Interview with an exorcist: Chris McKinnell of the Warren Legacy Foundation
One of the most famous hauntings in history took place at 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville. It was here, on New York's Long Island, that 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo Jr shot his entire family while they slept, claiming that "the voices from the house made him do it". A year later, in 1975, George and Kathy Lutz moved in with their three children, and it wasn't long before things began to go bump in the night.
Twenty-eight days later, after experiencing a "very strong force", the Lutz family fled because of "concern for our own personal safety as a family". And, aware of their home's gruesome past, they enlisted the help of paranormal researchers Ed and Lorraine Warren, who while investigating the events taking place in the house, captured one of the most famous ghost pictures of all time - a young boy who bore an uncanny resemblance to one of the DeFeo's slain children, nine-year-old John.
Lorraine, a psychic, described the alleged presence in Amityville as being the worst she ever encountered, and the story became a popular culture sensation when it was retold by Jay Anson in his novel The Amityville Horror (notably described as a "true story" despite the book being largely fictionalised). The book has since been dramatised 16 times.
This, however, was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to the strange career of Ed and Lorraine Warren, whose most prominent cases also include Annabelle the Doll, the Enfield poltergeist, and a haunting in Connecticut - all of which have been turned into some of cinema's most well-known horror movies.
Lorraine, 91, is now retired and Ed passed away in 2006 at the age of 79. But a little-known fact about the Warrens' work is that it's being continued by grandson Chris McKinnell, an exorcist and paranormal researcher, who is head of the Warren Legacy Foundation for Paranormal Research.
I interviewed McKinnell about his work as an exorcist, the irrevocable influence his grandparents had on his career, and how the Warren Foundation is continuing to investigate alleged hauntings and possessions all around the world.
VT: Having grown up with such famous grandparents, was pursuing a career in paranormal research what you always wanted to do or was it something that you felt called to?
"Well, neither. I was actually afraid of the dark until I was 16. When you have grandparents who are handling Amityville Horror and Annabelle, it makes sense."
VT: And on that note, what was your first paranormal experience?
"My grandfather took me on my first case when I was 16, 38 years ago. That case was hellacious - things were flying around, the woman was clawed, two hulking black demonic shapes came down the stairs, and the recliner I was in flipped over. When we entered, the house was filled with pounding in the walls and growling and scratching. My grandfather had me sit upstairs in the dark for an hour or two and report to him what was going on in the bedroom where the woman had been attacked. After that, I was never afraid of the dark again and I really wanted to understand what I'd seen."
"It ended when the woman was clawed, screaming, wanting to get out, the two black shapes were in the room, and the lights were turning on and off at 3.15 in the morning. The pot that had Holy church incense in it early in the evening flew out of the kitchen and straight at my head. I had a crucifix in my hand. The woman wanted out and I said, 'Yeah that sounds like a good idea."
"I want people to be treating this as a profession. The problem is that these TV shows are so ridiculous"
"We were on the radio over the phone having an interview and under my breath, I'm saying, 'By the power of Jesus Christ, I command you to be gone. By the power of Jesus Christ, I command you to be gone.' And that pot flew through the air, just swerved away from me, hit the window behind me, the shade flew up and the pot actually crumbled, but the window didn't break. I said 'oh shit' over the radio."
VT: As a minister, how do other people of faith react to you being an exorcist?
"They don't mind, of course. I've never run into anybody who had a problem with it."
VT: The Roman Catholic Church is incredibly secretive about its exorcisms, but do you think that it's something that needs to be talked about more?
"Of course, the Pope has talked about it again and again. As a matter of fact, not just this pope but the last two. They are trying to increase exorcists. They are offering courses on demonology and exorcism at the Vatican and travelling. The need is there. I was raised Roman Catholic, but I never felt that was necessary. Jesus says right in the Bible that he has given us the ability to cast out demons."
VT: In an increasingly secular world, do you think it's becoming easier for demons to possess people and therefore the need for exorcists is greater than ever before?
