For those who have not seen the film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, it’s basically a courtroom melodrama with a bit of a scary twist. The film is centered around Emily, a 19-year-old who decided to leave her extremely religious family for the first time and embark on a college career. While at college Emily begins to experience strange phenomena and her family believes that Emily has been possessed by demonic spirits. The family calls in a priest to exorcise Emily of the demons that have taken over her, but it is already too late. Emily, sadly, dies and the priest is taken to trial for negligence, as he was responsible for the girl’s medical care. What many do not know is that The Exorcism of Emily Rose, was actually based on a true story.
Anneliese Michel was born into a devout Catholic family in 1952. She had an older sister who her mother had with another man out of wedlock and the girl died at eight after an operation went wrong. Stricken with guilt, Anneliese felt that it was her sworn duty to atone for her sister and her mother’s sins. The death of her sister may have caused Anneliese a great deal of mental trauma from a very young age, leading to her later mental disturbances.
At 16 Anneliese was diagnosed with grand mal seizures. Often a patient that meets the medical criteria for grand mal seizures completely loses consciousness, experiences violent muscle contractions, may notice an odd taste or smell (known as an Aura), and let out blood curdling screams, according to the Mayo Clinic’s website. Anneliese began seeking treatment for her seizures and was placed on the drug Dilantin. Anneliese found little relief from the drug and began reporting that she saw “Devil faces” while praying. Doctors then prescribed her another drug used to treat the symptoms of psychosis and schizophrenia. She fell into an even deeper depression and continued to see visions, along with hearing voices telling her that she was “damned” and that she would “rot in hell”. Becoming jaded with the treatment she was receiving from psychiatrists and her devout religious background led to Anneliese’s conclusion that she had been possessed by demons.
Anneliese’s condition began to worsen. She often had violent outbursts, injured herself, ate insects, and even drank her own urine. Anneliese and her family petitioned the Catholic church several times to perform the rites of exorcism on her and were denied. Ironically in 1973, when Anneliese began claiming that she was possessed, the film The Exorcist was released. It shouldn’t be seen as mere coincidence that some of Anneliese’s behaviors coincided with the those displayed by Regan’s character in the film.
Priest agreed to meet with the Michel family, and determined that Anneliese “didn’t look like an epileptic”, claiming that they never saw her experience a seizure. However, epilepsy is a complicated disorder and each person is different. It is possible that her seizures temporarily subsided, or was experiencing less sever forms of seizures, which may only be marked by a bad headache or shaking hands, and did not completely lose consciousness or present violent muscle contractions as she had displayed with her more severe symptoms. It should also be noted that if Anneliese was still taking medication for her disorder at this time, then it is possible that the medication was suppressing many of her symptoms.
Once the two priests who met with the family were granted permission to perform the exorcism sessions, Anneliese completely stopped all medical treatment and relied only on religious healing. It is ill advised for anyone undergoing psychiatric treatment for epilepsy or psychological disturbances, respectively, to quit taking their medications. Failure to take certain prescription medications or to consult with a doctor before completely suspending the use of prescribed medications can cause symptoms of many neurological or psychological disorders to come back with a vengeance.
The priests performed 67 ritual exorcisms over Anneliese for a period of ten months, but her condition only worsened. The priests claimed that Anneliese was possessed by six demonic entities. Some of those entities named by Anneliese included Nero, Hitler, Judas, Cain, and Lucifer.
By the time of her death, Anneliese proclaimed that she wanted to atone for the sins of wayward youth and refused to eat. Her death on July 1, 1976 was ruled to be due to severe starvation and dehydration. Her knees were found to have been broken and she had also been suffering from pneumonia. Some fringe Catholics believe that Anneliese died a martyr and that she had been chosen by God to atone for the sins of the youth. Many still flock to her grave and pray for salvation.
Was Anneliese really possessed, as her mother claims to this day, or was she suffering from an illness that very little was known about at the time? Studies have concluded that epilepsy, and particularly grand mal seizures, have been connected to schizophrenia. Symptoms of schizophrenia include paranoid hallucinations, catatonic behaviors, angry outbursts, incoherent speech, and lack of emotions. Schizophrenic hallucinations combined with her seizure disorder would most definitely explain the voices and visions she was having, as well as the violent muscle contractions and other strange phenomena Anneliese complained of.
Both priests who consulted with the Michel family, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Michel, were initially charged with negligent homicide, but their charges were later reduced. All of the accused parties were instead found guilty manslaughter, due to medical negligence, and ordered to serve six months in jail and three years probation. The Catholic church later agreed that Anneliese Michel had been suffering from a severe mental disorder and it was concluded that she had not been possessed by demonic spirits. This tragic case could have been prevented if not for a combination of religious hysteria, a gross misunderstanding of mental illness, and medical neglect in part by the Michel family and the two priests chosen to care for Anneliese.