At the time, Smith and Pazder’s claims were subject to even less criticism. What resulted was a widespread moral panic, fueled by combination of overzealous law enforcement, religious hysteria over heavy metal and Dungeons & Dragons, growing fears about “stranger danger,” and careerist psychiatrists hungry for publicity. Pop-cultural artifacts from the era, like Geraldo Rivera’s infamous 1988 special Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground and the supremely fucked up children’s picture book Don’t Make Me Go Back, Mommy: A Child’s Book About Satanic Ritual Abuse are laughable now. But for those who were falsely accused of murder and pedophilia by misguided zealots convinced of the existence of a global network of satanic day care centers, the damage was real.

It took 21 years for Dan and Fran Keller, the owners of a daycare facility in Austin, Texas who were falsely accused of ritually abusing their charges in 1991, to clear their names and be released from prison. More than 30 people were convicted in Kern County, California, where a sexual abuse case spiraled into a massive conspiracy theory fueled by one woman coercing her grandchildren into reporting nonexistent horrors. And let’s not forget the infamous McMartin preschool trial in California, where a social worker asking leading questions convinced dozens of children to testify that they had been abused in occult ceremonies led by the owner of the school, an elderly woman named Peggy McMartin, and her son Ray Buckey. That case dragged on for seven years before charges were finally dropped. But perhaps the ultimate example of the real-world consequences of the satanic panic is the West Memphis Three, whose case is profiled in the Paradise Lost documentaries (among others).

The Occultist in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It
The Occultist in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Although—unusually for the publicity-hungry opportunists—the real Ed and Lorraine Warren were never involved in a satanic day care case, it should come as no surprise that they are connected to the satanic panic. That’s largely through the trial of Cheyenne “Arne” Johnson, dramatized in The Devil Made Me Do It. In the film, we see Johnson’s lawyer, shaken after an offscreen encounter with the Warrens’ menagerie of malevolent toys, offering up a plea of not guilty by reason of demonic possession. From there, the trial drops out of sight, only reappearing at the end when Johnson being sentenced for manslaughter. In fact, the film goes out of its way to avoid what could have been its most interesting theme: “What does it do to the whole system of the law,” as a talk show host asks the real Ed Warren in a mid-credits archival clip, if anyone can say that a demon was responsible for their actions? How do you prove something like that?

One reason why the film meanders off into reanimated corpses and witchy totems is that the actual courtroom drama was pretty anticlimactic. Johnson’s real-life defense attorney, Martin J. Minnella, had promised that the presence of demons would be validated in open court, crowing, “The courts have dealt with the existence of God, and now they’ll be asked to deal with the existence of the demonic spirit!” That same argument would come up decades later, in a lawsuit over the rights to the Warrens’ case files that hinged on whether those stories were “historical fact”—in other words, whether demons and spirits are real.

Despite what trailers for The Devil Made Me Do It proclaim, however, a U.S. court has yet to definitively answer that question, as the 1981 murder plea was rejected and the 2017 lawsuit dismissed. In Johnson’s case, the defense was framed the way it is in the movie—that a demon had jumped out of 11-year-old David Glatzel and into Johnson during an exorcism six months prior, as Lorraine Warren had told local police the day after the murder. But what isn’t in the film is Judge Robert Callahan shutting the whole thing down by saying, “I’m not going to allow the defense of demon possession, period” to a courtroom packed with curious onlookers and media from around the world. In the end, Ed Warren was allowed to testify, but only as a character witness. No devil stuff allowed.

At the time, the Warrens were accused of exploiting a family tragedy for their own personal gain—a contemporary article in the Hartford Courant declared that “the Brookfield case is simply a means for the couple to prey on the superstitions of the public and build up their annual lecture revenues.” And indeed, sales of the 1980 book The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career Of Ed And Lorraine Warren (coincidentally, the book that would prompt the aforementioned lawsuit) increased amid international publicity for the trial. A book about the trial itself, The Devil In Connecticut, followed in 1983. Both written by Gerald Brittle, these books take the Warrens’ version of the story as fact, much as the Conjuring movies do.

It cannot be denied that Ed and Lorraine’s wild tales of evil conspiracies and innocent victims ensnared by infernal forces is more thrilling than the alternative. The Warrens knew they had a compelling narrative; as Ed told The Washington Post in 1981, “Right away, I knew there was something to this, I felt like a good fisherman when he knows there’s something on the line.” In that same article about the case, Lorraine further elucidates their motives, while repeatedly insisting that Satan is real and tormenting Arne Johnson. The paragraph reads:

Soon, everyone will know about this sort of thing, what with the diligent work the Warrens are doing in spreading the word to the press. “Will we have a book written about this?” Lorraine Warren asks rhetorically. “Yes we will. Will we lecture about it? Yes, we will.” Are they talking to writers and movie producers? “No, we’re not,” she says. “Our agents at the William Morris Agency are.”

Take away the supernatural element, and what you have here is a sad story of undiagnosed mental illness and family dysfunction that ends in a senseless murder. That’s the version of the story being put forward by Carl Glatzel, David’s older brother, who sued the Warrens in 2007. According to Glatzel, his younger brother David was suffering from undiagnosed schizophrenia, which was exacerbated by the Warrens’ meddling; he makes no mention of Arne Johnson’s mental state, but Johnson was 19 at the time of the murder—an age when schizophrenic illness often manifests in young men. Johnson and his wife Debbie (née Glatzel), for their part, stand by the Warrens and remain convinced that Arne was possessed when he stabbed his landlord Alan Bono and wandered off into the Connecticut woods on February 16, 1981. Debbie even appeared in a promotional featurette for the movie, saying, “I want the truth to be told. These things are real. You cannot take this lightly.”

What’s the harm, one might ask, in indulging belief in the supernatural to spice up a horror story? Nothing, really—the religious horror wave prompted by The Exorcist was a boon to Catholics and goths alike, both of whom seem to find the unholy imagery titillating. But the innocence is lost when you start pointing fingers at real, living people. The satanic panic’s rallying cry of “protecting children” from powerful, shadowy forces is alive today in the right-wing obsession with human trafficking. And its explicit accounts of cannibalism, child abuse, mutilation, and murder are the direct ancestors of QAnon campfire tales about Democrats splitting open the skulls of infants and drinking the adrenochrome.

The long-term consequences of such conspiracy theories are still unfolding, but—to put it mildly—what we’ve seen so far? It isn’t good. From the Pizzagate-fueled shooting at Washington, DC-era pizza restaurant Comet Ping Pong in 2016 to the Capitol riot of January 2021, online conspiracies have led to real-life violence, as the paranoid imaginations of otherwise well-meaning people did 40 years ago. America has never really reckoned with the satanic panic as a culture, and neither has the psychiatric community. (The only ones really pressing this point are The Satanic Temple, whose interest in dispelling popular myths about satanists is obvious.) As Noll wrote in his article, “Some mass cultural phenomena are so emotionally charged, so febrile, and in retrospect so causally incomprehensible, that we feel compelled to move on silently and feign forgetfulness.” But if we keep doing so, history will continue to repeat itself. That’s much worse than an un-scary horror movie.