It was a court case that stunned the world. Centring on the strange and inexplicable death of a young German woman and the two priests accused of negligent homicide by the use of 400-year-old ritual of exorcism, a practice that has rarely been used since the 18th Century.
Her name was Anneliese Michel and her story would become the inspiration for the film The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
Born on September 21, 1952 in Klingenberg, Germany, Anneliese and her three sisters were raised in a strict Catholic family. Her father Josef had considered training as a priest and three of her aunts were nuns. As a child her mother Anna, encouraged Anneliese and her sisters to atone for the sins of others.
By the time Anneliese was a teenager, she was sleeping on a bare stone floor, pictures of saints hung on her bedroom room walls, she kept a bottle holy-water font near the door, and regularly prayed the Rosary throughout each day.
In 1968, when she was 17, Anneliese began to suffer from convulsions. She was sent to the Psychiatric Clinic Wurzburg where she was diagnosed with Grand Mal epilepsy. Soon after, Anneliese started experiencing hallucinations while praying. She also began to hear voices, which told her that she was damned.
Over the months that followed her mental state and unstable behaviour deteriorated. She began to eat 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 could often be heard screaming through the walls for hours. Tearing off her clothes and urinating on the floor became a regular occurrence.
In 1975, convinced that she was possessed, her parents gave up on the doctors from the psychiatric clinic. They chose to rely solely on the church for healing. An exorcist from a nearby town examined Anneliese and concluded that she was indeed demonically possessed. After two failed requests, the rite of exorcism was finally granted.
Father Arnold Renz and Pastor Ernst Alt were assigned to carry out “The Great Exorcism” on Anneliese Michel. The foundation for this ritual was the “Rituale Romanum”, which at the time, was still a valid 17th century Cannon Law. Together, the men carried out 67 rites of exorcism over a 10 month period, with one or two exorcism sessions held each week. Some sessions lasted up to four hours.
Over time, the ligaments in her knees ruptured due to the 600 genuflections (the act of reverence consisting of falling onto one or both knees) that she performed obsessively during each exorcism session. On June 30, 1976, during what would be her last rite of exorcism before her death, too weak and emaciated to perform the genuflections on her own, Anneliese’s parents stood and helped carry her through the motions.
She along with Father Arnold Renz and Pastor Ernst Alt were convinced that she had been possessed by several demons, including Lucifer, Judas Iscariot, Nero, Cain, Hitler, and Fleischmann, a disgraced Frankish Priest from the 16th century. These demons frequently spoke through her, conversing regularly with the priests.
Upon the release of the film The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a German web site posted audio in which we hear the real Anneliese Michel’s voice during one of the exorcisms.
The website claimed to have obtained the audio from one of the 43 taped recordings made during the 67 rites of exorcism that Anneliese endured. The priests can be heard talking about the demons Cain, Nero, and Hitler, who Anneliese believed had taken over her body.
A Matter For The Law
Around Easter, Anneliese’s convulsions returned with a greater ferocity, but still no doctor or medical professional was called. She began to refuse food and drink, forcing herself to fast believing that it would rid her of Satan’s influence.
On July 1, 1976 Anneliese died of dehydration and malnourishment. She weighed only 68 lbs.
She was buried at the outer edges of a cemetery near to her home. Her resting place is normally an area reserved for illegitimate children and suicides.
After an official investigation into her death, Father Arnold Renz and Pastor Ernst Alt alongside Anneliese’s parents, Josef and Anna, were charged with her murder. The court case which took place two years after her death in 1978 become a world-wide sensation.
All four defendants were found guilty of negligent homicide and sentenced to six months in prison, suspended with three years’ probation.
The Unofficial Saint
In 1978, almost two years after her death, the body of Anneliese Michel was dug up. Her parents’ desire to move her from the cheap coffin in which she was buried was allegedly used as an excuse to exhume her body. It’s said they were acting on a message received from a nun who had had a vision that Anneliese’s body was still intact.
Official reports state that the body showed consistent deterioration. Photos of the exhumed body were never released, and Anneliese’s parents were prohibited from witnessing the exhumation. From a distance, they could however see her grave from the bedroom of their home, where her mother still lives today.
Over 30 years later Anneliese is revered by small groups of Catholics who honour her as an unofficial saint. Religious tourists from around the world regularly visit her grave, leaving handwritten notes of thanks and gratitude as they sing and pray for the young woman they believe sacrificed her own life to atone for the sins of others.
“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.”
– Anna Michel (Anneliese’s mother, 2005)
(Book) The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel by Felicitas D. Goodman
(Book) Hostage to the Devil: The Possession and Exorcism of Five Contemporary Americans by Malachi Martin
(DVD) The Exorcism of Emily Rose
You may also enjoy these true-life paranormal articles: