Demonic possession. It is the stuff of Hollywood movies and nightmares, inspired by the belief in something dark and ominous that can invade the body and damn the soul for all eternity. It makes a great story, the struggle of good versus bad, right versus wrong, light against the dark. But like William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose claims to take its premise from fact, citing an actual case that chills any who come across it. Where Blatty’s creation was inspired by the story of a young boy whose identity has remained a secret, Emily Rose’s real-life counterpart was a girl of just twenty-three years old when she died under the watchful eyes of her parents and two exorcists. Her name was Anneliese Michel.
Anneliese was born in September of 1952 in Bavaria. Her life was unremarkable in that she was a happy child, religiously nurtured, and in all other ways normal. However, at the age of sixteen, Anneliese was afflicted with the first of many of what her parents came to believe were demonic attacks. Her body went rigid, and she was unable to call out to her parents for help. She shook violently without control of her actions. Her parents took her to the Psychiatric Clinic in Wurzburg, where she was diagnosed with Grand Mal epilepsy. Medication was prescribed, and she was given treatments, but the attacks didn’t stop. She began seeing what she described as demons, visions of terrible creatures, during her everyday life. After a while she could hear them as well. She only spoke to her doctors about the visions once, telling them that the voices had begun giving her orders. For five years Anneliese went for medical treatment with no discernable benefit. In fact, the attacks were getting worse. Her behavior degenerated into something wholly unlike the child everyone knew. She insulted and beat other members of the family, often biting her three siblings. She refused to eat normal food, as the demons she heard would not allow it, and ate spiders and coal, often drinking her own urine. She slept on the floor and was given to fits of screaming and breaking religious icons such as the family’s crucifixes and rosaries. Her behavior grew steadily worse as she began acts of self-mutilation. Tearing off her clothes and urinating on the floor became common occurrences in the Michel home.
In 1973 her parents began a fervent and desperate search for a priest to perform an exorcism. All the churches they approached denied their requests, explaining that the criterion of proof for possession had not been fulfilled. In order for a person to be deemed “possessed” and receive an exorcism, according to the Catholic church, there are a number of signs that must be observed. The afflicted person must exhibit at least three signs for permission to be granted. The signs of possession are varied, but among them are the afflicted displaying abnormal strength, paranormal powers such as levitation or telekinesis, and the knowledge of a language they’ve never studied. By 1974 the Michel family won the sympathy of Pastor Ernst Alt, who believed the child was truly in danger from demons. He petitioned the Bishop of Wurzburg, Josef Stangl, with no success. The Bishop suggested that the child live a more holy lifestyle to find inner peace. Alt tried again a year later, this time providing verification of the signs of possession in Anneliese. Bishop Stangl relented and assigned Father Arnold Renz to perform the exorcism rite with Alt assisting. The rite of exorcism to be performed was the "Rituale Romanum."Exorcism, though long considered one of the church’s dirty little secrets, is neither a religious ceremony nor a sacrament. It is a rite in which the priests confront the demon in the afflicted’s body and demand that it show itself. Once the demon is revealed, the priests attempt to use their own faith to drive it out of the innocent. The Rituale Romanum was first written in 1614 under the auspices of Pope Paul V. It remained largely intact and in use for exorcism with only minor changes in definitions to distinguish between possession and mental illness in 1952. Through repeating a set group of prayers, the Litanies of the Saints, Pater Noster, and the 54th Psalm, as well as the accompanying Gloria Patri, Anima Criste, and Salve Regina, two priests, a medical doctor, and members of the afflicted’s family engage in a lengthy and often physically exhausting trial in which the priests attempt to expel the demon. The rituals are open to interpretation as exorcists are free to add in other aspects of the rite as they deem necessary.
It was late in the day on July 30, 1976, when Anneliese turned to the priests and said, “Beg for absolution.” It was the last statement she would make to them. To her mother she simply said, “Mother, I’m afraid,” and then collapsed and died. Her mother recorded her daughter’s passing the next day while Alt informed the authorities. An investigation immediately began into her cause of death. Both priests and her parents were charged with negligent homicide.
Two years later the case was finally brought to trial. Nearly forty hours of audio tape of the exorcism was played before the court. Testimony was heard from witnesses who had no doubts of demonic presences in the girl. But in the end it was the coroner’s report that Anneliese has starved to death that proved to be their undoing. It was determined that admitting her to a hospital where she’d have been fed through a tube, even one week before she died, could have saved her life. They also asserted that, by introducing the concept of demonic possession, the parents and priest provided a scapegoat for her behavior, which allowed her to misbehave all she wanted to without fear of consequence. Though convicted, her parents and the priests received a light sentence of only six months in jail and probation. The story, however, continued to capture the imagination of those that knew the girl or heard of her plight. Many claimed that her body could not have been at rest after such an ordeal, leading officials to exhume her corpse eleven years after her death. When it was determined that it had, in fact, decayed at the proper rate for one dead eleven years, she was recommitted to the ground. Her grave became, and remains, a place of pilgrimage and religious importance to those who believe that the brave girl lost her life fighting the forces of darkness. Following the death of Anneliese the church recanted their permission, stating that she was merely afflicted by mental disorders. In 1996 the Pope removed Rituale Romanum from the approved list of rites and replaced it with his own, called “The Exorcism for the Upcoming Millennium.”
Anneliese Michel was a fresh-faced girl of sixteen when her life suddenly jolted out of her control and only twenty-three when she died. Whether or not she was possessed by demons is open to debate, but nothing can diminish the tragedy of her passing. While The Exorcism of Emily Rose bears the legend “based on a true story,” respect must be given to the actual people and events on which the story is taken. Audiences should not forget, while they are being entertained, that no matter what their beliefs, Anneliese Michel, the real “Emily Rose” was no fictional character.