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The Long, Strange Career of ‘The Conjuring’ Demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren

The fun, new horror film The Conjuring is inspiring all the usual questions that face a based-on-a-true-story horror film: is the story really true? Are the “demonologists” of the film, Ed and Lorraine Warren, just cranks? It’s hard to say. Members of the Perron family, including the matriarch, Carolyn, still stick to the story, which does indeed involve demonic possession. The Perrons appear in promotional material for the film, not least this trailer, which literally stars the entire family. And hauntings, possessions, and poltergeists are always, in some sense, in the eye of the beholder. Who is any one of us to say what they saw, way back in 1972?

That said, the movie will not so much revive interest in the Perrons as it will in the Warrens, played pretty straight in the movie by a dignified Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson. The Warrens have been kicking around in the “possible cranks” corner of American popular culture for quite some time now. Most pieces on the show make some mention of their involvement in The Amityville Horror incident/story/hoax. That happens to be their biggest hit, but hardly their only showing in pop culture of the last half-century.

Although they claim in interviews that they’d been at work for many years before, the Warrens begin popping up in press accounts in the 1970s. They describe themselves as artists who were also devout Catholics, and who had early on show talent for identifying and dealing with the supernatural. They started speaking publicly towards the end of the 1960s, usually during lecture tours of university campuses. Several of these are shown in the film itself, so that’s accurate. Often, they even spoke of the very case that inspired the plot of The Conjuring. Which is sort of funny, since one of the title cards in the film’s trailer claims this story was too disturbing for them to tell until now, but no one expects total truth-telling from film marketing, and it’s a relatively miniscule whopper.

Anyway, some of the places they got to might surprise you. One early visit, for example, was to West Point Academy. (I’d love to hear the back story on that booking.) The 1970s were rife with interest in the supernatural, often identified as a leftover from the psychedelic 1960s. But the Warrens made a very strong impression of their own on the cadets, clearly. The New York Times reported that after they’d lectured, there was a distinct uptick of ghost sightings among the students there. And although a midshipman would later take credit – he used a flashlight and an old picture to create the image and a fire extinguisher to make the air cold – the Warrens remained skeptical, sure it was a true ghost, summoned by a séance in the area.

Over the years, these proto-TED-Talks made the Warrens the go-to ghost hunters and paranormal experts for the press. The tone of the print coverage was generally bemused, if muddled by a fair amount of affection. A Boston Globe reporter described Lorraine as a “dark-haired, comatose Dale Evans” in “a floor length black dress with white polka dots.” They noted that the Warrens’ car bore a license plate that read, “GHOST.” They toted reporters around to cases like the one in Connecticut, where a demon had supposedly gotten to a family by way of a Ouija board. One reporter called Parker Brothers for comment. “The company’s position now is that it is only a game,” said their trusty publicist. The Warrens, it perhaps goes without saying, disagreed.

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When they were called in to look at the Amityville mansion in the late 1970s, it was with a host of other investigators. The inconsistencies and fibs of the case are well documented elsewhere. But not all of the investigators believed George and Kathy Lutz’s story that the house was infested with a malevolent spirit that made slime run up the stairs and the keyholds bleed. The Warrens did, and supported the Lutzes long after the real case dissolved into a puddle of lawsuits. But it’s difficult to evaluate their good faith when their critics at the time were people like one Stephen Kaplan, “director of the Vampire Research Center of America, Parapsychology Institute of America.” For their own part, the Warrens were adamant they weren’t in it for money. “If this was a hoax, we wouldn’t be in on it, or the priest,” Ed offered when called upon to defend the Lutzes to the Washington Post. Then he added, dubious about the siren song of fame, “Why would they leave behind all their possessions on the mere chance of a best seller?”

That sounds one step too far into deliberate naïveté, doesn’t it? People have done far crazier things for a shot at fame in America. And even if it’s true that the Warrens say they do not charge for their services as a general rule, the money in paranormal investigation was never in the service provided. It was in Hollywood, which has long squeezed big bucks from surprisingly thin horror stories.

And boy has Hollywood loved the thin horror stories the Warrens keep getting caught up in. In addition to The Amityville Horror franchise, the Warrens are said to have been involved in and/or inspired the medium in the Poltergeist franchise and The Haunting in Connecticut. Ed died in 2006, but Lorraine has appeared on the new reality shows that cover the paranormal as an honored guest. There’s clearly gold in these here hills.

There are still a couple of cases in the Warren’s files that Hollywood’s never been able to make hay from. One, the Smurl haunting in West Pittson, Pennsylvania, is probably too graphic even for this torture-porn era. Jack Smurl, the patriarch of the family, reported that he found himself paralyzed in bed one night at the hands of a demon who “mounted me in the dominant position and started riding me.” The Warrens diagnosed the household with not one, but four demons, and yet the story got no further treatment than a movie-of-the-week starring Sally Kirkland. This one, too, is plagued by rumors of a hoax, but that never stopped the Amityville producers.

The other case, which the Warrens themselves described in a book called The Devil in Connecticut, garnered far more press coverage. The Warrens were called in to help with the exorcism of a young boy. During the exorcism, the boy’s sister’s boyfriend, Arne Johnson, allegedly challenged the devil to come out and take him instead. Less than a year later, Johnson killed a friend of his, and claimed the devil made him do it. Which would have been about par for the course for a guilty criminal had the Warrens not later sat down with his attorney and said they were convinced Johnson had committed his crime while under the control of a demon. The attorney, an ambitious young sort, promptly took up the call. He tried to put the theory to the judge, saying he’d put the Warrens up as witnesses. The judge threw out the request, and in the end Ed Warren made only one brief appearance at the trial. But in the interim press storm, the Warrens were making appearances on Good Morning America, touting their theories. Johnson was convicted and went to jail.

But in 2006, when their book on the case was reissued and a film was in development, a member of the possessed boy’s family sued, claiming the whole story was a hoax. “The Warrens told my family numerous times that we would be millionaires and the book would help get my sister’s boyfriend, Arne, out of jail,” he said in a press release. “I knew from day one it was a lie, but as a child, there was nothing I could really do about it.” He said the negative attention from the case had forced him to drop out of school.

It’s not clear what happened to the lawsuit, which was active as of 2010, but it just symbolizes what has always been the case with the Warrens. Appearance is never the whole story. After all, even the creepy, demon-possessed doll Annabelle, who plays a prominent role in the film, gets a Hollywood makeover. In the film she’s all cracked porcelain and ripped dresses. Which is not arguably creepier than she looks, in “real life”:

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