It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a horror fan in possession of a feverish appetite must be in want of a creepy doll. After all, clichés are only clichés if they’re not done well. Chucky, Small Soldiers, Puppet Master, hell, even Toy Story has leaned into the idea of an inanimate object possessed with something … else.
Yet only Annabelle, the now iconic piggy-tailed doll that pops up in the first Conjuring film, is based on a true story. It was a Raggedy Ann doll allegedly possessed by demonic forces and investigated by paranormal researchers Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in the movies). The doll is also a movie star now, weirdly, with the third film — Annabelle Comes Homes — hitting cinemas today.
“Unlike most horror franchises, which have diminishing returns, ours are actually getting bigger and bigger as more people around the world discover them,” says Peter Safran, the producer on not just Annabelle Comes Homes but all seven of The Conjuring Universe films. Financially, he’s certainly right with the franchise having grossed over $2B at the international box-office so far and several other films already in the works — including The Conjuring 3 with Wilson and Farmiga.
Safran was there right at the beginning, when the life rights of The Warrens and their dozens of famous cases were first purchased and developed into a feature film. From The Amityville Horror to the Enfield Poltergeist, their cases have fascinated people for decades including the man Safran calls “his favourite Australian”.
“James Wan’s very much the touchstone for us for everything we do in the universe,” he says, with Annabelle Comes Home constantly referred to as “his baby” throughout production. “He’s got a tremendous knowledge of the genre; he’s got a fanboy’s taste, so he is able to look at everything and sense whether it feels wanky or if it’s going to be something special. It was his idea to put Annabelle into the first Conjuring movie: she wasn’t in that original storyline, then he came up with the prologue.”
“He’s always the guy who has that 30,000-foot view of the universe, and he’s sort of the guiding hand for everything we do within it.”
Set Blessings From Priests, And Other ‘Strange Things’
It was also Wan who introduced a new rule for all movies in the universe going forward during the production of The Conjuring 2: set blessings.
“The hauntings … yeah,” says Annabelle Comes Homes director Gary Dauberman, with a smirk between takes during the film’s production in Los Angeles. “There have been a lot of strange things happening on this set, which is par for the course on these movies. Whenever something goes wrong, we blame the doll … I mean, there are a lot of strange stories.”
Dauberman would know: before settling into the director’s chair, he has been the writer of three Conjuring Universe films and outside of that horror hits such as It Chapter One and Two. From demonic symbols on the set appearing in crew hotel rooms miles away, to strange accidents and missing crucifixes, the remaining members of the Warren family started blessing the sets on Wan’s request back in 2015 — followed by priests associates on later films.
On the set of Annabelle Comes Home, which was shot on the same sound stage as East Of Eden and Gremlins at the Warner Brothers lot, so much ‘weird shit’ kept happening the production had to hire a security guard named Johnny who moonlights as a ghost hunter to keep an eye on things overnight.
“Before we had the set blessed, the piano seat in the artefacts room keep disappearing and moving around when the set was locked at night,” says production designer Jennifer Spence, who was first hired by Wan and fellow Aussie Leigh Whannell back in 2012 on their horror creeper Insidious: Chapter 2. “The props department kept coming up and asking me if I did it, we never worked it out. Over the years, there have been things that creep me out about Annabelle, so I tend to stay away from her.”
Spence is a key part of this third Annabelle film, which is largely set in one location — the Warrens house — over the course of one night when their daughter Judy and her babysitters are plagued by not just Annabelle, but other demonic forces from the artefacts room.
“Before we had the set blessed, the piano seat in the artefacts room keep disappearing and moving around when the set was locked at night,”
The real-life Judy Warren is a presence that looms large on the set, even outside of 12-year old McKenna Grace who is playing her and dressed in a nightgown recreated exactly from Judy’s childhood. Crew who have worked on The Conjuring Universe films long enough wear bracelets handmade by Judy out of remaining beads from Lorraine’s costume jewellery. With Ed having passed away at 79 in 2006 and Lorraine just this past April at 92, Judy and the production’s connection with her is more important than ever.
“I think the horror genre has never gone away,” says Safran. “It rests periodically when people are making not particularly good movies, but the moment you make a good one, the audience is always there for it. People love to be scared; we’ve known that for generations. So if you make a movie that merits that theatrical experience of people congregating and being scared together, they’ll be there for you.”
Annabelle Comes Home releases in cinemas today. The Conjuring 3 is set for release in 2020.