The “Based on a True Story” horror genre is one of the most popular among avid movie-goers in this day and age. James Wan’s The Conjuring films (a well-known series within this genre) have made a collective sum of $843,300,000 in the last ten years. These films portray gruesome and horrifying stories that are backed up by real events, and that’s what draws in audiences. There is a new layer of excitement when the supernatural elements have some grounding in reality, it becomes easier for the audience to immerse themselves. Movies in this genre often have an antagonist who becomes “possessed” by demons or has some kind of severe mental illness or degenerative mental disorder. Unfortunately, these films are almost never genuinely accurate to the events that actually happened, nor are they respectful and financially beneficial for the real-life people that experienced them. Horror films in this style generally perpetuate negative stereotypes and stigma towards people that suffer from mental illness, which makes it dangerous for them to go about their daily lives. It is an immoral and unethical way to make money in Hollywood that needs to come to an end.
Director James Wan’s popular Conjuring series covers several cases from the files of Ed and Lorraine Warren, self-proclaimed Catholic “demonologist” and psychic medium. Before Wan’s film series, the Warrens were best known for their work with the Lutz family on the highly publicized Amityville Haunting in Long Island, New York. On November 13, 1974, Ronald Defeo Jr. murdered his parents and four young siblings with a shotgun while they were sleeping in their beds. When on trial, Defeo Jr. stated, “the voices from the house made him do it.” In the year following, George and Kathy Lutz moved into Defeo’s old family home only to move out after a very brief twenty-eight days. George and Kathy claimed they were experiencing supernatural phenomena, such as hearing strange noises, waking up in the middle of the night for seemingly no reason, and a green-black slime dripping from the walls and ceiling onto their living room carpet. The Warrens got involved to assist with their supernatural issues, and the Lutz instantly became minor celebrities. The house inspired a series of books by Jay Ansen called The Amityville Horror, which was used as the basis for Stuart Rosenberg’s iconic 1979 film adaptation of the same name, as well as its many sequels and spin-offs. While there are a few remaining adamant believers, the Amityville Haunting has long since been debunked and proved as a hoax. The Lutz’s own attorney, William Weber, has since said that the story was something the three of them had come up with one night after a few bottles of wine. When asked if he believed any of their story was true, Weber said, “Absolutely not. Because they were making a commercial venture.” The Amityville films, of which there are currently nine in total, have made a collective profit of $220,971236 in the box office. The Lutz family is still benefitting financially from this story (a rare occurrence in the world of “Based on a True Story” movies), but the Defeo family will never rise to reap the benefits of a made-up story. The crime committed by Ronald Defeo Jr. against his innocent family is nothing short of horrific. It resulted in the deaths of four children, from ages nine to eighteen. For the Lutz family to continue to use a vicious, mindless crime for financial gain is distasteful, unethical, and disrespectful.
The Amityville Haunting is not the only case that Ed and Lorraine Warren were able to benefit from. In 2013, James Wan’s The Conjuring was released. It was a story based on the 1971 “demonic possession” of the Perrons, a family from Rhode Island. James Wan and associates claimed they did extensive research and interviews with Lorraine Warren (Ed had passed on in 2006), who can be quoted as saying she “didn’t let the directors take any more creative license than was necessary.” The film was a smash hit and made twenty million dollars at the box office. Once again, those that were involved were thrust into the spotlight, specifically the owners of the house that the film was based on, Norma Sutcliffe and Gerald Helfrich. They had bought the house together in 1987, only 18 years after the Perrons had lived there, and lived in peace until the popular film came out in 2013. Not long after the release, their house began to get vandalized and broken into. “Satanists” began sacrificing animals on their property, inside and outside. They ultimately were forced to sell the house they had peacefully lived in for almost thirty years. Before selling, Sutcliffe and Helfrich filed a lawsuit against James Wan, Warner Brothers, and other involved producers, but the results of the lawsuit were never revealed to the public.
In 2013, James Wan’s The Conjuring was released, and the Warrens instantly became a household name. It was a story based on the 1971 “demonic possession” of the Perrons, a family from Rhode Island. James Wan and associates claimed they did extensive research and conducted many interviews with Lorraine Warren (Ed had passed on in 2006), who can be quoted saying she “didn’t let the directors take any more creative license than necessary.” The film was a smash hit and made more than twenty million dollars at the box office. While Wan and Warren were celebrating, a new nightmare was just beginning for the owners of the house the popular film was based on, Norma Sutcliffe and Gerald Helfrish. They had bought the house together in 1987, only 18 years after the Perrons had lived there, and lived in peace until 2013. Not long after The Conjuring’s release, their house began to get vandalized and broken into. Satanists began sacrificing animals on their property, inside and outside of the house. Sutcliffe and Helfrish ultimately were forced to sell the house they had lived in without issue for almost thirty years, after being pushed into the public eye without their consent. Before selling, the couple filed a lawsuit against James Wan, Warner Brothers, and other involved producers, but the results of the lawsuit were never revealed to the public.
