Over the Halloween period, I made a pact with myself that I would watch a scary movie every night; two I chose were The Conjuring—based on the true story of The Perron Family and the haunting of their home at the Old Arnold Estate in 1971—and The Conjuring 2—based on the alleged poltergeist activity that took place at 284 Green Street, Enfield, London in 1977. Here I will separate the fact from fiction between the two cases and how the movies portrayed them.
The Enfield haunting has been a fascination of mine for quite a few years now. I knew nothing of it until my late 20s when I watched a documentary about the case by chance. It startled me quite a bit as it reminded me so much of things I experienced myself as a teenager. I have always been very open-minded when it comes to the paranormal, and while I don’t necessarily believe the souls of dead people can exist after death, I do think it’s possible that ‘bad energy’ can be created.
When I was 4 years old, I had an ‘imaginary’ friend named Nelly Hebston. She always used to get me in trouble for leaving my dolls lying around after I had tidied them away. I got annoyed with her one day for getting me told off by my mother again, so I told her I didn’t want to be her friend anymore and to go away. She did. I never saw her again. I can still tell you exactly what she looked like, though. She was about 5 or 6 years old, always wore a white frilly dress and white socks, black shoes and her auburn hair in ringlets, freckles dashed over her face.
It would be 25 years before the truth about Nelly came out. Over a family meal for some reason, Nelly came up in conversation. It turned out that my eldest brother (who had lived away from home for the majority of my life) had seen her too, standing at the top of the stairs, looking exactly like how I described her. Perturbed by this, my mother—who is fiercely into genealogy—did some digging and discovered that a little girl named Nelly had died in my parent’s cellar (which was then a cottage) in 1905; she had tuberculosis. In hindsight, her appearance was Victorian, but there’s no way I could have known that aged 4.
I may have pushed Nelly away but I gained a new, real friend that same year. (The names have been changed to protect the innocent). Helen would become my best friend for life when we paired together in nursery class. Our friendship was always volatile—she was manipulative, trouble from the start—but we were inseparable; we always knew what the other was thinking, and born only 10 days apart. We were like twins.
We spent every weekend at each other’s houses, taking it in turns for sleepovers. Her parents were pretty lax and liked a drink, so they would leave us alone most of the time. It was when we reached about 12 years old that things really started becoming strange at her house. It began with us noticing shadows moving past the door frames inside the house and often across the patio doors outside. Her Yorkshire Terrier would sit bolt upright and growl up at the stairs when it appeared nothing was there. We’d sit in her lounge and hear furniture moving in the bedroom above us when there was no-one else in the house. The occurrences became so regular and were witnessed by everyone including Helen’s parents, so after a while, it didn’t even feel scary anymore. The ‘ghost’ was given the name Reg and he did no harm…until he did.
I was with Helen and her sister, Mandy, in the house and they were arguing (which happened a lot, so I wasn’t phased by this). I stood at the bottom of the stairs looking up at them. I saw her sister turn and walk towards their shared bedroom, and the next thing, Helen turned to head downstairs and was pushed with a force that sent her flying, smacking her head on the corner of the telephone table as she reached the bottom of the stairs. Cue a lot of bloody hysteria.
Helen always assumed it was her sister that did this, but Mandy was horrified at what happened, and I always knew it wasn’t her. Something pushed her though; the way her head jilted back and her chest sprang forward—she didn’t trip. Thankfully, Helen got away with only cuts and bruises and a sore head from that experience. Mandy was grounded and the tensions between the sisters intensified. Mandy was 5 years older than us, dating boys, needing privacy which she just couldn’t get with us around.
Tensions weren’t just mounting between the sisters, as their parent’s relationship was becoming volatile. Their father was at best a misogynist, treated their mother poorly and did very little to help with the girls. We soon started noticing empty gin bottles in the washing machine, hidden by her mother amongst clothes. Before long, their mother’s behaviour was so erratic—she was nervous, overworked, exhausted and close to the edge.
