“Anneliese was a kind, loving, sweet and obedient girl. But when she was possessed, it was something unnatural, something that you cannot explain.” – Anna Michel, Anneliese’s mother1
The horrific events which led to the death of Anneliese Michel have become a modern legend. Most people know of her as the inspiration for the film The Exorcism of Emily Rose. To some she is an unofficial Catholic saint, a woman of holy goodness who suffered and died for our sins. Others would argue that Anneliese is the archetype of what happens when religious fervor goes too far. Yet, overwhelming she is remembered as the tragic figure behind one of the most well-known and terrifying cases of demonic possession.
Undeniable to all who research or hear of Anneliese, is how our fundamental understanding of the world around us is challenged by her story.
Anneliese Michel’s Childhood and Social Environment
Born in 1952, Anneliese came from a small Bavarian town by the name of Klingenberg, situated in the midst of the Catholic heartland of Germany. Her upbringing was religious. Her family were devout, traditional Catholics. So traditional, in fact, that it was considered a long-standing family tradition to dedicate at least one child to an ecclesiastical career.2 Anneliese herself expressed the desire to one day become a teacher of the principles of the Catholic religion.
In addition to this, there is evidence to suggest that the Michel family, like many others in Bavaria, rejected the reforms agreed upon by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council of the 1960s. 3The Second Vatican Council, informally referred to as Vatican II, was thought of as a means of spiritual renewal, which sought to modernise the Catholic faith, making it able to better handle the changing cultural landscape of the world post-World War Two. A large part of this was the denial of Catholicism’s global supremacy over other religions. Certainly, as part of its efforts towards dialogue with other religions Pope John XXIII invited other Christians outside the Catholic Church to send observers to the Council.
Such a devout religious upbringing could provide evidence for her later possession being the result of religious fanaticism. However, it is important to understand what Catholicism meant in Germany. A psychological study conducted in 1974 by the Freiburg Institute for Border-Line Psychology determined that only 63 percent of Catholic theologians in Germany believed in the devil. When members of the public were asked a similar question by the Wickery Organization two years later, an overwhelming 89 percent denied the existence of the devil, in the form of a being.4 Germans, both Catholic and non-Catholic, were highly skeptical about the very existence of Satan. Furthermore, in more recent times, it has been estimated that there are only three Catholic exorcists in Germany, who operate in secret. Contrast that to neighbouring France, where there are 70 exorcists who openly practise their trade. A similar number are employed in Italy. In July 2005, a congress in Poland was reportedly attended by some 350 practising exorcists. 5 German society is and was structured towards strict rationality, even in religious matters. This means that the social environment which Anneliese grew up in did not recognise the Devil and demonic possession as real things, making it problematic to discredit the case immediately as an instance of religious fervour.
Looking beyond the religious convictions of her family, there is much to suggest that Anneliese had a normal childhood. Anneliese’s parents, Anna and Josef, have been described as strict, yet protective. 6 Her mother recalled how Anneliese “…liked life. She sang wilfully. She was an intelligent girl. Teachers and professors always complimented her.”7 This opinion of her was shared by many of her classmates. To all who encountered her, Anneliese was a quiet and happy girl.
