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A chat with Andrea Perron, inspiration for The Conjuring

Friday 28 Jun 2013 3:51p.m.

The real inspiration for The Conjuring

"We had lived among the dead in a portal cleverly disguised as a farmhouse" - Andrea Perron.

When it comes to horror, The Conjuring has one of the best teaser trailers you'll see this year.

It begins upbeat enough – 'Time of the Season' by the Zombies playing as the Perron family move into their new house: Roger, Carolyn and their five young daughters.

Soon enough, Carolyn is playing a form of hide-and-go-seek – blindfolded – with one of her daughters. The daughter claps, and Carolyn has to find her.

But the music cuts as a wardrobe swings open, and unbeknownst to a blindfolded Carolyn, a mystery pair of hands emerges from the closet… and claps.

It's a spine-tingling moment.

The Zombies are long gone and a haunting has begun. At the end we're left with a screaming mother locked at the top of the basement stairs as she screams for her daughter: "Andrea! Help!"

A pair of hands emerge from behind her. The trailer cuts to black as they clap, centimetres from her face.

The Conjuring poster art

The daughter Carolyn yelps for, Andrea, is a real person. She's 54 now, a kind-looking woman who writes for a living.

She lives in Georgia but tells me her heart still resides in Rhode Island where, age 12, she saw her first "first full-body apparition".

She's used to talking about this stuff, penning a series of books about the events that took place in her childhood home. The series is called House of Darkness, House of Light. Part 1 was written in 2011. Part 2, in 2013.

She's working on part three.

According to the blurb on Amazon.com, "for almost a decade our family lived among the dead. There we came to understand we are not alone and there is something beyond mortal existence." It all sounds ridiculously dramatic, but then one could say a haunting is pretty dramatic.

According to Andrea, the story goes something like this: her parents, Roger and Carolyn Perron, purchased the Arnold Estate in 1970. Located just outside Harrisville, Rhode Island (current population: 1605) the couple planned to raise their five daughters there in a peaceful, serene environment.

Or, as they say, that was the plan.

Pretty soon, things were neither peaceful nor serene. After unexplainable events began to take place in the house, Andrea's parents called on the services of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.

A husband-and-wife team, the Warrens were a little like the Mulder of Scully of the '70s, except they were entirely real. Their most famous investigation took place in New York and is now commonly known as the Amityville horror case.

But on Rhode Island, things went wrong. The Warrens performed a séance, and – according to case lore – a demon named Bathsheba entered the scene.

The Conjuring still

Years later, in the late '80s, producer Tony DeRose-Grund became friends with Ed, and eventually heard one of Ed's case tapes called 'The Witch Farmhouse'. Back then the two agreed it would make a good film. Now that film has come to fruition, Malaysian-born director James Wan at the helm.

Wan's previous credits include Saw and Insidious – both are very different types of horror. The Conjuring is definitely more Insidious than Saw.

Throughout all of this, Andrea – the kid stuck in a house with a demon – has been writing and sharing her experiences. She's an active YouTube user: one upload includes a visit she made to her old home to speak to the current owner.

She replies to comments made on the video – always polite, approachable, and well-written. She does the odd book tour and signing, and is eager to conclude telling her side of the story with her third book.

I reached out to her because I was curious what she made of Hollywood coming in and making a movie about what happened. Was she delighted, or annoyed? I emailed her, and she replied overnight. We got to emailing back and forth, and this is what emerged.

With this movie coming out, there is obviously going to be a whole new bunch of people who learn about your story. What do you make of it all? I imagine it's quite surreal.
In spite of the fact that we've had several years to adjust to the notion, it is, indeed, surreal. Hearing [actor] Lili Taylor screaming my name from the top of the cellar staircase, which looks remarkably similar to that of our former home, is eerie at best. There are many elements of the film which mimic our childhood and, with broad, sweeping strokes, James Wan has managed to condense and capture the essence of it, as if he had compressed flower petals into perfume, bottling the nectar in a two-hour film.

It really is an amazing movie and not at all what anyone expects. I'm grateful our story was in such caring and capable hands; a mature treatment. Even though the house they used for filming was entirely different than our home in Rhode Island, James created the same ambiance. Oddly, there are things which appear in the film no one working on the project could have known about: the same pattern wallpaper and a folk art picture of a white cat, a duplicate of which still hangs on my bedroom wall. I received it as a gift when we lived on the farm. There are things that happened in the farmhouse that never made it to the screen, deemed utterly unbelievable by the powers-that-be at the studio. All true. Every word.

