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Anneliese Michel: the Holy Demoniac

In the early morning of July 1, 1976, a pretty, dark-haired German girl was found dead in her bed. Her battered body, lacerated face and broken teeth provided graphic evidence of horrific suffering. A media frenzy and a show trial followed. The verdict? Guilty. Among the defendants? A Roman Catholic priest and exorcist. Who was this young student from Klingenberg who had to be exorcised in her lifetime and yet whom many now, posthumously, consider a saint?

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12)

The real person behind The Exorcism of Emily Rose was Anneliese Michel. The film scenario is based on the shocking, fully documented account of a real demoniac by cultural anthropologist and religious studies expert Dr. Felicitas D. Goodman (The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, Doubleday, 1981).

The phenomenon of demonic possession and the broader question of existence of the Devil are subjects that cannot but arouse interest and emotions. Why did this innocent girl die? Was she mentally ill or in fact possessed? Do demons really exist? Are they capable of enslaving and killing a person? What does modern science have to say? Does psychiatry exclude the existence of the Devil? Who is right? The priest who tries to exorcise the girl or the court prosecutor who accuses the priest of medieval benightedness? These are some of the questions the film raises. It asks aloud the one and ultimately fundamental question: namely, does another, unseen, spiritual world exist or not? The prosecuting attorney claims he knows there are no evil spirits. Although he considers himself a practicing Christian, he prevails upon the jurors to dismiss everything the priest has to say about Satan and his cruelty. By contrast, the defense attorney, an avowed agnostic, approaches these dramatic events without prejudice. The deeper she digs into the case, the more she comes to sense its supernatural character. She even receives clear signs of the existence of an invisible reality. During the trial she states honestly that she has an open mind concerning the existence of the spiritual world. Upon this, she bases her arguments for the defense. As for the priest, from the moment he stands eyeball to eyeball with the Devil in a dramatic spiritual struggle to free the girl from his power, he has not the slightest difficulty believing in evil spirits. In the end, he is found guilty of willful neglect in the death of Emily Rose. The viewer, however, senses that fundamentally it is not the exorcist but the devil that is on trial. The court declares de facto that the Devil does not exist; and if science was not at fault, then superstition and the priest had to be responsible for Emily’s death.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose carries an extraordinarily important message. It is set forth unambiguously in the closing scene: work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). Father Ernest Alt, who exorcised Anneliese, points to two realities that became extraordinarily clear to those who witnessed the dramatic events — realities which the film director also endeavored to express: First there is the dimension that threatens to engulf creatures when they desire to be like God. This is what Satan has always wanted. To a greater or lesser degree we all desire this whenever we commit sin. The other reality is the dimension of God’s Redemptive Work in Jesus, the Son of God who became man — a reality which lives in the Catholic Church, in all the sacraments and the work of the Church.

The facts

Turning from the film to the real events: Anneliese was one of four daughters of Joseph and Anna Michel, an upright, deeply devout couple living in Klingenberg, Germany. Although frail and sickly as a child, she was “quite normal” as her friends recall. She could be jolly, tell jokes and have fun along with the others. Something “abnormal” began happening shortly after her sixteenth birthday in autumn of 1968. According to one of her friends, Anneliese was unable to get up one morning after a horrific night. She felt as if an enormously powerful force were pressing down and knocking the breath out of her. Futile appeals for help. A wet bed. Unimaginable terror. The occurrence repeated itself almost a year later. Visits to the doctor and exhaustive neurological tests came up with nothing. Nevertheless, she was admitted to a sanatorium where her terrified fellow-inmates looked on as her blue eyes turned black, her hands contorted and her body became wracked by strange convulsions.

Despite the interrupted school year, the bright, diligent girl managed to complete high school; she prepared to enter teaching college. As a young college student she complained to her mother of strange sounds in her room. Her mother sent her to an ENT specialist. The latter found nothing wrong with her hearing.

