In the 1970s, Lorraine and Ed Warren had a spotlight of paranormal obsession shining on them. In the last decade, their work as paranormal investigators–ghost hunters–has been the premise for a blockbuster horror franchise totaling at least seven films so far, and more planned in the near future. So… what the heck? Is this for real? Yes, friends, today we’re talking about demonology, psychic connections to the dead, and the patriarchy. Just a typical day with your historians at Dig.

Transcript for: The Demonologist and the Clairvoyant: Ed and Lorraine Warren, Paranormal Investigation, and Exorcism in the Modern World

Written and researched by Averill Earls, PhD

Recorded by Averill Earls and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Sarah: Lorraine and Ed Warren spent over 60 years investigating paranormal activity. Lorraine, a “validated and proven clairvoyant,” and Ed, a self-trained demonologist, started working on cases of hauntings and demonic infestations shortly after they married.[1] By the time Ed passed away in 2006, they’d investigated thousands of alleged hauntings and spirit presences, mostly in the United States, but they were largely unknown until they worked on the alleged Amityville haunting in 1976.On November 13, 1974, Ronald DeFeo Jr. murdered his parents and four siblings while all slept in their home at 112 Ocean Avenue, in Amityville, New Jersey. DeFeo was charged and convicted with the murders. A little over a year later, George and Kathy Lutz bought the house and moved in with their children. They were aware of the murders—the case was highly publicized and it was a fairly small town—but that drove the price down and made it affordable to the Lutzes. It was a large house, on the water with a boat house, and a swimming pool. A month later, they fled 112 Ocean Avenue with their children. In the lead-up to their abandonment of the house, they reported experiencing bizarre, terrifying phenomena—psychic paralysis, temperature fluctuations, levitations of people and objects, unsettling spirit presences that took on the shape of talking pigs, cloven-hoofprints from the house to the boat dock, black substances dripping out of and hardening in key holes, doors slamming all throughout the house like gunshots, the front door ripped off its hinges. A New York TV station called on the Warrens to investigate the Lutzes’ claims about the house being haunted. What Ed and Lorraine found supported the Lutzes’ story. The house was truly abandoned – a fully stocked fridge, clothes in the drawers and closets, all the family keepsakes and photo albums left behind. The Lutzes had just bought a speedboat—which they never got a chance to use—and George Lutz left his three rebuilt motorcycles in the garage. They refused to return. George said, in all—between the money they lost in trying to dump the house, all their belongings, and legal fees—they lost at least $100,000. They picked up and moved clear across the country to escape the association with Amityville, their haunted house, and the horror franchise that monetized their misfortune. In their investigations, Ed and Lorraine didn’t definitively claim that a demon terrorized the Lutzes, or even made Ron DeFeo Jr kill his family. Instead, as recorded in the 2016 book Ghost Tracks, Ed Warren asserts that when people do bad things, or invite bad things into their homes—with Ouija boards, or occult objects, or by playfully summoning demons on Halloween night—they invite evil in, and it may just heed the call.[2] 

Averill: Because the Amityville case generated a best-selling book in 1977 and then a film adaptation in 1979, the Warrens were launched into national recognition. Though they’d established a name for themselves from the late 1960s on within paranormal investigative circles, the highly public nature of 112 Ocean Ave shifted that considerably. From 1977 to today, their work has been the subject of at least 12 books. While the Amityville film trilogy, the 2005 remake, and the 2009 A Haunting in Connecticut are all loosely based on Warren cases, in the last decade, their legacy and work has been immortalized in the Conjuring Universe horror franchise, with Ed portrayed by Patrick Wilson, and Lorraine by Vera Farmiga. Each film is supposed to be based on the true case files of the Warrens. But when it comes to supernatural phenomena, it can be hard for the average lay person to wrap their head around truth and lie, reality and fantasy, fact and fiction. As historians, “truth” and “reality” are particularly loaded concepts. When reconstructing the past, “truth” is often just perspective. My recollection of an event will be different from Sarah’s, and vice versa. So part of the job is to collect as many of those truths together as we can and provide the “bigger picture.” Harder than it sounds ☺. When it comes to the work of Ed and Lorraine Warren, and for our purposes today, it doesn’t matter so much whether their investigations and the “evidence” of paranormal activity were “real” or “hoax.” They acted on belief, and both the actions and the beliefs can tell us much about them, the people they endeavored to help, and the on-going war between good and evil threaded in a Roman Catholic worldview. So today we’re talking about the Warrens, paragons of paranormal investigations, and their place in the longer history of Roman Catholic demonology and the fight against the Devil.

I’m Averill Earls

And I’m Sarah Handley-Cousins

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig

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Averill: By the 1970s, Ed and Lorraine had a well-packaged personal narrative about their path to paranormal investigation. Lorraine knew she was different from other people when she explained to the religious sisters who ran her private Catholic school that she could see people’s auras, and they were horrified. Ed told interviewers and biographers that he lived in a haunted house from ages 5 to 12. He and his twin saw gray women in their closet and heard footsteps when they were home alone. Ed described several occasions as a boy and young man in which he felt the presence of God–a good spirit in the form of his mother comforting him and his sister, a divine intervention when he was about to drown in the North Sea. When Ed described his path to demonology to Cheryl Wicks, who co-authored the 2016 Ghost Tracks with Ed and Lorraine, he said that he did not choose to become a demonologist, he was born to be one. He claimed that one needed to be tough, and his childhood experiences, his alcoholic mother and gruff police officer father, the “tough” neighborhood he grew up in, and the defining years made him into the kind of person who had what it took to fight evil on the front lines.

