War over ‘The Conjuring’: The Disturbing Claim…

A legal spat reveals the real-life
demonologists in the $1.2 billion-grossing horror movies may not have been
nearly as pious as they’re portrayed.


Fans of The
 horror movie franchise will be familiar with the romantic
tale of Ed and Lorraine Warren, real-life married demonologists who claimed
their Catholic faith helped them fend off the forces of evil. In the trailer
for the first film, Warner Bros.’ New Line division sold The Conjuring as
“based on the true story of the Warrens,” but according to legal
filings and recordings obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, it’s
possible that even the simple depiction of the Warrens as a devoted and pious
couple might have stretched the truth past the breaking point.

It appears that top studio executives were made aware
just weeks after the first film opened in 2013 of allegations that, in the
early 1960s, Ed Warren initiated a relationship with an underage girl with
Lorraine’s knowledge. Now in her 70s, Judith Penney has said in a sworn
declaration that she lived in the Warrens’ house as Ed’s lover for four
It is unclear whether
Warner Bros. took any action in response to these allegations, but the sequel
continued to portray them as a happy couple in a conventional marriage. Warners
declined to comment, but an attorney for the studio has asserted in court
papers that a disgruntled author and a producer suing the studio over profits
from the franchise are pushing the story of the Warrens’ personal lives as part
of a vendetta. Ed Warren died in 2006, and Lorraine Warren’s attorney, Gary
Barkin, says the family has no knowledge of the alleged conduct and his client,
now 90, is in declining health and unable to respond to the allegations.

Movie marketers
long have found value in claiming that films are based on fact, but there are
no explicit rules governing how far filmmakers can deviate from the truth while
still including “based on a true story” in advertisements. When
challenges have arisen in the past, courts have given the studios a lot of
latitude. Sometimes there is backlash against a film when its accuracy is
questioned, as happened with Norman Jewison’s The Hurricane or
Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. (Both obviously are more
serious “fact-based” films than The Conjuring.) Given the
supernatural elements of the Conjuring films, it’s fair to
assume that not every fan believed everything shown on the screen was literally
true. Skeptical or not, audiences flocked to the movies: The Conjuring and
its spinoffs have grossed $1.2 billion for Warners — profits that have spawned
a veritable horror show of litigation over who owns the rights to the Warrens’
stories. Another spinoff is in postproduction, and a second sequel is in

Ed Warren was a
self-taught ghost hunter, while Lorraine put herself forward as a medium who
could communicate with spirits. The Warrens didn’t take fees for their work,
but they enjoyed immense financial success nonetheless thanks to nine books, a
busy lecture schedule and consulting on films based on their exploits —
including the 1979 and 2005 versions of The Amityville Horror.

original Conjuring film, set in the early ‘70s, tells the tale
of the Warrens’ dramatic rescue of a family residing in a Rhode Island
farmhouse supposedly inhabited by the spirit of a long-deceased witch. From the
start, the Warrens’ romantic relationship is central, with Patrick Wilson
playing Ed and Vera Farmiga as Lorraine. “Do you remember what you said to
me on our wedding night?” Lorraine asks Ed at one point. “You said
that God brought us together for a reason.”

But materials
obtained by THR suggest that in real life, the Warrens’
relationship was far from divine. Among them is a sworn declaration from
Penney, who maintained that Ed — with his wife’s knowledge — initiated an
“amorous” relationship with her when she was 15. Penney, who has not
been a party to any of the litigation over The Conjuring movies,
declined to comment.


Ed Warren and Penney sometime in the 1970s.

