Written by Amanda Moloney
Many people today still hold that long buried belief about demons and ghosts, poltergeists and possessions, but when we hear the word exorcism we tend to think of Hollywood and the countless movies they have made on the subject. Spirit possessions are found in a wide range of religions spanning hundreds of years. Exorcisms are very real and whether you believe in them or not they have been performed for a very long time but they don’t always go to plan.
One of the most famous cases of exorcism was on Anneliese Michel a young Bavarian girl born 21st September 1952. She was born into a very devout Catholic family and due to the scandal of having an illegitimate sister she spent a lot of time withdrawn in quite prayer trying to repent for her mother’s sins. Anneliese turned 16 in 1968 and she started to experience seizures and was diagnosed with having Epilepsy. She was promptly put on medication which didn’t really help so the medication was simply increased. She started to become more withdrawn and depressed and when her thoughts turned to suicide she was diagnosed as having severe depression and placed in a psychiatric hospital for treatments.
As the time passed and she continued to have the seizures, Anneliese also began to complain about having visions. They usually came whilst she was praying and caused her much mental anguish and grief. She also complained of hearing disembodied voices around this time. They started off sounding like they were far away but eventually sounded like someone was standing right beside her. She said sometimes these evil voices told her to do things and other times they just threatened her and told her she was to be damned. The visions become stronger and Anneliese started to see what she described as devil faces, she was still receiving psychiatric treatment but as this seemed to be doing nothing the family naturally started to turn away from normal medical help.
Strangely at this time Anneliese also began to have an aversion to religious objects and places. She could not walk past a crucifix and on a family pilgrimage she refused to drink the holy water with the rest of the family. A friend who was with them noticed a very unpleasant smell coming from Anneliese and it didn’t take much to convince her very devout Catholic family that their beloved daughter was being possessed by a demon or the devil, especially since medical help was doing nothing. They visited priest after priest about Anneliese but were constantly turned away and told that strict guidelines must be met for it to be considered possession. They were even told to take her back to the psychiatric hospital for treatments even though it had previously done nothing. Finally a priest by the name of Ernst Alt heard of her case and became interested. He met with Anneliese and her family many times and became convinced that it was not epilepsy or any other medical problem and that she was definitely suffering a possession. He wrote many letters to the bishop on their behalf begging for an exorcism which was finally agreed to but utter secrecy had to be ensured. Another priest by the name of Arnold Renz was sent in to assist Ernst with this task and he too agreed that she was indeed possessed.
The exorcisms seemed to make the situation worse. She began to urinate and defecate on the floor, reportedly licking up her own urine after. She ate coal and spiders and bit the head off a bird. Profanities and insults streamed from her mouth along with animalistic growling and screams. Anneliese began to speak in ancient languages that she couldn’t know and talk of subjects she knew nothing of. The exorcisms were that long and brutal that she often ended up chained to her bed or chair. If any religious objects were held near her she would fly into a furious rage and her family eventually became too scared to even be near her. At one point she even sat under the kitchen table for 2 days and barked like a dog. Eventually the only people to see her were the two priests constantly performing the exorcisms. They performed them once or twice a week for up to 4 hours at a time.
In total the priests performed 67 exorcisms over a 10 month period. Anneliese refused to eat and became emancipated and exhausted, by the end she had given up. On July 1st 1976 Anneliese finally succumbed to the strain on her body and passed away weighing a mere 68 pounds or 30 kilos. An autopsy determined she had died of malnutrition, dehydration and pneumonia. The two priests were brought to trial for not preventing her death when they could have. They were defended by the church who claimed that exorcisms were allowed to be performed and these priests had been granted permission by the family. 47 of the exorcisms were recorded and the court had to listen to an aggressive and screaming Anneliese hurling abuse and speaking in tongues. At one point they also heard two demons talking to each other even though both voices were coming from Anneliese herself. They had photos of her that showed her thin and drawn, her body covered in bruises and seeping sores. Her knees had ruptured due to the constant genuflections she performed. The prosecution brought in their own doctors who claimed that all the symptoms she displayed could have been put down to mental illness, epilepsy and a fanatical belief in her religion. The priests and her parents were charged with manslaughter due to negligence and sentenced to 6 months gaol each.
Even after her death and trial she could not rest. Her parents insisted her body be exhumed so that they could bury her properly and many claimed that Anneliese body had not decomposed the way it should have for the time it had been buried. Many claimed this was another sign that she had truly been possessed but doctors claimed she had decomposed fine.
This is certainly an interesting case to be sure. Mental illness is such a varied thing that no two people would present exactly the same way. It can be affected by their psychological makeup, their environment, treatments and even their belief systems. So was she possessed by the devil or was she mentally ill. I guess we will never know. On one hand we have two men who were so strong in their belief that they performed 67 exorcisms on this girl to release her from her hell and on the other hand we have the parties that think she should have been put back in to a hospital and treated for mental illness and that the stress on her body could have been causing some of these problems themselves. Some even wonder if she was influenced by the movie The Exorcist which came out in 1973 but that doesn’t account for the things that happened before or whether she even saw the movie. But from what we know in this dark world that fascinates us is that sometimes people that had gifts or saw visions were considered to have mental problems when they didn’t and were therefore drugged up and turned into zombies. We don’t truly know or understand everything that exists in this world so can we honestly say with certainty that she was one or the other. In 1984 the church were asked to review the rite of exorcism based on this case, eventually in 1999 they revised it and also made a mandate that all priests performing exorcisms must have medical training also.
If this story fascinates you there are many articles to read about it but there has also been a movie made that is based on this sad story.