clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

From Amityville to Annabelle, the Warrens on film are a lie

The onscreen version of exorcists Ed and Lorraine Warren is a far cry from their real-life counterparts.

A black-and-white photograph of American ghost hunters Lorraine and Ed Warren with a cityscape in the background.
Ghost hunters Lorraine and Ed Warren may not have been the wholesome religious examples of pop culture fame.
Russell McPhedran/Fairfax Media via Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The reputation of cute cuddly exorcists Ed and Lorraine Warren has grown outsized in 21st-century pop culture. That’s mainly thanks to the juggernaut Conjuring franchise, loosely based on their lives, with Vera Farmiga playing Lorraine and Patrick Wilson playing Ed. Then there’s the equally popular franchise spinoff series Anabelle, based on the Warrens’ creepy doll, and The Nun, based on a fan-favorite demonic entity from the previous films. There’s also the 2009 hit horror flick A Haunting in Connecticut and a number of bestselling books that depict the Warrens as the first and often last line of defense against the supernatural.

Alas, none of that is real.

Not Ed and Lorraine! you might say. Not the sweet, demon-shooing soulmates who chased evil across the US throughout the ’70s and ’80s! They were pure hearts! They were in love! They cleansed the Amityville Horror!

Actually, they didn’t. Like many of the Warrens’ stories, reports of their involvement in the alleged Amityville hauntings were greatly exaggerated. In fact, while their skills at exorcism are debatable, their skill at self-promotion remains unmatched.

That leaves us with two very different portraits of the Warrens today. In one corner, you have the gentle, soulful story of the Warrens as popularized by the Conjuring cinematic universe. In popular culture, the Warrens are lovable, wise, and courageous, the type of happily married couple anyone would want to be friends with.

In the other corner, you have the portrait of the Warrens as championed by skeptics and other doubters: a pair of conniving, reality-distorting, shamelessly grandiose self-promoters and sham psychics running a long-term con job. The recently released Netflix documentary The Devil on Trial takes up this point of view. While the narrative remains fully credulous about all things demonic, the Warrens are ultimately depicted as swindlers who preyed on vulnerable families in order to sell their own story for fame and fortune.

Not only that, but even after his death in 2006, Ed Warren stands accused of grooming and entering into a sexual relationship with an underaged girl, allegedly with his wife’s full awareness and complicity.

So who were the Warrens and how did we come to know them so well and not at all?

The Warrens had a hand in some of the most famous alleged supernatural events of the 20th century (emphasis on “alleged”)

Ed and Lorraine Warren were both raised in the Catholic church in Bridgeport, Connecticut. By the time they met as teenagers in 1944, she had already fully embraced her identity as a purported psychic medium, and he had gained a deep interest in the paranormal after having grown up in a house he reportedly believed was haunted. After fighting in World War II, Ed studied art in college, but wound up using his talent to fuel his rapidly deepening paranormal interests instead. Together with Lorraine, he would show up at an allegedly haunted house, paint a picture of the house, and then gift the artwork to the homeowners as a pretext to negotiate his way inside. Once they’d been welcomed in, Lorraine would often commune with the spirits, and the couple’s reputations as demonologists and ghost hunters began to grow.

In 1952, the Warrens created the New England Society for Psychic Research (NESPR), which still exists today. (The New England Skeptical Society, formed in 1996, would become one of the Warrens’ staunchest critics.) The emphasis on research helped the Warrens gain credibility in an era when interest in all things occult was growing rapidly. As their son-in-law Tony Spera writes on his website, “If you had nobody that would listen or help, you turned to the Warrens.”

A man holds a crucifix toward the camera while four people cower behind him.
Vera Farmiga as Lorraine Warren and Patrick Wilson as Ed Warren in The Conjuring 2 (2016).
Warner Bros.

Among the reported 10,000 alleged paranormal cases the Warrens investigated over their many decades of activity were a handful that made them famous — in no small part because they made sure to capitalize on their involvement afterward through book deals and publicity.

For instance, although the Warrens were among many paranormal enthusiasts who took part in investigating the Amityville incident, they were among the most celebrated, and their participation regularly features in the prevailing pop culture narrative around it. In case you need a refresher: In 1974, the famously creepy farmhouse in Amityville, Long Island, saw a brutal family annihilation when a young man living there, Ronnie DeFeo, murdered his parents and four siblings. Despite popular myth, DeFeo never claimed to be possessed though he did unsuccessfully plead insanity at his trial. Two years later, the Lutz family bought the (dramatically discounted) house, lived in it for a grand total of 28 days, and then abruptly left, claiming the place was the site of a malevolent haunting. One night during the frenzied aftermath of their exit, the Warrens visited the site and took a series of time-lapse photos of the scene, including one famous, very obviously fake photo of, supposedly, a ghost of one of the murdered DeFeo children. (The man seen in the photo is generally believed to be Paul Bartz, an assistant of the Warrens; for a thorough debunking, see this detailed YouTube video by a skeptic.)