Sarah: In all the ‘biographical’ accounts of Ed and Lorraine, there’s some version of their meet-cute origin story: as 16 year olds, they met at the movie theater where Ed worked in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  According to Wicks, during an air raid, the movie theater was evacuated, and Ed offered to “take Lorraine and her friends to a place called Rich’s, where the floor and tabletops were marble…Lorraine’s friends ordered five-cent Cokes, but Lorraine ordered an ice cream soda. Ed called her a ‘gold digger,’” and that was apparently charming.[3] They were engaged within a year, before Ed enlisted in the navy to go fight in the second World War. He barely survived after his Merchant Marine ship came under attack; he and another sailor were dragged out of the North Sea by a PT boat. When Ed was on medical leave, Lorraine rushed to be with him; they got married, and while he was back on duty at war, their daughter Judy was born.

Ave: (Side note: she was, at the time, recovering from having her appendix removed, and he was only just leaving after being hospitalized, so though I’m sure the sex was passionate, it probably had to be somewhat cautious too. Just the kind of thing that I think about as I read these things. Obviously neither demure “lady” Lorraine nor tough-guy Ed mention those details in their interviews. Shame.)

Sarah: When the war ended, the Warrens settled in their hometown of Monroe, CT. He started painting, she taught art classes, and they indulged their interest in the paranormal by driving around New England and visiting allegedly haunted houses. Sometimes Lorraine would knock on a door and ask if the family would allow them in, and she would use her “clairvoyance” to suss out what spirits were living in the house, and what they wanted of the people living there. Sometimes Ed would sketch or paint an alleged haunted house, then show the painting to the owners. In exchange for the art, many homeowners allowed the Warrens to investigate the house.

Ave: They collected stories of paranormal experiences, and in 1952, they figured out how to monetize their work. They founded the New England Institute for Psychic Research, modeled on the American and UK Societies for Psychical Research, which were founded in the 19th century and published quarterly journals of parapsychological research. The Warrens published their own journal, though I’ve no idea what was in those journals because I can’t find a permanent digital archive of them anywhere, but presumably they sold copies to interested readers. They started giving lectures and interviews–for a fee–on demonology and their investigative work. They made book and movie deals. They ran a small occult museum out of their home in Monroe.   Though they insisted that they asked for nothing more than expenses for travel from the people they helped, they were able to make a living “educating” others on demons, ghosts, and all manner of paranormal activity.

Sarah: What is demonology? It’s, of course, the study of demons. Like criminologists study crime (and the social, psychological, and structural factors that drive people to commit crimes), demonologists study the manifestations of evil on earth, with a focus on the demonic entities that seek to possess the weak-spirited and drive them to do harm to others and/or themselves.

Ave: Since starting research for this episode, I enrolled in a class on demonology. In several places in the course, including at the beginning of the unit on “How to Summon a Demon,” the folks at Paranormal Academy issue a warning: “At no point do we ever recommend summoning a demon. It is very dangerous to use any of the advice contained in this section to summon evil. This section is for information purposes only and the Paranormal Academy will not be held responsible should you use the information in a negative way. The reason behind this section is to help you understand the activities that could be used to summon a demon. It will help you when carrying out a paranormal investigation as you can ask the property owners if they have carried out any of the following activities, which may have attracted a negative entity to the property.”

Sarah: Ed and Lorraine were firm with everyone they lectured, taught, or helped: people who dabble in evil, whether knowingly or unknowingly, invite evil into their homes and selves. They believed that the non-believers were the most susceptible to the influence of the demonic, because non-believers don’t know how to arm themselves with the prayers and protections of Jesus. Ouija boards, witchcraft, occult objects–anything and everything that might open a door for spirits to pass through was, to Ed and Lorraine, an invitation to evil. The Warrens made it their life’s work to educate people on these dangers, and to help those for whom the warnings came too late.

Ave: From the mid-1940s right up until Ed’s death, the Warrens lectured on college campuses, carrying with them an impressive array of paranormal evidence: infrared photos of haunted spaces, recordings of possessed individuals’ voices, and all kinds of physical evidence intended to convince audiences of their experiences. They told stories of the things they’d experienced, or the stories that others had relayed to them about their own experiences. Later in life they held classes for people–young and old–interested in obtaining a level of comprehension about the preternatural and supernatural world. They assembled a network of reliable colleagues to take on the ever-increasing demand for paranormal investigation in the 1980s and 1990s, and managed to balance answering the calls of those in need with the adventures in ghost hunting that had long been the spark in their relationship.

Sarah: In May 2000, Ed and Lorraine Warren took a group of “paranormal investigators,” ranging in ages from 20 to 60, including students, scientists, and writers, to Scotland to see the sights and check out the haunted castles and estates. According to Ed, the group was invited to investigate the alleged haunting of a hotel in the northern Scottish highlands. The hotel had once been a hunters’ lodge in the Victorian era, and was converted into a hotel after World War I – probably a casualty of the landed nobility succumbing to debts and poverty. At the hotel, they met by two staff members who’d come into contact with ghostly presences while working. After eating and giving an interview to an American magazine—on site to interview the Warrens about their work—Ed and Lorraine split their “research group” up. Lorraine took some to walk through the hotel, to see what she could feel of the place. Others stayed with Ed while he took up interviewing the hotel staff on site who claimed to have experienced unusual things at night, during the “psychic hours”—Ed’s term—between 9pm and 6am.[4]

Ave: Michael, a bartender, described a lonely winter night when it was just him and Raymond, a chef, working. Michael had gone around to lock the building up.

