I’m going to tell you a horror story. You won’t recognize it. It’s about a woman who wrote poetry. She was a liberal, an agnostic, hated Nixon. She married a strict conservative Catholic who demanded that she convert. She had a kid, and then another kid, and then, somehow, she had five kids. She stopped writing poetry — no woman with five kids has time to daydream — and left the city for a house in the country that was big and cheap enough to hold them all. Then everything got worse.
Her husband had a terrible temper, and it erupted once they were isolated in the new house. He screamed at her more and more, especially if she disagreed with him about Nixon. He spent most of his nights away from home. Soon, the woman became sick with what appeared to be arthritis. She spent whole days in bed. She looked much older than her age. She started to have night terrors. Exorcists were called in.
This is the “true story” that provides the basis of the first Conjuring movie, whose third sequel premiered on HBO Max and in theaters this weekend. That movie centered around a demonically possessed wife (Lili Taylor) whose perfect husband (Ron Livingston) employs the services of a pair of Catholic ghost-hunters, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) to restore her to full compliance. It also elevated the Warrens — real people, and known hucksters — to beloved pop-culture figures.
But the stories the Warrens told rarely had anything to do with reality, and if you know any part of the truth, portraying them as heroes is reprehensible. If it were just a matter of polishing the facts for a ghost story, that would be one thing, but the people the Conjuring franchise frames as the embodiment of virtue were misogynist, reactionary frauds who allegedly kept an underage girl in their house for sex. Now, as the Conjuring movies bend toward a full-on embrace of conservative propaganda, we could all use a reminder of who these people were.
To make sense of the Warrens, you have to place them in the context of the 1970s. Women were newly liberated; queers were throwing…