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The Trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson - the True Story Behind the Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

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Whether or not you believe in the long-debated existence of ghosts, demons or even the devil himself, I think we can all agree that no matter how far fetched the subject matter seems, there's something about seeing the words, ''Based on true events'' scrawled across our screens that is enough to send shivers down anyone's spine.

Those four little words have the power to completely define our movie-watching experience before the opening sequence even begins, and their presence (at least in my opinion, anyway!) seems to make the films' atmosphere far more intense and foreboding from the off. As though the frightening monstrosities (human or otherwise) from the fictional realm laid before our eyes could reach out from the screen and engulf us in a living nightmare at any moment - like some reenactment of the aptly named 1980s classic trilogy, Poltergeist. But, I digress.

While none of us really wants to think about the potential realness of the terrors we witness from the cosy confines of our own homes, the muse becomes much harder to ignore when movies present us with this bold opening statement. And one universe that is famed for drawing inspiration from real life is The Conjuring, which follows the harrowing experiences of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.

Of course, it's important to remember that the creative license many producers take with films (and I'm not just talking about horror films here) can completely warp the story. So, we often find that the horrors projected on-screen are worlds apart from those experienced in real life. Meaning, the only thing really tying the two together are the main details and themes.

The Conjuring isn't all that different in this respect, and with the latest instalment, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, due to hit the big screen later this month, there's no better time to explore the shocking case it was based on - which might be even more horrifying than the film!

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

Before we dive into the infamous "Devil Made Me Do It" case from which the film coined its name, first, let's take a quick look at what we can expect from the on-screen adaption.

Set in 1981, four years after the events of The Conjuring 2 took place, Ed and Lorraine Warren are back at it again - this time with a tale that shocked the world.

Reprising their roles as the selfless, supernatural-fighting heroes we all know and love, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga will lead us through a nail-biting courtroom battle where Arne Cheyenne Johnson (Ruairi O'Connor) stands accused of murder. His defence? Yes, you guessed it - the devil made him do it.

It was a bold claim, to say the least. But more interestingly, it was also the first time in US history where a murder defendant attempted to clear their name by reason of demonic possession.

If you think cases of demonic possession, enraged spirits, levitating children and deranged killers all seem too unlikely to be true and are best reserved as fodder for cult classic horrors, then let me introduce you to the trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, a.k.a. the true story behind The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.

Arne Cheyenne Johnson on his way to a Danbury, Connecticut courthouse, March 1981

Arne Cheyenne Johnson on his way to a Danbury, Connecticut courthouse, March 1981

The Murder Of Alan Bono

On 16 February 1981, shockwaves tore through the town of Brookline, Connecticut. The unthinkable had happened. For the first time in the town's 193-year history, a murder had taken place, immediately shattering the veil of security that residents had celebrated for almost two centuries.

The victim, 40-year-old kennel owner and landlord Alan Bono, had been viciously stabbed in the chest and stomach with a five-inch pocket knife. He succumbed to his injuries several hours later. And his killer, Arne Cheyenne Johnson, 19, who up until that night, had no prior arrests or outbursts of violence, was picked up by police after being found wandering 2 miles from the scene. As we already know, Johnson claimed Bono's murder was the work of the devil.

Here's what he claims happened in the lead up to the killing.

Arne Cheyenne Johnson attending court, March 1981

Arne Cheyenne Johnson attending court, March 1981

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Demonic Posession Timeline Leading Up To The Murder

May 1980

  • The then 18-year-old tree surgeon, Arne Cheyenne Johnson, moves in with his girlfriend, Debbie Glatzel.

June 1980

  • After securing a rental property, the couple enlists in the help of Glatzel's 11-year-old brother, David, to help clean up the place, which is when things begin to take a sinister turn.
  • David claims that an old man had been at the house, pushing and terrifying him with a threat of harm to the Glatzel family if they insisted on moving in.

Late June 1980

  • Soon after moving in, David begins to experience frightening visions of the old man, who appears to him as a demonic, Latin-muttering beast with the intent of stealing David's soul.
  • While the family admits to hearing unusual noises coming from the loft, no one but David ever encountered the old man and chalking it up to a phase, or not wanting to do his chores, Arne and the Glatzel's disbelieve David's account.

July 1980

  • Things begin to get progressively worse for David, who by now is experiencing regular night terrors and unexplained scratches and bruises. He describes a man with ''big black eyes, a thin face with animal features and jagged teeth, pointed ears, horns and hoofs.''
  • David's visions begin happening at all times of day, and family members recall that ''He would kick, bite, spit, swear — terrible words. He experienced strangling attempts by invisible hands, which he tried to pull from his neck, and powerful forces would flop him rapidly head-to-toe like a rag doll.''
  • As the noises from the loft continue to increase David himself, reports seeing ''an old man with a white beard, dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans.''
  • The family calls in a priest to bless the house, but things only get more serious, and they ultimately decide to move out.

12 Days Later

  • With no sign of improvement after almost two weeks, the Glatzel's reach out to Ed and Lorraine Warren. In her notes, Lorraine reports a black mist lingering over David, which according to her, is a clear sign of the malevolent presence.
  • David had begins growling, hissing, having seizures and speaking in ''otherworldly'' voices. He would also recite Bible passages and quotes from Paradise Lost.
  • After diagnosing him with ''multiple possessions'' (42 to be exact), Ed and Lorrain Warren subject David to four ''minor rites of exorcism.'' During these experiences, witnesses claim that David levitated, stopped breathing and shared chilling premonitions - interestingly, one of these described the murder Johnson would later commit.
  • Psychiatrists, however, are convinced that David has a learning disability.

