Happy Halloween! I wanted to do something special this week. I thought it’d be fun to cover the true story behind something scary. But after starting to look for some movies to fit the bill, I quickly realized most of the scary movies that claim to be based on a true story also require a belief in something extraordinary—something supernatural.
Some stories are simply strange, and we don’t know the truth. The only thing we do know is what those who lived through the events claim.
With that in mind, and in the spirit of Halloween, let’s hear the tale of those who were involved and see how it compares to Hollywood’s reinterpretation of The Conjuring.
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- Snopes article debunking the Amityville case
- J’aime Rubio’s article about the real Bathsheba Sherman
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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.
While I’m not trying to say Hugh Glass or Tony Mendez lied about their tales, I merely want to point out that all stories require a bit of faith. We must first believe in those who lived through the tale. Although I’ll be completely honest and up front when I say I’m skeptical of tales involving ghosts and hauntings. But I’ll also be the first to admit there’s a lot about the world that I don’t know.
Like Ben Mezrich, I’m fascinated by stories that many people so quickly dismiss as fiction without so much as a second thought. Why is one person’s word any better or worse than any others? Why do we openly believe the stories we see on the mainstream media, like CNN, Fox or NBC and yet dismiss the stories of others? Especially since we all know the mainstream media isn’t always entirely truthful themselves.
If you’re like me, and you’re skeptical of the supernatural, I’m not asking you to start believing. All I’m asking is that we both give those who lived through these events the same credit we’ve given others with fantastic tales such as Hugh Glass, Tony Mendez, or any of the others you hear recount their stories each and every day. We may not believe in the paranormal, but those who are telling the stories believe them to be true. So I’m asking you to suspend your skepticism, and I will do the same—even if it be for the next few moments.
Some stories are simply strange, and we don’t know the truth. The only thing we do know is what those who lived through the events claim. Or do we? Is there some other documented fact that is being left out?
With that in mind, and in the spirit of Halloween, let’s dive into the tales that inspired Hollywood’s The Conjuring.
The movie starts off in a small apartment owned by two nurses by the name of Debbie and Camilla, played by Morganna Bridgers and Amy Tipton, respectively. We learn their story as the two, along with a fiancé, are explaining the story of a doll to Ed and Lorraine Warren. In the film, Ed is portrayed by Patrick Wilson and Lorraine Warren is played by Vera Farminga.
According to Debbie and Camilla, the doll’s name is Annabelle because it was possessed by the ghost of a girl named Annabelle Higgins. The girls gave Annabelle permission to enter the doll. But it’s not just any doll, it’s the kind of doll that has a face only Hollywood could love. And, according to Ed and Lorraine, it’s not possessed by a ghost—but a demonic entity. The Warrens take the doll and place it in their Connecticut home, which contains many other possessed and supernatural items.
All of this is based on an actual case that Ed and Lorraine Warren worked. The doll wasn’t nearly as creepy, though. In reality, the Annabelle doll is a typical Raggedy Ann Doll, so it doesn’t look very scary.
Sadly, Ed Warren passed at the age of 79 in 2006, so he never saw The Conjuring, but much of Ed’s accounts of the conversation portrayed at the beginning of the film seem to be true. The owners of the doll were two nursing students just like in The Conjuring. And just like in the movie, the Warrens claim the Annabelle doll did start off by doing little things. One of the students would notice it in one position in a room of the apartment, leave and come back to find it in a different position or part of the apartment. And there were messages lying around the apartment. They didn’t say “Miss Me?” though, but rather said things even more creepy like “Help Us” and “Help Lou”. Lou isn’t credited in the film, but the boy sitting next to the two nurses in the beginning was Josiah Blount, who is credited as simply “College Student”. Since Lou was one of the nursing student’s fiancé’s, that’s most likely him.
So that definitely is pretty scary. A Raggedy Ann Doll who is leaving messages? Yeah, creepy.
Here’s where I should mention a fairly important aspect that many doubters have pointed out: We only have Ed and Lorraine’s word for this. Oh, it’s true that the Warrens have an actual Raggedy Ann Doll locked up that they say is the Annabelle doll. You can find photos of it online, or you can visit the Warren’s former home in Monroe, Connecticut, which is now a museum, and see it in person. But many critics point out that there’s been no other proof of what the Warrens claim the Annabelle doll did. We have to take Ed and Lorraine at their word.
Back in the movie, the text that scrolls after being introduced to Annabelle claims that Lorraine is a clairvoyant, and Ed is the world’s only Demonologist recognized by the Catholic Church that isn’t an ordained priest.
