In September this year, a woman in Guyana was convicted of bludgeoning a friend to death. Her friend, she explained, was possessed, and she was trying to beat the Devil out. In Romania, meanwhile, a priest and four nuns from the Romanian Orthodox Church are on trial, accused of murdering a 23-year-old novice. In his defence, the priest who led the exorcism has claimed his approach was better than the medical treatment she had been receiving for her schizophrenia.
It’s an older story, though, that inspired a film out this month, The Exorcism of Emily Rose. It concerns the death of Anneliese Michel, a Bavarian woman who died in 1976, aged 23, also after an exorcism. The two priests involved were charged with negligent homicide. So were the woman’s parents.
Born in 1952, Michel was raised in a strict Catholic family. While other teenagers were experimenting with sex and rebelling against authority, she tried to atone for the sins of wayward priests by sleeping on a bare floor in the middle of winter. In 1969, according to court findings, Michel experienced her first epileptic fit; by 1973 she was suffering from depression and considering suicide. As her feelings of torment grew stronger, she reported seeing faces of demons on the people and things around her (a phenomenon eerily portrayed in the film) and hearing voices informing her that she was damned.
Michel’s behaviour became increasingly erratic and violent. She ripped at her clothes, barked like a dog for hours, attacked other family members, broke religious icons; she ate spiders and coal, claiming that is all the demons would allow, licked her own urine from the floor, and performed hundreds of genuflections each day, damaging her knees to the point where she was unable to stand.
The girl’s distraught parents looked for a priest to perform an exorcism. At first their desperate requests were denied. Then, in September 1975, the Bishop of Wurzburg, Josef Stangl, gave Father Arnold Renz and Pastor Ernst Alt permission to perform the rite based on the 1614 Rituale Romanum. Michel endured two rites a week, some lasting as long as four hours. She briefly recovered enough to take her final exams at the Pedagogic Academy in Wurzburg, but then her condition once again began to deteriorate dramatically. During her last exorcisms, Michel talked about wanting to die in order to save the souls of others. She stopped eating, rejected all medical help, and relied solely upon the priests to deliver her from the demons she believed were attacking her.
Although horribly emaciated, she displayed incredible strength. Unearthly voices claiming to be those of the demons possessing her – Judas Iscariot, Nero, Hitler, a disgraced priest and Lucifer himself – emanated from her withered frame. By the time she died, Michel was so undernourished that she had to be held up during exorcisms. She weighed only 68 pounds.
When director Scott Derrickson and co-writer Paul Harris Boardman set to work on The Exorcism of Emily Rose, their aim was to make a film that not only scared audiences, but provoked thought about the “big” questions: “Does the spiritual realm exist? Is there a God? Is there a Devil? These basic, fundamental ideas are things that everyone must answer, I think, on some level,” says Derrickson. “And it’s good fodder for discussion. So that was the goal.”
The popularity of programmes such as Living TV’s Most Haunted (whose recent live show was broadcast simultaneously to America) and Joan of Arcadia, and, of course, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ are perhaps evidence of a growing interest in spirituality and the paranormal, and in the kinds of questions that the film-makers wanted to address. Newsweek, says Boardman, suggested a few years ago that the quest for spirituality, or a spiritual underpinning beyond everyday life, among young Americans, “might be the great untold story of that generation”.
Boardman sees it as a recurring sociological phenomenon that rises and falls in the culture, depending on different factors. “Some people feel it’s a millennial thing,” he says. “It also tends to happen when there are world events going on that make people feel devastated or like they have no control, and that maybe they don’t have all the answers. But Scott and I just kind of feel it’s fundamental to human nature.”
This is not to say that they agree on the subject of possession: Derrickson, a practising Presbyterian, is a believer; Boardman, although raised in a Methodist-Protestant household in Tennessee, is a sceptic. “We joke about having a Scully-Mulder approach but we both respect each other’s point of view so much that, going into a movie like this, I would trust that he wouldn’t make something that was trying to preach to people to go a certain way,” says Boardman.
