Controversial paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren get another cinematic outing in James Wan’s supernatural sequel, The Conjuring 2. Total Film goes on set to scare up the truth behind the ‘true story’…
October 30, 2015: it’s nearly Halloween and the crew of The Conjuring 2 are getting into the holiday spirit. When Total Film arrives at the studio in Burbank, we count several people in costume: black cats, zombies, skeletons, and an especially creepy Snow White. The truly scary stuff, though, is happening on the other side of the camera.
That’s where Patrick Wilson, reprising his role as demonologist Ed Warren from the first movie, is hanging out of the window of a painstaking reproduction of a 1970s north London council house. Buffeted by supernatural forces, clad in a ripped shirt and smeared with blood, he’s clutching a young girl in his arms and screaming for help; inside the house, Vera Farmiga, also returning as Wilson’s onscreen wife Lorraine, is driving back a red-eyed demon while religious icons crash to the floor around her. Despite the bright Californian sunshine outside, here on set, a rain machine is providing a much more authentically British atmosphere.
While the crew sets up for a second take, we grab the opportunity to explore the rest of the set. Beyond the main house (which has been scaled up to three times the size of a real council house, though it’s otherwise convincing) there’s a whole street, complete with pebble-dashed walls, shrubberies, and real, damp concrete underfoot.
Around the corner, there’s the Warrens’ artefact room. Like the grimmest toy box ever, it’s crammed with evil-looking bits and pieces: weird paintings, skulls, a stuffed monkey, a samurai suit and, of course, plenty of creepy dolls.
The final set we spot might be the most exciting. It’s a familiar-looking attic bedroom, complete with period-accurate shag pile carpet, an old TV, and those iconic quarter-moon shaped windows – it’s the Amityville Horror house! Bad news for Amityville fans, though, because the Warrens’ most famous investigation isn’t going to be the main haunting in this movie. That honour goes to the Enfield poltergeist, a case the Warrens travelled to London to investigate back in 1977.
Like The Amityville Horror, it’s a story about a struggling family in a haunted house. Here, it’s single mother Peggy Hodgson (played by Frances O’Connor) who’s being plagued by evil forces, as she and her four kids watch furniture zoom around the room, speak in unearthly voices, or get tossed into the air by unseen nasties in the middle of the night.
But while the Enfield haunting might not be quite as famous as the Amityville one, it’s hardly unknown, either. There have been several screen adaptations of the ‘true’ story already, most recently Sky’s miniseries The Enfield Haunting. Considering the real Warrens took on more than 8,000 hauntings in their time, you might expect the filmmakers to plump for a less recognisable story to adapt this time round (especially because choosing this one meant having to build a mini-Enfield on a soundstage) but it turns out that Enfield’s infamy was part of the attraction.
“Why did I pick this one?” repeats director James Wan, when we quiz him about it. “Well, trying to find the right case to go with was tricky, but people are very familiar with the Warrens investigating Amityville, so we knew we had to address that in the second film. And we thought it would be interesting to tell these two different stories – they mirror each other, because they’re both cases that are infamous, and they’re both cases that have their fair share of sceptics.”
That’s a hell of an understatement. Both the Amityville and Enfield hauntings have been thoroughly debunked over the years, though Lorraine Warren still maintains that they were real examples of paranormal activity. The movies are unquestionably on her side, though Wan doesn’t want to completely ignore the sceptics. “It was one of the things I felt I had to talk about,” he says. “After the first movie came out, people who don’t believe in the Warrens had a lot to say about them, and I think it’s important for me as a filmmaker to address that, and make it one of the hurdles that the characters have to try and overcome.”
Non-believers might even turn out to be more difficult to exorcise than demons. The Conjuring 2 picks up a long six years after the first one left off, and over those years the Warrens have become both more famous and more criticised, facing widespread accusations of fakery. “A lot has changed in six years,” says Farmiga, who’s understandably protective of her character’s beliefs. “It’s six more years of wisdom, six more years of being attacked by sceptics, and six years of even more harrowing spiritual warfare. What’s going to be palpable to the audience is that [Lorraine has] this real wariness and weariness, and frustration with the media.”
Behind the scenes, the sequel also faced its share of naysayers. Though the record-breaking box office success of the first Conjuring movie meant a follow-up was all but inevitable, that got a bit stickier when producer Tony DeRosa-Grund tried to sue Warner Bros, claiming that the studio didn’t have the proper rights to the Warrens’ stories. According to him, they’d only licensed parts of some of the cases that he owned, and that licence didn’t allow for any sequels. A long legal battle ensued; the case was only settled this January, when a judge ruled that DeRosa-Grund’s claim to the rights was invalid.