It would seem the Warrens are the perfect pair to take on the supernatural. Once again, though, we have to take their word for it. If Ed is recognized by the Catholic Church, the Church certainly isn’t saying it. Which in and of itself seems odd that Ed claimed to have been recognized by the Church, and yet the Church doesn’t seem to recognize that. In fact, while many do claim that Ed was indeed recognized as a Demonologist by the Church, when you start to peel back the sources you’ll find the only source seems to originate from Ed himself. It seems to be the case of one side claiming something, and the other simply not claiming anything.
Except in this case, many others have taken up Ed’s torch and started claiming he was recognized on his behalf.
While this is my own speculation, because we simply don’t know the original source, it’s likely that this is all referring to something that happened after William Blatty released his book, The Exorcist, in 1971. The numbers didn’t reduce in 1973 when the film of the same name was a smash hit. When this happened, there was an influx of people wanting the Church to perform exorcisms. Tons of requests came pouring in through the 70s and 80s. The Church didn’t have enough priests to handle all of the requests and most of them were simply ignored.
But priests are human. And as humans, it’s really hard to turn down requests when people are essentially throwing money your way in exchange for your services. So a lot of priests would secretly perform exorcisms without the Church’s official recognition. One of these priests was named Father Robert McKenna, and he performed many exorcisms with the Warrens. So perhaps this is the recognition of the Catholic Church being referred to?
When he was interviewed by Michael W. Cuneo for his book, American Exorcism, Father McKenna said of the Warrens that their “…books are sensationalized, and you just can’t take it literally. I don’t like to be publicly associated with them.”
So it would seem even the priests that worked with the Warrens didn’t want to be associated with them. And so it’s not too far of a stretch to start to think that if a rogue priest didn’t want to be associated with them, the Church as a whole probably didn’t. Of course, this is all speculation. Since Ed has passed and unfortunately the Catholic Church didn’t reply to my emails, we probably won’t know any time soon—if at all.
Back in the movie, after being introduced to Annabelle and the Warrens, the movie cuts to the Perron family arriving at their new home. The Perron’s home was located in Harrisville, Rhode Island. Harrisville is about 20 miles northwest of Providence, which is the capital of Rhode Island. That’s also about 60 miles southwest of Boston, Massachussetts. Set on 200 acres of land, the home itself was an old farmhouse built in 1736.
While I haven’t visited the house personally to count them, some reports claim the house has 10 rooms while others say 14. Regardless, it’s safe to say the Harrisville home gave the large Perron family plenty of space. So it’s easy to see why Roger and Carolyn would want to move there with their five daughters.
The Perrons consist of Roger and Carolyn along with their five children, Andrea, Nancy, Cindy, Christine and April. And the actors portraying the Perron family in the film are Ron Livingston as Roger and Lili Taylor as Carolyn. The children are played by Shanley Caswell as Andrea, Hayley McFarland as Nancy, Joey King as Christine, the role of Cindy is played by Mackenzie Foy and finally little April is played by Kyla Deaver.
As you probably could have guessed, the Perron family is definitely real. And the characters are all real, all seven of them in the family. In fact, most of the Perron family were involved in the making of The Conjuring, and the producers of the film took advantage of this when marketing the movie. After The Conjuring was released, Andrea recounted one of the moments from when the family was moving into the house.
“I walked in with a box from the truck, and I greeted a gentleman that was standing in the dining room,” Andrea recalled. “He ignored me as if I was a ghost. Both sisters saw him, too; the two that followed me in. And the third walked into the kitchen and said, ‘That man in the dining room just disappeared.’ That was our first encounter.”
So it would seem as if the house was haunted from the beginning. In their first night in the movie, the children are playing a game of hide and clap when they stumble upon an old cellar that’s been boarded up. While we don’t know if the children actually discovered the cellar in this way, the Perron’s home did have a cellar that, according to Carolyn, had filled the family with a “sense of dread.”
But then, dark and dusty cellars filled with cobwebs tend to give of that vibe.
In the movie, things start to get creepy right away. The morning after finding the cellar, poor Sadie, the family dog, is found dead outside by little April. Then, that evening, Nancy and Christine are in bed when Christine’s foot gets pulled by something off screen.
Like the Annabelle doll, things are starting off slowly.
Just a few days later, the two girls are sleeping when Christine’s blankets are torn off. It wakes her up, and she’s frozen in fear when Nancy wakes up. Christine can’t speak, but she points.
“There’s something behind the door,” Christine manages to say. Of course, Nancy gets up to investigate. After a moment’s pause, both girls scream causing the parents to come running in and flip on the light. All of these reports are true; well, according to Christine and Nancy, at least.
