In 1971, the Perron family moved into a big old farm house on Rhode Island. What happened to them there was apparently so terrifying that the world’s most famous “demonologists”, Ed and Lorraine Warren, decided to keep silent about the haunting…until now.
At least that’s the way The Conjuring, directed by Aussie James Wan (Saw, Insidious), has been marketed.
Putting aside whether this so-called true story is a load of crap (and I have my views on this, which I will share after this review), The Conjuring is, hands down, the best haunted house/demonic possession movie I have seen in years. We’ve had a lot of similar films in recent years that have been good but flawed — from the aforementioned Insidious to The Possession to Sinister to Mama to The Haunting in Connecticut (also a Warrens’ case) — though none are as genuinely scary, consistently well-crafted and overall satisfying than The Conjuring.
It’s a testament to the skill of Wan, who has to surely be Australia’s best commercial film director right now (no offense to “all-style, little substance” Baz Luhrmann). He picks up what is a essentially boiler plate concept — a family moves into a new home, strange things start happening, they escalate, and they eventually seek outside help, resulting in a climatic final confrontation — and turns it into an absolute frightfest. You know when the audience gets so frightened and nervous that they have to laugh after scary moments just so they can take the edge off the tension? The Conjuring is one of those movies.
In fact, the first gasp in the screening I attended came from the very first image. And the tension is sustained pretty much all the way through. Wan pulls out just about every trick in his horror director’s bag to keep the audience on the edge of their seat. To be honest, there is nothing particularly original or inventive in what he does — he just does it in a highly effective way, gradually building up the dread, creepiness and suspense and infusing it with the occasional “boo” moment, then milking your anticipation for more. You may scoff at some of the old tricks Wan employs (for example, he took the “doll” a little too far for my liking), but he is so relentless in his attempts to unsettle you that at least some of them have to work.
That said, there are some notable concepts in The Conjuring that set it apart from your average haunted house flick. The first is that the film is centered more on the ghost hunters, the Warrens, than the family being haunted. The screen time is probably roughly equal, but you get the feeling that the story is more about the Warrens (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) than the Perron couple (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their five daughters.
The second is that Wan seems to have figured out where to draw the line in deciding what to show audiences and when to show it. Horror movies tend to be scary because of what you don’t see rather than what you do see on screen. It’s that anticipation and the fear of the unknown that gets to us. Usually once the ghost/demon starts appearing and you can see them clearly the fear melts away. It’s a mistake that films such as Sinister and Insidious made, but Wan has cleverly avoided the pitfall this time around. You see just enough, but not too much, and not too soon.
The third is that, unlike most horror movies, The Conjuring has an excellent climax that keeps up the tension and doesn’t dissolve into silliness. Again, there is no new ground being broken here in terms of the plot, but it’s the execution that helps keep the film afloat all the way until the end.
Another point worth noting is that it was refreshing to see a family who isn’t sceptical. One of the most annoying things about haunted house movies is that no one ever believes the poor victims at first. In The Conjuring there is none of that crap. If my daughter tells me some crazy shit and I experience some crazy shit, I’m going straight to the ghostbusters.
If Wan deserves praise for his direction then the actors deserve recognition for their performances. It’s never easy to pull off a haunting victim (or demonologist), though the foursome of Wilson, Farmiga, Livingston and Taylor — all veteran actors — do a commendable job of making us believe in what they are experiencing. Taylor, in particular, is remarkable as the vulnerable mother and the most tormented of the bunch. I should also mention Shannon Kook, who plays the Warrens’ assistant, and John Brotherton, the police officer who serves an important function as the provider of comedic relief. Both of them are positive additions.
If I have any complaints about The Conjuring it’ll have to be the stupidity of the Warrens. For a couple known as the world’s most renowned demonologists (with a whole room of trophies, mind you), they were sure slow in figuring out what the heck was going on. I mean, come on, it wasn’t that hard to see what the demon was planning.
But all things considered, that’s a relatively minor quibble. Simply put, The Conjuring is the scariest, most well-rounded and satisfying “conventional” horror movie to hit the big screen in a very long time. Despite its stereotypical plot, cookie-cutter progression and standard fright tactics, The Conjuring is a visually impressive and surprisingly effective haunted house flick that will be hard to top as the best horror film of the year.
4.25 stars out of 5
PS: OK, so back to Ed and Lorraine Warren. This ghostbusting couple has given us The Amityville Horror, The Haunting in Connecticut and now The Conjuring, so we at least have to thank them for that. But are they the real deal or are they just a couple of convincing fraudsters? After doing some research on The Haunting in Connecticut(and I wrote a lengthy post about it here), my opinion is that they fall somewhere in the middle, but probably leaning closer to the latter.
