Amityville Rehaunted

One of the problems with scarce resources is the desire not to squander any of them.  Time is so rare these days that I keep multiple writing projects going (and growing) and when they’re ripe I pluck them and take them to market.  One of my writing projects had me read Hans Holzer’s Murder in Amityville.  Why?  Fair question.  It was the “inspiration” behind Amityville II: The Possession.  I discuss this film in Nightmares with the Bible, and I’ve been going back and reading those period pieces from the 1970s that formed so much of our culture through the end of the last century.

In case you didn’t grow up with an interest in parapsychology, Hans Holzer was a pretty big name then.  I can assert that with some confidence because I grew up in a small town without access to big city resources (where fame is made) and I knew about him.  Holzer wrote well over 100 books, which might give you a hint regarding their quality.  He was an interesting person.  Like Ed and Lorraine Warren he made a living by investigating, writing, and lecturing.  (I can’t seem to break into that cycle—times have changed!)  A firm believer in ghosts and demons, Holzer was naturally drawn, like other moths around the candle, to Amityville.  Murder in Amityville is his summation of his investigation and all I can say is it’s a good thing he wasn’t a lawyer.  Apart from containing lengthy transcripts of Ronald DeFeo’s trial, the book also contains interviews conducted by Holzer.  Full of leading questions and lacking evidence, it fails to convince even a sympathetic reader.

Still, you’ve got to give Holzer credit for including interviews where his loaded questions get him nowhere.  In interviewing a town historian for Amityville, Holzer kept bringing up allegations about the house at 112 Ocean Avenue only to have the nonplussed historian tell him point blank that his (Holzer’s) allegations are incorrect.  His assertions of an “Indian burial ground” are taken for granted, although no historical records substantiate it.  His interview with DeFeo demonstrates Holzer’s irrepressible faith.  After being told by DeFeo that he’d heard no voices—something he made up for a failed insanity plea—Holzer keeps coming back to what the voices told him to do.  Not only that, when Holzer does stumble upon a good question he fails to follow up, chasing some other notion down another rabbit hole.  There was clearly enough material here to work into a horror movie, but for sorting out the troubled home life of the DeFeo family the critical reader finds her or himself being asked to take a lot on faith.

Local Hauntings

In my on-going research (as I think of it), I watched The Haunting in Connecticut.  I recently wrote about A Haunting in Connecticut, distinguished from the theatrical version by an indefinite article.  Both claim to be based on a true story and the story itself is disputed because it doesn’t fit into a materialist paradigm.  Ah, but that’s another can of worms.  Regarding the movie, it abandons the base story to add an entirely fictional subplot that drives the horror.  Or so the writers and director think.  The tale ends up jumbled and the confusion it generates is not the kind borne of intelligent planning.  The Campbell family, struggling to pay the bills against a case of childhood cancer is real horror.  In our healthcare system that is a true story.

According to the diegesis of the movie, Matt Campbell can see the dead because he’s close to death.  In case you don’t know the story—the family has to move to be closer to the hospital where Matt is receiving his treatment.  Once ensconced in their new house they learn it used to be a funeral home and hauntings ensue.  The writer of the original book claims to have made much of it up, while interviews with witnesses make the claim that much of it actually happened.  Matt ends up in a mental hospital.  In the movie a subplot of necromancy and a young boy medium are added.  Souls whose bodies have been bound are trapped in the house until Matt figures out how to break the spell with the help of the medium’s ghost.  Instead of Ed and Lorraine Warren investigating, a local minister is added.  Also suffering from cancer, he figures it out too, but too late to help the Campbell family.

In Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible I do not treat made-for-television movies.  A large part of the reason is that they often lack the cultural impact of a theatrical release.  (Although Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead may have reached a point of familiarity with numbers to rival big screen efforts.)  In the case of the cinematic treatment of the Snedeker (“Campbell”) family, however, the television treatment might well have been scarier than the big-budget studio effort.  Whether fictionalized or not, the Discovery Channel show stays closer to the book (In a Dark Place, by Ray Garton).  Using the Usher-like ending of destroying the house doesn’t seem to offer any release in the big-screen version.  Sometimes reality is scarier than the tales we tell after dark.

Reading Railroad

Rereading books takes time.  When I was a professor my reading time was largely limited to the summer and winter breaks.  Those who haven’t experienced the academic lifestyle firsthand may not realize just how incredibly busy you are during term time.  Class prep, grading, delivering lectures, leading seminars, committee meetings, office hours—it really is much more than a nine-to-five job.  Time to sit down and read through books is limited, and since those books are heady, academic tomes, they take considerable time.  (I’m reading an academic book at the moment and I can only get through a finger-full of pages at a sitting.)  All of this means I’m generally reluctant to reread books.  Not that I’m a traditional academic anymore, but because I have a huge and growing stack of books I haven’t read yet.