"Honestly no, I think it's quite the opposite because, for instance, The Amityville Horror, everybody asks, 'Has anybody else lived in there?' 'Can they?' Yeah, people have lived in there and had no problem whatsoever. My background is in psychology, therapy. For me, I have never worked a case that - I'm talking something that deals with evil, not just ghosts and so forth - but if I'm dealing with something that's really bad, there's definitely a psychological element to it and that has to be addressed. If you don't take care of the underlying problems, then nothing you do, no exorcism is going to work. You have to get rid of the things that make you vulnerable."
Pictured below is mass murderer Ronald DeFeo Jr, who remains incarcerated to this day.
VT: You are head of Ed and Lorraine Warren's Legacy Foundation, can you tell us a little about it and its mission?
"We are creating a worldwide network of professionals that can respond to the needs everywhere. One thing I like about the movies - really the only thing I like - is that my grandparents' ministry has become worldwide. I saw that need and said, well, they only dealt with New England for most of their lives, and now we are getting calls from Bangladesh. I also felt that, as you said, we are in a far more secular society now, but overall, in the world, not just the Western world, but the entire world, there is still a huge amount of mysticism, everything is culturally dependent and things do not act the same all over the world. They are shaped by our beliefs. So I know that I need to deal with experts and professionals who are well-trained in those areas.
"I also want to modernise. I want people to be treating this as a profession. The problem is that these TV shows are so ridiculous.
"People go in and they stir up trouble and they get these attachments and they don't know what to do. Half of my caseloads are people who have called themselves researchers. So that's very frustrating for me.
"It's not about seeing things go bump in the night, it's about making sure that it stops"
"We have created a code of ethics for researchers. It's similar to the Hippocratic Oath and we are working on the website. I am having difficulty finding a webmaster willing to volunteer their services. Unfortunately, I don't charge for my services, therefore I don't have any money to give anybody, but we are basically creating a paranormal Wikipedia - a case file system that can be shareable - and classes to educate the public."
"So that's basically what the Legacy Foundation is all about. Continuing [my grandparents'] work all around the world, educating the public and our researchers, and helping the next generation to become more professional and more effective without hurting the clients - they come first. It's not about seeing things go bump in the night, it's about making sure that it stops."
VT: What is the most disturbing case that you’ve encountered?
"That's hard. I've seen so many things. I've worked most of my grandparents' biggest cases except for Amityville and the Conjuring movies, I was too young for those. I would say, perhaps, Maurice Theriault. He was a farmer in Massachusetts.
"He got a rifle, tried to kill his wife, blew off her arm, and then he killed himself"
He's mentioned in both Conjuring movies. He was an illiterate French-Canadian. Nobody else in his family spoke French and yet words would appear scratched in blood on his skin, on his back, in French. He would come under possession; his eyes would become slits like a snake."
"The first day that I met him, we went to the grave of his father. His father was an animal, just a horrible monster, who was into bestiality [and he] forced Maurice into it - just a horrible, horrible man."
"He had called Maurice when Maurice was an adult and said 'I just want to let you know that I love you,' picked up a rifle, went in, killed Maurice's mother and then killed himself while Maurice listened."
"The things pounding on the walls, the growling, all of that happens, Maurice's head split open during the exorcism, so that happens too"
"Even though we had a successful exorcism finally with Bishop [Robert] McKenna. If you ever hear the video, my grandfather is actually having a heart attack during the exorcism. You hear my grandmother say, 'Ed, have a banana to replace your potassium', cause that's all she thought was wrong. The next day we found out it was a heart attack."
"A couple of years later, Maurice again fell under the influence, he got a rifle, tried to kill his wife, blew off her arm, and then he killed himself. For me, that was a real loss. That, therefore, would be the worst."
VT: Your grandmother Lorraine famously said that she'd never step inside the Amityville house again. Is it a place that you would dare to visit?
"No, I wouldn't have a problem. These things feed off of fear. If you fear it, it can have a hold on you. Now, my grandmother is one of the most powerful psychics on Earth - what she confronted there is a whole different thing. I don't have her abilities. So I don't have that vulnerability that she had."
