For most, the concept of possession comes from what we see in movies and books. But for those poor souls involved in the alleged cases below, the forces at work were frighteningly real. From super strength and speaking in tongues to levitation, here are nine frightening reports of real-life demonic possession.
1. Anneliese Michel
Perhaps one of the most terrifying exorcism cases in history, Anneliese Michel’s story went on to inspire the 2005 film The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Michel, a young German woman, had struggled from an early age with mental illness. Diagnosed with epileptic psychosis, she also experienced depression and visual and auditory hallucinations, for which she was hospitalized. With time, her symptoms intensified, growing to include an aversion towards religious iconography.
Both she and her Catholic family attributed her condition to demonic possession, and beginning at 22, she underwent an intense 10 months of Catholic exorcism rites. Nearly 70 exorcisms were performed in secrecy under the order of the church. In July of 1976, Michel passed away. An autopsy declared her death was the result of emaciation, malnutrition and starvation at the hands of her priests and her family, who had, during the exorcisms, discontinued consultations with doctors. The family and priests involved were investigated, charged with negligent homicide, and found guilty of manslaughter, serving six months in jail and three years probation.
2. The Smurls' Poltergeist
Unlike many other well-known cases of demonic possession, the Smurl family claimed it was not a person who was possessed. Instead, they claimed their West Pittston, Pennsylvania double-block home had been taken over by a poltergeist. The Smurl family’s case was both highly publicized and heavily scrutinized, discredited by paranormal professionals and clergy who claimed on several occasions that nothing unusual was happening at the residence.
However, paranormal investigators and demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren claimed the house was occupied by a “very powerful” demon, performing several exorcisms on the home to rid it of the dark shadow they saw there. The unsuccessful exorcism was done in an attempt to stop the demon’s alleged attacks on the family, which included loud banging, foul-smelling odors, shaken mattresses, physical and sexual assaults on one member of the family, others being pushed down stairs, and even their dog being thrown into the wall. In 1986, after publishing a book about their experiences, the family claimed intense prayer had helped return things to normal—although the family matriarch said there were still odd occurrences in 1987.
3. Anna Ecklund
Often said to include speaking in tongues and strange guttural voices, levitating and clinging to bedroom walls, disturbed thoughts and revulsion of holy objects and sacred spaces, Ecklund’s possession spanned several decades beginning in 1912 when she was just 14 years old. Her case was so well known that it served as the basis for a Time profile of the priest in charge of her exorcism, Father Theophilus Riesinger.
Anna's demonic possession was reportedly the result of a curse, put on the devout Catholic in 1908 by her caretakers: her father and her aunt, Mina. Mina was widely believed to be the lover of Anna’s father, as well as a witch who used spelled herbs in Ecklund’s food to put her under the demon’s spell. Father Carl Vogl penned an account of Anna’s possession in a pamphlet, published in 1936, called Begone Satan: A Soul Stirring Account of Diabolical Possession in Iowa.
The first exorcism performed on Ecklund in 1912 was successful for a time, but Ecklund would be possessed again by even more demons in 1928. Her second exorcism, which lasted three sessions, was held at a convent in Earling, Iowa and was so grueling it resulted in the deterioration of Ecklund's body. The demons were eventually exorcised, and Ecklund went on to live her life, with only milder possessions after.
4. Roland Doe
In many ways, Ecklund and Roland Doe (also known by another alias, "Robbie Mannheim") had similar experiences with possession, including the fact that both were cataloged and published by priests. Doe's case became so notorious that it, too, was adapted into a film: His case was the inspiration for the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist.
After the passing of his aunt, the 13-year-old turned to a spirit board to commune with his beloved family member. Instead of inviting his aunt, Roland apparently invited something much more sinister. After the family became overwhelmed by weird occurrences, including odd noises, furniture moving by itself, and objects levitating when Roland was around, they reached out to their Lutheran pastor who, after monitoring Roland's behavior, declared that he should see a Catholic priest. He did; during the resulting exorcism the boy slashed the Catholic priest’s arm with a bedspring, temporarily putting an end to any further action.
The family then moved to St. Louis and saw three more priests, who – with the permission of an Archbishop – carried out around 30 exorcisms on Roland in the psychiatric wing of a city hospital. Messages written on his skin, guttural voices, and extreme strength were noted in one priest’s diary before the young boy was eventually freed of the malicious spirit with no memory of the incident.