By then, of course, the movie was already in the can. When we talked to producers Peter Safran and Rob Cowan on set, they seemed unconcerned; for one thing, they had Lorraine Warren on board, and for another, they’d spoken to the Hodgson family about getting the rights to tell their story. Plus, well, the script had already taken certain liberties with the facts, embellishing the story of the ‘Old Bill’ spirit, amping up the significance of a creepy old leather armchair, and adding in that red-eyed demon. Facts, it seems, are pretty flexible when it comes to ghost stories.
“If people get upset about my films not being realistic, I would say, ‘I’m not making a documentary here,’” laughs Wan. “I’m making a fun movie!” And making a fun movie means you get to fudge it. “We’re doing the cinematic version, obviously,” agrees Farmiga. “It’s one of the longest historical cases of paranormal activity on record, so we had to compress that down to make it a really terrorising experience.”
For horror fans, that’s probably what really matters: the scares. With five horror movies already under his belt, Wan’s something of an expert in engineering terror. “The scares for me are very organic,” he explains excitedly, “It all starts with the seed of an idea, then I slowly plan it out and open it up more. I try to think of things that would scare me, and what would happen if I went one step further – if you think it’s going to stop here, but I don’t stop it there and carry on a bit more. Audiences get more and more sophisticated with every passing year, so it’s definitely a challenge to stay one step ahead of that, but that’s part of the fun, to try to come up with new things to scare them with.”
He definitely seems to be having fun, especially for a man who’d announced he was retiring from horror after 2013’s Insidious 2. A major factor in bringing him back, it seems, was the opportunity to work with Wilson and Farmiga again. “I love those guys a lot,” he confesses. “They’re super talented, but ultimately they’re just amazing people.”
Wilson’s worked with Wan on four horror movies now, and when we catch up with him, fresh off the set and still damp from the faux rain, he’s got nothing but praise for his director. “One of the things James does so well is, he never settles,” he says of Wan. “I think that’s why he and I get on so well. I just want to keep pushing myself, and we’re doing that on this movie.”
This time round, Ed gets to do a lot more in the way of evil-fighting heroics, and Wilson’s relishing every second of it. “As an actor, I’ve done a lot of roles where it’s so underplayed it’s like, ‘are you doing anything?’” he says. “In the horror films I’ve done with James, there’s a lot to chew on. It gets me out of my comfort zone, embracing the fact that you have to walk around screaming Latin at a demon. You cannot bullshit your way around, half-giving an exorcism.”
For Farmiga, it’s more about capturing the real, human side of the story. Partly, that’s about developing the onscreen relationship between Ed and Lorraine, a relationship she describes as “their astounding love, friendship, and partnership.” She and Wilson have been friends since his wife, Dagmara Dominczyk, appeared in Farmiga’s directorial debut, Higher Ground, and both of them say their off-screen friendship feeds into their on-screen chemistry. But also, she’s now spent enough time around the real Lorraine Warren that she considers the clairvoyant a friend, and wants to make her depiction of her as authentic and respectful as possible – even if the story doesn’t unfold quite as it might’ve done in reality.
“[Lorraine’s] given me so many books over the last few years – and diaries, and tapes – and three years ago [during the filming of the first film] we had very specific conversations about cases,” Farmiga explains. “But now my time with Lorraine is just about absorbing her, just watching her exist. The script is so precise that it’s just a matter of applying myself, and knowing what her attributes and gifts are, trying to add that energy: her grace and her ardour, her passion and her way of moving through space.”
All very heart-warming for a team of people working on a film designed to scare the pants off cinemagoers. Sweet, even. But before we go, since it is Halloween and all, we have to ask whether there’ve been any spooky goings-on behind the scenes. If everyone’s so determined to believe that the Hodgson haunting was real and the Warrens really were fighting a war against evil, shouldn’t they be worried about attracting the attention of something supernatural themselves?
Turns out, not so much. Wan had the set blessed before production began, bringing in a Catholic priest to sprinkle holy water around and pray over the principle cast members, and after that, nothing weird seems to have happened. Or at least, not that he noticed. “Usually, when scary things happen, they happen to the crew and not to me,” he giggles. “But I’m usually so busy directing the film I don’t pay attention. I could literally walk right through a ghost and not think twice. I’d be like, ‘what was that? That was a bit chilly!’ as I was on my way to the camera to set up the next shot.”