German woman who died during prolonged Exorcisms for Demonic Possession.
In a sensational trial, the parents of Anneliese Michel and the two priests who conducted the exorcisms were convicted of negligent homicide. The case was the basis for a film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005).
Michel was born on September 21, 1952, in Klingenberg, Bavaria, to a conservative, middle-class Catholic family. She was the second of five girls; the first child, Martha, died at age eight of a kidney ailment. Michel’s parents were Josef and Anna Michel; Josef worked as a carpenter. As a child, Michel was frail and sickly but did well in school. She exhibited signs of being hypersensitive and was overcome sometimes during Mass at church. Her parents envisioned a career as a schoolteacher for her, and they sent her to study at the Gymnasium in Aschaffenberg.
In 1968, Michel suffered her first blackout, while sitting in class. That night, she experienced a terrifying seizure of paralysis, suffocation, and uncontrolled urination. A year passed before these episodes repeated. Her mother took her to a neurologist in Aschaffenberg, Dr. Siegfried Luthy, who diagnosed probable epilepsy but prescribed no medication because of the infrequency of episodes. Michel’s health declined and she contracted tonsillitis, pleurisy, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. She was also diagnosed with heart and circulatory problems. She was hospitalized in a sanatorium in Mittelberg.
Michel was still in the hospital on June 3, 1970, when she suffered another nighttime seizure. She was sent to a neurologist in Kempten, who ordered an electroencephalogram an (EEG). The results showed abnormal brain waves, and he prescribed anticonvulsant medication. Michel was returned to the sanatorium, where she grew increasingly depressed. About one week after her visit to Kempten, she experienced her first Demonic vision. While praying, she saw a huge, grimacing, cruel face that loomed before her for a brief moment. Michel was in the habit of praying intensely, but after this, she was afraid to pray, lest the Demonic face intrude again. She began to wonder whether the Demon was inside her, perhaps causing her illness. She had thoughts of suicide.
On August 29, 1970, she was sent home, but family members observed that she seemed changed: She was depressed and withdrawn. She resumed school, but her grades were only average. She had a hard time studying. She suffered another seizure.
Michel was sent back to doctors, who confirmed her circulatory problems and prescribed more anticonvulsants. She may not have taken them, at least for long. Her health and mental state continued to decline, and she lost all interest in school. She made an effort to study to please her mother. Her seizures, sometimes severe, continued. Her mother sent her back to Dr. Luthy in Aschaffenberg. He prescribed an anticonvulsant and recommended regular checkups. Michel dutifully returned at several-month intervals into 1973. She did not inform her doctor of her increasing seizures and blackouts or tell him that she now smelled a horrible stench that others did not. She felt the medication was contributing to her apathy and listlessness.
Michel had increasing visions of ghastly, horned Demonic faces. There were more stenches of something burning, feces, or rotting flesh. Knocking noises sounded in her bedroom; her mother told her she was dreaming them. However, Anna soon began to think that her daughter was being plagued by Demons. She told her skeptical husband that she had caught Michel staring at a statue of the Virgin Mary in the house, and her eyes were jet black and her hands looked like paws with claws. Josef recommended prayer and said he would take her to a saint shrine, the Mother of God of San Damiano. Michel had a terrible time at the shrine. She could not enter the chapel and said the ground burned her feet. So did the miraculous water there. She tore her rosary and refused to wear a saint medal bought by her father, saying it suffocated her. She spoke with a man’s voice and exuded a stench.
Michel’s bouts grew worse. She had periods of seeming to feel fine and then suddenly had seizures, visions, or deep depression. She became convinced that Demons were inside her, and she felt empty, torn in two, or believed that she was someone else. She gave more thought to suicide. She acquired a boyfriend, Peter, but was unable to be sexually responsive to him.
Anna returned her to Dr. Luthy. According to Anna and Michel, he recommended that they consult a Jesuit priest. Later, after Michel was dead, Dr. Lithy denied this, stating he would have only recommended another medical professional.
At any rate, while Michel was shuttling around among various physicians, she did consult various priests, including Father Roth at the parish at San Damiano. He referred her to Father Ernst Alt. Also, Father Adolf Rodewyk of Frankfurt, an expert on possession, opined in a letter that she showed symptoms of possession, but he declined to see her in person, because of his age and distance. Alt became involved in the case. He seemed to possess psychic ability or sensitivity and had an empathic connection to Michel even before meeting her. He was inclined to see her as suffering from circumsessio (surrounded by evil forces) at the least and possibly from possession. Michel had sessions with Father Alt in which they talked and prayed, and she seemed better, temporarily, after the visits. Alt wrote to his superior, Bishop Stangl, on September 30, 1974, asking for permission to say the prayer of exorcism over her. Stangl refused, telling Alt to monitor her. The bishop thought she needed more medical help.
