What in God's Name?!

Jennifer Carpenter has the title role in
Jennifer Carpenter has the title role in "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," which deals with the aftermath of an exorcism conducted on Anneliese Michel, inset. (By Diyah Pera -- Screen Gems; Inset By Dpa/picture-alliance)
By Eric T. Hansen
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 4, 2005

BERLIN -- The first person to recognize that Anneliese Michel was possessed by demons was an older woman accompanying the girl on a pilgrimage. She noticed that Anneliese would not walk past a certain image of Jesus, refused to drink water from a holy spring and smelled bad -- hellishly bad. An exorcist in a nearby town examined Michel and returned a diagnosis of demonic possession. The bishop issued permission to perform the rite of exorcism according to the Roman ritual of 1614.

Half a year and 67 rites of exorcism later, Michel was dead at 23.

Anneliese Michel did not die in the Middle Ages, but in 1976, in the small town of Klingenberg, in the heart of one of the most civilized and advanced countries in Europe: Germany.

On Friday, the story that shocked Germany is coming to the big screen. Though set in America in the present, "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," which stars Tom Wilkinson as the priest who performed the exorcism and Laura Linney as his defense lawyer, is based on Michel's story and focuses not on the sensational exorcism itself but on the court case that followed.

Two years after Michel's death, a German court found her parents and the two priests involved guilty of negligent manslaughter and sentenced them to six months in prison, suspended with three years' probation.

What shocked Germany most was the fact that it could happen in a country that prides itself on being highly rational -- and highly secularized.

"The surprising thing was that the people connected to Michel were all completely convinced that she had really been possessed," says Franz Barthel, amazement still in his voice three decades after he covered the story for the regional daily paper Main-Post.

"Many years later, I visited the woman who first diagnosed the Devil," Barthel says. "She blessed my microphone with holy water because I was working for the radio then, and it was likely that the Devil was in control of the microphone."

Michel was raised in a strict Catholic family in Bavaria, which rejected the reforms of Vatican II and flirted with religious fringe groups. While other kids her age were rebelling against authority and experimenting with sex, she tried to atone for the sins of wayward priests and drug addicts by sleeping on a bare floor in the middle of winter.

According to court findings, she experienced her first epileptic attack in 1969, and by 1973 was suffering from depression and considering suicide. Soon she was seeing the faces of demons on the people and things around her, and voices told her she was damned.

Under the influence of her demons, Michel ripped the clothes off her body, compulsively performed up to 400 squats a day, crawled under a table and barked like a dog for two days, ate spiders and coal, bit the head off a dead bird and licked her own urine from the floor.

By 1975 Michel was asking for an exorcism. The Revs. Ernst Alt and Arnold Renz performed the rite 67 times over the first half of 1976. Some of the sessions took up to four hours. Forty-two sessions were recorded on tape.

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