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The Conjuring: Ghosts? Poltergeist? Demons?

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 38.2, March/April 2014

The 2013 scary movie The Conjuring was very loosely based on the story of Roger and Carolyn Perron and their five daughters who moved into a “haunted” Rhode Island farmhouse in January 1971. There, hysteria soon reigned, the flames of which were fanned by the infamous paranormal “investigators” Ed and Lorraine Warren. Now the Perrons’ oldest daughter Andrea is at work on a trilogy on the case called House of Darkness House of Light (Perron 2011, 2013).

The Conjuring movie poster

Dramatis Personae

The Perrons—he of French Catholic descent, she part Cherokee—married in 1957. In short order they had five children. (Writes Andrea, “It’s a Catholic thing” [I: 446].)

Roger Perron’s work took him on long road trips, a fact that harmed his marriage (he and his wife eventually divorced) and kept him largely a stranger to his children. He was skeptical of most of the occult phenomena reported by the six others. Andrea Perron (I: 112, 195) characterizes the situation as her mother’s integrity “being overtly challenged by disbelief, as though her opinion was entirely irrelevant, her recounting of events fraudulent.” The girls were “squarely in her camp.” (Roger eventually seemed to acquiesce, possibly to promote domestic harmony—something I have observed on occasion in my fieldwork.)

Carolyn Perron was highly impulsive. When she saw an ad for a colonial farmhouse at Harrisville, Rhode Island, she viewed the property and—without consulting Roger—made a down payment, even though they were strapped for cash. Effectively a lapsed Catholic, Carolyn became something of a New Ager. She “felt” and “sensed” various “presences” (e.g., I: 59, 63, 108), practiced dowsing for water (I: 146–147, 153), saw apparitions, and—once—seemed “possessed” (I: 156–159, 185; II: 355–363, 393). After one experience she developed a neck pain for which a doctor could find no physical basis (I: 355). She had fainting spells, typically in front of the fireplace and in Roger’s presence, and he would rush to save her from the fire (I: 249, 278, 279).

Like mother like daughter. “Each of the girls developed a real emotional attachment to the spirits in the house,” Andrea says casually (I: 454), “while bonding between dimensions.”

Andrea (or Annie) was the Perrons’ first child, born in 1958. No wallflower, when their previous house was vandalized and Andrea thought she knew who the culprit was, she pounced on the boy, pummeling him and breaking his nose. About three years later she was dismissed from a confirmation class when she had an “altercation” with the priest, challenging him about masturbation and homosexuality (I: 7–8, 260–261). Andrea sometimes saw “shadows” and heard voices (I: 192–193).

Nancy, the second daughter, was a “nine-year-old spitfire,” explains Andrea (I: 25). When spirits began to appear to the new residents, Andrea says of her sister, “Competitive in every way, Nancy had to claim credit for the first official sighting” (I: 213). A girlfriend once accused her of faking poltergeist-type occurrences in her presence, but friendship prevailed as the girl reconsidered (I: 484–485). Odd things happened to Nancy. For example, once becoming lost on the way home by taking an unfamiliar trail, she encountered an apparitional “family” (I: 131). She and a girlfriend played with a Ouija board, whereupon, she said, “The spirits talk to us through it” (II: 293).

Christine (or Chrissy), Andrea insists, “developed supernatural skills acquired only through the use of a sixth sense” (I: 121). On one occasion, “something wicked,” says Andrea, “had rudely awakened Christine in the middle of the night.” For months at a time, however, Chrissy would sleep undisturbed by “the presence” (I: 392–393).

The fourth child, Cynthia (or Cindy), “attracted supernatural activity unlike any of her siblings,” and, Perron adds, had “passive/aggressive tendencies” (I: 431, 438). She reported multiple apparitional experiences (I: 73–74, 223; II: 69, 164); the receipt of “telepathic messages” (II: 2); an invisible entity coming to her aid (I: 314–315); and entering “another realm of the house, another dimension” (I: 434). Her bed, she claimed, vibrated at times and, when she was thirteen, “levitated,” or at least rocked wildly once, while she screamed incessantly—although the rest of the family downstairs heard none of this (I: 435).

