A Skeptical Look at “The Conjuring 2”

June 21, 2016

The new horror film The Conjuring 2 is, like its predecessor, supposedly based on the “true case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren,” a real-life married pair of self-styled demonologists involved (however peripherally) in several high-profile haunted house reports, mostly in the 1970s and 1980s. It reunites writer/director James Wan with Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, reprising their roles as Ed and Lorraine Warren, respectively.

The first Conjuring film was set at a rural Rhode Island farmhouse in 1971, but this new film begins with a wholly unrelated–and far more famous–case, that of murderer Butch DeFeo who killed his family in their Amityville, New York, home. The killings really happened, and DeFeo’s defense lawyer famously tried to claim that DeFeo should be found not guilty because ghosts made him do it. The jury saw right through this flimsiest of Devil-made-me-do-it defenses but the Warrens did not, taking Butch DeFeo at his word that some unseen evil lurked in the house and compelled him to kill. The heavily fictionalized story was later made into a novel by Jay Anson and spawned a popular horror film franchise.

But despite a few early bait-and-switch scenes set in Amityville, the action in The Conjuring 2 soon moves across the pond to north London, England, where a single mother (Frances O’Connor) is raising four children alone in a house plagued by a ghost. It’s known as the Enfield Poltergeist case, and centered on two teenaged girls (one of them played by Madison Wolfe) who claimed to be tormented by spirits. The kids have various nightmares and threatening messages from what is apparently a cranky old man named Bill who died in the place years earlier but still causes his favorite rocking chair to spookily move. Things escalate, as they always do in these films, and soon a demon (or something) that looks like Marilyn Manson in a nun’s habit shows up-first in Ed’s dream, then in his painting, then in their hallway, always lurching out toward in a suitably scary cinematic fashion. The Warrens, along with TV reporters, a few bobbies, and a token skeptic, soon interview the girls (and Bill, through a séance), trying to piece together what’s going on.

The first hour and a half of the film is uneven, with a few legitimate creepy scenes interspersed with cheap scares, horror clichés, and unintentional laughs. The last twenty minutes of the film, however, is a disaster. Just as the Warrens have given up the case, Lorraine has a deus ex machina revelation, a vision in which she decides (for no apparent reason) that Bill, the evil ghost they thought they were battling, was instead just a victim of an even more powerful evil that had been fooling them all along. It doesn’t make any sense, but then again it’s not supposed to–the audience needs to just shrug and take the Warrens’ word for it that they suddenly and cleverly pieced it all together.

This leads to an Exorcist-lite confrontation in which Lorraine shouts, “Your name gives me dominion over you, demon!” in laughably stilted exposition at an evil entity who willingly and inexplicably volunteered his name to her just about an hour earlier. (I guess the dialogue “Excuse me, you vile demonic presence from deepest Hell, but just in case it might come in handy at the climax of the third act, would you mind giving me the one piece of information I would need to destroy you?” to which the Devil’s servant would reply, “Oh, yes, of course, it’s….” was too ham-handed.) The demon’s name is also clumsily telegraphed in the background several times in earlier scenes, only one of several instances in which I was way ahead of the script and often not only knew what was coming next but in some cases exactly what the dialogue would be.

The film’s soundtrack is much too loud and reveals a lack of confidence by director Wan in the script’s ability to scare the audience. A scary scene should be frightening (or startling) because of its content, not because the sound level suddenly jumped from 70 to 130 decibels when something jumps out at you. Those sorts of scares cheapen the overall film and detract from the artistry. The Conjuring 2 borrows heavily from other, better films, including The Exorcist of course, and is well stocked on horror film clichés including a Ouija board, “scary” children’s drawings, girls jumping out windows, and so on.

And it’s a shame, because Wan does have talent; he knows his way around a camera and how to frame a scene. Early in the film he uses Dutch angles and eschews a Steadicam in order to effectively create visual unease (though he thankfully avoids the Blair Witch-style handheld camera device). The lower middle-class setting of an otherwise placid British street makes for a nice change of pace for this ghostly outing, and the 1970s-era production design is fantastic. The film is technically well made, and the actors are overall very good. Farmiga imbues Lorraine Warren with a compelling blend of bravery and sympathy, and Patrick Wilson’s Ed exudes sincerity and warmth–the kind of man who, when he’s not driving demons out of your house, will fix a leaking faucet and impart important faith-based lessons about bullying to your kids.