“This particular night, I went up to the first floor, was just starting to walk along the corridor, when I came to some swing doors—the kind you push to go through. I was just about to press the doors to go through and looked through their glass windows when I saw the next set of doors begin to swing by themselves! You know they went back and forward—just flapping—as if somebody had run through them. But there was no one there. I just turned around and kind of ran back. I came back down to the bar. There was a couple of local guys still there. I just couldn’t speak or anything. And they were like, ‘What’s wrong with you, what happened?’ …Everybody said I looked white and like I’d seen a ghost. I said “Something really strange just happened,” and they said, “Well what did you see?” I didn’t actually see anything… it was just the doors flapping by themselves. They were saying things like when I pushed the doors, I must have caused a draft for the others to flap. So we all went back together. We tried every feasible way to get the door to do the same thing; but we couldn’t… You have to push them. It was literally like someone had pushed them and ran through, with the doors flapping after they had gone through.“[5]

Sarah: The chef, Raymond, described seeing a gray face shape in a reflection on glass, but that it didn’t seem like it could be his own reflection, and it gave him the heebie-jeebies. Lorraine returned with her group and “blurted” that she felt that a “man was killed” in an unused guestroom upstairs. Her psychic impression was that the murder had happened in the 1920s. Ed had gleaned from the interviews that the spirit was likely disturbed when the hotel was undergoing some renovations to the place where the spirit had died. The Warrens gathered their group of “researchers,” the hotel staff and families, and went to the haunted spot to perform a seance. Lorraine led Michael, the bartender, into a trance like state, where they communicated with a murdered spirit, Gus. They tried to convince him to let go and move on from that place, to let go of his anger. When they ended the session, Michael said he felt less tense, and like something heavy had lifted from the room. He didn’t understand what had happened, and didn’t want to believe that he’d really been seeing and speaking to a ghost through a psychic connection. In the end, the hotel staff reported no more paranormal activity. Ed wondered briefly in his writings in Ghost Tracks if it’d all been for show – a ruse to bring some publicity to the hotel for it’s grand re-opening under new owners. But the Warrens dedicated little resources to disproving paranormal experiences, so the story ended there.

Ave: Various sources suggest that the Warrens investigated anywhere between 3,000 and 10,000 paranormal cases in their lifetime, everything from spirit hauntings and demon possessions, to BigFoot and werewolf sightings. They offered classes to aspiring paranormal investigators, hosted their own weekly cable TV show, and led groups on tours of places like the Scottish highlands trip that we just described. They were confessed, devout Catholics, attending and participating in Church life in the community and working with the local hierarchy–when it was open to their assistance–to help those who believed they were afflicted by demonic or spirit harassment. According to Gerald Brittle, author of the first book about the Warrens–the 1980 tell-all The Demonologist–Ed and Lorraine worked with officially-approved exorcists from the Church as well as a network of underground exorcists who were willing to perform exorcisms without the explicit consent of the local bishop.

Sarah: Because that’s how, in the Catholic Church, official exorcisms work. And maybe you’re expecting a little record scratch moment here, and you’re thinking, wait–what? What are you talking about? Exorcisms are just movie magic and hearsay. That shit ain’t real.

Ave: Well. Whether you believe in the demonic or not, my friends, it remains true that there is an official procedure in the Catholic Church for assessing and treating demonic possessions. And we’re not just talking about like 15th century Italian priests–though we will talk about some of those in a minute. We’re talking about any given moment, the Catholic hierarchy could approve an exorcism of someone who is determined to be legitimately possessed by a demonic entity. There is a standard set of steps that one must go through in order to receive the exorcism ministries, like those outlined on the Orange Diocesean website. First you make an appointment with your local priest, who “listens to the person’s history, provide pastoral counseling, pray, and, depending on the nature of the case, fill out the required Intake Form.” Then the person, if they “still considers him/herself under spiritual oppression or attack,” is required to undergo close psychological and medical evaluation. All efforts to treat the affliction medically and through communal prayer–confession and mass–are taken before resorting to exorcism.  If the trained medical professionals determine that the cause of the affliction is neither psychological nor medical, the priest can recommend whether a major or minor exorcism is needed.

Sarah: According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “There are instances when a person needs to be protected against the power of the devil or to be withdrawn from his spiritual dominion. At such times, the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ for this protection or liberation through the use of exorcism…. Exorcisms are divided into two kinds… Simple or minor forms of exorcism are … for those preparing for Baptism, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and the Rite of Baptism for Children…. The second kind is the solemn or “major exorcism,” which is a rite that can only be performed by a bishop or a priest, with the special and express permission of the local ordinary. This form is directed “at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation [of a person] from demonic possession“.

