Man at His Best

What It's Like To Meet Annabelle, The Real-Life Haunted Doll From The Conjuring

She lives in Connecticut. Do you want to meet her?

BY ELIZA THOMPSON | Jun 20, 2016 | Film & TV

Creepy dolls have been a staple of horror movies for about as long as horror movies have been a thing. Chucky. Bride of Chucky. All those nightmares from the Puppet Master movies. More recently, Brahms, the emotionless goblin that Lauren Cohan had to babysit in The Boy. But only one family has built an empire out of their creepy doll. You know her as Annabelle, first seen in The Conjuring and later in her eponymous spin-off. She is the rare horror character who really exists, though in real life, she doesn't look anything like her on-screen counterpart. She lives in Monroe, Connecticut, and if you have USD169 to spare and the desire to spend four hours in a room with several possessed artefacts, you can meet her. 

On a warm Saturday night in June, a couple hundred people gathered in the parking lot of an Italian restaurant in Monroe called Roberto's. They were patiently waiting to be checked in for "An Evening With Annabelle," which consists of a lecture, videos, buffet dinner, and later, we'll all learn, an impromptu acoustic cover of the Beach Boys' "Sloop John B." Everyone in line had to sign a waiver before entering, absolving the hosts from "any liability or traumatic influence associated with viewing the items or being in the presence of Annabelle," but this did not deter eager patrons from making jokes about the lady we were about to meet. "She's gonna be furious if you go on in there with a phone on," the guy in line behind me said to his friend. 

The real Annabelle.

Though Annabelle is popular enough to take over a suburban Connecticut banquet hall, she's just one point on the long timeline of Ed and Lorraine Warren's careers as paranormal investigators. Portrayed in the Conjuring films by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, Ed and Lorraine started taking cases—going to houses and checking for demons, ghosts, and other supernatural problems—in the 1940s. They met as teenagers at the movie theatre where Ed worked, but each developed their affinity for the supernatural as children, Ed while growing up in a house he believed was haunted, and Lorraine while at a Catholic girls' school where she claimed she began sensing people's auras. Once they were married, Ed would paint houses rumoured to be haunted, then have Lorraine tell the owners her husband had a gift for them. This would sometimes gain the couple entry into the home, at which point Ed would use his self-proclaimed sensitivity to the paranormal to try and figure out what was going on in the house. 

Ed and Lorraine's son-in-law Tony Spera, who now handles the family business (Ed died in 2006 after complications from an earlier stroke and Lorraine, 89, no longer gives interviews), told me Ed didn't initially believe Lorraine when she said she had psychic abilities. "He didn't even know what the word 'clairvoyant' meant," Tony explains, noting that Lorraine eventually proved herself to Ed through her work. "She's what's known as a light trance medium," Tony says. "So she could go into a home and automatically sense through that third eye if there was a spirit occupying that dwelling … Ed would go in on a case as an investigator, as a skeptic, almost like a detective — 'Prove it to me, pal.' And when Ed didn't hear it or feel it or see it, he'd just look over at Lorraine and say, 'Lorraine, is there a spirit in the house?' And she'd go, 'Yeah, there is. It's dark, it's bad.'" Tony told me that Lorraine still possesses her psychic abilities, but at 89, "has her good days and her bad," so is effectively retired from ghost hunting.  

Tony and Lorraine with Vera Farmiga.

Ed and Lorraine first rose to prominence after getting a call to check out a possible haunting at West Point, but most people became aware of their work (even if they didn't yet know it was them) with the release of The Amityville Horror in 1979. The accuracy of the movie and the "true story" it was allegedly based on have since been written off as a hoax, but Tony says it was all true, and the hoax claims were perpetuated by real Amityville residents annoyed that rubberneckers were vandalizing property. "People were coming and taking shingles off the house," he says. "They took the Amityville town sign down and stole it, so [townspeople] shut that down. Once you call it a hoax, people automatically grab on and go, 'Oh, that was just a hoax, forget it,' without knowing any of the backstory." 

In 2013, The Conjuring introduced the Warrens to a new generation of horror fans and reignited interest in their Occult Museum, connected to the house where Lorraine still lives via a tunnel lined with Ed's paintings. I visited the week before the Evening With Annabelle, timed to coincide with the release of The Conjuring 2, to meet Tony for our interview. In addition to Annabelle, the museum houses tons of artefacts from Ed and Lorraine's investigations—skulls, voodoo dolls, a satanic idol Ed found in the woods in 1991. There was a single candle lit on a table near the wall, and photos of the museum's famous visitors—Patrick and Vera, Demi Lovato, Dave Navarro—hanging from the rafters. 

If you don't ask to see a ghost, if you don't challenge something in a house—odds are you're never gonna have a problem.