Nevertheless, a project on which I’m working required rereading Gerald Brittle’s The Demonologist.  I read this about two years ago, while commuting.  The thing about reading on a bus is that the quality of reading time is strained.  Recall isn’t the same as when you’re in a comfy, stationary chair, and no stranger’s head is lopping onto your shoulder as they doze.  (Yes, that happens, and frequently for those of us on the first bus of the day.)  In any case, my copy of this book doesn’t have an index and I couldn’t remember if some specific instances were discussed.  The only thing for it, then, was to read it again.  My second reading was done with more skepticism than I could conjure on a bus ride, but still my original sense remains: we willfully cut out much of human experience if we stop our ears completely.  At least in principle.

Ed and Lorraine Warren were self-taught ghost-hunters.  More often than not, their cases turned into what they believed were demonic cases.  Since academics tend not to publish much about such things, the self-taught are pretty much free to declare themselves experts—just switch on reality TV and check me on this.  Experts are those with experience who are willing to share it.  The other day I met someone who, like me, used to live the commuting life.  We both agreed that telecommuting was a more authentic way to exist—your otherwise mandated three or four daily hours traveling can be more sanely used at home.  Still, we had to agree, bus time could be used for activities like reading, and once you stop commuting you have to carve time out for it.  In such a situation rereading a book is at times necessary.  When I was a professor, I reread frequently.  But then, it was mostly articles or books that I wouldn’t take on in their entirety.  In the reading life there’s never enough time.

Summertime Boos

There are so many of them that it’s difficult to keep up.  Movies, I mean.  And they can be an expensive habit.  As some readers may know, I’ve followed The Conjuring franchise pretty much from the beginning.  That particular film was long anticipated (at least in certain circles), but still I waited until it was available for home viewing to see it.  I always feel kind of selfish going to the movies on my own since they are a kind of event—a form of social outing.  For me, however, horror movies are research, but that hasn’t taken away the thrill of seeing one on the big screen once in a while.  The Conjuring branched off into the Annabelle movies, and I caught the latest offering in the latter series in a theater.  I hadn’t realized that The Curse of La Llorona had been released a couple months earlier, and that it was being considered part of the diegesis.  It was back to the small screen to catch up.

La Llorona is based on a Mexican folktale and is tied to the other films in its universe by a character who recurs from Annabelle, Fr. Perez.  He’s not the protagonist, but he does introduce one way in which horror responds to the present insanity we call the US government—the character who defeats the fiend is hispanic.  In fact, most of the characters in the film are from hispanic families in Los Angeles.  They take down the ghost without the assistance of border guards or any kind of wall.  They don’t need the simpering help of the GOP.  Like most of the movies in this franchise, however, they do make use of religion.

When Fr. Perez can’t offer immediate help to the family beset by La Llorona (“the weeping woman”), he points them to a local shaman.  In this otherwise Catholic world, the truly amazing outcome is that the faith healer does possess the knowledge and ability to stop the evil.  While the backstory of the ghost is well known, the nature of the entity is a bit unclear.  Most Conjuring films feature a demonic presence, so it’s kind of a relief to have a garden variety ghost for a change.  You see, when Ed and Lorraine Warren challenge entities in these movies they do so with religious accoutrements which tend not to fail.  Ghosts, however, traditionally don’t require a religious banishment.  We’re entering new territory here, of course.  And I hadn’t even known about this film until after I’d seen its predecessor.  How can you hope to keep up with spirits?  It’s a full-time job. 

Conjuring Success

I wonder if it’s one of the consequences of success.  While writing up some thoughts on The Conjuring diegesis, I got to wondering how accurate the movies’ portrayal of the occult museum of Ed and Lorraine Warren is.  The museum set appears in multiple films, and in Annabelle Comes Home it serves up a smorgasbord of horror.  Some of these artifacts, such as Annabelle, really do hold places of infamy in the establishment and some are clearly used in the cinematic version to set up spinoffs to keep the franchise alive forever.  Curiosity drove me to the open web—website owners of spaces of reputation now distrust this “open web,” what with its money grubbing and lack of peer review—to peruse some actual photos.  That’s how I learned the museum is permanently closed.  The reason given: zoning issues.  (I presume they don’t refer to the Twilight Zone issues.)

That The Conjuring franchise has proven remarkably successful hardly requires footnoting.  With The Conjuring 3 due out next year, a total of eight films will have been produced over seven years, currently and it currently stands as the second most profitable horror franchise in history.  For anyone wondering why I wrote Holy Horror, such numbers may help explain.  Now what of these zoning issues?  I wonder if it’s not the number of visitors drawn by the films that have created a problem.  (Those with questions aren’t purchasing Holy Horror, that’s for sure!)  Since the Warrens have now both passed away, the New England Society of Psychic Research runs the museum and is seeking a new place for it.  (We have space in my garage, just sayin’.)  And hey, Gettysburg isn’t too long a drive from here!