The Conjuring had two successful sequels following this, The Conjuring 2: The Enfield Case (2016) and The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021). The Enfield of Case is not of too much interest, as nobody was harmed in the making and the case was proved to be a hoax in the year it occurred, made up by a single mother and her four children to attract journalists and book deals. But The Conjuring 3 is based on the real trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, who claimed in court that he was possessed by a demon that forced him to stab his landlord to death. As the story goes, Johnson became possessed by a demon that had previously been inhabiting his girlfriend’s (Debbie Glatzel) eleven-year-old brother, David Glatzel. During an exorcism performed by Ed and Lorraine Warren, the “demon” that had been possessing David exited his body and entered Johnson’s body instead. Not long after, Johnson was picked up by police walking along the road and covered in blood. He was arrested for murdering his and Debbie’s landlord, Alan Bono, in a violent frenzy. It was the first unlawful killing in the history of their hometown, Brookfield, Connecticut. The media swarmed the story, pushed heavily by the Warren’s agent, who promised a book and movie deal was in the works. Johnson’s defense was a complete failure, as no one could prove that he had actually been possessed by a demon at the time the crime was committed. He was sentenced to 10-20 years in prison (though he was let out of prison after five years on good behavior). After Johnson’s sentencing, the media continued to hound the Glatzel family. A book was published with the help of the Warrens, and while the Glatzels originally received $2000 of the profits, they sued upon its republication in 2006, claiming that the author and publishers were violating their privacy, spreading libel, and were intentionally inflicting emotional distress. David Glatzel and his brother, Carl, claimed that the possession was a hoax concocted by the Warrens, who promised the Glatzels that they would be millionaires if they took part. Both men have since stated that David suffered from severe mental illness as a child and had found the path to recovery in his adulthood. They have also expressed how struggling the case has made life for them since then, stating that they lost childhood friends, had to drop out of school, and have missed out on important job opportunities due to the media’s focus on them and their family. Carl Glatzel has made comments to the media many times asking them to stop trudging up their family trauma for profit, especially during the release of The Conjuring 3 in 2021.
The Warrens and James Wan are far from being the only people using film to profit off of the tragedy of others. Scott Derrickson’s 2005 film The Exorcism of Emily Rose re-tells the events leading up to the real-life tragic death of Annelise Michel. Annelise Michel was a deeply religious 23-year-old student from West Germany. She was very sheltered, and had a long history of intense mental illness, having been diagnosed with psychosis caused by temporal lobe epilepsy at 16 years old. Despite her medications, she continued to worsen into her adulthood, reportedly hearing voices, having suicidal tendencies, and becoming intolerant to religious paraphernalia. After five long years of struggling, Michel and her family finally became convinced that she must be possessed by a demon. The family got permission to have an exorcism performed by the Catholic Church, and two priests came to their home and began working on Michel. In her brief final year, sixty-seven Catholic exorcism rites were performed on Michel. At the hands of her parents and two priests, she was starved and dehydrated to the point of severe malnutrition. She suffered constant broken knees due to being forced to perform regular genuflections (the act of kneeling in worship). At the time of her death, she weighed only sixty-six pounds and was unable to move without assistance. She ultimately died of malnutrition, and both her parents and the priest were charged with negligent homicide. Derrickson’s film retells this tragic story, but in such a way that is untruthful, exploitative, and disrespectful. Annelise Michel was a young woman who was taken advantage of by the Catholic Church. She suffered greatly and died a more painful death than most could imagine. The film The Exorcism of Emily Rose follows this story, but only to a degree. The narrative follows the trial after “Emily’s” death but suggests that Emily was, in fact, possessed by a demon rather than enabled, starved, and abused by the people she trusted most. By the end of the trial, the judge is convinced that there was some supernatural influence that killed her and lets the priest off the hook. To the audience, this says a number of things. It suggests that seeking medical care for severe mental illness is a waste of time, that schizophrenic delusions and seizures are a result of demonic possession, that the church should get away with abusing a sick girl for a year based on a claim that has no believable evidence. Turning to religion instead of to a doctor is what ended Annelise’s short life. Derrickson took the story of negligent abuse that resulted in the death of a very sick girl, and turned it into his million-dollar horror show.
