In early 2013, the trailer for James Wan’s The Conjuring arrived in theaters. I remember thinking it looked absolutely stunning and downright frightening: an increasingly panicked Lili Taylor going from room to room, thinking her children are playing a prank on her, only to end up locked in the basement, and then that perfect shot of the disembodied hands clapping behind her and the screen cutting to black. So good.
Even rewatching it I felt this delicious chill up my arms. It’s an extremely effective trailer, and I think it leads to a (largely) effective franchise of films. However, my initial excitement about this movie was doused like a happy puppy getting a bucket of water dumped on it when I realized, “oh fuck, it’s about Ed and Lorraine Warren.” And thus began my very contentious love/hate relationship with these films.
So, off the bat, let me say that by and large I enjoy these movies. I think the two Conjuring films are quite creepy in ways that a lot of modern horror films are not. Sure, there’s a good amount of jump scares in them, but there’s also a handful of masterful slow burn moments that create a rich feeling of raw terror. The Annabelle films are…fine: the first one is rather good, the second is okay, and the third is a weird combination of almost terrifying and absolutely fun to watch. And The Nun is…The Nun. It’s okay. Overall, I’d say these films were decent with quite a few extremely well-done moments. I think the first few minutes of The Conjuring 2 are a better film about 112 Ocean Ave and what didn’t happen there than the roughly billion or so Amityville Horror films we’ve gotten in the past four and a half decades. And the bedroom scene in the first film — in which one sister tearfully tells her sister that there’s something in the corner watching them — is hands down one of the scariest moments in a film I’ve seen in the last decade or so. The Crooked Man, the elevator scene in the first Annabelle film, the Ferryman from the third Annabelle film, the interrogation of Bill Wilkins via Janet Hodgson in the second Conjuring: these are all examples of horror that run the gamut from quiet and creepy up to pedal to the metal terrifying.
And, leading into my next point and what will be the unfortunate and miserable thesis of this piece, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are amazing as Ed and Lorraine Warren. They flawlessly pull off the portrayal of a couple who are so deeply in love with one another that it’s almost entirely unspoken. The warmth in their voices when they speak of each other is so genuine you can’t help but love them for it. And their dedication to the helping the downtrodden makes them something akin to superheroes, like suburban and vice-free John Constantines. They’re super likable and you can’t help but cheer for them. I’m not a hundred percent comfortable with some of the religious and theological implications the films present, but honestly that’s just the nature of religious horror films in the Western world: most of them are told from a Judeo-Christian perspective. And that’s fine. The Conjuring films are a bit heavier handed with it, but it’s nothing new; one of the most famous scenes from The Exorcist features Max von Syndow and Jason Miller shouting at a possessed Linda Blair that the power of Christ compelled her to chill the fuck out. I get it. Alas, this portrayal of the Warrens is just as fictional and made up for these films as Valak the nun.
The Warrens made their biggest impact on American pop culture with the Amityville haunting, later vaulted into the zeitgeist with the film The Amityville Horror. It’s not a bad movie (James Brolin is menacing as fuck in it) but it’s based on an account that is as chockfull of absolute bullshit as any story that’s actually marketed as fiction. The “TL;DR” version of those articles is that the entire story was cooked up by the defense team of Ronald DeFeo, the young man who murdered his entire family in the house, as a way to help DeFeo’s insanity defense. The Lutzes, the family from the film and book, were assisted by William Weber, DeFeo’s defense attorney, in coming up with the story and DeFeo himself has since admitted he never heard any voices commanding him to kill. It’s also worth noting that James Cromarty, who owned the home for ten years after the Lutzes fled, never once reported anything strange happening. But through it all, in the face of mountains of evidence stating otherwise and literally until they died, the Warrens claimed that there was a supernatural presence in the house. If you want a good laugh, check out the “documentary,” My Amityville Horror, in which one of the Lutz children earnestly and gravely talks about how his stepfather flirted with the paranormal and how everything that was reported to have happened actually did happen and that the subsequent debunking of it all is…the devil’s work? I think?
