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Chasing Ghosts

Lorraine Warren hunted for demons in ”Amityville” and investigated ”The Haunting” in Connecticut… now her work has inspired ”The Conjuring”

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On the first floor of an innocuous-looking house at the end of a cul-de-sac in Monroe, Conn., is a dark, cramped room full of supernatural-themed items, including Ouija boards, a werewolf mask, and a six-foot-tall effigy that seems part demon, part extraterrestrial. To the unknowing eye, it resembles the stockroom of a Halloween store. But this is actually a museum of occult artifacts with, if you believe in such things, terrifying paranormal histories.

In one corner of Warren’s Occult Museum is the skin of a tiger that is said to have killed 33 people in India while possessed by a demonic spirit. On the other side of the room is a collection of African fertility dolls stolen from a witch doctor and purchased by a man who supposedly became paralyzed below the waist two weeks later. And sitting in a case on the wall is a Raggedy Ann doll named Annabelle. Decades ago, the doll was removed from a house in Hartford, Conn., where it had allegedly terrorized a pair of nurses by moving of its own accord, leaving handwritten notes, and somehow causing a bloody claw mark to appear on the chest of a friend.

Presiding over the by-appointment-only museum is Lorraine Warren, one of the most famous paranormal investigators of all time. Now 86, she has looked into thousands of alleged hauntings, traveling as far as the U.K. and Japan. In 1976, she and her late husband, Ed, investigated the so-called Amityville Horror, a haunting in Long Island that inspired a 1979 film and a slew of big-screen spin-offs. The Warrens were also brought in to investigate a 1986 case that led to 2009’s The Haunting in Connecticut. And next month, Lorraine and Ed will hit theaters as the protagonists of The Conjuring (rated R, out July 19), starring Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, about the 1973 exploration of a haunted farmhouse in Harrisville, R.I. If successful, that film too may yield a franchise.

Despite her experience with things that go bump in the night, even Warren is reluctant to linger among the museum’s collection of spooky objects — and refuses to look at Annabelle. ”I don’t like this,” she says after she has been in the room for just a few minutes.

The really strange thing about all this? Warren’s Occult Museum is located in her house.

Lorraine Warren claims she was born with the gift of clairvoyance — an ability to ”see” into the spiritual realm — although as a child she regarded it as a curse. ”I tried to suppress it,” she says. ”I never wanted to be different.” At 16, she went on a date, her first, with Ed, a fellow Catholic. In the course of the evening, she saw a vision of the athletic teenager as a much older man. ”I said, ‘I’ll spend the rest of my life with him,”’ she remembers. They married two years later and were only parted when Ed died in 2006 at age 79.

Ed had been obsessed with the supernatural since the age of 5, when he saw the ghost of his family’s recently deceased landlady in his house. He attended art school in Hamden, Conn., and in the early years of their marriage, the Warrens sold paintings of houses to their owners. Ed often chose homes that were reputed to be haunted. In time, the couple began to investigate these supernatural events. Ed would search for physical manifestations of supernatural activity, such as strange noises or foul odors, while Lorraine used her clairvoyant powers to sense if the haunting was real.

If the pair decided a spirit was involved, they would advise residents to get a blessing from a priest or, in extreme circumstances, call in an exorcist. ”A lot of the time they ended up debunking cases,” says Conjuring director James Wan, whose previous credits include 2004’s Saw and 2011’s Insidious. ”They’d say, ‘You don’t have a ghost — your house is warping because of a water leak.’ But every now and then there would be really messed-up stuff.” The Warrens also began removing objects with bad ”vibrations” and storing them in their house in Monroe, which they bought in 1957 and where they raised their daughter, Judy. That collection of artifacts eventually blossomed into Warren’s Occult Museum.

Beginning in the late ’60s, the Warrens started to earn a modest living by lecturing about their investigations, often at colleges. Word spread, and more people began to contact them for help — which they offered for free. ”Ed knew how tormented they felt,” says Judy’s husband, Tony Spera, an ex-cop who assisted the Warrens on many of their cases.

In 1976, New York’s Channel 5 News asked the couple to visit 112 Ocean Avenue in suburban Amityville, which the Lutz family had recently abandoned in terror. Two years before, a 23-year-old man named Ronald DeFeo Jr. had fatally shot his parents and four siblings in the house. ”It was a very bad place,” recalls Warren. ”I remember when I was there, and Ed said he was pushed to the floor as if a heavy blanket was pushed over him. Thank God we have our faith, because that’s the only thing that got us through.”

