defense hinges on whether grand mal epilepsy could cause Emily's more "psychotic" symptoms (despite a history of mental illness in her family). Moore had been contacted after Emily did not respond to an anti-epilepsy drug–though persons with epilepsy are often prescribed numerous medications before seizures are finally, if ever, controlled (a fact that the film conveniently ignores). The failure of Emily's subsequent exorcism is even blamed on that same drug for somehow blocking the psychic excitation necessary for the ritual's success. Just as medical science fails to provide a logical explanation or cure in occult films, the disabled body by definition cannot be "cured" (despite the medical model's relentless attempts to do so); like the supernatural, impairment lies outside the curative capacities of science, continually disavowed and misunderstood as abnormal.

If the "male" axis (i.e., spiritual conversion, occupied here by Erin) in occult films is more important than the female possession itself, as Clover argues, it is because that viewpoint allows objectification of the impaired body by a clinical gaze (e.g., retrospectively examining Emily's case in a postmortem trial), regarding a woman's incurability as tragic. However, "opening up" to supernatural explanations does not correspond with a positive revision of the medical model's naiveté about "curing" impairment. Medical treatment for impairments–treatment that could have potentially helped Emily, even if the medical model negatively saw her condition as curable—was rejected in favor of religious superstition, which in Emily's case proved fatal.

Though scientific progress (regardless of the medical model) can greatly improve the lives of persons with disabilities, the film's sympathies largely reject science (e.g., the anti-epilepsy drug is blamed for blocking the attempted exorcism) and fall back upon the same religious paradigm that Emily, the product of a Christian fundamentalist upbringing, had internalized. Science finally wins in the courtroom and Moore is convicted because there is no conclusive evidence that epilepsy and other mental disorders were not to blame for Emily's behavior. The demonic visions and extreme sensations depicted in the film are not uncommon in persons with schizophrenia (who often express paranoia in religious terms) and temporal lobe epilepsy can induce schizophrenia-like symptoms. Writer/director Derrickson is a Christian wishing to encourage discussion about spirituality (see Overstreet, 2005), but he does not acknowledge the archaic belief (present within the Bible) that epilepsy signified demonic possession. While this may have been to avoid controversy from disability groups, the film's elevation of superstition over science nonetheless implies that epilepsy and other mental disorders could possibly be caused by supernatural forces, evoking a misperception of these stigmatized conditions that has no place in our modern age.


Clover, C. J. (1992). Men, women, and chainsaws: Gender in the modern horror film. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Goodman, F. D. (1981). The exorcism of Anneliese Michel. New York: Doubleday.

Overstreet, J. (2005, Summer). Do you believe in demons? Response, 28(2). Viewed online September 28, 2005 at: http://www.spu.edu/depts/uc/response/summer2k5/bookfilm/EmilyRose.asp

Copyright (c) 2006 David Church

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