It's the most wonderful tiiiiiime of the year.
I love Halloween. No really, I do. It's one of the very few nights of the year I always look forward to. The reason being that, in the normal run of things, a posse of close friends and I hit a bar in the city centre and settle in to a booth to watch people wearing very little walk by while discussing love, life, and everything in between. This is followed by a trip to a night club where, inevitably, we'll spend the rest of the evening flirting outrageously with any woman foolish enough to cross our path (Gee Note: "What have you come as? A black cat you say? Silly me, I should have guessed by the mini skirt.")
Sadly this year I have to miss out, due to a prior engagement involving myself, a four star hotel, a mini bar, and a rugby game the day after. And so, in an effort to keep the holiday spirit alive, I've decided to raid my DVD collection for a couple of good horror flicks and settle down on the sofa with some popcorn and a good bottle of wine. And so tonight's entertainment is shaping up quite nicely, with "Dawn of the Dead", "The Exorcist", and "Bad Taste" all making it to the play list. Topping the bill however is the Davies household première of "The Exorcism of Emily Rose", a DVD I bought on a whim about two months ago and have yet to watch.
For those who haven't heard of this movie, it's part courtroom drama, part supernatural horror, starring everyone's favourite downtrodden Chippendale choreographer Tom Wilkinson. It deals with the trial of a priest accused of manslaughter after an exorcism on a young woman goes badly wrong. Made on a shoe string budget it became an unexpected success, taking $144 million world wide. And when you consider that it's director was Scott Dickerson, a man whose previous efforts include the straight to DVD epic that is "Hellraiser V: The Inferno", it really is quite remarkable.
But even more remarkable is that the movie's plot is based on a true story.
Anneliese Michel was born in Bavaria on September 21st 1952. She was raised by her strictly devout Catholic parents named Josef and Anna in the small town of Klingenberg Am Main, and was considered by most to be a straight laced, God serving, pleasant girl. At the age of 16 she began to suffer seizures, unable to control her muscle movements or even speak. A local neurologist at the Psychiatric Clinic Wurzburg diagnosed her with "Grand Mal" epilepsy, a severe condition that can cause entire body convulsions due to abnormal, excessive or synchronous neuronal activity in the brain. Due to the severity of her condition it was agreed by all parties that Michel be hospitalised.
Epilepsy is, much like most neurological disorders, very difficult to treat. Mostly seizures are controlled by a variety of medication (Gee Note: "Epilepsy" is more of an umbrella term to describe many syndromes with varying symptoms, all of which share a common cause. Because of this there is no "one pill fits all" way of treatment.). Even then, according to G. D. Cascino's paper "Epilepsy: contemporary perspectives on evaluation and treatment", roughly 30% of people with epilepsy can not control their seizure's even with the best medicines available.
Such was the case with Michel. Despite the doctor's best efforts, and a truck load of drugs, she continued to lose control of her body at regular intervals. After two years of regular hospital visits and God only knows how many different prescriptions, Michel began to think that she was destined to live the rest of her life under the worst conditions imaginable.
And then, in the autumn of 1970, Anneliese Michel began to see demons while praying.
She kept it to herself at first, maybe because she believed that her visions were simply side effects of the drugs, or maybe she simply couldn't face up to the fact that the Devil's face haunted her when she was supposed to be conversing with God. Even when the demons started talking to her, telling her she would "Stew in hell" and ordering her to do things for them, she kept quiet about it. But other people picked up that something wasn't quite right with Anneliese. An elder woman in the village apparently reported to the local priest that she had noticed that Michel was unable to walk past a certain image of Jesus, and had refused to drink water from a Holy spring. Eventually Michel would admit that she believed she was being stalked by dark forces to doctors. Unfortunately this was seemingly ignored as it was believed to have been just an “off hand” remark.
Michel's parents, on the other hand, were pretty worried by this point. After hearing the testimony of the elder woman, and after persuading Anneliese to confide in them, her experiences at prayer immediately convinced them that their daughter was possessed. They called upon the local Pastor Ernest Alt, requesting an exorcism be performed. The Pastor applied for a permit to perform an exorcism, probably just to placate the Michels more than anything else. The permit was duly rejected with the advice that Anneliese should live a “more religious life”.
