Entertainment is exploitation, especially in the horror genre. But there are limits. The upcoming The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do It is a rare instance in which the exploitation is so clear and so without regard that it crosses that line unforgivably.
I say this having not seen the movie. But the premise, and the attached promotional materials, were enough for this horror fan to say, “I’m out.”
Blumhouse’s Conjuring-verse and its promotion of Ed and Lorraine Warren’s shenanigans has been tolerable up until now. Hasn’t produced a lot of very tolerable movies, but I digress.
Yeah, sure, a Raggedy Ann doll was possessed by a demon only contained by glass. Sure, the Warrens saved a British family from some other ghost / demon and definitely weren’t pranked by a gaggle of bored girls. And sure, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are the Perfect Catholic Couple That I Hope Are Secretly Seeking A Third. It’s been fun. And it’s been immensely profitable.
But it’s all fun and games with Ma and Pa: Paranormal Investigators until someone gets murdered, and that murderer claims “the devil made me do it.”
In sum: Once upon a time, a man named Arne Johnson stabbed a man named Alan Bono to death. The Warrens, Johnson’s attorney, and family friends claimed that the murderer was not culpable by reason of being possessed by a demon. And The Conjuring 3 tells that story with the express premise that yes, this real murderer really wasn’t responsible because of real demons.
WOW, that’s gross.
Yep, this whole “based on true events” promotional shtick sure gets more complicated when a film company decides to profit off of and excuse a killer. And never mind the victim or whatever grieving family is still around in 2021. Not James Wan’s problem! Go complain to Satan!
I sadly have not found any media record from the Bono family about the case or their reaction to the Warrens’ activities (and if you know of any, please send them my way). One can only imagine how their grief must have been impacted by all of this publicity on their loved one’s killer and his zealous enablers.
As true crime as a genre has come to prominence, so have discussions of exploitation and glorifying or excusing murderers versus forgetting victims. In the age of the internet, where calling things out and “cancelling” has become rampant sport, it’s odd that this carnival of creepy chicanery has seemingly slipped under the radar.
Granted, this movie won’t be the first or last time this story will be told, and told to make a profit. Heck, it was a made-for-TV movie in the 90s featuring Andy Griffith, Cloris Leachman, and Kevin Bacon. But the Conjuring-verse is one of the highest grossing horror franchises of all time. Thus, this is the highest potential profit this story will ever gain and the greatest audience this lie will ever be fed to.
And there were plenty of other options from the Warrens’ archives that didn’t involve playing fast and loose with a murder. What, was the werewolf story just too much for the super-credible Conjuring-verse lore?
The closest comparison to the Johnson debacle, in terms of exploitation, might be the Warrens’ notorious Amityville Horror claims. Ronald DeFeo Jr. murdered 6 family members in 1974. Retroactively, by the Warrens and later the Conjuring-verse, the massacre was blamed on demonic activity. But those claims never crossed directly into the criminal justice system.
Here’s some background to add context to the events behind this movie:
The Murder: Just the Facts, Ma’am (sans demons, because demons don’t exist)
In 1981 in Brookfield, CT, Alan Bono, Arne Johnson, and Debbie Glatzel all knew each other. Bono owned and lived adjacent to a dog kennel. Debbie Glatzel worked in that dog kennel. She was Arne Johnson’s girlfriend. Glatzel and Johnson lived in an apartment adjacent to the kennel, just like Bono. So that made Bono Glatzel’s boss, landlord, and neighbor. Yeah, I don’t see that escalating into something terrible.
The day of the murder, February 16, 1981, Bono, Johnson, and Glatzel had lunch out together and drank. They then returned to the dog kennel / apartment site. Three younger female Glatzel family members came over for a visit. Later, Bono reportedly became aggressive at Glatzel and her younger family members. When that happened, Johnson attacked Bono.