The unexplainable occurrences in the house stepped up a gear. At sleepovers, I would see a black mass growing in the corner of the room. The atmosphere became intolerable, like an actual weight on your shoulders—a constant feeling of dread. One night, Helen’s parents were out at the pub and Mandy had gone to a friend’s house a few streets away. Helen and I watched MTV, and the dog started yelping and growling at the bottom of the stairs and we could hear the rumblings of furniture being moved above. I have never been one to shy away from the things that scare me, and so I took a large knife from the rack and decided I was going to do something about this once and for all. I stormed into the bedroom only to find that Helen’s bed—which was usually pressed up against the built-in junk/toy cupboard—was halfway across the room. There were toys everywhere, and the room looked like a tornado had hit. Five mins earlier it was a full but tidy purple and cerise haven. I ran. I ran out of the house as fast as I could with Helen and the dog at my heels. We reached Mandy, and she and her friends came to the house with us thinking that there must be an intruder, but there was no-one. Mandy and her friends at first thought we were messing around, but I think even they could see the true fear in our eyes.
The incidents didn’t die down as time went on, but the family became so absorbed in their own issues that they barely noticed them after a while. The parent’s relationship became one of hatred, their alcoholism spiralling out of control. Mandy left home to go to (and subsequently drop out of) college. Helen and I went on a doomed holiday together with my parents that would start a chain of events that would eventually lead to Helen’s heroin addiction. Helen would die of an intentional overdose aged 37 after more than 20 years of dependency. Mandy lives…barely. She is a notorious street drinker and drug addict—the kind of person you avoid making eye contact with on the street for fear of verbal or even physical abuse. Their mother has been in a mental institution for around 15 years. Their father, it turns out, was molesting both his daughters from around the age of 11. He lives as a free man, a few heart bypasses under his belt and an alcohol dependency—his soul destined for the darkest parts of hell when his time finally comes.
So, you are probably wondering what on earth any of that has to do with The Conjuring movies? Well, let’s start with number one.
The Perron Family
In January 1971, the Perron Family moved into a 14-room farmhouse in Harrisville, Rhode Island, where Carolyn, Roger, and their five daughters began to notice strange things happening soon after they moved in. In the movie, the parents are played by the brilliant Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston.
The film claims that the events are pretty close to what actually happened at the house, though with the real Lorraine Warren being a consultant to the production and appearing in a cameo role in the film, it was always likely that it would be somewhat exaggerated in her favour.
According to local legend, Bathsheba Thayer married Judson Sherman in the mid-1800s, and sometime after came to live at the Old Arnold Estate. Their first child died and Bathsheba was charged with murder. The infant had been found with its head impaled by a sharp object (possibly a knitting needle), and the townsfolk whispered that the murder had been a sacrifice to Satan and that Bathsheba was a practising Satanist who had summoned the Devil to grant her the gift of beauty. She was arrested but freed shortly after due to lack of evidence. Remaining in the house, she lived the rest of her life as an outcast from the community until she died in the early 20th century by hanging herself from a tree behind the house. It’s said that in death, her body had mysteriously turned to stone.
Eight generations had lived in the Arnold Estate prior to the Perron family, and many of them had met with macabre fates. In the late 18th century, Mrs John Arnold—the 93-year-old matriarch of the family—hung herself in the barn on the property. She was just one of the many suicides to take place on the property. 11-year-old Prudence Arnold was raped and murdered by a farmhand in the house, while her relative, Johnny, took his own life by hanging himself in the attic. Over the years, there were also two drownings in a creek that ran through the estate and the deaths of four men, who mysteriously froze on the land several years before. It certainly sounds cursed.