5. The Strange Case of Michael Taylor
Unlike several other well-known cases of exorcism, Michael Taylor’s did not end in a return to normalcy. After Christine Taylor accused her increasingly erratic and socially distant husband of adultery with their church group leader during a meeting, Taylor lashed out at both his wife and his alleged mistress.
In a short time, his terrifying behavior increased in frequency and intensity, and it was decided that Michael would be seen by priests. Following a full night of exhaustive exorcism sessions, the priests claimed they had pulled upwards of 40 demons from Taylor but that several remained inside him when they sent him home. Upon his return, he violently murdered his wife and strangled the family poodle to death. He was picked up by police after wandering the neighborhood streets, soaked in blood.
6. David Berkowitz, Son of Sam
One of America’s most notorious serial killers claimed to have been possessed during his spree, blaming the demons for the murder of six New York City residents. In the year between 1976 and 1977, Berkowitz would terrorize the residents of the city’s five boroughs murdering six and wounding seven, a violent spree he attributed to “Papa Sam,” a mysterious, evil figure Berkowitz referenced in the letters he left at his crime scenes.
After his capture, it was revealed that “Sam” was the dog of his neighbor Sam Carr. Berkowitz claimed in his prison diaries that the animal was possessed by a 6,000-year-old man named Sam, an alcoholic who consumed human blood. Berkowitz also claimed that the spirit locked him in the attic and commanded him to kill through the dog. “He told me [to kill] through his dog, as he usually does,” David wrote in his diaries, before revealing concern that he “may, one day, evolve into a humanoid or demon in a more complete state.”
Although Berkowitz has gone back and forth, sometimes sticking with the possession story, sometimes recanting it, he, to this day, believes that his crimes were part of an epic struggle between God and the Devil.
7. Clara Germana Cele
The case of Clara Germana Cele takes us all the way to a mission school in Umzinto, South Africa. The 16-year-old student was allegedly possessed in the late summer of 1906 after making a pact with the Devil. As word about the pact reached one of the school’s priests, Clara’s behavior began to become erratic and intensified rapidly, with witnesses claiming that the young girl developed a strong aversion to holy objects, tore at her clothes, talked to things that weren’t visible and growled like an animal. She also gained knowledge of other languages, supposedly levitated up to five feet off the ground, exhibited superhuman strength, and relayed personal information about others she shouldn’t have been able to know – all trademarks of possession.
Two priests performed an exorcism that lasted more than a day, but another became necessary in January of 1907 after the girl admitted she had made yet another pact with the Devil. Another exorcism was allegedly performed, this time lasting two days, before she was freed of the demon.
8. Dr. Richard Gallagher and "Julia"
This possession case is the most recent on the list, occurring less than 10 years ago in 2008. A board-certified psychiatrist and teacher at both Columbia University and New York Medical College, Richard E. Gallagher declared that his patient, known only as “Julia,” had experienced possession. Described as a “charming and engaging” woman, Julia was the queen of a satanic cult. After feeling convinced she was being attacked by a demon, Julia reached out to a local priest who, in turn, reached out to Gallagher to put the woman through psychiatric treatment.
But Gallagher ruled out mental illness after seeing his patient enter trance-like states and finding items flying off the shelves in his office, Julia speaking in tongues and sharing details about his life that she couldn’t know.
One event that sealed the deal for the Yale-educated medical professional was when, during a phone call with Julia’s priest, he heard one of the demonic voices that had come from her mouth – except she was nowhere near a phone. Julia was eventually exorcised, a process during which she allegedly spewed threats, levitated, exhibited super strength, and changed the temperature of the room.
9. Carolyn Perron and the Perron Family
Adapted for the big screen into the hugely successful Hollywood horror hit The Conjuring, this possession is the epitome of a real-life horror story. Soon after the Perron family moved into their dream house in a quaint Rhode Island neighborhood in 1970, the haunting began. The large family immediately began to experience odd and terrifying happenings, from some things as small as odd sounds to those as terrifying as family members being pulled from their beds.
On a number of occasions the ghost of a woman who hanged herself on the property appeared. She particularly abhorred the Perron matriarch, harassing and eventually possessing her. The paranormal investigative duo Ed and Lorraine Warren were brought in and after evaluating the Perrons’ situation, declared that there had been quite a few insidious things that occurred in the home and around the property that cast a dark cloud over the entire place. Attempts to exorcise the malevolent spirit from the home failed, and the family endured its torment until 1980, when they fled to Georgia.