When was the last time you heard about someone getting an exorcism? Sure, you might have joked about it with your friends after seeing the latest horror movie, but it’s unlikely that you’ve ever had an actual exorcism go on in your neighborhood.
That wasn’t the case for Anneliese Michel.
In 1976, she died in her home after undergoing more than 60 exorcisms over a ten-month period. Anneliese was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy and depression, but she and her family were convinced that she was possessed and would do anything to make her well again.
Unfortunately, their methods didn’t work.
Born on September 21, 1952, Anna Elizabeth Michel – nicknamed Anneliese – was raised alongside three sisters in Lieblfing, Bavaria, West Germany. Her parents, Josef and Anna, were very religious, and the family went to Mass twice a week for most of Anneliese’s life.
She was diagnosed with epileptic psychosis, or temporal lobe epilepsy, when she was 16 after having a massive convulsion. She was diagnosed with depression a short time later and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for treatment.
By June 1970, she’d had another large seizure while at the hospital and was prescribed anti-convulsive medication for the first time – however, they didn’t seem to help.
She began describing hallucinations of “devil” faces and was prescribed another drug called Aolept, which is usually used to treat conditions such as schizophrenia, disturbed behavior, and delusions.
By 1973, her hallucinations worsened, particularly while praying – she complained of hearing voices that told her that she was “damned” and would “rot in hell.” As her long-term care continued to fail to produce notable results for her, she became frustrated with the medical community and began to attribute her illness to possession.
Possibly as a result of these thoughts, she began to show symptoms such as intolerance to sacred Christian places and objects, such as the crucifix.
The Pilgrimage and Father Alt
Anneliese went on a pilgrimage to San Damiano with a family friend who regularly organized religious trips. Her escort also concluded that she was suffering from demonic possession, as she was unable to even walk past a crucifix and refused to drink from a holy spring while on the trip.
One of the priests involved in her exorcisms, Father Ernst Alt, spoke of the pilgrimage: “Anneliese told me…that she was unable to enter the shrine…that the soil burned like fire and she simply could not stand it.”
By this point, she, her family, and her community all thought that she was possessed, and consulted multiple Catholic priests to ask for an exorcism.
The priests declined continually, recommending that she continue receiving medical treatment. They also informed the family that performing an exorcism required permission from the local bishop. Official approval for an exorcism from the Catholic Church is only granted when the victim meets a strict set of criteria, including an intense dislike for religious objects and “supernatural powers”. Although Anneliese met some of these criteria, she was not initially considered to be suffering from possession, or infestation.
Anneliese’s condition worsened considerably during this period – her physical state deteriorated, and she began displaying aggressive behavior and drinking her own urine. She was prescribed various antipsychotic and anti-seizure medications during this period and the time of the exorcisms. She only stopped taking them a little while before she died.
The family’s quest for an exorcism finally got some legitimacy from a priest named Ernst Alt, who declared upon seeing Anneliese that “she didn’t look like an epileptic” and stated that he never saw her having seizures.
He put pressure on the local bishop, Josef Stangl, who granted permission for Alt and another priest, Arnold Renz, to perform the Rituale Romanum in 1975 – however, he demanded total secrecy from them.
Father Arnold Renz performed the first session on September 24, 1975. During the ten-month period, Anneliese spoke frequently about “drying to atone for the wayward youth of the day and the apostate priests of the modern church.”
She also began refusing to eat – the autopsies would later show that she had been in a state of semi-starvation for almost the entire time. Later on, her parents stopped consulting doctors entirely upon her request and rely solely on the exorcisms to cure their daughter. It didn’t.
She underwent 67 separate exorcism sessions between September 1975 and June 1976. Each was approximately 4 hours long, and they did this once or twice a week. She died in her home on July 1, 1976.
The autopsy found that her cause of death was malnutrition and dehydration from her state of semi-starvation – at the time of her death, she weighed just 68 pounds. Her knees were broken from her continuous genuflections — an act of bending the knees to touch the ground in worship — and she was unable to move without assistance in the time before she died.
An investigation determined that intervention even a week before she died could have prevented her death, and the priests were charged with negligent homicide alongside her parents.
Doctors for the prosecution testified that Michel was not possessed – instead, her condition was a psychological effect of her strict religious upbringing and her epilepsy.
Doctor Richard Roth, who had been asked for medical assistance during the exorcisms by Father Alt, is alleged to have told her, “There is no injection against the Devil, Anneliese.”
The defense took the position that the exorcism was legal under the German constitution, which protected citizens in the unrestricted exercise of their religious beliefs. They also played tapes of the sessions in order to prove that Anneliese was possessed.
Both priests stated that the demons identified themselves as Lucifer, Cain, Judas Iscariot, Hitler, and Nero, amongst others. They also said that they managed to finally free her of them shortly before her death.
Bishop Stangl stated that he was not aware of her alarming condition when he approved her exorcism and did not testify during the trial.
The accused were eventually found guilty of manslaughter resulting from negligence. The priests were fined, and her parents were given six months of jail time — which was later suspended — and three years of probation.
This was more than the prosecution had asked for, considering that they had recommended that the parents be found guilty but were exempt from punishment because they had “suffered enough”, which is a criterion in German penal law.
After the trial, her parents asked authorities for permission to exhume their daughter’s remains. The official reason is that she had been buried in an undue hurry and was resting in a cheap coffin, but some believe that they were checking for decay, a sign that the exorcism had worked.
The official reports state that her body bore consistent signs of decay, and she was reburied on February 25, 1978 in a new oak coffin that was lined with tin. Her exorcists were discouraged from seeing her remains. Arnold Renz later stated that he was actually prevented from entering the mortuary. Her grave became, and remains to this day, a pilgrimage site.
Anneliese Michel’s Legacy
The Church eventually changed its position and agree that Anneliese Michel had been mentally ill, not possessed.
Ulrich Niemann, a Jesuit priest, doctor, and psychiatrist that many priests consult in exorcism cases, spoke about it to The Washington Post in 2005: “As a doctor, I say there is no such thing as possession…In my view, these patients are mentally ill. I pray with them, but that alone doesn’t help. You have to deal with them as a psychiatrist. But at the same time, when the patient comes from Eastern Europe and believes that he’s been impaired by evil, it would be a mistake to ignore his belief system.”
Academic Heike Schwartz believes that Anneliese’s case showed demonic possession as a variant of multiple personality disorder — now known as dissociative identity disorder — which would explain the multiple “demonic voices” in the tapes.
On June 6th, 2013, a fire broke out in the house where Anneliese Michel lived and received her exorcisms – though the police say it was a case of arson, some locals have been attributing it to the terrible things that happened there.
There are multiple films based on Anneliese, including The Exorcism of Emily Rose in 2005 and Anneliese: The Exorcist Tapes in 2011. She is also the subject of the band Public Image Ltd.’s song “Annalisa”. Clips from the exorcism tapes played at court are also used in the song “Communion of the Cursed” by Ice Nine Kills.