It was the first U.S. court case to use demonic possession as a defense.
Warner Bros. Pictures
“The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do It” will be haunting theaters and HBO Max starting Friday, June 4. After detouring into spinoffs (“Annabelle,” “The Nun,” etc.), the franchise has returned its focus to demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively) and another of their bizarre cases.
The new film follows the notorious 1981 murder trial of 19-year-old Arne Johnson, who claimed he stabbed his landlord to death while under the influence of a demonic force. The case came amid a nearly 15-year long pop culture fascination with the occult fueled by films like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist,” and coincided with the rise of multiple conspiracy theories collectively known as the 1980s satanic panic.
The story begins in the summer of 1979 in Brookfield, Connecticut, a small suburban town that hadn’t seen one murder in its 193 year history. The family of Johnson’s girlfriend, Deborah Glatzel, temporarily relocated to an old house at the edge of town with the intention of restoring it for future tenants.
The move had a swift and strange effect on Deborah’s 11-year-old brother, David, who claimed to have visions of a haggard, sunburned old man warning him to “beware,” according to a report from the New York Times.
According to David, the man’s appearance grew less human as his warnings grew more menacing. He’d appear with big, black eyes, jagged teeth, horns and hooves and threaten to overtake the boy’s soul. One day his mother, Judy,found David laying face-down on his bed, where he claimed he’d been shoved by the “Beast Man.”
Johnson tried to help David and the family when he could but it soon became clear that they were not simply dealing with a child’s active imagination.
“He would kick, bite, spit, swear – terrible words.” Judy Glatzel told the New York Times.
Glatzel also told the paper that David developed a habit of reciting passages from the Bible and John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” at random. Her son’s body soon became covered in scratches and bruises that nobody could account for. At times he seemed to struggle against invisible hands tightening around his neck, at others he’d be shaken violently as if he were a rag doll.
The Catholic family became convinced that David was being possessed by the devil, leading them to seek the help of Ed and Lorraine Warren. The couple had recently garnered national attention for their investigation of the Amityville haunting, which also inspired films of its own.
Upon meeting the boy for the first time, Lorraine claimed to sense a dark presence right away.
“While Ed interviewed the boy, I saw a black, misty form next to him,” she said to People Magazine at the time of the trial, “Which told me we were dealing with something of a negative nature.”
Ed’s analysis determined that there was not just one demon inside David but 43, all of which the demonologist said the boy was able to name.
“It was just a stereotype possession case.” Warren later said in an interview.
The demonologists concluded that the family’s last resort was in order: Exorcism.
The Warrens claimed to perform three exorcisms on the boy under the supervision of local priests. They said that David levitated, cursed and even stopped breathing at one point. Chillingly, David is also said to have predicted a murder during the intense sessions.
It was at this point that Johnson, who had recently moved in with the family to help care for David, grew desperate. According to Deborah, her boyfriend begged the demons to leave David and enter him instead during one of the exorcisms. Photographs obtained by the New York Times show Johnson kneeling over David, pressing a crucifix from a chain around his neck onto the boy’s forehead.
After Johnson’s plea, David’s episodes became less frequent. But, according to Ed, in “taunting” the devil, Johnson had saved David but sealed his own fate.
Johnson’s bizarre behavior began days later. According to Deborah, he’d go into trances in which he’d growl and hallucinate then have no memory of the incidents. One day, he claimed the demon took control of his car and made him crash into a tree although he was unharmed. Johnson and Deborah eventually had to move out of the Glatzel family home and into an apartment. Deborah began working for their landlord, Alan Bono, at the local kennel. Johnson befriended Bono and would often skip work to spend time with him at the kennel.
On February 16, 1981, Johnson called in sick to his job as a tree surgeon so he could meet up with Glatzel and Bono at the kennel. The three went out to lunch, where Bono drank heavily. Later that night they returned to Bono’s apartment above the kennels, where the men got into a heated argument. According to what was stated at the trial, Johnson then pulled out a 5 inch pocket knife and “growled like an animal” before stabbing Bono repeatedly.
According to Johnson’s lawyer, Bono suffered “four or five tremendous wounds,” most of which were to his chest, and one that stretched from his stomach to the bottom of his heart. He died at the hospital hours later. Johnson was found 3 miles from the murder site and taken into custody.
The following day, Lorraine informed local police that Johnson was possessed when the crime was committed, sparking a media blitz as well as talk of new book deals and film rights for the Warrens.
Johnson’s attorney, Martin Minella, quickly adopted Lorraine’s assessment as Johnson’s official defense.
“I’m very confident,” he said to the Washington Post, “I could put the pope on and he’d tell you that if a guy is demonically possessed, he is not responsible.”
The trial began on October 28, 1981 and Minella submitted his plea that Johnson was not guilty of the murder on account of possession, leading to the most infamous line from the trial.
“The courts have dealt with the existence of God, and now they’ll be asked to deal with the existence of the demonic spirit.”
The devil proved less persuasive to the jury. Johnson was found guilty of first degree murder on November 24, 1981. He was sentenced to 10-20 years in prison but only served five.
As with all of their cases, the Warrens faced scrutiny for not just the facts of their story but for their commercial interest in it as well. However, they maintained that both Glatzel and Johnson truly were possessed by demonic entities until the end, Ed died in 2006 and then Lorraine in 2019. Of course whether you believe the “devil made me do it” case is the work of Satan himself or rather his appearances in popular media, is up to you.
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