October 1980

  • Johnson begins taunting the demonic presence and asking it to leave his soon-to-be brother-in-law alone. He recalls pleading with it, ''take me on, leave my little buddy alone.''
  • It is alleged that a few days later, Johnson is attacked by the demon, who takes control of his vehicle and drives it into a tree. Luckily for Johnson, he remained unharmed.
  • The Warrens contact Brookfield police, warning them that the situation has escalated and has now become dangerous.
  • Following the car crash incident, Arne returns to the rental property, where he intends to examine an old well where the demon supposedly resides. He allegedly finds the demon here, and after looking it in the eye, he too becomes possessed.

Late October - November 1980

  • As things with David deteriorate even further, Debbie and Arne decide it's time to move out of her parents' home. Debbie lands a job as a dog groomer, working for Alan Bono, who rented out one of his properties to the couple near where she would be working.
  • After moving in, Debbie notices that Johnson is exhibiting strange behaviour - much like that of her possessed brother - and would growl or fall into a trance-like state that he would later have no recollection of.

Newspaper clipping from the Hartford Courant

Newspaper clipping from the Hartford Courant

The Day Of The Murder

Before killing his landlord and friend, Alan Bono, on that fateful February night, Johnson reportedly called in sick to his job at Wright Tree Service. Instead, he met with his fiancee, Debbie, at the kennel she worked at. His sister, Wanda, and Debbie's 9-year-old cousin, Mary, were also there.

Bono treated the group to lunch at a local bar, where he began drinking heavily. After finishing their meal, they all returned to the kennel, and Debbie later decided to take the girls for pizza. But feeling something wasn't quite right, she sped up the outing, returning as quickly as possible, only to find an extremely drunk and agitated Bono.

Debbie attempted to soothe the situation by shooing everyone from the room, but Bono remained - grabbing Mary and refusing to let her leave. At this point, Johnson stepped in, demanding Bono release the 9-year-old.

Describing the scene to officers, Wanda recalled witnessing Mary run to the car while Debbie stood between the two men in an attempt to diffuse the situation. Wanda had also gotten involved; her role had been attempting to drag a growling Johnson away. But her efforts were to no avail. Enraged, Johnson repeatedly plunged his penknife into Bono's torso, causing "four or five tremendous wounds", which proved fatal.

The Trial Of Arne Cheyenne Johnson

Following his arrest, Johnson was held at Bridgeport Correctional Center - his bail was set at $125,000.

A day later, Lorraine Warren informed the police that Johnson was a victim of demonic possession, which caused a media circus to ensue, drawing attention from all over the world.

Determined to prove his clients' innocence, Martin Minnella, Johnson's lawyer, met with lawyers in England during this time who had previously been involved in two similar cases - though neither of these caused the same reaction. He even threatened to subpoena the priests who witnessed David's exorcisms.

Eventually, on 28 October 1981, after months of anticipation and talk of demonic possession had swept the globe, the trial began. But almost instantly after submitting a plea of not guilty by virtue of possession, the presiding judge, Robert Callahan, rejected the defence. For Minnella, this threw a spanner in the works, as jurors were legally forbidden from entertaining the concept of demonic possession as part of Johnson's defence.

With no other avenues to take, Minnella argued that Johnson had acted in self-defence. And after deliberating all the evidence (demons aside) for 15 hours across three days, the verdict was in.

On 24 November 1981, less than one month after the trial began, Arne Cheyenne Johnson was found guilty of first-degree manslaughter and sentenced to 10-20 years in prison. He only served five before being released as a result of good behaviour.

The Aftermath Of The The Case

While Johnson quietly served his sentence, Lorraine Warren collaborated with Gerald Brittle to write his best-selling book, The Devil in Connecticut. A creation that David Glatzel's brother, Carl, didn't take too kindly to.

Furious with Brittle for breaching his ''right to privacy'' and inflicting ''intentional emotional distress'' on the Glatzel family, Carl opened a lawsuit against the author, suing him for publishing the novel and even claiming that the possession was a hoax, made up by the Warrens for fame and wealth!

Despite Carl's objections, Johnson's case has continued to inspire several fictions, including the most recent entry into The Conjuring saga.

Where Is Arne Cheyenne Johnson Now?

Described by the chief of parole as being an ''exemplary inmate'', Johnson obtained his high-school diploma, earned himself several certificates and enrolled in multiple college courses while incarcerated.

Upon his release, Johnson was offered a landscaping position. He also married Debbie, who maintains his innocence based on the demonic possession theory. They are still together to this day!

And that brings us to the end of the infamous case that inspired The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It - I hope you enjoyed this article and found the content interesting and informative. If you have any thoughts, theories or opinions surrounding this case (or indeed, the upcoming film!) then feel free to leave them in the comment section below!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 BunnyClaws


BunnyClaws (author) from Scotland on May 16, 2021:

Thank you - I really appreciate that! I've got big expectations for the film as I have really enjoyed the others in the universe so far (well, except for The Nun...just no) and with this being such a famous and unique case, I do hope they don't stray too far from the facts because they really don't need to. In my opinion, it will be far more impactful if they leave it up to us, the viewer, to decide if Johnson was really possessed or not.

I also definitely agree about Ed and Lorraine Warren. Their on-screen counterparts only highlight the ''good'' things they did, but there are many people just like Carl Glatzel who think of them as frauds.

Mike L from Canada on May 16, 2021:

That was wicked informative and I wonder if the movie will do the case justice. Ed and Lorraine Warren are some pretty controversial figures depending on where you stand on the existence of the supernatural but their cases have lead to some pretty influential pieces of horror cinema and literature.

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