Medical History: A Young Woman in Decline
It was around the time of Anneliese’s sixteenth birthday that her life began to change. In the September of 1968, she lost consciousness at school. Later that evening, sometime after midnight, Anneliese woke up, paralysed. She lost control of her bladder, her breathing was laboured and her tongue felt sore. The moment quickly passed, but left Anneliese terrified. 8
The episode, although frightening, was soon forgotten. It was not until almost a year later, on the afternoon of 24th August 1969, that Anneliese had cause to remember. She suffered another brief blackout, followed by paralysis later the same day. The following morning, Anna took her daughter to see the family physician. Upon his referral, an appointment with neurologist Dr. Siegfried Lüthy was arranged. On 27th August, Anneliese had an electroencephalogram (EEG), which determined her brain activity to be normal. The doctor concluded that Anneliese was probably experiencing cerebral seizures, with symptoms of grand mal epilepsy. At this point, no anticonvulsant medication was prescribed. 9
Prior to this, Anneliese’s medical history had been marred with illness. Before the age of five, she had contracted mumps, measles and scarlet fever. She was regarded such a delicate child by her kindergarten teacher that her parents were counselled into keeping her home a year longer than the other children. 10
Not long after her visit to Dr Luthy, Anneliese suffered from a terrible sore throat, which resulted in her tonsils being removed. After this, she contracted pleurisy and pneumonia. This was further complicated by a tuberculosis infection. At one point her symptoms were so bad that she stopped attending school and was confined to her bed. 11 On 28th February 1970, with no improvement in her condition, Anneliese was admitted to a clinic in Mittelberg which specialised in treating lung disease in young people. Before too long, her parents were informed that she had heart and circulatory problems. 12
In June 1970 Anneliese experience a terrifying, third episode. She visited a different neurologist, Dr. von Haller, and was subjected to another EEG. This time, however, the test revealed a series of irregularities. The doctor observed irregular alpha wave patterns, as well as scattered delta and theta waves, in Anneliese’s brain. As such, she was prescribed anticonvulsant medication. This marked the beginning of her treatment for epilepsy. 13
On 29th August, Anneliese was finally allowed to return home.
By now it should be obvious to all that Anneliese Michel was far from a healthy young woman.
Anneliese Michel’s Mental Deterioration
In regards to her mental health, it is worthwhile discussing the emotional trauma, caused by visiting multiple health professionals without resolution, which Anneliese experienced. As a means to cope with the constant stress and irritation at doctor visits, there is evidence that Anneliese buried herself in Christian literature and practices. 14 Furthermore, Anneliese’s stay at the Mittleberg clinic represented yet another period of emotional stress. It was here that she was placed in a cold, sanitized environment away from the familiarities of home. There are reports that other children at the clinic shunned Anneliese and made a mockery of her. The slight “snot nose” was frequently deployed to humiliate the, by now, clearly isolated girl. 15 Evidence of her inability to process this change is partly shown through her deteriorating mental state: Anneliese became depressed and withdrawn. Rarely would she discuss her time at the clinic afterwards. Later her lifelong friend, Maria Burdich, would testify that: “After her illness, Anneliese was changed. She was quiet and withdrew from her friends.” 16
There have also been suggestions that Anneliese’s relationship with her mother was at times strained, due to Anna Michel’s overbearing nature and eagerness to protect her fragile daughter. Often this would manifest itself in the prevention of Anneliese engaging in activities that were normal for girls of her age. For example, at the age of fourteen Anneliese was stopped from attending ballroom-dancing classes due to fears of her delicate health.17 A psychiatrist, Dr Lenner, who would later meet with Anneliese, would highlight the tragic girl’s dysfunctional family as the root of her neurosis. In particular, he noted Anneliese’s hatred of her mother, and her use of holy objects and prayers as a means to control and discipline her daughters. This could perhaps explain Anneliese’s later aversion to such religious elements: they were a symbol of her mother’s control. 18 This being said, angst and a desire to rebel against seemingly ignorant parents is hardly unusual amongst adolescents.
