The newest entry in the demon-possession horror genre, Deliver Us From Evil (out now) says it’s based on a true story. That claim has become par for the course for this vein of horror films, all of which hope to re-create the success of their “based on a true story” granddaddy, The Exorcist. But what constitutes a true story when you’re talking about supernatural events? Below, we take a look at seven exorcism films from the past decade, from The Conjuring to The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and try to separate fact from fiction.
Deliver Us From Evil (2014)
The Claim: “Inspired by the actual accounts of an NYPD sergeant.”
The Movie Plot: NYPD officer Ralph Sarchie joins forces with a priest when he realizes that a series of local crimes may be demonic in nature.
The Real-Life Source: Police-officer-turned-exorcist Ralph Sarchie
The Backstory: Director Scott Derrickson based his screenplay on Sarchie’s paranormal experiences, some of which he documented in his 2001 memoir Beware the Night. The cop demonologist also shared his private exorcism videos with Derrickson and star Eric Bana, who told The New York Daily News that the footage is “forever etched into my brain.”(One of Sarchie’s exorcisms is shown in this YouTube video.) Bana plays Sarchie in the film, but the story itself — involving a possessed toy owl, a crazed war veteran and a woman who throws her baby to the Bronx Zoo lions — is an invention. “Scott took a lot of elements of my cases and put them in a different context than what I originally wrote about,” Sarchie, 52, told USA Today.
The Conjuring (2013)
The Claim: “Based on the true story of the Warrens”
The Movie Plot: Married occult experts the Warrens come to the aid of a Rhode Island family whose farmhouse is possessed by a malevolent demon.
The Real-Life Source: Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, and members of the Perron family
The Backstory: Carolyn Perron, her husband Roger and their daughters are all adamant that the spirit who occupied their home in the early ‘70s was real — particularly daughter Andrea, who is documenting the story in her self-published, multi-volume memoir House of Darkness House of Light. “The only time I was truly terrified in that house was the night I thought I saw my mother die,” Andrea told the Providence Journal. The family participated in video testimonies to promote both the film and Andrea’s books. Lorraine Warren recalls investigating the house and seeing the spirit’s “grotesque face,” but according to Andrea, the Warrens’ amateur exorcism was a failure. The alleged ghost Bathsheba Sherman was an actual historic person, though evidence of the home’s gory history is questionable. (Here’s a video created by the current owner of the farmhouse with the intention of debunking the Conjuring backstory.)
The Devil Inside (2012)
The Claim: “Inspired by true events”
The Movie Plot: An American filmmaker travels to Rome to see her mother Maria, who has been in a Catholic psychiatric hospital since murdering three priests during a botched exorcism.
The Real-Life Source: Second-hand accounts of exorcisms; the film’s "exorcism consultant" Rev. Bob Larson
The Backstory: The documentary-style film was promoted as a true story; the trailer opened with audio subtitled “This is the actual 911 call placed from the home of Maria Rossi on October 30, 1989.” An interesting claim, considering that Rossi and her exorcism-fueled triple murder are pure fiction. During promotion, the stars and writers gave carefully worded answers to questions about the movie’s inspiration: Star Fernanda Andrade told Yahoo! that it was “inspired by several real accounts of possessions.” By this logic, Jurassic Park was “inspired by true events” because dinosaurs were real.
The Possession (2012)
The Claim: “Based on a true story”
The Movie Plot: A young girl starts behaving strangely after her father buys her a mysterious antique box at a yard sale. The dad investigates the box and learns that it contains an ancient Jewish demon.
The Real-Life Source: Kevin Mannis and Jason Haxton, the original purchaser and current owner of the real-life “Dibbuk box”
The Backstory: The story that inspired The Possession spread via eBay in 2004, when Mannis’s listing for the cursed box — actually an antique wine cabinet — went viral. The listing described the horrific nightmares and health effects experienced by Mannis and everyone else who had contact with the box, which was first owned by a Polish Holocaust survivor and supposedly contains a demon (a “dibbuk” in Jewish folklore). The contents and appearance of the box were altered for the film, and producer Sam Raimi declined Haxton’s offer to borrow the real thing. ”I didn’t want anything to do with it,” Raimi told Entertainment Weekly. “I’m scared of the thing.”
The Rite (2011)
The Claim: “Inspired by a true story”
The Movie Plot: A young priest (Colin O’Donoghue) is taught to perform exorcisms by a disillusioned older priest (Anthony Hopkins). Both mentor and student find themselves questioning their faith when they’re called to release a demon from a pregnant teenage girl.
The Real-Life Source: Exorcist priest Gary Thomas; Matt Baglio’s nonfiction book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist
The Backstory: The Rite is peppered with authoritative-sounding quotes and statistics from Baglio’s book, and the main characters are based on real priests. The exorcism they perform, and the third-act twist in which the demon changes bodies are pure Hollywood. Nonetheless, Thomas (who inspired O’Donoghue’s character) found the exorcism scenes accurate. “That’s what I’ve seen in real life,” he told CNN.
The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)
The Claim: “Based on a chilling true story… The Haunting in Connecticut charts one family’s terrifying real-life encounter with the dark forces of the supernatural”
The Movie Plot: A Connecticut couple and their sons find that their new home is occupied by an evil force, which possesses one of the boys and eventually threatens their lives.
The Real-Life Source: Carmen Reed Snedeker, whose family inspired the film, and once again, paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren
The Backstory: Like the family in the film, the Snedekers moved to Southington, Connecticut, in 1986 to better accommodate their son’s cancer treatments. Carmen says she wasn’t aware that the house was a former funeral home until the family started experiencing supernatural phenomenona. No one died in the actual Snedeker home, but their account of the haunting includes highly disturbing details left out of the film, which family members described on an episode of Sally Jessy Raphael. Lorraine Warren, who arranged for an exorcist to cleanse the Snedeker house, told NBC News that the real story was “much, much scarier than any movie could ever be.”
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
The Claim: “Based on a true story”
The Movie Plot: Father Richard Moore is charged with the death of a young woman during an exorcism.
The Real-Life Source: The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, a 1981 book by ex-nun Felicitas Goodman
The Backstory: In 1976, a 23-year-old German woman named Anneliese Michel died of dehydration and starvation, after undergoing ten months of exorcism rites at the hands of two priests. That incident and the ensuing trial, which found Anneliese’s parents and the exorcists guilty of negligent homicide, were director Scott Derrickson’s inspiration for Emily Rose — but he set the film in the modern-day United States, and developed the fictional characters accordingly. Audio recordings of the Anneliese Michel exorcism are widely available online, though Derrickson doesn’t recommend seeking them out. “I strongly recommend that you don’t read or investigate that kind of material unless you have an extraordinary reason to do so, because it is a kind of darkness that is darker than dark,” the filmmaker said in 2011.
Photo credits: Sony, Warner Bros., Lionsgate, Paramount, Everett