In 1975, Michel was unbalanced by the death of her grandmother and the departures of sisters from the household. Studying became harder than ever. She told Peter that she felt she was eternally damned, although she did not know why. She developed an aversion to holy objects and stopped going to church. She could barely walk. She suffered episodes in which her face and body contorted. Peter told others she was possessed. When she starting throwing things uncontrollably at Peter and others, she begged Alt to come to her aid.
Alt arrived on July 1 and found her in a hysterical state. Mentally, he said the prayer of exorcismus probativus, which caused her to jump up and tear off her rosary. After Alt departed, Michel’s condition worsened dramatically. She went home from school and lay stiff in bed. When she finally got up, she walked as though her legs were sticks. She fell into rages, cursing and attacking, growling like an animal, and exuding a horrible stench. Josef Michel summoned Father Roth, who witnessed one of these episodes himself.
Alt appealed again to Stangl for permission to perform an exorcism. Stangl agreed to the small rite. On August 3, 1974, Alt and Roth performed the small rite on Michel. She moaned and whimpered and said she felt as though she were burning. They were convinced they were dealing with genuine possession.
At home, Michel was out of control. Her body swelled in odd places, she raced around bucking like a goat, screamed incessantly, went rigid and catatonic, and exhibited superhuman strength. She tore off her clothes, complaining of burning up inside. She stuck her head in icy water and in the toilet. She ate flies, spiders, and coal; urinated on the kitchen floor and tried to lick it up; and chewed on panties soaked in urine. She destroyed religious objects. She was worst on Sundays and holy days. She attacked priests who arrived to see her with verbal abuse and blows. She required constant surveillance from her family. Clouds of flies suddenly appeared in the house and vanished just as suddenly. Shadowy animals were seen scurrying about.
The extreme nature of the case finally made Father Rodewyck agree to see Michel in person. During one of her fits, he asked for her name and she replied, “Judas.” This identified the name of the Demon. Further evidence was her repeated attempts to kiss people, her face twisted into grotesque hostility.
In Rodewyck’s assessment, Michel was possessed by a Demon named Judas, with subsidiary Demons participating as well. Thus far, they were mute, not speaking through her themselves. In order for the two-hour Rituale Romanum to be performed, the Demons must speak through the mouth of the possessed and truthfully answer certain questions put to them.
Michel and her family were convinced she was possessed, and they desired the exorcism to be performed. Rodewyck met with Roth and Alt and gave them his opinion. Stangl gave permission for the Rituale Romanum to be performed. The man selected for the job was Father Arnold Renz, a Salvatorian superior at a monastery in Ruck-Schippach. Renz had never before performed an exorcism, though he was knowledgeable on the subject.
The first rite was performed at the Michel home on September 24, 1975. In attendance were Michel’s family, some friends, her boyfriend Peter, and Fathers Alt, Roth, and Hermann, the latter of whom also had attended and counseled the afflicted girl.
Michel was held by three of the men while she struggled, kicked, and attempted to bite. She swore, howled like a dog, and screamed when she was sprinkled with holy water. Still, her actions of the first exorcism were relatively mild compared to her earlier behavior. The second exorcism took place on September 28. From then on, the sessions were recorded. The Demons— for more than one had been present—said that Michel was possessed because she was cursed by a jealous neighbor woman before she was born. The family attempted to verify this, but the suspect had died. The exorcisms proceeded. People in attendance felt physically affected, as though the Demons were making it difficult for them to participate.
After Judas, Lucifer appeared, and then Nero. After a time, the Demons named three others, Cain, Hitler, and a fallen priest named Fleischmann. Cain and Hitler had little to say. Judas remained the primary mouthpiece for the Demons, followed by Lucifer. Alt found records of the fallen priest, who had lived in Ettleben in the 16th century. He was a womanizer, a batterer, and a drunkard and had killed a man. The Demon, through Michel, gave details of his life that were in the records but unknown to the girl. Michel referred to him as “The Black One.”
The Demonic activity ebbed and flowed and seemed to increase sometimes when Michel had medications renewed. She suffered stigmata. Jesus communicated to Michel that she would be purified by her ordeal, would become a saint, and would marry.