I just think there are real doubts on whether Lorraine was a real clairvoyant as she professes, and there have been some damning claims about their tendency to sensationalize the hauntings for publicity. You have to be curious why every haunting they attend to ends up having a demon who wants to anally rape someone in the family. My guess is that there was probably something in the Perron house that wasn’t quite human, but after the Warrens got there it suddenly became 10 times worse, and once Hollywood got its hands on the story it became 10 times worse than that. And look, if you’ve been terrified by a ghost, the least you could do is make a buck out of it.
Yesterday I watched the ‘based on the true story’ film The Haunting in Connecticut.
First, a short review
To be honest, despite the poor reviews the film was received, it wasn’t all that bad. It was just average, and for a supernatural horror film, ‘average’ is pretty good these days. In my opinion, it was one of those rare horror films that actually got better as it progressed. In the first half or so, the attempted scares were your stock standard ‘boo’ moments and the bloody, visceral shocks you’d expect to see in any regular PG-13 horror. I don’t know why, but for some reason I found myself actually frightened a few times in the second half, and that’s a rarity for me nowadays. I even forgot how insanely and ridiculously stupid and non-sensical (even within the confines of the film’s own logic) everything was. And for that, 3 out of 5 stars!
Fact or Fiction?
After I got home, I started wondering just how much of the film was really ‘based’ on the true story? Was it even a true story to begin with? Which characters existed and what parts of the film actually happened in real life?
And so I turned to the trusty old Internets for some answers. The results were…interesting.
The film is ‘based’ on supposedly true events that happened to the Snedeker family in 1986 when they moved into a house that turned out to be a former funeral home. Naturally, spooky stuff started happening. Their oldest son, who was 13 at the time and being treated for Hodgkin’s disease (the ‘Matt Campbell’ character from the movie) started behaving strangely and their 17-year old niece said she was fondled by unseen hands. The mother, Carmen Snedeker (the ‘Sarah Campbell’ character from the movie), also claimed to be the victim of demonic sexual assaults. There were many other alleged disturbances (such as water to blood, putrid odours, crucifixes going haywire or disappearing etc) but these were the most serious.
Eventually, Carmen Snedeker brought in Ed and Lorraine Warren, the infamous old ghostbusting couple that covered the ‘Amityville Horror’ haunting. The Warren’s nephew, John Zaffis, also joined in for observations. They became convinced that the house was haunted by demons. A Catholic priest was brought in and the spirits were exorcised, and things went back to normal after that. The Snedekers left two and a half years after they moved in.
With help from the Warrens, the Snedekers’ story was first brought to light by the book In a Dark Place: The Story of a True Haunting by Ray Garton, a horror fiction writer, and was also the subject of an episode of the TV show A Haunting titled A Haunting in Connecticut. From what I’ve read about the book and the TV show, both were incredibly frightening.
I wanted to know how credible the true story behind the movie was, so I dug a little further.
What John Zaffis said
John Zaffis is the nephew of the Warrens that were brought in by the Snedeker’s for help. Here is the full article he wrote about the Snedekers and their funeral home house.
In short, he discusses some of the background and events detailed in In a Dark Place and talks about his own experiences in the house. Here’s an extract:
This is the case where I had my first encounter with a full formed demon and it is something to this day that I will never forget. I was sitting at the dining room table when it started to get ice cold in the room, at this point I knew something was getting ready to happen. I tried to get the other researchers or family members to respond to me by calling out to them but they did not. I knew at this point this was meant for me to experience alone. I had gotten up and walked into the hallway and looked up at the top of the stairs, I began to smell something like rotting meat which was all over this area and it was unbearable. As I continued to look up the grand staircase, I started to see something begin to form, as it slowly descended down the staircase. It was the ugliest thing I had ever seen, it had come to the last step on the staircase and it said to me “do you know what they did to us, do you know”? That was enough for me, I left the home and did not return for three days. I do not think I’ve ever encountered anything that has scared me as bad as that, I would not speak to anyone for days after the encounter, but I did go back to work on the case, the family needed our help.
Sounds pretty scary, right?
What Chip Coffey said
Chip Coffey is a self-proclaimed ‘psychic, medium, spiritual counselor and paranormal investigator’ who became involved with the Snedekers when the TV show was made. Here’s his blogger site.
Coffey also wrote an article about the haunting in Connecticut titled ‘Demons from the dark’ which mirrored a lot of the things said in Zaffis’s article. Here it is anyway.
I must say, had I only seen Zaffis’s and Coffey’s articles, I would have found it all pretty convincing (maybe not convinced, but it would have been convincing). But Carmen’s website smells funny – from the smiling ‘star-shot’ portrait to the shameless promotion of herself, advertising for supernatural investigators (including Zaffis), her touring lectures about the hauntings and (here’s the clincher) the brand new book on the haunting she is working on with Zaffis and Coffey! Now they don’t sound so convincing anymore.
