The untold truth of paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren

If you were to ask someone who the most famous ghostbuster of all time is, they might tell you Peter Venkman or Egon Spengler. But those dudes only appeared in two movies. There are two paranormal investigators who have successfully spawned an entire cinematic universe almost by accident when powerhouse franchises like the Universal Monsters failed to do it on purpose. This pair is Ed and Lorraine Warren, the central figures of The Conjuring and its assorted spinoffs.

Through books, film and TV adaptations, and self-promotion, the Warrens found themselves attached to many of the most famous cases of haunting and demon possession of the 20th century, including the Amityville Horror, the Enfield Poltergeist, and a haunted doll that has inspired three different films. For over 50 years, the couple either battled evil spirits or took advantage of vulnerable people desperate to believe in life after death, depending whom you ask. But whatever you believe, they were successful at it.

While Ed passed away in 2006, Lorraine got a chance to consult on the movies based on her and her husband's lives, even making a Stan Lee-esque cameo in The Conjuring in 2013. However, Lorraine Warren passed away on April 18, 2019, at the age of 92. Here are some things you might not know about New England's most famous ghost-hunter.

The hunt begins

Lorraine Warren was born Lorraine Rita Moran in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on January 31, 1927. According to her New York Times obituary, she met Ed when they were 16 years old and Ed was an usher at the Colonial Theater in Bridgeport. Lorraine would come to the theater with her mother every week, and soon she and Ed started dating. Before long, Ed was off fighting in World War II, but they got married in 1945 when Ed was home on leave.

Ed's original ambition was to be a painter, even attending art classes until deciding that the instructors were teaching him "a lot of geometry and a lot of nonsense that [he didn't] need for painting." He set out to paint on his own, and soon mixed that with his other obsession: ghosts. Ed had always believed he grew up in a haunted house and that he had encountered the ghost of an old woman floating inside a mysterious globule as a child. If he ever heard a rumor that a house was haunted, Ed would go paint it. They would give the painting to the curious homeowners, who would then usually invite the couple in for a tour, giving them the scoop on the ghosts within. Maybe not the most expected beginning to a ghost-hunting empire, but, like, what would be the normal way to get into that?

I see dead people

While Ed's role was that of demonologist — researching spirits and demons and assisting in or performing exorcisms to expel them — Lorraine's contributions were the psychic powers she claimed to possess. Lorraine professed to be a trance medium (that is, that she could channel the spirits of the dead by entering into a trance) and a clairvoyant (not that she could see the future but that she could perceive things that humans normally cannot). As Ed himself said, "Spirits are on that different vibrational field. They're all around us right now but you can't see them. But if you were like Lorraine, you could see them clairvisually, hear them clairaudioally."

According to the Warrens' son-in-law Tony Spera, Lorraine developed her abilities at a young age. At age 9, Lorraine was attending a private Catholic school and remarked that the light emanating from one nun was brighter than the light surrounding the Mother Superior. This, she believed later, was her realizing that she could perceive auras surrounding people. In addition to using these abilities during investigations, Lorraine also claimed to have gotten signs from Ed following his death in 2006, including some hand-grabbing and a mysterious whistling at a restaurant where Lorraine went to celebrate Ed's birthday.

"The fairy tale is true"

If you've seen The Conjuring movies, you've undoubtedly noticed the powerful Roman Catholic overtones that run through the franchise. The Warrens professed to be devout Catholics, and the movies claim that Ed Warren is the only lay person authorized by the Vatican to perform exorcisms. While that last bit is Hollywood hyperbole, the Warrens' website certainly claims that "religious authorities have repeatedly called [them] in" for help. It might seem pretty contradictory to claim to be a Christian who can channel ghosts and talk to demons, but it's certainly a concern for more mainline Catholics.

Whether their approach to Catholicism was orthodox, it certainly anchored the Warrens' philosophy of demonology. Their repeated refrain was "The fairy tale is true. The devil exists. God exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow." Indeed they believed that modern secularism has invited more demonic activity into the world. Despite all the religious trappings surrounding their work, however, the Catholic News Service review of The Conjuring 2 makes it pretty unequivocally clear that these movies are not the way many Catholics want to be portrayed (and that lay people definitely don't perform exorcisms).

N.E.S.P.R.

The Warrens' painting-facilitated haunted house tours turned into a more organized effort to investigate hauntings, ultimately leading to the founding of the New England Society for Psychic Research in 1952, making them the oldest ghost hunting group in New England. Admittedly that sounds like a pretty specific niche until you consider that about 35% of all cable programming features ghost hunting groups from New England.

The Warrens said their investigations evolved from mere investigations into more active attempts to drive spirits out in 1965 when they encountered the ghost of a little girl named Cynthia who was looking for her mother. From that point on, they decided to dedicate themselves to helping people afflicted by the supernatural (or at least to write books claiming they did).

