True story behind The Conjuring 3 – what they didn't show about Arne Cheyenne Johnson's court case
The latest instalment in The Conjuring franchise once again has its roots in a real-life case.
Since it opened at the cinema, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It has been attracting plenty of horror fans – racing to the top of the UK box office in the first week after release.
Naturally, a good proportion of those viewers have since been looking to find out as much as possible about the real-life case that inspired the events of the film, and just how many liberties the horror flick took with the truth.
The case in question is the trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, a man who was convicted of manslaughter in Connecticut in 1981 – becoming the first person to have claimed a defence of demonic possession during a murder trial.
That case quickly became known as "The Devil Made Me Do It Case", hence the film's subtitle, with paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren drafted in to advise, although as you might expect the judge was not particularly interested in such a fantastical defense.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga once again take on the role of the Warrens for the third film in The Conjuring horror franchise, and if you want a spoiler-free overview of the film, you can check out our The Conjuring 3 review.
Read more: The Conjuring movies in order
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It true story
The Conjuring 3 is inspired by the trial of 19-year-old Arne Cheyenne Johnson, who was charged with murdering his landlord Alan Bono in February 1981. During the trial, the defendant gained infamy for becoming the first person to claim a defence of demonic possession in a United States court – although perhaps unsurprisingly this version of events was not accepted by the judge.
His defence rested on testimony given by the family of his fiancée, Debbie Glatzel. Debbie's 11-year-old brother had reportedly been the subject of demonic possession in the months prior to the murder, with his parents having grown increasingly worried by a number of unexplained and ominous events.
The story really starts in July 1980, when the 11-year-old David Glatzel was helping Johnson clean up a Connecticut rental property he was prepping to move so he could move in.
While there David claimed to have come across a "burnt and black-looking" old man who he claims pushed him into a waterbed saying he would bring them harm if they moved into the house.
When David returned home he continued to see the old man. He described him as having a white beard, wearing jeans and a flannel shirt. David claimed the man's skin was charred as if he'd been burnt too. The young boy experienced night terrors and woke up with bruises and scratches on his body. He'd wake screaming and tell his parents he'd seen the sunken features of the old man "like an animal", with horns, pointy hears and jagged teeth (via People). (The Conjuring 3 demon appears to have gone a different route, with early photos showing a white masked man wearing a striped red long coat.)
The family said they also had heard unexplained noises coming from their attic.
In trying to get to the bottom of the issue they had called in Ed and Lorraine Warren – who by this point were already well-known paranormal experts – to diagnose and cure their son.
Ed Warren said he heard banging and growling sounds coming from their basement, and that he also say a rocking chair move on its own. Speaking to paranormal researcher Tony Spera, Ed claimed David's toy dinosaur also walked on its own towards the family. He also said a deep voice spoke to them saying: "Beware, you're all going to die."
Lorraine also claimed she saw a black mist appear next to David while her husband interviewed him. “While Ed interviewed the boy, I saw a black, misty form next to him, which told me we were dealing with something of a negative nature. Soon the child was complaining that invisible hands were choking him—and there were red marks on him. He said that he had the feeling of being hit," she told People magazine.
David's mother Judy had previously claimed it was a ghost, but the Warrens rejected this idea saying it was an indicator of a demon.
Lorraine also claimed she saw David being choked by invisible hands and he told her "he had the feeling he was being hit". She told People that she could see red marks afterwards and she heard him growl and hiss. Lorraine also claimed he spoke in unrecognisable voices, that he recited passages of the Bible as well as Paradise Lost. Debbie Glatzel also claimed he spit, bit, kicked and swore at her and he flopped around "head to toe like a ragdoll".
She also told the Chippewa Herald Telegram that "he manifested. Just a face on the wall. High cheekbones. A narrow chin. A thin nose. Big black eyes hidden in dark holes. He showed his teeth."
Ed Warren also told The Washington Post: "Right away, I knew there was something to this. I felt like a good fisherman when he knows there's something on the line." He added that he thought there were 43 demons inside the boy, and David named them all.
David Glatzel's exorcism
In the movie, Father Gordon (Steve Coulter) blesses the home. The priest's name was changed for the movie, but a Roman Catholic priest did visit the home to bless it.
After continued efforts from the Warrens, the Glatzels, and multiple priests (including Rev Francis E.Virgulak) a formal exorcism took place, with witnesses claiming that a demon fled the child's body.
Ed Warren claimed Arne, who was present at the exorcism, shouted: "Take me on, leave my little buddy alone!"
Apparently, David showed signs of improving, but Arne started to deteriorate. TV series A Haunting covered the case in the episode Where Demons Dwell, claiming that the demon took control of Johnson's car forcing it into a tree. While he was uninjured, he was shaken by the experience. The series also blamed a demon when Johnson fell from a tree while working.
Judy told The Washington Post she paid $75 an hour for a session with a local psychiatrist too, but it was up to church officials to set up and pay for further psychological testing (via Newsweek). David's parents were told he was “normal” but had a “minimal learning disability”.
Alan Bono's murder
Clearly not content with its newfound freedom, though, the story goes that the spirit then immediately took control of Johnson and it was under his control that the murder of the landlord took place several months later.
Johnson and Debbie Glatzel decided against renting the original home, and instead rented a small house near Debbie's work. Debbie was working a dog groomer for the landlord, Alan Bono, 40, who was also the kennel manager.
Bono, who has been renamed in the movie as Bruno Sauls, lived in an apartment above the kennels.