Anneliese Encounters “Fratzen”
It was sometime during her stay at the Mittelberg clinic that Anneliese first reported encountering “Fratzen”: the German word for grimaces. Later, in September 1973 she described what she saw to Dr. Lüthy: they were ghastly, demonic faces. Whenever she witnessed them she claimed that she felt empty, as though the devil were inside of her. In addition to Fratzen, Anneliese also described experiencing foul smelling odours, something which she likened to burning fecal matter. 19
As her seizures intensified, Anneliese claimed that the demonic faces were becoming more frequent, and that the voices which accompanied them told her that she was damned to hell. In spite of these episodes, she was relatively able to function normally in day to day life, and was even able to maintain a loving relationship with her boyfriend, Peter. Over the next two years, Anneliese was taken to see multiple different doctors, and was prescribed medication for both the seizures and the subsequent psychosis. On November 20th, Dr Lüthy, the neurologist, prescribed Dilantin, an anticonvulsant primarily used to treat grand mal epilepsy. 20 Although Anneliese experienced a terrible, drawn out period of illness, it is important to clarify that no one initially believed Anneliese to be possessed. This was regarded as an illness, treatable with medication. 21
Between March and April of 1973, Anneliese began hearing noises in her bedroom. In the middle of the night, she would be awoken by the sound of knocking. No other family member could hear these noises. Once again Anneliese was taken to see a doctor, who found her hearing to be perfectly normal. 22
It was during her academic examinations that Anneliese’s symptoms escalated. The voices and hallucinations of demonic faces became increasingly worse. Alongside her mental ailments, she was beginning to have trouble speaking and walking. She also suffered from severe bouts of depression. Later, in 1976, during a recorded conversation with a priest, Anneliese would describe this difficult time:
“It is a terror which goes through all my limbs and settles there. It is a dread that makes you think you are right there, in the middle of Hell. You are totally, utterly deserted.” 23
Possibility of demonic possession
One evening over dinner Anneliese’s hands are reported to have swelled up to a huge size. According to her mother’s testimony, Anneliese cried out: “I have black hands. My Saviour, forgive me!”. As this occurred, she claimed to be able to see diabolic faces on the wall. She described them as having “7 crowns and 7 horns”.24
By now, the possibility that Anneliese was demonically possessed was being considered. A member of the local Church, Thea Heinz, is reported to have first suggested this to Anneliese’s mother. The ineffectiveness of the medication which Anneliese was on seemed to corroborate this. It was sometime in the second half of 1973 that Anneliese found solace in communications with Father Ernst Alt, a priest who shared her convictions that she was under the influence of Satan. 25 When discussing the case in a later interview, Alt states that he initially approached the case with skepticism. He did not believe that demonic possession could happen in the case of someone who was baptized.26
In a later statement, Dr. Lüthy would assert that it was around this time that Anneliese became incapable of making decisions for herself.27 Could it be that a vulnerable young woman fell under the influence of Father Alt, her mother, and others in her religiously-minded community, which resulted in her believing herself to be demonically possessed?
The possibility of demonic possession was seemingly further evidenced by Anneliese’s growing intolerance of sacred objects, such as holy water and crucifixes. One particular episode is often cited. In 1973 Anneliese went on a pilgrimage with her father to San Damiano, a church-monastery in northern Italy which is associated with Saint Francis’ encounter with Christ. During the visit, Anneliese found herself unable to enter the shrine. She claimed that the earth beneath her feet burned. It even pained her to look upon holy pictures and sacramentals. On the way home, Anneliese was still not herself. Her voice had changed: it was deeper and masculine. She also exuded a foul odour which was so strong that other pilgrims on the bus reported the stench.
In addition to this, her mother, Anna, recalled one episode where Anneliese stood before a statue of the Virgin Mary, her eyes completely black. 28
1975: The Year the Exorcisms Began
In May 1975, Anneliese suffered severe emotional trauma. Her grandmother, to whom she was deeply attached, passed away; and her sister, Barbara, moved away to pursue a career. Authors writing on the subject of Anneliese’s alleged possession are keen to stress that this young woman was exceptionally sensitive and increasingly unable to cope with the world around her. 29 Indeed, during a conversation with Father Alt a few months prior, on 9th September 1974, Anneliese had made the statement: “I cannot cope with reality.” 30Some authors refer to this as the moment Anneliese suffered a mental breakdown, hallmarked by the development of multiple personalities, known today as a dissociative disorder. 31 At the time, however, demonic possession was regarded as the increasingly likely explanation for Anneliese’s condition.