Since that time, N.E.S.P.R. has grown from just the Warrens to a network of "medical doctors, researchers, police officers, nurses, college students and housewives," according to their site. Their method follows the Warrens' example of a mixture of religion and something resembling science. For the past several years, leadership of the society has been assumed by the Warrens' son-in-law Tony Spera. Their main online presence seems to be a fairly light-on-information Facebook fan page if that's the kind of thing that gets you going.

The horror, the horror

Prior to the debut of the Conjuring films, the Warrens were most famous for their association with the Amityville haunting, a reported case of the supernatural that has inspired a truly staggering 28 films and counting. The short version of this famous haunting is that the Lutz family moved into a house in Amityville, New York, in 1975, only to be driven out by a demonic presence that manifested itself as a swarm of flies, hooded apparitions, cold spots, bad smells, and a weird pig for some reason. The Lutzes then learned that about a year before they moved in, Ronald DeFeo Jr. had murdered his whole family in the house. This is all in the best known of the movies; you might have seen it, or the remake with Ryan Reynolds.

You might have noticed that this recap didn't mention the Warrens, nor are they in the movie. That's because their involvement came some time after the Lutzes left the house. They showed up at the house in February 1976 with a TV crew to investigate the house. It was then that their crew took the famous "ghost boy" photo that the Warrens would show on various talk shows while promoting the first Amityville Horror film, on which they had been hired as consultants. The Warrens' experiences in the Amityville house were dramatized in early scenes of The Conjuring 2. That said, the entire Amityville haunting has been pretty thoroughly debunked, with Ronald DeFeo's lawyer admitting he and the Lutzes made the whole thing up.

The devil doll

These days, the single most famous of the Warrens' cases is almost certainly that of the haunted doll, Annabelle. The creepy toy looms large over the first Conjuring film and also has its own franchise with the third installment, Annabelle Comes Home, hitting in June 2019.

According to the New Haven Register, the story of the Annabelle films — with the doctor and the cult and all that — is completely fabricated, not even incorporating details from the Warrens' investigation. The real version (if you choose to believe the Warrens) of the Annabelle story is much closer to the events depicted in the first Conjuring film, with the nursing students and the weird messages written on parchment. But even that movie dramatizes events by turning Annabelle into a dirty porcelain doll, while the real Annabelle is a traditional Raggedy Ann doll. It is true, however, that the doll is locked up in a special case in the Warrens' occult museum. Allegedly a museum attendee ignored the warnings on the glass and touched the case, only to die in a motorcycle accident shortly afterward. The Warrens' son-in-law Tony Spera says Annabelle is the item in the museum he is most afraid of. Lorraine Warren said she didn't mind the liberties in the Annabelle films because they still served the purpose of warning people of the dangers of demons.

Spawning a cinematic universe

The Conjuring franchise is based, to varying degrees, on the case files of the Warrens, as represented in books by and about the ghost-hunting couple. While the stories of the Annabelle films and The Nun are fully fabricated by screenwriters, the Conjuring films proper are based directly on the cases of the Perron family haunting and the Enfield poltergeist, with added elements from the Annabelle case and the Amityville haunting thrown in (though one could definitely argue that those stories are fabrications, too).

But one cinematic universe isn't enough to contain Ed and Lorraine Warren. In 1991, a made-for-TV movie called The Haunted tells the story of their investigation into the Smurl haunting, based on a book with the same title co-authored by the Warrens. Likewise, the 1992 book In a Dark Place: The Story of a True Haunting by Ray Garton told of the Warrens' investigation into the Snedeker haunting and served as the basis for the 2009 film The Haunting in Connecticut. (For whatever it's worth, Lorraine Warren has denounced that film for its historical inaccuracy. She probably should have denounced it for being terrible.)

But even this doesn't tell the full tale of Lorraine Warren's filmography, which includes dozens of appearances on various ghost documentaries and TV shows. There's no shortage of the Warrens on the screen, which is probably how they liked it.

Why isn't this one a movie

One Warren investigation somehow, amazingly, hasn't been made into a movie yet. It's the story of Bill Ramsey, the Southend Werewolf. His story is the subject of the Warrens' 1991 book Werewolf: A True Story of Demonic Possession, which describes Ramsey's experiences as a young working-class British guy in the 1980s who suddenly starts turning into a wolf and biting his friends and some nurses and police officers. Serendipitously, the Warrens happen to catch a TV broadcast about Ramsey while in London on a book tour and managed to convince him to come back with them to Connecticut where they and their partner-in-exorcism Bishop Robert McKenna might get to the root of the problem. As it turns out, Ramsey wasn't a werewolf in the traditional sense, but rather was possessed by a demon that made him act like a wolf. The exorcism was apparently a success, as Ramsey doesn't seem to have bitten anyone since 1992.