Ave: Ed and Lorraine assert in all of their interviews that, when people went to them for help, they followed the same strict rules as the official Catholic Church channels for exorcism, though they occasionally sought out priests to perform exorcisms without direct permission from the local ordinary. In 2002, Lorraine Warren said that, of the 3,000 cases they’d investigated, almost 600 benefitted from exorcism.[6] The Catholic Church does not divulge precise numbers of its exorcisms each year. Because exorcisms are guaranteed to be confidential by the Church, we rarely hear or think about them, unless something goes terribly wrong, or when there is a pop culture reference that piques the public interest–like the 1973 Exorcist film, or the 2005 Exorcism of Emily Rose, which was supposed to be based on the experiences of German woman named Anneliese Michel, who underwent 67 Catholic exorcism rites in the year before she died. She died in 1976 of malnutrition.

Sarah: But it is certainly evident that exorcism remains a growing concern of the Church to this day. Father Vincent Lampert, the official exorcist of Indianapolis, told one reporter that he’d received 1,700 requests for exorcisms in 2018 alone. In 2015, the Vatican trained 250 new priests in exorcism through a specialized course, with emphasis on the official text of the Church, Exorcisms and Relation Supplications. When Ed Warren was alive, he claimed to be one of only seven demonologists in the United States, and one of the only religious lay demonologists; there were around 15 certified Catholic exorcism priests. Today, according to Father Gary Thomas, there are over 100 Catholic priests certified in exorcism.

Ave: Of course, however, the Catholic Church does not have the monopoly on demonology and exorcism. I, for example, am currently taking a course through the British Paranormal Academy to become a certified demonologist. It cost me 35 British pounds. As online courses go, it’s not very rigorous. But as internet content goes… it’s also not very rigorous. But whatever, I’m on my way to certification, and that baby is going to hang up next to my PhD.

St. Francis Borgia Helping a Dying Impenitent, Francisco Goya, 1788

Sarah: To be clear, demonology shouldn’t necessarily be conflated with expertise in exorcism. Recognizing the signs of demonic possession and knowing the names of the demons is not the same thing as having the training and piety that, according to Ed Warren, one needs to perform an exorcism. Some priests allege to take a demonic spirit into their own, pure bodies before expelling it, while others drive the demons out of the afflicted through prayer, religious artifacts, and long, grueling battles of wills.

Ave: Priests and religious leaders all over the world, from all kinds of denominations–Christian and otherwise–perform exorcisms every year. Recently there has been a surge in both claims of spirit possession and demand for exorcism. According to Religious Studies professor Andrew Chestnut, exorcism today is “so common that some exorcists combat demons remotely using their cell phone.” In 2010, a rabbi in Israel “used the teleconferencing service Skupe to perform an exorcism on a man in Brazil. In 2014, evangelical exorcist Bob Larson performed a Skype exorcism on a man in Norway that was televised on CNN.”[7] Chestnut argues the surge in alleged demonic possession is at least in part because of the spread of Pentecostal churches in Latin America, Africa, and parts of the Philippines, because the Pentecostals centralize the struggle between demonic forces and the holy spirit. But along these same lines, in 2015, Mexican clergy performed an exorcism nationwide to cleanse the country of violence and abortion. Horrifyingly, in January 2020, seven people were found in a mass grave in Panama, a tragedy believed by local authorities to have been a group exorcism gone wrong.

Sarah: Undoubtedly the recent expansion of the Catholic Church’s experts in the arena of exorcism and demonic possession is in response to the encroachment of the non-Catholic exorcists. Of course, spirit possession and demonic entities were not invented by the Catholic Church. Though not all cultures have a tradition of spirit possession, the majority do.[8] In many cultures, and at different points in time, spirit possession was not considered extraordinary, but part of the everyday mundanities of life. Spirits and spirit possession caused illness or misfortune. Though rarer, shamans, oracles, and mediums across cultures are able to experience “trance possessions,” in which a person’s soul might be subsumed by a god or spirit, which might allow them to provide “prophecies, healing,” esoteric knowledge, or observable phenomena.[9]

Ave: To this day, people all around the world report experiencing spirit entities. In the months after the March 11, 2011 tsunami in Japan, many people reported seeing the ghosts of those who died, while others experienced possession. According to Joseph Laycock,  “One Buddhist priest exorcised 25 different spirits who had apparently taken up residence in a young girl. Each spirit had a distinct personality and described its life before agreeing to leave the girl.”[10] That same year in Cambodia, Malaysia, and other parts of South Asia, large groups of factory workers – as many as 250 – collectively fainted, while others entered a state of possession. In June 2013, a primary school in the Philippines was forced to suspend classes after 20 students inexplicably began screaming, fainting, and convulsing. In Portal, Georgia, Tim and Katie Mather run a ministry offering to perform exorcisms on American soldiers suffering from PTSD.

Sarah: According to Laycock, “The Mathers claim that trauma creates a window for demons to enter and that these demons are the actual cause of PTSD symptoms.”[11] While some skeptics probably assume that modern science and medicine has eradicated belief in the supernatural and the possibility of experiencing demonic or spirit possession, quite the opposite. The Catholic Church finds a greater demand for priests with the training to perform exorcisms, and they are in a way in competition – or perhaps working alongside – Jewish, Buddhist, Pentacostal, and many other exorcists to deliver people from evil.

