Since the beginning of recorded history and likely beyond, one recurring tradition that spans across continents, cultures, and religions is that of spiritual possession and exorcism. Although details may vary, it seems there is a universal, subconscious, almost primal part of us that transcends boundaries of distance, language, faiths, and culture, and which is drawn to the notion that powerful spirits or other entities from beyond our reality have the ability to reach into us and inhabit our forms. Perhaps the origin of this persistent belief is just our common nature to wish to come to an understanding of what drives us to evil acts, to make sense of the sometimes senseless violence we are capable of. Or could this pervasive universal belief be indicative of something truly bizarre going on past the boundaries of our nationalities and indeed our understanding, pushing through into our physical world and our bodies? Whatever the case may be, cases of possession by entities unknown offer fascinating glimpses into madness, the darkness of man, and the possibilities of inscrutable ominous forces that wish to do us harm. One case that is particularly violent happened in 1974, in which a peaceful family man was either overcome by inner demons or literal ones, and went on to commit a barbaric murder that would shock the nation.
The quiet town of Osset, near West Yorkshire, England, wouldn’t strike most as the sort of place where a sensational bloody murder and talk of exorcism and rampaging malevolent demons would erupt, yet it is here in this sleepy town of 17,000 where our sinister story begins. In 1974, 31-year old Michael Taylor, his wife Christine, their five children, and their poodle called Osset home. Their family was considered mostly a cheerful and happy one by their neighbors, with Michael described as a generally kind, mild mannered and loving father and husband, although he was sometimes prone to minor bouts of depression due to a severe back injury that had left him with chronic pain and an inability to find long term employment. Otherwise, there was no indication that anything was amiss or unusual in the Taylor household, and neighbors would later report that the sound of laughter and joy emanating from the home was quite common.
Although Osset had a population that was highly religious, with most regularly attending church, the Taylors had never been particularly devout, and they mostly skipped church services held near where they lived. Perhaps it was this apparent lack of interest in religion that prompted a friend of Taylor’s, Barbara Wardman, to introduce him to a church group called the Christian Fellowship Group, which was led by 21-year-old Marie Robinson. The previously non-religious Michael began to attend regular meetings of the group, became acquainted with their teachings, and quickly fell under the spell of the charismatic preacher Robinson. In fact, it soon became clear that Michael had become rather enamored with the young woman, and began spending an inappropriate amount of time with her, attending more and more meetings and gatherings of the group, and even joining Robinson in congregations where they would use “the power of God” to exorcise people of their sins and speak in tongues, as well as engage in private rituals in which both Michael and Robinson would stay up all night making the sign of the cross at each other in order to ward off what they believed was the evil power of the full moon.
On top of this, Michael’s attitude at home began to change as well, and he was more irritable, argumentative, and sullen towards his family, with whom he was spending less and less time. This was totally unlike the easygoing, peaceful way Michael had once been, and it was assumed that the church group was somehow exerting a negative influence on him. It got to the point where Michael’s increasingly bizarre beliefs, uncharacteristic erratic behavior, bad attitude, and infatuation with Robinson became quite obvious to those around him, most notably his wife Christine. During one congregation, Christine suddenly decided to confront Michael about his relationship with the preacher, and accused him of being unfaithful. It was at this point where his behavior would take a turn for the worse. Michael is reported to have felt an evil influence cast a shadow over him, and then, compelled by this force, turned his inexplicable sudden fury on Robinson, lashing out at her verbally and physically to the point that several other churchgoers had to physically restrain him before he seriously hurt someone. Robinson herself would later testify to what happened, saying:
I suddenly glanced at Mike and his whole features changed. He looked almost bestial. He kept looking at me and there was a really wild look in his eyes. I started screaming at him out of fear. I started speaking in tongues. Mike also screamed at me in tongues… I was on the verge of death and I seemed to come to my senses. I knew that only the name of Jesus would save me and I just started saying over and over again ‘Jesus’. When Chris (Christine) heard me calling on the name of Jesus she started saying it too, and I believe firmly that it was only by calling on His name that I was not killed.
Michael would claim later to have no memory of the incident. Despite this frightening violent outburst, the following day Michael received full forgiveness from Robinson and a church absolution for what had happened. However, no one would really ever forget what had happened, and a close eye was kept on Michael in the wake of his episode. It became apparent that his deteriorating, out of character behavior showed no signs of changing, that his sanity was peeling away, and in fact he got worse as time went on, alerting several local ministers to the realization that he might be under the influence of demonic forces. The local vicar came to the conclusion that an exorcism should be performed on Michael, and two ministers by the names of Father Peter Vincent and Rev. Raymond Smith were brought in to carry it out. The date and time for the exorcism was set for midnight on the 5th of October, 1974, at St. Thames Church in nearby Barnsely, and on that night the two ministers began a ritual which would prove to be a harrowing affair that would last throughout the night and well into the morning.
As soon as the exorcism began, Michael went into uncontrollable convulsions and fits and bouts of scratching, spitting, and biting, which required that he be forcefully tied to the floor. Over the next 8 hours, Michael was subjected to having crucifixes shoved into his mouth, being doused with holy water, and being forced to confess his sins, all the while growling and snapping at anyone who came near him. The priests in charge of the exorcism claimed that it was ascertained that 40 demons inhabited Michael’s body, including those representative of incest, bestiality, blasphemy, lewdness, heresy, masochism, and carnal knowledge. These alleged demons did not go easily, each one having to be reportedly dragged out kicking and screaming, and by 8 AM on October 6th, the priests carrying out the exorcism were exhausted and could no longer continue. It was decided that the exorcism would have to be finished at a later time, although the priests claimed that three demons, those of insanity, anger, and murder, were still stubbornly digging their claws into Michael and had not been successfully removed yet. In a chilling detail which would later prove to be prophetic, one witness to the terrifying exorcism, a minister’s wife named Margaret Smith, claimed that she had received a warning in her mind she believed to be from God which said that the demon of murder was going to escape and kill Christine. She pleaded with the priests to complete the exorcism, but instead they told Michael and Christine to go home to rest and prepare for the next round, which was to be performed the following day.
