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.
Under the influence of the demonic-or epilepsy, as skeptics insist-Emily Rose convulses, shrieks, and shreds walls. Her body alternately collapses and goes rigid with contortions. In the throes of her torment, and during the exorcism, she suffers fatal injuries.
Academy Award nominee Tom Wilkinson plays Father Moore, the priest blamed for Emily Rose's death. He goes on trial for negligent homicide and the resulting proceedings pit faith against science.
For his part, the prosecutor asserts that Emily Rose was never demon possessed. In the trial, he mocks Father Moore's beliefs in the demonic and accuses the pastor of neglecting the young woman's medical needs in favor of the exorcism.
"Father Moore's beliefs are based on archaic and irrational superstition," said the prosecutor, himself a Christian. "I'm a man of faith and a man of facts. And in here facts are what matter."
Father Moore's defense attorney, Erin Bruner (played by Oscar nominee Laura Linney), is an agnostic who assumes professional and a personal risk when she defends the priest by arguing for the authenticity of demon possession and exorcism. In a dramatic coda to the trial, Father Moore reads a letter from Emily Rose, who believed she was possessed and wanted her story told. "People say that God is dead, but how can they think that if I show them the devil?" she says in the letter.
Craig Detweiler, a screenwriter, author, and film professor at Biola University, has been friends with Derrickson since the two attended film school together. Detweiler said his friend has figured out how to combine deep philosophical questions with a mainstream Hollywood format, which he called a remarkable balancing act.
"Most films try to enlighten or entertain,'' Detweiler said. "It's the rare film that manages to do both seamlessly and simultaneously."
Researching the film was a scary and oppressive experience, Derrickson said, adding that he would never again study such subject matter. To him, demons are absolutely real.
"My belief in it comes not so much in theological or religious conviction, but empirical evidence in the documented cases out there coupled with things I've seen and experienced," Derrickson said. "If you really look hard at the evidence, the most rational conclusion is to believe that the demonic is real."
But rational people also deny that demons exist, Derrickson said. Thus, "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" posits opposing points of view. A movie that deals with issues as volatile as religious belief must respect an audience's multiple perspectives, he said.
"No matter what you believe this movie will challenge you in some way," Derrickson said. "I don't know how you can watch it without coming away and asking yourself, or the person you saw the movie with, what you believe about the reality of the demonic, and therefore the existence of the devil and the existence of God."