Travel Channel is kicking off its new “Shock Doc” programming with one of the earliest paranormal pairings. And they are having a fun time doing it. Devil’s Road: The True Story of Ed and Lorraine Warren is a jaunty ride through the lives and cases of Ed and Lorraine Warren. Told with gleefully dramatic suspense, it skips the more disconcerting aspects of their private lives and controversial claims to justify their legend. Before Ghost Hunters, Ghostbusters or even In Search Of, you couldn’t walk into a haunted house in the Northeast U.S. without bumping into the Warrens. Without them there would be no Poltergeist, no The Conjuring, not even little Anabelle would be part of public consciousness. They weren’t the first, but they cornered the mystery market.
Devil’s Road serves up the Warrens with morbid exuberance. They tease their presentation with promises of details which have never been told before. They’ve been told. The movies mentioned above wouldn’t exist without the details which led to the myth the couple created. But the documentary makes them sound fresh, if in a stale, funereal way more suitable for a morgue tour run by a seasoned coroner. Just when you think the narrator couldn’t mine more gravitas from his Robert Stack-on-Unsolved Mysteries homage, he drops his voice an octave and a half for the commercial interruption.
The first case presented is brought to the Warrens by a friend, a psychic named Mary Pascarella, who would go on to work intermittently with the couple. Something spooky is going on in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The incident happens about a month after The Exorcist hit theaters. It has an inauspicious beginning. Gerald and Laura Goodin come home from grocery shopping only to have their purchases flung at them while un-bagging, along with plates, knives, and a refrigerator. They thought little of it at first. They went to bed, thinking it was a one-time phenomenon. Who does that? Two nights later they have police, firemen, and city engineers at their house ducking the refrigerator.
Everyone on the scene tells a similar story. Weird things happen with drawers, closets and the television. Of course, Ed Warren doesn’t believe unless he sees for himself. This reviewer was hoping a can of Schlitz would explode in his hand when he tried to take it out of the fidgety fridge. But Ed’s proof comes when a plastic crucifix falls off the wall. He calls in Father William Charbonneau to examine the interior. Paranormal investigator Paul Eno also arrives on the scene. The documentary keeps its cool, running informational bits and background, until the priest makes it down to the basement. (The Ramones could have told him that.)
Father Charbonneau catches sight of a dark shadow, which Devil’s Road calls a “black mass.” They do this without any sense of irony, chagrin or even a knowing wink at the provocative pairing of words. It is a scientific black mass, not a horror movie one, but having it at the center shows how the devil works: seditiously. While Eno is reading the Bible at the house, he encounters a gauzy mist which forms into four separate shapes. Upon closer inspection he learns they have mass. They feel like a body structure over a set of avian bones. The investigators claim this as evidence of a demonic presence. The Warrens were absolutely god-fearing, but Satan scared them so much they always sought backup. No one but Cardinal and future Pope Ratzinger really deigned to spare priests to perform the ritual of exorcism. The documentary calls it Rituale Romanum, and whenever the two words are used in concert, the voices drip with the pious reverie of dire doings.
After he hears about the impending exorcism, the town’s police superintendent calls time out. He accuses the Goodwin family of perpetuating a hoax, blaming their 10-year-old daughter Marcia, and bars his cops from talking any more about the case. The documentary has lots of tapes of cops and first responders’ accounts which were kept under wraps by the superintendent. The wife of one cop had the hair on her neck raised by a haunted television. The documentary plays quite a few of the statements they’d made before the cover-up turned the Connecticut incident into “the Roswell of haunted houses.”
The investigation was the first significant case for the Warrens. Local reports were picked up by the Associated Press and the wire service made it a national curiosity. The investigators at the center of it wanted to get the idea out there that these things are real and devils exist. They both came from a Roman Catholic upbringing. The documentary saves the couple’s background for after the first case. When the Warrens grew up, during the 40s, the only series which delved into the supernatural was Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
Ed was a self-taught ghost hunter, and his wife Lorraine was a reluctant spiritual medium. We learn Ed grew up in a haunted house. He’d look into closets and see faces, one specifically of an old lady. The temperature in the room would drop and he would hear footsteps and heavy breathing. When he brought it up to his father, he was told there’s a logical explanation for everything with no follow-up. Lorraine was nine when she first saw auras. She thought everyone saw it, but finds out she’s alone in this when she talks about it at Catholic school. She compares the lights surrounding the Mother Superior and Sister Joseph, and the superior one immediately proves why she’s a little dim by telling Lorraine not to talk about those things.
Lorraine learns to hide her gifts or joke it off. Archival tapes catch her lamenting how she didn’t want to be different. Ed learns about the spiritual dimension during World War II, surviving a naval attack with a touch of an angel. Ed and Lorraine get married on his survivor leave. After the service he sells paintings and they visit haunted houses all around New England, where there are dozens of paranormal attractions. At one house, which already has some local notoriety as a supernatural hotspot, Lorraine goes into spontaneous trance and says she learned not to fear death. What’s interesting about this is the owner told the Warrens it happens a lot to paranormal investigators who’ve investigated the house. That’s why the house became a tourist attraction. Ghost hunting goes back to the 1700s, and has hit several plateaus of popularity over years. It wasn’t invented in the 1940s.
The next case the documentary focuses on is the Amityville horror house, which is the cinematic gift which keeps on giving. It was first told in Jay Anson’s novel The Amityville Horror. On Nov. 13, 1974, Ronald DeFeo Jr. killed his whole family in a sleepy Long Island home. A little later, a family moved in because murder scene houses are a steal on the real estate market. The first time she visits the property, Lorraine holds a holy relic in her hand. It shatters. Another investigator tells of a demon infestation which pins him down. Mary Pascarella picks up that a warlock lived on the property years ago, which would make for a great prequel to any of the movie franchises which came out of it.
The Devil’s Road version of the well-known story is most interesting because of the differences in how the case is told. Throughout the documentary, horror fans can make the associations from the featured details and the final films. The Succubus Exorcism of West Pittston, Pennsylvania in 1986 has not yet been made into a film. Jack and Janet Smurl and their daughters Heather and Dawn, have a devil of a time getting the local Catholic diocese to take them seriously. The Warrens go on CNN’s The Larry King Show to use the media to shame them into sending a couple of priests. They also meet the devil in a former funeral home in Connecticut. Once again, the trusty Rituale Romanum brings malevolent beneficence through the voice of the narrator.
The Warrens’ daughter Judy and her husband Tony Spera ground the documentary through talking head interviews. While some of it is revelatory in the details, nothing particularly enlightening comes out. We get what we expect with no personal insight beyond the cases and family canon. Ed and Lorraine Warren investigated thousands of hauntings over the course of their 50-year career and made numerous TV appearances during the 1970s and 1980s trying to spread the word of paranormal and preternatural worlds. Much of it sounds dry, but the suspenseful presentation is fun, albeit in a retro way.
The Warrens were pioneers, and many of the techniques they employed are now staples in the search for the supernatural. Devil’s Road: The True Story of Ed and Lorraine Warren doesn’t present them as the self-proclaimed wackos of James Wan’s The Conjuring, which made the very house it is set in unlivable because of all the attention. The documentary does what any Travel Channel special is duty bound to do. It turns Ed and Lorraine Warren into a tourist attraction just like they did for the real estate they appraised.
Devil’s Road: The True Story of Ed and Lorraine Warren premieres on Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 7, on Travel Channel.