A couple of months ago, I was sifting through my physical DVD collection (yes, I know) and I stumbled upon The Exorcism of Emily Rose. As a passionate fan of the original Exorcist, I always find myself drawn to possession films. The Possession of Hannah Grace, The Last Exorcism, The Exorcism of Molly Hartley, The Last Exorcism pt. 2, you get the drift. So, I went ahead and gave the 2005 film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose a try. The movie centers around the trial of Reverend Moore, a preacher charged with negligent homicide for repeatedly performing exorcisms on Emily Rose instead of taking her to a hospital. By the end of the film (spoilers follow) a narrative emerges that Emily Rose allowed herself to be taken by Satan because her possession (and subsequent death) would show the world that demons, and thus God, are real. Therefore, Emily Rose would be a martyr for her beliefs. After this startling conclusion, I couldn’t help but conduct a bit of research and found myself reading about the story of Anneliese Michel, the real-life Emily Rose.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose presents the possession and the subsequent death of Emily Rose as a tragedy. Emily was a likable girl, successful in school, loved her parents, but for some reason was randomly chosen by demons to be tormented. Her death is seen as a relief; sad, but bittersweet, as someone who selflessly made the ultimate sacrifice for us. Her hands even bare the stigmata, wounds that correspond to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. However, Emily Rose is based on a real person, Anneliese Michel, who did die after numerous exorcisms were performed on her. While The Exorcism of Emily Rose showcases the court system having mercy on Reverend Moore, in real life, Anneliese’s parents and two Roman Catholic priests were charged and convicted with negligent homicide.
The story of Anneliese Michel is not as rosy as The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Instead it is a ghastly case of a completely preventable death. Born in 1952 in Germany, Anneliese was raised in a strictly religious household. Classmates described her as introverted and religious, probably as a result of her upbringing, but when she was 16, Anneliese suffered a seizure which damaged her brain so badly that she developed depression, delusions, and a break from reality. These symptoms were caused by temporal lobe epilepsy, but as she aged her condition worsened. Within four years, Anneliese began to experience auditory hallucinations and hated religious objects, but despite numerous treatments and medications, Anneliese didn’t get better.
By the time Anneliese was 22 (in 1975) her parents were running out of answers and called upon the Catholic Church for an exorcism. They claimed that her erratic behavior, the continuation of the seizures, and the fact that she was not responding to medication, meant she was possessed. Further, she was screaming about people rotting in hell, growling, and throwing objects at her family members. The Catholic Church evaluated the Michel’s case and deemed it worthy of the performance of an exorcism and sent two priests, Ernst Alt and Arnold Renz. Over a period of 10 months, Alt and Renz performed 67 exorcism sessions and insisted on keeping Anneliese in a semi-starved state for the rituals to work. During this time, the parents stopped listening to doctors and unsurprisingly, on July 1st, 1976, Anneliese died of malnutrition and dehydration. Her autopsy revealed that her knees were broken so she couldn’t move without help, she weighed 68 pounds at 23 years old, and had pneumonia. During the trial, as the priests and parents were charged with negligent homicide, the priests claimed that although they were aware of Anneliese’s physical condition, it was just a result of the possession and that the parents took solace knowing their daughter was finally free.
So, what was really going on with Anneliese Michel? There are varying theories, but the one that I most subscribe to was that Anneliese had untreated schizophrenia, which reared its ugly head after her first seizure. Schizophrenia during childhood is extremely rare. However, if something were to be the catalyst of this process, drug use, trauma, or a seizure in Anneliese’s case, it will develop faster and earlier in someone who has a predisposition. Further, the evidence used by those who claim that Anneliese was possessed supports that assertion.
The following is a YouTube clip of some of the tapes from Anneliese’s exorcism if you click here. However, it is a common symptom for people with schizophrenia to feel as if an “alien force shapes their behavior, feelings, and thoughts” (see here), hence the feelings Anneliese is experiencing are effects of the delusions and hallucinations. Additionally, the diagnosis of schizophrenia was not even in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DSM), the book used by doctors to treat patients with mental illness, until 1971. So, I would say that Anneliese’s doctors may have been reluctant to give her such a new prognosis. Then, without an accurate diagnosis and a belief that you are possessed impressed upon you, it is easy to see why Anneliese succumbed to the exorcisms.
Overall, the story of Anneliese is sad and completely preventable. Anneliese needed to live full time in a hospital that would have provided her care. There were no demons in this case, Anneliese was not possessed by Hitler or Nero, she was just a sick girl that needed care, care that never came.