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During the end credits of The Conjuring 2, pictures of the cast are juxtaposed with their real-life counterparts: the faces of those who had direct experience of the Enfield poltergeist. Among them is Anita Gregory, a parapsychologist portrayed by Franka Potente in the movie. As soon her face appears next to Potente’s The Conjuring 2 crosses a disturbing border, from “based on a true story” marketing into a realm of propaganda and pernicious lies.

If The Conjuring 2 has a non-ghost villain, it’s Anita. She’s portrayed as venal and blind to the demonic threat. She kicks a haunted family when they’re down, calling them attention seekers and welfare scammers when they’re at their demon-possessed lowest. Throughout The Conjuring 2, Vera Farmiga’s Lorraine Warren (one half of the famous ghost hunting duo at the center of both Conjuring movies) repeatedly puts Gregory in her place with “oh snap!” rejoinders.

Of course, The Conjuring 2 isn’t real life. In real life, Anita Gregory was skeptical of the Enfield poltergeist and justifiably so. In real life, Ed and Lorraine Warren spent years packaging trumped up stories to sell as novels and movies. In real life, there are no ghosts, no possessions and no demons. Real life is an inversion of what we see in The Conjuring 2. Yet there it is, Anita Gregory’s photo ten feet tall on the movie screen, forever a movie villain.

As a boastful disclaimer, “based on a true story” has proven remarkably flexible. It’s applied to both rigorously accurate adaptations like Spotlight and used as an out-and-out lie, such as in front of Fargo. But The Conjuring 2 takes it a step further, not merely claiming to be “based on a true story” but actively engaging with skeptics as a core part of its narrative momentum. Its treatment of Anita Gregory is just the shameful coda to The Conjuring 2’s shabby relationship with the truth.

The Conjuring is relentlessly focused on targeting the arguments of those who don’t believe in the validity of Ed and Lorraine Warren’s demonic investigations. It’s a move that defies any audience effort to enjoy the film as fiction and forces an uncomfortable question: how much does The Conjuring 2 and horror movies as a genre — owe to the real-world facts of the events?

The Conjuring 2 is an uncommonly powerful horror movie, but its ability to scare is derived from the imaginations of writers Carey and Chad Hayes and the expert visual storytelling of director James Wan. It’s immediately clear while watching The Conjuring 2 that it is in no way making an effort to be documentary. Sequences are (exceptionally well) orchestrated like in any horror movie, with ratcheting tension, bluffs and the simultaneous jolt/catharsis of a shrieking face or startling sound.

Moreover, The Conjuring 2 is loaded with some of the most outlandish ghosts seen in a serious horror film, including a demonic nun and The Crooked Man — a mash-up of an English nursery rhyme and creepypasta tropes, Slender Man in particular. There is no pretense that a snarling monster in a purple-striped suit was actually involved with the real-world Enfield Poltergeist incident.

But the spaces between hauntings are loaded with dramatized confrontations between Ed and Lorraine Warren and disbelievers. Early in the movie they rebuff an arrogant doctor on a TV talk show. Lorraine Warren schools Anita Gregory on empathy. The Warrens even get validation in the other direction, as they prove more sufficiently skeptical than Maurice Grosse, the easily duped representative from Britain’s Society for Psychical Research (at least this is true to life).

Were it not for The Conjuring 2’s endless insistence upon its basis in fact, the treatment of the Warrens could be chalked up to good characterization. We like these characters: their love for each other, their rigorousness and moral heroism in the face of evil. There are many reasons why The Conjuring 2 is one of the best horror sequels ever made, but the compelling protagonists may be the element most unlike its fellow films in the horror canon. People clamored for the return of Freddy Krueger, not the final girl, Nancy Thompson.

By lashing itself to real life, The Conjuring 2 instead invites extratextual scrutiny and takes on the ugly, garish light of hagiography. By endlessly trumpeting its real-life basis, The Conjuring 2 cheapens its own accomplishments, spending the capital built with excellent writing and direction on real-life frauds and phonies who don’t deserve it.

Let’s lay out some uncomfortable facts. Janet and Margaret Hodgson made up the Enfield poltergeist and researchers swept up in the hype became promoters of an obvious hoax, dragging two young girls deeper and deeper into a shared delusion until they had no choice but to continue lying. This is not a matter of conjecture. Janet Hodgson, the main “victim” of the poltergeist, admitted to faking some of the haunting (“I’d say 2 percent”) in an interview with the Daily Mail when she was 45.

The girls didn’t have to try all that hard to fool these hard-nosed psychic investigators. Here’s some phenomena that they accepted as genuine ghostly phenomenon:

  • Lego bricks and toys thrown at their backs after the girls asked the researchers to stand facing away from them.
  • Weird noises made from behind a door.
  • Photos of them jumping off their beds and claiming spectral levitation.

Investigators Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair even caught Janet on camera bending spoons to pass off as poltergeist activity. “I remember that one,” she told The Daily Telegraph, “Maurice was annoyed with me… there was times when things would happen and times when they wouldn’t. Sometimes, if things didn’t happen, you’d somehow feel you’d failed.”

It was The Conjuring 2 villain, Anita Gregory, who exercised an appropriate level of scrutiny. She was only allowed into the room where “possessions” were occurring “provided I faced the door and covered my head with the girls’ dressing gowns.” Unlike the other investigators, who didn’t allow the mounting absurdities to stop them from endorsing outrageous theories, Gregory could see that the evidence was “pathetic” (to avoid a libel suit the Society for Psychical Research suppressed her skeptical report).