Alan Bono died after being stabbed multiple times in his chest and stomach by Arne Johnson. In case you are morbidly curious, Johnson was a tree surgeon and stabbed Bono with one of his tools (a crescent shaped blade). Johnson was witnessed committing the murder by Debbie and the three younger Glatzels girls. Johnson walked away from the scene and was arrested soon after. He was charged with first degree murder, the first criminal offense on his record at 19 years of age.
On paper, it would all seem a series of unfortunate but unremarkable events. Sadly, people die in fights every day. The criminal justice system processes offenders, offenders serve whatever time the system deems appropriate, and life trudges on.
…but wouldn’t you know it? Demons (in either spiritual or human form) tainted the whole matter. They had been mixed in with the Glatzel family and Arne Johnson before the murder, and now would be made public record.
In the ramp up to Johnson’s murder trial, defense attorney Martin Minella proclaimed that his client would be attempting a defense of not guilty by demonic possession. This defense was vocally supported by the Glatzel family and the Warrens. And this was when the Glatzel affair, which had been going on for months prior to this murder, came out.
Since mid-1980, the Glatzels had been working with the Warrens to defeat the “43 demons” supposedly inhabiting the youngest Glatzel, 11-year-old David. While dating Debbie Glatzel, Arne Johnson had actively been involved with these activities. Supposedly, Johnson even asked the demon to come into him instead of the boy. Which of the 43, I wonder? Did he have a favorite?
And Johnson’s confrontation with that demon, the Glatzels claimed, was what had caused this tragedy.
What the Glatzel Family Claimed About the Events Prior to the Murder
It all started, the Glatzels claimed, on July 3, 1980. That night, David fell off of his bed in the middle of the night and awoke, saying he’d been pushed off by a beastly black-eyed man. Which definitely wasn’t some fluke of being 10 years old or possibly a sign that David had a serious illness. Nope, it definitely was a sign of Dark Forces at work.
David claimed to see the figure more frequently and in different guises, including as “an old man with a white beard dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans.” …so I guess he was visited by the Specter of Grunge Music? A terrifying phantom to be sure.
In the weeks and months that followed, David allegedly began growling, hissing, speaking in strange noises, being choked by phantom hands, performing rapid sit-ups for half an hour, and other strange behaviors. This included quoting Paradise Lost, so perhaps one of the demons was studying for an AP English Literature exam?
David also gained a lot of weight, something that was disturbingly focused on by a lot of the media later. Whatever was going on, the kid was having a hard time, okay? Let him chow down on Twinkies without telling the nation how fat he was!
There was debate later over if the Glatzels adequately sought psychiatric care for David in lieu of or with as much fervor as they sought extreme spiritual solutions like multiple exorcisms. On the one hand, David reportedly was deemed “normal” with “a mild learning disability” by the family physician. On the other hand, David was also enrolled in a school for “disturbed children.”
Later, the local diocese claimed that the Glatzel family did not consent to psychological tests that the Church requires be performed before it grants the rite of exorcism. Judy Glatzel, matriarch of the Glatzel family, contested that she had taken David to a psychiatrist once, but did not return when the psychiatrist asked to speak to the entire family. One can only imagine why a mental health professional would want to know more about a child’s family that insists the child is plagued by demons.
The Involvement of the Warrens Prior to the Murder
The Glatzels contacted the Warrens to investigate what they were witnessing with Daniel. There are conflicting reports as to whether it was mother Judy or sister Debbie who had seen one of the Warrens’ lectures prior to these events and suggested contacting them.
A few weeks after David’s strange behavior began, the Warrens came into the Glatzel home and got to work, interviewing David Glatzel and making other observations. Supposedly, the demonic activity had spread from David and begun infecting the rest of the home, tormenting family members. Toy dinosaurs floated, rocking chairs were tossed around the room, other strange phantom visions plagued family members, and so on.
Now, something to note about the Warrens’ business practices. They never charged for their investigations—and I believe that this was for two key reasons. One: liability is a lot more limited if you aren’t charging people for your “services.” Two: the Warrens’ true cash cow came after their investigations by sharing their “experiences” via the lecture circuit (reportedly they charged $1,000 / lecture), books, and films. Why limit possible sources of future income by charging a fee upfront?