Whether there were really demons still infesting Michael Taylor’s body or not, what would follow was nothing short of pure evil and stark insanity nevertheless. At 10AM that same day, a mere 2 hours after they had been sent home from the church, Michael brutally attacked and killed his wife Christine in their home in an incredibly ferocious manner, strangling her to death with his bare hands, gouging out her eyes, tearing out her tongue, and ripping most of her face off in a ghastly display of violence. When he was finished with this dark deed, he then grabbed the family dog and slaughtered it as well, tearing it practically limb from limb. Michael must have made for a grim sight as he left his home and wandered out into the street, naked, covered in blood, his body slicked with it, stumbling about aimlessly and maniacally shouting “It’s the blood of Satan” over and over again. This was the state in which a passing patrol car found him, and soon after they would find the badly mutilated bodies of Christine Taylor and their dog sprawled out in pools of blood upon the floor of the home.
Such a sensationally bloody crime, along with its bizarre background of demon infestation and exorcisms, took the normally quiet and peaceful town by storm, creating a media frenzy and drawing an intense amount of interest to the subsequent trial. So weird, brutal, and haunting was the crime and the events leading up to it, that the trial opened with the prosecution barrister, Mr. Geoffrey Baker QC, telling the jury that what they were about to witness evidence that “will make it difficult to believe you are not back in the Middle Ages.” Michael would state during his testimony that he had no recollection of the actual killing, that he had been under the control of evil supernatural forces, and that he had suspected that his wife had also been possessed by demons. During the proceedings, it was pointed out that the Christian Fellowship group had been more like a fanatical cult, influencing Michael with potent mind control and indoctrination, exacerbating any mental issues he had already had, and at one point the group was described as "neurotics feeding neurosis to a neurotic." Blame was also directly levelled at the exorcism itself, with prosecution claiming that the ritual had fed off the warped ideals, beliefs, and religious fervor he had picked up from the group, the negative influences they’d had on him, and taken its toll on an already wary, sleep deprived, mentally disturbed man, pushing him over the edge into the realm of madness and murder. One of the barristers, a Mr. Ognall QC, made a statement during the trial illustrating this general feeling of the church’s responsibility in the horrific crime, saying:
I am aware that it is generally regarded as improper for an advocate to express any personal feeling or opinion about the case in which he is engaged. I am afraid I find it quite impossible to observe such constraints in this case. Let those who truly are responsible for this killing stand up. We submit that Taylor is a mere cipher. The real guilt lies elsewhere. Religion is the key. Those who have been referred to in evidence, and those clerics in particular, should be with him in spirit now in this building and each day he is incarcerated in Broadmoor, and not least on the day he must endure the bitter reunion with his five motherless children.
In the end, Michael was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and was deemed to be both clinically and legally insane, after which he was sent to Broadmoor Secure Hospital for the Criminally Insane. He would remain there for 2 years, followed by another 2 year sentence at Bradford Royal Infirmary before being released back into the world. The aftermath of the bizarre and tumultuous trial brought with it a great amount of public outcry over the use of exorcisms within the church, and indeed this became the last recorded exorcism to be carried out by the Anglican Church. Even so, throughout the trial and in the ensuing years, the chief priest who had been in charge of the exorcism, Father Peter Vincent, continued to adamantly insist that Michael had indeed been inhabited by demons and that it had been an authentic case of true demonic possession. He would say of the perceived misplaced blame aimed at him and the church during the trial:
I am quite convinced God will bring good out of this in His own way, however tragic it was at the time. If the psychiatrist said this crime would not have been committed but for the exorcism, that seems a rather strange thing to say. People will draw their own conclusions.
After his trial and sentence, Michael would continue to display odd behavior, as well as fall into deep depression and make a total of four suicide attempts over the years. In July of 2005, Michael Taylor, still best known for his alleged demonic possession and murder, would enter the news again when he was arrested for sexually harassing an underage girl. During this trial, his previous charges were deemed to have no bearing on the current case, he showed a low to medium risk of re-offending, and this plus his lack of any previous convictions of sexually related crimes led to a light sentence of a 3-year stint of community service and further psychiatric treatment.
What was it that lurched to the surface of this otherwise nonviolent man to cause him to gruesomely kill his wife? Was this just a case of a man being pushed beyond his limits and ability to contain a bestial nature already festering within him? Did the preaching and conditioning he had received at the hands of the cult-like church group influence him in ways that pushed him down a dark path? Did the exorcism itself put this will to kill in him, implanting its own demon rather than excising the ones they claimed roiled within him? Are we dealing with dark aspects already looming there upon the landscape of the human soul? Or are there really such things as demons in this world, which can worm their way into us and drive us to nefarious, ruthless, or cruel violent acts that we would normally never commit? Can evil infect us from outside or is it something we already possess, hidden and pulsing beneath our controls and efforts to banish it to the murky far recesses of our mind? We may never know for sure the answers to these questions, but the bizarre case of Michael Taylor shows us that there are forces, whether from outside or from within, that can consume us and compel us to do things completely out of character which would otherwise be unimaginable to us, and bring us over into a dark nightmare from which we can only hope we wake from. One wonders if Michael Taylor ever truly woke from his.