Ave: (These tensions or competitions over the unnatural and supernatural are also not particularly recent. I read an article about a couple of inquisition cases between an Italian Carmelite order and the local Dominican order. The Dominicans were among the original exorcists, known for their piety and thus best suited to delivering the Roman Ritual, as it became known. In the 15th century, these Bolongan Carmelites were allegedly summoning demons so that they could question them about the devil and use his power for good. The Dominicans, who were often also the Inquisitorial Squad, did not like this, because they thought it was a bad idea for anyone to be summoning demons, period.[12])

Sarah: Historians, like skeptics, will undoubtedly analyze these incidents and see collective trauma, or workers resisting the unjust burdens of capitalism, or, in the case of the Mathers, grifters profiting off of the mental illness of desperate people. And while those interpretations might provide a deeper analysis of the social, economic, and political histories of these moments, we cannot ignore the religious context, and its significance in these moments too. Belief is shaped by all those other things. And all those other things are shaped by belief.

Ave: Ironically, in the first millennial and change of the Roman Catholic Church, demon summoning was pretty limited to the clergy themselves. All the texts and instruction manuals for summoning demons were written in Latin, and kept in monasteries and libraries accessible only to scholars–and the scholars were all priests. Thus, in the case of the 15th century Bologna Carmelites, their demon summoning was facilitated by their priestly training. Despite this, by the 16th and 17th centuries in Italy, England, Germany, and France, the majority of people being executed for associating with demons – dabbling in witchcraft – were women. Even though the friar/Inquisitor of Bologna who attempted to curb the Carmelites’ demonic entreatries, Cagnazzo, did sentence one man to death for witchcraft, most of his victims were women. This, unsurprisingly, reflects some broader trends in the history of Roman Catholic dealings with the demonic.

Sarah: By the Roman Catholic Church’s standards, only men can perform exorcisms – because the only people trained in the administration of major exorcisms are priests, and the Church continues to limit that occupation to men only. Conversely–and there are no precise numbers, because again, much of this exorcism business is kept pretty secret–anthropologist Erika Bourguignon has argued that the majority of allegedly possessed individuals have been women. Scholars have interpreted this trend in several ways. Some feminist scholars argue that women tend to be peripheral or marginalized in patriarchal society, where demon and spirit possession occur most frequently. This makes women more susceptible to spirit possession, especially when spirit possession is considered problematic – when it is associated with witchcraft, for example, or when the expectation is that spirits need to be exorcised from the host. In cultures where spirit possession is empowering, or central to a religious experience, Bourguignon suggests that men figure more prominently as the hosts of spirits. In these instances, spirit possession is a symptom of broader patriarchal oppression.

Ave: Another camp of scholars–we’ll call them the agency feminists–argue that women are more likely to experience spirit possession because it is an opportunity to react, resist, or respond to the patriarchy. When possessed, women and girls behave in ways they wouldn’t normally – swearing, acting out sexually, speaking as equals to men, lashing out at those who’ve harmed them. In situations where spirit possession coincides with, for example, a domestically or sexually abusive home situation, the negative energy (by Ed Warren’s logic) would be attracted to that woman; by the feminist scholar’s logic, that girl or woman would invite that spirit in to free herself, or (if she wasn’t a believer, but an actor) to push back.

Sarah: The final camp of ‘scholars’–we’ll call them the patriarchy–have argued for centuries that women are more susceptible to demonic possession because of Eve, menstruation, and the penetrativeness of the female body. Eve invited the fall of man when she ate the fruit of the garden, and so of course she is always closer to evil – she is the originator of sin, that’s why she has to bear the pain of childbirth! In the Hebrew tradition, menstruation was cast as unclean, and women had to be ritually cleaned every month after their period ended. (Though tbh, I wouldn’t mind a Red Tent situation in which I don’t have to deal with people when I am PMSing.) In this line of thinking too, the female body is the receptacle – of the penis, of the semen, of the fetus, etc – so in this worldview of course a female body is more likely to receive the penetration of a demonic entity.

Ave: This makes me think of the Exorcist (1973) – in the sexualization of Linda Blair, a child, through the spirit possession; or, in one of my all time favorites, Stigmata (1999), starring Patricia Arquette and Gabriel Byrne, in which some evil thing possesses Arquettes’ body and uses her to try to seduce the priest, Byrne. In both instances, the women are just objects possessed. Even Arquette, who is experiencing Stigmata, or the wounds of Christ, is only experiencing those wounds because she touched a rosary that belonged to a super devout priest who was so close to Christ that he started experiencing stigmata. The struggle between the faithful and evil, between God and Satan, is actually focused on the men involved.

Sarah: According to Catherine Ride, this kind of gendered ideology is rooted in the foundations of the church.