From what can be gathered from the public records, Bathsheba and her husband had not lived in the house. They lived at a nearby property on their own estate. There have never been any records or historic documentation in regards to any child of Bathsheba’s having died from a sharp object being drilled into the head, being sacrificed to Satan, or any sort of scandal in the community placing blame on her. It was fairly commonplace for children to die young in that era, and there is no evidence to suggest that any of them died due to foul play. So, in reality, it appears the couple met with a lot of grief in their lives. Bathsheba and Judson Sherman lived out their days at home, both dying in the 1880s. Bathsheba passed from a stroke that left her paralysed—but not made of stone. She certainly did not hang herself from a tree in that state. Their three children who died are buried right across from Bathsheba and Judson in the Harrisville historic cemetery where her tombstone can still be found. Which, let’s face it, would never have happened if the church or townsfolk had suspected her to be a witch and child murderer.
Some of the people who are said to have died on the property, such as John Arnold or even his wife Susan who hanged herself, didn’t actually happen in the barn. Susan’s death happened in 1866 at their home. Local newspaper clippings suggest Susan had been planning to take her own life for some time. When her husband was visiting with a neighbour, she went upstairs, locked herself inside the room, and hanged herself from the hook in the wardrobe by a cord. The article also mentions that she had a loaded gun, a knife and even a vial of mercury. What caused her to take her own life? We will never know but the point is that no documented events occurred at the Arnold Farmhouse.
Lorraine Warren alleged that Prudence Arnold was murdered in the pantry of the Farmhouse. She was killed by a man known as William Knowlton, but her murder did not take place on the property either. Prudence died at the Anan Richardson House, just north of the Massachusetts-Rhode Island line.
Edwin Arnold, the owner of the Arnold Estate, froze to death while walking home in the cold winter. He was found by a hunter on a neighbouring farm. It was said that his body wasn’t found for nearly three months, but again, it was not at the house, nor was it a murder or suicide.
Whether other family members over the eight generations of people who have lived in the home have died from sickness, natural causes or old age—that is an entirely different story. The odds are that people have died in the home at some point, but there are no documents of murder, suicide or drownings at the home or on the property.
However, this is not to say that the house was not haunted or that the family did not experience terrible and terrifying events at the property. Andrea Perron wrote a trilogy of books—House of Darkness, House of Light—about her own experiences at the house, which document many very strange occurrences.
Directed by James Wan of Saw and Insidious fame, the film was always going to be a little over the top. The story was told mostly from the folk tales perspective, with Bathsheba being an evil spirit of a witch who had cursed the land which she had owned; her presence affecting generations of mothers in the Arnold house, Carolyn included. The spirit possesses Carolyn, who is played brilliantly by Lili Taylor—she always brings a kind of magic to every role she plays. Bathsheba is said to be by Lorraine Warren, a relative of Mary Towne Eastey, one of the women put to death during the Salem Witch Trials. Mary Eastey was not a witch, of course, and her execution was a travesty.
I must say though, as much as there is wrong about this film historically, I did find it very entertaining. It was scarier than I thought it would be, with plenty of jump scares and creepy moments that had me almost shutting my eyes with foreboding, especially that vision of Bathsheba on top of the wardrobe and the ‘hide and clap’ scenes.
These occurrences led to Carolyn seeking out The Warrens for help. The Warrens by that point were already famous for their investigation of the Amityville Haunting. Ed (Patrick Wilson) was a self-professed Demonologist and lecturer; his wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) a Clairvoyant and Medium. Together they investigated paranormal activity.
While the occurrences in the house affect the whole family, the story is largely focused on Carolyn’s descent into hell as Bathsheba pursues her, wanting to possess her and kill her children. I picked up on some subtle hints about the family that weren’t mentioned outright in the film. Firstly, I questioned why they moved out into the country in the first place? Yes, of course, they probably needed more room, but I assume they also hoped that moving would mean a quieter life or a fresh start. What were they trying to fix?
