The average person would be shocked—not to mention terrified—if objects suddenly started flying around their bedroom. If black figures began lurking in the corners, glimpsed only from the corner of the eye. If cabinets started slamming in the kitchen and malevolent voices whispered beneath the basement steps.
Most would jump to a single explanation thanks to a preponderance of movies, TV shows, and spooky stories told around campfires: the house must be haunted. And because the average person on the street works in retail or in an office, those who feel woefully out of their depth may then seek out professional help.
In the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, Ed and Lorraine Warren were often those professionals. Ed was the only non-ordained demonologist recognized by the Catholic Church, while Lorraine was a clairvoyant and light-trance medium. Over a five-decade career, the married couple assisted hundreds of families in America and the UK who were terrorized by unseen and otherworldly forces.
Or did they?
That’s the billion dollar question. In 1980, Gerald Brittle wrote The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed & Lorraine Warren, billed as a 100% factual biography of the Warrens. Several of their most high-profile cases—the possessed doll known as Annabelle, the Amityville Horror, their investigation at West Point—are covered in the New York Times bestseller.
For more than 30 years, Brittle and the Warrens were steadfast that The Demonologist was nonfiction. “Diabolical forces are formidable,” said Ed Warren. “These forces are eternal, and they exist today. The fairy tale is true.” According to the Warrens, demonic beings could attack at any time, and people had to be extremely careful not to invite these forces into their lives—else they would suffer dire consequences.
The Warrens were popular on the lecture circuit at colleges, libraries, and town halls. They appeared on numerous talk shows and TV specials and were often interviewed by newspapers. Not just supermarket tabloids, either. They were frequently photographed standing behind or beside traumatized people recounting unbelievable, horrible experiences with ghosts, demons, and possession.
For years, the general public took them seriously. They always had their detractors and skeptics, of course, but they struck many as serious professionals. Something Brittle’s book only emphasized.
But then, following Ed Warren’s death in 2006, people began to recant their original testimonies. Families stepped forward to claim Ed had even paid them to lie, while investigations into several of the Warrens’ cases—such as the Enfield Poltergeist in London—revealed the pair had been far less instrumental in the events than they claimed.
Even their biggest claim to fame, the Amityville Horror, has been thoroughly debunked. According to the lawyer William Weber in 1979, the events at Amityville were completely fabricated by him, author Jay Anson, and the Lutz family “over many bottles of wine” as a means to recoup the family’s losses in their unwise investment.
Despite all of this, Brittle and Lorraine Warren held to their guns.
“All the information presented in this book is true,” Brittle wrote in the preface of The Demonologist. “These are real cases that happened to real people. It should also be stressed that there is no exaggeration or hyperbole in the presentation of the phenomena in this book.”
The reputation and career the Warrens had built was legitimate, insisted Lorraine. They had never charged for their services (barring travel expenses and incidentals, of course), and their primary goal was to collect scientific evidence of the paranormal while helping desperate people.
Then Warner Bros. came calling.
2013’s The Conjuring was a somewhat surprising hit, garnering a perfect rating on Rotten Tomatoes and pulling in scores of horror fans. Based on one of the Warrens’ investigations in the 1970s, the story follows a family being persecuted by the child-killing ghost of a witch in a remote farmhouse. Thanks to a minimum of outrageous violence and an emphasis on atmosphere, The Conjuring is a satisfying little horror story—a throwback to a time before the genre felt the need to turn the torture dial up to eleven.
It also helped that the movie versions of the Warrens were so well cast. Patrick Wilson’s Ed is a charming father and husband, a chivalric polyester-clad knight in the fight against supernatural evil. Vera Farmiga’s Lorraine is mystical without being ridiculous, as well as a grounded, loving, deeply religious woman.
Naturally, the success of The Conjuring led to a sequel (2016’s The Conjuring 2), spin-offs (Annabelle and Annabelle: Creation), and buzz of much more to come. The Warrens—who had faded from the public eye somewhat in the years following Ed’s death—were suddenly the talk of the town again.
Something Gerald Brittle wasn’t too happy about.
According to him, he’d made a deal with the Warrens that had been broken with The Conjuring. In writing The Demonologist, Brittle was to have the full rights to all of the Warrens’ case files, and the couple was not allowed to make movie deals without his involvement. Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema had gone over his head by making a contract directly with Lorraine Warren, and Brittle wanted his cut of the franchise’s success.
Warner Bros. countered by arguing that no one could have a monopoly on true-life stories and people. If it really happened, it was fair game for anybody. Hadn’t Brittle and the Warrens insisted for 30-plus years that The Demonologist and their case files were 100% factual?
Furthermore, in 2014, Brittle had even sworn under oath that The Conjuring had nothing to do with The Demonologist—the Perron Family events in the film are never mentioned in Brittle’s book. The sole overlap is a handful of scenes featuring the haunted doll Annabelle and the figures of the Warrens themselves.
Now that the franchise has earned Warner Bros. nearly $1 billion, however, Brittle is back-tracking faster than a possessed child. He’s now re-classified The Demonologist as a work of fiction—an intellectual property that the Warner Bros. films have infringed upon.
The truth, it appears, depends on how much money is involved.
For those of us who want to believe in the paranormal, the Warrens have always been exciting, intriguing figures. The partnership of a soldier-turned-demonologist and a psychic medium is the stuff of great horror fiction.
Patrick Wilson’s Ed and Vera Farmiga’s Lorraine are infinitely endearing on the big screen as they battle evil dolls, demonic nuns, and ghostly witches—her amazingly frilly high-necked dresses and his heroic ’70s sideburns are just icing on the devil’s food cake.
And therein lies the crux of the matter: they’re great characters. They fit so neatly into horror narratives and tropes that whether the stories they tell are true or not is almost irrelevant.
It’s pretty clear at this point, hindsight being 20/20, that Ed and Lorraine vastly overstated their contribution to police investigations and the study of the paranormal. Given the later testimonies of people involved, they most likely fabricated or staged a lot of the evidence Lorraine continues to hold up as scientific proof. They almost certainly encouraged families to exaggerate or weave stories out of whole cloth.
Why? For attention and prestige. To build up a reputation. To legitimize their interest in the occult and otherworldly. And for money, of course.
They may not have charged their clients for their “services,” but they did get free room, board, and travel everywhere they went. Tours of their private collection of evil and possessed objects come at a cost. They’ve earned royalties from books and movies. And their New England Society for Psychic Research undeniably benefited from their high-profile status.
To their credit, the Warrens don’t seem to have caused serious damage in their march toward paranormal icon status. People haven’t died or gone bankrupt as a direct result of their play-acting—which is why most of us can detach the real people from the movie characters and enjoy the Conjuring franchise, which is a solid, satisfying horror series to this point.
My friend Emma sums it up nicely: the real-life Warrens are trauma vultures, quick to latch onto anything that implies supernatural interference, while the movie Warrens are precious darlings with a love story for the ages.
So, fact or fiction? Does it matter when it’s quality entertainment?
Perhaps it’s only significant when a fortune in royalties is on the line. Brittle’s lawsuit hasn’t been thrown out, and Warner Bros. will be defending their supernatural cash cow in court next April.
Not even a psychic can predict how the judge will rule in this lucrative game of truth vs. fantasy.
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.