April, the youngest child, was only five, a preschooler, when the Perrons moved into the old farmhouse. April had what most people would call an imaginary friend. “Oliver” became her frequent “playmate,” and their communication was “telepathic” (I: 454; II: 95–97). The “baby” at home, April watched “as her sisters begged for the same type of attention she received all day, every day” (I: 1). When she did go to school, her behavior landed her from time to time in “parochial purgatory”—detention.

Then there were Ed and Lorraine Warren—the demon-hunting duo—who visited the home a few times. They were not sought out by the Perrons, as The Conjuring portrays, but simply showed up there one day. That it was on a night “just prior to Halloween” (II: 258) is typical of the Warrens. Seeking publicity, their modus operandi was to arrive at a “haunted” house that they soon transformed into a “demonic” one, in keeping with their own medieval-style Catholic beliefs. Again and again they were attracted to the homes of Catholics: the Lutzes at Amityville, New York; the Smurls at West Pittston, Pennsylvania; the Snedekers at Southington, Connecticut. Coauthors of the Warrens’ books have since indicated they were encouraged to fabricate elements to make the books “scary,” and at least one such writer has effectively repudiated the book he wrote. I appeared with the Warrens on Sally Jesse Raphael for a pre-Halloween 1992 promotion of their book with the Snedekers, and found Ed Warren a belligerent, manipulative character (Nickell 2012, 281–286).

Ghosts

Ghostly apparitions and pranks reportedly assailed the Perrons from the outset, sparing only the father, Roger. I read accounts of many of their apparitional experiences with an old familiarity. Such reports represent a common phenomenon well known to psychologists and skeptical investigators. Consider an early experience in the house when Carolyn was abed: she saw her dresser erupting in flames! Trying to react she found herself “paralyzed”—able only to watch the blaze and the sparks it shot off. Subsequently, however, she found not a singe to confirm what she had seemingly seen (I: 156–159).

She had clearly experienced a common waking dream, a type of hallucination that occurs in a state between being fully asleep or awake. This was accompanied—as often happens—by sleep paralysis, the inability to move because the body is still in the sleep mode (Nickell 2012, 41–43, 109).

Carolyn Perron had another characteristic waking dream in which, stirring from sleep and “sensing a presence” (a common experience), she opened her eyes and saw “The grotesque figure of a woman hovering above her.” Again “immobilized,” she watched the ghostly form approach as she reacted in terror, then—“It was gone” (I: 185–187). Andrea had a similar “nightmare,” saying, “It woke me up but then I couldn’t move” (I: 191). One doesn’t have to be in bed to have a waking dream. Eight-year-old Cindy was playing with toys on her bedroom floor, and “many hours passed without her recognizing it.” Then she saw the figure her mother had told the children about, and that Cindy had later seen “in a dream” (original emphasis). Now, in a “soft glow,” the figure emerged from the closet, and seeing it “instantly paralyzed Cindy” (I: 222).

Sometimes, however, Carolyn or the girls had an apparitional experience other than a waking dream. Andrea, for instance, during daily activity, saw “a family: a man, a boy and his dog, standing side-by-side, peering through the wall of her bedroom” (I: 473). Cindy, who exhibited many of the traits associated with a fantasy-prone personality, once whispered to her mother, “Mom, there’s a whole bunch of people eating in our dining room” (II: 69–70). On another occasion, Cindy saw several “little ghosts”—“native children”—playing in a nearby pine grove (II: 164–165). Apparitions tend to be perceived during altered states of consciousness. Many occur while the percipient is tired, in a relaxed state, daydreaming, or performing routine work—conditions in which, particularly with imaginative persons, a mental image from the subconscious might be briefly superimposed on the visual scene, rather like a camera’s double exposure (Nickell 2012, 110).

Poltergeists

In addition to ghosts, so-called poltergeist phenomena were common at the Perron farmhouse. Although the superstitious attribute such pranks and disturbances to an invisible agency, a supposed spirit called the poltergeist, history indicates that the occurrences typically center around one or more real mischief makers in a household, perhaps acting from hostility or just seeking attention. Many have been caught at their secret misbehavior, while, on the other hand, science has never confirmed the existence of a single poltergeist (Nickell 2012, 325–331).