Are you nervous about how your very personal story will be portrayed by Hollywood?
No. Having had the privilege of previewing the film in March, I can state without reservation, it is a fine piece of filmmaking and I am proud to be associated with New Line Cinema & Warner Bros, proud of the effort on behalf of everyone involved. Once we visited the set last March [2012] I knew I could finally breathe again. There are fictionalised events, which closely reflect actual events.

Again, reality was far too disturbing for the screen, but the books tell almost all. There are incidents which we will never share beyond the family, but it is a very telling memoir nonetheless. People are sophisticated enough to understand the impossible task of cramming ten years into two hours. Actually, my readers are considerably more nervous than our family is at this point. They've become invested in the story and devoted to our family so they want to see it "told right". I've consistently reminded them that the film is based not on the books, but on the case files of Ed & Lorraine Warren.

I did provide extensive information to the studio, yet they had no choice but to cherry pick it, as there was more than they could ever possibly use. It is what it is, and I'm very impressed with it. It's a grown-up film and children should not see this movie, hence the "R" rating. It deserved it. I don't want to see children traumatised the way we were in our youth. In exchange for our innocence we received knowledge... [I'm] still trying to determine if it was a fair trade. I think of that decade as the best of my life. [My] sister Cindy proclaims it to be the worst. Opinions vary as to its intrinsic value. I can speak only for myself, but it was, for me, the most intriguing, illuminating experience of my life. Yet, at 54, I still don't know anymore than I did at 12.

The Conjuring still

Obviously this is something you are happy about addressing now, but I imagine at the time it was the last thing you wanted to talk about?
I can't honestly say I'm happy about discussing it. This is more than a matter of semantics. The process stirs many different emotions, but happy isn't usually one of them. Unless they ask me about riding our horses or sledding down the power lines, there isn't much to smile about. We quickly learned our lesson well about sharing what was happening in our home and, after our encounter with the Warrens, did not discuss it outside the immediate family for thirty years.

Even our nearest and dearest - even spouses – didn't know for years. We'd been so scrutinised and dismissed as kids, it seemed safer to avoid the subject altogether. The Warrens and Keith Johnson were the only ones we ever spoke openly with regarding the bizarre events transpiring in our home, but we were certainly happy to discuss it with them, prompting an almost palpable sense of relief among most of us, as I recall.

How much have the incidences in that house affected the way your life has unfolded?
Profoundly so. What occurred there changed each one of us in many fundamental ways. We arrived at the farm as a "normal" family and left a decade later as a "paranormal" family, because we had lived among the dead in a portal cleverly disguised as a farmhouse. My mother arrived as a closet atheist, and left her place in the country as a deeply spiritual woman. My entire life path was determined by the place: what fascinated me about the farm, what I learned about life and death, what I explored and chronicled from childhood.

What were your thoughts on Lorraine when she entered your life?
She and her husband Ed came to our farm in 1973 after being informed by Keith Johnson of our predicament. They were very kind and generous with their time and attention. Mrs Warren seemed more serious and focused much of her energy on my mother, while Ed spent time interviewing us. He was like a big teddy bear, a man you'd just want to spontaneously hug. It was easy to talk with him and we gushed once we felt safe to do so. Keeping so many of our episodes bundled up inside, incidents were shared with ease.

They were both terribly concerned about our welfare. I also distinctly recall thinking that our father would not approve, and this notion created as much dread as the thought of spirits manifesting in our presence. April was very reticent. She had a secret friend and she was afraid the Warrens were powerful enough to take him from her, so she was especially uncooperative, but the rest of us spilled it all practically as soon as we met them, having been assured by both that they believed us and were there to help.

What are your thoughts about Lorraine now?
On Ed's deathbed, Lorraine promised her husband that she would do everything in her power to get this story told before she joined him. I perceive them as soul mates and I refuse to believe that they ever intended my mother harm. No way.