It was in 1975 that Father Arnold Renz, a senior priest and exorcist, became involved in Anneliese’s case. Upon his first visit he was astounded by the girl. He claims that whilst standing she would be repeatedly thrown to the floor by some great force. Each time she would respond in the same way: she would get up onto her knees and recite the ‘Hail Mary’ prayer. Anneliese’s mother stated that the devil would constantly throw her daughter to the ground, so much so that Anneliese eventually took to sleeping on the floor. She would sleep this way for three years. 32
The involvement of medical professionals
At the court case which dealt with these events after Anneliese’s death, the priests stated that they had sent Anneliese to as many doctors and psychiatrists as they could. Anneliese’s mother even claimed that it was Dr. Lüthy who had recommended that the family consult a Jesuit for help. To many involved in the case, the ineffectiveness of medication evidenced demonic possession.
According to Father Gabriele Amorth, the former Chief Exorcist for the Vatican (who claims to have performed over 30,000 exorcisms in his career), resistance to medicine is one of the typical symptoms of demonic interference.
We can state that “one of the determining factors in the recognition of a diabolical possession is the inefficacy of medicines”, while blessings prove very efficacious. I exorcised Mark, a young man who was the victim of a severe possession. He had been confined a long time and been tormented by psychiatric remedies, especially electroshock, without the slightest reaction. When the doctor prescribed sleep therapy, for an entire week they gave him enough sleeping pills to sedate an elephant; he never fell asleep, either during the day or during the night. He wandered around the hospital in a stupor, with wide-open eyes. Finally he landed at my doorstep, with immediate positive results.33
In the case of Anneliese Michel, however, it is necessary to mention that in the late 1960s and early seventies, epilepsy was not as well understood as it is today. The MRI machine, for example, was not invented until 1977, meaning that a full picture of the brain was not possible when Anneliese was diagnosed with epilepsy. In addition, there exists a drug-resistant form of epilepsy, which accounts for some 20 to 40 percent of epileptics, equal to around 400,000 people in America alone.34 It is therefore not impossible for Anneliese’s epilepsy to have been unresponsive to medication.
After all medical avenues were exhausted, the priests, Renz and Alt, began the preliminary steps towards exorcism. A trial exorcism was conducted by the priests to ascertain whether or not Anneliese was truly possessed. A large part of exorcism is interrogation: to find out why the demonic entity has taken control of an individual. As such, at one point the priests sat down next to her and mentally commanded: “Depart from her! Say who you are!”. Immediately Anneliese went into a frenzy. She grabbed herself by the neck and destroyed the rosary which she was wearing. 35
As with most alleged cases of demonic possession, evidence comes to us in the form of personal, eye-witness testimony. In the case of Anneliese Michel, the involvement of the Church means that detailed notes and case files were kept by the priests involved in the exorcism. It is because of this that we know Anneliese’s destruction of the rosary caused great concern. To the religiously minded, only the most powerful demons can destroy holy objects.
After this event, the priests appealed to the Bishop of Würzburg to approve an exorcism.
Whilst the bishop consulted the details of the case, the priests would conduct a deliverance ritual. Such rituals focus on casting out the spirit or spirits believed to cause an affliction. Prayer plays an important part in this process. Unlike the more formal exorcism, a deliverance ritual addresses lesser and more general influences such as obsession, oppression or torment at work, as well as spiritual trauma.36
Once approval had been received, the priests initiated the centuries old ritual of Catholic exorcism, also known as ‘The Roman Ritual’ of 1614. On Sunday 3rd August 1975, Anneliese underwent her first exorcism. 37 The elder of the two, Father Renz, took the spiritual lead.
The following is Bishop’s letter addressed to Father Renz:
After due consideration with good information, I now charge the Reverend Father Renz, Salvatorian, Superior in Rück-Schippach, to proceed to Miss Anna Lieser [Anneliese’s pseudonym] within the terms of CIC can 1151. For some time now my prayers have been directed to this concern. May God give us His help. I thank everyone sincerely for their efforts.38
Interestingly, although a religious cure had been sought, a medical one was still being attempted: Anneliese remained on her doctor-prescribed medication until shortly before her death.
