When 23-year-old Anneliese Michel died during an exorcism in 1976, it was the first reported case in the history of the Catholic Church. Initially diagnosed with epilepsy as a teenager, Michel’s started experiencing hallucinations while praying. She began to hear voices, which told her that she was damned. She ate dead flies, spiders, and coal; she even bit off the head of a dead bird. In one instance, she crawled under a table and barked like a dog for two days. She would often be heard screaming through the walls for hours. Tearing off her clothes and urinating on the floor became a regular occurrence. Throughout it all she told those around her she was possessed by the devil, and those close enough to witness her increasingly strange and erratic behavior believed her.
Anneliese went on to endure 67 rites of exorcism which left her dehydrated and malnourished. After her eventual death, the priests and her parents were held responsible, but were they to blame for her cruel fate? Who should be blamed for one woman’s quest for spiritual purity – even if it did lead to her death?
A Brief History of Demonic Possession
For as long as humans have had culture, they have had methods for interacting with the supernatural. The earliest evidence can be traced back to Neolithic remains from around 5000 BCE; certain skulls show evidence of trephining, or the practice of drilling a hole in the head in order to release spirits trapped there.
The use of prayer to combat supernatural forces is common around the world, from Hindu Vedas on evil spirits to Persian stories of Zoroaster, Babylonian rituals of destroying clay effigies, and biblical tales of Jesus Christ exorcising demons. Across all of these examples, illness was attributed to spiritual possession, often as a form of divine punishment. Preventive action could be taken, but a saint or healer would generally take action through prayer or violent measures.
Over time, these attitudes have evolved, mixing science and superstition. Even as the Greek physician Hippocrates recognized the natural processes behind illness, Galen theorized that mental health relied upon the body’s “humors,” namely blood, phlegm, bile, and black bile. So, the best way to treat a possession would be bloodletting, purging, laxatives, and immersion in hot or cold water, or even sulfur flames.
At the same time, demonology and folk medicine were popular throughout the Middle Ages, and exorcism became more formalized, with a standardized structure by the 8th century. In the meantime, the Protestant Reformation fuelled Europe’s golden age of demonic paranoia in the 16th and 17th centuries; witch hunts were the norm, including an entire convent of nuns in Loudon, France. Mental illness was alternately blamed on demons, witches, melancholy, stress, or mass hysteria.
With large-scale reforms to mental health treatment and the rise of psychoanalysis, exorcism has remained an important practice for many people around the world. Even as faith-based institutions have waned in recent years, this practice is more than a relic. In fact, a 2012 poll found that 57 percent of Americans believe in demonic possession, while 68 percent believed in angels and demons. From mass exorcisms in Mexico to new training facilities for Roman Catholic exorcists, demand is rising. Historian David Frankfurter has argued that possession’s popularity stems from social conflict – specifically the uncertainty of globalization and modernity. In this case, the demonic can help people make sense of the unfamiliar.
Accordingly, contemporary Christians interpret possession as a sign of becoming spiritually lost due to sinfulness. Although this belief resembles religious traditions from around the world where possession can act as a “cry for help,” the individual’s actions, in this case, are seen as provoking possession. At the same time, that sinfulness is inherited from the ancestral figure of Adam, so redemption is possible. Many cases illustrate the complicated nature of demonic possession – as doing harm but also providing atonement. One of the most powerful examples is that of Anneliese Michel.
If to sin is to act against God’s laws and to commit a crime is to act against humanity’s laws, then Michel’s reveals what happens when both occur at the same time.
The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel
Anneliese’s story starts at the end of an ordinary little road in an ordinary little town in Bavaria. There, in a banal, off-white house with green window frames, Anneliese Michel grew up and realized her curse. This may be the house that was full of guttural howls and inhuman voices for the many nights of Michel’s exorcism, but this was also her home. Anna Elizabeth Michel was born on September 21, 1952, the first of four daughters for Josef and Anna.
The Michel’s were a deeply religious family, with three aunt nuns and Josef himself having considered the priesthood. Before Anneliese, though, the couple had been disgraced when Anna had given birth to an illegitimate daughter named Martha, causing her to have to wear a black veil on her wedding day. So, when their first daughter together was born, Anna encouraged Anneliese to atone for her mother’s sins through devotion to God. This push likely increased after Martha died during surgery in 1956.
