The Conjuring Universe is one of the most successful horror franchises of all time, and there’s a secret to that success. Although secret perhaps isn’t the right word, because it’s always been there, front and center. It’s just only gotten stronger with each subsequent film. If every love story is a ghost story, The Conjuring and its sequels, including the newly released The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, might just tell one of the best love stories we have on the big screen right now.
Because when you look beyond all the demons, all the witches, all the haunted dolls, and scary nuns, you find the tender romance between a ghost-hunting couple that transcends all the scares…and even the far less romantic truth behind the real people who inspired these characters can’t ruin the power of these fictional versions.
The Real Ed and Lorraine Warren
Ed and Lorraine Warren were real people, and their real-life legacy is a complicated one. The couple really did chase after the supernatural for decades, and they really did investigate some of the biggest paranormal stories that have found their way into our cultural zeitgeist, like the infamous (and pretty much debunked) Amityville Horror case. Ed billed himself as a self-taught demonologist while Lorraine claimed to be clairvoyant, and the couple began their work in earnest in 1952, when they founded the New England Society for Psychic Research.
The official New England Society for Psychic Research, or N.E.S.P.R., website offers a biography of the couple, telling us that in 1944, when Ed was 16, he was working as an usher at The Colonial Theater in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Lorraine, who was 17 at the time, was a regular patron at the theater, and after befriending each other, these kids were soon dating. It sounds like a meet-cute from a rom-com, and like most stories about the Warrens, we should probably take it with a grain of salt. And yet, it also seems wholly believable that these two kids from Bridgeport would catch each other’s eye.
When Ed turned 17, he enlisted in the Navy, and about four months later, his ship was sunk. Ed was sent home on a 30-day “Survivor’s Leave,” at which point he and Lorraine got hitched. That was 1945. In 1951, the couple had their first – and only – child, Judy. Ed also enrolled in art school at this time – something the movies touch on by showing Ed’s fondness for painting (of course, he tends to paint things like killer demon nuns, but I digress). A year later, the couple founded the N.E.S.P.R. As the site tells us, “When [Ed] heard any report of a structure being haunted, he & Lorraine (a skeptic at the time) would travel to the site to investigate. Ed would stand out in the street and sketch the house, then approach the homeowners with the sketch as a friendly gesture to get invited into the home. It worked.”
This scenario sounds…a bit harder to believe than the “two kids meet at the movies” story. But in any case, the married couple founded their paranormal society and soon made names for themselves as what we’d today call ghost hunters. And the rest is history – but it is history filtered through a specific, rose-colored lens. Whether or not you want to believe in the Warrens depends on whether or not you want to believe in the supernatural, and the paranormal, and the preternatural. If you are the type of person who believes that ghosts and demons are real, you will likely have no problem believing that Ed and Lorraine Warren encountered them.
If you’re a skeptic, though, things get a little sticky. Because that means the Warrens must fall into one of two categories. Either they were full-blown con-artists scamming people, or they were incredibly naive and maybe even delusional. While the Warrens didn’t charge people for their investigations, they did make a healthy living from selling books about their cases, which lends the “con-artists” theory some credence.
Things get even murkier when you dig further into their lives. In 2017, after the release of the first two Conjuring films and around the same time Annabelle: Creation was headed to theaters, The Hollywood Reporter published a story that cast the real Warrens in an extremely negative light. The story revealed that a woman named Judith Penney had “said in a sworn declaration that she lived in the Warrens’ house as Ed’s lover for four decades.” To further complicate matters, Judith Penney was 15-years-old when all this allegedly started.
At the time the THR article surfaced, Ed Warren was dead, so he could neither confirm nor deny the accusation. Lorraine was 90, and her lawyer, Gary Barkin, said that his client was “in declining health and unable to respond to the allegations.” (Lorraine died two years later.) It’s a disturbing allegation, and while it may not cast a doubt on the Warrens’ supernatural work, it certainly calls their character into question.
According to Penney, Lorraine was aware of the alleged relationship and seemingly fine with it. Then, in 1978, while in her 30s, Penney alleges she became pregnant with Ed’s child and claims Lorraine talked her into having an abortion, worried the scandal would ruin the Warrens’ ghost-hunting business. Barkin, Lorraine’s lawyer, countered these allegations by saying, “The Warrens opened their home to Ms. Penney when she was 18 and had nowhere else to live following a childhood of neglect. During much of their career, Ed and Lorraine were on the road, working on cases and giving lectures — and Ms. Penney lived at and watched their house.”
Like the supernatural claims, these allegations require either belief or skepticism. The fact that this story only came to light after The Conjuring became a big blockbuster franchise will no doubt make some people raise an eyebrow or two. But is Penney’s story really so hard to believe? What, if anything, do we really know about the real Ed and Lorraine Warren? The Warrens’ story comes directly from the Warrens – and now, the Conjuring films – and we can either take their word for it or consider it a tall tale. But it’s probably worth noting that when Lorraine eventually signed the rights to her name and story away for The Conjuring series, she stipulated in her contract that the movies could never portray either of the Warrens “as participating in an extramarital sexual relationship.”
