Inherent to films about demonic possession is the acceptance of demons within the film’s world. Characters are often skeptical, though their skepticism is hardly ever serious, existing in throwaway lines before they come to accept the supernatural nature of their predicament. Audience belief in the film’s demons is hardly ever challenged – not only do they enter the film with the preconception that the film involves demons, they are given a full, unadulterated view of the effects of demons in the diegetic space. Even mundane things with a multitude of reasonable explanations, like a door opening or a blanket falling off someone in the night, is obvious to spectators as the result of a demon’s presence. This can become problematic when a story is “based on real events,” as film’s power to mimic and influence human perception is unparalleled in media. The “real events” are hardly ever as spectacular as the film industry makes them out to be, and humanity doesn’t need continual reinforcement of, at best, unfalsifiable beliefs based in bad ideas.
While The Conjuring universe films are well made, they have also promoted the work of
charlatans demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, and none are more sinister than The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.
The third of the series’ mainline films follows the Warrens as they work to defend a (convicted) murderer by proving demonic possession was the reason he committed the crime. At some point in pre-production, someone must have realized the questionable morality of such a plot, as the film never really follows through with the defense of the murderer. Instead, the Warrens go on a quest to find the demon in a less precarious circumstance, helping police solve the murder of a young woman which is vaguely connected to the other case.
The murder at the center of The Devil Made Me Do It was committed by Arne Johnson, a Connecticut man who lived in a dog boarding house with his girlfriend, Debbie Glatzel, and his landlord, Alan Bono. The film portrays the rosiest version of events possible, which don’t exactly exonerate the murderer. Arne heads home early from work because he felt demon-y and dropped a chainsaw from the top of a tree. He fixes up some electronic equipment with his knife while Alan rocks out to Blondie. Alan doesn’t want to drink alone, and shoves a beer into the befuddled (but presumably sober) Arne’s hand. Arne falls onto the couch, staring into the distance, while Alan insists on dancing around with Debbie (which Arne looks on at angrily). Arne leaves the room to drink water and, when he returns, Debbie is screaming because Alan is doing scary demon stuff. Barking dogs and loud music build the tension, and Arne falls onto the floor, his knife clattering behind him. The audience is shown a shot from Arne’s perspective – the room turns black, and a window flashes red light. Suddenly, a demon crawls at Arne, then the film hard cuts to a demon-faced Arne walking down the road, covered in blood. This scene leaves no doubt that Arne had means, motive, and actually committed the murder – the only question is whether the devil made him do it.
However, that isn’t a question posited within the film or even by the film, due to the portrayal of the events and the aforementioned predetermined nature of the reality of demons in demon possession cinema.
Ed and Lorraine’s account of the story on their official YouTube channel doesn’t involve the murder at all. They discuss the possession case that occurs at the beginning of the film, as it ties into Arne’s, but their details on Arne and the murder are scant. Arne is described as a Beaver Cleaver-type all-American boy whose fatal flaw was the invitation of demons (or “devils” as the Warrens say) into his body to save Debbie’s brother.
Contemporary news articles give details that differ greatly from the film version. A Washington Post article offers another idealized account from Arne’s sister, Wendy, who was 15 at the time. Arne called in sick to his job and went to hang out with Debbie, Wanda, his other sister Janice (13), and his cousin Mary (9). The group joined Alan for lunch at a local bar, where he drank heavily, while Arne and Debbie only had a little. Hours later, there was an incident in which Alan grabbed Mary, but let her go. Arne confronted Alan, who stood punching his palm with his fist. Arne “[growled] like an animal” and Alan fell to the ground with “’four or five tremendous wounds,’ … including one that extended from the stomach to the base of the heart.” A Hartford Courant article mentions a fight over Debbie, and a United Press International article states that Arne’s alcohol level was 0.03 four hours after the murder. Doesn’t sound very demonic, does it?
There is little detail about the specific legal demonic defense because the defense was rejected in court, for obvious reasons, and the jury was not legally allowed to consider demonic possession as a motive. Johnson was convicted of manslaughter, and served five years of a ten-to-twenty year sentence. Debbie’s younger brother, Carl Glatzel Jr., sued over fabrications told in Ed and Lorraine’s book “The Devil in Connecticut”. “Many instances in the book are complete lies,” Carl stated.
“A court accepts the existence of God every time a witness swears to tell the truth, I think it’s about time they accept the existence of the Devil,” Patrick Wilson’s Ed Warren states in The Devil Made Me Do It’s trailer. Setting aside the fallaciousness of that statement, it demonstrates that society is too casually accepting of the supernatural. Media, always ready for the next tantalizing story, fail to interrogate the veracity of supernatural claims. Filmgoers, whether they accept the supernatural or not, are caught among the ranks of those who believe in demons every time they sit down to watch a film because the text smuggles in the acceptance of demonic presence. Film has enough problems with the way it reinforces our flawed understanding of cause and effect, and the perpetuation of the idea that demons exist in reality is the only way those “demons” hold any power. When events are examined critically, the supernatural elements tend to fall aside as naturalistic explanations and the realization that certain things are well within the realm of possibility begin to take hold.
Please, filmmakers, give your audiences a chance to be skeptical of the events in your films. Fiction has effectively caused each of us to question whether a protagonist’s experience is real or imagined for a long time, and none can do it better than the medium of cinema. Leave aside the flashy details and imagined apparitions, and focus on the fact that a box of cereal falling or lights turning off aren’t all that convincing. Make room for audiences to question whether or not something was caused by demons through the omission of demon face effects. And, most importantly, don’t make your film about defending a criminal convicted of manslaughter because then you’ve lost any moral high ground and there’s no reason for materialist film reviewers, who otherwise enjoy a demon possession film, to root for the protagonists.