Tony, now 65, is retired, but began working with the Warrens in the mid-'80s after meeting (and eventually marrying) their only daughter Judy, who isn't as interested in her parents' line of work but did appear at the Annabelle event. "I learned a lot from Ed, because I listened to Ed tell the stories during his lectures, then we'd go on cases and he'd explain what was going on in the house," Tony says. "I was taught by the master of demonology … it was very, very frightening at times, but very interesting too."  

Tony lives in the nearby town of New Milford but suggested that we do the interview in folding chairs directly in front of Annabelle's case, marked as it is in the movies with a sign that reads, "WARNING: POSITIVELY DO NOT OPEN." Movie Annabelle, with her inhuman crazy eyes, is the kind of doll you would not let in your home with a gun to your head, but the real Annabelle is just a harmless-looking Raggedy Ann. Somehow, this makes her more terrifying. I felt like it would have been a diva move to ask to talk elsewhere, but let me make it clear that I was petrified. After I booked my Annabelle event ticket, I woke up in the middle of the night after hearing what sounded like a bird fly into my window, and the night before my trip up to meet Tony, I'd had a dream about a ghost in my apartment. This is on top of my Pentecostal upbringing, which so put me off anything possibly demonic that I once left a sleepover because someone brought out an Ouija board. (Tony would likely have praised this as a wise move. "The best way to not have anything bad happen to you is to not dabble," he told me. "If you don't dabble in occult practices at all, if you don't use a Ouija board, if you don't ask to see a ghost, if you don't challenge something in a house — odds are you're never gonna have a problem.")

Lorraine and Ed.

Luckily for my sanity, Annabelle did not do anything scary while I was in her presence, though I did see a moth flutter by her case at one point, and later, while listening to a recording of the interview, I heard a horrible growl on the tape that was probably my stomach but let's be real, was a demon. I also kept seeing my own movements reflected in the glass and thinking she was coming for me. Being inside the museum also left a musty smell in my hair that I didn't notice until later, when I was back at home watching Curb Your Enthusiasm—maybe not coincidentally, the one about the doll.  

Annabelle was quiet at Roberto's too, resting under a velvet blanket for much of the evening. Despite the fact that she's extremely haunted and dangerous, everyone I talked to was excited to see her. One friendly woman at my table had flown all the way from Georgia and bought a new dress for the occasion. She had already purchased a USD20 copy of The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed & Lorraine Warren, and was planning to buy a bracelet made with pieces of Lorraine's jewellery (the proceeds of which were going to charity, per Tony). She told me she'd recently spent the night in a haunted insane asylum in West Virginia and claimed that it would make a skeptic believe. 

Tony hosts the Annabelle events in town instead of at the house because of the fact that the Warren home is not licensed for commercial use, though he did offer private tours the following day for USD75 a head. He declined to comment on other financial specifics, save to say that Ed and Lorraine, and now Tony, never charge for an investigation, but do accept reimbursements for travel and food expenses for more long-distance journeys. Ed and Lorraine also wrote several books about their experiences, and at the Evening With Annabelle, there was additional merchandise for sale like N.E.S.P.R. (New England Society for Psychic Research) hats and dog tags. Lorraine served as a consultant for the first Conjuring and had a cameo role, but Tony says the family did not have any input on Annabelle and The Conjuring 2 (though they did attend the premiere for the latter).  

You don't steal things from witch doctors. Ever.

If all this is a shameless cash grab feeding off people's fear of the unknown, the attendees at Annabelle's party either didn't notice or were willing to put it aside for the chance to see something spooky. A few people I spoke to were disappointed by Lorraine's absence, but were excited to see Annabelle live and in the rags, along with a conjuring mirror and another haunted artefact, the Shadow Doll, cursed to appear in your dreams and then ruin your entire life. The video presentation, which included a tour of the Occult Museum given by Ed before his death, was beset by technical difficulties, but it's hard to watch two grown men talking seriously about how "the haunted hours are between 9PM and 6AM" and not be entertained, either because you think it's all bullshit or you're scared out of your mind. Another piece of wisdom Ed dispatched in the clip: "You don't steal things from witch doctors. Ever." Can you really argue with that? 

After the pasta buffet, the aforementioned surprise concert, and a speech from Tony about the difference between human spirits and the demonic, people were starting to get restless. Finally, about 3.5 hours after admittance, Tony unveiled the lady we'd all come to see. The scrum of people around her was so tightly packed you'd have thought she was the Pope come to give us all a blessing. Having already met her a week earlier, I was somewhat less impressed than everyone else, but still unwilling to disobey Tony's command not to challenge her or touch her case. I spent the train ride back home convincing myself that the event had cured me of my fears, but then refused to put my own copy of The Demonologist in my room (yeah, I bought one) and had to take two shots of whiskey so I could fall asleep before 3AM. She might not really be able to kill you with her doll mind, but as Tony puts it, why would you take that chance?

From: Cosmopolitan.

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