More Options

Dispelling Demons: Detective Work at The Conjuring House

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 40.6, November/December 2016

In an article in the Skeptical Inquirer (Nickell 2014) and in the book American Hauntings (Bartholomew and Nickell 2015, 57–77), I analyzed the Perrons’ claims of demonic activity and showed that they were consistent with the effects of strong winds, misperceptions, schoolgirl pranks, vivid dreams, simple suggestion, role-playing, and other factors—including one child’s having had an imaginary playmate—and the effects of memory after some thirty to forty years. Then there was the influence of Ed and Lorraine Warren—“demonologist” and “clairvoyant,” respectively—who made a dubious career of convincing such troubled people that they were plagued by demons while seeking book deals and encouraging their coauthors, some admit, to fabricate elements to make the books “scary” (Nickell 2014, 23).

Figure 1. Norma Sutcliffe stands at her historic home, now made notorious by the movie The Conjuring (2013), which bears little resemblance to the truth. The barn in the background never saw a hanging.

Norma Sutcliffe, who with her husband, Gerry, acquired the property in 1987 and has lived there until the present (Figure 1), reports no demonic activity. Yet the two have been plagued by a “Conjuring-instigated siege of their property,” according to legal papers filed in their lawsuit against Warner Bros. Studios. Uninvited people suddenly appear on their property, while others make harassing phone calls at night. There have even been Internet discussions about destroying the eighteenth-century residence because “it’s so full of evil”—among other outrages (Sutcliffe 2015–2016).

Norma invited me to visit her eighteenth-century property in mid-June 2016 to see for myself much of the rest of the evidence behind the fictionalized and fantasized story. Guided by her, I toured the historic Arnold-Richardson house and property, visited old cemeteries in the area, and searched archival records in the Harrisville town hall and library—all helping to further dispel the falsehoods and exaggerations that have been used to promote this utterly bogus case of demonic activity and demon possession.

Revealing Tour

Norma walked me through the historic house—from cellar to attic—where I saw the locations of many occurrences reported by the Perrons that were supposed to give evidence of demonic presences:

Dark Passages. With what the Perrons would come to think was an ominous warning, the previous owner told Roger, “For the sake of your family, leave the lights on at night” (Perron 2011, 45). But Norma found that a light would have been needed downstairs so family members could get to the bathroom in the middle of the night from their far-flung bedrooms on two floors—requiring treks through multiple rooms that were dangerously dark. The man obviously had given practical advice—not a warning of supernatural entities, which, in fact, he made no mention of.

Apparitions in Carolyn’s Bedroom (now a study). Carolyn Perron once stirred from sleep to feel a “presence” and see a grotesque female figure looming above her while she was “immobilized” (Perron 2011, 185–187; Johnson 2009, 70–71). Clearly, she experienced a common waking dream that occurs between sleep and wakefulness, coupled with sleep paralysis since her body was still in the sleep mode. And this was not the only waking dream to occur among the Perrons (Nickell 2014; Bartholomew and Nickell 2015).

Opening Cellar Door. This had a habit of partially opening during the night, “Even after the family remembered locking it” (Johnson 2009, 48). Also when someone walked past the door, it might suddenly open behind the person’s back (Perron 2011, 149). Norma explained that the door was a bit warped so that the antique latch did not fully engage. Thus, temperature fluctuations (such as the house’s wood and metal cooling at night) could cause the latch to release and the door to pop open. (It was never actually “locked,” only latched.) Or when someone walked by, depressing the floorboard, the latch could again release and the door open. Norma and Gerry had the door fixed after they moved in and discovered the problem (Sutcliffe 2015–2016).

Locking Attic-Room Door. On one occasion, two girls were playing with a Ouija board in an attic room when they were unaccountably locked in—ostensibly by evil entities (Perron 2013, 24–25). Actually, the door has the same type of latch as the cellar door, and if the door had been pulled unthinkingly or had been allowed to swing after the girls entered, the latch bar would bounce upward as the door closed and then drop down and engage, “locking” the girls inside the room. No demons were needed.