The film claims to be “based on a true story,” but as always such a tagline should be taken with a grain of salt. I’ve previously researched and written about the true stories behind other famous horror films (including The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror, and A Haunting in Connecticut); the true story of the Enfield Poltergeist case is far too complex to go into here, but is widely acknowledged as being a hoax. Investigators in the real case noted that unusual things only happened when the girls were around, often when the girls knew the cameras were off and investigators were in a nearby room (or had their backs turned). In a series of photographs taken at the time in which one of the girls claims to be levitating, she is seen clearly jumping off her bed into the air. In fact several of the investigators caught the girls faking “poltergeist” activity (much more so than is even depicted in the film), and the girls admitted as much but insisted that they hadn’t faked all of it–raising the obvious question of why someone would fake any of it, if genuine ghost activity is going on all around you. You don’t need to pretend to find an apple in a full orchard. 

The hoaxing in the real-life case was so obvious, in fact, that the screenplay had to deal with it. Of course admitting the phenomena was faked doesn’t make for a compelling or dramatic story–and in any event The Conjuring 2‘s audience has by then seen many obviously paranormal things going on–so the narrative quickly minimizes the hoaxing in favor of more “scares.”

My experience as a science-based ghost investigator, of course, inevitably colors my reception to paranormal-themed films (and horror films in particular). Just as real-life doctors, police officers, and FBI agents roll their eyes in amusement or annoyance at how their work is portrayed in movies and on television, what I see in fictional entertainment bears little or no resemblance to how investigations actually progress. There’s nothing wrong with that–since fiction has no particular obligation to accurately reflect reality–so I try not to get too exercised about it.

I will, however, note that at one point in the film when the ghost hunters are t
rying to contact the spirit of the dead person who they think is haunting the place, they manage to elicit a stream of clear, verifiable, and coherent information. None of this typical EVP crap where some faint and ambiguous brief murmur or sound can be variously interpreted as anything from “momma” to “Norma” to “wah-wah” and thus making interpretation difficult if not impossible. No, in this case–and conveniently for the narrative–the ghost happily offers his vitals (including his cause of death) to the Enfield investigators: “My name is Bill Wilkins, I’m 72 years old, and I died of a hemorrhage in this room…”

Outside of hoaxing, this is virtually unheard of in ghost hunting. If ghosts really could communicate verifiable information so clearly and effectively, the matter of whether consciousness survives death would be settled rather quickly. Of course it’s not clear that a person who dies of a hemorrhage would necessarily be aware of that fact; such a determination would be made later by a coroner or medical pathologist upon examination of the brain and corpse. In fact people who have survived them say it involves blacking out, nausea, and “feeling strange,” with no official Morgan Freeman voice-over pronouncement that “You’re having a brain hemorrhage.” Even if a ghost were contacted, it’s quite possible that he or she wouldn’t know what killed them-would not the very fact of having a fatal brain hemorrhage likely destroy or at least greatly impair the person’s memory or understanding of what happened them at death? So many questions, so many implausibilities….

Of the Warrens, one of the principal investigators in the real case revealed in a recent interview that they had almost no role in the matter. “Guy Lyon Playfair, member of the Society for Psychical Research and one of the chief investigators of the Enfield Poltergeist case, says they showed up uninvited, stayed for only a day, and alleges that they manufactured their own paranormal evidence simply ‘to make money out of it,'” according to one story; Playfair’s interview on Darkness Radio can be heard at this link: https://tinyurl.com/gwvwdgp.

I’ve never personally met Lorraine Warren (Ed died in 2006), though I investigated a haunted house for a MysteryQuest TV show (titled “Return to the Amityville Horror”) with one of their protégés. However several of my friends and colleagues have encountered Ed and Lorraine and in some cases even worked with them. All of them describe a pair of self-promoting, opportunistic “ghost hunters” who may or may not have believed in the cases they examined but were happy to exaggerate–or even fabricate–ghostly “evidence” if it made a good story. Their goal was attention and publicity, not truth or helping people. They made a career out of showing up at supposedly haunted locations, presenting themselves as respected paranormal researchers, and injecting themselves into the cases as much as they could with the hopes of getting a book or movie deal.

Writer Ray Garton, who worked with the Warrens on a book about the supposed “true story” behind The Haunting in Connecticut case (and 2009 horror film) stated in interviews that the couple would flat-out tell him to make up details about paranormal events in the “true story” books he was hired to write. “If Lorraine Warren told me the sun would come up tomorrow morning, I’d get a second opinion,” Garton told me shortly after The Conjuring 2 was released. (For more on this hear Eve Siebert’s review of the film on the recent episode of the Skepticality podcast, and see the Doubtful News piece on the Warrens.)

It’s therefore somewhat galling-to someone who knows about the true story behind the Conjuring franchise-to see this pair lionized on the big screen as brave, caring, honest ghost investigators (and portrayed so sympathetically by Farmigna and Wilson) when in fact the opposite is true. A non-documentary film shouldn’t be judged on its accuracy, however–even one loosely “based on a true story”-and even on those merits The Conjuring 2 fails to live up to its potential. Perhaps this writer-director-acting team will conjure up something more interesting, coherent, and scary for the inevitable sequel.