However, the problem became real when others in the house began hearing noises under the floor or the ceiling or the cupboard. When the frightened family rose to pray in front of the statue of Our Blessed Mother, Anneliese’s face convulsed grotesquely. A terrifying hatred exuded from her black eyes. Family prayer, frequent Communion and the evening rosary brought the girl less and less relief. Spiritually and physically she was feeling worse by the day. She complained of being beset by appalling apparitions. Such dread! — she told Fr. Arnold Renz, her spiritual confidant who would soon become her exorcist. It is the kind of terror you could find only in Hell itself. You feel so abandoned that no one on earth… You know, Father Arnold, I imagine it must have been like that on the Mount of Olives… only unimaginably worse, for He took upon Himself the sins of the whole world.

More and more dreary visits to the doctors brought Anneliese to utter exhaustion. At the strenuous request of her parents and Fr. Arnold, experts in the field of spirituality and demonic possession began visiting the house. One of these later observed: Anneliese was a sweet girl from a deeply religious family. She complained, “I feel as though I have no ‘I’ of my own.” She said she occasionally she saw demonic faces, but could not describe them in any detail… From time to time she would fling blessed objects away from her… .The stench of burning and sewage pervaded the rooms.

At the same time she was capable of successful study. You could see joy in her eyes. She did not avoid company and behaved as you would expect a young girl in love to behave — recalls a student friend. By this time Anneliese was already going out with Peter. She was aware of his deep feelings for her. Yet though she did not avoid him, she felt her personal problems prevented her from entering into a deeper relationship with him. But Peter proved to be a tenacious friend. He comforted her and himself, insisting they would find a doctor who would get to the bottom of these strange ailments. He stayed with her to the very end, never losing heart, even when — as he recalls — she would stare at him with a look full of hatred and break out into snarls and animal-like howls.

As the months went by, Anneliese’s behavior became increasingly more bizarre and monstrous: she would leap at the walls, run up and down the stairs, drink her own urine from the floor, dunk her head in the toilet bowl, scratch and bite the walls, roll about naked in the gravel or soak herself in water in an attempt to quench the fever that raged inside her. She had unbelievable physical strength. When her sister tried to grab her once, Anneliese flung her to the floor like a rag doll. She hardly slept at all. When she did go to bed, she lay there lifeless, like a corpse. Her stiffened neck muscles prevented her from drinking or even breathing. Then suddenly she would calm down, regain her composure, and return to her studies or play the piano.

The exorcisms

Feeling utterly helpless, the Michels asked the bishop for permission to have an exorcism performed on their daughter. Members of the clergy visiting the house were convinced they were dealing with a case of demonic possession. Fr. Adolph Rodewyk SI was of a similar mind. For several years during the war he had defied the Gestapo by performing exorcisms on a hospital nurse. Having devoted many years to this work, he had the opportunity to study hundreds of cases of demonic possession. His personal contact with Anneliese in her home convinced him of the very worst: The question remains — wrote Fr. Rodewyk — which demon has gained possession of her? Whenever we ask her this, Anneliese always gives the name Judas. Judas is well known in the history of demonic possessions….He is known to prompt those in his power to steal the Host or make it impossible for them to swallow it. With Anneliese we see something quite similar. He admits she cannot swallow the Host. That is why she keeps it in her mouth: so it can dissolve. Anneliese is indeed in the power of an evil spirit, and the principal demon is Judas. By this I am suggesting that there may be other secondary evil spirits involved as well.

Alas, this supposition was to be borne out in full. When at last the exorcisms began to be performed, the harassed demons started to make themselves known. In his notes on the first exorcism Fr. Arnold Renz gives an idea of the struggle that was beginning in earnest: Anneliese, or the demons’ reacted most violently to holy water. She would start howling and thrashing about. Three men, Mr. Hein, Peter and her father, restrained her. Anneliese tried to bite left and right. She kicked out in my direction. From time to time she let out a howl, especially when sprinkled with holy water. At times she whimpered like a dog. She kept repeating: “Enough of this shit, you asshole priest. You filthy swine!” There were many more obscenities and insults which I will refrain from citing.