Dead People in Walls. Young Cindy Perron claimed she could feel the spirits in her bedroom, insisting there were “seven dead soldiers buried in the wall” (Perron 2013, 279). However, the walls were only seven inches thick—we measured—so that could never have happened. (She also perceived “a whole bunch of people eating in our dining room” and several “little ghosts”—“native children”—playing in a nearby pine grove [Perron 2013, 69–70, 164–165].) Her claims were surely only the imaginings of a child who exhibited many of the traits associated with fantasy proneness (Nickell 2014, 23).

Fly Infestation! Andrea Perron wrote pages about “houseflies” in their home, appearing unaccountably “in the middle of deep winter.” There were “clusters of them huddled together, as if plotting the next move.” She concluded: “It was far more than infestation. It was manifestation.” In time, “inexplicably, the phantom flies disappeared,” she said, but years later Lorraine Warren “would arrive and explain that the flies were there with purpose and reason, as the harbingers of things to come.” Andrea would call them “the devil’s pets” (Perron 2011, 83–94, 265–266). In fact, clues to the real explanation are found in her own words (“winter,” “clusters,” etc.), which indicate that the infestation was probably caused by housefly-lookalikes called “cluster flies” that behave as described (see “Ask the Orkin Man” 2016). They are explained by science, not demonology.

Kitchen Phenomena. Several supposedly supernatural events occurred in the kitchen (now the dining room), “Considered one of the most active rooms in the house” (Perron 2011, 448). For example, Andrea once witnessed a pot of meatballs “go flying off the surface of the stove without the assistance” of her father. Actually, her mother disagreed, and in fact Roger Perron was at the time “seething with anger” and had not only “touched” the pot handle but even followed up by “kicking the pot past his daughter.” It seems absurd therefore to postulate a “kitchen witch” (Perron 2013, 235–238).

On another occasion, Carolyn started peeling an orange when she saw blood trickling from it. She first thought she had nicked herself with the knife but could find no wound. To keep her youngest daughter from wandering in and becoming frightened, she hastily cleaned the blood from the sink and floor and threw the “bloody orange” in the trash (Johnson 2009, 545–555). The most likely explanation here, I think, is that she had mistakenly gotten hold of a California blood orange. Some of these can resemble ordinary oranges but yield a deep, blood-colored juice—hence, the fruit’s name (“Blood Oranges” 2016).

Many more examples could be given, but these are sufficient to show how the Perrons repeatedly suggested supernatural explanations for mundane events—even before they found themselves under the spell of the Warrens.

Deaths Multiplied

Numerous people have allegedly died tragic deaths at the Arnold-Richardson house—an implication being that their unrequited spirits haunt the place or that they have somehow been transformed into malevolent entities or demonic presences. But what are the facts about the deaths of the people allegedly involved? Historical research reveals the eye-opening truth.

The central figure is a reputed witch named Bathsheba Sherman. Based on amateurish “research” of local records and lore and later confirmations by “psychics,” Carolyn Perron focused on Bathsheba, allegedly accused but acquitted of murdering an infant as part of a ritual sacrifice, “a deal struck with the devil” (Perron 2011, 298–299, 321–325). It was even said that Bathsheba had hanged herself in the barn near the Perron home (Johnson 2009, 43–46, 51; Perron 2011, 404). The time came when the “demons” were consolidated, when “Mrs. Warren referred to the God-forsaken spirit as the lone demonic presence in their house, calling her by name: Bathsheba” (Perron 2011, 328).

Figure 2. Norma Sutcliffe points out the cellar well where—according to unfounded accusations—Bathsheba Sherman supposedly drowned her children. In fact, she never lived in the house.

In fact, as we shall see later, no records are known to confirm any of the allegations against Bathsheba Sherman. She is buried next to her husband, Judson, in the Riverside Cemetery in Harrisville, where her tombstone records her date of death as May 25, 1885. The Burrillville town records1 give the cause of death as “paralysis.” Her obituary in The Burrillville Gazette (May 29, 1885) corroborates the cause as “a sudden attack of paralysis”—almost certainly a stroke. Her funeral service was conducted by Rev. A.H. Granger, a Baptist minister, one of various facts belying the claim that she was a witch.

