3 Cases of (Supposed) Demonic Possession

As I mentioned in Vol. 2 of my handy, dandy Ghost Guide, I’m skeptical of labelling any case as “demonic”, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the possibility of possession. 

As long as humanity has believed in an ethereal world, it has believed in possessions and one day, I will write for hours on this and the importance and prevalence of cross-cultural spiritual possession, but – alas – today is not that day. 

The western world tends to view spiritual possession through biblical lenses, and it’s that kind of “demonic possession” we’re going to cover today.

A couple of these cases are among the most famous – or infamous – in modern folklore, but what really happened here? Were the people at the centre of these cases truly victims of an unholy nightmare?

Let’s find out.

Anneliese Michel, 1976

Anneliese Michel, Via Wikipedia

We could not talk about supposed possessions without discussing the tragic tale of Anneliese Michel.

Anna Elisabeth Michel -commonly known as Anneliese – was a German woman who sadly passed away at the tender age of 23, after enduring hours of exorcism rites. 

Anneliese was a devout Catholic, as were the rest of her close-knit family, who attended Mass twice a week. Described by classmates as “withdrawn and very religious”, it’s clear that she took her spirituality particularly seriously. 

At 16 years old, she had her first convulsive seizure and was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy. She sought treatment at a psychiatric facility, where she was also treated for depression and psychosis. Whether or not her hallucinations were a result of epilepsy, or a manifestation of another illness such as schizophrenia is unknown, but during her stay at the hospital, she was prescribed anti-convulsion medication in addition to drugs used to treat psychosis. Unfortunately, her condition worsened and Anneliese began to see “devil faces” throughout the day. 

By 1973, around age 21, she had began to hear voices as she was praying, damning her and telling her she would “rot in hell”. During this time, she also began to grow intolerant of Christian objects and churches. She also became frustrated with the treatment she received in the hospital, although it is reported that she maintained taking her prescribed medication until some time before her death.

After attempting a pilgrimage to San Damiano, Italy, and finding herself unable to walk past crucifixes or drink from holy springs, Anneliese, her family and christian community became convinced she was possessed and begged priests for an exorcism. 

Initially, the priests around Anneliese refused an exorcism, and urged her and her family to continue psychiatric treatment. This was until they met a priest named Ernst Alt, who declared that Anneliese “didn’t look like an epileptic” and petitioned the local bishop to allow him to carry out an exorcism. Eventually, the bishop relented and granted permission for Alt and another priest, Arnold Renz, to exorcise Anneliese, in complete secrecy.

 At Anneliese’s request, her family stopped psychiatric care as she believed the continued exorcisms were her only hope. 67 sessions later, Anneliese passed away in her home, malnourished, dehydrated and with broken knees, due to constant genuflection – kneeling  with only one knee on the ground, as a sign of respect in churches. Her family and the attending priests were prosecuted for negligent homicide, but given the circumstances of the case, neither party was jailed and the priests were fined. 

What happened to Anneliese is the ultimate “worst case scenario” for potential exorcisms. She believed herself to be beyond medical help, and this belief was reinforced by the people around her, as well as her own intense spiritual background. It’s no surprise that the nature of her psychosis was religious persecution and the belief that she was meant to, in her own words, “atone for the wayward youth of the day and the apostate priests of the modern church”.

During her exorcisms, Anneliese and the priests believed she was possessed by demons identified as Lucifer, Cain, Judas Iscariot, Belial, Legion, Hitler and Nero, along with the defrocked 16th century German priest, Valentine Fleischmann. During her possession, Anneliese also allegedly became aggressive, drank her own urine, ate insects, growled, threw things and saw the demons that were haunting her. There are audio tapes from the attempted exorcisms, parts of which are available online, but I will not include them here.

Many people still maintain that Anneliese was possessed, and her story goes on to inspire horror cinema today. In my opinion, that’s a shame as it further vilifies those suffering from acute mental illness – A hill I will, once again, die on despite my love for the horror genre.

Anneliese’s story is one of tragedy. Religious psychosis can be particularly difficult to treat, especially with those closest to Anneliese reinforcing her beliefs. Even if we put mental illness on the back burner for a moment, and look for the alleged tell-tale signs her “possession” was supernatural – reports of levitation, knowledge of things beyond what was reasonable, understanding of languages unknown to the victim. None of this is present in Anneliese’s case. 

Sadly, the death of this caring young woman was avoidable and it’s time for the paranormal community to discuss this case as the tragic warning it is, rather than sensationalising it as an example of “demonic” possession, which it is not.

“Roland Doe”, 1949-ish

The Exorcist, 1973

Roland Doe is the pseudonym of a 14 year old boy from Maryland who was at the centre of an alleged possession that went on to inspire Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel, The Exorcist. 

Roland Doe, born around 1935, was the only child of a German Lutheran family and an apparently average boy until sometime in the late 1940s. 

As the story goes, his Aunt “Harriet” was a spiritualist who introduced him to playing with Ouija boards and upon her death, strange things began to happen. These began as strange noises, moving furniture and levitating objects, all of which seemed to centre around poor little Roland.

At a loss, the family turned to their pastor, Luther Miles Schulze, who allegedly witnessed the occurrences himself, before urging the family to ask the Catholic Church for advice instead, as he seemed to believe Roland was possessed. Schulze is also thought to be the one who anonymously reported the incident to the press in 1949.

The family and priests quickly went about arranging a number of exorcism to take place at the Jesuit-led Georgetown University Hospital. During this, Roland freed himself from a set of restraints (apparently a completely normal part of any exorcism) and slashed the priests’s arm with a bedspring from his mattress, thus stopping the holy shenanigans.  

