The Conjuring 2

The-Conjuring-2-2The Conjuring 2, 
which hits theaters June 10,  is the second entry in what could very well become a long-lived franchise, a la Paranormal Activity. For this reason, I think it deserves a preview.

Okay, I confess I’m also a fan of its hero and heroine, Ed and Lorraine Warren. For those not familiar, the Warrens were pioneers in the realm of paranormal investigation, two of the most famous and controversial ghost hunters and demon fighters of the sixties and seventies. Like their contemporaries, Hans Holzer and Cybil Leek, the Warrens believed a scientific approach to the phenomenon could only go so far, and that parapsychological methods were required to draw out and fight malevolent entities.

In the first Conjuring – a surprise box office hit a few years back – the Warrens came to the rescue of the Perron family after malevolent spirits targeted their young daughters. A somewhat dull and predictable spinoff, Annabelle, followed, but it had little to do with the Perron case. In Conjuring 2, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are back as Mr. and Mrs. Warren, and this time they travel to the London borough of Enfield to help another family in need. Though it’s been pointed out that the Warrens were not involved in the real case nearly as much as the movie suggests, for most moviegoers this fact won’t matter. The real stars of most haunted house films are the ones who get no billing: the ghosts themselves. It’s the same with every ghost hunting show on cable TV (and there are plenty of them these days). No one’s expected to know or care much about the people who suffer; only about what’s afflicting them.

Which is why The Conjuring 2 should do well at the box office. It’s another hair raiser, promising moody backlighting and ghouls popping up in mirror shots and dark bedroom corners. This is a Hollywood production, after all, and Hollywood seldom deviates from a tried-and-true formula, even when it stretches the truth. The studios know what works: suspenseful buildups followed by a sudden gotcha. Ghost movies rely almost entirely on mood for scares, because ghosty things don’t typically run around wearing ugly masks and carrying chain saws.

But The Conjuring series seems designed for more than cheap scares. The trailers I’ve seen focus on the ghost hunters more than anything else. For the first time, the ghost hunters are the stars. Moreover, they accurately portray the Warrens as the ordinary couple next door that they were, and not otherworldly in their own right. Though Lorraine has a psychic gift (Lorraine is still living; Ed died in 2006), the couple are in Enfield only to discover what manner of vermin infests this house and chase it off. Ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances.

It’s a refreshing change from the old-style flicks where, if there were paranormal researchers involved at all, more than likely they were accomplices with a hidden agenda – or just plain weirdos – than anything else. Hollywood didn’t take ghost chasers any more seriously than the rest of us. (The Legend of Hell House (1973), Poltergeist (1982) and The House on Haunted Hill (1999) come to mind.) But in the new millennia the mysterious and eccentric ghost chaser doesn’t work anymore, and there’s good reason for that. In an age where all things seem not only possible but provable, including spirits and Bigfoot and little gray men from outer space, we view paranormal investigators more as sincere truth seekers, even quasi-scientists, instead of the charlatans and fruitbats they were once considered. Which is why so many  so-called “reality” shows are devoted to the investigation of the paranormal and cryptozoology nowadays. The “reality” isn’t the mysterious objects of investigation – the jury’s still out on that. The reality part is the investigators and their work. They’re genuine, even if we’re not entirely convinced their ghost boxes and voice recorders really pick up anything but static and radio interference. Our attitude is that they’re at least brave enough to seek the truth. And that’s enough.

Which brings me to the Enfield haunting itself. The real events took place from 1977-1979, and like most poltergeist cases, it involved two adolescent girls. It began with something Exorcist-ish like bed shaking, and furniture moving by itself. Soon there was knocking, and later on, levitation and disembodied voices. A prank put on by two mischievous young girls? Some thought so. In fact, many thought so, and for the next couple of years people came from far and wide to witness the longest poltergeist haunting in history.