Naturally, skeptics are, uh, skeptical about the whole thing, with a particularly scathing review of Werewolf from Kirkus noting "the Warrens' assurance that this is 'a carefully documented' case (they forgot to include the documentation, though)." That lack of evidence hasn't stopped other cases from the Warrens' files from being turned into blockbusters, and a mad demon werewolf going buckwild on his mates down the pub just has The Conjuring 4 written all over it.

The devil made me do it

According to the Associated Press, in 1981, a young man named Arne Cheyenne Johnson fatally stabbed his landlord, Alan Bono. What makes this story notable is that Johnson's defense in court was that he was innocent, not because of insanity, but because of demon possession. He claimed his fiancee's little brother, David, had been possessed by a demon, and during an exorcism, Johnson had challenged the demon to leave David and enter him. Apparently it did, and Johnson subsequently killed his landlord under the demon's influence. The case was the first in which demon possession was used as a defense. It became known as the "Devil Made Me Do It" case, and in 1983 it was turned into a TV movie called The Demon Murder Case with Andy Griffith, Cloris Leachman, and Kevin Bacon, which sounds like a joke but is not.

By now it's probably not necessary to point out that the (arguably bungled) exorcism was overseen by the Warrens. Lorraine told police that Johnson wasn't in control of his actions and the Warrens were at the center of the media blitz surrounding the case. A 1983 book called The Devil in Connecticut tells the Warrens' version of events, and this case is set to be the basis of 2020's The Conjuring 3. This feels in pretty poor taste, because, like, a real person died? But, uh, maybe they'll be ... tactful about it? Maybe?

Their house is a museum

One element from The Conjuring that is definitely true is the museum of creepy, supposedly haunted artifacts in the Warrens' home. For many years, the Warrens operated an occult museum in their basement, the ostensible purpose of which was to put these dangerous objects under the watchful eyes of the demonologists where they could do harm. Incidentally, it also became a way that the Warrens, who did not charge for their investigations, could supplement their income from book sales and media deals.

Included in the collection are a vampire's coffin, demon masks, and a murderer's row of haunted dolls, including the star of the show, Annabelle. The Warrens' site also lists a shadow doll that will visit your dreams and stop your heart, a conjuring mirror for summoning spirits, an organ that plays itself, a shrunken head, psychic photography, and more. Apparently the room's mood is fleshed out by the presence of plastic Halloween trinkets and decorations all over the walls. Unfortunately for those who might want to risk getting motorcycle-murdered by a Raggedy Ann, the Warren Occult Museum was closed due to zoning issues in March 2018 and has not, as of this writing, found a new location.

On the road

It is fully logical that Ed and Lorraine Warren would appear on shows like Scariest Places on Earth talking about famously haunted places. It makes sense that Lorraine would appear on multiple episodes of A Haunting talking about the cases that she and Ed worked on. Furthermore, it's totally sensible that she would make dozens of appearances as a guest investigator on Paranormal State, lending her experience and psychic sensitivity to a college ghost hunting club who wanted to spend the night in abandoned hospitals hanging out with an elderly woman or whatever that show was about.

What is probably more surprising is that Ed and Lorraine Warren made a guest appearance on the first episode of Road Rules: All-Stars. No, you didn't have a stroke mid-sentence there. That's actually true. In the episode, the Warrens charge former cast members from The Real World — including one young woman who seems incredibly concerned that Satan will "leap into" her, a Bible-reading dude with a mullet and a T-shirt that says "SATAN IS UGLY AS SIN" on the front and "...BECAUSE JESUS BEAT HIM WITH A STICK" on the back, and a guy who wants a ghost to possess him so he can kick its (his own?) ass — with the task of spending the night in a haunted mental hospital in Monroe, Connecticut, in order to prove that ghosts are real. Again, you are (probably) not having a stroke right now. All of these things really happened on a national television broadcast.

Hero or villain?

Despite their great fame as ghost hunters, lecturers, writers, and media personalities who turned their life story into a blockbuster film franchise in which they are played by the incredibly attractive humans Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, the Warrens are not without their detractors.

A notable investigation by the New England Skeptical Society examined all the evidence of the supernatural presented by the Warrens and found none of it compelling, as most of their evidence tended to be anecdotal and much of their objective data based on pseudoscientific methods. Their general conclusions were that while the Warrens were perfectly pleasant people, they were tellers of ghost stories at best and frauds at worst. The latter is the more common refrain from Warren critics, who say the demonologists' approach of mixing religious elements into their investigations make their claims no longer simply a matter of superstition, but now also a matter of faith, which is very compelling for some people. Although the Warrens never charged for their investigations, there can be no doubt they made a ton of money through the fame their high-profile cases brought them. For some people, the Warrens were dangerous charlatans who are only gaining more fame from the very popular films that lionize them; for others, those who do believe in spirits and demons, the Warrens may represent a loving couple who used their faith to help people in need. Either way, the debate is only sure to grow as the Conjuring cinematic universe continues to expand.