“Pastoral writers … focused on the status and reputation of the individuals involved, but above all they focused on gender. They often presented contact with otherworldly beings as a female activity, singling out women more than they did for any other form of magic. This emphasis on women was partly due to the Canon Episcopi, which most pastoral writers knew, but some churchmen also claimed women were the main culprits in their own time. …Otherworldly beings were suspect anyway but they were probably more suspect because they were associated with a group of people whom some churchmen were unwilling to trust. These concerns about the authority and trustworthiness of women who claimed to have contact with the supernatural were also part of wider anxieties about women’s authority in spiritual matters. During the later Middle Ages churchmen in various parts of Europe raised similar concerns about female mystics who claimed to have contact with God and the saints. Some observers expressed fears that these women were in fact communicating with the devil and in the early fifteenth century this prompted several eminent theologians to write treatises on the ‘discernment of spirits’: how to tell whether the spirit which inspired or even possessed a person was good or evil.”[13]

Ave:In some ways, though certainly not with malicious intent, it’s possible to see these dynamics play out in Ed and Lorraine’s partnership. Though they always present as a team in interviews and in the books I read–the 1980 The Demonologist and the 2016 Ghost Tracks. But there are hints of that gendered ideology, both that which shapes Catholicism more broadly, and that which deals specifically with the issue of demonic and spirit possession. If we were to examine their origin stories, for example, we’d see that dichotomy. Lorraine comes to the work because she is already open to this spirit world. Her body–female, susceptible, maybe menstrually unclean under all the tartan–is what connects her to the super and preternatural. She can go into a haunted house and sense the restless ghosts or demonic presence. She can speak to the dead. But if there is something evil about, she shouldn’t stay too long, lest she be invaded by those spirits.

Sarah: And though Ed asserted that he was her protector because he wasn’t susceptible to spirit entities, it was also his natural manliness that ensured he was suited to the job of demonologist. He was self-trained, and actually wrote in Ghost Tracks “Looking back, I feel I was born with a certain awareness and placed in a position to gather more knowledge in that area. When I didn’t have the knowledge I needed, it always seemed to come to me.. Maybe in the form of an insight, another person, or a book, but it would always come to me when I needed it. I did not wake up one day and say, ‘I want to be a demonologist.’ Yet I became a respected expert in this field without degrees in theology or psychology or courses in parapsychology. And after twenty-five to thirty years of psychic research, many different clergy and leaders in all kinds of religions discovered that I somehow understood and knew more about the preternatural than even their learned scholars.”[14] He held himself above those who thought they could learn how to be men, how to be strong in the face of evil. He asserted that he didn’t need formal training (though he, in turn, trained others in fairly formal, lecture-style settings).

Ave: Both The Demonologist and Ghost Tracks focus on Ed’s voice. Even as he gestured to his wife as his better half, the “truly talented” one, it was always Ed who gave the reports on cases, whose voice narrated and commented on the case studies in Ghost Tracks. The fact that the 1980 book was just called The Demonologist–aka, Ed–you can guess who the central character is. At one point in The Demonologist, Ed was working late into the night while Lorraine sat up in bed reading, waiting for him. She couldn’t sleep while he worked. Even in Ghost Tracks, while Ed’s office is described as a space packed with books on the occult and notebooks full of his expert writings, Lorraine’s office is packed with travel schedules and book contracts. She’s the paranormal investigation equivalent of thanks for typing. We get to see–in Ed’s words–the moments when Lorraine gets to be front and center. In the Scottish highlands hotel story, for example, she led the prayers to protect the group as they communed with the spirits. But always with Ed there, positioned as the bulwark against the paranormal storm. “As the demonologist,” he wrote, “I was there as the ‘policeman,’ watching for demonic intrusion.” When it was just a little old ghostie, Lorraine could handle things mostly on her own.

Sarah: Ironically, it was always Lorraine’s “natural gifts” that were actually what connected their work to the spirit realm. While Ed was proud of his lack of formal, university-ordained education in demonology, he bragged that Lorraine was the real clairvoyant deal, because she’d visited Dr. Thelma Moss, a psychologist at the UCLA School of Medicine, who’d evidently tested and verified Lorraine’s skills as a light trance medium.[15] Moss had developed a camera technique in the 1970s that was supposed to capture the aura of energy around a person, the same aura that Lorraine said she could see. She was an actress-turned-psychologist and parapsychologist, and author of the 1974 book, The Probability of the Impossible: Scientific Discoveries and Explorations in the Psychic World.

Ave: Lorraine and Ed’s partnership was rooted in gender roles, which echo the broader trends in the Catholic system of demonology and exorcism. Ed was the point on all investigations until his death. After his death, Lorraine could visit a haunted site and give her professional opinion about whether there were human or demonic spirit presences, she could sit on a bed and go into a trance to commune with the unseen world, but she continued to abide by the gender roles of demonology and paranormal investigation. She was expected to rely on the underground network of male priests willing to do exorcisms or provide demonological readings of situations, and so she did. Surely Lorraine Warren knew the prayers and procedures of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications by heart. But she was not the demonologist–just the clairvoyant.

Sarah: (Historically, there were occasional women religious and female Catholic laity who were permitted to exorcise. According to one source, St. Catherine of Siena, a lay member of the Dominican Order in the 14th century, was known to lay hands on the possessed and free them from Satan’s influence.[16] Similarly, according to Msgr. Stephen Rosetti, “St. Hildegard of Bingen, doctor of the church, was asked by the abbot of Brauweiler to exorcize a noblewoman from Cologne who had been possessed for seven years.  The priests had been unsuccessful and the demons claimed that only the saint could personally cast them out… which she did.”[17] These exceptions, though, seem to prove the rule. It takes digging all the way to the middle ages to find women exorcists. And so Lorraine Warren’s deference to the spiritual authority of the men in her life is more consistent with those broader trends.)

