The breakout horror film The Conjuring is based on a real pair of demonologists, Ed and Lorraine Warren, the stars of Gerald Brittle’s book The Demonologist. Stefan Beck recounts his visit to their house of horrors—and wonders just why we can’t resist the occult.
On July 30 The Hollywood Reporter announced that James Wan’s The Conjuring, a horror movie assembled on a twenty-million-dollar budget, had reached nearly eighty-seven million dollars in domestic box office sales, “surpassing high-priced tentpoles The Lone Ranger and Pacific Rim.” The Conjuring had everybody running scared: rival studio execs, nail-biting audiences, and even my mother, who pronounced the film “very believable” and informed me that a spring-roller shade had jumped from a bedroom window upon her return from the multiplex. I don’t doubt that her doorknob was festooned that night with rosary beads, miraculous medals, and garlic wreaths.
No surprise there. The Conjuring is an excellent piece of cinema, which works as a period piece (think Zodiac); an homage to directors like Alfred Hitchcock and William Friedkin; and a Grand-Guignol guilty pleasure. It follows the Perrons, Carolyn (Lili Taylor), Roger (Ron Livingston of Office Space, here wishing that a photocopier on the fritz were the worst of it), and their five daughters, as they move into an old Rhode Island farmhouse. Said house sits for some reason on a spooky cypress grove, though for “some reason” we may substitute “they shoot movies in Wilmington, North Carolina, don’t they?”
Roger notes the peace and quiet, foreshadowing the fact that his family will be plagued by bumps-in-the-night, and sure enough, the first third of the movie features top-notch Foley artistry. The year is 1971. The Perron daughters play a creepily dated game of hide-and-clap; the Perrons’ spectral houseguests join in the fun. A sleeping girl’s legs are tugged by invisible hands. Another daughter, a sleepwalker, is found banging her head against an armoire like a defective Roomba. From there, the situation deteriorates rapidly.
The Conjuring’s husband and wife heroes, the “demonologist” and “light-trance medium” Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), are buttonholed at a lecture and summoned to the haunted house. Wilson’s performance may be bland and forgettable, but Farmiga is talented enough to give even the hammiest dialogue a patina of credibility, and in a horror movie, that patina is all we need.
The scariest part of this? Ed and Lorraine Warren are real people.
Watching The Conjuring, my first moment of déjà vu came with Lorraine’s wide, ruffled collar. One could argue that it’s the real star of this Seventies scare-fest. My second came with a peek into the Warrens’ Occult Museum, a room in their Connecticut home filled with supernatural relics. In the film, these include a suit of samurai armor, a host of exotic-looking figurines, and an evil doll named Annabelle imprisoned in a glass box. The ghastly doll which appears in the film’s opening scenes looks like something on loan from director Wan’s Saw franchise. The real-life Annabelle is a Raggedy Ann that Lorraine Warren once warned me in no uncertain terms not to touch.
In 2005, I accompanied seven friends to the Warrens’ home in Monroe, Connecticut—we got a group rate, but it wasn’t cheap—where we watched VHS tapes, listened to ghost stories, enjoyed light refreshments, and explored the Occult Museum.
The actual Museum looks less like a wing of the Smithsonian than like a rummage sale at John Bonham’s house. An inventory of the Warrens’ possessions would include recording equipment; mirrors; an airhorn; atlases; statuettes of knights and angels; plaster gargoyles; a light-up Ghostly Head; crude paintings of hissing cats and haunted houses; an LP of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid; a rubber frog; dolls; a Mason & Hamlin organ labeled haunted organ; a painting of a red (and bald) woman in a green cloak; a rubber Grim Reaper with its hands arranged on a Ouija board; a spice rack and Grey Poupon jar labeled black magic witchcraft items; a mannequin in a white gown and veil; an AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide; a painting of a naked woman wielding a sword; a demon mask; a stuffed tiger head; and a plastic robot dinosaur.