Ed and Lorraine’s involvement in the case was highlighted in Jay Anson’s 1977 best-seller, The Amityville Horror, which sold millions of copies and inspired the 1979 movie. ”Oh, God, that was terrible,” Warren says of the film. ”It was nothing you could put any credence to.” Over the next dozen years, the Warrens collaborated on a string of other books, including 1993’s Werewolf: A True Story of Demonic Possession, about the couple’s successful attempt to rid a British man of, yes, a werewolf demon. ”He acted like a wolf — I watched his ears grow pointy,” says Warren, in the same matter-of-fact tone she uses to describe the grape- and lettuce-based diet of the caged chickens with whom she shares the second floor of her house.

Over time, the Warrens have drawn a legion of critics who dispute the allegedly scientific nature of their investigations. Dr. Steven Novella, an assistant professor of neurology at the Yale School of Medicine, met with the Warrens in 1997 and dismisses their so-called evidence as ”very unconvincing.” He argues that far from being harmless, paranormalists like the Warrens can exacerbate the problems of people whose belief in the supernatural may actually be rooted in mental illness. ”They’ll say, ‘Yes, your child is being possessed by a demon.’ That’s the worst thing you can do to somebody with a delusional problem,” says Novella. ”It’s like saying, ‘Yes, the CIA really is monitoring you through the fillings in your teeth.”’

Patrick Wilson, who visited Warren with costar Farmiga before the Conjuring shoot, says he’s convinced that she believes in her work. ”As actors, you always want to find out the dark stuff, the times when people doubted what they did,” he says. ”And it was always ‘No, we never doubted.’ She’s very steadfast in her beliefs.”

Hollywood has spent years trying to build a showcase for the Warrens and their many adventures. In 2003, NBC Studios and author Clive Barker attempted to develop a TV series called Demonologist, described as ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Hart to Hart.” But the show never happened. ”I’ve always said, ‘Someone needs to make a movie about these guys,”’ says Wan. ”For a long period I was tracking their life rights.”

In 2011, Wan signed with New Line to direct The Conjuring, the first in what producer Rob Cowan hopes will become a series of films. ”They have so many great stories,” he says. ”What’s nice about it is, they’re not just going back into a haunted house. The stories have all got a different bent to them, and some of them even take place overseas.” The Conjuring relates the story of Roger and Carolyn Perron (played by Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor), their five young daughters, and the supernatural entities they claim to have encountered in their Rhode Island home in the 1970s. ”That was a terrible case,” says Warren. ”I can’t tell you how bad certain places are — and that was one of them.”

Trouble arrived on the very first day the family moved into the 18th-century farmhouse in January 1971. ”We were unloading the truck and I saw a man standing in the corner of the dining room,” says Andrea Perron, the eldest of the daughters, who was 12 at the time. ”I said, ‘Mom, who’s that man in the dining room?’ And she said, ‘What man?’ Two minutes later, [my sister] Cindy walked in and she said, ‘Mom, who’s that man?’ Then [my sister] Nancy came in and she said, ‘You know that man in the dining room? He just disappeared.’ It was chaos.”

In the ensuing months, the family experienced an array of other phenomena, from noxious odors to unseasonal swarms of houseflies. ”Eight generations of one family had lived and died at the farm,” says Andrea, who has self-published a three-volume history of the haunting called House of Darkness House of Light. ”My mother did historical research and found that virtually every [entity] we were able to name had either died by their own hand or died so sudden a death that they didn’t seem to know they were dead.”

Many of the spirits seemed benign, but one was apparently determined to drive Carolyn out of the house — and made those intentions clear when it visited her one night. ”I was in my bedroom, about 5 o’clock in the morning, when I had the first visitation,” she says. ”I opened my eyes and saw the most frightening thing I have ever seen in my life. It was a very tall woman. Her head was like a sack of cobwebs with little tendrils of hair hanging out.” Despite such incidents, Carolyn was determined not to abandon their home. ”We were all in love with the place and I was just unwilling to forfeit it,” she says.

Ed and Lorraine Warren met the Perrons not long before Halloween in 1973, and made several more visits over the next few months. ”The basement was awful,” recalls Warren. ”It was like a thickness, like something you had to walk through. I went backward upstairs and I walked into a room and in the corner of the room was a glowing figure. In midday! Very, very unusual. It was a very bad haunting.” She was also concerned that Carolyn, once model-beautiful, had aged drastically since moving in and had begun to dress and speak like someone living in the 18th century. ”She became a different person,” says Warren. ”Thees and thous and language like that. She was taken over.”