On the day of the murder, Johnson had taken the day off work and spent the day with Debbie, 26, at the kennel. Along with some other companions, Debbie, Johnson and Bono had lunch at a local restaurant and enjoyed a few drinks, becoming drunk in the process, and when they later returned to the kennel a heated fight broke out with Bono becoming increasingly agitated.
During this argument, Bono seized Debbie's nine-year-old cousin Mary, who had also been present, and refused to let her go – which then led Johnson to confront him and eventually stab him repeatedly with a five-inch pocket knife, all while growling like an animal. Bono suffered "four or five tremendous wounds" mainly to his chest area.
Bono died several hours later and Johnson was later arrested roughly two miles away from the murder. The murder is believed to be the first murder in Brookfield, Connecticut's 193-year history, and the first in the 30 years since the town had police records.
The next day, Lorraine Warren immediately claimed that it was a case of demonic possession, which naturally led to much media coverage around the world.
Arne Johnson's trial
Johnson's trial began on 28th October 1981 at Connecticut's Superior Court in Danbury.
Johnson's lawyer Martin Minnella attempted to enter a plea of "not guilty" due to demonic possession stating Johnson "was possessed by a demon, and it was a demon who actually manipulated his body." It was the first known court case in US history that had attempted this defence.
Minnella, speaking about the case and the fame that followed, said: "The courts have dealt with the existence of God. Now they're going to have to deal with the existence of the Devil." (via the New York Times).
However, the plea of not guilty due to demonic possession was immediately thrown out by presiding judge Robert Callahan who said that it would be "irrelative and unscientific" to allow testimony on these grounds, and so despite the ensuing media attention the jury was not legally allowed to consider demonic possession.
Johnson's defence claimed that he hadn't been the same after Glatzel's exorcism, and witnesses were called upon saying they saw a demon transfer from Glatzel to Johnson. Debbie Glatzel also testified that Johnson behaved similarly to Glatzel. Ed Warren claimed Johnson had made a "fatal mistake" by taunting the alleged demon.
Debbie claimed Johnson had come to Bono's apartment to repair a stereo for him, but that Bono had been drinking red wine and the pair got into an argument about payment for the repair. She also said Johnson was in a trance when he stabbed Bono.
According to reports, in the three months Debbie and Johnson had lived next to Bono they had been friends. The police believed that Bono and Debbie's relationship was more than boss and employee, but Debbie denied this despite the police claiming the argument was over her rather than the stereo. The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It does take this angle into the story, exploring the 'jealous lover' plot, which was also shown in the 1983 movie The Demon Murder Case (starring Kevin Bacon).
After the jury deliberated for more than three days, Johnson was convicted of first-degree manslaughter on 24th November 1981 and was sentenced to between 10 and 20 years in prison. He was released in 1986 having only served five years of his sentence.
Even though demonic possession was not actually allowed as a legitimate defence in the trial, the case became colloquially known as "the Devil made me do it case" – hence the subtitle of this film.
Where are the Glatzels and Johnson now?
Johnson married Debbie Glatzel while he was in prison. He also got his high school diploma while inside. The pair went on to have two children.
Lorraine Warren went on to write the book The Devil in Connecticut with Gerald Brittle detailing the case, and they shared the profits from the sales with the Glatzel family. David's brother Carl Glatzel did speak out against the book when it was republished in 2006 saying it was a "complete lie" and that "the Warrens concocted a phoney story about demons in an attempt to get rich and famous at our expense."
Carl claimed the Warrens told the family they'd be millionaires - it was later confirmed they were paid $2,000. Carl also says David was suffering with his mental health at the time, but he recovered. In 2007, David and Carl filed a lawsuit against Brittle and the Warrens for unspecified financial damages. They sued the authors and publishers for violating their privacy, libel and "intentional infliction of emotional distress."
Brittle claims his book is based on fact and he interviewed the Glatzel family for more than 100 hours, which he has video of. Lorraine Warren also said the six priests who performed exorcisms on Glatzel agreed that he was possessed.
Debbie Glatzel and Arne Johnson have always backed the account of the possession, but David's father denies his son was possessed.
How the movie tackles such a complicated case and how closely they stick to the real life events remains to be seen.
Who is Michael Taylor?
At one point in the film, Ed Warren makes reference to Michael Taylor – an Englishman who had used demonic possession as part of his defence in a previous murder trial in the UK.
This was indeed a real-life case, with Taylor having been convicted of murdering his wife shortly after he had received an exorcism in 1974, although it's not strictly true that he pled innocence due to demonic possession.
Taylor was part of a religious group that had decided his unusual behaviour over a period of several months could only be the result of demonic possession, and vicars reportedly said he was possessed by as many as 40 demons – with an eight-hour exorcism needed to root them out.
This was mentioned in his trial, but he was found not guilty by reason of insanity, not by reason of demonic possession, and in fact, his lawyers held the religious group he was a member of partly responsible for this.
Were Katie and Jessica real people?
One aspect of the plot that isn't based on real-life at all concerns the storyline about Katie and Jessica.
In the film, the Warrens' investigation leads them to the case of Katie Lincoln, a girl who had been stabbed multiple times by her friend Jessica – who had then jumped off a cliff, apparently under the influence of the occultist.
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This entire aspect of the film is a fabrication for dramatic purposes – no such case exists, and naturally, neither does the occultist.
That said, if you want to know more about this fictional case, DC Comics has released DC Horror Presents: The Conjuring: The Lover #1, a tie-in book that gives Jessica a more detailed backstory.
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First published 21st May, 2021.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is released in cinemas on 4th June, 2021 on HBO Max and 28th May in the UK.
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