Celebrities rise to fame on account of a multitude of factors. Perhaps it’s a serendipitous audition, or a supporting part, one wherein the right producer had been sitting in the audience, ready to give a young artist a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Regardless of how they’re jettisoned into the spotlight, one crucial aspect remains the same– they’re still people. They possess the same deeply entrenched layers of behaviors and values that all of us do. We have good days and we have bad days. We’re incorrigible, and despite that, some of us can consummate our traits professionally, and compound them into something truly worthwhile.
The rise to fame for Ed and Lorraine Warren, two paranormal investigators noted for their roles in some of the most well-documented paranormal cases in modern history, is perhaps a bit different. While they certainly experienced a meteoric rise to prominence following their investigation of the Amityville home in 1975, it could reasonably be argued that memorializing the couple on film in The Conjuring franchise enhanced their preeminence considerably. Without the films, they were famed only in cosmic, paranormal circles– relegated to history and footnotes in dime-store horror novels– but with them, they were reborn as bonafide celebrities– with the franchise, they’re movie stars.
In 1970, paranormal investigators and demonologists Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed (Patrick Wilson) Warren are summoned to the home of Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger (Ron Livingston) Perron. The Perrons and their five daughters have recently moved into a secluded farmhouse, where a supernatural presence has made itself known. Though the manifestations are relatively benign at first, events soon escalate in horrifying fashion, especially after the Warrens discover the house’s macabre history.
The ceaseless charms of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga and the skilled and terrifying filmmaking on display in the first two entries, then, render the following a very difficult piece to write. In a culture shining a spotlight on abuse, dishonesty, and all-around very bad behavior, I pose the following question: should Ed and Lorraine Warren be immune from accountability?
To start with, the Warrens have a commodious history with dishonesty and alleged fabrication. While both have long maintained their investigations and findings were genuine, there were several others (here, here, and here), with voices less amplified than the Warrens’, who said anything but. They were ghost hunters, the skeptics– many of whom were actively involved in the investigations– say, but they never actually found anything. Instead, these critics say, they were opportunistic, eager to prey on both spiritual and economic vulnerabilities to reconstruct any given haunting into a national sensation, a sort of remunerative– and mighty ghostly– return on investment for just a little flair and a little embellishment.
That, it could be argued, is well and good. People do lie, and the horror genre, in particular, is no stranger to stretching the truth as thin as possible in order to allege any given movie is “based on true events.” Anecdotally, too, while audiences might not believe the specifics of the Warrens’ stories, there are many who nonetheless believe in the existence of both ghosts and demons. To wit, while the stories are dramatized, and neither Warren may have been necessarily above (creepy, creaking) board, the underlying truth remains the same– life after death, and its manifestation on earth, are real.
There are, though, elements of the Warrens that extend beyond commercial Machiavellianism. It has been alleged that Ed Warren had an extramarital affair with an underage girl in 1973, eventually compelling her to abort her baby. Moreover, Daniel Lutz, over forty years later, still carries deep and severe psychological scars from his exposure at such a young age to the alleged haunting and media blitz, metaphorically chauffeured through a traumatic experience by none other than Ed and Lorraine Warren.
For some audience members, however, this too might not be quite enough to swear off the films. Painful as it might be to admit, this has been the case for me, too. Perhaps it sounds like an excuse, but inherent in the filmic medium is a sense of distance, a chasm between audience and subject and narrative. Prior to the plot announcement of the third Conjuring film, I was willing to accept that difference, able to expel any critical thoughts of the Warrens from my mind and enjoy the movies for what they were– terrifying ghost stories. On account of how The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It will be tackling the case of Arne Cheyanne Johnson, however, and I’m not so sure I can maintain that distance anymore.
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The first two Conjuring films had cases innocuous enough to warrant suspending disbelief and simply having a good time at the movies. Arne Cheyanne Johnson though, by all clinical accounts, was deeply, deeply ill, and there’s something troubling about tossing a veneer of possession over a real murder. Alan Bono was not savagely killed because of demonic possession; he was killed because of both a national infrastructure that neglected to invest in even adequate mental health care and because of opportunists who treated an unwell 11-year-old as a sideshow spectacle.
It must be noted that I– much like the rest of the world– have not actually seen the third Conjuring film, though I have it on good authority (my own personal authority) that a movie franchise whose laurels rest in part on the veneration of the Warrens is unlikely to suddenly shift gears so radically as to cast dispersions on the core cast, calling into the questions the abhorrent ethics of assisting in the conception of Johnson’s “demonic possession” defense.
All of this is to say that while I have been more than forgiving in separating the Warrens from their filmic counterparts, the direction the third film takes will likely determine whether or not I have any interest in seeing it. Too many people have gotten away with too much for too long, and while the Warrens are certainly small potatoes with regard to the systemic, longstanding abuses perpetrated by those in power, they just happen to be the ones– by dint of my being a horror fan– central to my life.
This is not to disparage their fans, however, because we all have our own lines, and simply because they stand to cross mine doesn’t mean they need to have crossed yours. I just think that at this given juncture in our culture, these are the kinds of reconciliations we all should be having. It can be difficult and enervating and disappointing, but it needs to happen.
The Warrens were still parents and lovers and people, and like all of us, they were complicated. That complication is even harder to unpack now that both have passed away. The Conjuring films have been a wonderful celebration of their legacy and love– and I do genuinely believe there was love there– and while I can accept and respect that, I just might not be willing to buy a ticket to see it.