The Trouble with the Warrens

Fans of the “Conjuring” horror movie franchise will know the names Ed and Lorraine Warren, and a very idealized characterization of the husband and wife team of paranormal investigators. The films depict the couple very much as they wanted to be seen, which is what Hollywood does to stories. Watch Ryan Hollanger’s critique of the film on Youtube if you really care to know about the cinematic depiction. For those in my line of work there is no escape from the Warrens. Ed’s legacy as a self-professed “demonologist” and unsanctioned free-lance exorcist is as influential as it is controversial.

Edward Warren was born in 1926, and Lorraine Moran was born six months later in 1927. They both grew up in the Roman Catholic community of their hometown of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and would marry in 1945. They had a daughter, Judy, in 1946 and just six years later they would found the New England Society for Psychic Research. Through this organization, the Warrens would ultimately claim to have investigated 10,000 cases. They also co-authored six books, and leveraged various TV and movie deals to make themselves into minor celebrities. Because they were frequently required to travel for work, their daughter Judy spent much of her childhood living with Lorraine’s parents.

During this period the Warrens founded their Occult Museum in 1968, after acquiring its center piece, a Raggedy Ann doll Lorraine alleged to be possessed by the spirit of a child named Annabelle Higgins. In 1971, they would investigate the home of the Perron family, diagnosing that the family was haunted by the ghost of a convicted witch named Bathsheba Sherman. Four years later they would be contacted by George and Kathy Lutz about strange phenomena in their home in Amityville, New York, and later in 1977 they would claim to have investigated the Enfield Poltergeist. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s they would be increasingly involved in cases that were more and more obvious hoaxes.

The New England Skeptical Society, founded by Steve Novella and Perry DeAngelis in 1996, would thoroughly investigate and debunk the claims of the Warrens. Adamant that the Warrens’ evidence was all “blarney” they still described them as a nice couple, and genuinely sincere in their beliefs. Author Ray Garton, who was hired by the Warrens to write a book about their investigation of the Snedeker haunting, is far less charitable in his assessment. After “A Dark Place: The Story of a True Haunting” was published, Garton denounced the Warrens saying that they knew the Snedeker family was “crazy” and that Ed instructed him to “just use what works and make up the rest, and make it scary.” Of Lorraine, Garton has been quoted saying: “If she told me the sun would come up tomorrow, I’d get a second opinion.” Likewise, the British parapsychologist who initially investigated the Enfield poltergeist case, Guy Playfair, maintained that the Warrens showed up uninvited and were turned away without even meeting the family. Asserting that the Warrens went on to lie about their level of involvement in the case.

Throughout the 1980’s the Warrens made regular appearances on TV promoting their books. During a 1992 episode of Sally Jessie Raphael’s eponymous daytime talk show, the Warrens faced a particularly incredulous and hostile audience. The Snedecker family claimed, not only that they lived in a haunted house, but that the ghosts haunting the house were sodomizing members of the family. Because the house was a former funeral home, Ed Warren confidently asserted that the haunting was the result of Satanic rituals involving necrophilia preformed in the basement of the house. Skeptical neighbors in the audience rebuked this accusation insisting there had been no supernatural activity in the neighborhood before the Snedeckers moved in, or since they had moved out. They accused them of lying about the exorcisms on the grounds that none of the parish priests had been in the house since before it had been put up for rent. They accused them of perpetrating a hoax for money. Ed Warren claims they brought in their own exorcists, who wished to remain anonymous. He would only refer to the priest as “Father A” which does nothing to convince the dubious neighbors.

Ironically, this could be a clue that the Warrens had genuinely brought in exorcists from the Vatican to resolve the alleged haunting. From 1950 until 1986, the exorcist for the Diocese of Rome was Father Candido Amantini and he was succeeded in that office by Father Gabriele Amorth. In the documentary The Devil and Father Amorth, shot during the final year of his life, the then ninety year old exorcist explains his view that confidentiality is one of the sacred duties of his profession which is why the Church will not confirm or deny whether he was involved in any specific case. This detail only provides circumstantial evidence to support Ed’s claim. It is worth remembering that it was entirely possible that Ed knew the name of the exorcist for the Diocese of Rome was “Father A” without having been introduced to the Catholic Church’s most senior demonologist.