As you might expect for something occurring in the two girl’s room at night, no one else was there. So we don’t really have any other word to go off of. But there is one key point to make here, and that is that the movie makes it seem like all of the events happened in a pretty short timeline. There’s not a lot of time passing between the Perrons moving into the home at the beginning of the film and then moving out at the end. So while the movie’s date of 1971 is correct for when the Perrons moved in, in truth, the Perron family lived in the old farmhouse for nine years, from 1971 to 1980. And according to the kids, this sort of taunting and terrifying events took place the whole time. So these events in the movie here aren’t really actual events that anyone can prove, but more an amalgamation of a number of events as told by the Perron family.
Desperate for help, soon after this is when Roger and Carolyn reach out for help in the movie. They find the Warrens at Massachusetts Western University in Wakefield, Massachusetts, and convince them to help.
Now just as a quick side note here, I couldn’t find any Massachusetts Western University. Try searching for “Massachusetts Western University” on Google. Be sure to put the quotes around it to get exact those words in that order instead of results for any of the words Massachusetts, Western and University. The only mentions are people quoting this part from The Conjuring. I suppose maybe it had a different name in the 1970s, but it seems very odd that there’s absolutely no mention of it online. So my conclusion here is that this is made up for the film. If you’re able to find something, let me know, and I’ll be sure to update everyone here on the show.
Back in the movie, Ed and Lorraine make their first visit to the Perron’s home and right away Lorraine sees dark spirits latched onto the family. They recommend an exorcism. But to do this, they’ll need to provide evidence to get the Church to approve it. So that’s what they need to do—gather proof.
Again, this timeline is very sped up. According to the Warrens, at first they thought the ghosts in the Perron’s home were harmless. For example, one of the apparitions the Perrons would see was a woman sweeping the kitchen. Nothing really came of this ghost, but periodically they’d find their broom had been moved to a different spot and a neat pile of dirt sitting in the middle of the floor.
Not all of the ghosts did the chores for the Perrons, though. In the movie, the youngest girl, April Perron, makes friends with a little boy named Rory. According to the film, Rory used to live in the home before being murdered by his mother. This crime was committed at the demand of a witch named Bathsheba.
Well, as you might imagine, when you live in a home that was built in the early 1700s there’s bound to be quite a lot of history. And with a lot of history also comes the chance that some of it was not so great. According to the real Perron family, one of the spirits the young girls befriended was someone they believed to be the ghost of a boy named Johnny Arnold. But for some reason they called the ghost Manny.
The Arnold family was one of the first owners of the home. There are stories that circulate claiming Johnny took his own life by hanging himself in the attic of the home in the 1700s. Still other reports claim young Johnny’s mother hung herself at the age of 93 in the barn. And yet other reports claim one of the Arnold children, Prudence, was raped and murdered at the age of eleven. Then the stories claim local authorities ended up charging a farm hand with the crimes.
We see these sort of reports being uncovered by the Warrens in the movie, and sure enough these are the things the Warrens claimed to have uncovered in their real investigation. As the Warrens are doing research behind the history of the home in the movie, they find that Bathsheba was one of the original owners of the home and laid a curse on anyone who owned it after her.
Just like in the movie, the real Ed and Lorraine Warren claimed to have looked into the history of the Perron’s home. I say claimed, because their results don’t match with history.
For example, if they had truly spent so much time researching the story, they must have read the Black Book of Burrillville. That’s an old book filled with odd deaths in the area, so surely if the story the Warrens claimed were true, Bathsheba would’ve been in there. And yet, she wasn’t. That begs the question, did they go into their investigation looking for answers? Or did they go into the investigation with answers, and looking for a story to back up those answers?
So what really happened?
Bathsheba Sherman was a real person. And most of those stories the movie mentions do exist now. By that, I mean they are stories that people have claimed are real long before The Conjuring was released. However, just because a story exists doesn’t make it historically accurate.
The truth is we don’t know what exactly the Warrens uncovered in their research, we only know the stories they claimed to find. And these stories are different than what the historical documents say actually happened.
While the movie wasn’t the first to make these claims, its popularity didn’t help uncover the truth. In the movie, the story is that Bathsheba killed her own child just before hanging herself and laying a curse on the property. And that’s what kicks off all of the evil, supernatural events we see on screen.
This part of the movie is based on claims that the body of one of Bathsheba’s children was found to have a hole in its skull, almost as if a needle had been thrust into the child’s head. According to the story, local authorities charged Bathsheba with manslaughter, and rumors started to stir that she was a witch.
While the movie may have been based on stories that are floating out there, it’s those stories that aren’t true. In fact, none of the claims of witchcraft or of her murdering her own children, or anyone else, are true.
The stories of Bathsheba being a witch were made up by people in the present day trying to find a shred of truth—just enough to build a story on. Since she was a real person who happened to live just a few miles from Massachusetts, and just a few decades after the Salem Witch Trials in the 1690s, it sounds like something that could happen.
Except, it didn’t.