There is one scene in the film where Roger Perron is given a job in Florida meaning that he’ll be away for quite a few days, leaving Carolyn to look after their five daughters alone, and keep that big house too. It seems as though he was away for long stretches at a time on a regular basis. That wouldn’t be easy for anyone. Five girls—some going through puberty, arguing constantly, and one as young as 5 needing much attention. That would be a rabid brew of hormones, tension and exhaustion—that’s for sure.
The Conjuring took inspiration from some of my favourite horrors and made it work, bringing elements of The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror, The Birds, and pretty much every horror from the ’70s into play. There was absolutely nothing new about this movie, but I also found it refreshing to watch something not plagued with gore; it is what you don’t see which is always the scariest in my mind. The portrayal of Ed and Lorraine Warren did tickle me somewhat. I could almost hear the real Lorraine telling Wan over and over to make sure the film depicted their true love for each other. It was cheesy as hell, but you know, that’s okay—we don’t get enough happy endings in horror. The truth is that the Perron family found their presence in their home made the incidents worsen and they were asked to leave. The Warrens certainly did not exorcise the demon as the film portrayed; instead, they had a séance and left the family to deal with the fallout of that. How kind.
I enjoyed the links to the other cases that the Warrens had worked on such as the Amityville haunting and the Annabelle doll. They were a nice touch and it was interesting to learn that there are spin-off Annabelle films—though I have no interest in watching them. More than anything, though, I want to visit the Warren’s real Occult Museum! That place looks to be absolutely terrifying, I would love it! In the film, the Warrens take the music box from the Perron’s home and store it in their museum; it inexplicably opens and starts to play. I do love a good, old-fashioned, creepy ending.
So, as I said earlier, I have been fascinated by the Enfield Poltergeist for many years now, so after seeing The Conjuring, I had high hopes for The Conjuring 2…
The Enfield Poltergeist
…but life is full of disappointments and this film was one of them. But before I go into that, let’s separate the fact from fiction once again.
The Enfield house is at 284 Green Street, a three-bedroom council house dating from the 1920s. At the time of the alleged haunting, 47-year-old divorcee Peggy Hodgson and her four children, Margaret (13), Janet (12), John (11) and Billy (7) lived there. Margaret was serious and reserved; Janet lively and extrovert. John was only at home during the school holidays and some weekends, since he boarded at a special school. Billy suffered from a severe speech defect but, in other respects, was a typical little boy.
The strange occurrences started happening at the house on 31st August 1977. Janet and John both heard shuffling noises coming from their bedroom. Peggy came to investigate and the three of them heard knocking, then the dresser moved across the room about 18 inches, all by itself. The family immediately fled to the Nottingham’s house next door, with whom they were very friendly. The police were called and WPC Heeps and PC Hyams arrived at around 1am. Heeps witnessed a chair move three to four feet across the living room floor without any physical contact.
After several more unexplained incidents, on 4th September, Mrs Nottingham phoned the Daily Mirror in the hope it would put her in touch with someone who could help. Reporter Douglas Bence and photographer Graham Morris visited the house. Both men witnessed flying objects and the latter was hit on the forehead by a piece of Lego travelling at speed. On 7th September, senior reporter George Fallows and photographer David Thorpe visited the house.
Fallows contacted the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), who sent Maurice Grosse to investigate. Grosse was a successful inventor, responsible for the rotating advertising billboard amongst others. His interest in paranormal phenomena had been awakened by a series of meaningful coincidences that followed the death of his daughter Janet in August 1976; she died of head injuries sustained during a motorcycle accident.
Grosse visited the house on 5th September. He advised Mrs Hodgson to remain calm and recommended she take notes of any incidents. On 8th September, Grosse and three Daily Mirror reporters witnessed ‘a loud crash’. Convinced that Hodgson’s claims were genuine, Grosse decided to take on the case. During subsequent visits, he and others observed marbles that flew through the air and landed on the floor without rolling, doors and drawers that opened of their own accord, door chimes that swung, and objects (teaspoon, cardboard box, fish tank lid) that jumped.