Two camps quickly formed: the believers and the non-believers. The non-believers included a magician, who claimed that every incident could be explained as mere sleight of hand. Other skeptics said they actually witnessed the girls trying to fool observers. But others, like a woman police officer, swore they saw furniture levitate and witnessed bricks and other objects fly across the room. Of course there were natural explanations for these phenomena, too, said the skeptics. And maybe there were, at least for some of them. For instance, some witnesses swore that one of the girls purposely sprang off the bed to make it appear she was being tossed about by an unseen force. Is it possible the girl felt she had to put on a show when observers showed up? Who knows what goes through an adolescent girl’s mind when she’s under pressure to perform.

The point is, even if there was some sleight of hand, that doesn’t mean the whole thing was a hoax. That’s the trouble with trying to prove the existence of something most people can’t experience with the five senses. Sooner or later someone decides, for whatever reason, to see if they can put one past us, like that photo of the Loch Ness Monster taken in 1934 that turned out to be a toy mockup. A lot of crop circles are almost certainly man-made, and it stands to reason that those Bigfoot videos feature a fair number of ordinary men dressed in ordinary gorilla suits, or bears walking on their hind legs. It’s going to happen. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that ghosts (and demons, for that matter) can’t exist. As I pointed out in my novel, Sumner Island, if three or four centuries ago you had claimed pictures could be instantly transmitted through the air to a little screen thousands of miles away, you would have risked being burned at the stake.

It’s possible that spirits are as real and as common as us fleshies, yet we just haven’t figured out what they are and how to communicate with them in a meaningful way. For now, we “nonsensitives” who’ve never experienced a real ghost, but still believe there has to be something to the phenomena, will have to go on studying other people’s experiences. For us, the Enfield poltergeist is a real gem. It’s been written about in numerous books and analyzed in television documentaries. Though it occurred back in the late seventies, for poltergeist believers it remains one of the more popular case studies. And there’s a whole lot of information out there to study. You might call it the Amityville Horror of Britain – a paranormal case that still attracts plenty of interest, in spite of the skepticism.

Now, it’s been made into a major motion picture. And the Warrens are the stars of not one but two films about paranormal investigation. Never mind that the phenomena they encounter in the movie version will probably be exaggerated, wildly perhaps. What the popularity of the Conjuring franchise suggests is that people are warming to the idea that ghost hunters are empathetic movie heroes. They have a job to do, a valid one, and they take it seriously. So should we. Not necessarily because Hollywood can be trusted to depict what they do and experience in a realistic way, but because we know there’s something to this whole ghost thing, psychological or not. And, to borrow a phrase, the truth is out there. But we’ll never prove that truth, one way or the other, without investigation and, ultimately, exposure. For this reason, The Conjuring 2 is a major achievement, even before it hits the theaters.

By Michael Cormier

Keep On Shining the Light

by Michael Cormier

Recently, the Boston Globe Spotlight team headlined its Sunday edition with a story titled “Schooled in Shame.” The focus was sexual abuse at private schools in New England, and though pedophilia has become a mainstream subject these days, the story was another cold slap to the face.

After years of silence, former students of some of the most prestigious college preparatory schools in New England have been speaking out to the Spotlight team, hoping their stories will encourage others to do the same. On local television, at least two particular individuals – now middle-aged – described how their own abuse led to a lifetime of nightmares and pain that still haunt them today.

As I watched the television news segments and read the Globe story, I found myself shaking my head in wonder. It was like I had sat down to talk with Gerry Brewster all over again. For those of you who don’t know, Gerry Brewster is the gentleman with whom I recently co-authored a book on this same subject (Why, Brother, Why; Tate Publishing; 2016). Gerry suffered sexual abuse at the hands of priests at a local boarding school back in the sixties, and he had asked me to help him tell his story.

During our interviews, Gerry kept telling me about his own nightmares and how vivid they still were after half a century. A pretty tough customer in his younger years, Gerry would wake up screaming and crying – even while in prison, where he landed more than once thanks to opiate addiction. To this day, Gerry told me, the same dreams still haunt him.