For paranormal investigator Joe Nickell of the Center for Skeptical Inquiry, the evidence offered by the Warrens was not sufficient enough to be convincing. Nickell’s insistence on fact-based investigative methods had given him an unwanted reputation as a “debunker” because the standards of evidence followed by the CSI were so rigorous. This scientific methodology had put CSI paranormal investigators very much at odds with the spiritualist Warrens. Sally Jessie Raphael would introduce Joe Nickell on to the panel of guests late in the show, and the viewer suddenly gets to see a much darker side of Ed Warren. Previously, Warren’s bombastic interjections and gesticulations had appeared proportionate to the tone of the audience. This is not the nice, sincere jovial purveyor of blarney the NESS had politely debunked. As Nickell utters the phrase “I’ve not met a house that I thought was haunted, I think the Warrens have not met a house they didn’t think was haunted.” Warren contradicted him. When Nickell stated that the Amityville horror had been debunked, Warren blew up violently poking his thumb at Nickell and leaning into his personal space. Nickell remained calm, as the host struggled to maintain control of the show. Ed Warren seemingly threatened Nickell before the video appears to cut to an unscheduled commercial break. In this moment of early 90’s trash television, we get a glimpse of a total bully using his considerable body mass to attempt to intimidate another person. More over, observing Lorraine’s body language during her husband’s violent outbursts it is possible to perceive the distinct shadows of an abusive relationship.

Naturally, the Warrens would not be the first Catholic couple to hide the ugly imperfections of their marriage from the public. Nothing inherently immoral about wishing to keep one’s private life private, unless that which one wishes to keep private is in fact immoral behavior. The Warrens would suffer further reputational damage as more of their celebrated cases were debunked. Ed Warren would die in 2006, fondly regarded by many believers in the paranormal but generally seen as an irrelevant fraud. Lorraine would spend the remainder of her life shrewdly rehabilitating her husbands public image. By 2013, she would enter into a deal with Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema for the rights to fictionalize one of their earlier investigations. This cemented the highly romanticized characterization of the Warrens popularized by The Conjuring and the resulting horror movie franchise.

Following the success of the first film, talks began about a sequel and as deals were made parties who felt they were cut out of those deals began filing lawsuits. Business as usual in Hollywood. Gerald Brittle, the author of “The Demonologist” a definitive biography of Ed Warren, as well as “The Devil in Connecticut”, sued on the assertion his books were the source material for the movies. The discovery documents for this case offer another disturbing peek into the Warrens’ private life. In addition to the usual non-disparagement clauses, Lorraine’s lawyers had added several rather unusual stipulations. The films could not depict the Warrens engaging in criminal acts, including: sex with minors, child pornography, prostitution, or sexual assault. Nor could they engage in any extramarital affairs.

When the Hollywood Reporter wrote about the case in 2017, they consulted entertainment lawyers and agents to confirm that such specific language is not ordinary. Brittle and a producer with whom he claimed to have made creative contributions to the project that became The Conjuring would ultimately arrive at a settlement. Emails from the case contain discussions that show studio executives and producers were fully aware of specific allegations against Ed Warren. Brittle had changed his opinion of the Warrens, having realized that they had deceived him into writing their story as they wanted it to appear rather than as it was. Brittle had since developed a more complete picture of who his subjects actually were through interviews with additional sources. One of these sources was a woman he had known since he first began working with the Warrens in the early 1980’s, their assistant Judith Penney. Although Miss Penney’s exact role in the Warrens’ organization was vague, it was only after she moved out on her own in 1993 that she clarified her relationship with the Warrens to Brittle.

In the decade following the Boston Globe having exposed decades of systematic sexual abuse inside the Catholic Church, subsequent reporting has revealed more about the nature and extent of the clerical corruption as well as the tactics and methods of the abusers. The beloved Pope who had shepherded the Church through the end of the Cold War and into the New Millennium was implicated in covering up the rampant sexual violence within his clergy. The papacy that had forestalled fully implementing the progressive reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the name of defeating Communism, had allowed the most ungodly abuse of the most vulnerable members of the community. The trials of high ranking clergymen, and law suits against Diocese that had protected abusive priests, revealed that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was aware of the abuse but only convinced John Paul II to place the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in charge of sexual abuse investigations in 2001. When John Paul II died in 2005, and Ratzinger was elected to succeed him, the scandal would overshadow his Papacy as he ordered changes to the policies that had formerly protected abusive priests.