The movements were witnessed by Grosse, the Hodgsons, Peggy Nottingham’s father and four reporters and photographers from the Daily Mirror. At this early stage, as many as 10 people not related to the family had witnessed the phenomena at first hand.
Author and investigator Guy Playfair responded to an appeal to the SPR for assistance by Grosse and arrived on 12th September, along with Rosalind Morris from BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend. He and Grosse worked together for more than a year, making a total of 180 visits and 25 all-night vigils at the house. During that time, they reportedly witnessed many strange phenomena including that of Janet ‘levitating’ or being thrown from her bed as in this infamous photo.
In December 1977, three months after the start of the disturbances, an anomalous voice began to emanate from Janet. It started as a series of whistles and dog-like barks and developed into a human voice, that of an elderly male, harsh and guttural. The voice identified itself as ‘Bill Wilkins’ and claimed that he had lived in the house. It habitually swore and claimed to be still living and that he slept in Janet’s bed.
Interrogated by Richard Grosse (Maurice Grosse’s son, a solicitor), the voice gave further details: “I went blind, and I had a haemorrhage, and I fell asleep and I died on a chair in the corner downstairs”.
To eliminate the possibility that Janet was herself faking the voice, Grosse taped up Janet’s mouth. The voice continued to be heard, somewhat subdued, as was the case on future occasions when Janet’s mouth was also filled with water. Early in January 1978, Margaret started to speak in a similar harsh voice, but without the same intensity or duration as Janet’s.
Janet underwent several religious rites, but none so dramatic as movie portrayals of the Enfield haunting may imply. In short, the haunting just stopped. In 1979, Janet and her family claimed that they were still terrorised by the ghost of Bill Wilkins, but “to a lesser degree.”
There are many theories about the truth of the Enfield poltergeist house and there are many who believe the Enfield poltergeist is a hoax and nothing more than a figment of a creative yet troubled young girl.
While there may well have been ‘something’ happening in the house, perhaps Janet started to appreciate the increased attention that she—a middle child in a working-class family—was finally starting to get, perhaps for the very first time, and so she started to exaggerate some of the activities going on around her in order to gain more notoriety and attention. Or, perhaps Janet’s story simply echoes other poltergeist stories: typically, poltergeist encounters occur around young women, before they enter puberty. Janet was at exactly the right age for such an encounter.
Many of the objects such as Lego bricks and slippers flying across the room always happened when the investigators or journalists had their backs turned. It is said that Janet and Margaret insisted that visitors could only come into the bedroom if certain conditions were met. As soon as visitors were facing the wall with their eyes covered, slippers and pillows began “miraculously” hitting them. While Maurice Grosse was sure that the voice of Bill did come from Janet while her mouth was taped or while she was holding water (like the film portrayed), she made everyone turn away so she could have easily have removed the tape and spat out the water.
It is true that a man named Bill Wilkins lived in the house before the Hodgson family, and he did go blind and died of a haemorrhage in the armchair in the lounge. This was confirmed by Bill’s son. How could Janet have known? Well, in my opinion—quite easily. Everyone knows how quickly gossip spreads around a housing estate. It’s very likely that a friend or a friend’s older sibling or parent, or maybe even a shopkeeper could have told them about the man who died in their house. She could have overheard it or her mother may have told her. This is easily explainable in my mind.
It is very interesting to know that the hauntings just died down as the girls grew older and probably became more interested in other things like boys (Janet left home at age 16, married and had a son) and when the media began to lose interest, so did Bill it seems. However, the family still say that the incidents did occur and Peggy Hodgson would live out her days in the same house, still stating that Bill’s presence was there. She died in the same armchair as Bill in 2003.
It started so well. The story reflected the story of the Hodgsons from their point of view almost exactly, and I was very impressed with how accurate they made the house look, down to the posters of Starsky and Hutch plastered across the girl’s bedroom wall. The clothing was perfect, the sharp inclusion of the Police witnesses, the journalists—all of that worked perfectly. Then they brought Ed and Lorraine Warren into the story.
