I recently came across a thread in the Fortean Times Appreciation group on Facebook asking members to post a Fortean or paranormal image that they find scary or haunting. The request relates to a question I was often asked when this blog concerned itself predominantly with debunking ghost images posted on social media and in the tabloid press: "This there an image you've come across that you can't explain?" For myself, there's one image that fits both of those categories. Neither can I explain it nor can I dismiss it from my mind. It frightens me every time I look at it. There isn't anything remotely paranormal about it of course. The reason it gives me pause is entirely Earthly.
The image is one taken during the exorcism of Anneliese Michel. All the images taken during that ritual involving Anneliese are particularly disturbing. Her physical deterioration is enough to give one pause.
But this image stands out for a reason besides that.
The lady with her arm wrapped around Anneliese's neck there is her mother Anna. This image starkly shows how badly this young woman was let down by the very people with a duty to protect her above anyone or anything else.
Of course, I don't consider the image remotely paranormal. Demons do not exist, they don't possess young college students. Anneliese suffered from several mental health conditions in addition to temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). She received treatment for severe depression, and due to her extremely strict religious upbringing, she became fixated on the idea that she was possessed. Her parents, family and local Priest indulged this delusion. Conditions that were treatable. There's no reason this woman could not have led a normal healthy and productive life. TLE sufferer Pete Bell commented on my Facebook page where I recently discussed this image. His insight into what Anneliese went through is invaluable. It also clearly shows why a person with a strong religious upbringing may interpret their condition as a demonic possession:
"During the seizures you can quite frequently feel the presence of a dark entity, I've described it as demonic myself before. The fear and utter dread is off the scale, you just feel like this is it, you're going to die and go to hell. And hell is like nothing you could ever imagine, what's weird us it's like you're remembering it from past experience. Religious experiences are often described too, some are lucky that they get the blissful types of seizures. Mine were always scary as shit and the following psychosis wasn't much fun either. This is a case that really resonates with me, I've experienced the personal hell she would have been through and I can't imagine what that combined with superstitious bullshit must have been like. A really sad story."
Pete recommends the talks of neuroscientist V.S Ramachandran to understand TLE better.
The image above is a stark reminder of how ignorance, superstition and blind belief can destroy lives and lead to the perpetration of unspeakable cruelty even by our loved ones. And unfortunately this is isn't a thing of the past. Incidents of children and young men killed during exorcisms continue to this day. They don't occur in far flung regions of the world, they aren't part of some strange alien culture. They happen amongst us now. That's why I want to share this image with you. It's why I hope it continues to haunt me, so I'll always be motivated to speak out about these beliefs and practices and this understanding of physical, neurological and mental disorders.
This video may upset you.
Youtube version if you don't have a flash player.
The most haunting thing about this image, these are Anneliese's own mother and father restraining the frail, dying body of their daughter. They can see her wasting away in front of their eyes, yet they don't take her to a hospital. They continue the barbaric ritual that eventually kills her. Their superstition outweighs their love for their child and their instinct to protect her.
It empowers them to assist in her murder, as is the cases I document in that short video.
I can't think of anything that scares me more. Or that escapes my attempts to understand it.