It was well below freezing on February 25, 1978, and the harsh winds weren’t making the environment any friendlier. Still, the stabbing cold didn’t keep a crowd from gathering at the Klingenberg Cemetery in Germany. The onlookers did not come to witness a burial; they were there to watch two men dig up the grave a Anneliese Michel.
The official reason, as given by Anneliese’s parents, was to give the girl who died two years earlier at the far-too-young age of 23 a proper casket. In reality, Josef and Anna Michel, along with priests Ernst Alt and Arnold Renz hoped that Anneliese Michel’s remains would prove to them, if no one else, that she was free from the demonic possession that they claimed took her life.
Anneliese came into the world a healthy baby girl on September 21, 1952. Growing up with her parents and her three sisters, Anneliese did not have a simple life. Her family was strict Catholic, flirting with some of the more intense elements of the religion. To the Michel family, the reformations of Vatican II were to be ignored; there was no simple atonement for sin, and one could not get by on atonement for their sins alone. Anneliese would spend the winters sleeping on cold wooden floors hoping that God would take her sacrifice as penance for drug addicts who had lost their faith.
In 1969, while others her age were experimenting with drugs and lamenting the breakup of the Beatles, Anneliese would suffer her first seizure. Doctors would tell her family that Anneliese suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, which could cause, among a terribly long list of side-effects, changes in mood, hallucinations, and loss of awareness.
Anneliese was checked into a psychiatric hospital where she suffered more seizures. It was during her time in the hospital that Anneliese began to see faces, demonic faces, which told her she was damned. The faces would appear to the girl as she prayed, promising Anneliese that she would “stew in hell”. She told her doctors, who put her on anti-psychotic drugs.
The medication didn’t seem to help, and Anneliese fell into a pit of depression. Though she believed that taking her own life would be an unforgivable sin, Anneliese frequently considered suicide. She would leave the hospital, but the seizures, and the demons, would follow along.
For half a decade, doctors tried every drug under the sun to help her, but nothing seemed to work. Anneliese continued to have convulsions. With modern science failing, the Michel family turned to their church for help.
Ernst Alt watched as Anneliese Michel shook on the floor. He listened to her explain the devilish faces she would see and the things they would tell her. He witnessed her urinating on the floor, which she then began to lap up like a dog. He sat back and let the girl eat coal.
All of this, Pastor Alt believed, was proof that Anneliese was not suffering from a serious medical condition, but that demons had entered her body, looking to take her soul. He knew there was only one way to help the troubled girl; Anneliese needed to be given an exorcism in accordance with the Rituale Romanum of 1614.
Pastor Alt brought his evidence to Bishop Josef Stangl, along with a letter written by Anneliese in which she explained to the Bishop that she “wanted to suffer for other people”. Bishop Stangl approved Pastor Alt’s request and sent Father Arnold Renz to work with Alt. On September 25, 1975, Alt and Renz performed the first of 67 sessions.
One to two times a week, Renz and Alt would chain Anneliese to a bed and perform the Rite of Exorcism, documenting each session by recording the events on cassettes. According to the recordings, Anneliese was possessed by a number of demons, including Lucifer, Judas Iscariot, Nero, Cain, Hitler, and a disgraced Frankish Priest from the 16th century. In one session, Judas explains how Hitler is not well liked in hell because he tends to brag.
For a time, the sessions seemed to help Annelise, and she was able to return to school at the Pedagogic Academy in Wurzburg. She was even able to begin attending church again.
It didn’t last.
As the spring of 1976 came on, Anneliese’s seizures worsened. She began to attack family members, biting and scratching them. When she couldn’t get her hands on any of her sisters, Anneliese would beat herself.
She refused to eat, saying that the demons wouldn’t let her. She would collapse to her knees and rise back up quickly, only to repeat the motion hundreds of times each day, breaking her kneecaps in the process. Still, her parents trusted in the church and did not seek medical help. In her lucid moments, Anneliese would tell anyone willing to listen that she was willing to die in order to atone for the “wayward youth of the day and the apostate priests of the modern church”.
Anneliese continued to refuse to eat, but now she made it clear that it was her choice, not the choice of the demons inside her. In her weakening state, Anneliese came down with Pneumonia and a fever. She became emaciated, dropping under 100 pounds. Still, the two priests continued the sessions.
The final exorcism was done on June 30, 1976. Anneliese, too frail to perform the genuflections herself, was helped by her parents. On the tape, Anneliese speaks for the last time. She tells Renz and Alt to “beg for absolution” then turns her attention to her family. Through tears, Anneliese whispers “Mother, I’m afraid”.
On the morning of July 1, Anneliese Michel died of malnutrition and dehydration. According to the coroner’s report, she weighed just 68 pounds.
These days, it isn’t uncommon to see buses stopped at the gates of the Klingenberg Cemetery. The final resting place of Anneliese Michel has become something of a monument for many, and churches from around Europe make pilgrimages to the site to pay their respects to the girl who died for the sins of the world.
In 1984, German bishops and theologians formed a commission to review the case of Anneliese Michel and found that the church did not do enough to help a girl who was clearly mentally ill. In their review, the commission highlighted specific parts of the exorcism rites that feed into the delusions of a person who is suffering from a mental illness, particularly the use of the phrase “I command thee, unclean spirit” which confirms to the patient that they are truly possessed. The commission requested that these lines be changed in order to better help those in need.
The Vatican ignored their request.