Over time, Anneliese grew into a kind and obedient young woman who regularly showed her devotion. For instance, in penance for the sins of homeless drug addicts and other wayward souls, teenage Anneliese regularly slept on their home’s bare stone floor. However, in 1968, when she was only 16 years old, this young German Catholic girl suffered convulsions that were identified as an epileptic attack related to temporal lobe epilepsy. After receiving a certain medication in 1970, she complained of seeing the faces of ‘fratzen’ or ghostly demonic beings.
In 1973, Anneliese Michel graduated from high school and left for college at West Germany’s University of Wurzburg, hoping to pursue teaching as a career. As a student, her peers saw Michel as overly religious; she tended to stay in her dorm room with her pictures of saints and pray the rosary. But the young student was hiding her suffering. While others saw Michel as withdrawn, she was, in fact, suffering from increasingly intense hallucinations of devils telling her that she would rot in hell, especially while praying. At the same time, Michel began to smell fire and excrement and experience upper limb paralysis. When combined with her growing dissatisfaction with treatment, this led to bouts of depression and self-destructive behavior.
Around this time, Anneliese took a pilgrimage trip with a friend, who noticed that she was unable to walk past a crucifix. Shortly after the connection had been made, she and her parents were entirely convinced of Anneliese’s possession, although she continued to take an anti-seizure drug and mood stabilizer. Experts have since pointed to this moment as the case’s turning point, in that her symptoms closely resemble schizophrenia and should have been treated as such. However, religious figures have also noted that every single priest who met Anneliese eventually concluded that she was possessed.
After applying twice for an exorcism, Anneliese and her family became dispirited. The young Michel experienced several intense, suicidal episodes, during which she ate insects, spurned religious objects, harmed herself, and even drank her own urine. In the meantime, medical treatments were not providing much relief. Although Anneliese had returned home for family support, the Toledo Blade reports that the family experienced paranormal activity, such as swarms of flies, flickering lights, and telephone calls from people who later claimed not to have called.
In 1975, the family’s third exorcism request met with success, and the rite of exorcism was granted by the Bishop of Wurzburg, Josef Stangl. He then appointed local pastor Ernst Alt and former Chinese missionary Father Arnold Renz, who chose the 17th-century Rituale Romanum as the basis for the exorcism. They began on September 24, 1975, and at one point managed to rid Anneliese of all but one demon, only to have them all return the next day. On the whole, Michel believed that she had been possessed by more than six demons, including Lucifer, Judas Iscariot, Nero, Cain, Hitler, and a disgraced priest. When questioned about the reason for the possession, the demons replied that she’d been cursed for her mother’s infidelity.
In the beginning of July 1975, Anneliese began to claim she was being regularly visited by Mother Mary. While taking a walk with her fiancé Peter, Anneliese dropped to her knees, claiming later that she’d spoken with the Virgin. Two months later, during a quiet period, she was again visited by the Virgin Mary, who asked her to do penance for lost souls. Shortly thereafter, Anneliese agreed, and the possession intensified. Those who view her as a saintly figure point to these moments as evidence for her being a victim soul chosen by God to suffer for others’ redemption.
The exorcism progressed to include more than 67 rites conducted over 10 months, with one or two sessions per week. During this time, Anneliese was known to urinate freely and eat bugs, dead animals, and coal. On one occasion, she got under a table and barked like a dog for two full days. The experience did Michel great harm, with her knee ligaments rupturing after hundreds of genuflections. In addition, with the return of her convulsions around Easter of that year, Anneliese started refusing food and drink to protect herself against Satan’s influence. Despite the harm to herself, Anneliese was focused on dying to atone for the sins of others.
During the final exorcism, Anneliese’s parents had to carry her through the motions, as she only weighed 68 pounds and was too weak to move her body. She died on July 1st of severe dehydration and malnutrition, along with a high fever and pneumonia. Her final words to the exorcist were “Beg for Absolution” and to her mother, “Mother, I’m afraid.”
The Judgement of Sinners and Saints
Afterwards, the parents and priests were harshly criticized for their role in Anneliese’s death. In particular, several medical specialists noted that if the young woman had been force-fed even a week before her death, she would have lived through the experience. However, Anneliese herself had played an important part in her own fate, such that the four defendants could not be so harshly judged. In particular, during the events of the trial, Anneliese’s sister would point out that she had not wanted to eat, much less be force-fed, because she had been intent on dying for others’ sins.
