With each intense and gripping true-crime documentary film that Netflix gets right, it is also perhaps bound to fail with other variations of the documentary genre. The Devil on Trial is one such failure, for it comes off as an unnecessary and over-sensationalized presentation of events that seem quite explainable without having to involve the supernatural. Starting with the apparent demonic possession of an eleven-year-old boy, the documentary takes us through a murder case in which the defendant claimed to have been in similar possession during his crime. Overall, The Devil on Trial might be worthwhile for those willing to believe in such matters (and also fans of The Conjuring films), but it can be easily avoided by others.
Who is David Glatzel, and what had happened to him?
The first half of The Devil on Trial is entirely focused on David Glatzel and his family members, almost all of whom make appearances in the documentary film. David’s story goes back to the beginning of the 1980s, when he was just eleven years old. The Glatzel family lived in Brookfield, Connecticut, in their own family home with their four children—daughter Debbie and three sons Carl, David, and Alan. The three brothers spent most of their time together playing around, as is very common, but things started to change when the sister decided to move out. Debbie, around eighteen or nineteen at the time, was in a relationship with a similar-aged man named Arne Cheyenne Johnson, and the couple had decided to move in together. The Glatzel family knew Arne very well, and they, too, had supported their decision, even helping the daughter move in with her boyfriend.
Debbie had found an old house on rent in the nearby neighborhood of Newtown, and it was here that something very strange happened to David Glatzel. The boy had accompanied his brothers and his mother to the new house in order to help move Debbie’s things, and had experienced what he still calls a visit from some demonic entity. While working alone in one of the bedrooms, the young boy felt someone walk up to him from behind and throw him backward onto the bed. He could then see the face of the entity, too, which looked very much like the conventional images of the Devil, according to him. To make the experience even scarier for young David, the entity then threatened to come find him, for the Devil wanted to take over his soul. The boy immediately left the house and insisted his family take him home, where he told everyone what had happened a few hours later.
The family did not want to believe the child at first, and their mother, Judy, was of the opinion that David must have dreamt all of this in some twisted nightmare. However, the boy still kept fearing that someone was following him and keeping an eye on him, and this time, Judy decided to act differently. As the family, especially Judy Glatzel, was extremely religious, with full faith in God and the Devil, they called upon their local priest, Father Denis, to come and bless their home. But what followed after this incident truly shook up the Glatzels, for David’s fears did not stop at all. Instead, he woke up in the middle of the night screaming frantically, and then his siblings and his mother all felt their house literally shaking, as if some heavy force were being applied to it. Convinced that her son had indeed been marked by the Devil, Judy Glatzel soon consulted a couple who claimed themselves to be demonologists, Ed and Lorraine Warren.
How did the Warrens diagnose the case, and what was their solution?
Ed and Lorraine Warren were a couple living in Connecticut, claiming to be experts in a number of paranormal investigations, which can be summed up as ghost hunting. Ed Warren stated that he had been a demonologist from his very birth and had been gifted with the power to understand and communicate with demons. His wife, Warren, was more of a clairvoyant and psychic who could apparently feel and sense the existence of other-worldly beings. Together, they had been involved in a number of paranormal investigations in the state and had gained some popularity through TV programs and books written about their work. It was because of their experience and skill that the Warrens were contacted by Judy Glatzel, who asked for help with regard to her son.
As one of the family members in The Devil on Trial states, the Warrens brought along a doctor with them on their first visit to check on young David, and the boy was found to have no medical ailment. What the documentary, or none of the individuals in it, speaks about is the possibility that such ghost hunters looking for quick fame would most probably always go around with a fake doctor in order to convince the families that there was something demonically wrong with them. But it is also to be mentioned that The Devil on Trial does present some opposition to the unabashedly ignorant claims of demonic possession and whatnot, through the eldest Glatzel brother, Carl. It is Carl who points out a major point of suspicion with regards to Ed and Lorraine, as the couple openly talked about what one would do in case of a demonic possession straight in front of David.
When the Warrens first came to see David and examined him, they stated that a demonic entity had set a target on him and would soon take possession of him. Lorraine claimed to see a dark figure standing right next to the boy, where there was actually nobody in reality. Ed discussed the symptoms one would show when possessed by a demon, and during all of this David was right in front of them. Either through their exceptional skill of making targets out of gullible people or through their commendable but unofficial grasp over child psychology, the Warrens had the Glatzel family, and especially David, right where they wanted. Very soon, within the next few days, young David started being possessed by the demonic entity, as he growled and called out profanities to his family members and also to God. Upon the insistence of the Warrens, the family started to photograph and tape these demonic possessions, hoping to understand what had been happening with their child.