Success, I suspect, does come with its price tag.  People are drawn to those who’ve captured the interest of the big screen, and what with everyone dying death is a growth industry.  I suspect part of horror’s appeal is just that.  We all have to face it some day and while many run from it screaming some use this opportunity to prepare.  But I’ve also got to wonder if it can maintain its level of fear.  I recently watched the current iteration of It and found little that was even frightening about it.  But then again, clowns have never bothered me that much.  The bullies are the scariest thing in the film and Washington DC’s full of them.  Talk about success and its consequences.

Ghouls and Dolls

It was my plan—as if plans ever really work out—to see Annabelle Comes Home on opening weekend.  July got away from me but I finally found my way to the theater yesterday.  My current book, Nightmares with the Bible, deals with demons in cinema.  One of the chapters covers The Conjuring universe, and since this is the sixth film in that diegesis (with one tangentially attached spin-off) watching the movie was as much research as it was fun.  While the demon utilizing the doll Annabelle is clearly the main villain, the film, as in most of the franchise, interjects any number of entities.  Ed and Lorraine Warren, in real life, kept a museum of occult objects in their house.  This room contained items that had figured in their cases—they maintained demons didn’t possess objects, but people—including the doll Annabelle.

The new film maneuvers three girls (Judy, the Warrens’ daughter, her babysitter, and a friend) into the house alone.  One of the girls releases Annabelle from her blessed case, and a nighttime of terror ensues.  The demon behind Annabelle animates several of the haunted objects, so the girls have to deal with many ghoulish threats.  The film knows it is following tropes such as a car breaking down by a cemetery at night, and the idea of a babysitter being attacked by monsters, and at times it gives a slow wink to fans of the genre.  Still, there are plenty of genuinely creepy moments and a few jump startles.  It also shows the clearly demon in its “true form” at the climax of the film.  When it does so, it matches traditional renditions.

Set to become the highest grossing horror series of all time, The Conjuring universe mixes films that claim to be “based on a true story” and others, such as Annabelle Comes Home, that use real settings but without claiming to follow actual events.  What I found engaging about this particular movie was the fact that the youngest girl, Judy Warren, was the one who figured out how to re-capture the demon.  There are holes in the plot, of course, but featuring a young woman not requiring a man’s help to trap a demon is somewhat unusual in a Catholic diegesis.  True, she doesn’t perform an exorcism, but Judy does contain the evil without a priest, or even her father’s direct help.  As this diegesis wends its way into American folklore, moments like this are increasingly important.  Even though there are demons here, the women don’t require men to do the heavy lifting. 

Dolls and Puzzles

Maybe you’re anticipating it too.  Annabelle Comes Home, I mean.  My latest book, Nightmares with the Bible, has a chapter on The Conjuring universe, and with the recent death of Lorraine Warren I’ve been working on another piece trying to fit this whole puzzle together.  “What puzzle?” did I hear you ask?  The puzzle, I answer, between what really happened in the Ed and Lorraine Warren investigations.  You see, the paranormal is one of those things we’ve been taught to laugh at, and we’re told that people who “see things” are dweebish kinds of gnomes that don’t see the light of the sun enough.  Reality television has brought some of these ideas into vogue, what with ordinary people gathering “scientific” evidence of ghosts and the rest of us scratch our heads while hoaxes are revealed on the B reel.  But still, Annabelle lives.

It has also been announced that The Conjuring 3 is in development.  For some of us—and I’m well aware that movie-making is an industry and that profit is its goal—the question of what’s real can be as haunting as any ghost.  You see, I buy into the scientific method, as far as it goes.  That caveat is necessary, however, since science is neither able to nor interested in assessing all the strange things people see.  Our senses can be fooled, and a great many people haven’t developed the critical ability to scrutinize their own observations skeptically.  Skepticism itself, however, need not become orthodoxy.  It’s like any other tool in our mental box—each has its own purpose.  A car engine is dismantled in order to rebuild it in working order.  And there may be a ghost in the machine.

That’s what gets me about this whole Conjuring thing, and beyond that the contested livelihood of the Warrens.  There may be such a thing as mass hysteria (the current state of the US government can hardly be explained any other way), but the Perron haunting that was the subject of the first film provides, I think, a good test case.  A family of seven living in a house where they experienced things not only collectively and individually but also in different combinations would seem to be a place where multiple angles could be used.  According to Andrea Perron’s written account, the Warrens’ investigation never really took off there.  That didn’t prevent a very successful movie franchise from being launched, loosely based on their story.  And getting at the truth is never as simple as buying your ticket online and waiting for the show to begin.