Growing up in Germany Anneliese Michel had always been a devout Catholic. There are stories of her trying to atone for the sins of drug addicts and bad priests by sleeping on cold stone floors; her suffering could make up for their sins. In her dorm room she hung pictures of the saints and she had a holy water fount. For emergencies, I guess. But her piety didn’t protect her from the ultimate evil; in 1976 Anneliese died after ten months of exorcisms.
The first sign of trouble for Anneliese came in the form of seizures. In 1968 she was 17 and began experiencing convulsions; she was diagnosed with epilepsy. But conditions soon worsened: Anneliese would hear voices in her head while she prayed, including some telling her she would ‘stew in hell.’ She became depressed, and was clinically diagnosed as so in 1973. But things didn’t improve, and by 1975, unable to deal with Anneliese’s problems, her parents turned to an exorcist for help.
Anneliese was first ‘diagnosed’ as possessed by a fellow believer on a pilgrimage; the woman claimed that Anneliese refused to walk past an image of Jesus and wouldn’t drink from a holy spring. But worst of all, the woman said that Anneliese smelled ‘hellishly bad,’ which is apparently enough to get the Vatican involved (I’m doomed).
Father Arnold Renz and Pastor Ernst Alt were sent in by the local Bishop to do the exorcism. In most films exorcisms are one and done affairs, but in real life they can take weeks or months. The two priests performed the exorcism rite on Anneliese 67 times over the course of 10 months.
As the exorcisms went on Anneliese got worse. She began to see demons in the faces of those around her. She was able to identify the devils inside her, and she had a fairly weighty rogues gallery that included Satan himself, Hitler, Nero, Judas and Cain. And she began to behave in unsettling ways - drinking her own urine off the floor, eating coals and spiders, and screamed for hours. She hid under a table and barked like a dog for two days.
The exorcisms took their toll on her physically as well. Anneliese was forced to kneel so many times that the ligaments in her knees ruptured. And eventually she stopped eating and drinking; she hoped that starving herself would cleanse her of the devil. No doctor was present during the exorcisms and no attempts were made to force feed her.
That was what killed Anneliese. She died on July 1, 1976, weighing 68 pounds. Dehydration and malnourishment were the official causes of death. Her last words were ‘Mother, I’m afraid.’ She was buried in a corner of a cemetery reserved for bastards and suicides.
The two priests and Anneliese’s parents were charged with negligent homicide, and all four were found guilty. They were sentenced to six months in prison but the sentence was suspended. The priests were fined.
But Anneliese’s story doesn’t end with death. Two years later her parents had her exhumed because a nun had told them she had a vision that the girl’s body hadn’t decomposed - a miracle, and one that could potentially prove she had been truly possessed. That wasn’t the case, though - Anneliese had rotted away just as we all do.
During the trial tapes recorded during Anneliese’s exorcisms were played. The audio below is from one of those tapes. It’s in German - a language which always makes the speaker sound like they’re possessed - and I don’t have a translation, but I think the sounds speak for themselves. It’s interesting to note that while Anneliese’s problems began before the release of The Exorcist, these tapes were made after the film hit German cinemas. It’s unknown if she saw the film, but the movie had become a global cultural phenomenon, so it seems reasonable to assume that she had been exposed to at least some of William Friedkin’s concept of demonic possession.
For a more detailed account of the case, check out The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, by Felicitas Goodman. It’s linked below!