Ave: Presenting Lorraine’s “natural” gifts as susceptibility in contrast to Ed’s manly toughness as defense against the demonic is also interesting. Often Ed would advise Lorraine to leave certain places, or she’d say she had to leave a place, because she was more susceptible to the forces at work there. He was invulnerable to these presences because he wasn’t “gifted” with these “natural powers” of clairvoyance. Lorraine’s mediumship – which, as we’ve learned in our research into the Spiritualist movement in the US, is heavily dominated by female-bodied women – marks her as in danger of penetration by a spirit. This is what Catherine Rider and the other scholars who’ve examined demonology, exorcism, possession, and Catholicism through a gendered lens of analysis… this is what they’re talking about. Women are cast as more vulnerable to spirit possession because they were made – by God – to receive. In this dichotomous (and heterosexist) view of the world, women are penetrated by penises, so they are more likely to be penetrated by demonic possession.

(There’s some good work here too on spirit possession among marginalized and persecuted same-sex desiring men – with parents have their gay sons exorcised, because that “unnatural” desire can only be chalked up to demonic possession).

Sarah: But of course, that definition of the female body is socially constructed. All humans have a multitude of orifices that can and are penetrated on a daily basis. We all have mouths and we have to take food and water in in order to survive. Everyone has an anus, and that anus can expel excrement, but it has long also been a place to put a range of objects, phallic or bead-shaped or whatever. Sure, vaginas might get penetrated by phallic objects and actual phalluses. But they also expect fucking live, partially-formed human beings. So this designation of women as “more susceptible” to demonic possession is built not on the reality of their bodies being made for penetration, but instead because that is how people – mostly old men who wrote the Old and New Testaments and designated women’s bodies as unclean because of menstruation, blamed Eve for the men’s erections, and created myriad ways to subjugate the feminine to launch patriarchy into dominance.

Ave: If you kept listening because you were hoping we’d go over how to summon demons, sorry friends… that’ll have to be a different episode. (Wasn’t there a podcast about that? Where they just tried to summon demons by playing KISS albums backwards? I feel like that was a real thing.)

Sarah: Ed passed away in August 2006. Lorraine survived him by 13 years, passing more recently in April 2019. Their museum and business were taken over by their daughter and son-in-law. Daughter Judy is said to have some clairvoyant gifts that she chooses not to use, because she grew up surrounded by the occult and wants nothing to do with it all. According to the New England Society for Psychic Research website, Judy’s husband, Tony Spera, continues to employ a team of investigators, mediums, and spiritual advisors in an effort to carry on the Warrens’ work. Nine of his team members are men, three are women. None of the lead investigators are women, and of the three women listed, two serve as clairvoyants or mediums like Lorraine. Necessary to the investigative work, but peripheral to the “true” experts.

Ave: I watch a lot of movies. Full stop. But I particularly love scary movies. From Oct 1 to Oct 31 I try to watch a ghouly, creepy, or Halloweeny movie – or at least an episode of a scary TV show, like American Horror Story – every day. The cheesy, the genuinely terrifying, the based-on-true events, the found footage, the teen slasher. All of them. Well, not torture porn… I gotta draw the line somewhere. But I love films with demons and hauntings. If it’s a scary movie that has had a nation-wide theatrical release, I have probably seen it. That includes every one of the films in the Conjuring franchise. For those of you unaware, the Conjuring franchise – the three Conjuring films, which are focus on Ed and Lorraine as the main characters, but also Annabelle, Annabelle: Creation, Annabelle Comes Home, The Nun, and The Curse of La Llarona – are all films that dramatize the case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren. According to her obituary, Lorraine Warren worked closely with Conjuring director James Wan on the film to make it as real as possible. When I saw The Conjuring in theaters in 2013, I was of course intrigued by the title card and credit roll that assured the audience that the following was based on true events. Though I’d seen (and owned a DVD of) the 2005 Amityville Horror because it starred Ryan Reynolds, I had never heard of Ed and Lorraine Warren before. Or—if they’d featured even briefly in the 2005 remake, I never gave them a second thought. But a quick google search of the couple these days will churn up lots of info, websites, even some newspaper articles. Not much in the way of academic studies of the Warrens. The 12+ books are largely built on collaborative efforts with the authors, like the 1980 book by Gerald Brittle, or the 2004 book by Cheryl A Wicks. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be.

The Devil in Connecticut book cover

Sarah: By their own account, the Warrens gained their 15 minutes of fame because, in that particular moment in American history, someone needed them. Religious scholar David Frankfurter argues that the leaders of these kinds of demonological-based movements create the need for their services by first convincing the audience that those demons are there, and then slipping in to show the same audience how to protect themselves.[18] While that is certainly possible–and he was looking specifically at the patterns of evil panics, like the 16th/17th century witch hunts or the Satanic panic in the 1990s–other scholars have revealed the waves of obsession and investigation into the demonic. Historian Laura Smoller shows how his exorcism activities were essential to the elevation of Dominican friar Vincent Ferrer in his benediction.[19] Historian Tamar Herzig reveals the demon summoning that 15th century clergy were dabbling in regularly in Bologna, and undoubtedly elsewhere. Historian Sarah Bartels demonstrates the widespread popularity and interest in the occult in the 19th century; while Spiritualism was certainly at the fore of that, “Victorian society provided a range of spiritual and magical outlets, including mesmerism, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, and ritual magic.”[20] As we’ve discussed, the American Society for Psychical Research was founded in the 1880s, an organization dedicated to parapsychology, also by well-to-do Victorian intellectual men who didn’t quite fit into the Spiritualist movement but were intrigued by the possibilities nonetheless. Historian Joanna Timms wrote about the popularity of ghost hunting and psychical research in Interwar England, popular among the eccentric aristocrats and opportunistic journalists like Harry Price.