The twist: The Lutzes made it all up to get rich. The alleged Amityville haunting has been repeatedly debunked and widely accepted as a hoax by just about everyone who attended the incident except the Lutzes and the Warrens, who insisted over the years that Amityville was the most haunted location they’d ever visited. They profited considerably from their devotion to the narrative; they served as story consultants on 1982’s The Amityville Horror 2 (a prequel about the DeFeo murders) and of course on The Conjuring 2, which references their Amityville exploration. Most significantly, the notoriety of Amityville helped boost their visibility and made them the go-to experts for all things paranormal.

Several other purported hauntings and exorcisms became indelibly associated with the Warrens. The 1991 made-for-TV film The Haunted, in which they feature as characters, adapts their version of the alleged paranormal case of the Smurl family. Their bestselling 1992 book In a Dark Place, co-written with author Ray Garton, describes their investigation into the alleged event that became the basis for the 2009 horror film The Haunting in Connecticut. In that incident, the focal family, the Snedekers, claimed to be seeing the ghosts of people whose bodies had formerly passed through their home, which had once been a mortuary. Eventually this evolved into demonic possession. However, according to a highly cynical interview Garton reportedly did with Horror Bound magazine, which was later republished on the Paranormal Studies & Inquiry Canada website, the Warrens not only knew the whole thing was likely a hoax, but told Garton to invent whatever details he liked to sell the story:

As I gathered all the necessary information for the book, I found that the accounts of the individual Snedekers didn’t quite mesh. They just couldn’t keep their stories straight.

I went to Ed with this problem. “Oh, they’re crazy,” he said. “Everybody who comes to us is crazy. Otherwise why would they come to us? You’ve got some of the story – just use what works and make the rest up. And make it scary. You write scary books, right? That’s why we hired you. So just make it up and make it scary.”

Garton further insinuates in that interview that the Warrens switched their specialty from ghosts to demons purely because of the popularity of The Exorcist:

Back when I was reading about the Warrens, they were ghost hunters. Every house they investigated had at least one ghost, and there was always a spooky story behind it. But after The Exorcist was so wildly popular, first as a novel and then as a movie, Ed and Lorraine stopped encountering ghosts and began to uncover demon infestations. And it seems that wherever they went, people were being sexually molested by demons. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Then there’s the infamous “devil made me do it” trial, the subject of the new Netflix documentary and the basis for the third Conjuring movie (actually titled: The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It), in which the Warrens participated in the alleged 1980 exorcism of a young boy named David Glatzel. During the event, which took place during the early years of Satanic Panic, a participant named Arne Johnson, the boyfriend of Glatzel’s older sister, challenged the demon to enter him — after which he allegedly became possessed and subsequently shot and killed his landlord, Alan Bono. In the following murder trial, the defense tried to claim demonic possession. The court refused to allow the defense, however, and Johnson was convicted of first-degree manslaughter. The Warrens walked away from it all with another bestselling book: 1983’s The Devil in Connecticut.

A grainy snapshot of an older couple and a young teen boy smiling for the camera in a wood-paneled room. The woman is holding a small black dog that is snarling at something off-camera.
The Warrens with David Glatzel.

This is all head-turning, to be sure, but the Glatzel family has subsequently been deeply divided over the events. David, who was 11 at the time, maintains that he was really possessed, and his older sister married Johnson and stayed with him until her death in 2021. Meanwhile, his older brother, Carl Glatzel, has consistently claimed over the years that the family faked and exaggerated incidents while the Warrens incited and encouraged them in pursuit of fame and wealth. In 2007, he sued the Warrens, claiming the book was made of “complete lies” and that the Warrens “concocted a phony story about demons in an attempt to get rich and famous at our expense.” The suit, which was ultimately dismissed, claimed that the Warrens depicted his real-life skepticism as antagonism brought on by Carl’s own demonic possession, a characterization that has followed him around ever since. In the new Netflix documentary, he blames them for tearing his family apart.

And on it goes. Every major incident the Warrens have been involved with over the years has ultimately been thoroughly debunked, assuming supporting evidence was ever provided to begin with. In several cases, the Warrens claimed to have video or photographic evidence that never materialized. In one 1990 incident, Ed Warren described “film I took” of a female spirit supposedly haunting a cemetery. The film was never made public, and the spirit allegedly turned out to be the work of a woman named Judith Penney, who was reportedly wearing a white bedsheet over her head.

Judith Penney’s alleged relationship with Ed Warren underscores that the troubling difference between reality and fantasy was the real inescapable horror all along

The counter-argument to all of this essentially goes like this: The Warrens did profit from books and public appearances, yes, but they never charged for investigating cases, they gave some of the profits of their books to the families impacted by the cases, and they didn’t make that much money. They seemed to believe in what they were doing, even if they exaggerated a little. Plus, even the skeptics who investigated them commented on how nice they both were. Surely such nice people can’t be scammers, right?

