As the woman who inspired “The Exorcism Of Emily Rose,” Anneliese Michel would become infamous for her tragic fight with “demons.”
Though many may not know it, the horrifying events of the 2005 film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose were not entirely fiction but were based on the actual experiences of a German girl named Anneliese Michel.
Anneliese Michel grew up devoutly Catholic in Bavaria, West Germany in the 1960s, where she attended Mass twice a week. When Anneliese was sixteen, she suddenly blacked out at school and began walking around dazed. Though Anneliese did not remember the event, her friends and family said she was in a trance-like state.
A year later, Anneliese experienced a similar occurrence, where she woke up in a trance and wet her bed. Her body also went through a series of convulsions, causing her body to shake uncontrollably.
After the second time, Anneliese visited a neurologist who diagnosed her with temporal lobe epilepsy, a disorder that causes seizures, loss of memory, and experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations.
Temporal lobe epilepsy can also cause Geschwind syndrome, a disorder marked by hyperreligiosity.
After her diagnosis, Anneliese began taking medication for her epilepsy and enrolled in the University of Würzburg in 1973.
However, the drugs she was given failed to help her, and as the year progressed her condition began to deteriorate. Though she was still taking her medication, Anneliese began to believe that she was possessed by a demon and that she needed to find a solution outside of medicine.
She began to see the face of the devil wherever she went and said she heard demons whispering in her ears. When she heard demons telling her she was “damned” and would “rot in hell” while she was praying, she concluded that the devil must be possessing her.
Anneliese sought out priests to help her with her demonic possession, but all the clergy she approached rejected her requests, saying that she should seek medical help and that they needed the permission of a bishop anyway.
At this point, Anneliese’s delusions had become extreme. Believing she was possessed, she ripped the clothes off her body, compulsively performed up to 400 squats a day, crawled under a table and barked like a dog for two days. She also ate spiders and coal, bit the head off a dead bird, and licked her own urine from the floor.
Finally, she and her mother found a priest, Ernst Alt, who believed in her possession. He stated that “she didn’t look like an epileptic” in later court documents.
Anneliese wrote to Alt, “I am nothing, everything about me is vanity, what should I do, I have to improve, you pray for me” and also once told him, “I want to suffer for other people…but this is so cruel”.
Alt petitioned the local bishop, Bishop Josef Stangl, who eventually approved the request and granted a local priest, Arnold Renz permission to perform an exorcism, but ordered that it be carried out in total secret.
Exorcisms have existed in various cultures and religions for millennia, but the practice became popular in the Catholic Church in the 1500s with priests who would use the Latin phrase “Vade retro satana” (“Go back, Satan”) to expel demons from their mortal hosts.
The practice of Catholic exorcism was codified in the Rituale Romanum, a book of Christian practices assembled in the 16th century.
By the 1960s, exorcism was very rare among Catholics, but a rise in movies and books like The Exorcist in the early 1970s caused a renewed interest in the practice.
Over the next ten months, following the bishop’s approval of Anneliese’s exorcism, Alt and Renz conducted 67 exorcisms, lasting up to four hours, on the young woman. Through these sessions, Anneliese revealed that she believed she was possessed by five demons: Lucifer, Cain, Judas Iscariot, Hitler, and Nero.
All these spirits would jostle for power of Anneliese’s body, and would communicate from her mouth with a low growl. They argued with each other, with Hitler saying, “People are stupid as pigs. They think it’s all over after death. It goes on” and Judas saying Hitler was nothing but a “big mouth” who had “no real say” in Hell.
Throughout these sessions, Anneliese would frequently talk about “dying to atone for the wayward youth of the day and the apostate priests of the modern church.”
She broke the bones and ripped the tendons in her knees from continually kneeling in prayer.
Over these 10 months, Anneliese was frequently restrained so the priests could conduct exorcism rites. She slowly stopped eating, and she eventually died of malnutrition and dehydration on July 1st, 1976.
After her death, Anneliese’s story became a national sensation in Germany after her parents and the two priests who conducted the exorcism were charged with negligent homicide. They came before the court and even used a recording of the exorcism to try to justify their actions.
The two priests were found guilty of manslaughter resulting from negligence and were sentenced to six months in jail (which was later suspended) and three years of probation. The parents were exempted from any punishment as they had “suffered enough,” a criteria for sentencing in German law.
Following the trial, Anneliese became an icon for some Catholics who felt modern, secular interpretations of the bible were distorting the ancient, supernatural truth it contains.
“The surprising thing was that the people connected to Michel were all completely convinced that she had really been possessed,” remembers Franz Barthel, who reported on the trial for the regional daily paper the Main-Post.
“Buses, often from Holland, I think, still come to Anneliese’s grave,” Barthel says. “The grave is a gathering point for religious outsiders. They write notes with requests and thanks for her help, and leave them on the grave. They pray, sing and travel on.”
While she may be a source of inspiration for some religious people, the story of Anneliese Michel is not one of spirituality triumphing over science, but of superstitious people who should have known better allowing a mentally-ill woman to die.
It’s the story of people projecting their own beliefs, hopes, and faith onto a woman’s delusions, and the price that is paid for that.