It was within the context of this scandal that Lorraine Warren’s lawyers introduced that oddly specific language to her Warner Brothers contract. The Conjuring was in development at the same time that the screenplay for Spotlight, the dramatization of the Boston Globe’s investigation of Catholic clerical abuse, was making its way around Hollywood. The unexpected retirement of Benedict XVI, (and election of the third Pope in under a decade) that same year, kept the scandal in the public consciousness. The new progressive Pope Francis was much more outspoken about bringing the abusers to justice and restitution for the victims. At that time it was not at all unreasonable to ask what the widow of the infamous free-lance investigative demonologist was trying to hide.

Kim Masters and Ashley Cullins of the Hollywood Reporter revealed the bare bones of the truth of the Warrens’ criminal activity. Hidden within the discovery documents of Brittle’s complaint, Masters and Cullins found the sworn declaration of Judith Penney. The young woman whom Brittle claimed as a primary source attested that she was the figure (wrapped in a white sheet) whom Ed Warren passed off as the “White Woman of Union Cemetery” in 1992. Her Sworn Declaration also clarifies her relationship with Ed Warren.

Judith Penney testified that she met Ed Warren when he was working as a school bus driver in the early 1960’s. This was before the Warrens had found any success with the New England Society for Psychic Research. According to Penney’s testimony, Ed Warren moved her into his house in 1963, and her relationship with Ed Warren was both romantic and sexual from that point onward. At that time Ed would have been no less than thirty-seven years old, and Judith Penney could not have been older than fifteen. According to the account of Ms. Penney she escaped an unstable home situation into her relationship with Ed Warren, and lived him in what she was too naive to understand she was an unhealthy love triangle. As an adult living on her own she became aware that Ed’s behavior was abusive and expressed that she had witnessed Ed beat Lorraine, sometimes knocking his wife unconscious. She claimed that she moved on from her relationship with Ed and held no malice against him until after his death.

She did express that Lorraine had compelled her to get an abortion after she refused to lie about being impregnated by an intruder. This event representing a complete rejection of the conservative theology the Warrens had embraced throughout their public career. The fact that Lorraine allowed the situation to continue over four decades seemed to bother Judith Penney far more than knowing Ed had abused her. She has not sought any public attention since making her statements a decade ago, and it is not even clear she is still alive as of this writing.

Lorraine Warren did not comment on the 2013 case, but her past statements about Penney were uncharitable at best. The official response from the Warrens’ attorneys to Penney’s accusations followed the boilerplate denials used by abusive priests almost exactly. The alleged victim was “unstable” and took advantage of the Warrens’ graciousness, resorting to blackmail when they finally cut her off. Brittle’s account of Ms Penney being happily married and baring no malice toward the Warrens does not correspond to this rebuttal. She made no criminal complaint nor did she seek damages, she only wanted her truth to be known. After Gerald Brittle reached his settlement with the studios, Judith Penney faded back into obscurity.

The facts are certainly incomplete, but they do fit into a pattern. The stipulations added to the non disparagement clause by the Warren estate, as revealed by The Hollywood Reporter, can be considered red flags. It so happens that all of the crimes mentioned are all consistent with the modus operandi of the abusive priests and their enablers. A survey of the Warrens’ investigations will find that most of their cases focused on Catholic families with children of a certain age. The alleged psychologists, medical doctors, and exorcists who consulted with the Warrens were overwhelmingly anonymous, making it impossible to verify their credentials or double-check the Warrens’ claims. They targeted superstitious families who could be easily manipulated into acquiescence, and plausibly dismissed as “crazy” if they dared speak out.

