A graduate of USC film school, Derrickson co-wrote and directed "Emily Rose," which opens nationally Friday. Though he is no longer a fundamentalist, Derrickson remains a devout Christian whose faith infuses his work.
"I think that fundamentalists instruct their children and their converts to be afraid of the world and to be afraid of those who are different from them,'' Derrickson said in a recent interview with Beliefnet at a sidewalk table outside a popular café in Glendale, Calif. "I'm talking about the kind of fear that is paralyzing."
Derrickson has parlayed that fear into a career that also includes "Hellraiser: Inferno" (2000), the latest installment in the Clive Barker franchise, which in Derrickson's hands has a moral (albeit violent) sensibility. He says "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" is the result of his efforts to fuse his faith with his artistic goals.
"I'm trying to portray human life in its totality," Derrickson said. "I'm trying to get at moral and spiritual subjects from a different point of view than most Christians usually take creatively."
According to the talking points of the culture wars, Hollywood should be enemy territory for someone like Derrickson. There's a perception that Christians and the film industry don't mix. But the alleged polarization is not so black and white within the industry, where Christian filmmakers have been responsible for some of the highest grossing movies in recent years, including "Elf," "Bruce Almighty," and the "X-Men" series.
Derrickson, who sports a ponytail, square-framed black glasses, and a wispy goatee, became a Christian when he attended a children's program at a local church. He later attended a strict fundamentalist Christian school. His family also became Christians, though not fundamentalists. Mostly though, they were a family of film lovers who sometimes attended three movies a day.
Derrickson attended Biola University-a Christian school where students commit to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, and even immodest attire. When Derrickson arrived at the La Mirada, Calif., campus, he considered it liberal.
At Biola, Derrickson began scrutinizing his fundamentalist beliefs, which led to an almost complete abandonment of his faith. In the end, Christianity withstood the interrogation, though fundamentalism did not. His freedom from fundamentalism, he said, caused his creativity to blossom. It's like his brain began to expand, he said.
"The momentum of my creative life and intellectual growth is still the momentum of breaking out of fundamentalism," Derrickson said. "Because of that I'm very grateful for it. But I'm also grateful that at the center of it was something that I still believe to be true-those fundamentals of faith."
Derrickson now attends Hollywood Presbyterian Church and describes himself as an orthodox Christian who adheres to the teachings in the Apostle's Creed.
When they're done well, Derrickson said, horror films blend terror and beauty and can enlighten viewers about themselves and God.
"The Exorcism of Emily Rose" features the mainstays of horror movies-guttural demonic threats, religious symbolism, and prolonged suspense that magnifies shocking revelations. But Derrickson also aimed to make it the thinking person's scare fest. Based on a true story, the movie is a hybrid, a horror flick crossed with a courtroom drama. It uses disquieting demonic activity as a foundation to provoke viewers to examine their assumptions about belief and unbelief, faith and doubt, and God and the devil. The movie received a standing ovation at the prestigious Venice Film Festival.