On October 31, 1975, the exorcists believed they had achieved complete success. They expelled the six Demons one by one, and each departed with great vomiting and protests before it surrendered by saying, “Hail Mary full of grace.” But just when they thought the ordeal was over, a new Demon announced itself with a growl. It identified itself only as “I” and said it had been secretly lurking in Michel all along. The Demon told Renz that “they,” meaning the other Demons, “really pulled a fast one on you.” On November 9, Renz was able to goad the Demon into admitting that it was Judas, who had returned immediately upon being exorcized on October 31, in spite of the priests’ taking the steps to seal the door against the Demons by singing the Te Deum and a prayer to Mary. Judas said he returned with the permission of Mary and would remain until her triumph, upon which all Demons would be cast out.
After Christmas 1975, the character of the exorcisms changed. The Demon has less and less to say and refused to state when he would depart. In January, Judas suggested that he might be Lucifer. Michel had episodes of violence, including growling, contorting, and striking out against others, that happened outside the exorcisms. By March 1976, Michel was showing signs of physical deterioration. On March 7, Renz carried out an exorcism with Michel in bed, seemingly unconscious and barely responsive. In April, before Easter, Michel predicted another great trial was ahead of her. She seemed exhausted and at Eastertide went through pain that she likened to the death agony of Jesus. She had more frequent episodes of severe rigidity and spent more time in bed. In early May, Alt decided that Michel should go to Etteleben. She told her boyfriend Peter that she would suffer until July, and then her ordeal would be over. Upon arrival in Ettelben, Michael spent much of her time rigid, screaming, and exhausted in bed, unable to eat. She said the Demons were choking her.
On May 9, her parents decided to take her home. She remained in bed, in pain and screaming. She hit and bit herself and banged herself against the wall. She bit the wall so harshly that her teeth chipped. She smashed her head through a glass door without injury. She slept only one to two hours a night. She was unable to eat except at rare intervals, when she would order specific foods that she could gulp down in a hurry. During exorcisms, the Demons were unresponsive. The old Demons had been replaced by new ones, who refused to talk or give their names.
On May 30, Alt visited Michel and told a physician friend, Dr. Richard Roth, who had listened to some of the exorcism tapes, to be present as well. Michel was emaciated, and her face was swollen and bruised. Roth gave her no medical treatments.
Michel continued to deteriorate. Her screams became unearthly. June 8 was the last day that Alt saw Michel alive. She was severely emaciated. Her family said she would only consume a little fruit juice and milk. They awaited July because Michel had said her trials would be over then. The Demons remained uncommunicative. The only explanation that made sense to Alt was that she was suffering a “penance possession” to atone for someone else’s sins, perhaps those of a member of her family. Penance possession was extremely difficult for an exorcist to treat. Renz continued his exorcisms two or three times a week. Michel’s screaming degraded into monotonous moaning. She tried to exorcize herself, without success.
Michel was asked repeatedly whether she wanted a doctor, but she declined, saying there was nothing a doctor could do for her. On June 9 and June 30, she asked for absolution, and Renz complied on June 30. She was running a high temperature. After the exorcism on that date, Michel went to bed, telling her mother she was afraid. She died in her sleep on the morning of July 1. Just as the Demons had predicted, her ordeal was over in July 1976. Roth was summoned but could not write out a death certificate because he did not have the proper forms. Michel’s family physician, Dr. Kehler, wrote the certificate and said her death was not due to natural causes. Alt contacted the state attorney general’s office in Aschaffenberg. An autopsy revealed that Michel had died of starvation. Her brain showed no signs of damage characteristic of epileptic seizures. Nor was her body covered with sores typical of starvation. Her pupils were greatly dilated, a characteristic of people who are in a religious altered state of consciousness.
The case caused a great deal of controversy. People refused to accept the idea that Michel was killed by Demons, for that meant that evil could triumph over good. Rather, according to gossip, she had chosen to die as a sacrifice. People made pilgrimages to Klingenberg to pray at Michel’s grave. Renz became a media hero, giving interviews and playing the exorcism tapes, until his superiors told him to stop.
The state attorney’s office initiated a criminal investigation and spent a year gathering evidence. Indictments for negligent homicide were issued in July 1977 against Alt, Renz, and Michel’s parents. Charges were dropped against Stangl and Rodewyck.
Popular veneration of Michel elevated her to practical sainthood. A Carmelite nun came forward and said Michel was communicating from beyond the grave to her. Michel wished her body to be exhumed on February 25, 1978, prior to the start of the trial in March. Renz was to see to it that this was done, the nun said. Furthermore, the nun said that, according to Michel, her body would not be putrefied, and the exhumation would yield proof of the existence of Demons, God, the Mother of God, other spiritual beings, eternal life, resurrection, and hell. The nun said that Michel had died as a penance to benefit Germany, its youth and priests. God would resurrect Michel. Michel’s parents succeeded in having the body disinterred on the requested date, on the excuse that they wished to transfer her remains to a better coffin. The event was a media frenzy. But the mayor informed Michel’s parents and the audience that the girl’s remains were badly decomposed, and he advised against seeing them. The parents agreed. Renz wished to view them but said he was turned away at the door of the mortuary. Gossip immediately spread. Stories were told that the remains were incorrupt, and officials were keeping it a secret.