But if Bathsheba Sherman did not hang herself in the Arnold-Richardson barn, maybe it was instead Susan Arnold, age ninety-three, as later claimed by Carolyn Perron (Perron 2011, xx, 102). Alas, despite the Arnold surname, her suicide was at her home elsewhere on Harrisville Road. According to a newspaper clipping (“Burrillville” 1866), Susan was the fifty-year-old wife of John Arnold. She locked herself in an attic storeroom where she was found hanging “from a wardrobe hook with a very small cord.”2

Other Arnold deaths wrongly assigned to the famous house include those of Prudence Arnold in 1849 and Johnny Arnold (son of Edwin, who did once own the property) in 1911 (Johnson 2009, 50; Perron 2011, xxi). Prudence was not yet twelve when she was murdered—her throat slashed by a jilted suitor—at the home of her stepparents in Uxbridge, Massachusetts (“The Inquest” 1849; “Uxbridge Tragedy” 1849). And a despondent fifty-seven-year-old John A. “Johnny” Arnold committed suicide by taking “a dose of paris green” (commonly used as an insecticide and rodent poison) “at his home near Tarkiln” (“Obituary” 1911)—not at the Arnold-Richardson house as alleged by Perron (2014, 182).

Still other alleged deaths on the historic house property have no known basis in fact. These include the infant whom Bathsheba Sherman allegedly killed, the wound “presumably inflicted with a needle” through the base of the skull (Perron 2011, 384–385; Johnson 2009, 51), and one or more of Bathsheba’s own children, whom she is “rumored” to have drowned in “the basement well” (Figure 2) (Johnson 2009, 51).

However, there is no available documented record of Bathsheba (or anyone else, for that matter) having killed an infant. Had any such documentation been known, it would likely have been recorded in what is known as The Black Book of Burrillville, a list of the unusual deaths in the township of Burrillville, from 1806, compiled by historians (Matthewson n.d.).

In light of what we have seen so far, consider the following quotation—in which every single statement but one is false:

The Black Book of Burrillville, the town’s former public records book, reveals that over the course of its existence the property has been host to two suicides by hanging, one suicide by poison, the rape and murder of eleven-year-old Prudence Arnold by a farmhand, two drownings,3 and the passing of four men who froze to death, in addition to other tragic losses of life. (“The Conjuring Filming Location” 2016)

One man, Jarvis Smith, did die of exposure on the property on March 20, 1901 (Matthewson n.d.). Otherwise, none of the previously listed deaths occurred there; neither was Prudence Arnold raped, judging from the official report (“The Inquest” 1849). And the Black Book—which I personally examined from beginning to end (Figure 3)—is not “the town’s former public records book.”

The problem is not the Black Book of course but of numerous shoddy researchers compiling bogus claims, misinterpretations made by them and others, and attributing the false information to sources they have misread or never seen.

Figure 3. Author researching a compendium of deaths, known as The Black Book of Burrillville. (Author’s photos)

Clues at Hand

Volume three of Andrea Perron’s wordy, repetitious, self-published trilogy, House of Darkness House of Light (2014), continues to relate anecdotes from the Perrons’ residence in the 1970s. The accounts provide clues as to what really took place.

In the first volume (Perron 2011, 243–244), much was made of a “solid blue tubular beam of light” that shot down the chimney into a room, then retraced its route and disappeared. Carolyn “would speculate about the effects of the light for many years to come.” Hearing about it, Lorraine Warren insisted that, writes Perron, it was supernatural, “manifesting as a beam of Cosmic Light traveling through space and time, then entering a specific portal; delivering a message received by mortal souls who have witnessed its affect [sic] yet remain unable to discern its meaning”—perhaps a “blessing” or a “curse” (Perron 2011, 244).

Reportedly, the phenomenon happened twice more (Perron 2011, 244). Current resident Norma Sutcliffe also once saw a blue light shoot across the bedroom, but she is quick to say that she does not attribute any such odd happening to the supernatural. And in volume three, Perron (2014, 332) now concludes that—while the light was the “most amazing thing” she ever saw in the old house—it was really “a tube of blue lightning.” That is consistent with the rare phenomenon of ball lightning that has been reported to enter houses, sometimes through chimneys (“Ball Lightning” 2016).

Elsewhere in volume three we read of an interesting apparition of a woman that appeared only to Christine at night and always in a window as an accompaniment to her reflection. She found it disturbing. Andrea gives a secondhand account (Perron 2014, 13–14):

. . . [S]he’d glance at a window, only to see the woman standing behind her own reflection in the glass. The spirit was always the same. So much taller than the youngster, she stood out in the crowd. . . . No optical illusions involved, no mistaking it for something else beyond the glass, this was an entity. As if standing at the mirror, there she was, right behind the kid, gazing at the glass with her . . . just watching Christine watching her.

