This article contains spoilers for The Devil on Trial.
For most of its 80-minute runtime, Netflix‘s newest true crime doc, The Devil on Trial, is as sensational as the subject matter it’s covering, down to a “shock twist” at the end that might finally break this case of demonic possession wide open. Or at least it’s one of the many possible explanations this film flirts with while presenting its largely paint-by-the-numbers retelling of a story you’re likely already familiar with if you’ve watched The Conjuring movies about famous paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.
But here’s a quick summary: in 1980, the Warrens traveled to Brookfield, Connecticut to investigate a possible case of demonic possession at the home of the Glatzel family. When they decided David, the youngest of the Glatzel siblings, had indeed been possessed by the Devil, they turned to the Catholic Church for an exorcism. But while the Devil was eventually exorcised from David’s body, the demon found a new home in Arne Cheyenne Johnson, a close family friend and boyfriend of David’s sister Debbie who was present during the exorcism and allegedly challenged the Devil to take him instead of the boy. Several months later in 1981, Arne stabbed and killed his landlord Alan Bono during a party. When Arne was put on trial, his defense tried to claim that the Devil had possessed him and made him commit the murder, but that didn’t fly with the judge, and he was ultimately found guilty and convicted of first-degree manslaughter and sentenced to 10-20 years in prison, although he only served five years. The events at the Glatzel house, and the trial that followed, went on to become one of the Warrens’ most famous cases.
The Devil on Trial is a “tell-all” doc you might stream for a bit of weekend morning titillation, but you won’t find any concrete answers about what really happened at the Glatzel’s, or whether the Devil really did make Arne Cheyenne Johnson kill Alan Bono. For the most part, the movie isn’t very interested in getting closer to the truth, choosing instead to ham up the scares through its use of heavily edited film footage and tape recordings of the case. Particularly, when it’s digging into David Glatzel’s possession, complete with audio clips of the allegedly possessed boy’s violent fits, it feels like The Devil on Trial was made as a companion piece to the blockbuster films.
But that’s not to say The Devil on Trial wears the same rose-tinted glasses as the Warner Bros. movies when it shifts focus to the central ghost hunting couple. At its most compelling, the documentary questions the Warrens’ role in the case, their motivations, and whether they’re complicit in the suffering of the Glatzel family after the media circus around the case upends their lives.
Although much of the film is devoted to interviews with the believers in the family — David, Arne, middle brother Alan, and sister Debbie (through archival footage as she passed away in 2021), all of whom give impassioned accounts of demonic possession — The Devil on Trial eventually turns the mic over to David’s older brother Carl Glatzel, who tells a very different version of the events.
“The murder of Alan Bono, I never even thought it was connected to David,” Carl declares in the movie, claiming it was a secret love triangle involving Debbie that drove Arne to murder Alan. “There’s nothing demonic in this. Arne was very possessive of Debbie. There was speculations and rumors that Debbie was having an affair with Alan Bono.”
It’s one of several accusations Carl lodges at his family and the Warrens in the final minutes of the documentary. In fact, The Devil on Trial closes with Carl’s most startling allegation, the aforementioned shock twist. Carl believes that David’s “possession” could have been caused by their mother Judy, who he claims was drugging the rest of the family with an over-the-counter sleeping pill called Sominex, sneaking it into the rest of the family’s food at dinnertime.
“Sominex has long-lasting effects on people,” Carl says. “Mood swings, weight gain, and hallucinations. It is very possible that my brother David had ingested enough of this stuff over the years, where he did see things. Or at least he thought he saw things.” Carl formed this theory after finding a suspicious note among her late mother’s things: “Well, the family had their medicine tonight, and everything was good.”
It’s a “revelation” that’ll make your skin crawl, not just when you consider a mother may have been secretly drugging her children, but due to the scenes that precede Carl’s allegations, where we watch Judy enjoying the increased media attention she’s getting from David’s case and Arne’s trial. The doc shows Judy excited by the brief moment of fame offered to her during a media blitz organized by the Warrens, at one point being picked up in a limo to have dinner with Dick Clark. We also hear Judy talking to Lorraine over the phone about a book deal and the money she’s hoping to receive for publishing the family’s story.
