The True Stories Behind the Conjuring Movies

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There’s an old adage: Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. And the films of the Conjuring universe, based on the case files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, have turned that adage into a billion-dollar box office behemoth.

Based on the real-life trial of Arne Johnson, who claimed that the devil made him commit murder, the latest movie in the franchise, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, continues the tradition of using a true story as a jumping-off point for Ed and Lorraine to do battle with evil spirits. Of course, as the previous films in the series have done, The Conjuring 3 undoubtedly employs a heavy dose of creative license in order to make those events sing (or scream) onscreen.

With that in mind, here’s a look at how the hauntings depicted in The Conjuring films actually happened… with “actually” and “happened” both open to your own personal discretion. (We’ll avoid talking about the specifics of The Devil Made Me Do It for now out of respect for those who want to see the film first.)

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The Conjuring: The Perron Family Haunting

The original Conjuring opens with a pretty bold teaser in text: “Out of the thousands of cases throughout [the Warrens’] controversial careers, there is one case so malevolent, they’ve kept it locked away until now.” That would be the haunting of the Perron family of Rhode Island – Carolyn, Roger, and their five daughters. 

Though the events of the film take place over weeks, the supernatural phenomena the Perrons experienced occurred over years, beginning within “the first five minutes” of the family moving into their Harrisville farmhouse in 1971. That farmhouse was erected in the 18th century and was home to eight generations of one family, which itself was victim to many tragedies over the years. There were no less than eight deaths on the property, but locally the most infamous event surrounding the farm had to do with suspected devil-worshipper Bathsheba Sherman. Sometime in the 1800s, Bathsheba was said to have been caring for an infant who died on her watch. Upon inspection, the infant was found to have died from a needle to the skull. Bathsheba was exonerated, but the locals suspected from then on that she had offered the child up to the devil as a sacrifice, and they shunned her for the rest of her life.

Back in the present, a couple of years passed with the Perron girls seeing spirits, hearing voices in the night, and detecting a rotting smell that permeated the house. But it wasn’t just the kids allegedly experiencing the supernatural. By the time the Warrens got involved in 1973, mother Carolyn’s personality had begun to change. She was becoming obsessed with the history of the house, speaking and dressing in archaic fashion, and physically wasting away. It was the Warrens who made the connection between Bathsheba and the spiritual unrest at the farmhouse. This culminated in a seancé (not an exorcism, as the movie depicts) during which Carolyn was reported to have spoken in tongues and levitated in her chair. After the seancé, the paranormal activity was said to have died down, though never fully stopped. The Perrons moved out in 1980. The farmhouse still stands to this day.

The movie version (left) and the real Annabelle (right). (Credit: Warner Bros.)

The Conjuring: The Annabelle Doll

More than any other image, the Annabelle doll has become synonymous with the Conjuring franchise. Its smiling porcelain visage may be unsettling, but in fact, “Annabelle” was a run-of-the-mill Raggedy Ann doll that the Warrens claimed was possessed by an evil spirit. The cold open of The Conjuring adheres pretty closely to the true story: Annabelle was purchased as a gift for a nursing student named Debbie. Debbie and her roommate, also a nurse, started to treat the doll like a roommate herself, jokingly letting the doll sit with them at meals. Which was fine… until Annabelle supposedly put her arms up on the table.

The girls held a seancé to communicate with the doll and it claimed to be the spirit of Annabelle Higgins, a six-year-old who had been killed in a car crash outside their apartment. But after the seancé, the roommates said they started to experience signs of demonic infestation: knocking sounds, flashing lights, shaking furniture, and whispers. They allegedly even came home one night to find Raggedy Annabelle standing straight up in the hallway. All fairly harmless paranormal activity, but after the fiancé of one of the nurses suggested burning the doll, Annabelle is said to have gotten violent. The fiancé awoke from a nightmare of being choked by Annabelle to find bruises on his neck. After throwing Annabelle across the room, seven psychic wounds allegedly appeared on his chest. It was at that point that both an exorcist and the Warrens themselves were called in to cleanse the apartment and the doll. 

Ed and Lorraine took Annabelle back to their home as proof of the existence of demonic infestations and claimed that, over the years, skeptics have been punished for not believing in its power, even saying that one college student was in a motorcycle accident three hours after mocking the doll.