Oh, and that whole thing about the clocks stopping at 3:07 a.m. because that’s when Bathsheba hung herself? Also not true. But it sure makes for a spooky story!
One of the historians who uncovered the truth behind Bathsheba is J’aime Rubio, who has a great article on her site that goes into some of the claims against Bathsheba. J’aime has done extensive research into the documentation, newspaper clippings, other historical documents, and interviews.
And her findings tell a completely different story than what we see in The Conjuring. Prudence Arnold wasn’t raped and murdered at the Old Arnold Estate. And Bathsheba didn’t hang herself like the movie claims, but rather died on May 25th, 1885 from paralysis due to a stroke. The local newspaper then offered a nicely worded obituary. Not something you’d expect for someone supposedly thought of as a witch.
The stories the movie are based on have just enough truth to make it seem correct at first glance. There’s real people, like Bathsheba, and real places, like the Old Arnold Estate. J’aime’s book called Stories of the Forgotten: Infamous, Famous & Unremembered, offers some great, well-researched documentation on the real history. I’ll make sure to put a link to J’aime’s article and book in the show notes.
For The Conjuring, it’s fairly obvious that most of these little details and facts were filled in for the sake of the film. Where many believe there to be seemingly random dots, they were masterfully connected to tell a terrifying tale on the big screen.
As the film starts to climax, a bunch of things happen that—well, didn’t really happen in real life. For example, in the movie, a couple of the more prominent ghosts are Rory and Mrs. Walker. According to the film, Rory was killed by his possessed mother, Mrs. Walker. Then she hung herself after realizing what she’d done. In the movie, Carolyn meets the ghostly Mrs. Walker in the old cellar.
But in truth there’s no record of a Mrs. Walker and any of these events at the farmhouse.
This particular story is most likely based on the legend of Johnny Arnold, and then his mother, Susan, who hung herself in the barn—which we learned about earlier. Of course, this isn’t true, either. But that didn’t stop the story from growing. And that’s really what a lot of the movie’s ending is based on—stories that have been made up and then passed on and extrapolated.
Everything in the movie comes to a happy ending when Ed Warren ends up doing an exorcism of the house on his own. Well, he’s helped by Lorraine and Roger Perron, but Ed does the exorcism of Carolyn without the help of a Catholic priest. It works just in time for the sun to rise. As the Perrons stumble out of the house, Ed and Lorraine look on as they see the restored family. It’s a happy ending.
As we learned in the beginning, the timeline was extremely rushed in the film. What seems to take just a few days, in truth was years. The Perrons lived in the old farmhouse until 1980—nine years after they moved in. Everything in the movie boils down to whether or not you believe the only witnesses who claim to have been there. Namely the Warrens and the Perrons.
When the movie was released, the Perron family swore that the events in The Conjuring were true. According to Andrea, The Conjuring “is a fair reflection of the chaos and danger we faced at the farm.”
Andrea even wrote a three-part series of books about her family’s experiences in their home. The series is called House of Darkness House of Light, and you can find them for sale online.
Unfortunately for believers of the events in The Conjuring, a major blow to credibility happened when it came to light that The Amityville Horror, another of Ed and Lorraine’s cases that turned into a Hollywood blockbuster, was revealed to be a hoax.
According to Snopes.com, the movie was based on a book that writer, Jay Anson, was hired to write a story that was based on supposedly true events.
The Amityville case involved the Lutz family. And just like the Perron family, after the Warrens were called in everything seemed to be okay afterward. No one living in the Amityville home since the supposed events have ever claimed anything happening.
And the same is true for the Old Arnold Estate in Harrisville, Rhode Island. In 1988, shortly after the Perron family moved out, the Sutcliffe family moved into the Old Arnold Estate. And they lived in the old home peacefully until 2013. All of that changed when The Conjuring was released.
“We haven’t slept in days,” Norma Sutcliffe said. “We wake up at 2:00 in the morning and there are people with flashlights in our yard.”
Norma and her husband have reported that they’ve never seen any ghosts or hauntings in their 25 years in the home since the Perrons moved out and The Conjuring was released. But ever since the movie came out they’ve lost their privacy. And according to Norma, even Andrea Perron has had regrets writing her books about the hauntings.
“This is affecting us physically and emotionally and I don’t know long we can take it,” Norma explained in an interview with a website named The Call. “All it takes is one crazy to do something. There are already threats on the Internet that ‘wouldn’t it be fun to break into that house?’ Our barn is very vulnerable and there is a big story connected to the barn about supposed hangings.”
In the end, and as I’ve reiterated throughout this entire episode, any story relies heavily on belief of those who claim to have lived through or witnessed the events instead of the historical documentation and facts. For the spooky story behind The Conjuring, that means believing Ed and Lorrain Warren, as well as the Perron family.
Well, do you?