This video interview with Janet and Margaret should be enough to convince all but the most ghost-starved that these were the acts of children whose imaginations (or traumatic confabulations) were being taken far too seriously. Pay special attention to 1:08, when the sisters come near to admitting this is all a big joke:

Which brings us to Ed and Lorraine Warren. They had very little to do with the Enfield poltergeist, popping into town for a day’s visit. According to Playfair (who spoke with Darkness Radio), Ed Warren made a very characteristic offer:

They did turn up once, I think, at Enfield, and all I can remember is Ed Warren telling me that he could make a lot of money for me out of it. So I thought, ‘well that’s all I need to know from you’ and I got myself out of his way as soon as I could.”

This was to prove something of a pattern with the Warrens. Opinions vary on whether they’re frauds or earnestly gullible. Here’s an account of their flimsy standard of evidence. After ghostwriting one of the Warrens’ investigation books, In a Dark Place, author Ray Garton spoke with Damned Connecticut about their methods:

“I went to Connecticut and spent time with the Warrens and the Snedekers. When I found that the Snedekers couldn't keep their individual stories straight, I went to Ed Warren and explained the problem. ‘They're crazy,’ he said. ‘All the people who come to us are crazy, that's why they come to us. Just use what you can and make the rest up. You write scary books, right? Well, make it up and make it scary. That's why we hired you.’”

“I've talked to other writers who've been hired to write books for the Warrens,” Garton continued, “and their experiences with the Warrens have been almost identical to my own.”

Their most famous case, the Amityville horror — dramatized at the beginning of The Conjuring 2 — was declared fiction by a U.S. District Court in Brooklyn. The basic contours of the case involved a family, the Lutzes, getting tormented by demons in a house formerly occupied by Ronald DeFeo, who had murdered six members of his family the previous year.

DeFeo’s lawyer, William Weber, helped the Lutz family concoct their ghost story, telling People it was a fiction created “over many bottles of wine.” Weber would feed them facts about DeFeo’s gruesome murders, which they incorporated into their fraudulent haunting stories.

“We were creating something the public would want to hear about,” Weber told the Associated Press.

After telling Kathy Lutz the exact time the murders took place, Weber described her as replying, “Well that’s good. I can say I’m awakened by noises at that hour of the day and I could say I had dreams at that hour of the day about the DeFeo family.”

Juxtapose this knowledge with the opening of The Conjuring 2 , where Farmiga’s Lorraine Warren falls into a trance and “becomes” DeFeo, walking about the house and recreating a mass murder in gruesome pantomime — reducing real shotgun murders of real children to horror grist invented for the benefit of murder profiteers and liars.

The use of “based on a true story” has been stretched so thin, it has no real descriptive power anymore. People know the difference between a horror movie like Texas Chainsaw Massacre making such a claim and historical fiction like Bridge of Spies. That claim alone is not enough to damn a film, but The Conjuring 2 has taken it to a level that warrants our scrutiny and skepticism.

Not only have they put out featurettes claiming authenticity and plastered the official site with real-life “case files” but they even end the movie with an audio recording of the “possessed” Janet.

There are two possibilities for why The Conjuring 2 has pushed the boundaries between truth and fiction to such a dishonest degree.

The first is simply overzealous marketing. Horror movies have always tried to give themselves an advantage by infecting audiences with fear before they even get to the theater — from the accompanying Blair Witch documentary” that premiered on the Sci-Fi Channel to the gimmicks of William Castle, famed for lining up ambulances outside his premieres, supposedly for fainters.

This would place The Conjuring 2 as an extreme outlier in a long history of cynical marketing gimmickry. It’s not exactly acceptable — relying on exploitation of murder victims and smears against professional reputations — but it’s at least explicable.

The second explanation is that screenwriters Carey Hayes and Chad Hayes are true believers. Just like with the first Conjuring movie, New Line Cinema screened the film for youth pastors across the country, hoping to drum up Christian ticket sales.

The Hayes brothers were a significant part of that outreach. In an interview with CBN they describe their past encounters with ghosts and the demon-tinged faith they hope The Conjuring 2 will push on its viewers.

Chad said, “We want people after experiencing our movie to question where are they. Where am I in my own faith? Where am I in my belief? The Lord has the authority overall, and so here we are,” Chad said. “We know in this genre that there will be a lot of preconceived notions. Oh, it’s a horror movie. Oh, it’s a thriller. Oh, it’s not really a true story. But when the word gets out that it’s really about the love of family and people who come to help, and God is at the center of it, you’ll understand that these events do happen.”

With Lorraine Warren consulting on The Conjuring 2, it’s possible, though unlikely, that the voluminous evidence against the truthfulness of the Enfield poltergeist and the Warrens never filtered down to the screenwriters, who instead drew directly from the source. But more likely is that The Conjuring 2 blends truth and fiction for the exact reasons Chad Hayes described to CBN: in order to drive home a message.

Movies have messages that apply to real life. Movies can be political or ethical, right-wing or left-wing. But when a movie with a message armors it in false claims of authenticity, it turns from thoughtful to deceptive.

The Conjuring 2 is a powerful movie about faith, love and ethical steadfastness in the face of evil. It is a film that asks us to help each other and give of ourselves for others. These are aspirations far above most horror movies.

But every time The Conjuring insists that it presents reality, rather than powerful and moving fiction, it betrays its audience. Delivering a message with an honest story is a tradition as old as humans, but pushing a message through deception and false claims has a more discrediting label: propaganda. It’s a black mark unworthy of The Conjuring 2, an otherwise fantastic horror movie.

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