Carl suggests Sominex was Judy’s way of controlling her family, including her husband Carl Sr., who we only see briefly in the doc. He explains his father didn’t buy into the demonic possession, believing that David was actually suffering from a mental illness, and refused to participate in the sessions with the Warrens.
In their casebook Ghost Hunters, Ed Warren also mentions David had a learning disability and that they asked a doctor to examine the boy to rule out a medical cause for the boy’s fits. But Carl doesn’t think Ed and Lorraine ever had David’s best interests in mind, accusing them of orchestrating the hoax, which prevented David from getting real help. Carl describes a meeting Ed and Lorraine had with the family the first night they visited their Brookfield home, where the couple explained in detail, and in front of David ,how a person under demonic possession would act, which Carl believes was a way to encourage his brother to act out for their cameras and tape recorders.
One memory from the entire fiasco sticks in Carl’s mind as proof that David wasn’t possessed but was instead a sick kid falling deeper into a delusion fabricated by the Warrens. We hear recordings of little David speaking with the raspy voice of a supposed demon, threatening his mother as she tries to hold him down during an episode. David says Judy is going to die and calls her a douchebag. Carl claims that on a night David was being particularly unruly and violent, their father burst into the living room, slapped David across the face, and told him to go sit down on the couch, which David allegedly immediately did, snapping out of his “possessed” state instantly. Carl sarcastically wonders why “the Devil” was so quick to listen to their father and not Judy or any of the other family members who fed into the narrative of demonic possession.
The doc reveals that the Glatzel family became estranged in the years after Arne’s trial and the release of the book about David’s possession, The Devil in Connecticut, which was written by Gerald Brittle, and it’s easy to see why. Even years later, David, Alan, Debbie, and Arne all believe the Devil was behind all of these happenings, while Carl is quick to call bullshit on all their stories and blames the Warrens for exploiting his family for profit. Carl, who says he was made out to be the villain of the book because he was a “sane voice” who didn’t believe the Warrens from day one, claims the release of the story caused him to be ostracized by their community, forcing him to drop out of school and lose out on business opportunities.
The Glatzels sold the rights to their story to the William Morris Agency, but the doc claims they were only paid $4,500 for it, while the Warrens made more than $81,000 off the book deal. That story would not only form the basis of Brittle’s book but also a 1983 NBC TV movie and much more recently The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, which made $206 million at the box office in 2021. The high-profile case also helped shape the legend of Ed and Lorraine Warren as the kindhearted and loving couple whose life’s work was to protect families from demons and other hauntings. These days, it’s the only portrayal of the Warrens you’re likely to find at multiplexes.
In Ghost Hunters, which was published in 1989, Ed claimed the Warrens were still good friends with David and the rest of the Glatzels and kept in touch, but Carl and David later sued the Warrens, Brittle, publisher iUniverse, and William Morris in 2007 when The Devil in Connecticut was reprinted without the family’s consent, claiming it was an “invasion of the right to privacy, libel, and intentional affliction of emotional distress for the supposed false information contained in the book.”
“Put simply, they robbed us of our childhood and our education, something we can never get back,” Carl and David said in a statement at the time. “It’s not a matter of vengeance, but justice, and I think it’s important that people know the truth. If we can show that to them, it may save others the grief and hardship we faced. Nobody should have to go through what we did.”
At the end of The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, Ed and Lorraine come out as heroes, defeating the fictional occultist who put a curse on David and Arne, and saving each other through the power of their love. But the real-life David says his time with the Warrens ended very differently. Although, all these years later, he does still believe he and Arne were possessed by the Devil, David claims the Warrens exploited their suffering for profit, while promising that this story would make the family millionaires. Those millions never arrived.
“Lorraine told me I was going to be a rich little boy from having this book deal,” David says towards the end of the film. “And that was a lie. The Warrens made a lot of money off of us. If they can profit off you, they will.”
The Devil on Trial is streaming now on Netflix.