An exorcism is a solemn prayer by which the Church in the name of Jesus Christ publicly and authoritatively expels an evil spirit from a person in its possession. Exorcists are well aware that knowing the demons’ names and the number of demons involved increases their power over them during the performance of the exorcism. For hours on end the two priests — Fathers Arnold Renz and Ernst Alt — prayed tirelessly over Anneliese. Eventually all six harassed spirits made themselves known: Lucifer, Judas, Cain, Nero, Hitler and Fleishmann. With Anneliese’s permission Fr. Arnold recorded the entire process on a tape recorder (there were several dozen sessions in all). Only a small portion of this material was transcribed or made its way into Dr. Felictas D. Goodman’s book. When, through the words of the ritual and Holy Scripture as well as appeals to the saints, the priest and Anneliese’s loved ones charged the spirits to leave the girl’s tormented body, the demons raised an indescribable cacophony of shrieks, growls and howls. Despite their terrible fury, they were prevailed upon to answer questions posed to them by the priests. At one point a demon was forced to say, “I have something to tell you. She is happy. For you are constantly praying. You must pray on.”

An incredible thing: Our Blessed Mother making it known through demonic shrieks that she is present and in command of the situation! Hearing this extraordinary consolation, Fr. Arnold opened his mouth to sing a Marian hymn. But at that moment there broke out an appalling roar such as they had never heard before. Choking, as though about to cough up its very entrails, the demon screamed: She is coming! She is coming! The Great Lady! Hearing this part of the tape recording, Dr. Goodman, a trained and experienced specialist, was shocked. In the margin of her notebook, she wrote: What I heard here was so overwhelming and evocative that I had to switch off the tape recorder. I had to calm myself, fight back my nausea, which I achieved with great difficulty. In the course of the prayer, Anneliese demonstrated unbelievable strength. She broke free of her father’s and Peter’s grasp and threw herself on her knees, then got up, then fell down again, and so on countless times, thus causing injury to her knees.

The exorcism of December 30, 1975 began much the same way as the preceding ones. Suddenly one of the demons screamed out, “We are not coming out because He will not permit it!” “You mean the Savior?” asked the priest. “Yes, He!” came the answer. “He does not wish it.” Tormented by these several-hour-long sessions, the demons, whimpering, begged to be released from the girl’s body. But Heaven had charged them to remain. Only death, as it turned out, would bring the girl deliverance. The day before she died — recalls Fr. Arnold — during the exorcism she suddenly said, “Please give me absolution!” They were the last words she spoke to me.

At midnight, the priest bade the demons be silent and allow the girl to get some rest. Anneliese lay down and went peacefully to sleep, never to wake again. She died of sheer exhaustion.

Several years later, while studying Anneliese’s medical reports, a Swiss doctor, Theo Weber-Arma, uncovered facts that had been suppressed during the sensational trial of the exorcists. It turned out that Anneliese had undergone three EEG tests. Each time epilepsy was ruled out. Despite this, she was treated for several years with antiepileptic drugs such as zentropil and tegretol. These drugs have serious side effects. Weber-Arma had no doubt that in Annieliese’s case the high concentration of these chemical agents and their use over a period of several years were bound eventually to bring on exhaustion and death. Needless to say, certain individuals were responsible for this incorrect diagnosis and treatment. None of them was held accountable.


Why was Anneliese Michel possessed by evil spirits? Possession occurs in people who have opened themselves up to the work of Satan through satanic pacts, the practice of magic, spiritualism, bioenergetic therapy or other occultic practices. In Anneliese’s case there was not even the slightest suspicion of such involvement. Having prayed so much over the girl and experienced the mysterious resistance of the evil spirits, Fr. Alt came to the following conclusion: “I am convinced that we are dealing here with a typical case of expiatory possession. During the many conversations I had with her she gave me to understand that things would again be very difficult for her in the future. She lived in great fear of this and was saddened by it. But she felt it had to come. In the case of an expiatory possession the exorcist has his work cut out for him because it is not at all easy to understand the meaning of the suffering. The only consolation a person not let in on the mystery can have is the knowledge that through this dreadful suffering a great many souls are saved.”

