By Jane Mulkerrins
13 July 2013
Photo: MARK MAHANEY
A clapboard house in a quaint Connecticut town is not where you’d expect to find a 7ft satanic icon.
But in the low-ceilinged basement of this otherwise unremarkable home is a fierce array of unholy artefacts: human skulls, African fertility figurines, even a demonic doll, Annabel.
The last miscreant to touch Annabel was, apparently, dead within hours, having lost control of his motorbike and careered into an oncoming lorry.
This is the Occult Museum, Ed and Lorraine Warren’s private collection of macabre relics gathered from thousands of haunted locations. For decades the Warrens were the most celebrated 'ghosthunters’ in America, investigating more than 3,000 cases of possessions, poltergeists and hauntings.
'People called us in to work out if what was going on in their homes was real, or if it was just in their heads, or other people making up stories,’ Lorraine, now 86, tells me over tea and ginger biscuits on her sunny veranda.
The Warrens would verify the phenomena and establish their cause – perhaps a grisly killing had happened on the site, leaving behind unhappy souls. Then they would rid the premises – or, in possession cases, the people – of the supernatural presence.
If it all sounds like the rather preposterous plot of a horror flick, well, in a way, it is. The Conjuring, starring the Oscar-nominated actress Vera Farmiga as Lorraine and Patrick Wilson as Ed, is in cinemas next month.
It tells the story of the Perron family, who were plagued by dark forces in their home in Harrisburg, Rhode Island. The Warrens have called it their most intense and disturbing investigation.
'A lot of [the film] is very accurate,’ Lorraine says, sipping her tea. She is smartly dressed in navy trousers and jumper, with a lemon chiffon scarf around her neck. She seems remarkably unfazed by being the subject of a big-budget Hollywood film.
'There’s a little artistic licence – for example, the staircase never exploded – but much of it is true.’
The Warren family home is a benign but scarcely less eccentric answer to the basement beneath it. Every inch of flat surface is festooned with candlesticks, photographs and china creatures.
'Annabel' in her glass case at The Occult Museum in the basement of Lorraine Warren’s house (left); with her husband Ed in the 1970s (right)
There are living creatures too: five cats, a terrier, a corgi, two enormous, heavily feathered and highly vocal roosters and a hen – all of which live indoors with Lorraine.
Ed died in 2006. 'I’ve always had lots of animals, especially birds. I treat them as friends, because they are,’ she tells me fondly, as Einstein the rooster lets rip with an enthusiastic crow.
The Warrens were well known by the time the Perrons contacted them; they had worked on the notorious Amityville case. In the mid-1970s America was electrified by the travails of the young Lutz family in New York.
The Lutzes were aware that Ronald DeFeo Jr had shot and killed six members of his own family in their Long Island home a year earlier, but later said they weren’t bothered by it when they moved in.
But then swarms of black flies appeared in the dead of winter, objects catapulted themselves across the room and unexplained bite marks appeared on the family’s bodies. The mother, Kathy, levitated and took on the appearance of a 90-year-old hag.
The Warrens were invited into the home by a television producer who had been working at the property with several other parapsychologists since the Lutzes had fled. Ed said he suffered heart palpitations for weeks after visiting the house.
Somewhat improbably, the Warrens had made their name investigating a haunting at the Westpoint military academy in 1972. Despite the best efforts of the academy’s top brass, details of the case were leaked and the Warrens found fame.
Soon, they were travelling the world – at the invitation of clergy, home-owners and institutions – to investigate hauntings and give lectures. They inspected Whitby Abbey, Stonehenge and Borley Rectory in Essex, reputedly the most haunted house in England.
The Warrens never charged for their services, making a modest living from their speaking engagements and from the sale of Ed’s paintings.
The couple had been working since the 1940s but Gerald Daniel Brittle, the author of The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed and Lorraine Warren, believes that the alternative lifestyles of the 1970s brought with them a renewed interest in the occult.
There was a dramatic upswing in reports of spirit phenomena throughout the decade. Stories such as The Exorcist – not to mention The Amityville Horror – became bestselling books and blockbuster films.
Be that as it may, Lorraine firmly believes that her clairvoyant and psychic abilities are a 'gift’ from God. 'I think God had to have given it to me,’ she says.
Her belief in the existence of evil, demons and possession is tied up with her Catholic faith. She tells me that sometimes prayers and a rosary would be enough to 'neutralise’ the spirits.
'You could try to command them, in the name of Jesus Christ, to go back to where they came from. But sometimes they would fight back,’ she says.
For a more stubborn spirit, the Warrens would call in the clergy to perform an exorcism. 'We had one bishop who was really supportive and helpful. But there are very few exorcists around these days.’ If a priest was not available, Ed himself would sometimes perform the rituals.
Artefacts collected from Lorraine's ghostbusting career
Lorraine grew up the eldest of three children in Milford, Connecticut, in a middle-class family. At the private Catholic girls’ school she attended she began to see 'lights around people’ when she was about 12.
'I confided in one of the nuns, my French teacher,’ she recalls. 'I told her that her lights were much brighter than Mother Superior’s. I just assumed others could see them too.’
The sister told her to stop being so fanciful, and the school packed her off to a retreat home for a weekend, where she was not allowed to talk or play – only pray.