Ed Warren was in
his mid-30s when he allegedly met 15-year-old Penney. Having not yet gained
enough fame as a self-trained demonologist to pay the bills in the early 1960s,
Ed was working as a city bus driver in Monroe, Connecticut. Penney was a
student at Central High School in the nearby town of Bridgeport who rode his
bus. The two began an “amorous relationship,” Penney said in a legal
declaration she gave in November 2014. According to that document, as well as
newly obtained recordings of Penney’s recollection of events, by 1963 she had
moved into the Warrens’ home. For the next 40 years, she said, she had a sexual
relationship with Ed with Lorraine’s knowledge. At first, Penney stayed in a
bedroom directly opposite the one occupied by the married couple, but
eventually she moved into an apartment built for her above the home. “One
night he’d sleep downstairs,” she said in a recording. “One night
he’d sleep upstairs.”

Even in 1963, a
teenage girl did not move in with a married man without attracting notice. That
year Penney was arrested after someone reported her relationship with Ed to
local police. According to her November 2014 declaration, she spent a night in
the North End Prison in Bridgeport while police tried to persuade her to sign a
statement admitting to the affair. After Penney refused to cooperate, she was
ordered by the court to report to a delinquent youth office for the next month.
According to Penney’s account, Ed picked her up from school every week and
drove her to the mandated meetings.

Penney has said
Ed told her many times that she was the “love of his life.” The
Warrens, according to her, presented her variously as a niece or poor girl whom
they had taken in out of charity. In May 1978, in her 30s, Penney became pregnant
with Ed’s child, she has said. In the declaration, she said Lorraine persuaded
her to have an abortion because the birth of a child could become public and
any scandal could ruin the Warrens’ business. Though Lorraine has claimed to be
a devout Catholic, Penney said her “real god is money.” In a tearful
recording obtained by THR, Penney recalled: “They wanted me to
tell everyone that someone had come into my apartment and raped me, and I
wouldn’t do that. I was so scared. I didn’t know what to do, but I had an
abortion. The night they picked me up from the hospital after having it, they
went out and lectured and left me alone.”

Penney also has
claimed Ed was sometimes abusive to Lorraine. Early on, she said, she witnessed
him backhand his wife so hard she lost consciousness. “Sometimes Ed would
actually have to slap her across the face to shut her up,” Penney said in
one recording. “Some nights I thought they were going to kill each

Penney has said she helped Ed maintain his reputation
as a ghost hunter. He claimed to have captured the “white lady” — a
ghost who supposedly haunts Union Cemetery in Easton, Connecticut — on tape in
the summer of 1990 after camping out in the graveyard for a week. Penney claims
Ed wanted to make a video that would show what the white lady would look like
if she were spotted, so she took a page from every grade-schooler’s Halloween
playbook and donned a white sheet for the filming.

attorney Barkin tells THR that Judy and Tony Spera, the
Warrens’ daughter and son-in-law, never saw any of the alleged conduct during
the decades they spent with Ed, Lorraine and Penney. “The Warrens opened
their home to Ms. Penney when she was 18 and had nowhere else to live following
a childhood of neglect,” writes Barkin in an email. “During much of
their career, Ed and Lorraine were on the road, working on cases and giving
lectures — and Ms. Penney lived at and watched their house.” They also say
Penney had a long-term boyfriend for much of that time, whom she eventually
married, and the couple spent holidays with their family. The Speras believe
Penney is now being manipulated.

But Lorraine
seems to have been intent on preventing any sordid aspects of her story from
being portrayed onscreen. Her deal with New Line to serve as a consultant on or
model for The Conjuring includes unusual restrictions: The
films couldn’t show her or her husband engaging in crimes, including sex with
minors, child pornography, prostitution or sexual assault. Neither the husband
nor wife could be depicted as participating in an extramarital sexual
relationship. Talent attorney Jill Smith says she has never seen specific
language barring such depictions, though individuals selling rights to their
stories sometimes restrict portrayals. “I have done deals which prevented
depictions of certain specific types of odious behavior which are not relevant
to the underlying story and [in] which, typically, the person is not known to
have participated,” she says.