The reason why the permit was rejected is because the Catholic Church has definitive guidelines as to what makes a person possessed (Gee Note: Can you spin your head around 360 degrees? No? Shame, we haven't had someone who could do that since Twooty the Evil Owl). Apparently these include speaking in a language the person has no prior knowledge of, and supernatural strength and abilities. If you do not meet this criteria then you aren't possessed, just very messed up in the head.
However the parents of Anneliese didn't take “no” for an answer and kept on campaigning for an exorcism. Every once in a while Pastor Alt would apply for one, only for it to be turned down. In the meantime Anneliese's condition took a turn towards the sinister when she refused to eat food, claiming that the demons had forbidden it. Instead she began to live off a steady diet of flies, coal, spiders, and her own urine. She'd lash at those around her, biting any member of her family who got too close, and would routinely destroy crucifixes and rosaries. She began to self mutilate, while often tearing her own clothes open in fits of rage.
It took another two years before a permit for exorcism was granted. Seeing this as, quite literally, the answer to their prayers Josef and Anna stopped renewing Anneliese's medication and pinned their hopes of Pastor Alt and Father Arnold Renz. To two Holy men soon determined that Anneliese was in fact possessed by several demons including the spirits of Nero, Judas Iscariot, Cain, and Adolf Hitler (Gee Note: The poor girl couldn't have been possessed by someone like Buddha could she? You know, sitting around all day talking about bees while someone brought her a handful of fruit. That would have been pretty sweet. But no, instead she gets Hitler and the guy who betrayed Christ. Some people just 'aint got no luck.)
And so the exorcism began, and to be fair Anneliese rallied enough to go back to school and even attend church. But it turned out to be a false dawn. Soon the attacks resumed, worse than ever before. Again Anneliese stopped eating, and this time would often need to be chained to the bed during her convulsions. The holy men decided that what was needed was, er, even more exorcism. And so twice weekly for the next ten months Pastor Alt and Father Renz would go through the Roman Ritual.
Anneliese became gradually and gradually weaker. Her parents, convinced that the exorcism would heal their wounded daughter, did not contact a doctor to help her. Instead they put all their faith in the priests. The priests, convinced that the girl was indeed possessed, put all their efforts in to exorcising the demons from her. They would record their sessions with Anneliese, compiling over 40 tapes. During this period Anneliese would seemingly go in to a trance and speak the words of the demons possessing her. Some of these recordings can be found on this video.
And then, after months upon months of barely any food and high emotional strain, her body could withstand no more. On July 1st 1976 Anneliese Michel passed away. Her last words were “Mother, I'm afraid.” The young woman, with her entire life in front of her had gone from this.
The authorities became involved. Almost two years later Father Arnold Renz, Pastor Ernest Alt, Josef Michel, and Anna Michel were on trial for the death of Anneliese Michel.
The case became famous, and gained nationwide coverage in Germany. After a long and drawn out ordeal the jury found all parties guilty of Manslaughter. The court concluded that had they not neglected the physical well being of Anneliese during the time that they were performing the exorcisms then she would still be alive today. The court also made a point of stating that in it's opinion Anneliese Michel was not possessed but instead suffering from severe psychological issues brought on by the strain of trying to cope with epilepsy.
Immediately public opinion divided. Those who believed saw Anneliese as a martyr, sacrificing herself to show us the dangers that straying from God's path can entail. Those who didn't simply saw a sick girl whose life was tragically cut short due to the naivety of four people.
They say that the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he doesn't exist. If that's true then this was a home run for the Big Red One. Because after this court ruling, the Devil legally doesn't exist. Or at least he didn't in Bavaria in the early 70's.
So, yeah, I can't wait to see what the “Exorcism of Emily Rose” makes of all this. Because if I'm honest with you, whether you believe that she was possessed or not is neither here nor there. The truth is a young woman lost her life in the worst possible way, and that alone is enough to make me sick to my stomach.
So if you find yourself with a glass in your hand tonight, think about raising it to Anneliese Michel. Because I don't think that I'll be alone in hoping that where ever she is now, she's hopefully found some peace.
And finally, to all who have taken the time to read this blog over the past couple of months, may I wish you all a very very happy Halloween.