In the scenario that someone living would be negatively impacted by a film inspired by their suffering, there is little to no legal protection for them to be found. There are no existing laws to protect vulnerable people from Hollywood producers who want to exploit their tragedy for money. Historical events, no matter how seemingly personal or specific, cannot be copyrighted. This is especially true when the director makes small changes in the story, such as name or setting. A producer or director seeking out these stories will not find much pushback in their way, and the First Amendment generally protects them from any kind of legal action pursued by the exploited people in question. While there may be some who may argue that these movies are a form of harmless, perfectly legal entertainment for avid movie-goers, this is not the case. Among horror fans, there is a high demand for these types of films and they tend to be extremely successful in the box office. Horror, as a genre, has helped our society explore deep-seated fear and confusion from a safe distance from the dawn of its existence. Most commonly, especially in the modern day, this comes down to the human brain and the things that plague it. Through this exploration, negative stereotypes have been perpetuated about mental illnesses and diseases such as Schizophrenia, Antisocial Personality Disorder (most commonly known as “sociopathy” or “psychopathy”), Psychosis, Bipolar Disorder, Dementia, and many others. Mental illness is a deeply misunderstood subject among the common man, which is what has created this drive to create movies like the ones mentioned. A poll taken for a scientific study shows that up to 60% United States citizens believe that someone with schizophrenia is more likely to physically harm another human being. This study, called the MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study, found that violent crimes are more likely to be committed against the mentally ill, not the other way around. Audiences crave stories about “deranged” or sick people committing horrible, violent atrocities because they misunderstand mental illness and how it affects those it afflicts. If there were access to a more comprehensive education concerting topics like mental health, dangerous and negative stereotypes would no longer be understood as fact, and the stigma would start to disappear.
Big Hollywood producers exploiting innocent people to make a few million is a tale as old as time. There is a long history of horror-genred media using mentally ill antagonists to stir and frighten their audience. This is a tool that not only encourages negative stereotypes, but perpetuates violence and fear towards mentally ill people. While Hollywood is not wholly responsible for the stigma towards mental health, it is in fact a symptom of a bigger issue. If better healthcare and education began to be implemented in the United States, there would be a significant cultural shift in the media we consume and how we understand it. With every coming year, there is more light shed on the symptoms of mental illness and how it can affect the individual and those that they surround themselves with. Those people deserve to live in a safe world, without stigma or hatred towards them. There is a way to handle these sensitive topics in a way that is not disrespectful to the audience members that actually suffer from these things in the real world. Perhaps one day in the near future, this idea will extend to the Hollywood community, horror fans, directors, and producers alike.
- ABC News, 2021. Brother of boy ‘possessed’ resents retelling in ‘Conjuring’. [online] ABC News. Available at: <https://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/wireStory/brother-boy-possessed-resents-retelling-conjuring-78044460>
- Brittle, G., 1980. The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed and Lorraine Warren. Graymalkin Media.
- The Exorcism of Emily Rose. 2005. [DVD] Directed by S. Derrickson and P. Harris Boardman.
- Whitney, C., 1976. Germans Stirred by Death of Woman in Exorcism. The New York Times
- Storr, W., 2017. The Conjuring 2: what really happened during the Enfield Haunting?. [online] Available at: <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/2016/06/13/the-conjuring-2-what-really-happened-during-the-enfield-haunting/>
- Serena, K., 2021. The Creepy True Stories Behind ‘The Conjuring’ Films. [online] All That’s Interesting. Available at: <https://allthatsinteresting.com/true-story-of-the-conjuring-perron-family-enfield-haunting>
- ABC News, 2015. Owners of Home on Which the Movie ‘The Conjuring’ Is Based Sue Warner Bros.. [online] Available at: <https://abcnews.go.com/Lifestyle/owners-home-movie-conjuring-based-sue-warner-bros/story?id=34789302>
- ABC News, 2006. Amityville Horror: Horror or Hoax?. [online] ABC News. Available at: <https://abcnews.go.com/Primetime/story?id=132035&page=1&singlePage=true>
- Bever, L., 2016. The ‘Amityville Horror’ house is for sale: Five bedrooms, 3.5 bathrooms and one bloody history. [online] The Washington Post. Available at: <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/06/22/the-amityville-horror-house-is-for-sale-five-bedrooms-3-5-bathrooms-and-one-bloody-history/>
- Lugrigio, A. and Harris, A., 2007. Mental illness and violence: A brief review of research and assessment strategies.
- Stuart, H., 2003. Violence and mental illness: an overview. World Psychiatry, 2, pp.121-124.
- Loren, R., Mulvey, E., Robbins, P., Silver, E., Steadman, H., Monahan, J., Grisso, T., and Appelbaum, P., 2001. Rethinking Risk Assessment: The MacArthur Study of Mental Disorder and Violence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- The Conjuring. 2013. [DVD] Directed by J. Wan. New Line Cinema.
- The Conjuring 2: The Enfield Case. 2016. [DVD] Directed by J. Wan. New Line Cinema.
- The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do It. 2021. [DVD] Directed by M. Chavez. Produced by James Wan.