Soon after the
original Conjuring movie opened, producer Tony DeRosa-Grund
sent an email informing top Warners and New Line executives that the film was a
far cry from the advertised “true story of the Warrens.” DeRosa-Grund
— now locked in a legal battle with Warners over profits from the movie after
he claims he was unfairly shut out of the sequels and spinoffs — said in his
September 2013 email that a woman close to the Warrens had seen the movie and
was “mortified as to the inaccurate portrait of the relationship between
Ed and Lorraine Warren.” Among those copied on the email were Warners
chairman Kevin Tsujihara and marketing chief Sue Kroll as well as Toby
Emmerich, then-president of New Line (now president of Warners’ film studio);
outside counsel Michael O’Connor; and in-house attorney Craig Alexander. It is
unclear whether Warners responded. (A JAMS arbitrator interpreted
DeRosa-Grund’s communication to New Line about Penney as a threat that
undermined his credibility. New Line is currently pursuing sanctions against
the producer in another pending litigation.)

Not only was the
Warrens’ marriage a far cry from the one portrayed onscreen, DeRosa-Grund wrote
in his email, but their daughter — also named Judy and portrayed in the
original film by Sterling Jerins — had lived not with her parents but with
Lorraine’s mother. Penney said she was the only young girl living in the
Warrens’ house.

“Ed was a pedophile, a sexual predator and an
[sic] physically abusive husband,” wrote DeRosa-Grund. “Lorraine
enabled Ed to do this, she knowingly allowed this illegal (read criminal)
relationship to continue for 40 years. They lied to the public.”
That email was sent after the first film,
but 2016’s The Conjuring 2 only amplified the loving
relationship between the Warrens. At one point, Ed adoringly sings “Can’t
Help Falling in Love” to Lorraine, and the film ends with a callback to
that moment as Lorraine puts the record on and the two slow dance in their
living room. “The Warrens’ straightforward earnestness fuels the film,
more so than their Catholicism,” wrote Sheri Linden in THR’s
review of The Conjuring 2. “Amid the chills and thrills, the
childhood anxieties and vulnerability, [director James] Wan has made a
celebration of the demonologist duo’s marriage.”

In his September
2013 email, DeRosa-Grund wrote that he had assured Penney he could
“temper” the romantic relationship shown between Ed and Lorraine in
the sequels. He warned the executives that Penney might tell her story to the
media. “Once this comes out, do you think Patrick Wilson or Vera Farmiga
would knowingly play Ed and Lorraine ever again?” he asks. “The
answer is no one would. … No amount of spin from any crisis PR firm can ever
‘fix’ this once the truth comes out.” (Neither actor commented.)

Penney has never
told her story to the media, but it nearly surfaced as part of the sprawling
legal fight over the films. Author Gerald Brittle claims in a pending lawsuit
that the Conjuring franchise
rips off his 1980 book, The Demonologist. Brittle is suing Warners
and New Line for a staggering $900 million.

The studio has
argued that its films are protected from copyright claims because “no one
has a monopoly to tell stories or make movies about true-life figures and
events.” But Brittle counters that the studio is aware that the portrayal
of the Warrens in his book turned out to be far from truthful. Brittle claims
he believed the stories the Warrens told him but later found out they were

allegations about the Warrens’ relationship were included in an October 2015
letter to New Line outside counsel O’Connor from attorney Sanford Dow. (It is
unclear which party Dow was representing in this matter, and he did not respond
to repeated inquiries from THR.) “Mr. Warren has been accused
of being cut from the exact same cloth as convicted Penn State football child
molester Jerry Sandusky and the accused sexual predator Bill Cosby,” wrote
Dow. “Mrs. Warren, in both condoning and covering up these heinous acts,
is as complicit as her husband.”