A good example of an apparent little “poltergeist” at the Perron home occurred for a period when older sister Andrea set up after-school classes with herself as teacher, using an old oak-framed slate blackboard. However, she tells us that “some scoundrel spirits from the Netherworld did not appreciate having to attend school and would play nasty tricks. . . .” The chalkboard was a target, being repeatedly smeared, often even erased, and was eventually completely smashed. Although Andrea believed it was all of the girls’ “favorite pastime,” I suspect that one of them secretly resented the extra “school” time their big sister was subjecting them to. To such reports, Lorraine Warren gave a knowing smile and said, “poltergeists”—as if her “clairvoyance,” rather than her fantasy proneness, told her so. States Andrea (I: 448):

As one of the most active rooms in the house, the kitchen attracted someone, maybe more than one spirit. The telephone was frequently tampered with, as were several appliances. Antique bottles were routinely arranged and rearranged, moved from open shelves to windowsills then back again; someone had a flair for interior design! A pile of dirt left on the floor, the broom propped beside it, leaning against a chair; a message received then ignored. Household provisions spilled and splashed about the premises, chairs pulled out from beneath children; hair pulling was always a less-than-gentle reminder of their omnipresence. And the flies!

Investigators, however, will need more and precise evidence than the recollections of schoolgirls some thirty to forty years late in order to conclude who the real poltergeists were. But suspects are readily at hand.

We must ask, did the supernaturally inclined Cindy really have her hair “knotted” by a spirit? Was she actually “dragged to the floor”? Was she genuinely “trapped” in a wooden box in the shed (where she had hidden during a game of hide-and-seek)? Or was she deliberately play-acting or even just fooling herself? (Perron II: 53, 48; cf. Nickell 2012, 347). The late psychologist Robert A. Baker, my long time ghost-hunting colleague, found that sometimes events that were attributed to a pranking entity (such as a telephone flying off a table) could have a simpler explanation (the cord was snagged by the leg of a chair and pulled when the chair was scooted forward) (Baker and Nickell 1992, 135–139).

Witches and Demons

Even when the best evidence warrants a mundane explanation, Andrea still invokes the supernatural. For instance, her father was once angry about something and “touched a handle on the pot of meatballs” cooking in the kitchen, whereupon “it flew off the stove and hit the floor,” splattering him with sauce. Andrea insists she “saw that pot of meatballs go flying off the surface of the stove without the assistance of her furious father.” She wondered if the “Kitchen Witch”—a historic local figure named Bathsheba Sherman the Perrons obsessed on—was actually responsible (II: 236; I: 298).

Carolyn Perron had researched local history and found that Bathsheba had been charged with the murder of a child, although the case was dismissed. Nevertheless, people purportedly whispered she was a witch who had sacrificed an infant to the Devil (II: 299, 321, 404). But was Bathsheba instead—as Mrs. Warren told them, according to Andrea (I: 328)—“the lone demonic presence in their house?” Did Lorraine Warren really use her psychic powers to divine this? Apparently not: Carolyn Perron had told the Warrens about Bathsheba Sherman. Andrea says her mother let the Warrens have her notebook—filled with “meticulous notes” and sketches of frightening entities—but it was never returned (I: 404–405; II: 298–299, 314).

Mrs. Warren went on to suggest that some specific reported incidents—some knocking sounds, the house shaking—were not due to fierce winds but were instead “demonic in nature” (I: 53, 311, 313). Soon, whereas the Perrons had intended what they were telling the Warrens to be kept in confidence, they found otherwise when curiosity seekers began showing up unexpectedly. Among them were a “cluster of ghost hunters” and a man “with only one tool-of-the-trade in hand: his Holy Bible.” The Warrens, it turned out, were giving public lectures about the “case”; they even “named the town and described the farmhouse.” Carolyn Perron “felt utterly betrayed” by the Warrens (II: 324–329).

Nevertheless, their relationship culminated in Carolyn’s agreeing for the duo to hold what was supposed to be a séance. But it became an “infamous séance”—part ghost-hunting session, with lots of cumbersome equipment (which does not of course detect invisible beings), and part intended exorcism, including, in addition to a medium/shaman/holy woman and a parapsychologist from Duke University, a priest. Carolyn Perron told her husband nothing of this until the Warrens’ entourage showed up again at their door. Roger was livid.