Anneliese Michel and the six demons
It is at this point that Anneliese’s case escalated once again. As soon as the exorcism began, the demons – without any overt stimulus – spoke through Anneliese in deep, guttural voices. Everyone present was deeply disturbed. Such an instant and strong demonic presence was atypical in the exorcists’ experiences. In fact, it was so unusual for demons to reveal themselves so early on in the exorcism, that the priests were both unprepared, struggling to even comprehend the rapidity with which Anneliese spoke. The pace of the subsequent events compelled them to record everything for the bishop and others to study. It was Anneliese herself who requested that the tapes be made public across the world so that people would believe there was a devil. 39 It is because of this that we now have access to audio evidence from the exorcism.
Allegedly, six demons revealed themselves: Lucifer, Judas, Nero, Cain, Hitler and Fleischmann, a disgraced 16th century Frankish priest. Whenever Hitler possessed Anneliese, he would announce himself to the priests with a ‘Sieg Heil’.40 Bizarrely, Hitler would speak with the correct Austrian inflections.41
The demons would criticise the Church, ridicule the faithful and faithless alike, and exalt their own power.
Lucifer is claimed to have said: “I want to conquer the earth for myself.”
“People are stupid as pigs,” Anneliese spat whilst claiming to be possessed by Hitler. “They think it’s all over after death. It goes on.” 42
According to exorcists and paranormal experts, these names may have been chosen by demonic entities in order to inspire fear and dread relative to time and place (hence Hitler and Fleischmann), and may not have been reflective of actual demonic names.
Whatever the truth behind these names, the atrocities which they allegedly inflicted upon Anneliese were chilling. She would speak in tongues; spend whole days attacking family members with bestial strength; bark like a dog; bite the head off a dead bird; eat spiders and drink her own urine. Anneliese would also claim to witness demons dancing around the priests in mockery. Invisible forces would throw the tragic girl from wall to wall, so that she was almost always covered in bruises from head to toe. She would also gorge on copious amounts of food and drink, whilst nearly always looking emaciated. In addition, tables and chairs are claimed to have moved around the house of their own accord.
Reading from his own notes, Father Alt has described how:
“Her head and face were so bruised they looked almost black. Her eyes were so swollen that one could hardly see them. She was so battered that it was impossible to recognise her.” 43
How is it that someone with a serious history of physical illness, including heart and circulatory problems, had the strength to not only attack family members, but also self-harm to such a degree?
Whatever the cause of these horrors, they still have the power to terrify, even into the present day. All one needs to do is listen to the priests’ audio recordings to hear the blood-curdling howls which erupted from Anneliese.
Often, the exorcism sessions would culminate in such brutality that Anneliese would have to be held down or chained to a chair.44
These terrible episodes would continue for many months. Occasionally, Anneliese would experiences period of lucidity. During these moments, she would spend time with her constant companion, Peter, and plan out their future together. They hoped to one day be married, when all this was over. Underneath all of the horror, there appears to have been a real sense of hope that either the medicine or the exorcisms, or both, would cure Anneliese of whatever it was that haunted her. At one time, Anneliese and Peter went for a walk in the nearby woods. However, once there, Anneliese walked off alone. According to Peter, she was in a trance-like state. She would later claim to have walked alongside the Virgin Mary that day. Anneliese reported that She had told her that: “It pains my heart that so many souls are going to Hell… Someone needs to do penance… Would you like to do penance for the souls so that they do not enter Hell?”
Anneliese said she was given three days to consider the Virgin Mary’s offer.
When they arrived home, she told everyone of her miraculous vision. She said that she felt so much better than she had done in a long time. Almost as though the Virgin Mary had relieved Anneliese of her possession whilst she considered the offer.
The Michel family was initially skeptical of her vision, but could not deny the happiness that it brought them to she Anneliese in better health. However, when Anneliese expressed her desire to accept the Virgin Mary’s proposal, her parents’ fear returned. Her mother tried to dissuade her, but to no avail.
