The Exorcism of Emily Rose / Anneliese Michel

It was a Friday night and I thought, “I haven’t seen a good horror film in years.” So I put on The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a film I was curious about, and started to watch it at 12.30 in the night, hoping to be spooked in the middle of the night – a somewhat inexplicable thrill that many of us, nonetheless, like to experience.

The film is based on a true story, that of a German girl called Anneliese Michel, who died in 1976, while in her early 20s. Anneliese experienced what she considered demonic possession. Her body would contort into unusual postures,  she would scream in many horrifying voices, speak in ancient languages, eat insects, and lick her own urine off the floor. Anneliese was diagnosed by a neurologist and a psychiatrist as having epilepsy which developed into psychosis. She was put on medication but her condition worsened over the years.

Eventually, her family contacted a Catholic priest who diagnosed her to be possessed and obtained permission from the Church to exorcise Anneliese. The exorcisms, continuing over several months, were not successful, and Anneliese eventually died because of the cumulative injuries that were inflicted upon her by herself during these possession episodes. She had stopped eating many weeks before, which made it impossible for her body to recuperate from these injuries, her body weighing only about 35 kg when she died. Anneliese had also stopped psychiatric medication, on the recommendation of the Catholic priest, as both Anneliese and the priest felt that she was not benefiting from it, and rather, it was obstructing the exorcism rituals.

After her death, the priests and the family were found guilty of neglectful homicide by the court and sent to jail. Anneliese’s grave has now become an informal pilgrimage site, even though the Catholic Church has never recognized her as an exceptionally spiritual person.

The Exorcism of Emily rose is a courtroom drama about this trial, interspersed with episodes from Anneliese’s (in this film, called Emily) life. Parts of the film are quite disturbing in the way they evoke fear in the viewer, sometimes in a subtle manner and at other times in a more grotesque, less effective one. What one really remembers of the film, however, are courtroom debates about the reality of the demonic world, of possessions and exorcisms, and of the interpretations modern science gives to them. Also very engaging is the story of Erin, the lawyer who defends the priest, and faces incidents that make her question her own agnostic worldview.

Significantly, in the film, Father Moore, the priest, reveals that Emily saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary, who told her that she was being possessed by demons so that the world knows that there is a spiritual reality, that things exist beyond what science can perceive for them. In a world that has largely turned away from religion, this was seen as one way of helping people understand what reality really is, and Emily’s life was a sacrifice for that, just like Christ’s. Father Moore believes that in the years to come, Emily will be regarded as a saint for having allowed this to happen to her body, despite tremendous suffering.

What is the truth? Demonic possession or psychosis, or both?

Many years ago, I remember reading a fantastic book called Shamans, Mystics and Doctors by the psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar. In one of the chapters, Kakar described an exorcism ritual he was witness to. He put forth the following convincing interpretation of the ritual: the possessed girl had a intense aggression towards an elder in her family, which was mostly unconscious. However, it made for a disharmonious psychological life, causing much anxiety. Being unwillingly ‘possessed’ by a demon was the psyche’s way of integrating its split-off parts and healing itself. In the possession episodes, the girl could express the aggression that she was otherwise compelled to unconsciously repress. By this expression, she retained her psychological balance, and was even absolved of the responsibility for what she said and did in the episodes of possession. The exorcism ritual helped her express the aggression to the fullest, and having thus brought it out to consciousness, made it easier to control. The result of a series of such rituals was that the aggression was more conscious, but controllable, making the girl better adjusted to her inner and outer environments. This is the standard modern, scientific understanding of possession that psychoanalysts and anthropologists have used to understand their subjects. However, I doubt if the explanation it offers is the whole truth in  every case, even though it may be so in most.

One may evoke a particular model of reality here. On the most observable level, we have the physical reality which none of us would deny. When our head hurts, we know that it is a physical pain. Then, there is a psychological reality, which we cannot see, but cannot deny either. When our head hurts, the physical pain may have a physical reason – that we have not eaten for a long time, but it may also have a psychological reason – that there is too much emotional tension in our lives.

It would be incorrect to think that the levels of reality are exhausted in the physical and psychological realms. There is something even more subtle, which some people would like to call ‘spiritual’ reality. We may consider this a psychological reality that is not rooted in the individual and his life history, but for which an individual body and personality become the vehicle of expression.

Intense psychological realities can be clearly seen in their physical manifestations – emotional tension may cause a headache, ecstasy may lead to your heartbeat racing, anxiety may be felt as a burning sensation in the chest, sorrow may be a sinking feeling in the same area. Similarly, the ‘spiritual’ (really, for the lack of a better word) reality may have clear psychological manifestations when it is intense. Demonic possession is one example of that. Visions – such as the apparitions of Virgin Mary at Fatima, perhaps one of the most mysterious instances of the last century – are another example of this.

In any case, you see what you already know. If you are an insensitive, extremely busy, preoccupied, harsh person, you may see your friend’s headache as just a physical headache. If you are more sensitive, you might sense that it might be because of the emotional difficulties he is going through. The same would apply to these non-personal levels of life. Finally, one may say that beneath this more subtle level is the Absolute, the ‘Ground of All Being’ as one theologian puts it, or in simple words, God.

Someone may legitimately ask – how do you know all this? On what basis do you say this? The answer would be that there is no way in which this can be proved empirically, to the satisfaction of all. One goes by one’s intuition, which I define here as the mental faculty by which one knows things without sense perception, rational analysis or emotional projection. It is what tells you that you love the baby you hold in your arms, or that the magnificent cathedral that you are visiting holds the awe and submission of centuries of pious visitors, or that in lying in the grass in the countryside at twilight, in the midst of nature, away from your city, there is a quiet happiness which holds something truly special.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose makes us think about these topics and reflect on whether there is more to our lives than what we see. If we take these topics seriously, they become not just a subject of some interesting discussion, but can also alter the way we think about our goals in life.

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~ by tdcatss on June 4, 2011.

One Response to “The Exorcism of Emily Rose / Anneliese Michel”

  1. This is real story

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