Anneliese Michel, a young German woman, died at the age of 23 due to malnutrition and dehydration after a combined total of 67 attempted exorcisms. She suffered from epileptic psychosis and received extensive psychiatric treatment, however the failure of that treatment led both her and her family to conclude that her symptoms were caused by demonic possession.
Born in Leiblfing, Bavaria on September 21st 1952, Anneliese had a devout Catholic upbringing, attending mass twice a week with her parents and three sisters. At the age of 16 she suffered a seizure that led to a diagnosis of temporal lobe epilepsy.
The disorder is primarily characterised by two forms of seizures. Focal impaired awareness seizures are ones that impair consciousness in some way, such as uncontrolled movements, confusion, disorientation, unusual speech or the inability to comprehend language or speak. The second form, focal aware seizures, are those that do not impact on level of consciousness, but result in abnormal sensations such as déjà vu, amnesia, fear, anxiety, nausea, hallucinations, disassociation or extreme emotions.
Anneliese’s seizures steadily grew worse, culminating in severe convulsions during a seizure at the psychiatric hospital where she was being cared for in 1970. Medications she was prescribed appeared to have little effect, and she began to describe seeing ‘devil faces’ watching her frequently. By 1973 she was suffering from severe depression and was increasingly experiencing hallucinations, particularly when praying. She told doctors that she frequently heard voices telling her that she was damned. In the final years of her life, Anneliese appeared to develop a severe aversion to Christian iconography and churches, particularly crosses.
During a pilgrimage to San Damiano, a location in Italy sacred to St Francis of Assisi, friend and priest Ernst Alt concluded that Anneliese was possessed, due to her apparent inability to walk past a crucifix and refusal to drink from a holy spring. He later said that Anneliese had told him that the ground burned like fire when she attempted to enter the shrine, and that she was unable to look at medals or pictures of saints as they would flare with light and hurt her eyes.
Both Anneliese and her family became convinced that she was possessed, inquiring with several priests about the possibility of an exorcism but being told that it would not be allowed without the consent of the bishop. Most recommended that they instead continue with her medical treatment. Anneliese’s symptoms rapidly escalated, resulting in self-harm, extreme aggression and her eating insects. Father Alt eventually interceded on her behalf, convincing Bishop Josef Stangl that Anneliese met the strict criteria laid out by the Catholic Church to be a candidate for exorcism.
Stangl assigned priest Arnold Renz to carry out the exorcism, on the condition that it be carried out in total secrecy. Renz began the process on 24th September 1975. Anneliese reacted badly, ranting about how she had to die due to the apostate priests of the modern Catholic Church. Over nearly a year Renz carried out a total of 67 exorcism rites, each lasting around four hours.
Within the first few months, Anneliese began to refuse food or water. Only July 1st 1976, Anneliese Michel died of severe malnourishment and dehydration. She weighed just 30 kilograms (68 pounds) when she died, and was found to have broken both knees due to constant genuflecting.
An investigation was launched, in which the state prosecutor ruled that Anneliese’s death could have been prevented. Ernst Alt, Arnold Renz and both of Anneliese’s parents were charged with negligent homicide. All four were defending in court by lawyers sponsored by the Catholic Church.
During the trial in April 1978, doctors testified that Anneliese had experienced extreme psychological effects, manifesting in the way they did due to her strict religious upbringing. The defence claimed that Anneliese had indeed been possessed, with demons including Lucifer, Cain, Judas Iscariot and Nero manifesting during exorcism attempts. They also cited the German constitution’s protection of citizen’s rights to unrestricted exercise of religious beliefs.
All four were ultimately found guilty of manslaughter due to negligence, being sentenced to six months in prison and three years on probation. Each later had their custodial sentences suspended. Anneliese’s grave has since become a pilgrimage site. The criticism of what many perceived as an outdated attempt at exorcism saw the number of exorcisms sanctioned in Germany by the Catholic Church fall dramatically, even after Pope Benedict XVI supported wider use of the rite compared to his predecessor John Paul II. In 2013, the Michel house was badly damaged in a fire that police attributed to arson.
To find out more about temporal lobe epilepsy and the work of the Epilepsy foundation, please click here.
The story inspired the 2005 American film, the exorcism of Emily Rose. Although it might have been a case of severe psychotic symptoms, there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy, as the Bard observed.
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