WORMWOOD FILES: "The Demonic Ordeal of Anneliese Michel"

By Dr. Abner Mality

There is no known culture on Earth that does not have legends and tales of demonic possession. The particulars may differ, the gods and the versions of the afterlife are always different, but the belief that human beings can be taken over by evil spirits is universal. The bushmen of the Kalahari...the Shinto worshippers of Japan...devout Catholics of Italy...Native American tribes of all varieties...all have  this belief that humans are vulnerable to possession by "demons".

These same cultures all have different rrituals and methods of expelling the invading demons. Almost all of them are grueling and border on torture. The "enlightened" religion of Christianity is no different.

If you're reading this, I'm 100% certain you've seen "The Exorcist" at some point. That movie opened the modern secular culture up to peculiar Catholic rituals designed to dispel evil beings from human victims. The influence of the movie cannot be overstated and it's colored almost every discussion of exorcism since then. But exorcism and demonic possession did not begin with "The Exorcist" and it is certainly not the last word on the subject.

Many so-called cases of possession can be chalked up to superstitious misinterpretation of mental illness and physical conditions like extreme epilepsy or Tourette's Syndrome. No doubt that some poor individuals afflicted by these illnesses have been abused and even killed by overzealous exorcists.

Yet there remain cases of possession that are genuinely baffling and deeply disturbing. None more so than the case of an attractive young German girl named Anneliese Michel who became the center of one of the most notorious exorcism cases of modern times...one that ended in shocking death and the incarceration of the priests called to perform the ritual. It is also one of the most thoroughly documented and discussed possession incidents. This is what we'll be putting under the Wormwood Files microscope this time.

To understand all the ramifications of the Anneliese Michel case, we have to know her background and upbringing. She was born on September 21, 1952 in the small German town of Leibifing. Leibifing is in the heart of Bavaria, the most deeply Catholic portion of Germany and the Michel family was extremely devout. They were also a family wracked by scandal. Anneliese's mother had given birth to an illegitimate child, Anneliese's older sister, and was deeply shamed and embarrassed. This older sister died when Anneliese was just four years old, but already the young girl spent much of her time praying for her sister and mother both.

Anneliese grew to be an attractive, intelligent but somewhat withdrawn young girl. There was little sign that anything physically was wrong with her until 1968 when she was 16 years old. That was the year when she was struck by a powerful seizure which was believed to be epileptic in nature. The diagnosis of epilepsy was confirmed and Anneliese was given medication to control it. And for a brief time, the medication seemed to alleviate the worst of the symptoms. But eventually the seizures returned and became more violent than before. These seizures had a profound negative effect on Anneliese both physically and mentally. She became more and more depressed, to the point where suicide was considered a possibility. Her family was frantic to help her and even had her temporarily committed.

Sometime during 1969, things began to worsen in a very unsettling way. Prior to this time, Anneliese was a very sick girl, with severe physical and emotional problems. But in 1969, the entire tone of her illness changed to something more spiritual in nature. She began hearing sinister voices which would insult and chastise her when she was praying for relief. The more she prayed to God, the worse the assaults became. She also began to have visions of demonic beings and would scream in fear when having these hallucinations. The doctors believed the temporal lobe of her brain was deteriorating and causing the hysteria. But her religious parents were beginning to think that the demons were real...

A line was finally crossed when Anneliese's reactions changed from suicidal depression to blasphemous rage. She started to curse and slander anything related to her Christian faith. Crucifixes would enrage her. The Michel family began to withdraw from medical treatment, turning to religion to cure their daughter. But a pilgrimage to Rome only made things worse. When Anneliese was brought to a sacred spring, she recoiled from the water as if it were acid. Frightened beyond despair by the young girl's affliction, the family began to consider for the first time that she might be possessed by actual demons.

So began the Michel family's journey through the shadowy world of Catholic exorcism, a journey that would end in death and darkness. The family approached various priests concerning a possible exorcism for Anneliese but to their surprise, they were strongly rebuffed at almost every turn. Strict guidelines had to be met before a person was considered truly "demon possessed" and thus eligible for exorcism. Many priests considered exorcism an antiquated and even barbaric practice. So the Michels were turned away in their search....until a priest by the name of Ernst Alt approached them and asked to examine Anneliese.

Alt was quickly convinced that Anneliese was a victim of true demonic possession. He beseeched the local archbishop Jozef Stangl to let him conduct a thorough Catholic exorcism. It took years, but in 1975, Stangl finally gave in to Alt's requests. He sent him another priest named Arnold Renz to assist in the ritual but he demanded absolute secrecy from not only Alt, but the Michel family as well. The weary family immediately agreed and prayed that Alt would find the solution to Anneliese's horrible afflictions. Instead, the exorcism signaled the beginning of the most tragic and harrowing events yet.