In the film, Tom Wilkinson plays a priest on trial following the death of a young woman, Emily Rose (scary newcomer Jennifer Carpenter), during an exorcism. Was she mentally ill and did abstaining from medical treatment lead to her death, or was she genuinely possessed and a victim of demonic forces? Told in Rashomon-like flashbacks, the film makes a good fist of remaining even-handed in the battle between rationalism and faith, impressively piling up opposing interpretations of Emily’s experiences. Even so, the outcome of the trial ultimately feels fudged. But whether it is in order to satisfy atheists and theists, the faithful and the faithless, or simply to allow the debate to continue, is a moot point.
That said, a postscript portraying Emily as a saint-like figure essentially aligns the film with her conviction that if her suffering, which she chose to endure unto death, was the work of the Devil, then how can anyone claim that God is dead? By this point the film has become less about her exorcism than her passion (in the religious sense of the word). Derrickson, who has taught in a Christian screenwriting programme in Hollywood which puts faith and spirituality at the centre of its curriculum, admits that he is fascinated by aspects of Catholicism (he cites GK Chesterton as his favourite author) and, significantly, the role of suffering in particular.
“Protestants and Catholics have very different views of that and when we got into these characters and realised who they were going to be, that felt like an interesting direction to go in, and an interesting thing to explore as a writer. We wanted to think a bit more about that and, again, to try and understand it.”
As in the film, the investigation into the death of Anneliese Michel became a clash of faith and science. Ultimately, it was the coroner’s conclusion that Michel had needlessly died of starvation that swayed the jury. Despite being found guilty, the defendants received just six months in jail and probation.
The court’s judgment notwithstanding, Michel’s story has continued to grip people’s imaginations and her grave site is a place of religious significance for those who still believe that she died battling demonic forces. A commission comprised of German bishops and theologians decided in retrospect, however, that she had been mentally ill, and in 1984 they petitioned Rome to change the exorcism rite.
The problem, as they saw it, was the practice of speaking directly to the demon, which they believed caused damage by confirming and reinforcing the patient’s belief that they were possessed. When Rome did issue a revised version of the Rituale Romanum in 1999, it caused astonishment by leaving open the option to speak to the Devil directly.
The tragic case of Anneleise Michel has done nothing to prevent a rising tide of exorcisms worldwide. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church considered itself so under-equipped to deal with the numbers of people claiming they have been possessed, that October saw the start of an eight-week Vatican-sanctioned course at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum, designed to teach priests how to distinguish and fight demonic possession.
“With proper scientific study, priests and bishops should be better prepared to distinguish and meet their real foe: the rise of satanic worship,” one of the instructors told Newsweek.
The course could not have come quickly enough for one American, who claimed that priests in Nebraska have been receiving a growing number of reports of poltergeist activity and ghostly sightings from their parishioners. “There are a lot more behaviours and lifestyles that are not of God,” he said.
“There’s a lot of relativism. Whatever goes, goes. There’s a big surge in New Age, pantheism, young people playing with Satanism, a lot of drug use, black magic, psychics are so big, pornography, MTV. People are not searching for holiness.”
Clearly, Derrickson and Boardman are on to something with The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Derrickson is pleased with the results (the film netted an impressive $40 million in its opening weekend in America); although he admits that the film’s journey to the screen was not always a happy one.
“I read probably two dozen books on possession and exorcism, which was the most godawfully unpleasant thing I think I’ve ever done,” he says. “The documentation that is out there is bone-chilling. And it’s serious. I don’t care whether you believe in it or not, it’s so dark and so awful.
“Theologically, I was willing to discover I don’t really believe in demons. But I found the evidence for the documented cases that are out there to be much more credible than I was expecting.
“So I found in the end it confirmed, or reaffirmed, my perspective on it.”