Why, Brother, Why?, due out in June, 2016, is about child sexual abuse and its after effects
Why, Brother, Why?, due out in June, 2016, is about child sexual abuse and its after effects

After interviewing Gerry, I admit I was left with a little skepticism. I kept asking myself how this could be true, how after all these years this man could still carry around the same fear embedded deep in his subconscious like a primal response. All it took was a little research on the topic, however, to realize that these longterm effects are actually common. Men and women who suffered sexual abuse as children can relive the horror long into adulthood. There’s also a tendency to develop trust and intimacy issues that may stay with them the rest of their lives. The luckier ones get help through therapy. Others never talk about it, carrying the burden all alone.

Gerry talked about it. To his credit, he went even further than that. After his mother died a few years back, he began writing in a notebook about his own experience and how it affected his life. When he asked me to help him write his book, I hesitated. It’s a subject so gut wrenching that the tendency is to distance ourselves whenever we can. Even reporters don’t usually recount the lurid details.

But I knew I had to do that if I was ever going to make the reader understand. So I asked Gerry. To my surprise, he was perfectly willing to describe in living color what had happened. And I discovered to my shock that his memories hadn’t faded a bit after half a century. Gerry recalled the minutest of details all the way down to the scent of the aftershave his perpetrator wore. The emotional imprint Gerry described was even stronger. And he’d had to relive this horror over and over again for decades.

That, to me, is the biggest heartbreak. Each act of sexual abuse isn’t just a one-time thing causing temporary hurt and focused mistrust. That would be bad enough. It’s more like a constant torture, repeated over and over in the victim’s mind. It might repeat every day, or once in a while. Either way it’s always there, the monster under the bed. It may not spring tonight, or even tomorrow night. But it’s there, waiting for the most opportune moment.

I can’t imagine going through life like that. But Gerry did. He still does. In the past he dulled the pain with heroin, but even drugs couldn’t stop the pain. The only thing that seems to have helped is sharing his story, knowing it might help other victims. I like to think it will.

Similarly, I like to think the latest Spotlight expose is yet another step toward understanding and dealing with this blight. The Spotlight team’s investigation some years ago into the Catholic Archdiocese’s coverup of child abuse was an even bigger step, but only because it highlighted institutional secrecy surrounding the problem. It took years for us to first digest the fact that men of the cloth could do such a thing, then to accept that it could be so widespread. Nowadays, pedophile priests are old news; you know this is true when standup comics joke about them.

67 private schools in New England have faced accusations of child abuse since 1991.

90 lawsuits or other legal claims have been filed on behalf of alleged victims.

37 or more school employees have been fired as a result of allegations.

Source: Boston Globe  

Now we’re learning that the problem is widespread within New England private schools – another venue once thought to offer a safe environment for our children. It shouldn’t come as a surprise: like all predators, pedophiles go where the available stock is most prevalent. Yet many people will still find it shocking. After all, private schools are supposed to attract only the finest, most serious educators, right? Maybe. But pedophilia is democratic: it knows no race, age, education or economic boundaries.

Which is why the Spotlight story is so important. We need to keep talking about this problem. We need to drag the monster out from under the bed into the light of day and examine it in all its revolting, putrid glory. It’s an ugly exercise, but there’s no other way. Only when we come to understand the illness of pedophilia –  and not just the crime – will we stand a chance of winning the battle against it.

It won’t be easy. And it won’t be soon. If the war on drugs has taught us anything it’s that an illness that begins with an overwhelming urge is not easily conquerable. It’s not enough to just hate on these perpetrators, vilify them, threaten to lock them up forever, or even line them up and shoot them as some would prefer. Oh sure, it might stop that particular person from doing it again. But it won’t solve the overall problem.

Turning up the light dimmer and pointing the beam is not the solution, either. But it’s increased our vigilance regarding yet another venue. Hopefully, it’s increased our vigilance a bit more in general.

Either way, it’s a good start.