The solution provided by the ghost-hunter couple was that an exorcism be performed on David, and the Glatzels arranged for this to take place after much deliberation and discussion with their local church. During this exorcism, David had to be held back by multiple individuals in order to prevent the demon in him from lashing out, and the crucifix seared his skin when it was touched on his forehead. Some other reports also state that more unbelievable and violent things had taken place inside the church, like furniture being tossed around by someone invisible and David levitating up into the air. However, none of the church officials who were present at the scene sadly ever agreed to talk about it, either to any journalist at the time or to anyone linked with this documentary film.
While the exorcism suggested by the Warrens did cure David of the demonic possession, the troubles of the Glatzel family only escalated after this. Surely the Warrens joined the bandwagon in this later case as well, which was a real court case for murder, and by the end of The Devil on Trial, the Warrens are painted as the most dubious figures. Like absolute crooks who prey on simple-minded victims, the Warrens always kept searching for ways to make their cases more sensational. In the case of David Glatzel, their suggestion to record every possession of him was not really to understand his situation but more so to keep a photographic record to make the case more convincing. In fact, some of the voice recordings of David’s possessions are also presented in the film, but they do not add to anything and make it seem very possible that the boy was only emulating what he knew would be signs of possession. Later on, when the entire matter had come to a standstill, the Warrens took all of the information and documents from the Glatzels and got a book written about them. The Glatzels were given a mere sum of 4,500 dollars as compensation for their story, while the Warrens made 81,000 dollars just from the book deal, and they continue to make money through the Conjuring films.
How was a murder case involved as well?
When David Glatzel’s exorcism was taking place in the church, his brother-in-law and well-wisher, Arne Johnson, was also present. Since Arne was very close to the family, he knew everything that had been going on, and would always be present by their side during these and presumably all other problems. Therefore, when David was supposedly being tossed around by the demon inside him, Arne held the boy back and told the demon, almost challengingly, to leave the young boy and take control of him instead. As the expert Lorraine Warren told in one of the TV programs, such challenges should never be made and that they do not have an effect immediately, but rather when the demon wants to have an effect.
Surely, there was an effect on Arne Johnson within the next five or six months, on a day he was out with his girlfriend and his three younger sisters. Arne and Debbie had been working for a man named Alan Bono at his kennel service, and they were also staying at the man’s place as his tenants. The couple had seemingly known Bono from before, and their friendship grew during this time until one day in 1981 when the three had been drinking together. Bono apparently got boisterous and loud when drunk, and an argument broke out between him and Arne, which led to the latter stabbing his friend and employer four times. Although an ambulance was called and Bono was being taken to the hospital, the man succumbed to fatal injuries on the way.
Arne Johnson claimed, and still claims to this day, that he had no idea or control of what had happened, and it was the Devil or the demonic entity that had made him commit the crime. His family members also gladly accepted this explanation and even advocated for it, starting with David, who believed that Arne, under the demon’s possession, was on the way to his house to kill him next. As the man was arrested by the police very quickly and charges of murder were brought against him, Arne and the Glatzels started preparing for his defense along with their lawyer. The plan was to prove Arne innocent in court by claiming demonic possession, which had never been done in the USA. The specific defense had been used three times in England, though, and this somehow made the defendants confident about their stance as well.
Although Arne did not have any prior acts of violence recorded in his name, he was also known to be extremely possessive about his girlfriend, Debbie. In fact, Debbie and Alan Bono had once been in a relationship, too, and this was surely the point of argument on that fateful day. Added to this intense passion was alcohol, and all of it culminated in the death of the employer. Thankfully, the court immediately dismissed all of Arne and his lawyer’s claims, stating that “demonic possession” is not a valid point of defense under the country’s law. Resultantly, the whole defense case fell through, and claims that the murder was an act of self-defense also failed to have any impact. Arne Johnson was guilty of first-degree manslaughter against Alan Bono, and therefore the man was sentenced to imprisonment for 10 to 20 years. His relationship with Debbie was not marred by this, though, as they married and then continued to live as a couple until the woman’s death recently.
Ultimately, the whole matter of the demonic possessions appears extremely questionable and unrealistic, almost to the point of being used as a ruse for something else. David Glatzel and his childhood should be subjected to severe psychological examination, as it seems like the boy acted out most of the possessions for attention or some other reason. Carl, the eldest of the brothers, also states that their mother, Judy, was herself a questionable figure who would also regularly mix sleeping pills into the food of her children and husband. It is very possible that David’s experiences were directly linked to the effects of these medicines and maybe some genetic, psychological problems that he got from his mother. As far as Arne Johnson is concerned, his claim of demonic possession was, in all probability, his get-out-of-jail card, which miserably failed. Towards the end of The Devil on Trial, Carl Glatzel talks about how the Warrens had cheated them of their deserved money, and this new Netflix documentary seems like their effort to make some money of their own.