Have you heard rumors about a cult called The Disciples of the Ram? Ever hear of Katie Lincoln, the young girl from Danvers, Massachusetts, who was stabbed 22 times by her friend in a Satanic slaying? If you find yourself struggling to keep straight actual crimes, religious beliefs and practices, and plots from horror movies, you may be experiencing a phenomenon we call “The Exorcist effect.” This is a cycle in which horror films based on true events come to shape the way we interpret the world; this leads to more reports of paranormal experiences, which become fodder for more horror films. It’s an endless mobius strip where the line between film and history becomes increasingly blurred.
The Conjuring franchise, in depicting the real-life adventures of Ed and Lorraine Warren, has mastered the conceit of being “based on a true story.” The latest installment, The Devil Made Me Do It, is loosely based on the 1981 murder trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Johnson’s lawyer attempted to plead not guilty by virtue of demonic possession. The trial drew international attention as well as calls from movie producers and publishing agents. In fact, this is not the first film adaptation of the story: the 1983 made-for-television-film The Demon Murder Case featured a young Kevin Bacon as the defendant.
According to the Warrens, Johnson was demonically possessed on February 16, 1981, when he stabbed his landlord. The Warrens had met the family of Johnson’s girlfriend, Debbie Glatzel, the previous July. 11-year-old David Glatzel began reporting visions of a scary old man he called “the beast.” Soon he was seen thrashing on the bed as if being strangled by invisible hands. The family sought the help of their local pastor, who summoned the Warrens. By 1981, the Warrens were already minor celebrities. Their slim connection to The Amityville Horror (1979) had led to some rewarding lecture opportunities and a book about their careers called The Demonologist was published in 1980. Debbie and her mother Judy had attended one of the Warrens’ lectures on the supernatural in Danbury before David’s troubles began.
The Diocese of Bridgeport denied a formal exorcism because the family refused to first undergo psychiatric examination. But the Warrens convinced sympathetic priests to perform a series of four unofficial “minor exorcisms” on David—the last of which lasted nearly seven hours. The Warrens used the opportunity to make recordings and Polaroids. Johnson tried to help by challenging the demon to leave David and possess him instead. This, it was claimed, is how he became possessed. Ed Warren explained Johnson’s foolhardy decision to The Washington Post: “It’s just one of those things you never do. Not if you know anything about this sort of thing.”
But this sort of thing had been done before. It had been done by Father Karras at the end of the 1973 film The Exorcist when the priest challenges the demon Pazuzu to enter him before leaping out the window to his death. Appropriately, The Devil Made Me Do It is a visual homage to The Exorcist. Even viewers who have never seen The Exorcist will recognize the shot where a priest exits a cab and stares up at a foreboding dark house.
The Exorcist, of course, was itself based on an actual exorcism performed on a boy from Maryland in 1949. Fordham professor Michael Cuneo noted that this film fundamentally changed the culture of exorcism, creating a demand for the ritual that was unprecedented in American history. Although the Warrens were already working as “ghost-hunters” by 1973, The Exorcist created a market for their services. When Catholic authorities refused to grant an exorcism, the Warrens were often able to finagle an informal exorcism as they did for the Glatzels.
The cultural impact of The Exorcist was renewed on February 12, 1980, when it premiered on network television. In fact, the entire Glatzel family had watched the film together before David’s troubles began. Whatever actually happened to David, the family was primed to interpret the situation—and to respond to it—in terms of the film. In 1981, Russell Chandler of the Los Angeles Times noted that the entire affair “seems like a script from The Exorcist or The Amityville Horror.” (In 2007, David and his brother Carl announced they were suing Lorraine Warren and that the Warrens had exploited them to perpetuate a hoax.)
In The Devil Made Me Do It the murder and the trial are given surprisingly little screen time. Instead, these events serve as a springboard to tell a much grander story about supernatural evil. The Warrens discover that David’s possession was the result of a curse placed on him by “The Occultist,” a villain whose Satanic rituals have also driven other innocent people to murder. Why would The Occultist do this? As a character dressed suspiciously like Max von Sydow from The Exorcist explains, “The ‘why’ is irrelevant. The ‘why’ is counter to everything that the Satanist stands for. His sole aim is chaos. His nectar is despair.”
The Occultist and the other murders in the film are fictional additions to “The Conjuring Universe.” However, other real-world details are mentioned in passing to give this tale a sense of verisimilitude. When discussing legal precedent for their case, Ed Warren references the case of Michael Taylor. In 1975 Michael Taylor of England was found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity. However, his defense did not claim that Taylor was possessed but rather that he had been severely disturbed from a brutal all-night exorcism performed on him by an overly enthusiastic charismatic church. Taylor was restrained, objects were forced into his mouth, and he was told he was filled with demons. In the morning he was untied and sent home whereupon he fatally assaulted his wife. One wonders how this story will change when it is inevitably adapted into another horror film.
These tactics also extend into marketing. William Friedkin, the director of The Exorcist, let everyone know that a priest was brought in to bless the set, which seemed plagued by literal supernatural forces. A bonus featurette called Faith and Fear packaged with another Conjuring Universe film, The Nun, features Bryan D. Ouelette—an “autocephalous [i.e. self-appointed] eastern Orthodox/western Catholic bishop”—blessing the set of The Devil Made Me Do It before filming began in 2019. Ouellette tells the crew, “The cosmos doesn’t know the difference between fiction and non-fiction.” He warns that even depicting “dark archetypes” can cause actual demons to manifest. So even if it is just a movie, we’re still in supernatural peril.
All this blending of fantasy and reality is done to make a compelling summer horror movie. But it’s not surprising that fans are now asking whether Katie Lincoln or The Disciples of the Ram are real. The problem is exacerbated by a phenomenon psychologists call “source amnesia”: It turns out our brains are good at retaining information, but less good at remembering whether we read something in the news or saw it in a horror movie. Additionally, Bible scholar Steve Wiggins has noted that as Americans have dismal levels of biblical literacy, horror films have come to fill the gap in our knowledge. For example, many Christians cannot spot the fake Bible verses in films like The Omen (1976). So will The Conjuring franchise influence actual events as The Exorcist influenced the Glatzel family? It seems likely.
Disorienting the audience is good fun, except when the public becomes convinced their neighbors are Satanic murderers. This is exactly what happened during the Satanic Panic that peaked in the years following the Johnson trial. Numerous daycare providers and other innocents were falsely accused of harming children in Satanic rituals. These claims seemed plausible to jurors who believed certain people commit crimes simply because, “Their nectar is despair.”
The solution to “The Exorcist effect” is not to condemn horror movies or censor filmmakers. Instead, we as consumers need to be more thoughtful concerning where we get our ideas about such things as exorcism and Satanic cults. Much evil arises not from black-hearted occultists or demonic compulsion, but rather intellectual laziness and the fantasy of living in a movie.