The only malevolent presence in the house that night was a gang of snickering boys and one put-upon girlfriend. Ed Warren, having undergone a health crisis, was confined to a hospital bed in the living room. At one point, filing into the basement, we heard a terrible groan from above and were blithely informed by Lorraine that “the cat must have jumped on Ed.” Whatever potential for horror the tour had held devolved into absurdity, and after our time was up we passed the night drinking in a graveyard and capturing errant “orbs” on a digital camera.
Today, back in Connecticut, I have acquaintances who used to watch the Warrens’ deliver lectures at the University of Connecticut every Halloween. One girl nearly lost her job as an auditorium usher when she fled a Warrens’ performance in abject terror. The enduring mystery is: Do the Warrens believe their own tales? Every era has its grifters, its patent-medicine salesmen, its Barnums, but what I remember of sweet old Lorraine Warren is her sheer unflappable sincerity. Gerald Brittle’s The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed and Lorraine Warren (1980)—which bills itself as a novel in the fine print, though it seems to draw on interviews with Ed and Lorraine and shares copyright with them—has this quality of sincerity in spades. Awful though it may be, The Demonologist is a case study in self-willed delusion.
The Demonologist gets two elements of the Warrens’ career just right, if unintentionally. One is the Warrens’ penchant for claims that overstep plausibility. Many have experienced phenomena that, however creepy, admit a satisfactory explanation. Nighttime “visitations” may be chalked up to sleep deprivation, to hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucinations. In The Conjuring, the Warrens brush off alleged hauntings as the result of drafts or defective pipes. In fact, Ed and Lorraine gave their stamp to things that couldn’t have seemed to occur under even the strangest circumstances.
“I witnessed a four-hundred pound refrigerator lift off the floor,” Ed says. “I watched a console television set rise slowly in the air, then come down with a deafening, explosive crash. Yet, not one tube was broken!” Later: “Demonic spirits . . . regularly move furniture or appliances that would require two strong men to lift.” One family “watched as the heavy wooden bedroom dresser eerily began to levitate a few inches off the floor.” Ed’s assistants should have started a moving company: Two Guys and a Truck and a Demon.
That’s just a taste of the claims that, in Brittle’s words, “literally [strain] credulity.” A “macabre hooded spectre . . . moved defiantly toward him,” Brittle writes of Ed, suggesting nothing so much as Brittle’s own fondness for adverbs. The book breathlessly relates “fires, explosions, dematerialization, [and] teleportation,” as well as demonically-orchestrated car accidents; “apports” of “urine, bile, vomit, blood, or excrement”; and graffiti, “the same foul-minded filth one encounters in a public lavatory.” And: “In the downstairs rec room, heavy recliners floated up into the air, drifted to the middle of the room, then piled atop one another in ostensibly sexual postures.”
Most entertaining is the Warrens’ tendency to speak ex cathedra, offering pet theories as confidently as one would talk about gravity or the conservation of mass: “On very humid days with a lot of rain or fog, or on stormy nights when there is electrical energy in the air from lightning discharges, a ghost is able to build itself from the energy in the atmosphere.” Lorraine identifies clergymen “by the light-beige aura that surrounds the ordained.” The most valuable piece of wisdom in The Demonologist is also the most intuitive: “Ultimately, people are not supposed to be possessed by any other spirit than their own—least of all by inhuman demonic spirits.”
There’s a good reason to laugh at folks like the Warrens—not ghost hunters but anyone who elects to live in his own fantasy world. As Perry DeAngelis and Steven Novella of the New England Skeptical Society wrote back in 1997, of an abortive exorcism, “I do not believe that Ed or Lorraine would ever intentionally hurt a child, or anyone for that matter. Yet . . . their claims reinforce delusions, have served as decisive court testimony, and confuse the public about the methods of legitimate science.”
The Warrens’ claims also made them a living on the lecture circuit. It’s hard not to recall that when reading, of the money that sometimes goes missing in an ostensibly possessed house: “I’d say there’s roughly a hundred percent chance that the money gets teleported to a sorceror or someone else involved in the black arts. I say this because I know sorcerors who never worked a day in their life, yet they’re financially well-off.” Yes, well, storytelling is a kind of sorcery, too.