Dow threatened to
add these claims in litigation against New Line unless the studio agreed to a
settlement. The proposed deal suggested terms to resolve not only Brittle’s and
DeRosa-Grund’s issues with the studio but also Penney’s, though she was not a
party to the settlement discussions. According to the letter, Penney would
transfer her life rights to New Line and sign a confidentiality agreement in
exchange for $150,000 — the same amount Lorraine initially received for The

The settlement
didn’t happen, and explicit allegations have not been included in any
litigation against the studio. But buried in a 355-page lawsuit that Brittle
filed in March was a claim that Penney was ready to testify about the
“epic falsity” of the family dynamic in the films. The lawsuit said
Penney would disclose “the absolute charade of this family dynamic as told
by the Warrens, and as depicted as ‘fact’ in all of the Defendant’s movies. The
true family dynamic was known at the highest executive levels of both New Line
and Time Warner.” The suit said the studio ignored the truth “to
protect [its] billion-dollar franchise.”

Reached by THR,
Brittle declined to comment on the matter or share his knowledge of Penney — whom
he has known of for decades. The author even referenced her in his book in a
chapter about a 1974 haunting of Peter Beckford’s family home in Vermont.
Beckford’s 19-year-old daughter, Vicky, invited a demonic spirit into the
family’s life through a Ouija board, the story goes, and he was referred to the
local ghost hunters. “Pete telephoned the Warrens and spoke with Judy
Penney, a young woman who works as a liaison when Ed and Lorraine are out of
town,” Brittle wrote. “Judy has heard some hair-raising tales over
the phone, but this one in particularly scared her. ‘The Warrens are out West,’
she told Pete Beckford, ‘but I’ll relay the message to them.’ ”

In a countersuit
against Brittle filed in September, New Line attorney Benjamin Rottenborn
dismisses Brittle’s claims as part of an attempt to sabotage the Conjuring franchise,
in league with DeRosa-Grund, who has been admonished for his conduct in at
least two judicial proceedings. “For years, Brittle and his cohort, Tony
DeRosa-Grund, have conspired to strip New Line of [its] rights, constantly
changing positions and concocting new theories with complete disregard for the
truth,” he said in court papers.

Legal experts say
that Warners and New Line did not necessarily do anything wrong by allowing so
heavily a fictionalized portrayal of the Warrens’ relationship. (At the end of
each film, Warners includes a standard disclaimer reading, “Dialogue and
certain events and characters contained in the film were created for the
purposes of dramatization.”) “I do think the public understands that
‘based on’ means that some liberties with storytelling have been taken,”
says attorney Lincoln Bandlow, who specializes in legal clearance for
productions. “It’s a less enjoyable film if the ghost hunters are a bunch
of assholes no one likes. You have to have your protagonists be likable.”
He adds that because these films are ghost stories and not strictly historical,
audiences are even more likely to expect fictionalization: “There’s a
giant sense of ‘Take some of this with a big grain of salt’ to this whole

Still, if he were
representing the studio, he’d advise caution with respect to misleading fans,
even though he doubts a false foundation would spark any viable legal claim.

Attorney Lisa
Callif, an adviser to independent producers, agrees that the problem is more a
matter of public relations than law. Filmmakers could easily argue that the
relationship is not material to the story and justify sticking with the happy
Hollywood version. “So what if people believe they have a good relationship?”
says Callif. “If I were in this mix and the filmmakers knew all about this
other woman, I don’t think I’d tell them that it was necessary to make any
changes or to adjust the story.”

As for Penney,
now in her 70s, it seems she has never received a cent from the Conjuring movies. Though she clearly has no
love for Lorraine, she still seems to have fond feelings for Ed. Though their
relationship ended in 2003 and she subsequently married, she remained friendly
with Ed until his death in 2006. She still seems to be pondering her past and
wondering about Lorraine’s role as well as her own. “As I’m older now, I
can’t even fathom why Lorraine let me stay there,” she said in an October
recording. “Lots of times I think about, ‘Why did I do this? Why did I
screw up my life like this?’ Sometimes I get angry thinking about it, how so
much was taken away from me.”

Masters & Ashley Cullins, The Hollywood Reporter