Ave: Today there’s still this obsession and interest in the paranormal – evidenced not just by the hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who sought out the Warrens as teachers and mentors, but the popularity of TV shows like Ghost Hunters. We keep coming back to the same place, no matter what new devices and mind-bending theories of the universe – and multiverse – that we come up with. I think the Warrens understood that as well as anyone.

Sarah: Thanks for listening. Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter @dig_history. If you’re looking to bedazzle yourself in some epic Dig swag, visit our Tee Public store! Teachers – we’ve got a whole section of our website dedicated to Resources for Educators. Ideas for how to use podcasts in the classroom broadly, and specific assignment examples linked to particular episodes. Lots of ideas to help you incorporate your favorite history podcast in your classroom. Find the link to our Swag store, the Resources for Educators page, as well as transcripts and bibliographies for all of our episodes, at digpodcast.org

Bibliography

Exorcism,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications, St. John’s Seminary, (Congregation for Divine Worshop and the Discipline of the Sacraments, 22 Nov 1998) Accessed on 23 Sep 21.

Sarah Bartels, The Devil and the Victorians : Supernatural Evil in Nineteenth-Century English Culture, (Taylor & Francis Group, 2021,)

Dyan Elliot, Fallen Bodies : Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998)

David Frankfurter, Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History, (Princeton University, 2006)

Tamar Herzig, “The Demons and the Friars: Illicit Magic and Mendicant Rivalry in Renaissance Bologna,” Renaissance Quarterly , Vol. 64, No. 4 (Winter 2011), pp. 1025-1058

Blessed Raymond of Capua, The Life of St. Catherine of Siena, (Tan Books, 2003).

Ed. Joseph Laycock , Spirit Possession Around the World : Possession, Communion, and Demon Expulsion Across Cultures, (ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2015).

Mike Mariani, “American Exorcism,” The Atlantic, (December 2018)

Honey Meconi, Hildegard of Bingen, (University of Illinois Press, 2018)

Catherine Rider, Magic and Religion in Medieval England, (Reaktion Books, Limited, 2012).

Msgr. Stephen Rosetti, “Exorcist Diary #144: Female Exorcists?,” Catholic Exorcism (June 27, 2021)

Laura Ackerman Smoller, “Dominicans and Demons: Possession, Temptation, and Reform in the Cult of Vincent Ferrer,” Speculum 93/4 (October 2018)

Cheryl Wicks, with Lorraine and Ed Warren, Ghost Tracks: What History, Science, and 50 Years of Field Research Have Revealed about Ghosts, Evil, and Life After Death (Graymalkin Media, 2016).

Further Reading

(There is a LOT written about historical demonology; I just cherry-picked what I read for this episode, and I’m cherry-picking a handful more for those of you interested in diving into the subject. There is a lot less written about contemporary demonology. Someone fix that, please!)

J. Barry, Witchcraft and Demonology in South-West England, 1640-1789, (Palgrave MacMillian, 2011)

Serge Thomas Bonino, Angels and Demons (Catholic University of America, 2016).

Nathan Johnstone, The Devil and Demonism in Early Modern England, (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Jan Machielsen, The Science of Demons : Early Modern Authors Facing Witchcraft and the Devil (Taylor and Francis, 2020)

Juanita Feros Ruys, Demons in the Middle Ages (Arc Humanities, 2017)

Walter Stephens, Demon Lovers : Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief, (University of Chicago Press, 2002).


[1] Ghost Tracks, 166.

[2] Ghost Tracks, 168.

[3] Ghost Tracks, 4-7.

[4] Ghost Tracks, 230-250

[5] Ghost Tracks, 232-234.

[6] Ghost Tracks, 132.

[7] Ed. Joseph Laycock, Spirit Possession Around the World : Possession, Communion, and Demon Expulsion Across Cultures, (ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2015) xxi.

[8] Laycock, Spirit Possession Around the World, xix.

[9] Laycock, Spirit Possession Around the World, xx.

[10] Laycock, Spirit Possession Around the World, xxi.

[11] Laycock, Spirit Possession Around the World, xxi.

[12] Tamar Herzig, “The Demons and the Friars: Illicit Magic and Mendicant Rivalry in Renaissance Bologna,” Renaissance Quarterly , Vol. 64, No. 4 (Winter 2011), pp. 1025-1058

[13] Catherine Rider, Magic and Religion in Medieval England, 85.

[14] Ghost Tracks, 18.

[15] Ghost Tracks, 4.

[16] Blessed Raymond of Capua, The Life of St. Catherine of Siena, (Tan Books, 2003) 218, 222.

[17] Honey Meconi, Hildegard of Bingen, University of Illinois Press, 2018, pp. 59-60.

[18] David Frankfurter, Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History, (Princeton University, 2006) 9.

[19] Laura Ackerman Smoller, “Dominicans and Demons: Possession, Temptation, and Reform in the Cult of Vincent Ferrer,” Speculum 93/4 (October 2018)

[20] Sarah Bartels, The Devil and the Victorians : Supernatural Evil in Nineteenth-Century English Culture, (Taylor & Francis Group, 2021,) 119.


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