By the time Alt and Renz began the exorcism, the girl had shockingly deteriorated. The once attractive young lady was now skeletal and covered with scabs and wounds. She engaged in grotesque and obscene behavior regularly, urinating and defecating where she pleased and sometimes even consuming the excrement. She also continuously beat herself in an attempt to drive the demons out. It was not the evil spirit that commanded her to this abuse, but Anneliese herself. Father Alt first tried to discover exactly what spirit or spirits were possessing the girl. She revealed that the minds of the most evil men in history were lurking within her, including Judas Iscariot, Emperor Nero and even Adolf Hitler. But chief of all the spirits who possessed was no less than the Prince of Darkness, Lucifer himself. The priests were numbed with fear...they were facing no minor devil, but the King of Hell!

What happened over the next year is still open to debate. Some say the priests fought a terrible battle with Satan for the soul of Anneliese Michel...many others believed the mentally disturbed young girl was provoked to her death by the fanatical priests. A total of 67 complete exorcisms were performed for Anneliese, each one more grueling than the last. At times she would become completely animalistic, snarling and snapping like a wild dog. When Alt and Renz brought out religious icons, she would be at her worst, cursing and heaping abuse on the priests. Their nerves shattered by the ordeal, Mr and Mrs. Michel withdrew completely from the process. They could endure no more.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the possession...and one which skeptics have a hard time dismissing...was how Anneliese communicated in several archaic and long dead languages during the possession. Alt and Renz made careful notes of these long speeches, some in Aramaic, others in Assyrian, and some in the "magical" tongue of Enochian. There is no possible way Anneliese could have learned the grammar and syntax of these ancient languages...few even in the church could...yet she demonstrated fluency in them. Tapes were made of many of the sessions and no one has contradicted that Anneliese spoke in these "dead" languages. At times, she would also reveal personal knowledge of Alt and Renz's lives, knowledge she had no way of discovering.

Anneliese's physical condition continued to deteriorate. No medical doctor was called by the priests to attend her, a fact of huge importance considering what was to happen later. She lost weight until she weighed well under 100 pounds. She was so physically frail that she could not walk. During the moments of lucidity when she did not seem to be possessed,  she would whisper weakly that she was preparing for death and praying to heal the sins of a wicked world.

Mercifully, on the first of July, 1976, Anneliese Michel's struggle finally ended. The priests had failed to completely drive the demons out of her. More importantly in the eyes of the law, they told no one of the girl's atrocious physical collapse. Her weight at time of death: 68 pounds. She was 24 years old. An autopsy revealed that she died of malnutrition and pneumonia. As a result of this, Ernst Alt and Arnold Renz were placed under arrest for failing to prevent and possibly causing Anneliese's death.

The story exploded worldwide as the respected priests were placed on trial. The whole world and especially the Catholic world was intensely interested in the story. Was Anneliese a victim of neglect done in the name of God? Or was she genuinely possessed and the priests instead heroic battlers against Satan himself? The final verdict has not yet been totally passed.

The trial began on March 30, 1978. The prosecution attempted to prove that Anneliese was mentally ill and suffering from acute epilepsy and other conditions. Her extreme religious conditioning kept her from considering the medical reasons for her state. But her parents testified that they first tried many avenues with both physical and psychological doctors to no avail. The prosecutors, though, argued that there was no reason for a physician not to attend her as well as the exorcists.

Alt and Renz were defended by lawyers sent directly from the Vatican. Much of the formerly hidden or obscure aspects of exorcism were revealed during the trial. Father Alt had recorded many of the sessions with Anneliese and the tapes were played during the trial. The judge, jury and the public were appalled upon hearing the growls, screams and foul mouthed mutterings of the tortured young girl. The tapes included comments in long dead and languages and even one conversation that sounded like two different voices coming from Anneliese. It was almost impossible to believe the pretty healthy young girl prior to 1969 had changed into the gaunt, black-eyed specter photographed before her demise.

The Catholic lawyers also considered the prosecution's case an attack on religious freedom. No one, they said, forced the Michel family to enlist exorcism...that was a choice they freely made.

The results of the trial were mixed. Alt and Renz were found guilty of negligent manslaughter. But their actual punishment was fairly light. They were sentenced to 6 months in jail and 3 months of probation. And ultimately neither did jail time. Whatever punishment was meted out by the Catholic Church was kept secret, but it was known that neither man was allowed to perform exorcism again.

There was a macabre postscript to the trial when Mr. and Mrs. Michel requested that Anneliese's body be exhumed and reburied in a better coffin. Rumors persisted that when Anneliese's cheap original coffin was opened, her body had not decayed at all. This is a common phenomenon for holy people in Catholic tradition and is known as "sanctity". After the demons had left the girl's body, it may have been blessed by God.

This case haunts the public memory and stands as the most well documented exorcism in history. The trial resulting from Anneliese's death remains one of the most unique in the history of the law and its ramifications are still being studied today.

Was Anneliese possessed by the Devil himself...or was she a victim of superstition? That is for each of us to decide.

This is Dr. Abner Mality, turning out the lights.