This weekend, I took time out of my busy schedule of channel surfing and checking twitter to watch “The Conjuring”, the latest in a string of “based on true events” exorcism movies that have been coming to theaters near you (or RIGHT BEHIND YOU AHHH) for years now. I suspended my disbelief and enjoyed the movie for its creepiness, inventiveness and downright cinematographic artistry (yeah, it really does have some beautifully shot sequences). I really liked this movie, but I also didn’t know much about the story behind it before sitting in that darkened theater.
The film tells the story of a family, the Perrons, who arrive at their freshly purchased house (they got it cheap at an auction…DUN DUN DUN). The family, a loving husband and wife and five daughters including an impressionable little girl and an angsty teen because every family needs one of each. Almost immediately it becomes clear that all is not well at this house. I actually admire the way the story doesn’t slip into a “what was that? Ah, probably just the wind.” cliche that makes audiences pull their hair out as they watch the family confront the obvious and miss it time and time again. In this movie, all pretense that this house is just eerie and not definitely haunted is gone in about a day. After that, it almost shifts entirely to a fight for survival because, even after consulting the paranormal fighting duo we learn is the Warrens, it’s clear that this house has it out for the family. The movie itself is remarkably unoriginal and yet somehow doesn’t feel that way. The scares are straightforward and obvious but you still find yourself jumping when the inevitable “AHHH” moment happens. I also give credit to a few of the sequences that are just plain fun for an audience. In one scene, a girl is convinced that a ghost is lurking just beyond the shadows as her sister stands in front. Nothing happens for a long time, but as the young girl’s terror mounts, our eyes scan frantically around the shadow darkened room trying to catch a glimpse of something, anything, that could confirm our suspicion that something sinister is in that room with those two girls. It’s great fun and the payoff is amplified by making us do our own work.
After I got home, curious to see what “really happened”, I tried to do some research on the real ghost hunters: Ed and Lorraine Warren (made famous for investigating – or inventing – the Amnityville haunting). Ed and Lorraine Warren are a husband and wife team of paranormal investigators who started a private practice of sorts of going into creepy, wooden houses and explaining what was going bump in the night. They’re Catholic so, spoilers, it was usually satanic demons. As a story concept, I love the Warrens. A husband and wife team, hunting demons, he a demonologist, she a clairvoyant. That could totally be a movie… and in “The Conjuring” it finally is. While Ed has passed away, Lorraine is still alive and consulting on various paranormal investigations and/or publicity stunts, including “Paranormal State” the eye roll inducing paranormal investigation show where guys standing around in the dark with night vision goggles taping themselves freaking themselves out and calling it “science”.
Unfortunately for MY paranormal investigating into the truth behind “The Conjuring”, the details are hard to come by. That is because, like I mentioned earlier, the film has so thoroughly marketed itself around this story that the ACTUAL story is hard to find. Goggling “true story of The Conjuring” gets you about a hundred links that mainly talk about the movie and the spooky stuff that happens in it. Apparently, most people are under the impression that this was a documentary (hint: it’s not even close). Even the articles that talk about the actual crime frame it in such a way that it reads as if an intern for New Line Cinema wrote it. Look for lines like: “While all the creepy events that happened in the farmhouse can’t be shown in a two hour movie, the filmmakers were able to give an accurate portrayal by condensing and streamlining the haunting.” Thanks for nothing.
Also, one of the daughters who experienced the events in the farmhouse, Andrea Perron, self published a book about it which, instead of illuminating the facts, makes them more dubious. If you’re keeping score, we now have three parties (The Warrens, Andrea Perron, and the filmmakers) who all have financial and reputational stakes in this thing appearing real and terrifying. As a cynical stick in the mud, that doesn’t give me much confidence in the treatment of the source material.
Further stifling an honest look into the haunting is the premise that the Warren’s put forward (and the movie’s advertising exploited) that this haunting was simply too traumatic or too scary for it to be talked about for 30 years. Yeah, right. But because of that, little has been researched or written about this particular “case”. The Amnityville haunting gets much of the attention – having already been made into a famous horror movie – so even the Warren’s wikipedia page does not include a mention of “The Conjuring” case.
Finally, I found a website that at least had a few facts about the actual case, and how they were expressed in the movie. Over at Chasingthefrog.com, an article was devoted to filling in these blanks. While the article still does little to shine a hard light on the events it does contrast the two stories: The one that was told in 1971 and the one being portrayed in the movie. For example, in the movie there is a doll named “Annabelle” which becomes possessed by an evil entity and whose role extends beyond the separate case and into the actual Perron one (I guess demons help each other out, their satanic entities not monsters!). In real life, that case was a separate one entirely and never the two did meet. (Again as a cynical stick in the mud, I can’t help but think that this doll and the role it plays in the film is more about stoking the ego of Lorraine Warren by personally injecting her and her family into the drama where they would normally only play a supportive role. Whether this was done by the Warrens themselves or by the filmmakers trying to spice up the later act of the movie I was never able to uncover although I will update this article should I come across an answer.)
Another example, and this one is probably the most telling in terms of how a movie can dramatize a nebulous conjecture, is the entire premise of the haunting. If you haven’t seen the movie, this next portion contains some spoilers.
In the film, the Warren’s pinpoint a witch, named Bathsheba Sherman for some reason known only to her parents, from the 1800s who lived on the farm that the Perron family now resides. It appears she was caught sacrificing a young child to Satan (because why not?) and eventually hung herself from a tree in the backyard of the property. This lady or demon or ghost or whatever now possesses the house as if possessing a person (because if you’re a self professed clairvoyant, you can say things like that with a straight face and no one can really disprove it) and it attaches itself to the humans that enter it. It is this demon that must be exorcised by Ed Warren at the climax and it’s really suspenseful in the movie and… well, almost entirely made up by Ed and Lorraine Warren in a reach so far that it trespasses into Miss Cleo territory.
In real life, Bathsheba really did exist. Unfortunately, she never sacrificed a child to Satan. Instead a child died in her care, and the townspeople assumed it was from some sort of sacrifice because in the 1800s “townspeople” were idiots and literally stopped going to school after 5th grade to work on farms. She was even acquitted for the crime in a trial. She then lived well into her 70s and metaphorically hung herself by dying of an age related illness. But those creaks in the floorboards at the farmhouse (which, by the way, wasn’t even where she lived but next to it) are definitely Bathsheba’s ghost, guys.
So, sadly, unlike the movie the real events at the Perron’s house was much less overt and much more “drafts” and creaks. Ironically, the obligatory “skeptic” in the movie, a police office who for some reason needs to accompany the Warrens on their investigation, gets made fun of throughout for his laughable belief that what was happening could be the work of air flow and a house shifting under its weight. If anyone should be vindicated for what happened there it was this (fictional) guy. Good on him for holding out for a rational explanation while everyone else played a figurative game of “bloody mary”. Maybe while the rest of the group panicked and stoked conjecture, he had the sense to look up who the supposed witch was. Armed with that knowledge, I bet he could exorcise the demon more thoroughly than any Catholic ritual, and all he’d need was some WD-40.