While a popular staple in horror movies, real-life exorcisms are practiced in several cultures by those who believe that not only are demons and other sinister spirits real, but they also have the ability to possess human beings. The process of casting out an evil entity ranges in severity from simple spells to elaborate and often violent rituals performed on the supposedly possessed. A more reasonable explanation for demonic possession has often been found in mental illness: either on the part of the possessed, who may actually be suffering from demonomania, epilepsy, Tourette's, schizophrenia or another illness; or on the part of the accuser. Unfortunately, many terrifying exorcisms have involved brutal tactics including beatings, starvation and being bound for long periods of time, occasionally leading to injury and even death.
In 1976, a 23-year-old German girl named Anneliese Michel died of dehydration and malnutrition after more than 60 exorcisms were performed on her throughout a period of 10 months. Her troubles started at 16 when she had a seizure. She was later diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy and depression. She was also reported to loathe religious icons, hear voices, and she became suicidal.
Her family was convinced she was possessed and eventually talked a pair of priests into exorcising her. Her parents and the priests were convicted of negligent homicide, and the film The Exorcism of Emily Rose is based on Anneliese’s case.
Bridget Cleary was an Irish woman murdered by her husband, Michael Cleary, in 1895. Michael believed that Bridget had been kidnapped by fairies and that she was actually a changeling. He either murdered her and set her body on fire, or lit her on fire while she was still alive. Prior to her death, Bridget had been sick, possibly with pneumonia or tuberculosis.
A 17-year-old Palestinian girl named Israa Zourob died during an exorcism in 2014. Abu Khalil al-Zamili, the sheikh conducting the exorcism, forced her to drink a liter of water that had been mixed with salt in order to get the supposed demon to release her. Her mother, who watched her perish, said that he and the girl’s brother forced her to drink after she complained that the water was too salty.
In 2005, Maricica Irina Cornici, a young Romanian nun, believed the devil was trying to communicate with her inside her mind. She was initially treated for schizophrenia, but her fellow nuns decided what she needed was an exorcism. The nuns and a monk tied the woman to a cross, shoved a towel in her mouth, and left her there for multiple days with no food. She died of suffocation and dehydration. The monk and nuns were charged with her murder, and they were sentenced to between five to 14 years in prison.
The 2012 Romanian film Beyond the Hills was inspired by this case.