After the murder, one contemporary report noted how “diligent” the Warrens were being about telling the press about the Glatzel / Johnson investigation. Lorraine Warren was also quoted as acknowledging that the Warrens were already decided in writing a book about and giving lectures on the incident. Their talent agency, William Morris, was in talks with writers and movie producers.
Again, a man had been stabbed to death. And within mere months, this was what was on the minds of the professedly faithful Warrens. Is that what Jesus would do? I seem to remember him being real ornery about mixing money and faith…
The Warrens claimed then and afterward that their investigations were signed off on by Catholic leadership. They had the “cream of the Catholic Church” by their side as they investigated and attempted to resolve the demonic possession of David Glatzel. They claimed that they had recruited at least four priests from the diocese to perform masses and exorcisms for David and the rest of the family. It was through these “lesser exorcisms” that the 40+ demons inside of David were identified.
So the Warrens had to be totally legit, if they had the backing of the Catholic Church, right?
What the Catholic Church Said About Its Involvement Prior to the Murder
The local diocese weren’t so keen to claim there was demonic activity in the Glatzel household. Church leadership directly told the media that, while the Glatzel case had been investigated, no rites of exorcism were performed, or even requested in this incident.
The four priests directly involved in the matter were told to not speak with the media. Reportedly, some transferred to other parishes afterward.
A priest and representative of the diocese told the press, “We want to uphold the dignity of the individual person.”
…I’m just saying: when the Catholic Church is expressing more concern over a person’s dignity than you, maybe you’re on the wrong side of history.
The Alleged Turn of Arne Johnson Leading Up to the Murder
In October of 1980, months prior to Alan Bono’s murder at the hands of Arne Johnson, something interesting—both at the time and in hindsight—occurred. The Warrens called the local Brookfield Police Department, expressing concerns that the Glatzel house situation was getting dangerous and could lead to criminal violence.
Yet the Warrens and Glatzels would later claim that they were shocked that Arne Johnson would commit a criminally violent act. Again, very interesting considering that call to the police and later claims that Johnson had started acting aggressive / possessed prior to the murder. Surely on the list of “people who might get violent before this was over,” he was in the top 3?
The Warrens and Glatzels claimed that during the exorcisms performed on David, Johnson had taunted or challenged the demons to come into him instead of David. Debbie later claimed that, on multiple occasions, she had witnessed Johnson exhibiting similar behavior to David—being aggressive, growling, waking in the middle of the night, etc. …which I thought was just being a 19 year old American male, but perhaps I’m wrong.
The day of the murder, Debbie claimed that she knew the moment when Johnson was possessed by “the beast.” Johnson was growling and became “like a stone” that she could not move.
Awfully odd for Debbie to claim that she knew immediately that demons were responsible for the murder. Because when an ambulance arrived on the scene, one paramedic heard Debbie say to her father, repeatedly: “Oh Daddy, he didn’t mean to do it. You know how he gets when he’s been drinking.”
Debbie would also claim that the day after the murder, David had a vision which confirmed that the “beast” went into Johnson and committed the murder.
My, my. Hindsight is truly 20/20—or 6/66?
In a series of quotes and events that have made this skeptic bristle, quotes from the Glatzels on the incident strike a particularly distasteful chord. Debbie was quoted at the time, “Cheyenne’s problem was that he was too good, that’s his problem, he’s too good.”
In the fallout, Mother Judy Glatzel also said at the time, “Why me? Why is this happening to me? I don’t know, maybe this is our cross to bear. I guess it could happen to anyone.”
How about, “Why Alan Bono? Why did this happen to Alan Bono?” I think “perspective” was not Judy Glatzel’s forte.
What Johnson’s Attorney Said After the Murder, Before the Trial
Attorney Martin J. Minella took on Arne Johnson’s defense as pro bono. It is not unusual for private attorneys to occasionally provide services for free, as the American Bar Association requires lawyers to annually clock some pro bono hours.