Carmen also mentions the feature film, which she believes “will bring a new understanding of what went on in the house”. Clearly she had no idea of what the Hollywood producers had in mind.
From Carmen’s website, the Snedekers’ story began to completely fall apart.
What Garton said about his own book
From first publication of In a Dark Place, author Ray Garton has been savaging his own ‘non-fiction’ book and the Warrens. I’ve found numerous examples of him condeming what he wrote as, effectively, made up. By him. Fiction.
Probably the most complete account comes from his interview at Horror Bound Magazine (see entire interview here – worth a read because it’s quite funny and interesting – and has some good advice for aspiring writers at the end):
Q: You’ve written both fiction and non-fiction. In one case in particular, a book that was labeled “non-fiction” should have been labeled “fiction” (through no fault of your own). For those Horror Bound readers who have a huge interest in the paranormal and who have followed the careers of Ed and Lorraine, what would you say?
A: Ah, the Warrens. Ed, of course, has gone to that great haunted house in the sky, but Lorraine is still around. Back in the early ‘90s, I was offered a chance to write a book for Ed and Lorraine. As a kid, I used to follow their ghost-hunting exploits in the National Enquirer. I thought it sounded like a fun job, so I took it. I went to Connecticut and spent time with the Snedeker family. They’d moved into a house with their sick son and learned the place used to be a funeral home. They claimed all kinds of spooky things had happened in the house. They’d called in Ed and Lorraine, and after investigating, the Warrens announced that the house was infested with demons. Some of these demons had anally raped members of the family.
A little aside here. 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?
Carmen Snedeker was an unemployed wife and mother who was running an illegal interstate lottery business, about which she asked me numerous times to tell no one. I never met the son, who was said to be ill, although I was allowed to talk to him on the phone once, supervised by Carmen. When the boy began to talk about drugs and told me that he didn’t hear and see strange things in the house once he began taking medication, Carmen ended the conversation. 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.” I didn’t like that one bit. But by then, I’d signed the contract and there was no going back. I did as Ed instructed – I used what I could, made up the rest, and tried to make it as scary as I could. The book was called In A Dark Place: The Story of a True Haunting.
As soon as it was published, I started telling my story, knowing full well that it would not be too popular with the Snedekers or the Warrens. I was right. Carmen Snedeker, now Carmen Reed, has denounced the book. She claims they had little involvement in it, which is a lie. Since the release of that book, the Discovery Channel has aired a “re-enactment” of the story called A Haunting in Connecticut, which, of course, presents the Snedekers’ story as hard cold fact. Now a feature film based on the story is going to be released soon called The Haunting in Connecticut. I suspect the movie will begin with the words “Based on a true story.” Be warned: Just about anything that begins with any variation of this phrase is trying a little too hard to convince you of something that probably isn’t true. Last I heard, Carmen is working on a new book, to tell the real story – apparently they’ve settled on one. I don’t know if Carmen runs her little interstate lottery operation anymore, but now she’s claiming to be some kind of psychic healer. She says she’s always been a psychic healer, although I didn’t hear anything about it in Connecticut back in the early ‘90s.
These days, John Zaffis is the “investigator” being used to make this cockamamie tale look like something remotely resembling legitimate. Zaffis is the nephew of Ed and Lorraine Warren. He was around back when I was working on the book. He didn’t do much, just stood around. Lorraine told me he was learning the business. He told me a story about something he saw in the former funeral home – some kind of “fully formed demon,” or some such nonsense.
During my stay in Connecticut, Ed, Lorraine, and Zaffis repeatedly told me they had videotape of supernatural activity they’d shot in the demon-infested former funeral home (which I never visited because the current owners claimed the Snedekers were full of it and wanted nothing to do with the Warrens’ little dog and pony show). They assured me I would see that footage. Throughout my visit, they kept telling me the videotape was coming, that they were having trouble finding it, but they’d show it to me. By the end of my visit, there had been no sign of any videotape. After my experience with the Warrens, I talked to a couple of other writers who’d written books for Ed and Lorraine – and their stories were nearly identical to mine.