As the “cleansing” ritual progressed, the suggestible Carolyn began to work herself into the state obviously expected of her. As the group prepared, she looked “unresponsive” with “vacant hollow eyes.” When the group held hands—except for the protesting Roger—Carolyn began to mumble incoherently. “A low-pitched guttural utterance emerged from deep within her being as her quaking body trembled in place.” Suddenly, “Carolyn’s chair lifted from the floor and flew straight back, traveling at light speed into the parlor. She hit the floor with such force everyone present could hear the air rushing from her lungs” (II: 346–358).

No doubt Carolyn—perhaps unaware—was simply acting like those folk who “go under the power” at a Pentecostal service, falling, twitching, or what have you, just as expected of them. The process is akin to stage hypnosis, involving suggestion, compliance, and role-playing (Nickell 2013, 206–209). Although Andrea suggests Carolyn’s chair was propelled supernaturally and perhaps even levitated, this simply smacks of her usual exaggeration. The chair, I take it, was scooted back by Carolyn and—far from levitating—acted in accordance with the laws of physics, indeed moving “straight back” until it stopped abruptly and tipped over.

Roger Perron did not respond like one who had witnessed a defiance of natural law. Commendably, he first rushed to his wife’s aid, and as Ed Warren attempted to pull him back, “He whipped around and punched Ed directly in the face, dropping him to the floor.” Seeing Ed’s nose bleeding, Lorraine wiped his face. Roger ordered the bunch out of his home, whereupon—when the ghost “techs” went to fetch their equipment from the haunted cellar—they discovered that one or two, ah, poltergeists had managed during the hubbub to smash every one of their ghost/demon-hunting devices. Two of the girls, Andrea and Cynthia, had secretly watched the dining-room séance “through a crack in the door,” putting them near the cellar door; Chrissy had, unbelievably, slept through it all; and April was in and out of her room. Apparently no one could or would say anything about the broken devices (II: 358–362).

After slamming the front door behind the group, Roger said what he really thought. As Andrea tells us (II: 362): “He bitterly resented the intrusion, the theatrical farce of a pseudo-intellectual endeavor: ritualistic nonsense. Fake. . . . Roger considered their little sideshow a charade. . . .” After an earlier visit of the demonological duo, Roger had asked his wife: “Don’t you realize when you’re being played?” Calling them “a pair of two-bit charlatans,” he warned, “They’ll only use you for notoriety, for their own purposes” (II: 263).

Conclusions

There were no magical beings—ghosts, poltergeists, witches, or demons—in the Perron home, only an erstwhile Catholic family given to occult beliefs. Influenced by folktales, their waking dreams, contagion (the spreading of belief from person to person by suggestion), and probable pranking by one or more of the five girls, the mother and daughters excitedly hyped their experiences and feelings into a full-blown case of haunting. Provoked by the father’s skepticism, the other six dug in their heels and were seemingly motivated to exaggerate and even create evidence.

It remained for a phony demonologist and clairvoyant to seek to capitalize on the family troubles, to emphasize demons over ghosts, and to plant the idea of potential possession. Although the horror film The Conjuring (2013) greatly exaggerates the case and suggests a possessed Carolyn Perron was freed of her “demon” after a wild exorcism, in fact it is apparent Mrs. Perron was simply caught up in suggestion and role-playing. Moreover, the Perrons continued to be plagued by nine spirits—or rather their belief in same—for several years to come (Elsworth 2013).


References

Baker, Robert A., and Joe Nickell. 1992. Missing Pieces: How to Investigate Ghosts, UFOs, Psychics, and Other Mysteries. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Elsworth, Peter C.T. 2013. “‘The Conjuring’ depicts family’s reported haunting . . . ,” The Providence Journal (July 17).

Nickell, Joe. 2012. The Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

———. 2013. The Science of Miracles: Investigating the Incredible. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Perron, Andrea. 2011, 2013. House of Darkness House of Light: The True Story. In two vols. (of a projected trilogy). Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.

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.