However, certain things Minella told the press at the time might make one wonder if he and the Warrens took the same business classes. After all, according to Minella it was after meeting with them that he decided to go with the demonic possession legal defense.
A Washington Post report from the time provides what I can only describe as a goldmine of quotes from Minella on the case.
Reportedly, Minella’s motives to take the Johnson case included that being an attorney in a highly publicized case tends to get that attorney more lucrative clients later. His words regarding the salability of the case included, “People are talking millions when they talk about this. Not hundreds of thousands of dollars, but millions.” Also, “Everyone is interested in this case. Everyone. … All the top studios are interested in this, all the top producers.”
Yet Minella also claimed to completely believe in his case and client. “I’m very confident. I could put the pope on and he’d tell you that if a guy is demonically possessed, he is not responsible.”
In case you’re wondering, Minella never did get to subpoena the pope, or any other member of the clergy to support his claims.
Minella had even divined a metaphysical motive for the demons to target a kennel owner / landlord to murder. “Think about it. What’s the guy’s name? Bono, right? … So what does Bono mean in Italian? It means good. And evil likes to destroy good.”
Yep. Yep, this guy who had to go through law school, pass the bar, and earn a license to practice law? He said that on the record to the press. Like I said: goldmine of quotes.
Minella even claimed that now that he had come to Johnson’s defense and threatened to expose the truth of demonic possession in a court of law, evil forces were praying on him. “The Warrens tell me that the devil will often work through others this way to weaken your resistance.”
The supposed devil’s work included a different judge in a different case holding Minella in contempt of court for showing up late to a proceeding.
No word yet on if the Warrens volunteered to exorcise that judge as well.
It Ended As Mundane As It Started
So for months, Arne Johnson’s sensational demonic possession defense was trotted out to any member of the press that would listen. In The Conjuring 3’s promotional materials, this event is hyped as the first time in U.S. history that a murder suspect would claim demonic possession as a defense.
In October 1981, the trial finally started. And Minella’s loud defense died a quiet death. Superior Court Judge Robert J. Callahan wasn’t having it. See, you can’t just walk into a court of law with any defense you pull out of your ass. A judge has to say that defense has legal standing. Obviously, a demonic possession defense would not pass the basic principles of criminal law. It’s not objectively provable.
If you want more on the legal context, check out this video by awesome YouTube lawyer Legal Eagle wherein he breaks down a nearly identical premise in a different horror film.
But more importantly, remember kids: in US criminal justice system, you get to be accused of being attached to the devil (see: The Satanic Panic, the McMartin Preschool Trial, the West Memphis Three), but you don’t get to make the same claim as a defense. Also, awfully bold to try that defense out in New England of all places.
At trial, Minella instead presented a self-defense argument for Arne Johnson. In November 1981, Johnson was found guilty of manslaughter (meaning the jury thought he had intended to injure, but not kill, Bono). He was sentenced to 10 to 20 years. Minella claimed to the press that he would appeal on the basis of the demonic possession defense not being allowed. That appeal never took place.
While serving his sentence, Arne and Debbie married. In 1986, Arne Johnson was released from prison after just five years due to model behavior.
In the meantime, in 1983 the Warrens’ and author Gerald Brittle published The Devil in Connecticut on the case.
A Glatzel Family Member Speaks Out, Decades Later
In 2006 when the The Devil in Connecticut was republished, one Glatzel member spoke out. Carl Glatzel Jr., who was 18 at the time of the Bono murder, sued the Lorraine Warren and the Warrens’ publishing agency claiming punitive damages. By then, Ed Warren had passed on to the great grift in the sky.
According to Carl, his younger brother David was suffering severe mental illness. Then, as a direct result of the claims of demonic possession, the Glatzel children were ostracized from their local community and society in general. Their schooling, emotional / social health, and future careers were all jeopardized.