The trial began on March 30, 1978. There was much conflicting testimony over what had transpired and whether or not Michel had suffered from epilepsy and mental illness. One medical expert opined that she should have been immobilized with tranquilizers, force-fed, and administered electroshock therapy.
The verdict of the court was that all four defendants were guilty of negligent homicide. The court’s opinion held that Michel was incapable of helping herself, and medical help should have been provided. The exorcisms and her environment aggravated her condition. The guilty were sentenced to six months in prison, suspended for three years, and given responsibility to pay court costs. In the aftermath, efforts were made by critics of the case to have exorcism banned or at least changed. Seers throughout Europe continue to deliver messages from Michel about judgment and other religious matters. Her grave continues to be visited by pilgrims. Adding to the legend surrounding her are stories of deaths and accidents related to people who attacked her or the priests who tried to help her.
In her analysis of the case, the anthropologist Felicitas D. Goodman opined that the anticonvulsant medications prescribed to Michel, all of which had serious side effects, had interfered with her own ability to regain control of herself, interfered with the exorcism process, and thus probably contributed to her death.
Michel’s story was made into a film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, released in 2005. The film was directed by Scott Derrickson and stars Jennifer Carpenter as Emily Rose and Tom Wilkinson as Father Moore, a Catholic priest.
Rose dies after Moore performs an exorcism on her, and Moore is charged with negligent homicide. The prosecutor, Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), bases his case on the argument that Rose’s affliction had a medical explanation, and Moore killed the girl by preventing her from taking her necessary medication. The defense counsel, Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), claims that Rose’s condition and death were due to supernatural causes. The trial becomes a stage for the debate of religion, philosophy, and supernatural beliefs. The principals suffer events of an apparent supernatural nature during the course of their arguments. Whether or not Rose actually suffered from Demonic possession is never declared in the film; it is left to the viewer.
A German film purporting to follow the true story more closely, Requiem, was released in 2006.
– Goodman, Felicitas D. The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981.
Michel, Anneliese (1952–1976) Victim of a chilling Demonic Possession and Exorcism. The story was made into a film released in 2005, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, directed by Scott Derrickson and starring Jennifer Carpenter as Emily Rose and Tom Wilkinson as Father Moore, a Catholic priest.
The real Emily Rose was Anneliese Michel, who was born to a Catholic family in Klingenberg am Main in 1952. In 1968, she suddenly began suffering seizures that caused her to be hospitalized, where she was diagnosed with epilepsy. However, she was suffering from Demonic visions, too, and heard strange voices. The problems grew worse, and in 1973 her parents sought an exorcism. Several clergy declined, saying that she did not meet the Catholic Church’s strict definition of possession.
Anneliese continued to deteriorate. Her behavior became violent. She attacked her family, broke objects, bit people, and refused to eat food because the Demons would not allow it. She started eating insects and pieces of coal and drinking her own urine.
The church relented in 1975 and sent two priests, Father Arnold Renz and Father Ernst Alt, to perform the exorcisms. The exorcisms went on for 11 months, during which her medication was stopped. Anneliese worsened. She became severely emaciated and suffered physical injury from the hundreds of genufl ections she was required to perform in the exorcisms.
Anneliese died of starvation and dehydration on July 1, 1976. Her weight was 68 pounds. Fathers Alt and Renz were charged with negligent homicide. Their trial began on March 30, 1978. They were found guilty of manslaughter and given six-month suspended sentences.
In the film, Rose dies after Father Moore performs an exorcism on her, and Moore is charged with negligent homicide. Prosecutor Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott) bases his case on the argument that Rose’s affl iction had a medical explanation, and Moore killed the girl by preventing her from taking her medication. The defense counsel, Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), claimed that Rose’s condition and death were due to supernatural causes. The trial becomes a stage for the debate of religion, philosophy, and supernatural beliefs. The principals suffer events of an apparent supernatural nature during the course of their arguments.
Whether or not Rose actually suffered from Demonic possession is never declared in the film, but is left up to the viewer.
- Goodman, Felicitas D. The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel. Seavey, Ark.: Resource Publications, 2005.
- Taylor, Troy. The Devil Came to St. Louis: The True Story of the 1949 Exorcism. Alton, Ill.: Whitechapel Productions Press, 2006.