The Exorcism of Emily Rose was one of the creepiest films of 2005 – in fact, the Chicago Film Critics Association considers it to be one of the creepiest films of all time.
In 2006, it clocked in at #86 on their coveted list of “Top 100 Scariest Films Ever Made.” But what’s even creepier than the film’s demonic dialog or the convincing, convulsing performance by Jennifer Carpenter is the fact that it’s based on a true story: the Anneliese Michel possession of the 1970’s.
And much like the plot of the Emily Rose film, the Anneliese Michel case was hotly debated and highly contested in Eastern European courtrooms.
So was Anneliese Michel actually possessed? And what about those creepy Anneliese Michel tapes? Do those prove demonic possession… or just a tragic case of misdiagnosed mental illness?
Health and Family Background
Anneliese Michel was born into a devout Catholic family on September 21st, 1952 in West Germany. She was the youngest of four sisters all born to her parents, Josef and Anna.
As Anneliese grew up, she followed in the footsteps of her spiritual family members. Deeply religious, she attended Catholic mass at least twice a week.
As Anneliese grew, she began to develop serious health problems. At the age of 16, she suffered a severe convulsion and was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy shortly thereafter.
Alleged Demonic Possession
Anneliese’s health became a greater cause for concern as time wore on. She continued to experience epileptic seizures, hallucinations, paranoia and anxiety. In 1973 during her first year at the University of Würzburg, she fell into a deep depression. She experienced terrifying apparitions while praying and reported hearing strange voices telling her that she was “damned” and doomed to “rot in hell.”
Later that year, Anneliese accompanied a family friend on a religious pilgrimage to San Damiano. On this trip, her escort noticed that she was unable to walk past certain religious icons and refused to drink water from a holy spring.
Based on these events, the escort was the first to conclude that Anneliese was suffering demonic possession. Both Anneliese and her family were also convinced and began to consult their parish and priests, pleading for an exorcism.
The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel
Initially, the Catholic Church had declined to exorcise Anneliese. Exorcism rites had not been used for centuries and were highly controversial in the age of modern medicine.
But as she and her family continued to beg for the church’s assistance – Anneliese only got worse. She became aggressive and physically violent; she hurt herself, drank her own urine and ate spiders and other insects right off of the floor.
Eventually, the Michel family met with priest Ernst Alt. Unlike the other priests they had spoken with, Alt was thoroughly convinced Anneliese was suffering from demonic possession and not severe epilepsy. He urged the local bishop to allow the exorcism and in 1976, permission was finally granted.
Bishop Josef Stangl gave another priest – Arnold Renz – permission to exorcise according to the Rituale Romanum of 1614. But under one condition: the exorcism of Anneliese Michel must be performed in total secrecy.
In September of that year, Renz performed the first exorcise session in the Michel home. After the exorcism begun, the Michels completely stopped medical treatment and relied solely on the rites. In total, there were 67 exorcism sessions performed over the course of ten months – but sadly, none of them were able to save Anneliese.
Declining Health and Resulting Death
Anneliese Michel died in her home on July 1st, 1976. The official cause of death was malnutrition and dehydration.
Shortly before she died, Anneliese had spoken of sacrificing herself to save today’s youth and had stopped eating. At the time of her death, she weighed just 68 pounds.
She also had broken knees due to the genuflections (an action required during the exorcism rites) and reports suggest that she may have also been suffering from pneumonia.
Prosecution of Michel Parents and Priests
With the mysterious death of a young girl on their hands, the state of West Germany was looking for someone to blame. A month after her death, Anneliese’s parents and both priests (Ernst Alt and Arnold Renz) were officially charged with negligent homicide after the state prosecutor argued that her death could have been prevented – if only they had obtained proper medical care just one week before she died.
The Exorcism Tapes
During the exorcism, 42 different sessions were audio recorded. These tapes would later serve as evidence of demonic possession for the defense. During the tapes, both priests insisted that demons could be heard arguing and even explicitly identifying themselves as Lucifer, Cain, Hitler and Nero – just to name a few.
The tapes are chilling. They are spoken with a violent, spiteful and decidedly inhuman voice. Different languages are also spoken throughout the tape – switching from German to Dutch and some indistinct dialects in between. However, it’s unclear if these are the voice of demonic entities – or that of a very sick, troubled young woman.
The Annaleise Michael Trial
Both the parents and the priests were found guilty of negligent homocide – but they were hardly punished. The jury recommended that neither the Michels nor the priests were jailed.
Instead, the priests were fined… and, considering they had already lost their daughter, the prosecution decided that the Michel family had suffered enough. No further punishment was bestowed.
Was Anneliese Michel Really Possessed?
There’s no definitive way to prove or disprove super natural events, such as exorcisms…even in this day and age. We may never know what actually happened to Anneliese Michel. However, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the Anneliese Michel possession was not a possession at all.
She was a documented epileptic… and epileptics pose an increased risk of displaying schizophrenic symptoms and other serious mental disorders. Although she was never officially diagnosed with anything else, it has been posited that Michel suffered from dissociative personality disorder and schizophrenia.
The epilepsy, in combination with these mental disorders coupled and her strict religious background could certainly be responsible for the events leading up to her death. But who’s to say for sure?
The only real evidence in the case are the Anneliese Michel tapes from the exorcism sessions. They are certainly disturbing… but it’s difficult to say whether that’s due to the fact that a young girl was possessed by demons… or sick, dying and deprived of the medical care she needed.