Anna Elisabeth “Anneliese” Michel was a German woman who was diagnosed with depression and epileptic psychosis at age 16. She was treated at a psychiatric hospital unsuccessfully and her symptoms worsened. At age 20, Anneliese was suicidal. She had seizures, hallucinations, heard voices, and had violent reactions to religious words and objects. She was also growling, self-harming, eating insects, and drinking her own urine.
Because medication and psychiatric treatment had not improved Anneliese’s health in five years, her family began looking for other forms of treatment. The movie The Exorcist based on the bestselling horror novel had come out two years earlier. Anneliese and her family were very religious themselves and wondered if her health issues could stem from demonic possession. One priest the family met with, Ernst Alt, said Anneliese “didn’t look like an epileptic”. They decided to ask the Catholic Church for an exorcism. The church officially rejected their plea but a local bishop gave permission for an exorcism to be performed in “total secrecy”.
In 1975, two priests began performing exorcisms on Anneliese. At this time, Anneliese’s family stopped working with medical professionals. Anneliese became malnourished and stopped eating as the exorcisms went on and on. A total of 67 exorcisms were performed on her over a 10 month period before Anneliese Michel died of malnutrition and dehydration. At the time of her death, the 23-year-old woman weighed just 68 pounds, was covered in bruises, had fractured teeth, and could not get out of bed unassisted.
After her death, Anneliese’s parents and the two priests, Ernst Alt and Arnold Renz, were charged with negligent homicide. German officials found that Anneliese’s death was preventable up to a week before she succumbed to malnutrition. Prosecuters argued that Anneliese had never had issues other than her medical health. They argued that the symptoms of her imagined possession were simply the symptoms of epilepsy and psychosis filtered through her experience being raised in an extremely religious family.
The church paid for the parent’s and priest’s lawyers, who played tapes of Anneliese’s exorcism during the trial. Priests Ernst Alt and Arnold Renz argued that Anneliese’s demonic possession was serious. They said her demons had been identified as ” Lucifer, Cain, Judas Iscariot, Belial, Legion, Hitler and Nero” and that the exorcisms were eventually “successful” because she died right after the demons were driven out of her.
The priests and Anneliese’s parents were all found guilty of negligent homicide and given 3 years probation.
In addition to the media attention in Germany surrounding Anneliese Michel’s death, her story was immortalized in the horror movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) as well as in Requiem (2006) and Anneliese: The Exorcist Tapes (2011) which were also loosely based on her story. Much of the “scare factor” of her story comes from the tapes created during her exorcisms. In the recordings, you can hear Anneliese screaming, growling, barking, crying, and arguing in different “demonic” voices.
Warning, this is really disturbing and you can’t unhear it:
Some of the more unsettling moments are:
- All of Anneliese’s growling and barking
- Anneliese saying she is “Lucifer, the devil in the flesh”
- Anneliese identifying as Hitler and saying “People are stupid as pigs…they think it’s all over after death. It goes on”
- Anneliese (as “herself”) saying that her death would “atone” for the sins of others
(Reminder that everyone involved is in Germany, so the voices you are hearing are all speaking German).
While it seems clear (and infuriating) in hindsight that Anneliese had a lot of health issues that had nothing to do with actual demonic possession, that unfortunately doesn’t make what happened to her any less terrifying. Some of her symptoms (refusing to eat and “compulsively” doing 400 squats a day) sound like symptoms of an eating disorder. During this time period, cases of a previously unknown disease (Bulimia) were “rapidly” rising in Germany. Many of Anneliese’s other symptoms would similarly come to be understood as the field of medicine continued to advance in the decades following her death. Anneliese Michel was indeed a very sick woman who needed real help. Unfortunately, she was instead subjected to 67 four-hour exorcisms and cut off from medical professionals.
It is not a coincidence that the recordings of Anneliese’s exorcisms sound like someone who has seen Linda Blair performing as a demon possessed little girl in The Exorcist. The movie was incredibly popular in the years before Anneliese began displaying her own signs of demonic possession. This was the same time period George and Kathy Lutz moved into the house at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, NY for 28 days before fleeing in the middle of the night. They would tell their story in The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson, a book that would become the wildly successful Amityville Haunting horror movie franchise. The Amityville haunting story has been famously debunked as a “horror story invented over many bottles of wine” at the Lutz’s home. The haunting was one of the cases that propelled self-identified demonologists, grifters, and child groomers Ed and Lorraine Warren to fame.
To be clear I’m not, at all, saying Anneliese Michel “made it up for attention.” What I am saying is that we have many documented cases of cultural hysteria manifesting as physical symptoms in different cultures and time periods. What you think affects how you feel. Most relevant for Anneliese Michel’s case is the Satanic Panic of the 1980s.
People’s symptoms are information about their health. When women first started showing symptoms of anorexia in the early 1900s, doctors thought the cure was “parentectomy”, or simply giving the affected person space away from their parents. Now that we know (a lot) more about how parenting affects people’s internal thought process, we can match up parenting styles with how that child is likely to think. Perhaps a woman raised in an extremely religious family during a time when “mental health” wasn’t a thing would feel uncomfortable and ashamed at being diagnosed with depression. Many people to this day still believe that they should be able to willpower or “think” their way out of depression. My thinking is that because stories of demonic possession were already alive in the public consciousness and her own parents were deeply religious, Anneliese could have consciously or subconsciously started channeling the very real sickness she experienced into symptoms consistent with something she and her family understood.
Anneliese’s last words were said to her mother. After 67 exorcisms over a 10 month period, she was simply dying of starvation. She told her mom “Mother, I’m afraid” and passed. As recently as 2005, Anneliese’s mother told the media “God told us to exorcise my daughter’s demons. I don’t regret her death.”