'After the retreat home, I was worried what my parents would think, and what the nuns would think. I never wanted to be different, I always wanted to fit in,’ she insists. 'So I tried to deny what I could see, even to myself.’
Ed, meanwhile, grew up nearby in the city of Bridgeport in what sounds like a less happy home. His mother was often absent – Lorraine’s son-in-law, Tony Spera (who is present during our interview), suggests alcohol may have been to blame.
His father was a policeman who often worked night shifts, leaving Ed alone.
'There would be footsteps, strange knockings, and Ed and his sister would hear what sounded like their grandfather’s cane walking up the stairs, long after he was dead,’ Lorraine tells me. It left Ed with a lifelong obsession with haunted houses.
The couple met when they were both 16 and Ed was a cinema usher. 'I looked at his shoes, which were shined to perfection, and I looked at the crease of his trousers, and I thought what a nice young man he was,’ says Lorraine.
Ed joined the navy during the Second World War, and they married at 17, while he was on leave. After the war, Ed would read news stories of hauntings around the country.
An amateur artist, he would paint the houses in the reports and use his artworks to introduce himself to the inhabitants. 'He wanted to see if the same things he had seen and heard were happening to other people,’ Lorraine explains.
Ed applied policing methods gleaned from his father in his paranormal investigations, asking questions and taking notes. Lorraine worked entirely on instinct. 'Everything came naturally to me,’ she says.
'I would get them to let me go round the house on my own, without any prior knowledge of what they had experienced, to see what I discerned. And I would sit on the bed – where people spend a third of their life, that’s where you get the best vibrations – and names and visions would come to me,’ she says.
Was she ever frightened? 'I have been thrown up in the air by the power of a demonic spirit,’ she says. 'And it’s not easy to go back to your work after that. But you have to.’ She shrugs.
'I won’t say it didn’t bother me, though. And it was a difficult shift to come back to our home afterwards and put a case behind us. I would take off all my clothes I had been wearing to do the work in and wash them immediately. And we would never tell Judy anything that went on, of course.’
The Warren’s only child, now 67 and a bank clerk, Judy has inherited her mother’s abilities, according to Spera. He talks of his in-laws in awed tones. 'Lorraine and Ed were the pioneers, the trail-blazers,’ he says. Judy, he adds, 'is psychic, but hasn’t fully developed it. She was rather put off by what her parents did, and doesn’t like having a lot to do with all this.’
Spera runs the Warrenology tours: for $109 (including dinner with Lorraine) one can spend an evening taking in the Occult Museum, the local graveyard and old footage of the Warrens apparently performing an exorcism on a local farmer.
According to Ed’s accounts in The Demonologist, he witnessed people levitate during exorcisms, watched them vomit gallons of putrid substances, and saw bodies swell to twice their size.
Spera plays me the well-worn video of the farmer’s exorcism. Although there are some strange elements – most notably, the man does not blink in the final three minutes of footage – it is disappointingly undramatic; there is certainly no levitating or spewing of bile.
A scene from the forthcoming film The Conjuring, which is based on a case investigated by the Warrens
Though Spera keeps a running commentary on what I am apparently observing – the farmer supposedly spitting drops of blood and speaking backwards in Latin, and barely distinguishable crosses appearing under his skin – I am less than convinced.
Ray Garton, a horror novelist who collaborated with the Warrens on a book, has been a longtime critic of the couple. 'Everyone has the impression of the Warrens as your favourite kooky aunt and uncle – I did when I first me them. That fell apart fast,’ he says.
Together they wrote about a haunting in Southington, Connecticut. In the late 1980s the Snedeker family moved into a former funeral home and began reporting supernatural phenomena: water in a mop bucket would turn blood-red and women in the family were sexually assaulted by unseen forces.
The Warrens divined that the funeral workers had engaged in necrophilia, angering the spirits. But when Garton interviewed the Snedekers their stories constantly changed and were contradictory.
He informed Ed, he tells me, and 'Ed said, “Well, these people are crazy. All the people who come to us are crazy. It’s always hard to get a story out of them, so use what you can, then make the rest up.”’
Garton asked his publisher that the resulting book, In a Dark Place, be sold as fiction – a request that was denied.
Lorraine is unconcerned when I put this to her. 'My husband was brilliant at his work,’ she says, simply. 'And he never felt he could be put down by people who didn’t believe in it.’
The Amityville case has also long been rumoured to be a hoax. In 1979 DeFeo’s lawyer, William Weber, claimed that he, the Lutz family and The Amityville Horror’s author, Jay Anson, invented the story 'over many bottles of wine’.
Lorraine flatly rejects this: 'So many people don’t have any faith at all and they don’t want to believe in things that might harm them.’
Although she is growing frail, Lorraine still occasionally agrees to investigate a haunting. 'But it was incredibly difficult to carry on working after Ed died. We were such a team,’ she says.
A few years ago Jim Anziano, a retired Catholic priest, moved into the Warren home, and now helps manage the tours. As I leave, I overhear him telling Lorraine that a satanic bible, which had been missing from the museum, has suddenly reappeared.
'Well, what do you make of it, Father?’ Lorraine asks. 'Something supernatural?’ he posits. 'Or perhaps someone just put it back.’
'The Conjuring’ is out on 2 August