In The Conjuring, the Warrens are depicted as demon-battling superheroes in three audience-friendly acts. In real life, though, the Warrens and the Perrons parted ways after an attempted séance — or ”connection,” to use Lorraine’s preferred terminology — involving a priest and a medium. After the medium psychically reached out to the demonic spirit believed to be plaguing the family, Carolyn began speaking a strange language. Andrea Perron, who says she secretly viewed the séance through a crack in the door, claims the chair her mother was sitting in levitated off the ground and flew backward, crashing to the floor.

Roger Perron, who had always been skeptical of the Warrens’ ability to help his family, then ordered Ed and Lorraine to ”’get the hell’ out of his house,” Andrea recalls. They never returned. ”The only time I was ever truly frightened was during the séance,” she says. ”There are no words to adequately express that event.”

The Perrons finally left the farmhouse in June 1980 after Carolyn, who would later be diagnosed with a rare connective-tissue disorder, announced that she would not survive another winter there. Even after moving away, family members say they continued to feel presences that persist to this day. ”We moved in as a normal family,” says Andrea, ”and we left as a paranormal family.”

Back in Monroe, Conn., Warren is praising Wan’s work on The Conjuring, in which she has a cameo as an audience member at one of the lectures by the onscreen Warrens. ”The vibrations of being with him are very, very good,” she says of the director.

The cast and crew of the movie return the compliment. Farmiga, for instance, says she’d be happy to reprise her role. ”You need a sequel every now and again for the bank account,” says the actress, laughing. ”But I genuinely love the character. I’d love to step in Lorraine’s shoes again. And again.”

Though she is deep into her ninth decade, Warren still goes out on cases. The day before our interview, a woman called from nearby Bridgeport requesting her assistance with some unexplained phenomena, including the disappearance of a package she had placed on her kitchen table. ”I said, ‘My schedule really is very tight, but I’ll try to get down there as early as I can,”’ Warren explains. ”I feel I have an obligation. I can’t say, ‘Oh, no, I haven’t got the time.’ No, I would never do that. I think that’s why I was given the gift.”


The Chosen Wan
James Wan kicked off the torture-horror genre with his 2004 breakout Saw. Now the Malaysian-born director, 36, has three high-profile projects heading to theaters in the next year — The Conjuring, Insidious: Chapter 2 (out Sept. 13), and Fast & Furious 7 (out July 11, 2014).

One of the real-life people portrayed in The Conjuring, Andrea Perron, told me she was initially horrified at the idea of you directing after watching the first 10 minutes of Saw.
Saw was good in that it gave me a career start, but it was also negative in that it really marginalized me as a filmmaker. It made a lot of people in Hollywood think that I was ”that guy.” That was part of the reason why I made Insidious. I wanted to prove I could make scary films without relying on blood and guts.

Meanwhile, one of the producers of The Conjuring, Rob Cowan, told me you refused to visit the real, supposedly haunted farmhouse depicted in the film.
I cannot believe he told you that. [Laughs] But that is true. Just because I make movies in the scary world doesn’t mean I want to visit scary worlds. I am such a chickens—.

What can you tell us about Insidious: Chapter 2?
It’s a direct continuation of the first movie. We literally pick up from where we left off at the end of the first film. But whereas the first movie is a twist on the haunted-house genre, the second movie is a twist on the classic domestic thriller, with a ghostly, supernatural spin to it.

What’s the status of Fast & Furious 7?
I’m in the process of designing my action sequences, working on ideas, and fleshing out things that we want to do with the characters.

What’s it like being the newbie on a franchise like that? I have this image of you suggesting something to Vin Diesel and him saying, ”Yeah, that’s not the way we do things.”
You know what? I’m pretty sure there’ll be some of that down the pipe. It’s like coming in and playing another person’s saved videogame. I know the characters, I know the stories, now it’s up to me to pick it up from where it left off and take it in a different direction — but a direction that has been kind of laid out, if that makes sense.

The last film featured what appeared to be a 27-mile-long airplane runway. Any plans for something like that?
[Laughs] I’m going to have to top that, man! I’m going to make it 37. It’s going to be the runway that never ends.