Another theory which can be considered as an explanation for Anneliese’s case is that of martyrdom syndrome. This is defined by the need to seek out suffering due to a psychological need. In regards to religion, this can manifest itself as an extreme form of penance out of love and duty towards others.
From a young age, Anneliese exhibited a deep interest in religious matters. It was her intention to one day become a catechist, a teacher of the principles of the Catholic faith. At school, Anneliese had a special interest in theology, and passed her examinations on the subject with ease.45 During her illness, her religious zeal intensified. It was whilst she was at the Mittelberg clinic that Anneliese reported experiencing some sort of miraculous event. Whilst saying the rosary, she claimed to be able to smell a sweet odour, similar to the scent of violets. She instantly experienced euphoria, which lasted through to the next day, and became convinced that this was the work of the Virgin Mary.46
In addition to this, Anneliese is known to have immersed herself in Christian literature. In particular, she found solace in a female saint called Barbara Weigand. Born on 10th December 1845 in Schippach, Elsenfeld, Germany, Weigand claimed to witness manifestations of the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Michael. She went on to found the Franciscan Eucharistic Covenant of Love.
There is much to suggest that Anneliese felt an affinity to Weigand: both were female, German, came from very religious families and alleged experiences with the Virgin Mary. It is around this time that Anneliese may have developed the idea that her suffering was for some greater spiritual reason. The events of 1970 to 1976 could have been born out of a desire, conscious or otherwise, to martyr herself in order to bring back a truer, purer form of Catholicism, which had come under threat after Vatican II.
Interestingly, author John M. Duffey highlights 1971 as a year of “possession fever”, after The Exorcist was published. After experiencing immediate international success, it was made into a film which was released in Germany in 1974. Duffey states that this generated social hysteria, which directly and substantially increased the number of reported cases of demonic possession across the globe. 47Could this phenomena have played into the case of Anneliese? According to Duffey, the coincidence of “possession fever” and Anneliese’s suspected demonic possession is “too great to ignore”.
Anneliese claimed that, in her vision, it was foretold that the Virgin Mary would return to expel the demons on 31st October if she chose not to accept the offer. By this day, however, Anneliese was more willing than ever to become a vessel for all of mankind’s sins and make a martyr of herself.
According to the priests, the demons were unusually passive on this day. Keen to exploit this opportunity, they began an intensive session of exorcism, during which they were able to extract desperate cries of agony from all the demons who claimed to inhabit the girl. When they start praying to the Virgin Mary, a truly chilling cry came from within Anneliese. The voices yelled out: “She is coming!”
The priests were then able to make the demons, one-by-one, agree to leave Anneliese.
The following is an extract from the exile of Fleischmann and Cain. Below is the transcript, translated into English.
The Voice: I am damned, because I… because I… I’ve dealt with my priestly duties so bad.
Priests: Who are you? Judas?
The Voice: No.
The Voice: Yes. I have to leave now.
Priests: To Hell?
The Voice: Yes.
Priests: Do you know what you have to say?
The Voice: Yes.
Priests: …Son and The Holy Spirit. One God in three Persons, and The Holy Spirit. Give us the sign. [pause] I must get a sign of you leaving. [pause] Son and The Holy Spirit. Give us the sign.
The Voice: Ha…Ha…Ha…Hail. [stuttering] Mary… [pause] …Full of grace.
Priests: It was a sign, this one has left. He said: “Hail Mary, full of grace.” It was the fixed sign. So Fleischmann is gone. Now next. Who is next? The next is Cain, or Nero? Next is Cain. In the name of the One God in three Persons, The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit.
The Voice: I am Cain.
Priests: In the name of the One God in three Persons…
The Voice: I killed my brother!
Priests: I order you to depart. In the name of the One God in three Persons… I order you to worship the Holiest Virgin.
The Voice: Ha…Ha…Ha…
Priests: I order you to worship the Mother of God.
The Voice: Ha…Ha… You dirty pig, what have you devised.