I found another message board thread on dejanews where Garton posted, and he had the following things to say about the Warrens:
I spent several days with the Warrens during that time. I spent time with them in their home and ate with them and went on long drives with them. Of the two, Lorraine is the sanest. She’s an “enabler”. Years ago, before their career in the “supernatural” began, Ed suffered from mental illness. It was bad enough to keep him from working, and the only way he could make money was to hand paint haunted houses on dinnerplates and sell them door to door. Once Ed decided that Lorraine was “psychic”, selling the haunted house plates eventually led to “investigating” haunted houses. At first, they found “ghosts”. But after the tremendous success of THE EXORCIST — both the novel and the movie — ghosts suddenly became demons. If you go back and trace their career, you can see the sudden change. Almost overnight, all ghosts were really demons trying to possess residents, and sooner or later, the demons anally raped someone. It never fails, every damned time, the Warrens’ demons bend somebody over a bed or a sink and beat down the back door, if you know what I mean. From my time spent with the Warrens, I learned from Ed that their job is not really to “investigate” so much as it is to take the stories told by these families — most of whom are dealing with REAL problems like alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, and/or domestic abuse, problems that are buried by their supernatural fantasies, which are supported and made tangible by the very eager Warrens — and arrange them into a saleable package that will make a good book, and hopefully a movie.
Not only are the Warrens frauds, not only do they give a bad name to people who are SERIOUSLY investigating paranormal phenomena, I think they’re EVIL because of the way they exploit families already deep in despair and ready to shatter. I can ignore a simple con job … but the Warrens are actually damaging people who are already damaged, who are desperate and vulnerable, using them for the sake of a book, maybe a lucrative movie sale, or another story to add to their traveling dog and pony show. Before I worked on that book, I’d followed the adventures of Ed and Lorraine Warren faithfully since I was a little boy. I was excited to work with them. Boy, was that a big disappointment. It’s nice to believe there’s a smiling, grandparently couple out there chasing demons … but not when you know they’re hurting people for the sake of publicity and the almighty dollar.
In it, Nickell discusses the background of the Snedeker family and why he thinks it was all made up for media exploitation. It’s particularly interesting because Nickell was actively involved in trying to debunk the story when it first came to light and was being discussed on talk shows. There are plenty of quotes from people who lived around the Snedekers who claim it’s all fake, and suggestions of how some of the paranormal activities could be rationally explained.
Concluding thoughts – so what actually happened?
After reading Garton and Nickell, I was ready to write the whole Snedeker haunting off as shameless attention-seeking and media exploitation. But then I came across this message board, where two posters (brothers) claimed to have lived in the house after the Snedekers. Well, the problem is that their identities can’t be verified, but what they’ve written seems genuine enough. And according to them, the house wasdefinitely haunted, just not to the extent grossly exaggerated by the Snedekers. There were voices, loud footsteps, swinging doors – but that was about it.
As someone who believes in ghosts, a former funeral home would be a prime candidate for a haunting. And as someone who has done a fair bit of reading on ghosts, I understand that different people have different sensitivities to these types of things. Further, people who are fit and healthy are less likely to experience things than people who are ill. So it is possible that the house was haunted, and perhaps the Snedekers, with their sick son and multitude of problems, experienced more of it than other people. But just about everything else points to shameless exploitation for a bit of money.
My guess is that there were probably a few spooky things that happened at the house (paranormal or not), but nothing as dramatic as they claim (and certainly none of the crap in the movie). But when the Warrens got involved, things just spiralled out of control and it became nothing more than a money-making venture. Assume you believe in ghosts for a minute – okay, it’s a funeral home, lots of dead bodies, so maybe a lost soul here or there – but why all these raging demons who like to molest people? In real life (unlike in the film) there were no explanations offered, no dark history of torture or mutilation uncovered, no ancient burial ground or corpses in the cellar.
And come on, if you had something as terrifying as demons trying to anally rape you, would you stay in the house for another second? I don’t care if you don’t have another dime in the bank – you wouldn’t just keep the lights on and go back to bed!
(SPOILERS!) FACT VS FILM (SPOILERS!)
Read on if you have seen the film or don’t plan on seeing it.
After looking into the facts behind the story, it seems there were only a few similarities between the film and the true story on which it was based. We know that a family did move into a house that was formerly a funeral home, and they did it to be closer to the treatment facility for their son, who was suffering from cancer (Hodgkin’s disease). We also know that the son did undergo some drastic changes in personality, and he would eventually recover, but he was probably nowhere near death as suggested in the film. There were probably some alcohol and financial problems too.
Apart from that, just about everything else was different. The Snedekers had 3 sons (aged 13, 11 and 3) and a 6-year old daughter. 2 nieces would move in with them later. There was another tenant living upstairs. Most significantly, there was no elaborate back story about a young medium boy who conducted seances, no stolen graves, no dead bodies stashed away in the basement, no dying reverend who happens to know everything, no carvings on the body, no box of human eyelids hidden under the floorboards, and certainly no burning down of the house.
As for the ghosts and paranormal events that happened in the house, only a few people know the truth, but the one thing we know for sure is that they were nothing like what was depicted in the movie. ‘Based on the true story’? Hardly. Maybe more appropriate would be: ‘Inspired by events that may or may not have happened’ – but I guess that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.