Throughout the world and across cultures, humans have long had a belief in the existence of demons, devils, and dark spirits. These entities may take different forms and abilities depending on the religion or culture, but one thing that remains consistent is their dark malice, and their desire to inflict harm and strife upon the living. One of the commonly held ways that the evil spirits of the world seek to impact themselves upon our reality is through possession; invading a living person for the purpose of taking control of the body. The belief in spirit possession is a widespread feature found throughout a range of disparate religions, including major ones such as Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, all the way down to more obscure faiths like Haiitian Voodoo, Wicca, numerous African religions, and many others.
These religions have throughout the centuries taken measures to protect themselves from such insidious violations of the body and to deter or drive the malevolent spirits out through the use of numerous prayers, wards, charms, rites, and rituals. One of the methods of defense against sinister supernatural entities that is perhaps the most well-known and widely practiced of these is the ancient practice known as exorcism, which is a concerted attempt to forcibly extract the spirit or demon. Although the common perception of exorcism may be of a purely Catholic construct, it is in fact prominent in many cultures, and is practiced in pretty much every religion that holds the belief of spiritual possession. The exact methods of exorcisms can vary significantly across different faiths, and may be as simple as commanding a spirit to leave or reciting an incantation, or be more sophisticated, entailing elaborate rites and rituals, yet all seek the same final goal of ejecting the invading spirit from their living host or sometimes even a place.
For anyone who has ever seen the film The Exorcist, it may be apparent that exorcisms do not always go according to plan. This is actually very true. In some cases, the process can be a long and arduous one, taking a physical, mental, and spiritual toll on both the victim and the one attempting to evict the offending spirit. In fact, it is not unheard of for exorcisms to go terribly wrong, resulting in failure and sometimes even lasting physical and mental trauma, or sometimes even death. One of the most mysterious, chilling, and indeed terrifying of these failed rituals was performed in 1975 on a girl by the name of Anneliese Michel, and it remains to this day one of the most harrowing and unexplainable exorcisms in history.
Anneliese Michel was born on 21 September 1952, in Leiblfing, Bavaria, West Germany, and was raised in a family of extremely devout Catholics, which consisted of three sisters and her parents. Anneliese had a tough childhood. One of her sisters had been born an illegitimate child four years before her birth, which was a source of scandal and shame in such a deeply religious family, and beset the mother with heavy feelings of guilt. When the older sister died at the age of eight, Anneliese spent a large amount of time withdrawn from others in penance, trying to repent for her mother and absolve her of sin.
In 1968, when Anneliese was 16 years old, she experienced a sudden and violent seizure. Her family took her to a doctor for an examination, and it was determined by a neurologist that she suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy. She was given medication and sent on her way. Anneliese tried to keep up a normal life despite her condition, and continued her studies at school but her medication was not working and in time she suffered from more convulsive fits. She was prescribed increasingly powerful anti-convulsive medications but nothing seemed to have an effect. Additionally, she became more morose and withdrawn than before, and was taken for a psychiatric evaluation, where she was diagnosed as being depressive. The depression worsened to the point where she became suicidal, and she spent some time in a psychiatric hospital for treatment. As with the seizures, treatment for her depression seemed to do little to alleviate her condition.
Things only got worse for Anneliese as time went on. In addition to the seizures and depression she suffered, she began to complain of seeing visions while praying which greatly disturbed her and caused a good deal of mental anguish. These visions were only the beginning of more problems to come. Anneliese began to hear disembodied voices at various times of the day, which started out as distant and indistinct but gradually became as clear as somebody standing next to her. Often these voices commanded her to do things, and at other times they berated or threatened her. She also started to have vivid hallucinations of seeing what she called “devil faces,” that would suddenly pop into sight right before her eyes without warning. Psychiatric treatment did nothing to stop the hallucinations, and Anneliese and her family grew wary of seeking medical help. In time, Anneliese, who had always been deeply religious, started to demonstrate an aversion to religious places and imagery such as the crucifix. On one pilgrimage to San Damiano, she was unable to walk past a crucifix and refused to drink water from a holy spring. A family friend on the pilgrimage with her took note of this and also noticed that she a very strange and unpleasant smell about her, upon which she recommended the family consult a priest. Annelies’s devoutly religious family, already exasperated by the lack of results from the medical community, became convinced that their daughter was being possessed by either a demon or even The Devil himself.
Anneliese’s family took her to several priests for a consultation, but did not get the reception they had been expecting. The priests told them to take Anneliese back to a hospital for medical treatment, exactly the thing that had had no effect at all up to that point. When the family objected to this and pleaded for their help, the priests told them that in order to have an exorcism done, they would need to convince the Catholic Church that it was indeed demonic possession and then get permission from the bishop. Only if they could meet the strict guidelines set by the church for determining possession would they ever be granted an exorcism. The frustrated family continued to try and find a priest who would listen, but were repeatedly turned away and told the same thing.
Although that was apparently the end of the discussion for most priests, one pastor by the name of Ernst Alt was intrigued by the family’s story and decided to investigate out of curiosity. He met with Anneliese and over the course of his observations became convinced that she was not epileptic and was indeed under the influence of demonic forces. Alt began writing impassioned letters to the bishop begging him to consider an exorcism. After much hesitation, Bishop Josef Stangl eventually agreed to allow an exorcism on the condition of total secrecy, and in 1975 sent a priest by the name of Arnold Renz to aide Alt in this task. The exorcism officially began on September 24, 1975. Surely when the two priests arrived on the darkened doorstep of the Michel’s evil infected home they were completely unaware that this day would mark the beginning of a terrifying 10 month ordeal that would ultimately end in Anneliese’s death.