Priests: In the name of the one God in three Persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I order you to worship the Holiest Virgin. In the name of the one God in three Persons, the Father…
The Voice: Ha…Ha…Ha… …Hail [stuttering] …Mary… …full of grace.
After the demons has been banished, Anneliese said in her normal voice: “I’m completely free now…completely free. It’s so wonderful…completely free.”
It was at this moment that the most unusual twist of any possession case happened. Reportedly, ten to fifteen minutes later, all of the demons were back, complaining that – as much as they wanted to – they could not leave. They were trapped inside of Anneliese.
From then on, they would complain daily, sometimes continuously, about how they wanted to leave, yet were mysteriously bound to Anneliese Michel. Father Alt described how they screamed: “We want to go out, but we’re not allowed to.”48 As for Anneliese herself, in her more lucid moments, she would complain of the great pain she was enduring.
The following is a translated, transcribed excerpt from a conversation with Father Renz:
Anneliese: Never would I have thought that it could be so horrible. I was thinking to myself: “I want to suffer for other people, so that they don’t go to Hell. But not that it is so difficult, so dreadful, so horrible… Sometimes, you think: “Suffering is easy”. But when it gets real hard… you don’t want to take a single step.
Father Renz: Yes. We can talk about suffering lightly until it’s us who are suffering. Anneliese: Yes. That’s true. Father Arnold, it’s so difficult to imagine how they can force you. Once they do, you have no more control over yourself.
Anneliese: Yet, you’re making a contribution because you are willing to accept this. Anneliese: They deprive you of your will to do anything, father.
Father Renz: This comes from the fact that you earlier said: “Yes”.49
On 30th May 1976, Father Alt sought help from his friend and physician Dr. Richard Roth, who had previously been involved in the case. Alt asked him to prescribe medication to help soothe Anneliese’s pain. However, the doctor warned against this. In a 2007 interview for a Polish documentary, Father Alt recalled that Roth said: “I can’t give medication to a possessed person because I do not know how they might affect them. There is no injection against the devil.” 50After this the doctor examined Anneliese and apparently noticed that she had stigmata marks, the wounds of Christ, on her legs. Later, it was alleged, the seemingly nail-inflicted wounds would spread to her hands.51
It was from this point onwards that Anneliese began to decay, despite being provided with constant nourishment. She was known to have gorged on large amounts of food in one sitting, then finish by drinking up to two litres of juice. Regardless, she was dangerously thin and lost all palour. According to the priests, Anneliese had had a similar episode of emaciation the previous year, only then to return quickly to normal health.
Around the beginning of 1976, Anneliese had claimed that something would change in July. On 1st July, at the age of 23, she tragically passed away.
By the time of her death, Anneliese had endured the rite of exorcism some sixty-seven times. Some of the sessions lasted up to four hours. Forty-two of these sessions were recorded on tape. 52
In her final moments, Anneliese uttered the words: “Mother, I’m afraid.”53
The apparent cause of death was starvation. The autopsy report stated that she weighed a mere 30 kilograms (68 pounds), and suffered from broken knees due to continuous genuflections.
In the aftermath of her death, the government proceeded to file charges of negligent homicide against the two priests, Renz and Alt, and Anneliese’s parents, Anna and Josef. At the time, it was the first official and public case of exorcism in Germany in approximately fifty years, and the only known case to have been recorded on audio tapes.
