As far as haunted dolls go, you’d be hard pressed to find one with more influence on the current pop culture milieu than Annabelle. She’s one of the common threads of the rapidly expanding Conjuring cinematic universe: a cursed porcelain doll who enacts her demoniac will on any foolish enough to disregard the sign on her case demanding no one open it. The third film in the Annabelle series – and the seventh in the Conjuring universe overall – lands on Wednesday, once again inviting us into a world in which people refuse to abide by simple, clear instructions on the container of an evil doll.
The Conjuring series is based on the cases of Ed and Lorraine Warren, a pair of paranormal investigators who worked out of Connecticut throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Among the accursed trinkets they keep in their Occult Museum in the town of Monroe is the real Annabelle; less outwardly frightening than her cinematic counterpart, but nonetheless still possessing an innate degree of menace. Vintage Raggedy Ann dolls are scary enough as is without the added complication of Satanic entities occupying them.
I visited the Warren’s Occult Museum in Connecticut as a guest of Warner Bros ahead of the release of Annabelle Comes Home, despite concerns from my friends, coworkers and loved ones that I would inevitably ferry an evil spirit back with me (I don’t think demons fly economy, but I’m happy to be wrong on that.) Quite frankly, this was something of a dream engagement: I’m fascinated by the American obsession with the occult, and there is no greater example of that fixation than the Warrens. Name a famous contemporary tale of the paranormal – the Amityville case, the Enfield poltergeist, the Smurl haunting – and the Warrens were at least tangentially involved; usually invited due to their professed expertise with all things paranormal.
The Warrens have both passed on – Ed back in 2006, and Lorraine earlier this year – but their legacy lives on through their Occult Museum, which operated out of the back of their home in Monroe. It is, by their description, the “oldest and only museum of its kind”; a collection of occult ephemera and purportedly haunted objects accrued by the couple over decades of working as paranormal investigators, psychic mediums and demonologists. No matter which way you look at it, either as a full-throated enthusiast or a skeptic, it’s a pretty damn cool bit of kitsch.
Permanently closed to visitors until a new location can be sourced due to a zoning dispute, the museum’s collection is looked after by their daughter Judy Warren and her husband Tony Spera. Much like the Warrens themselves, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, Judy also appears in the Conjuring universe films – in Annabelle Comes Home, she is portrayed by actress Mckenna Grace.
My primary guide as I make my way around Monroe and the surrounding sleepy townships is Spera. He is, by any measure, a fascinating guy who is obviously deeply committed to his belief in the supernatural. He’s passionate about his work as director of the New England Society for Psychic Research, the organisation founded by the Warrens back in 1952, and he considers himself a guardian of both their legacy and their stories. Spera, a former cop who talks in a delightfully broad New England accent, says he didn’t believe in the spirit world or associated funny business until he met Ed Warren and witnessed his investigations first-hand. He reminds me that the core of his belief is his rock-solid Catholic faith. Skeptics, he says, find it hard to believe accounts of paranormal activity because they “do not accept that there is a God.”
Spera shepherds me to Union Cemetery in Easton, Connecticut, a holy grail for US ghost hunters who consider it among the most haunted in the country.
The Warrens wrote a book about the cemetery called Graveyard, which described the spirit allegedly haunting it: a shrouded woman named The White Lady. She joins a rich folkloric legacy of other, similarly named White Ladies alleged to have been witnessed in cemeteries across the globe. Spera eventually shows a video, taken by Ed Warren at Union Cemetery back in 1990, which he says shows the apparition moving between headstones after midnight. But, he says, it’s fine if you don’t see a ghost in the noise of the film. “Remember, there wasn’t any digital cameras back then… it was 1990,” he says. “Cameras cost like three thousand dollars and they weren’t that good.”
I didn’t happen to witness anything abnormal in Union Cemetery, much to my chagrin. But I can see why it has built up that sort of legend among enthusiasts. It’s a centuries-old graveyard in the middle of dense forest next to a lonely road – basically a picture-perfect staging ground for supernatural hijinks of all kinds. If you’re going to see a ghost anywhere on the planet, it’d be here.