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The Conjuring 2: The Amityville Horror

Unquestionably the most high-profile of the Warrens’ investigations, Ronald DeFeo Jr.’s 1974 murder of his parents and four of his siblings was national news, with DeFeo claiming that “voices” were encouraging him to commit the killings. But it was the subsequent experience of the Lutz family, who moved into the DeFeos’ house a year after the murders, that elevated the murders into an American myth. George and Kathy Lutz took over the house with their three kids, not letting its gruesome history get in the way of an $80,000 asking price. Kathy did suggest having a priest bless the house, and upon entering an upstairs bedroom, that priest allegedly heard a deep voice tell him to “get out.” Over the next few weeks, the Lutzes claimed to have experienced strange smells and slime coming out of the walls, levitating in bed, swarms of flies, and an entity resembling a pig appearing in an upstairs window. As the story goes, on the 28th day after moving in, the Lutz family fled the house, leaving all their belongings behind.

A local news anchor reached out to the Warrens soon after and they entered the house with a camera crew. Ed went down to the basement alone and claims to have immediately experienced a kind of supernatural pressure pushing him down. At the same time, Lorraine experienced a vision of the DeFeos bodies and felt a similar pressure while upstairs with the crew. During this investigation, the Warrens’ crew took a photo which they claim shows the ghost of one of the murdered DeFeo children with glowing white eyes (an image recreated in The Conjuring 2). Lorraine later claimed that the male members of their crew experienced heart palpitations in the house and that nearly all of the men who investigated the haunting at that time went on to die of heart conditions (the leading cause of death in America is heart disease).

Perhaps in part due to the outsized amount of attention the successful book and movie versions of “The Amityville Horror” garnered, the haunting the Lutzes said they experienced has been routinely picked apart, with a lawyer for the Lutzes claiming to have made up the haunting with George and Kathy “over several bottles of wine.” Not only that, but DeFeo Jr. retracted his story about hearing voices and instead blamed both abuse and drug addiction as the cause of the murders.

The real Amityville Horror house. (Credit: Getty Images)

The Conjuring 2: The Enfield Poltergeist

The Hodgson family’s experiences with the supernatural in Enfield, England, serve as the primary inspiration for The Conjuring 2. In 1977, soon after sisters Janet and Margaret played with a Ouija board, single mother Peggy Hodgson claimed to have started hearing knocking noises in the night. This nocturnal activity escalated into reported levitations and once Peggy even said she witnessed a dresser slide across the floor. Over the years, close to 30 people reported seeing objects move in the Hodgson home, with the most credible account being that of a police officer called to the scene early in the haunting who reported seeing a chair move by itself. Janet, the second oldest sibling, supposedly experienced the most paranormal manipulation. Photographs exist which seem to show Janet being thrown from bed in the night and, in an interview with the BBC, she even seemingly channeled a deep-voiced spirit. That spirit was said to have been Bill Wilkins, a man who had died in the house prior to the Hodgsons moving in. Janet, speaking as Bill (or Bill, speaking through Janet, if you’re inclined to believe her), mentioned going blind and dying of a hemorrhage in the living room. Bill Wilkins’ son confirmed the details of his death at the time. 

The events that occurred at the Hodgson house have been fraught with claims that the family faked most of the occurrences, especially because of documented instances of the kids bending cutlery, which The Conjuring 2 directly references. The Warrens’ investigation of the Enfield poltergeist was greatly exaggerated for The Conjuring 2. Similar to the Amityville Horror, the Enfield case received a huge amount of media attention and many paranormal investigators were brought in to verify the haunting’s veracity, not just the Warrens.

Levitation? Or jumping on the bed? YOU be the judge. (Credit: Warner Bros.)

Pure Fiction

As for the rest of the major hauntings and artifacts depicted in the Conjuring universe… they’re bogus, or at least altered to the point of bearing no resemblance to what they’re supposedly based on. Aside from the history of the Annabelle doll presented at the beginning of The Conjuring, the rest of the creepy plaything’s background is entirely fabricated. Annabelle was not the creation of a bespoke dollmaker (Annabelle: Creation), the catalyst of a cult murder (Annabelle), or a beacon for supernatural activity (Annabelle Comes Home). Valak the Demon Nun, who appeared in The Conjuring 2 and later in The Nun spinoff, was director James Wan’s attempt to realize a formless spirit that Lorraine Warren said she encountered, but that spirit did not appear to Lorraine as a nun. While the name is borrowed from a “real” demon called “Valac,” that cherubic fiend shares no characteristics with the one presented in The Conjuring 2 or The Nun. Finally, The Curse of La Llorona centers on the “Wailing Woman” of Mexican folklore, a spirit known for killing children after drowning her own in life. None of the events of the film are based on documented claims of encounters with La Llorona.

Whether or not any of the hauntings depicted in the Conjuring franchise actually occurred is up to your personal skepticism, but one thing’s for sure: They’ve led to some popular movies. What’s your favorite horror movie based on a “true” story? Let us know in the comments.

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