Upon Renz’s arrival, he quickly agreed with Alt and the family that Anneliese was indeed possessed and began the rituals for the exorcism. It would be the first of many attempts. Much to the surprise of everyone present, Anneliese claimed that it was not one spirit that possessed her, but many, with Judas, Nero, Hitler, Cain, Lucifer, among others, all mentioned as inhabiting her body. During the exorcisms, one of the ways Anneliese used to try and gain some amount of control over the evil forces tormenting her was to perform hundreds of genuflections, meaning that she inflicted bodily harm on herself through self-flogging. She did this to such a grievous extent that on some occasions it was necessary for someone to hold her upright when she became too weak to stand on her own. Anneliese was not forced to perform this barbaric deed. She did it willingly in a sincere effort to loosen the grip of the demons roiling within her.
As little effect as her medication had proven to have on Anneliese’s mental deterioration, it very soon became clear that the exorcisms were making it worse to a shocking degree. She reportedly urinated and defecated on the floor regularly, and was prone to licking up her own urine. Ranting profanity and maniacal insults hurled at all present were not uncommon. Additionally, in her less lucid moments, when she was most under the influence of the evil spirits within her, Anneliese would growl and snarl like a wild animal. Religious imagery and icons would cause her to fly into an animalistic fury, and one time she spent two days under the kitchen table, barking like a dog and refusing to come out. It got to the point that her own family was too frightened to go anywhere near her, and so it was mostly the priests left alone with her most of the time during their rituals, which would last 4 hours or more and were performed once or twice a week. Anneliese also allegedly would speak in long dead languages that she could not have possibly known on her own and demonstrate knowledge of information she had no business knowing.
This went on for months, and a total of 67 exorcisms were performed on the girl, each time ending in failure and total exhaustion for the priests. Towards the end, Anneliese refused to eat, and became an emaciated wraith, a mere husk of the pretty girl she had once been. She came to resign herself to her inevitable fate, and was said to mumble of “dying to atone for the wayward youth of the day and the apostate priests of the modern church.”
On July 1st, 1976, after 10 months of failed exorcisms, Anneliese passed away in her home. At the time of death, she weighed a slight 68 pounds. An autopsy performed on the body determined that the cause of death had been malnutrition and dehydration, and it was also found that she had been suffering from pneumonia. An investigation was launched into the circumstances surrounding the girl’s death, and the two priests, Alt and Renz, were questioned about what had happened. The state determined that Anneliese’s death had been preventable and that the two priests had failed to do anything to stop it, thus Alt and Renz were put on trial on March 30, 1978.
The trial, with its spooky underpinnings and talk of ancient Catholic exorcism rites, drew intense interest from the public. The affair was disturbing for most present. 47 of the exorcism sessions had been recorded on audio, and the court was subjected to recordings of the deceased girl snarling, growling, and vomiting forth obscenities. One of the tapes even included a recording of what was said to be two demons arguing with each other, both of them talking through Anneliese’s mouth, but with distinctly different voices and timbres. In addition, various pieces of photographic evidence were presented that showed Anneliese looking shockingly ill, her eyes sunk deep within her sockets and with bruises and seeping sores covering her face and body. Her knees had also been broken as a result of the constant, savage genuflections. This damaged, ghoulish appearance was in stark contrast to the pretty, vibrant looking girl Anneliese had been before the horror had started.
The priests were defended by lawyers sent by the church, who argued that exorcism was perfectly legal and that the law gave citizens the right to religious freedom. They additionally sought to show that the girl had displayed obvious signs of actually being possessed. For their part, Alt and Renz claimed that Anneliese had finally been freed of the evil inhabiting her right before her death. This whole defense argument clashed wildly with the prosecution’s case, which opted for a more rational and scientific approach. The prosecution brought in doctors who testified that all of the symptoms shown by Anneliese could easily be explained by a combination of epilepsy, mental illness, and a fanatical level of religious belief. In the end, it was decided that whatever the actual cause of Anneliese’s condition, the priests had not done enough to help her when her health had deteriorated so badly, and so they were convicted of manslaughter resulting from negligence. The sentencing was much lighter than anyone had ever thought possible. Each priest was sentenced to a mere 6 months in jail and 3 months of probation, with the jail terms later being suspended.
The end of the trial did not mark the end of the strangeness surrounding the case. In the aftermath of the trial, Anneliese’s body was exhumed at the behest of her parents, as she had been buried in a cheap coffin and had not really had a proper burial. Those who believe that Anneliese had in fact been possessed claim that her body had not decomposed nearly as much as it should have after so much time had passed in the ground, and one nun even reported that she had had a vision of the girl’s fully intact body, but medical experts who examined the corpse said the rate of decay was normal. Nevertheless, authorities refused to allow Alt or Renz to view the remains, and some believe this is because they would have seen that the body had in fact not decayed. The mysterious exhumed remains were placed in a new oak coffin lined with tin and buried again in February 25, 1978. In another bizarre turn of events, a fire broke out at the Michel house in 2013, and although authorities said it was a simple case of arson, others believe it was the result of some evil still permeating the home.
The creepy case of the exorcism of Anneliese Michel has become an enduring mystery that many hold up as an example of genuine demonic possession to this day. It has garnered a good amount of fame and has been an influence on several movies, including The Exorcism of Emily Rose. What happened to Anneliese Michel? Was this young woman really invaded by evil spirits and demons, or was this merely an example of severe mental illness coupled with devout religiousness? Whether or not one believes in the existence of literal demons, or their ability to possess the living, it seems clear that there are at least things every bit as ancient, dark, and evil lurking within the human psyche.