It was set up that the church wanted to perform an exorcism at the property, but to do so the Vatican needed real proof; the evidence Maurice Grosse had captured was not strong enough. So, they requested the help of the Warrens. Like in The Conjuring, the couple did not really want to get involved but went out of the kindness of their hearts to help the poor family.
The Conjuring 2 showed the Warrens as being incredibly involved in the case of the Enfield poltergeist house, but this is more than a little bit misleading. In fact, Guy Playfair, one of the investigators in the case, said that the Warrens turned up to the Enfield house uninvited and actually stayed for just one day. Ed Warren also reportedly told Playfair that a lot of money could be made from the case, which could indicate why the Warrens themselves turned up to do their own bit of investigation.
Their inclusion in the story turned it on its head. It became less about the family and more about Lorraine’s vision of The Nun that she had also seen in the first film. In her vision, she saw Ed being killed in a basement, so she was reluctant to travel to London, but Ed convinces her. The basement, of course, turns out to be at the Green Street house.
After spending time with the family and not having any real evidence that the situation was anything more than the Hodgson girls playing tricks—they are even shown footage of Janet faking it—the Warrens decide to head home. It is only when they are on the train and decide to listen back to the voice recordings of Bill talking through Janet do they inexplicably realise they need to combine two separate recordings, which reveal that Bill is begging for help—that the demon Nun is using him to get at the children and she has blocked Lorraine’s psychic abilities. So they rush back to save the day and discover the Hodgson family locked outside the house, bar Janet, who is possessed inside. Ed breaks in and Lorraine’s vision of his death almost comes to fruition as he stops Janet from jumping to her death from the bedroom window. Lorraine remembers the demon’s name—Valak—and condemns her back to hell.
The Conjuring was far-fetched, yes, but nowhere near this level. The Hodgson’s basement was flooded with water like a swimming pool—as a former Housing Officer, I know that the council are poor with repairs but this was a stretch. The adage of the Warren’s involvement was unnecessary; this is a scary enough story without any of that. I understand it had to be done for the franchise, but there was probably a better, more subtle story to be told.
The worst part of it all for me was the ‘Crooked Man’, another spirit that took over Janet and which took the form of the Nottingham’s pet dog briefly while the Hodgsons were taking shelter in their home. The look was reminiscent of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad—just dreadful, despite no CGI being used apparently. James Wan tweeted, “It was shot in slow mo with @jbotet walking backwards, then sped up in editing and reversed.” That’s all well and good, but it just felt so out of place within this story. Again, I understand why it was included as The Crooked Man is to be another spin-off movie from the series, but if it’s going to be anything like how he’s portrayed in The Conjuring 2 then I’m certainly not going to be spending any money going to see it.
The Warrens take the ‘Crooked Man’ zoetrope toy back to their occult museum, indicating more to come with that story, which I have to admit is a cool touch.
Both films were enjoyable, certainly in the beginning, before they became too over the top, and the cast was great in both. I don’t know if this was intentional, but the Warrens just seemed awful to me. It’s likely they were much worse in real life than in the films, preying on vulnerable families, preaching at them, egging them on and making money out of their trauma. However, their cheesiness did bring some light relief.
Both stories had similar themes. The two families had absent fathers (at least some of the time); the mothers were finding it difficult to cope with the running of their homes and unruly children who were most likely desperate for attention; their pre-pubescent daughters brewing some dark energy.
Due to my own youthful experiences, I err on the side of believing that something was happening in both homes, maybe not ghosts, and maybe some or almost all the incidents were tricks. However, I do believe that trauma, tension and misery can create dark forces of energy. Children are a powerful force—their developing minds, inquisitive nature and creative imagination may just conjure up someone to play with or someone to blame for the bad things happening to them that they cannot process.
What did you think of The Conjuring films? And have you ever had a paranormal experience? Let us know in the comments or on social media.