When Anneliese Michel was 16 years old, she had a seizure. Doctors in her small municipality in Bavaria, Germany, diagnosed her with epilepsy. Her condition worsened, and she was taken to a psychiatric hospital, where she was prescribed anti-convulsion drugs. They did little to alleviate her symptoms, which grew not only worse, but increasingly bizarre. Michel described seeing a “devil face” throughout the day. She was prescribed more drugs. She began to hear voices telling her that she would “rot in hell.” Most sinister of all, she developed an intolerance for religious objects.
Michel had been raised a devout Catholic, and she began to suspect her condition was not medical, but spiritual. She asked for an exorcism, but local priests refused, saying her condition did not meet enough of Rome’s criteria to qualify. By the time Michel turned 20, her life had become a nightmare— she was eating spiders and spending days in a dog-like state—and a priest named Ernst Alt was finally convinced to implore the local bishop to agree to an exorcism. Anneliese Michel, Alt believed, was possessed by a demon. Multiple demons, in fact.
THE DEVIL WE KNOW
This event, which took place from roughly 1970 to 1973, formed the basis of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the 2005 supernatural horror directed by Scott Derrickson. The movie took a lot of liberties with the plot, but it remained one of the more theologically informed supernatural films in the Hollywood canon, owing largely to its reliance on Catholic teaching. In real life, Michel’s bout with what she and her family believed to be demon possession ended tragically when she died of malnutrition from not being able to eat. She was 23 when she died and weighed just 68 pounds.
A lawsuit sprung from her death, which led to Michel’s parents and the two priests in charge of her exorcism being found guilty of homicide by negligence. The Catholic Church retooled its rules around exorcisms in the wake of the negative press.
If that makes it sound like there’s a lot of red tape around the Catholic Church’s dealing with demon possession, you haven’t heard anything yet. Rome recognizes various degrees of demon oppression. There’s infestation—similar to a haunting, in which objects move and creepy noises issue from nowhere. There’s vexation, in which people appear to be physically attacked by demons, showing bruises and bite marks. There’s obsession, in which people can’t seem to turn off evil thoughts.
Possession is the rarest form of demonic oppression, but it’s on the rise. Or, at least, people seem to think it is.
“It definitely is real,” says Jonathan Martin. “I would say, just based on the literature that I’ve read around possession and all those kinds of things as well as a few experiences I’ve had, that there certainly seems to be something organized about Satan.”
Martin is an author and pastor in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who has what he calls a “curiosity” about the world of spiritual warfare.
“The first proper appearance of Satan in the Bible is in the book of Job,” Martin says. “The word that appears in Hebrew is literally ‘the Accuser.’ It’s an office. It’s a title. He is the Accuser of the brethren. So I feel like there’s this through line throughout all of Scripture that first and foremost Satan is embodied as accusation.”
Martin says this idea, of Satan relishing in being an “accuser,” can be subtly manifested through real-world interactions.
“What is more evil than scapegoating another person, making ourselves feel righteous at someone else’s expense?” he explains. “That’s part of what I feel like is happening now. I find it interesting the Catholic Church is reporting a record number of exorcisms. I feel like ‘the accusation’ is out of control in the world right now.”
No one’s keeping exact numbers, but the Pope Leo XIII Institute was founded in Libertyville, Illinois, in 2010 in direct response to the CatholicChurch’s sense of a growing need for more trained exorcists. The Institute graduated its second class of 52 freshly minted exorcists in the fall of 2017.
When contacted by RELEVANT, the Institute said they do not refer priests to the media, but Msgr. John Esseff, president of the institute’s board of directors, told the Catholic Register that he was “hopeful bishops are becoming more aware of their role as the ‘chief exorcist’ for the diocese.”
“There is also still some resistance of the reality of Satan,” he continues. “… As if there is just evil and not the devil.”