Having researched something like this before, I think it was indeed an “optical illusion”: a double reflection of the girl, despite Perron’s haste to convince readers otherwise. Note that the second image was that of a female, taller, and always fixed in the same position relative to her. Everyone has seen his or her image reflected in a window, especially at night. Actually, both the front and back surfaces of the glass reflect an image, but these are usually so close together as to go unnoticed. Seeing a reflection from an angle could enhance the separation, but an even more intense effect can be produced by wavy old glass such as that at the Arnold-Richardson House. I had occasion to duplicate and photograph such an effect to explain Abraham Lincoln’s having once famously seen his double image in a mirror (Nickell 2001, photo on p. 11).

Quite another entity was partial to April, the youngest of the Perron girls, who was only five when the family moved into the house. Supposedly, April often communicated telepathically with a little boy named Oliver whom she could find “always upstairs in the chimney closet.” She believes he is still there (Perron 2013, 93–99). However, during their final week at the house in 1980, April spent a lot of time upstairs (Perron 2014, 183–184): “Day after day, for hours and hours she waited, speaking to him gently. . . . How could April bid him a fond farewell if he refused to come make his presence known? In spite of her prompting he was a no show on the stage of life and afterlife.”

What had happened? Such entities are unknown to science—except as the familiar “imaginary companion” with whom certain young children interact as if the entity is real. The phenomenon seems to be rather more frequent among lonely or unsociable children or those who have difficulty in their family relationships (Goldenson 1970, I: 597–598). April now says she often “felt like an abandoned child” who had to spend much of her time alone. Also, “our mother appeared depressed most of the time and our father was just angry” (Perron 2014, 339). It seems that, as typically happens with imaginary companions who become outgrown as the child finds different ways of meeting his or her emotional needs (Goldenson 1970, I: 598), “Oliver” simply went away and could no more be reclaimed than April could herself turn back time and become that little girl again.

Conclusions

The evidence mounts that the Perrons were a dysfunctional family. They were not preyed upon by “demons” (whose existence is not supported by science), but rather they believed in such due to religious and paranormal propaganda, as evident throughout Perron’s books. The merest noise or other odd happening was treated with the illogic of what is known as an argument from ignorance: “We don’t know what caused it, so it must have been paranormal.” A “demonologist” and a “clairvoyant,” Ed and Lorraine Warren, were anxious to convince them that demons—and a book deal—were lurking in the shadows. In the final volume of her trilogy, Andrea Perron (2014, 216) tells how Lorraine Warren eventually proposed just such a deal to her mother Carolyn.

Carolyn’s five daughters appear to have followed her lead: with the judgments and imaginations of children, they were soon competing for much-needed attention, reporting every “demonic” occurrence. When their father Roger doubted much of the phenomena and denounced the Warrens as “a pair of two-bit charlatans” (Perron 2013, 263), Carolyn felt that he questioned her integrity and the girls stood “squarely in her camp” (Perron 2011, 112; 2013, 195). Eventually, he seemed—at least after suffering estrangement and divorce—to acquiesce in favor of family harmony.

It is no wonder that hysteria came to reign and “demons” were ever-present, or that things have since quieted with the thirty-year tenure of Norma Sutcliffe, who does not believe in demons. Still, the quiet has been disrupted by the Hollywoodization of the old farmstead and the misrepresentation of truth by shoddy research, misperceptions, exaggeration, probable mischief, suggestion, and more, including the power of the almighty dollar. We see that the major “demons” were Ignorance, Superstition, and Greed, and they still hold some in their power.



Notes

  1. The death register (vol. 1A, 1854–1900) gives her name as Bathsheba Greene, apparently after a later marriage, but she is buried beside her first husband, Judson Sherman, with his surname.
  2. The determined woman had in the room with her a gun, knife, and vial of mercury. Also she had laid out on a bed in another room “all the clothes for her burial.”
  3. Andrea Perron (2011, 472–475) refers to two Bakers, a father and son, who “reportedly drowned on this property.” However, the Black Book (Matthewson n.d.) relates only a single Baker drowning, the suicide of Chester A. in 1949, “in Harrison Mill Pond.”

References

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.