Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Real "Emily Rose" and Vodun Bunk

The Fatal Exorcism of Anneliese Michel

The Exorcism of Emily Rose is the fictionalized story of a German college student named Anneliese Michel. In the autumn of 1973, she was exhibiting strange behaviour at the University of Wurzberg (she was, like "Emily Rose", 19); lashing out, refusing to eat, throwing tantrums. She was epileptic, but Anneliese's parents consulted a priest instead of a doctor, and the priest recommended exorcism. The bishop reluctantly approved this decision, and two priests were assigned to perform the rite of exorcism on Annaliese - making this (as the trailer for Emily Rose blares) an official Catholic exorcism. The priest who first recommended exorcism, Adolf Rodewyk, was not part of the process, and the advice he gave in his 1963 book Possessed by Satan went unheeded: Clerics should look for medical explanations for "possession" before assuming the worst. Rodewyk's POV is commonly held by today's clerics, but proponents of possession and Hollywood producers insist on turning stories like Anneliese's into simplistic science-vs.-faith fairytales in which cold, ruthless rationalists undermine the beliefs of Everyman at the expense of both.

The exorcism of Anneliese didn't begin until official permission was granted, and went on for several months. It was 1976 and Anneliese was 23 before the process ended - with her death. She had refused to take (or had been denied) water and nourishment for so long that she wasted away to 70 pounds, and died without having seen a doctor.

The priests and her parents were charged with negligent homicide. The priests were found guilty in 1978, but were sentenced only to six month suspended prison sentences for allowing someone in their care to starve to death. To its credit, the German Bishops' Conference ruled that an exorcism could henceforth be performed only if a physician was present.

The symptoms of epilepsy are nearly identical to the "symptoms" of supposed demonic possession.

Audiotapes were made of Anneliese's exorcism. In addition to the usual sounds of possession (growling, clicking, hissing), she spoke in the voices of the various spirits who inhabited her body: Hitler, Judas Iscariot, a murderous Jewish doctor, etc. The tapes are revealing. The accent used for Hitler differed dramatically from his real one, and none of the spirits revealed any knowledge that couldn't be gleaned from textbooks and the Bible. ("Cries of a Woman Possessed: German Court Hears Tapes in Exorcism Death Trial" by Michael Getler, Washington Post, April 21/78, available online here).

Other Sources:

How about Demons?: Possession and Exorcism in the Modern World by Felicitas D. Goodman (Indiana University Press, 1988)

The official The Exorcism of Emily Rose website (www.whathappenedtoemily.com)

The Skeleton Key and Vodun Bunk

Director Iaian Softley's film starring Kate Hudson, The Skeleton Key, is the latest in a looong tradition of films that capitalize on the evil uses of Vodun ("voodoo") magic. I Walked With a Zombie and Wes Craven's The Serpent and the Rainbow (based on a nonfiction book of the same name) are two notable others. In each of these films, the basic premise is Science & Reason vs. Magic & Belief. A skeptic wanders into a hotbed of Vodun activity thinking that magical spells and curses can't possibly harm anyone, and ends up menaced by sinister Vodun practitioners and/or a legion of diabolic supernatural forces. In the end, he/she is forced to admit that Vodun magic is real. The Skeleton Key isn't any different; in the trailer, Kate Hudson's character chants to herself, "It isn't real, it isn't real...", then changes her tune to, "It's all real."

Vodun magic is effective - when it involves the powerful drugs and altered states of consciousness employed by its priests. I don't believe that its practitioners are actually possessed by the loa. And I don't believe that most Voudon magic is practiced with malicious intent, as these movies would have us believe. As with other forms of magic, it's usually practiced with the aim of bringing luck and fortune to practitioners - not death and misery to their enemies. To imply that Lousiana Vodun magicians or Haitian priests are more evil, more duplicitous than the rest of civilization is patently racist, superstitious, and ignorant.

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