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story
Me, I’m a skeptic. I’m a horror fanatic, so I love stories about ghosts and demons – but I don’t believe in them. Which means I don’t believe in the Warrens – and if the allegations above that Ed entered into a sexual relationship with a minor and Lorraine was fine with that are true, I don’t much like them, either. But I love the Warrens as they’re presented in The Conjuring films.
What, then, are we to make of the movie versions of the Warrens? Are we being willfully manipulated, and contributing to their self-built mythos? Yes, we are. There’s no way to deny that. But we should also be able to look beyond that and acknowledge that while Ed and Lorraine Warren were real people, the characters we see in The Conjuring films are not. They may share the names Ed and Lorraine Warren, and the movies they appear in may boast that they’re “inspired by the true story.” But that’s marketing; each film still ends with a disclaimer stating that “Dialogue and certain events and characters contained in the film were created for the purposes of dramatization.”
As much as The Conjuring films may draw on true stories, they’re still fiction. Fiction based on a true story is still fiction, and these films require that acknowledgment in order to separate themselves from the muddled legacy of the real Warrens. Because while the real-life Warrens may not have been the noble, truth-telling ghost hunters they’re portrayed as in the films, the Warrens as played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are exactly that. And that’s the key ingredient to the series.
The latest Conjuring film, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (read my review here), continues this trend. Amidst all the horrors and jump scares is the enduring message that the movie versions of Ed and Lorraine Warren really love each other, unconditionally. They complete each other. They’ve never been with anyone else, and would never even dream of doing so. We even get a little flashback to young Ed and Lorraine on their first date.
“The most romantic moments I’ve had on screen are with Vera in a horror movie,” Patrick Wilson said during a recent Q&A I attended. Vera Farmiga then added: “Lorraine loves Ed not only for who he is, but who she is when she’s with him. She’s able to do what she does because she has his support.”
Wilson’s Ed is a rough-around-the-edges guy who is skilled at strumming a guitar and fixing a car. He’s a man’s man – but not in some macho tough guy way. Instead, he’s an idealized version of the man’s man. He’s both strong and sensitive. He can look the forces of evil right in the face, but he’s also not above trying to cheer up a lonely widow and her scared kids. He cares deeply for Lorraine, and worries about her. In the first film, after an exorcism goes wrong, he’s hesitant to let Lorraine get back into their work – but she insists on it. God brought them together for a reason, she insists. To help people. To help each other.
Farmiga’s Lorraine is arguably the best part of the entire series. She plays Lorraine with the conviction of a true believer. The staunchest skeptic can easily be won over and accept that Lorraine really can see ghosts simply because Farmiga is so convincing at selling us that. There’s not a single wrong note in any of her performances in any of these films. We believe because she believes. That belief may evaporate like smoke once we leave the theater, but while we’re sitting in the dark, we accept what we’re seeing as some form of reality. Ghosts may not exist in the real world, but we can believe they exist in the “real” world the film is giving us (call it the reel world if you want to be a cheeky bastard).
One Person Can Change Everything
The Warrens in the Conjuring films are entirely dependent on one another. They need to work as a team. Lorraine needs Ed watching out for her while she goes into a trance, and Ed needs Lorraine to warn him of danger.
In The Conjuring 2, Lorraine confides in young Janet Hodgson, a girl being plagued by terrifying visions of ghosts.
“I know what it’s like to lose your friends because you’re different,” Lorraine tells the girl. “But I also know that one person can change everything, and you just have to open up to them.”
“How did you know you could trust the people you opened up to?” Janet asks.
“I didn’t, and sometimes I got hurt,” Lorraine replies. “And it took a long time, but I finally found someone who believed me.”
When Janet asks what Lorraine did then, Lorraine answers with a smile: “I married him.”
It’s an incredibly sweet moment. And it’s also bullshit. As stated above, the officially sanctioned Warren story is that the two met when they were teenagers at the movies, and Lorraine was reportedly a full-blown skeptic until they started hunting ghosts as married adults. But in the world of The Conjuring, Lorraine has always been blessed and cursed with her psychic powers, and Ed was the first person who really accepted and believed her. He was her lighthouse, her rock, her North Star.
This is a point hammered home again and again. The Warrens are an unstoppable team, the idealized version of a happy couple. We all want someone who completes us; who believes in us; who accepts us for who we are. And The Conjuring movies give us a shining example of that, because these are love stories. The love the fictional Warrens share enables them to reach out to help others. They are almost saintly in their selfless attitudes, and this is where skepticism rears its ugly head again.
It’s hard to believe in real people who are this good; this helpful; this kind. And whatever you believe about the real Ed and Lorraine, it’s almost certain that they themselves weren’t this pure and generous. But that’s all part of the magic of this series. Because while we may not believe in any of this, like Fox Mulder on The X-Files, we want to believe. And so we must draw a line in the sand. On one side of the line rests the real Ed and Lorraine and their complicated history and the secrets they took to the grave. And on the other side, we have Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, actors playing fictionalized characters. The real Ed and Lorraine Warren are dead. Long live the fictional, flawless Ed and Lorraine Warren in their stead.
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