Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of film and television’s greatest characters. This time, we turn the spotlight on Jennifer Carpenter as the titular character in The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
When someone says the word “exorcism,” it’s impossible not to imagine Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil covered in green vomit and spinning her head around in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. That performance shocked the world with its brutality and vulgarity and resulted in a wave of knock-offs that looked to capitalize on the phenomenon, from Italy’s wildly eccentric Beyond the Door to the Blaxploitation classic Abby.
In addition to the serious copycats, Blair’s performance became even more ingrained in pop culture as the touchstone for anyone wanting to spoof exorcism movies, like Richard Pryor’s hilarious attempt at exorcising a possessed Laraine Newman on Saturday Night Live or when Natasha Lyonne took a crack at spewing pea soup in Scary Movie 2. In 1990, Blair even had the chance to lampoon herself when she starred alongside Leslie Nielsen in the parody film Repossessed. When you consider what made the exorcism subgenre popular, it begins and ends with Blair’s Academy Award-nominated role.
But this famous depiction is at odds with the modern mode of possession performances. When you look at the last fifteen years of exorcism-related movies, few of them exude that same Regan MacNeil energy. Demonic possession isn’t just about twisting heads or crawling downstairs anymore. These actors are now contorting every part of their body into unnatural shapes to create an intensely physical performance that is patently different from everything The Exorcist made famous.
This major shift in style came in 2005 starting with Jennifer Carpenter’s fiercely committed portrayal of the title character in The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
The film is about a priest on trial for an exorcism that resulted in a young woman’s death, and it was able to captivate audiences by completely rewriting the possession performance playbook. Carpenter’s starkly realistic approach to showing what it might look like for someone’s body to be taken over by a demonic force subverted every expectation we had after watching Linda Blair clones for decades. We’d simply never seen a possessed woman like Emily Rose before, which was director Scott Derrickson’s intention.
As Carpenter recalled in 2005, ”Scott said, ‘Imagine all of the clichés you can think of when you hear that word exorcism and let’s move as far away from it as possible because if it’s not new, it’s not going to be in the movie.’”
In preparation for the role, Carpenter did her homework. The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which purports itself to be a true story, really is based on an actual court case involving a demonic possession: the 1976 death of Anneliese Michel in Germany. Carpenter used this real event and a 1981 book about the case as her starting place, although she didn’t want to make this merely an autobiographical depiction of Anneliese.
The Julliard graduate researched Kabuki theatre, which is notable for its hyper-stylized usage of physical gestures to represent emotions and character intentions. The angled, rigid posturing of the art form would be perfectly suited for a character who had to communicate so much with just her body. Since epilepsy is a theorized explanation for possession cases — and a major plot point in the film — Carpenter also researched how our muscles can convulse and stiffen during tonic-clonic seizures, which would inspire the unsettling shapes we see her in during the film’s haunting dormitory sequences.
Carpenter’s impulses also vary quite differently from Linda Blair’s. In The Exorcist, much of Blair’s performance comes from an internal stimulus, as if the demon Pazuzu was literally inside her body. With the exception of a violent convulsion early in the film, Blair’s physicality is as if Pazuzu had slipped under Regan’s skin and was controlling her like a machine.
The opposite is true for Carpenter. The way this possession controls her is as if it’s coming from an external stimulus: some unseen force is controlling her movements from outside of her body, similar to a child playing with a rag doll. It’s evident in the scene where Emily Rose is possessed for the first time. Like a marionette on a string, her arms are wrenched above her head as she lies flat in bed with her limbs moving wildly.
When her boyfriend (played by Joshua Close) wakes to find Emily catatonic on her dorm room floor, it looks like something is forcing her body into a twisted contortion, holding her arms and legs in place as her neck juts off the ground, her head suspended in air. The Exorcist hadn’t prepared us for this type of image. This wasn’t Regan strapped to a bed or even the infamously deleted “spider walk” sequence. It was an entirely new characterization that frightened us by how real it seemed. In this scene, you can see the influence Carpenter’s research on seizures had on her performance; we can’t tell if this is some dark force from Hell restraining her or just a helpless girl suffering from an epileptic fit.
We’re a little less believing that it’s a fit when her boyfriend follows her into a Catholic cathedral. As she mutters repeatedly to herself in front of a large crucifix, she turns to look at him and we see pleading desperation in her eyes that we never see in Linda Blair’s. There is real fear in Emily as she seems to understand what is happening to her, whereas Regan remains unconscious to her possession until the very end.
Emily is completely aware as something bends her spine abnormally backward while her feet remain rooted to the ground like the force is attempting to pull her away from the altar. It’s an extraordinary image that Derrickson wanted to realize with as little computer generation as possible. Impressively, the back-breaking stunt was accomplished almost entirely by Carpenter, who only had a small stand behind her that was digitally erased.
It’s this striking image that would prove the most influential for the next wave of possession performances, like Ashley Bell’s in The Last Exorcism. The found footage film, which came out five years after The Exorcism of Emily Rose, is incredibly well-conceived and original, but the central image of Bell contorting herself into a human question mark is so evocative of what Carpenter accomplished that it’s difficult to discount it as anything other than imitation.
In subsequent years, more actors would riff on Carpenter’s tortuous performance, from Bonnie Morgan in The Devil Inside in 2012 to Kirby Johnson in the similarly titled The Possession of Hannah Grace in 2018. Now it just doesn’t feel like an exorcism movie anymore unless the possessed person is either folded like origami or tangled in a knot. That she could erase a pop culture phenomenon and revitalize a dormant subgenre is proof of how terrifying Jennifer Carpenter is as Emily Rose.
Even though Carpenter’s possession performance has usurped Linda Blair’s, what was once refreshing has again inevitably become clichéd. More than a decade after the release of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, banal shlock like 2013’s The Cloth or 2015’s The Exorcism of Molly Hartley has made Carpenter’s style of possession feel trite and overdone.
But just like how Regan MacNeil is still deeply unnerving after decades of emulation, no amount of mimicry can tarnish what Jennifer Carpenter achieved. Her performance is the modern benchmark for exorcism movies, and fifteen years later, her realistic approach remains as effective as ever.