The Devil in Pictures

For the first 22 years of her life, Anneliese Michel was an unremarkable young woman--a teacher in training and part of a devout Roman Catholic family in Germany. She also happened to be an epileptic, and prone to the seizures that often accompany that condition. Somehow, though, her parents convinced themselves that Satan had gotten hold of her soul. They called two local priests, who spent 10 months trying to exorcise the young woman's demons. To avoid interfering with the exorcism, the parents even halted her treatment for epilepsy. Michel finally died, in 1975, at the age of 23, withered and weakened to just 31 kilos from being denied food and water during the exorcism. If the story sounds familiar, that's because it is the premise of Hollywood feature "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," which made its European debut in Italy on Oct. 7. In the real-life case, all four participants in the exorcism were found guilty of negligent homicide, and Michel has been a posthumous European cult hero ever since.

The movie has now reignited a decades-old controversy. A few doctors and scientists have called for an end to exorcisms, or at least for Rome or Brussels to regulate them. The Vatican has responded by digging in its heels. In an effort to add a patina of scientific validity to the ancient practice, which usually involves physical restraint and screaming prayers, last week the church began offering bona fide medical training to its exorcists to help them distinguish between psychological and pathological ailments and possession by the Devil. The class, called Exorcism and Prayers of Deliverance, which began on Oct. 13 at Rome's Athenaeum Pontificium Regina Apostolorium, features mental-health doctors who purport to show which valid medical symptoms can account for those previously thought to be Satan's work. According to Prof. Carlo Climati, one of the course instructors, "With proper scientific study, priests and bishops should be better prepared to distinguish and meet their real foe, the rise of satanic worship." Dr. Scott Lilienfield, professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta and an expert in exorcism, disagrees: "Exorcism is the most dangerous hoax in treating mental illness," he says.

The publicity comes at a bad time for the church. Interest in satanic worship has risen sharply across Europe recently; there are 5,000 Italians involved in 650 active satanic cults in operation in the country, more than double the number a decade ago. And there have been several high-profile deaths outside of Italy from exorcisms gone wrong around the world. (According to the Italian Association of Psychiatrists and Psychologists, half a million Italians seek exorcisms each year.)

In September, a Guyana jury convicted Patricia Alves for bludgeoning her friend Kamille Seenauth to death in an attempt to beat the Devil out. And in Romania, a priest and four nuns from the Romanian Orthodox Church are on trial this month. They are charged with murdering a 23-year-old novice nun named Irina Maricica Cornici last June by tying her to a wooden cross and gagging her with a holy vestment. Just like Michel 30 years ago, she was being treated medically, in her case for schizophrenia. When she started hearing voices, she called in the priests. Father Daniel Petru Corogeanu, who led the exorcism, said in his defense that his approach was better than the treatment she was getting from doctors. Cornici's psychiatrist, Dr. Gheorghe Silvestrovici, insists that Cornici was suffering from schizophrenia: "She was probably having her first episode."

Religious leaders argue that spiritual cleansing is sometimes important in the treatment of mental and physical illness, especially if the patient is religious. Doctors have objected to exorcisms in specific cases, but for the most part prefer to leave religious rituals to the church. Scientists and doctors insist that there's no way to use science to distinguish between possession and disease for the simple fact that possession is not a valid medical condition.

Despite the bad publicity, there's been no public outcry against exorcism. Southern Europeans tend to be reluctant to cross the church, even if they don't believe in the concept of Satan or satanic possession. Meanwhile, the church is urging Catholics to stay away from "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," perhaps fearing they won't like what they see.