Carl’s claims included that the Warrens’ “concocted a phony story about demons in an attempt to get rich and famous at our expense.” Specifically, Carl called Lorraine Warren a “fraud” who “exploited” his family.
Carl’s claims remained at odds with the rest of the family, Debbie Johnson née Glatzel included. Carl Jr. claimed to be speaking for Daniel in his lawsuit and that their father, Carl Sr. hadn’t agreed with the demonic possession claims. It should be noted that it was only via articles of this lawsuit that I could find anyone claiming to know anything of Daniel or Carl Sr.’s thoughts on the affair.
For her part, at the time Lorraine bemoaned the strain the lawsuit had on her, considered the investigation in the book beyond reproach, and expressed puzzlement about what Carl Jr. was so upset about. So. Case closed.
As a result of Carl’s lawsuit, that book was taken out of print. So at least someone accomplished something good in this stupid saga.
Arne Johnson’s Interview on Discovery’s Haunted
In 2006, Arne and Debbie Johnson appeared on the Discovery show Haunted to discuss their… “experience.”
I would’ve watched that episode and included quotes here but 1) I had a quick turnaround on this post and as you can tell I’ve already done plenty of shoveling of bullshit for your entertainment and 2) I think the fact that the Johnsons went on the show on the first place says all there is to be said.
What Really Happened?
So what’s the “true story?” What’s true is that a man was stabbed to death and all anyone could talk about then or now is his killer, not him. Bono had next to no ties to the small community, and that likely made him easier to brush aside in favor of the sensationalist demonic possession tale.
In any event, Johnson was found guilty and served time as a model prisoner. He was never in trouble with the law before or since. This could have been a quiet little mundane tragedy. But instead, it was amplified through greed and selfishness.
And now that pattern has epically escalated through The Conjuring 3.
Why The Conjuring 3 Filmmakers “Inspired” This Post
Under other circumstances, we might be able to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt. Where the filmmakers might claim some ethical deniability by not outright saying that demons were responsible for a murder.
We’re just all here to play pretend, right? No one actually believes or is espousing that this murder was a metaphysical “whoopsie,” right?
Fortunately, The Conjuring 3 crew were kind enough to film an entire featurette featuring quotes I could use to skewer them for their bullshit. Thanks!
For example: director Michael Chaves describes the Satanic Panic as a period of paranoia in society but also when Satanism itself was “on the rise.” Nope. No it wasn’t. It wasn’t a thing. He goes on, “A lot of it was totally unfounded—but then you had events like this, Satanic deaths and murders.” Again: nope. This wasn’t a thing.
Throughout the featurette, the filmmakers insist upon the insulting notion that “we’ll never really know” re: demonic possession being a reasonable excuse for taking the life of a fellow human being. That’s a group of people either monumentally stupid or predatorily spurious.
To add, it is grotesque to indulge this retrospective on the Satanic Panic that “but maybe there was some devil’s work afoot!” In fact, The Conjuring 3 includes a fictional Satanist figure as the real antagonist of the movie.
In 2021 with a wealth of research and evidence at our feet, we owe better to the victims of that vicious blackmark on our society’s history. It’s an especially callous and dangerous attitude to take when the Satanic Panic is seeing an insidious revival via the QAnon wave.
So, I will not be seeing The Conjuring 3 in theaters. Even though I’m vaccinated, even though I’ve made the case for the value in seeing horror films in theaters, and even though I otherwise would be glad to experience this series on the big screen. It’s not a big gesture, and there are bigger issues to spend time and words on. But some attention ought to be paid to the unethical shenanigans being pulled here.
Yeah, I will probably watch it eventually on an HBO Max account I don’t even pay for. But not for a while.
Arne and Debbie Johnson were also consultants on The Conjuring 3 and appeared in some of their promotional materials. To each their own, but I find that really sickening.
On one of the film’s behind-the-scenes featurettes, Debbie says, “Good versus evil? It’s real.”
I’d have to agree, Debbie. The difference is, I find the evil in this film far more banal than its premise.
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