Nonetheless, Spera provides a lesson on how one might go about capturing a photo or an audio recording of a spirit, if one were so inclined. The secret, he says, is patience. It’s a matter of taking a photo, then waiting. Then waiting. Ask the spirit a question. Then take another photo. Then wait. Then take another photo. Another question. Pause. Another photo. “You have to wait to give it a chance to answer,” he says. Ghost hunting, it turns out, is a vocation for people with a lot of time on their hands.
The ideal result, according to Spera, are photographs with ghostly smears and orbs visible in the picture – a projection of a spirit’s ‘aura’ onto the image. There’s a mysterious ontology going on here I couldn’t quite get my head around, but the main point is that it’s supposed to work whether you’re shooting on old school film or an iPhone camera. Happy to hear otherworldly spirits are keeping up with the latest tech.
The main event, of course, is the Occult Museum itself. Situated out the back of the Warrens house, it certainly has a sinister quality. We arrived past ten at night, inching down the long, pitch-black driveway which leads to the rear of the property, where we’re greeted with a ramshackle little building bathed in red light. Strip lighting from a hardware store? Probably, but it’s an atmospheric bit of pageantry regardless. I for one appreciated it.
Yes, this is where Annabelle lives. After a quick, mandatory blessing by a deacon from the local Catholic church – ensuring I do not, by my ignorance, become a vessel for evil spirits during my visit – we enter the Museum.
It’s not quite as slick as its cinematic incarnation. In fact, it feels like a cross between an occult bookshop and your grandmother’s house: dimly-lit, shelves loaded with bric-a-brac and collectibles, the pervasive scent of incense. It is, as the kids say, a vibe.
Every item here (and there are literally hundreds) has a story, which Spera is more than happy to relay. He tells the tale the ‘New England Witch Doll’, which has the power “to hurt you, to destroy you, to kill you”. He goes on at length about how Ed Warren came to possess a genuinely frightening looking statue he identifies as a “Satanic idol”. Everything here, from dusty books to Halloween masks to plaster skulls has some kind of alleged supernatural provenance. A normal-looking plastic dinosaur toy is in fact the centre of a demonic possession case which ended in a murder. An otherwise nondescript chunk of brick is labelled as coming from Borley Rectory – “the most haunted house in England”. It’s all very extra, and precisely what I’m here to see.
The main event, of course, is Annabelle. The backstory of this particular item hews pretty closely to its cinematic lore. According to Spera, a student nurse was given the doll back in 1968. Strange phenomena began to manifest afterwards: the doll would mysteriously appear in random places around the house, along with parchment notes reading “HELP ME”. The nurse visited a psychic medium, who told her the doll was inhabited by the spirit of a young girl named Annabelle. The Warrens acquired the doll after deeming it “demonically possessed.”
Spera takes great pains to say that the doll is not actually ‘possessed’ by a human spirit. He argues that it is “impossible” for the spirit of a young girl to “inhabit an inanimate object” like a Raggedy Ann doll – rather, Annabelle is host to some kind of demonic entity. He says this entity persists despite multiple exorcisms, and has been associated with “at least one death” – via a motorcycle accident. Turns out that Annabelle is more than capable of exerting her psychic will on all manner of vehicles, so nobody is safe. It’s classic stuff.
Yes, I did deign to get a photograph directly next to the doll, disregarding my friends and loved ones who asserted quite confidently that doing such a thing would no doubt force me under the pall of a terrible curse. I make no apologies for my dangerous lifestyle.
(I do note that my flight back to Sydney was severely delayed due to an eerie fog shrouding the city, but I’m not quite ready to blame that on Annabelle just yet.)
It was definitely something to check off the bucket list. I can’t say that I’m a bona fide paranormal convert, but there’s a deliriousness of the experience which leaves no question as to why people find this world so compelling.
It leaves to be seen what the future of the Occult Museum is now that the Warrens are gone, but one thing is for certain: Judy Warren and Tony Spera are totally committed to telling the stories and keeping the legacy going into the next decade. Judging by the consistent success of the Conjuring films, there are always going to be people keen to experience the real deal.
Annabelle Comes Home hits Australian cinemas on the 27th of June.Image: Warner Bros