In 1978, all four were found guilty and were given six-month suspended prison sentences and three years’ probation. Unusually, the sentences which were handed out were harsher than those sought by the Chief Prosecutor. It was the presiding judge, Elmar Bohlender, who delivered the heavy verdict, stating that Anneliese had died of “advanced emaciation”, which could have been prevented if she had been given proper medical attention as late as 10 days before her death. When testifying, the priests and the parents upheld their view that medical care was ineffective.54
Although a verdict was reached, the court proceedings were riddled with inconsistencies. Even though the defense lawyers submitted the priest’s exorcism tapes as evidence, they were never really taken seriously by the court. An expert witness called to give evidence by the prosecution, Professor Hans Sattes of Wuertzburg University, concluded that Anneliese’s death had been a result of “a spiritual sickness and heavy psychic disturbance”. 55 This is regardless of the fact that he is known to have made numerous mistakes in his chronology and subsequent analysis of matters including Anneliese’s medical history and possession tapes. 56
Furthermore, the claim that epilepsy had played a part in Anneliese’s death was brought into question. The pathologists who carried out a post-mortem examination for the court discovered that her brain was healthy: it showed no damage which could have caused epileptic seizures, not even on a microscopic level. Equally bizarre were the lack of bedsores on her body, ulcerations on the skin which are associated with victims of starvation – which the court claimed Anneliese had been. This fact, and her unusually dilated pupils, were not mentioned in the Opinion of the Court, meaning that these crucial findings were considered unimportant. 57 This is a telling example of just one of the many instances which undermine how the court handled Anneliese’s case.
At this point it is important to bring to light the possible corruption of the court. As East Germany was occupied by Soviet forces and therefore under the influence of Communism at this time, state-sponsored anti-religious sentiments were commonplace. State atheism was actively promoted. 58 Klingenberg and the district court of Aschaffenburg were located in West Germany, it is probable that such an influence of secularisation leaked over.
Furthermore, post-World War Two Germany can be said to have been cautious of religion’s ability to indoctrinate a population. Traditional, organised religion had been attacked under the Nazi regime, as the autonomous powers of the Church conflicted with National Socialist ideals of state control. However, atheism was banned. 59 Thus, Gottgläubig (literally “believer in God”) was promoted: a Nazi religious movement which kept faith in a higher power, whilst abandoning the autonomous powers of the Church. It is because of this that one encounters images of Hitler on church altars, alongside swastikas and other Nazi paraphernalia. Religion was manipulated in order to reinforce ideas of nationalism, and mould the population to the ideology of the government. After the fall of the Third Reich, it is unsurprising that state-sponsored religion came to be regarded with suspicion, and the clear separation of church and state favoured. This tone of secularisation was clear throughout the trial of Anneliese Michel. During the judge’s introductory remarks, he stressed the fact that two civilians were facing the Court that day, and not two servants of the Church.60
All of this brings into question the court’s stance on religion, meaning it is plausible to suggest that the trial may have been engineered by the state to discredit the Catholic Church, and the possibility that Anneliese was demonically possessed. Certainly, the court seemed to openly mocked the positions of the priests. For example, the way in which the judge sought to ridicule Father Alt’s faith by asking the question: “I assume, Father, you’re not married, are you?”61
An Explanation in Sight?
As we conclude this tragic story, it is necessary to stress that the family of Anneliese Michel never gained any profit from the case, or from the 2005 film, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, which it later went on to inspire.
“I don’t want to see the film and I don’t know anything about it.” – Mrs. Michel, when interviewed by The Telegraph 62
According to the journalist who conducted the interview, Anna Michel clearly felt uncomfortable speaking about Anneliese’s death and, until the release of the film, had maintained a public silence. This means that the case of Anneliese Michel is a direct contrast to other popular cases such as Amityville, where the Lutz family, were directly involved in the book, which was written soon after their experiences, and the subsequent film franchise. Whilst this may call into question their potential motives for fabrication, the same cannot be said for Anneliese Michel. Instead, Anneliese paid the ultimate price – her life – leaving behind a distraught family who would never fully recover from the trauma.
To many Catholics, Anneliese Michel is a threat to standardized belief because she offers evidence of a Medievalist form of Satan and Hell. To them, she is best forgotten. To skeptics Anneliese was a victim of religious fanaticism combined with mental and physical illness. To a few believers, however, she represents sacrifice and holiness. She took the demons with her when she died, martyring herself for our sins akin to a latter day Christ figure. Even until this day, people still visit Anneliese’s gravesite to leave notes of gratitude and pay homage to her sacrifice.
Whatever you believe, the case of Anneliese Michel is one of the most well-documented, and most perplexing, cases of alleged modern-day demonic possession.
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