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'The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It' -- Ed and Lorraine Warren's role in the real case

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‘The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It’ — Ed and Lorraine Warren’s role in the real case

Is ‘demonic possession’ a viable criminal defense?

According to IMDB, the latest in New Line Cinema’s long-running Conjuring horror movie series, The Devil Made Me Do It, “starts with a fight for the soul of a young boy, then takes [self-proclaimed demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren] beyond anything they’d ever seen before, to mark the first time in U.S. history that a murder suspect would claim demonic possession as a defense.”

The film is based on the real-life 1981 trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, which is popularly referred to as the “Devil Made Me Do It” case, in which the defendant claimed he murdered his landlord while demonically possessed. The outlandish nature of the case, and the involvement of the Warrens, resulted in major media coverage, a book deal, a made-for-TV film with NBC, and now, several decades later, a major motion picture.

Victim of the Warrens?

The story begins with Johnson and his fiancé, Deborah Glatzel, working to clean up a rental property they were set to move into. Deborah’s 12-year-old brother, David, was helping them, until he began to see an old man “with burnt-looking skin and a plaid shirt torn at the elbow, pointing a finger and warning him, ‘Beware.’” At first, Johnson and Glatzel thought David was just trying to get out of helping, but in time, David began claiming the old man’s visage changed to that of a demonic creature “with big black eyes, a thin face with animal features and jagged teeth, pointed ears, horns, and hoofs,” who spoke in Latin and threatened to take his soul.

Things escalated when David began experiencing night terrors, and bruises and scratches started to appear on his body. Around this time David’s mother, Judy, explained, “He would kick, bite, spit, swear terrible words,” as well as thrash about like a “rag doll,” which Judy maintained must be supernatural, as “he can’t even do a sit-up. He’s too fat.”

On the advice of their pastor, the Glatzels reached out to famous paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, and arranged for them to come and evaluate David. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Warrens declared David was possessed — by no less than 42 demons! The Warrens claimed to have requested permission from Bishop Walter Curtis of the Diocese of Bridgeport for an exorcism to be performed on David, and that the Bishop assigned Father Francis E. Virgulak to the case. A representative for the Catholic Church confirmed that Virgulak and three additional priests were asked to investigate, but denied that any exorcism had been performed, and that any formal request had been made.

It was during one of these exorcisms that Johnson claimed he became the target of demonic activity, after challenging the demons to leave David’s body and enter his own. It’s a fact that Johnson was heard to say, “Control me, leave this boy alone,” as he was recorded on audiotape by the Warrens.

It’s also true that Johnson, Glatzel, and their landlord, Alan Bono, had been drinking heavily on February 16, 1981, months after the “exorcism.” A fight broke out between Johnson and Bono, at which time Johnson drew a 5-inch bladed knife and stabbed Bono more than 20 times, killing him. What remained disputed was whether or not Johnson was truly responsible for the crime, as his defense attorney, Marvin Minella, would challenge the court to “deal with the existence of the devil” in claiming his client’s innocence.

The trial began on October 28, 1981, during which Minella attempted to submit a plea of not guilty by virtue of possession which, despite testimony from both the Glatzel family and the Warrens, Superior Court Justice Robert Callahan dismissed as “unscientific” and “irrelevant.” Next, Minella argued that Johnson had acted in self-defense. Finally, on November 24, the jury announced they had found Johnson guilty on the reduced charge of manslaughter, and he was sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. Later described as a model prisoner, Johnson was ultimately released after serving only five years behind bars, and he went on to marry Glatzel.

The bizarre nature of the case attracted worldwide attention, even before the made-for-TV movie (The Demon Murder Case) and book (The Devil in Connecticut, co-written by Lorraine Warren) were released in 1983. During the trial, everyone associated with Johnson’s defense was keenly aware of the marketability of the case, with Minella remarking to The Washington Post:

“Everyone is interested in this case. Everyone. We got calls from Australia, from Switzerland, from England, everywhere. When I went to London, they recognized me on the street. All the top studios are interested in this, all the top producers. Of course, my position is that we won’t talk until after the trial is over. My client is more important to me,” though not failing to point out, “People are talking millions when they talk about this. Not hundreds of thousands of dollars, but millions.”

When The Devil in Connecticut was re-released in 2006, following the death of Ed Warren, Carl Glatzel Jr., the brother of David and Debbie Glatzel, sued Lorraine Warren and her co-author, Gerald Brittle. Carl confirmed his family did receive money from the publisher (about $2,000), but denied that his father had ever claimed to Brittle that David had been possessed. Rather, according to Carl in an interview for the Connecticut newspaper Journal Inquirer, his brother David was mentally ill as a boy, and experienced hallucinations and delusions that were exploited by the Warrens for their own financial gain:

“They saw a goldmine. We’re not going to be ridiculed again.” I reached out to Carl for comment on the upcoming movie and he revealed that he himself was actually working on a book of his own to set the record straight. “People are going to believe what they want to believe, but the facts will speak for themselves,” he explained. “People are going to sit back and shake their heads.”

'The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It' -- Ed and Lorraine Warren's role in the real case

Ed and Lorraine Warren had a long history of profiting financially off the credulity and naivete of others, through book deals, lectures, or television appearances promoting themselves as demonologists or clairvoyants. Much like the real-life case that inspired the first Conjuring film, there is little in the way of actual evidence to support the claims that either Johnson or David Gatzel were genuinely the victims of demonic possession, and not just struggling to understand mental health issues while a couple of grifters capitalized on their troubles.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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