This idea is not limited to the Catholic Church. The idea of Satan is something talked about frequently in Sunday School—largely because the concept of a mystical super villain is a good way to hold the attention of 7-year-olds. But as Christians get older, talk about Satan and demons fades.
There are a number of reasons for this, but a big one among many evangelicals seems to be that all this talk about Satan and demons is just a bit silly.
Stats back this up: Belief in Satan isn’t as popular in the U.S. as belief in God (according to Gallup, about 79 percent of Americans believe in God, while just 61 percent believe in the devil), but even among those who do believe, for many, he does not factor into their lives in a serious way.
Maybe that’s because so much of our talk around the devil is shaped by cultural representations. Red tights, pointy tail, pitchfork—even if you know in your head that Satan isn’t a mustache-twirling guy with horns and sharp teeth, it’s still hard to push back against the onslaught of cartoonish imagery that’s invaded your idea of the devil since you were a kid.
One way Christians have pushed back against this idea is by making the notion of spiritual warfare a visceral one. In the ’80s and ’90s, Christian author Frank Peretti became a minor celebrity for his Stephen King-esque tales of Christians waging prayerful combat with the supernatural forces of evil in books like This Present Darkness, Piercing the Darkness and The Oath. Hugely successful Christian recording artist Carman would regale listeners with stories of supernatural combat, in which he—a God-fearing Christian—would humiliate Satan.
Well-intentioned though these tales may have been, they stood in stark contrast to most Christians’ experiences with the devil—and only further enforced the notion that he wasn’t quite real. That, according to some people, might be part of the plan.
“I find it interesting that some of the times I’ve experienced evil in the ways that I thought were most like disturbing or profound were in the ecclesiastical setting as opposed to, you know, a Marilyn Manson show,” Martin says.
As an example, he relates a time he was in a denominational meeting and tempers began to flare over the issue of women in ministry.
“More and more people were kind of railing against it,” he recounts. “Then it just got super dark.The energy behind it, I mean, it was so blatant like it was ugly, it was gross and I just remember feeling like, ‘Man, there is something in the air here that is wrong.’ It felt like people are not … in their right minds here. You think about like the mob that crucified Jesus, there’s something about that kind of mob mentality once it starts to kind of run amok.”
That story doesn’t have the sort of sizzle that would inspire a Hollywood movie like Michel’s, and it may be a more effective demonic strategy for that reason.
C.S. Lewis’ classic spiritual satire The Screwtape Letters follows a fictional elder demon advising his rookie nephew in the ways of keeping a young Christian from getting too close to God or, as they have it, “The Enemy.” In one of these letters, Screwtape writes:
“I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence. That question, at least for the present phase of the struggle, has been answered for us by the High Command. Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course this has not always been so. We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence, we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and skeptics.”
This, according to Martin, is the real heart of any conversation about demonic oppression. Not spinning heads and crucifixes, but the lack thereof. If the devil is real—and the general consensus of church history is that he is—then the battle being waged against him is an important one and the flashy demon possession tricks are a very minuscule part of it.
For his incendiary place in pop culture, the Bible speaks very little of the devil. Revelation spins a dramatic origin story of an angel who fell from heaven, taking a third of the angels with him. Jesus is tempted by Satan in the desert, and casts out His fair share of demons—once, memorably, into a herd of pigs.
And there is the occasional wild detail in there. In the Old Testament, Daniel speaks with an angel who claimed he was waylaid from answering prayers for 21 days while he and the archangel Michael contended with a “Prince of Persia”— something biblical scholars believe to be a reference to a demon. But for the most part, the Bible’s focus tends toward things that seem comparatively mundane.
For humans, at least, the battle against Satan does not often look like exorcisms. “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you” says James 4:7, making victory over Satan sound about as complicated as losing weight.
That, according to Martin, is the point—although we often tend to focus too much on the latter, and not enough on the former.
“This submission to God is the key part,” he says. “I think mostly in terms of how spiritual warfare is accomplished is mostly through spiritual disciplines that cause us to come into a deeper place of surrender to God.”