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‘The Devil On Trial’ doesn’t get to the heart of the possessed matter

Netflix documentary looks into the only murder trial that attempted to use demonic possession as a defense and the essence of the Warrens.


The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It chronicled a specific time within the Warren casefile pantheon when demonic possession was at least initially going to be used as a means of defense in the 1981 murder trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson. The judge did not allow it to be entered as a non-guilty plea, even if it was successful in three prior cases in England. With all things considered, possession is something we see in horror films that move within our deepest, darkest religious fears and something Ed and Lorraine Warren spent their lives grabbing battle stories of good and evil as demonologists throughout their lives.

How does one even prove demonic possession is a phenomenon in a court of law, or better yet, how do you disprove it? Christopher Holt’s The Devil on Trial is, at first, a straightforward account of what led up to the night of February 16th, 1981, when a 19-year-old Johnson got into a heated argument with his landlord Alan Bono and then stabbed him many times with a pocket knife. The story begins with the Glatzel family, David in particular, who agreed to speak on camera about this ordeal for the first time. He describes his family as typical to shoe away certain narratives; Alan says his mother, Judy, was religious, and he loved playing with his brothers Carl and Alan. Alan, the oldest, is not too fond of Carl (we’ll reanalyze why in a bit).

When David was 11, his sister Debbie and boyfriend Arne moved into a new house in Newtown, Connecticut, that he describes as not feeling right. Debbie gives all the brothers chores and tasks David to sweep the master bedroom alone. This is precisely when the phenomenon begins, according to his accounts and the many reenactments peppered throughout this documentary. David claims he was pushed on the bed and was visited by a demonic figure with Black eyes. Things get weirder as David claims to have seen the same presence through a window at his home, and the same house shakes at some point. The family enlists the services of a priest to bless the house, and Alan mentions living next to a tarot card reader who points them in the direction of the Warrens.

A physician checks out David at the insistence of the Warrens and gives them the all-clear. They also insisted the family document everything, and that’s where the wealth of photographs and actual recordings where David speaks in a different voice tone and screams obscenities at his mother and brothers. If anything, it sounds like something you would get from a film like The Exorcist or something of that ilk where David is saying a wide range of things. While having an exorcism in a local church, Arne challenges the “entity,” and that’s much to Lorainne’s dismay. You’re not supposed to challenge evil spirits according to the rules. Detective Glenn Cooper notes Lorainne came to the police station and said she had a vision of stabbing with a knife.


Flash forward to that faithful night when Arne, Debbie, and Alan Bono are drinking together, and Arne is concerned with how much alcohol Alan has drank. Debbie says she did not see it, but hears a struggle has occurred, and it results in Arne’s what will soon be found first-degree manslaughter conviction. Was it due to transmigration, where a priest states a demon can jump from person to person? Arne and Debbie were confident that the Warren tapes would be overwhelming evidence in this case. The Devil on Trial doesn’t concern itself with getting down to the case details – instead, it’s a speed run of the accounts on record and a brief overlay of the case happening, leaving it up to the viewer to decide.

It would be hard for Holt to try, and you must note the challenge as you watch this documentary. If anything, The Devil On Trial sets everything up for a 180-degree spin regarding the accounts of brother-on-the-outs Carl. He doesn’t believe it; he claims their mother, Judy, was never religious until the Warrens came around and even makes an allegation that Judy put Sominex in the family’s food. Then there is the question of the Warrens themselves, whom Carl paints as exploitative – first in the supposed coaching of David through his possession phase and in terms of the book rights deals they scored in a contract they got the family to sign (the parents would only receive $4,500 for The Devil in Connecticut book)

The Devil On Trial is sparse on deep diving into the details, but if anything, it chronicles a family broken by a shared experience and a person who is no longer here in connection to it. Maybe if you believe in something enough, it becomes true to an extent, but this documentary mainly leaves everything up in the air.