This isn’t the only time the Warrens peddled bullshit to make a quick buck. Horror writer Ray Garton (whose Ravenous is a must read if you like werewolves) was contacted by Ed Warren to write a book detailing the “true” events of the haunting of the Snedeker family, a story later made famous by the film The Haunting In Connecticut. While interviewing the Snedekers, Ray noticed that many of their stories contradicted each other, and when he brought this to Ed’s attention he was told to just make something up. Garton would later go on to publicly state he had no doubt whatsoever that the Warrens were total frauds. He spoke extensively about how the entire Snedeker case was made up. Perhaps most damning is Garton’s assertion that, while he himself doesn’t believe in the supernatural, he has no problem telling the story of people who themselves believe in the supernatural. But the Snedeker case, he believes, was nothing more than a deliberate concoction in hopes of finding the next Amityville Horror, a cynical attempt by the Warrens to find their next cash cow even if it meant sprucing up the story to make it more dramatic. Another example is the case of Arnie Johnson, who murdered his landlord and claimed he was possessed by demons who’d been exorcised from a young boy by the Warrens. Carl Glatzel, the brother of the young boy, sued the Warrens for trying to convince him to claim that his brother was possessed by demons and not, you know, in desperate need of mental help. Here is a more comprehensive list, a greatest hits if you will, of their bullshit over the years.
The Warrens were not good people. They were not the misguided but harmless paranormal investigators some claim they do be. They were charlatans through and through. I’m not even sure if they actually believed what they were peddling, and to me that makes them the worst kind of fraud. It’s one thing to claim to be a psychic and actually believe you’re in touch with the other side, but it’s another thing entirely to pretend to believe in something just to get one over on people. I don’t buy into the idea of an afterlife, but I don’t deny others the right to believe in something like that. So, if you sincerely believe you have the ability to help others by rooting out pesky ghosts, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and say that your heart is the right place; I can’t fault someone for that. But the Warrens were scam artists who preyed upon vulnerable people by taking their stories and getting fucking rich off of them. They are the worst kind of people: they see people who believe they are in need of help and they exploit them for monetary gain. They’re the same kind of parasitic pieces of shit who build empires through televangelism, monsters like Jim Bakker and Joel Osteen who swindle desperate people out of money in the hopes of bettering their lives all while they themselves get rich and do absolutely fucking nothing to better anyone’s lives but their own.
So why do I enjoy these films? It’s a bit different than separating the art from the artist, because in this case the art is so vastly different from what supposedly happened that I’m comfortable in telling myself I’m simply enjoying a good horror movie and not propaganda for scam artists. Likewise, I don’t think the people making these films are actually bad people. And I think most moviegoers are smart enough to understand that these films are at best very loose interpretations of accounts that might not be true to begin with. The Warrens are tangentially connected to The Conjuring as business entities, but I’m not buying their actually product that they themselves made. It’s not the same as buying a Morrissey record or tickets to see Morrissey. My problem isn’t necessarily with watching these films and enjoying them, or even the films being made; it’s with the blurring of the lines between what is entirely made up and what is “inspired by true events.”
You might think I’m overreacting. You might say that there’s no harm in using these debunked stories as inspiration to tell a good story in film form. And honestly I kind of agree with that sentiment. These movies are a blast to watch as long as it’s understood that the Warrens in real life were fucking monsters, no matter how great Patrick and Vera are on screen (and goddamn it they’re amazing), and that the films should do more to highlight that these are highly fictionalized versions of the Warrens. My criticism of these films in that regard is that they don’t do that, and by giving the real-life Warrens even a shred of credibility, by presenting them as something akin to legitimate researchers (which they unfortunately do), the filmmakers are making it easier for charlatans to continue preying upon people. You can tell a good story and still acknowledge it might not be all it’s cut out to be when it comes to being “true.” I don’t think the filmmakers themselves are doing anything actively malicious. I’m not even sure if they themselves believe the Warrens. But in a roundabout way, this is enabling an extremely dangerous attitude towards medicine and mental health. They’re not definitively challenging the idea of paranormal investigators, who lack any sort of real scientific training, being brought in to “investigate” the possibility of a kid being possessed, instead of schizophrenic, which could lead to even further injury and death. It’s happened before.
The line from these films that always breaks my heart, and reminds me of how badly they fail at acknowledging the hazy nature of the Warren’s work, is from The Conjuring 2. Anita Gregory — one of the leading researchers and later critics of the Enfield Poltergeist, and who is portrayed by Franka Potente in the film — is speaking with Lorraine Warren on the possibility of the haunting of the Hodgson family being a hoax perpetuated by the teenage daughter. She casually asks Lorraine which is worse: demons, or people who pretend demons are real to scam people. With painfully earnest and almost unbearably silly delivery, Vera Farmiga intones that demons are worse. That misses a simple chance to deflect criticism of the Warrens in a tasteful manner that doesn’t derail the narrative of the film but acknowledges their history of nonsense. Oh, and Patrick Wilson’s charming (seriously I LOVE him in these films) portrayal of Ed Warren as a man hopelessly in love with and absolutely devoted to his wife? Yeah, about that…