The family then went on to St. Louis, Missouri, where a cousin put them in touch with a professor and bishop at the Jesuit St. Louis University, who along with another Jesuit colleague, visited the family and allegedly observed a variety of paranormal activity including shaking beds, flying objects and met Roland, who by this time had a repulsion towards sacred objects and spoke in a “guttural voice”. 

This was enough to convince them to contact the archbishop, for permission to preform another exorcism, which was granted. Roland was taken to another Jesuit hospital in St Louis to began another round of prescription exorcisms. 

Three priests carried out the exorcism – Walter Halloran, William Van Roo and William S. Bowdern, who was the colleague who witnessed the events above.

During the exorcisms, words such as “evil” and “hell” appeared – allegedly spontaneously – scratched into Roland’s skin, along with other marks and welts. This was along with a shaking mattress and the breaking of Halloran’s nose. Roland was also said to begin speaking in latin.

Despite these minor setbacks, the final exorcism was deemed successful, after the priests called upon Archangel Michael to free Roland, who is said to have then received a vision of the angel fighting the devil for his soul. He went on to live a perfectly normal life. 

The claim that Roland was indeed possessed has been brought into question, specifically by authors Thomas B. Allen and Mark Opsasnick, who claim Roland was nothing more than a “spoilt brat” and bully who threw “tantrums” to get out of school. They have separately spoken to neighbours and friends of Roland and his family who claim the had purposefully hoaxed his apparent possession to the detriment of his mother and neighbourhood children.

It’s not beyond possibility that the “supernatural” events witnessed could have easily been hoaxed by a trickster teen, and were then exaggerated through the priests own unconscious bias. The authors also put forward the possibility of the “latin speech” being no more than Roland repeating the Latin he’d heard the priests use, and the “scratched words” being done by the boy himself. 

Roland, who’s real identity was supposedly revealed by newspapers in 2021, apparently passed away in 2020, after turning out “just fine”. According to these reports, an anonymous companion of the identified, adult “Roland”, claims he confessed to have never truly been possessed in the first place. The news reports in question are easily available online, but out of respect for the man who lived in alleged fear of becoming known as the inspiration behind The Exorcist, I won’t link them here. 

Michael Taylor, 1974

Photo by Ahmed Adly on Pexels.com

If I was to mention a convicted killer who famously claimed demonic possession, you’d be forgiven for thinking I was talking about Arne Cheyenne Johnson of Ed and Lorraine Warren’s “The Devil Made Me Do It” case. 

Taking place 7 years before the Warren’s proposed case, another tragic murder blamed on alleged demonic possession took place in the quaint market town of Ossett, West Yorkshire, UK.  

There, Michael Taylor and his wife Christine lived a seemingly idillic life. Michael, however, was prone to depressive episodes, and upon the advice of a friend, turned to God for help and joined a weekly prayer meeting. 

The leader of this group was a woman named Marie who would regularly pray over the members and cast out their many demons.

 Michael took to her immediately. He devoted himself to the group and their activities, even attending 8 hour long “private meetings” with Marie where the two allegedly sat across from each other and made the sign of the cross for hours on end. 

It was suspected that the two were doing more than praying during these private meetings. Christine, rightfully unhappy with the situation, confronted Michael about this – in front of the entire group. 

Michael, who declared there was “evil within him”, proceeded to attack Marie. He was quickly restrained by other members of the congregation, but seemed to begin speaking in tongues. Marie, began to scream back at him – also in tongues – before she and Christine began repeating the word “Jesus”, which eventually caused Michael to stop. He claimed he had no memory of the attack.

At next week’s meeting, Michael received “absolution” from Marie, but as his erratic behaviour developed, the local vicar, along with other local ministers, deemed Michael to be suffering from “Demonic Possession” and arranged for an exorcism to take place, on 5th October, 1974.

The exorcist team consisted of both Anglican and Methodist clergyman, and went on throughout the night. During this time, they are believed to have “invoked and cast out at least forty demons, including those of incest, bestiality, blasphemy, and lewdness.” As the night went on, the pair were exhausted and let Michael go home, even though they felt there were still at least three “demons” left inside him – those of “insanity, murder and violence”. Whether or not that addition was made in hindsight is unknown.

Less than an hour after they had left the first exorcism, Michael brutally murdered Christine, along with their pet dog. I won’t go into the detail of this crime, but it was particularly brutal, and lead police to finding Michael wandering the streets naked and covered in blood. He was acquitted of murder on the grounds of insanity, and sent to Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital.


So what do you make of these infamous cases?

I’ll tell you what I think:

Roland Doe was probably not possessed by demons. The only evidence we have is the reports from the priests themselves, and if the “anonymous companion” previously mentioned is correct, “Roland” allegedly admitted it was a hoax anyway. Regardless, at least his story had a happy ending. 

I think Michael Taylor was not possessed by demons, either. If he’d gotten the psychiatric help he obviously needed any sooner, the tragic death of Christine and their dog may have been prevented.

Similarly, despite her infamy in pop-cultural belief, Anneliese Michel was also not possessed by demons. If she had continued psychiatric help, her death may have also been avoided.

So why bring them up at all?

Well, hopefully by discussing them in this way, we can tether these tragic incidents back to reality, so that the next well-meaning friend or family members searching the internet for a “demonic possession” similar to what their loved one is facing, will be reminded that the best help they can offer is access to good mental health services. 

– Dr LJ Hawthorn

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