VT: Have any objects that you’ve encountered made their way into the Warren Museum of the Occult?
"Oh sure. There's a doll down there, all sorts of things actually. Any time somebody has something that we can't easily get rid of then I have them just send it to me and put it in the museum."
VT: How do real exorcisms compare to those depicted in Hollywood movies?
"The first Conjuring movie was pretty good, I have to say. The second one was absolute crap. They got a lot right when it came to the interactions and the history of it, at least the first half of it, but the whole ending was absolutely ridiculous."
"If you're talking ghosts, there's a great old movie. It's called The Haunted from 1962. It was my grandfather's favourite movie and it accurately depicts an actual ghost. You never see a thing."
"I have lived in nine countries and on four continents and in all of these places, hauntings are totally different including possession and exorcisms. If you're not using what the people believe in, then it's not going to work because it's all powered by faith"
"But as I mentioned earlier, things fly across the room, I've been in a bed with my cousin that flew across the room, slammed down and smashed into pieces - and I weighed 300 pounds at the time. And my cousin weighed about 200, so that took a hell of a lot of energy. Then there was another case where I was lifted up off the stairs and almost thrown down, but the woman in the house and my partner at the time grabbed my arms and pulled me out of thin air. The things pounding on the walls, the growling, all of that happens, Maurice's head split open during the exorcism, so that happens too. It just isn't as common as people think."
VT: Do you think that admissions of faking phenomenon such as those given by the Enfield children have damaged the mission of exorcists or are simply a product of the trauma they claim to have experienced?
"I've never actually heard that they said that. I haven't met them myself, but the rest of my family have. But I know of a bobby [police officer] who watched one of the girls pass through a window that was closed on the second floor, float recumbent around the corner of the house, and go in the other side window. So how do you fake that? There were other researchers in there for a very long time who saw an awful lot and there are a lot of photos."
"I also have to mention the nine-year-old, in the movie, he's perfectly OK, the boy with the stammer, but he actually aged and died - and those voices were tested and they're not human."
VT: What advice would you give to anyone who suspects that they are experiencing supernatural phenomena?
"First, ask yourself: why do you think it's supernatural? What is it that has made you vulnerable to this? Did you use an ouija board? Did you do a seance? Do you think somebody might have cursed you? Because a curse is basically a prayer with a lot of energy behind it.
"There was actually a blind study done where they took a thousand heart patients. Half of them were put on as many prayer lists as they could and the other half, they didn't. They didn't tell the doctors they were doing this, nobody knew about it. And the half that were on the prayer lists had a far greater survival rate and recovery rate."
"So I'm a big believer in quantum physics giving us a great deal of answers in the future once we have a unified field theory that combines Newtonian physics and quantum physics. Once we have that, I think it's going to start to unlock some of these mysteries for us and that at point, we are going to see that we really do create our own reality. That's something that [I have discovered] in my travels. I have lived in nine countries and on four continents and in all of these places, hauntings are totally different including possession and exorcisms. If you're not using what the people believe in, then it's not going to work because it's all powered by faith."
"I believe that God is kind of like a person on top of a mountain just waiting for us to get there. He or she doesn't care what path we use to try to get there, as long as we are striving to get to that mountain. That's why I believe that all of these religions work."
While the Warrens' cases have been subject to intense scrutiny, people's fascination with what allegedly happened has never waned. The next instalment in the Conjuring movie series is set to be released this September, The Conjuring 3, and while McKinnell has admitted that it's no secret that what's depicted by Hollywood is an exaggeration, anyone who believes that they are suffering in this way deserves to get help, which could come in the form of the Legacy Foundation.
But perhaps one of the most interesting details to emerge from this interview is not the horrors allegedly experienced by the likes of Maurice Theriault, but McKinnell's statement that so many of his cases involve people who have invited - or believe they have invited - evil into their homes through the use of ouija boards or even gruesome knowledge like that possessed by the Lutz family. Perhaps it is these beliefs which have resulted in some of the most notorious horror stories of all time.
If you would like to find out more about the Warren Legacy Foundation or contact any of their researchers, you can visit their Facebook page.