Does such an interpretation express nothing more than the impotence felt by the priest in his struggle with an evil spirit? How could he be certain that Anneliese endured these diabolic torments not for her own sins but for those of others? There might be grounds for doubt if it were not for the personal notes and tape recordings the girl left behind. These documents prove that Anneliese was clearly and lucidly aware that her frightful struggle with the powers of evil and her attendant sufferings and humiliations would help others to be saved. To the modern mind raised in the spirit of individualism this appears strange and incomprehensible. Can one engage in a spiritual battle with Satan in other peoples’ stead, and for their benefit? From the very beginning — from the time of Christ’s struggle and victory on the Cross — Christianity’s answer to this has been yes. In solidarity with our one Savior, and thanks to His one victory over Satan, we are engaged in a spiritual battle with the invisible realm of fallen angels, intelligent, irredeemably wicked beings hostile to God and man. Despite the protestations of so-called “enlightened minds” this truth have been an integral part of our faith and the teaching of the Catholic Church since the time of the apostles. The tragic fact is that in Anneliese MIchel’s lifetime even Catholic theologians were holding views at variance with the teachings of the Church. According to the convicted priest, Fr. Alt, the attempt by many theologians to reduce the phenomenon of demonic possession to purely natural psychic disturbances has led to the widespread abandonment of the practice of exorcism. To this day Germany has no officially appointed exorcist priests. At the same time interest in occultism in its various forms, including satanism, has grown everywhere. In many instances our rapidly emptying convent and parish buildings are serving as meeting places for esoteric groups that are essentially satanistic.

In this spiritual climate Anneliese Michel came to understand ever more deeply that her terrible experiences were not in vain. Indeed, they served to remind secularized Christians that Satan does exist and that Hell is a real and ever present danger to the unconverted soul. The tape recordings of Anneliese’s exorcisms (which include the demons’ actual voices), the photos of her battered body, her personal notes — all these make up the German girl’s special testament to those who no longer take seriously the perils of Satanic activity.

On what grounds, we may well ask, could Anneliese’s terrible torments help save others? On the grounds that this misunderstood and misdiagnosed girl had a real part in the Passion of Jesus Himself. Thanks alone to her union with the Crucified Christ her suffering assumed a salvific character: salvific not only for herself but for others as well. Indeed, it was Christ Himself who suffered in her — for that is the meaning of the stigmata that several people testified to seeing upon her body.

Thanks to her close bond with Jesus, her keeping of several demons in bondage within her own body took on a salvific dimension. What was at stake was the carrying out of the Church’s triumphant struggle with the Devil. The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ and, as with any living organism, when one member of the Church engages in a struggle with the enemies of salvation, other members benefit from it. From her extraordinarily difficult vocation flowed special graces which she received from the Savior Himself. These were actual teachings which, in order to keep clearly distinguished from her Satanic suggestions, she shared with her spiritual director. On October 24 1975 she wrote down the following locution from Jesus: I am making use of your suffering, sorrow and lack of solace to save souls. On another occasion He told her: Never cease asking and begging on behalf of your neighbors that they may also attain the eternal homeland; and also: Pray and make great sacrifice for my priests. It is not for nothing that I have revealed to you the greatness and dignity of every priest — to the point that you tremble with fear.

Anneliese knew she was not suffering in vain, even though she dared not even imagine the great reward that awaited her for this dedication that evoked such supreme respect and admiration. We find in her notebook the following extraordinary and moving dialog: You must write down something else as well — the Savior said. I didn’t want to write this down — explains Anneliese — because I thought it came from the Devil; besides, my soul shuddered at the thought. But the Savior demanded my obedience, and that is why I am writing this down. The Savior said, “You will become a great saint.” I still didn’t want to believe it, but then the Savior gave me a sign that I have heard Him right. Sobs and tears….

Fr. Andrzej Trojanowski SChr

Article based on the Polish translation of F.D. Goodman’s book, Egzorcyzmy Anneliese Michel, Gdansk-Radom, 2005. An English version entitled The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel was published by Doubleday in 1981.

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