The case came to trial on March 30th, 1978, with an intense public interest in the fates of the four defendants. While Father Arnold Renz and Pastor Ernst Alt were represented by a Church-appointed lawyer, Josef and Anna Michel had had to employ their own. Doctors testified that Anneliese had been suffering from the psychological effects of an exceptionally harsh upbringing, while the Bishop who had okayed her exorcism noted that he had been unaware of Michel’s health condition.
On the other hand, the defense argued that all four defendants were protected by the German constitution, as an exorcism should count as protected religious practice. Furthermore, they played tapes of Anneliese’s demons arguing with one another to prove that she had been possessed. Yet, experts pointed out that the priests may have accidentally introduced and reinforced the types of psychotic behavior required to be possessed, enabling the young woman’s suffering. In the end, all four were found guilty of negligent homicide and sentenced to six months in prison, suspended with three years’ probation. Although the prison time was later waived, the Michels paid the costs of a three-week trial, while the priests only faced minor fines.
Many agree that the events of Anneliese’s exorcism seem to show gross negligence on the priests’ part for not having a medical professional on site in case of an emergency. However, as reported in the Toledo Blade at the time, the exorcism ritual explicitly notes that they are not responsible for medical matters. By 1984, that rite would be revised through petitioning from German bishops and theologians to provide better protections for the possessed. In particular, the most recent liturgical book, Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications, specifically warns against confusing mental illness for demonic possession.
On top of changing exorcism procedures, Anneliese has set a truly mysterious precedent. Was she destined to suffer to save the souls of otherwise lost sinners? Or was she a delusional young woman incapable of moving beyond an abusive childhood? Or was she a confident woman who had been mistreated by family, faith, and medicine alike? Whatever the case, Anneliese Michel believed she had to endure her possession to atone for the sins of Germany’s youth, and, no matter what you believe, no one can take that sense of purpose from her.
In the decades since Anneliese Michel died, her story has lived on as the basis of many fictional accounts, including the films The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), Requiem (2008) and Anneliese: The Exorcist Tapes. Most provide a warning, whether to take the supernatural more seriously or to recognize the complex nature of mental illness. As Felicitas D. Goodman notes in The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, the problem may have been that Anneliese was never epileptic in the first place; in that case, the medications could have intensified her hallucinations to the point of feeling possessed. Whatever the reality behind the story, the case of Anneliese Michel points to larger cultural shifts. In particular, the controversy over whether she was possessed or not may show more about the modern desire to believe in the supernatural than any contemporary lack of faith.
Amidst the massive drop in religious belief, there is rising interest in exorcism cases like that of Anneliese Michel. For the Church, that translates into the need for more training, with a new exorcism center opening in Poland and a new course being offered at the Vatican. While still fairly taboo in Germany due to Michel’s death in 1976, the new exorcism center in Poczernin, Poland will provide information on exorcisms and the services of a practicing exorcist. In addition, the Vatican’s prestigious Athenaeum Pontificium Regina Apostolorum college launched exorcist courses in 2005. These investments are part of a larger push to address increasing need for exorcisms, with more specialists in every diocese and a prayer to St. Michael the Archangel, protector against evil, incorporated into every mass.
Anneliese herself was buried on the outer edge of the local cemetery, just beside her half-sister Martha, in an area reserved for suicides or illegitimate children. However, she was not able to rest in peace, at least not after a Carmelite nun from southern Bavaria had a vision of her body being intact in the grave. In 1978, after receiving word from the nun, the Michels had her coffin exhumed and replaced with a lined, oak coffin. By all reports, the body had decayed just as much as one would expect from any ordinary person, but that hasn’t stopped pilgrims from visiting her grave. Many even consider her an unofficial saint with the ability to save lost souls through her past suffering.
Throughout her short life, Anneliese Michel sought only to atone for the sins of others. As her mother noted in a 2005 interview, “I know that we did the right thing because I saw the sign of Christ in her hands. She was bearing stigmata and that was a sign from God that we should exorcise the demons. She died to save other lost souls, to atone for their sins.”
Was she a victim soul destined to save others through suffering? It is impossible to know for sure, although the recordings of Anneliese’s sessions often feature a demon stating that God himself will not let them leave her. Whatever you choose to believe, in the end, it all comes down to faith – and that is something that Anneliese Michel herself would certainly appreciate.
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