The Devil on Trial review: Blurs the lines between true crime and paranormal

The Devil on Trial is a Netflix documentary that delves into the 1981 “Devil Made Me Do It” case, where 19-year-old Arne Cheyenne Johnson asserted demonic possession as a defense for murdering his landlord, Alan Bono.

The film uses reenactments and home footage to scrutinize the alleged possession leading to the crime. It covers the only instance where “demonic possession” was officially used as a defense in a U.S. murder trial.


The Devil on Trial opens in 1980, when 11-year-old David Glatzel reportedly became possessed while helping his sister Debbie move into a new house in Newtown, Connecticut with her boyfriend, Arne Cheyenne Johnson.

Despite a priest’s efforts, David’s condition worsened. The family sought help from Ed and Lorraine Warren, renowned demonologists. They, along with a doctor, confirmed David’s possession.

During a subsequent exorcism, Arne challenged the entity to possess him, resulting in its apparent success. In February 1981, after an altercation, Arne fatally stabbed his landlord, Alan Bono.

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Lorraine had previously warned the police about Arne’s potential for violence post-exorcism as the entity had a hold on him now. Arrested and claiming no memory of the murder, Arne pled not guilty due to demonic possession.

Skeptical lawyer Martin Minnella represented him but later became convinced of the possession narrative after reviewing the evidence. This became widely known as the “Devil Made Me Do It” case.

Arne Cheyenne Johnson’s trial began on October 28, 1981. Before the defense could argue demonic possession, the judge dismissed it, leaving self-defense as the main argument.

On November 24, 1981, the jury found Arne guilty of first-degree manslaughter but not first-degree murder. He received a 10 to 20-year sentence in a maximum-security prison. Arne married Debbie in prison in 1985 and was released in 1986. They stayed together until Debbie’s death in 2021.

Carl, the eldest brother in the Glatzel family, was skeptical of David’s devilish possession claims. He believed that the Warrens manipulated events for their benefit, especially noting that David’s actions aligned perfectly with their descriptions.

Carl highlighted an incident where their father’s stern intervention instantly stopped one of David’s episodes. Carl also suspected that jealousy over Debbie’s relationship with Alan Bono might have motivated Arne’s actions, not possession.

He felt silenced during the trial, suggesting his family paid him to stay out of it. Post-trial, the Warrens profited greatly from the family’s story, earning significantly more than the Glatzels from a book deal.

The Warren family continues to profit from films like The Conjuring. After their parents’ death, Carl discovered his mother had been secretly administering Sominex, a sleeping pill with side effects including hallucinations, to the family. He posits that his family were pawns in his mother’s control tactics and the Warrens’ financial schemes.


The documentary The Devil on Trial stands out for its ability to artfully blur the lines between reality and fabrication, captivating viewers with its seamless blend of truths and potential myths.

One of the standout features of the documentary is its top-notch recreations, which bring the past to life with meticulous detail and authenticity.

Its strength also lies in its comprehensive exploration of various perspectives. It does not just lean on the viewpoints of the Warrens but also brings in the narratives of their grandchild, the Glatzel family, Arne Johnson, the involved priest, the police, journalists, and even the lawyer, providing a holistic view of the events.

This diverse range of voices is further enriched by the inclusion of invaluable archival footage, which grounds the story in its historical context. The documentary also benefits from the hauntingly real audio recordings made by the Warrens in the summer of 1980, offering an unfiltered look into the harrowing experiences of the Glatzel family.

Furthermore, The Devil on Trial provides a different look at the Warrens and their alleged monetary agenda through the perspective of the eldest Glatzel brother, Carl. His claim that the entire thing was made-up and was the result of sleeping pills adds a fresh angle to the story.

The pacing is another commendable aspect; the runtime feels just right, neither rushed nor drawn out, keeping viewers engaged throughout. The documentary’s editing is precise, weaving together different elements seamlessly, ensuring a smooth and compelling narrative flow.


While The Devil on Trial has its merits, there are certain shortcomings that detract from its potential as a comprehensive documentary.

Firstly, its format appears to be restrictive. The events and intricacies surrounding the case could have been better explained if the documentary was split into multiple episodes, offering a more in-depth exploration of the subject matter.

A noticeable portion of the documentary leans heavily towards the reenactment of paranormal events, at times overshadowing the factual elements and making it seem more theatrical than informative.

A significant drawback in The Devil on Trial is the lack of balance in its structure. Minimal time is allocated to delve into the counter-narrative suggesting that the entire ordeal might have been a fabrication. This oversight feels especially glaring considering the barely-there coverage of the court case, which is an essential aspect of the story.

Moreover, the absence of commentary from close associates of the murder victim, Alan Bono, represents a missed opportunity to offer a well-rounded perspective on the incident.


The Devil on Trial is an immersive documentary that does well to unfurl the mystery behind such a unique case in American legal history. It has enough oomph to keep you engaged. However, it does fall short on providing a holistic understanding of events.

The Devil on Trial
The Devil on Trial review: Blurs the lines between true crime and paranormal 1

Director: Christopher Holt

Date Created: 2023-10-17 17:03

Editor's Rating:

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