The Real-Life ‘Demonic’ Murder That Inspired ‘The Conjuring’

·5 min read

Ed and Lorraine Warren, he a “demonologist” and she a clairvoyant, spent their lives investigating and combating the supernatural, which made them ideal protagonists for The Conjuring movie franchise based on their work. Anyone who’s seen those films, however, can deduce that—spooky as their stories might be—the Warrens were frauds. And for additional confirmation of that fact, there’s now Shock Docs: The Devil Made Me Do It, a Discovery+ special (premiering June 11) that tells the true story behind Warner Bros.’ latest cinematic-series installment, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.

Though it purports to be a documentary, there’s nothing “real” about Discovery+’s two-hour inquiry, which—save for a few late archival news clips—consists of over-the-top dramatic recreations and talking-head interviews with survivors, police officers, and “experts” that all sound thoroughly scripted. From loud screechy sound effects and musical cues, to intensely jarring zooms into close-ups, to cutaways to roaring demonic faces that are then superimposed over courtroom images, there are more horror-movie devices employed here than in Michael Chaves’ fictionalized theatrical feature. Shock Docs: The Devil Made Me Do It doesn’t take it easy for the entirety of its runtime, and the sheer tonal hysteria of its every moment has the effect of rendering it sensationalistic.

Stephen King on Scary Stalkers, Being ‘Canceled’ by J.K. Rowling, and Navigating Trauma

The subject of Discovery+’s special is Arne Johnson, who in 1981 was charged with stabbing his Connecticut landlord Alan Bono to death during a party at the victim’s apartment. Arne didn’t deny doing this, and the fact that his knife was used in the fatal attack made clear that he was the perpetrator. The twist, however, was that Arne didn’t remember the encounter, and claimed that his amnesia was due to demonic possession—a story corroborated by his girlfriend Debbie. While that excuse struck many as preposterous, it was nonetheless embraced by attorney Marty Minnella because of the crazy account he heard from Ed and Lorraine Warren regarding Arne’s prior involvement in the exorcism of Debbie’s youngest brother David Glatzel. During that battle, Arne had apparently commanded the demon inside David to leave the boy and enter his own body. Thus, his later murder was really the handiwork of Satan himself, getting payback against Arne for daring to interfere with his evil business.

Why had a demon taken hold of 11-year-old David Glatzel? Shock Docs: The Devil Made Me Do It has no answer other than to imply that the house which Arne and Debbie had temporarily considered renting—and which David visited—was dimly lit and sorta-kinda creepy. This is probably more realistic than the hilarious hokum proffered by Chaves’ film, which contends that David and company were victims of a Satanic witch who carried out black-magic rituals and curses from the sub-basement beneath the basement of her father’s home. Still, it hardly suffices as persuasive evidence, and what ensues only further suggests that the entire affair—then and now—was little more than fantasy inspired by William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.

Before long, David was speaking in a growly voice (heard in a brief tape-recording snippet), rolling his eyes back into his head so only the milky whites were visible—this when they weren’t turning inky black—and levitating above his bed. Or at least, so says Shock Docs: The Devil Made Me Do It’s dramatic recreations, which are full of such familiar sights, much of them narrated by Debbie and Arne, the latter of whom recites his lines with a laughable lack of modulation and conviction. That, just a few short years after 1973’s The Exorcist became a global sensation, David went through an almost identical experience is difficult to simply chalk up to coincidence. In the absence of concrete proof that any of this really took place—aside, of course, from the testimonials of those involved, including Lorraine, who speaks about it in a 2005 interview—the entire thing quickly comes to feel like an elaborate put-on.

What is verifiable is that, after supposedly saving David from damnation by demanding that a demon enter his body, Arne stabbed Alan Bono to death during a night of boozy partying. Having already worked with Arne during David’s exorcism, the Warrens rushed to his side, convincing Marty—via the aforementioned audio tapes—that this was an indisputable case of demonic possession. By forwarding that defense in court, Marty made plenty of headlines (and got himself into People magazine and on CNN), since no outlet could resist a story about a murderer arguing that the devil made him do it. The notion that this might have been an insulting explanation for a homicide, however, is largely ignored by Discovery+’s special, as are any substantial details about Alan—a decision that feels more than a bit disrespectful to the dead.

It’s no surprise that Arne’s legal defense was rejected by the judge, who reasoned that it was impossible for Marty to prove that Arne had been demonically possessed. Today, Marty decries this decision as an “injustice,” while author Jeff Belanger asserts that this could—and possibly will!—happen again, and that maybe on that occasion, the devil will finally get his day in court. Such declarations are par for the course here, and their mixture of mumbo-jumbo and outright certainty is enough to make one frequently chuckle. For example, in discussing David’s claim that his predatory demon was accompanied by 42 other dark spirits, all of them referred to by numbers rather than names, the show’s narrator remarks, “By using numbers instead of their Latin names, it’s believed the entities are able to maintain their anonymity and thus their power over their victims”—a statement that makes less sense the more one re-reads it.

As for Ed and Lorraine Warren, they come across as charlatans who had very little impact on the eventual outcome of this incident, and who used it to enhance their own celebrity. The devil may be the ultimate trickster, but for pure duplicity, he’s got nothing on them.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now!

Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the stories that matter to you. Learn more.