And so the time has come at which we must be ruthlessly truthful about the Warrens, their credibility, and whether they abused their reputation. When it comes to the case of the Perron family being haunted by the ghost of a witch, executed in the colonial era, named Bathsheba Sherman, the Warrens made an amateurish error:

Bathsheda Sherman was a real person. She lived into a ripe old age, well beyond the colonial era, and was never accused of witchcraft. She died of natural causes, and was buried on sacred ground, facts which absolutely debunk Lorraine Warren as a credible medium. Beyond having been politely dismissed as liars by the primary investigators on the Enfield poltergeist case, the credibility of the Warrens had been repeatedly shown up, even by other paranormal investigators.

The most famous American exorcism of the 20th Century occurred in the vicinity of my hometown, a fact which influenced my interest in this career path. The case which launched the careers of a thousand paranormal investigators, began with a Lutheran family living in a suburb of the U.S. Capital. The Warrens had no role in this case, but some details from the historic case are pertinent to our indictment of the Warrens. In the late 1940’s, rumors of an actual exorcism permeated through the Catholic communities around Washington, D.C. My own godparents knew one of the priests involved in the case when they were students at Catholic University. The urban legend of this exorcism inspired author William Peter Blatty to fictionalize the rumors into the essential postmodern existential horror story.

Blatty was very clear that he had written a work of fiction. Inspired by what he had taken to be tall tales spread among students at Catholic University, Blatty wrote a novel that inspired a film. And thus his fiction become enshrined in the nonsense that surrounds most attempts to verify such claims. The truth could not be affirmed until 2020, when representatives for the estate of Ronald Edwin Hunkeler announced that he was the anonymous boy Blatty had fictionalized. Of course, the word of a dead man does not constitute evidence. We may know his name, we can confirm who he was as an adult, but, his estate released nothing that could actually confirm the story. At best he left the world an affirmation that some aspect of his story was true.

Better qualified critics than myself have dissected the interpretations of The Exorcist. The standard explanation of the Hunkeler possession was that the boy manifested the phenomena as an expression of his grief over the death of a beloved aunt. Assertions that the aunt introduced the boy to Spiritualism, were not affirmed by Hunkeler’s final documents. Beside which, a ouija board alone cannot manifest in a demonic possession. It has been suggested that the relationship between the boy and his aunt was more than spiritual. It would be morally irresponsible to speculate as to whether the boy merely lusted after his aunt, or if she affirmed his attraction, or if that whole aspect of the story is fictional. The truth shall remain unknowable, however, the pattern of an adolescent acting out in response to sexual abuse in ways that are attributed to the supernatural is a reoccurring theme in our investigation at this point.

When he was a thirty-seven year old school bus driver, Ed Warren seduced a fifteen year old into becoming his live-in mistress. Lorraine Warren knew what Ed was doing and permitted it. Together they fabricated accounts of their investigations to make money. Ed passed himself off as an exorcist, giving him access to vulnerable young people. By his own admission, Ed brought anonymous men into the homes of these vulnerable young people to assist him. The victims of clerical sex abuse describe a disturbingly similar situation, in that their abuse was framed as penance for their alleged sins. Victims also consistently recall that their abusers brought other men in to partake in the perversions. Knowing that this was the modus operandi of the pedophile rings within the Catholic clergy during the peak of the Warrens’ career demands that Ed’s true motives be put to the question.

The Warren’s defamation of Bathsheba Sherman in order to turn a buck off the Perron haunting shows they had no scruples regarding spiritual matters. In the Snedecker case Ed’s florid fantasies about a house filled with demonic energies summoned in Satanic rituals by a necrophiliac mortician distracted attention away from the very real dysfunctions of the family in question. The neighbors who confronted the Warrens on the Sally Jessie Raphael Show accused the family’s teenage son of being both a narcotics user and a sexual predator. Confronted with this perfectly plausible explanation for the strange goings on in the house, the Warrens’ supernatural shenanigans effectively shielded a serial rapist with ghost stories. The credible allegations that Ed Warren used his position as a school bus driver to manipulate a vulnerable teenage girl into becoming his mistress demonstrate he had predatory proclivities himself. The exploitative nature of his entire career should be evidence enough to at least entertain the question: Was Ed Warren just a puffed up procurer for pedophile priests?

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