The Paranormal to Pop Culture Pipeline

Last week, Raw Story featured an unusual summer travel spot—The Occult Museum of Ed and Elizabeth Warren. Although skeptics have dismissed the museum as “full of off-the-shelf Halloween junk, dolls and toys, books you could buy at any bookstore,” it’s an important case study in lived religion and the free exchange of ideas between pop culture and paranormal belief.

The Warrens (Ed passed in 2006) were infamous demonologists whose greatest “case files” have resulted in such “real life” horror films as The Amityville Horror, A Haunting in Connecticut, and The Conjuring, which featured “Annabelle,” a demonically-possessed doll acquired during the Warrens’ adventures that tourists can still visit at the museum.

The Warrens were Catholic and generally only showed up at the homes of Catholic families to offer their services.  Their work demonstrated the often improvisational and messy logic of lived religion, combining Catholic ideas about demonology and the supernatural with a milieu of material gleaned from New Age metaphysics and popular culture.

When Dr. Steven Novella of the New England Skeptics Society visited the Warren’s museum, Ed warned the skeptics, “If you do touch anything, let me know because I’ll cleanse your aura by visualizing you in a Christ light.” Ed’s method of warding off evil energy was neither Catholic nor New Age, but made sense in its own context of popular demonology.  Contemporary paranormal discourse rarely revolves around the question, “Is it true?” but rather, “Does it work?”

The museum’s prize, Annabelle, is a particularly interesting case study in the relationship between pop culture and paranormal folklore. According to legend, a nursing student received a Raggedy Ann doll from her mother in 1970. When the doll exhibited strange behavior, a medium revealed that the doll was possessed by a dead woman named “Annabelle Higgins.” The student and her roommate took compassion for the spirit and granted Annabelle permission to reside in the doll. However, when frightening incidents continued to occur, they contacted the Warrens, who declared that “Annabelle Higgins” was actually a demon.1404396615013.cached

Around the same time, a story emerged about “Robert,” a doll allegedly given to Robert Eugene Otto of Key West, Florida in 1906 by a Caribbean woman skilled in black magic.  This doll—currently on exhibit in Key West’s Fort East Martello Museum and Gardens—allegedly moved by itself and exhibited other disturbing behavior.

Why did two stories of demonic dolls emerge in 1970? It may have something to do with the Twilight Zone episode “Living Doll,” which aired in 1963. In that episode, a mother (named Annabelle), gives her daughter a “Talky Tina” doll that proceeds to terrorize the girl’s stepfather before causing him to fall down the steps and die in an apparent accident. (Ed Warren warned that the last museum visitor who mocked Annabel died in motorcycle accident). The demonic doll trope jumped from pop culture to folklore and then back to pop culture.  Robert—a demonic doll enchanted through Caribbean magic—is believed to be the inspiration for the “Child’s Play” films and Annabelle received a much creepier makeover in The Conjuring.

The idea of demonically-possessed dolls allows modern demonologists to find supernatural evil in the most banal and domestic of places. Haunted houses are, among things, private realms of enchantment in which a family has privileged access to supernatural forces. The lore of demonic dolls, regardless of its provenance, is a logical addition to this project.

Believers who make the trip this summer to see Annabelle in Lorraine Warren’s basement will get to access this uncanny blend of the domestic and otherworldly that contemporary demonology provides.

Joseph Laycock is an assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University. His forthcoming books include The Seer of Bayside: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle for Catholic Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2014) and Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic Over Role-Playing Games Says About Religion, Play, and Imagined Worlds (University of California Press, 2015).

  • Jim Reed

    We have real religious issues that we are trying to resolve here on RD. Are you making fun of us with this issue that none of us, not even the most religious, could possibly take seriously?

  • ToadieJay

    Why do you care? Every post you write seethes with hatred for religion. Your true god is the State. So why not post on The Worker’s World instead?

  • Jim Reed

    There are unanswered questions about religion. That is the value of posting here. We can discuss these things. If you want answers about religion, you have to ask those who would give you honest answers. Then you have to question more to check on the quality of those answers. Lots of people tend to accept what religions say without questioning. The best we could ever do would be to help them see how that is a mistake.

  • ToadieJay

    The State sees Christianity as a threat to its hegemony, which is why sites like this exist. That’s the big picture.

  • Jim Reed

    I think the major part of the threat comes from Christians tending to follow what they are told. Some of the politicians, especially those who represent wealth, have mastered the techniques for taking advantage of that. Christianity became a powerful lockstep voting block. That was bound to eventually fall of its own weight, which might be what we are starting to see now.

    I think there is a need for two types of internet discussions on religion. Limited discussions which allow a certain degree of questioning, but not too much, are needed so that the faithful have a more protected environment to discuss their faith. There also needs to be open discussions where all questions can be asked, and everything is not pre-ordained for certain religiously uplifting results. All religion websites need to decide which side of this divide they will be on.

  • Craptacular

    “The State sees Christianity as a threat to its hegemony, which is why sites like this exist.” -ToadieJay

    Actually, I would say the “State” sees christianity/religion as a useful tool to securing its hegemony. Keep the voters focused on divisive “cultural issues” as it continues consolidating power in its surveillance and enforcement capabilities.

    The more we, the people, bicker and legislate issues better left to our own conscience and personal belief, the further we allow the corporations to loot and pillage our nation’s future.

  • cranefly

    The State would see Christianity as a threat if any Christian in America actually followed the words of Christ. In Russia, they banned all of Tolstoy’s books on religion, because he pointed them out.

    In America, the State has Christianity in its butt pocket, because the hundreds of millions of American Christians are so stupefied that they can read, “Offer no resistance to those who do evil,” and think that the Christian thing to do is start a war.

  • cranefly

    Not just “banal and domestic.” Also human-like but not human. In Catholic theology, the heart of Christianity is human freedom, which is boring and difficult. Demonology more fun and easy. It’s playing with toys that are not human and are not free

  • Arachne646

    Of course, there are Christians who take seriously Christ’s admonitions to love your enemy, and who live their commitment to non-violence locally and around the world. Mennonites are usually not buggy-driving, bonnet-wearing farmers.

  • Jim Reed

    The’re not wars. The’re Crusades.

  • cranefly

    You’re right.