'The Conjuring 3': The True Story Behind 'The Devil Made Me Do It'

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is the latest horror movie that claims to be based on a true story. Of course, many horror movies in the past have claimed to be based on real events, from The Blair Witch Project (which pretended to be a real documentary) to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was inspired by the crimes of Ed Gein, who never committed a massacre, never used a chainsaw and was not based in Texas.

Similarly, the third film in the Conjuring series (and eighth in the franchise) has at its heart a true story, but the truth of what happened in the case of Arne Johnson (Ruairi O'Connor) is different in a number of key ways to what happened in The Devil Made Me Do It.

The true story behind The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

The following contains spoilers for the entirety of The Conjuring 3

The story of the first half of the movie sticks closest to the real events. The film kicks off with Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) present at the exorcism of 11-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard).

In documentaries about these events, members of the Glatzel family have claimed that David started having visions of a strange man after they entered a new house. Soon after this, he began having night terrors and waking up with unexplained scratches and bruises. They brought in a Catholic priest to bless the house, and 12 days later the Warrens visited.

The pair later claimed that during the exorcisms they performed on him (a tape from one of which plays at the end of the movie) he levitated, predicted the murder Johnson would commit and found himself choked by invisible hands. How much of this you believe, of course, depends on whether you believe the Warrens were real demonologists (as The Conjuring movies claim), or fakes.

arne johnson in the conjuring 3
Ruairi O'Connor as Arne Johnson in 'The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.' Warner Bros

Either way, it was claimed by the Warrens in the book The Devil in Connecticut that at one of these exorcisms, Johnson pleaded with the force inside Glatzer to inhabit his body instead. Subsequent accounts of the events have claimed that weird things started happening after these exorcisms. In Discovery Channel documentary A Haunting, it was claimed by Johnson that a few days after the exorcism the demonic force within him forced him to crash his car into a tree.

Johnson then claims the demon possessed him after he returned to the property the Glatzels had rented and looked in the well that was said to house the demon.

As seen in the film, soon after this Johnson stabbed Alan Bono (renamed Bruno Sauls in the film), his landlord and the employer of Johnson's girlfriend Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook in the film). After drinking, per a contemporary Washington Post article about the case, Bono became agitated, grabbed Debbie's nine-year-old cousin and refused to let go. This led to a confrontation between Johnson and Bono in which the former ended up stabbing the latter multiple times, leaving multiple wounds, including a gash that went from Bono's stomach to his heart.

The case reached international attention, however, over what came next. The day after the murder, Lorraine Warren told police that Johnson had been possessed when the crime was committed, and when the case came to trial Johnson's lawyer Martin Minnella entered a plea of innocent due to demonic possession. Johnson himself did not claim that he was possessed, merely that he could not remember committing the crime.

real ed and lorraine warren
The real Ed and Lorraine Warren outside Arne Cheyenne Johnson's trial in February, 1981. Getty

A piece of dialogue seen in the trailer for The Devil Made Me Do It is based on a real phrase from this trial. In the promo, Ed Warren says: "The 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." This is based on Minnella saying, "The courts have dealt with the existence of God. Now they're going to have to deal with the existence of the Devil."

It is here that the true story and The Conjuring 3 really diverge. In the movie, Johnson is really possessed thanks to a witch who put a curse on the Glatzels' house. It also links Johnson's case with that of missing girl Jessica Louise Strong.

All of that is an invention of the film–Strong is not a real person, and neither is the enchantress who makes the totems in the movie. In reality, the claims of demonic possession were thrown out of court, with the judge stating that it could not be used as a defense as there was no scientific way to prove if someone had truly been possessed. He said: "The court will take judicial notice that the profession, the business or hobby ... of locating demons has not risen to that level of viability where it would be of assistance to the jury in deciding the case."

Arguably, the end of The Conjuring 3 is slightly disingenuous in the way it portrays how that case ended. It reveals that Johnson was eventually charged with manslaughter for the crime, serving four years in prison. However, by not revealing that the demonic possession defense was thrown out of court, it implies that the charge of murder was brought down to manslaughter not because Minhella changed the plea to one of self-defense, but because the jury really believed that he was possessed by demons.

There has been much disagreement by those involved in the case as to what really happened with David Glatzel and Arne Johnson. In 2007, David himself, along with brother Carl, sued Lorraine Warren and Devil in Connecticut author Gerald Brittle over their claims that David had been possessed.

In an interview with the Mass Media Distribution Newswire, Carl said: "My brother was never possessed. He, along with my family, was manipulated and exploited, something the Warrens were very good at, and along with their author, Gerald Brittle, they concocted a phony story about demons in an attempt to get rich and famous at our expense, and we have the evidence to prove it.

"The Warrens told my family numerous times that we would be millionaires and the book would help get my sister's boyfriend, Arne, out of jail. I knew from day one it was a lie, but as a child, there was nothing I could really do about it." Per a recent ABC News article, this lawsuit led to the book being taken out of print, though the case was dismissed.

At that time, however, Lorraine Warren stood by her story. She told Religion News Blog: "It wasn't just Ed and I. The cream of the Catholic Church was involved, and there was tremendous documentation. After 20-something years, why is this coming up now? What's behind it? I don't know." Warren died in 2019.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is in cinemas and on HBO Max now.