Yet underlying all of this debate, and undermining all of the Warrens’ supporters, is a much darker cynicism surrounding who the Warrens were — particularly the difference between their public and private faces.

Judith Penney, who is sometimes described as Ed’s “assistant” or his “liaison,” has alleged that beginning in the early ’60s, Ed Warren, then in his 30s, began grooming her. In 1963, when she was 15, Penney claimed Warren moved her into the Warrens’ house in Bridgeport and commenced a full-blown sexual affair, with Lorraine’s full consent, that lasted until just a few years before Ed’s death in 2006.

Penney’s alleged relationship with Warren came to light in 2017 via the Hollywood Reporter, which was critical of both the Warrens and the Conjuring franchise for continuing to valorize the Warrens after the allegations of Ed Warren’s predatory behavior first came to light in 2014. Both Warner Bros. and the Warren family have painted Penney as a vulnerable elderly woman being manipulated by bad actors into fabricating claims as part of lawsuits filed by various greedy parties against the Conjuring franchise. (Lorraine never commented on the allegations and passed away in 2019.) However, there seems to be some proof: Penney was reportedly arrested for delinquency because she moved in with Warren (though it seems no investigation into Warren for sexual predation was initiated), and her presence in the house gets a nod in a 1980 book about the Warrens, The Demonologist.

The alleged grooming lies at the heart of the conflict between the Warrens on paper and the Warrens in pop culture: The billion-dollar Conjuring franchise relies on the public’s affection for the Warrens as characters, yet that affinity stems from a belief in their real-life purity and wholesome sincerity that gets harder to sustain as we learn more about them. For instance, Lorraine Warren’s presentation as a chaste, deeply devout Catholic often catalyzes the cinematic rousting of the demonic on screen; yet in reality, Penney alleged, Lorraine was not only fully complicit in Ed’s abuse of her, but coldly pressured her into getting an abortion. Further, Penney alleged, Ed was both physically and verbally abusive to Lorraine throughout the marriage. “If you know any part of the truth, portraying them as heroes is reprehensible,” wrote feminist author Jude Doyle in his succinct takedown of the pair in 2021.

In other words, the public’s love for the fictional Warrens fuels growing interest and awareness in the real Warrens — which then, ironically, makes interest and awareness in the fictional Warrens harder to sustain. Not that Warner Bros. isn’t trying. Though the Conjuring films have increasingly leaned away from relying too heavily on the Warrens as central figures — witness spinoffs from The Nun to Annabelle — they still typically rely on the Warrens as spiritual guideposts. As Bethy Squires recently wrote for Vulture, “All this weight on the suspension of disbelief makes The Conjuring–verse one of the most politically and metatextually rich franchises in film history. It has the vibe of religious propaganda but the craven commercialism of Warner Bros. Discovery. Absolutely fascinating.”

A large doll with heavy makeup and two pigtails.
The cinematic Annabelle doll, modeled after the one infamously stored in the Warrens’ museum of evil artifacts.
Warner Bros.

The current Warren legacy, primarily carried forward by their son-in-law Spera, also goes a step beyond religiosity. On his website, in his summary of the Warrens’ appeal, he writes, “In a world that scoffs at ghosts and laughs at the unusual, the Warrens deliver a contrary message. That message is this: The fairy tale is true. The devil exists. God exists.”

The key phrase here isn’t about the devil or God, but rather the fairy tale. Even as Spera purports to usher fans into a world of supernatural terror, he knows that all of this is heightened, romanticized lore — not just folklore, but the story of the Warrens themselves as a couple of truth-seeking soulmates. The “fairy tale” here isn’t just that you can be purged of your mental illnesses with a mere sprinkling of holy water and some Latin, but that in a world full of doubters, you, too, might possibly find a higher calling and purpose alongside your spiritual other half.

This is all part of the lie the Warrens were so adept at selling. Whether you believe Penney’s version of the truth or not, and whether you believe in the Warrens’ sincerity or not, the preponderance of evidence suggests that the Warrens repeatedly fabricated claims of the paranormal where no evidence could ever be substantiated. (In case it needs stating, demons aren’t real.) Then they used those claims to gain fame and fortune.

And sure, perhaps they were doing it all as part of a glorified — and lucrative — religious fixation, spiritual roleplay with relatively harmless intentions. Yet as Judith Penney’s claims and the Devil on Trial documentary make clear, there are real people on the other side of those “harmless” intentions who are still troubled decades later by the chaos the Warrens fomented. Carl Glatzel, for instance, claims the Warrens made him the demon-possessed villain of their narrative of the Glatzel-Johnson incident simply because he tried to insist that the whole thing was a hoax — that is, “simply because I had a sane voice and knew the story was false since the beginning.”

Now, with pop culture happily passing along the myth of the Warrens, it gets harder and harder to speak the truth amid the lies.