We spent quite enough time with them to assess their motivations, though they did get a bit carried away and divulge too much about our haunting in public. I have to think that was more a matter of enthusiasm than anything else. However, they were unable to rid the house of the spirits and in fact, made matters worse. I know it was inadvertent. I was there and saw it all. They opened a door they couldn't close, and all hell broke loose. It was the worst thing I've ever witnessed in my life. Traumatising. I thought I watched my mother die.

Because of our shared experiences, we are inextricably linked. When I met Lorraine again in Hollywood this past March [for a screening of The Conjuring] it had been almost 40 years since we'd seen each other. We embraced. We cried. We talked, and passed a box of tissues back and forth as we watched the movie together. It was an emotional ordeal, to say the least, but infinitely satisfying to see the story told so well. It is a story whose time has come.

My thoughts about her now? I love her. I appreciate her and I forgive her any perceived transgression, because I know her heart was in the right place, as was her loving husband, both trying to help a tormented family. It breaks my heart to think of her without Ed, yet I know they're never really apart. He's right there beside her. I sense him with her. It is a beautiful testament to their eternal bond and it was lovely to see her again. 

The Conjuring still

Out of all the things that happened in that house to your family - what sticks with you the most, all these years on?
The night of the séance, the only time I was ever truly terrified out of my mind while living there.

Has the process of writing your books been a bit of a healing process, or was the process of writing them incredibly difficult?
It was both. We'd spent three decades trying to bury the dead as deeply as possible and when the time came to exhume them, it was astounding how remarkably close to the surface they remained.

There will always be skeptics when it comes to stories like this. Is there something you want to say to them?
Skeptics are an essential part of the process of discovery. They forward the momentum with doubt and speculation. I embrace all points of view and I would never expect anyone who hadn't been confronted with such events to accept our claims on blind faith alone. However, I always demand respectful discourse or I will simply disengage in the discussion. As a family, we've all reached an age of reason: there is no reason not to share our story with the world anymore. As I've said before, this is not the kind of story one should rightfully take to the grave. We waited long enough. People are far more prepared, more willing to consider the possibilities, consider the concept that they don't know every aspect of reality yet. We don't care who doubts us now.

The clapping motif we see in all the movie trailers - was that something that happened, or an addition by the filmmakers?
The clapping is, as many incidents portrayed in the film, a variation on a theme. As children, we played hide and seek. It is how we learned the expansive house and likewise, learned where not to go in the house! It was a dangerous game. My mother was far too distracted with other matters to participate, though she was witness to the fallout on several occasions.

One in particular was most disconcerting. Nancy went to hide behind the chimney in the borning room. Big mistake. Cindy got trapped in the woodshed. Both incidents are remembered in vivid detail by my family… both considered the events to be life-threatening. Mom had to deal with the aftermath, and soon the game was abandoned as a form of recreation. It was safer to play outside, sliding down sheets of ice into solid granite walls! As an interesting side-note, we were not at all sure we should let our mother see the trailers when they emerged on the scene. She insisted. When the game-of-hide and seek was over and the clapping had come to an end, she looked at me and said: "I wouldn't have been caught dead in that skirt." Some things never change, including our mother's sense of humour!

***

That's most of what was said.

As our talks wrapped up, I asked if she had any pets. I asked because I've noticed in the past people who have had experiences with the paranormal seem to enjoy animals. There's nothing particularly sound in this, it's just an observation. Andrea was more than happy to answer.

"They run our lives!," she says. "Cats, dogs, the grounds are an aviary for every bird within miles. My dog, Gracie Pearl, is now a 124 pound lapdog. Thief. Liar. Manipulator extraordinaire. I adore her.

"Libby is Christine's dog, an American bull terrier. Kok is my mother's mutt, though she considers herself purebred and expects us to be her ladies-in-waiting to serve her every need. Then there are the cats: Bonnie Blue Eyes, her daughter Spooky Shoes and our latest addition to the family, TK, who came to our door gravely wounded last year. He's recovered and has now assumed his rightful position, as literally the only male in the house, of King of All the Kitties.

"Every animal we have is a rescue and we're all suckers: we feed every stray cat within miles then tame the feral crew and place them in homes. It is what we've always done. We cannot save every life and, as a family, have shed more tears over animals than any other cause, but it is a calling."

***

Along with the pets, Andrea lives with her mother and one of her sisters, Christine.

The Conjuring is set for a New Zealand release of July 18.

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