Aug 23 2021

The Warrens and the White Lady of Union Cemetery

In the early days of my skeptical activism I and my colleagues often took on some of the classics of pseudoscience, such as UFOs, dowsing, astrology, and ghost-hunting. As a New England-based group we also focused on local pseudoscience, which means ghosts and ghost-hunting. By coincidence we had perhaps the most famous ghost hunters in the world living just a couple towns over from us, Ed and Lorraine Warren. They were made famous by the Amityville Horror case, and more recently by The Conjuring series of movies.

Even 23 years ago, when we encountered the Warrens, they were famous. They made the college circuit with their talks and slide-shows, held ghost-hunting classes, and spawned dozens of breakaway groups over the years. They were clearly the big fish in our little pond, and so we didn’t know what quite to expect when they agreed to allow us to interview and then investigate them. I want to stress this was a collaborative endeavor throughout, although they certainly weren’t happy with our final conclusions.

On our initial visit Ed gave us a tour of his basement museum, which he claimed was the most haunted place in the world. It included that Raggedy Ann doll that is now the focus of The Conjuring movies, which was kept behind a glass case with a stern warning not to open. I was amused that the collection of haunted items includes a D&D handbook, the Unearthed Arcana. We also asked Ed to show us his best piece of evidence after years of hunting ghosts, and without any hesitation he said it was his video of the White Lady of Union Cemetery. This video has now been digitized and uploaded to Youtube, so you can see for yourself what Ed considered his best evidence.

I watched this video off the original VHS 23 years ago, an my memory is that the quality was much better than what we are seeing now. I wonder if the tape itself degraded over the years, perhaps with multiple replayings. I also wonder if what we are seeing was made from a copy. There is also a more cynical explanation, which I will get to below. In any case, you can still make out the blob that Ed considered his single best piece of evidence for the existence of ghosts. The white blob comes in an out of focus, and appears to be passing through shadows (this was filmed in a cemetery at night) as it walks among the graves. The obvious question is – what are we looking at? How useful is this as a piece of scientific evidence?

We argued at the time that it is, essentially, useless. The blob is at that perfect distance and resolution that you can see that something is there, it’s a vague human form and it does appear to be walking, but you cannot make out what it actually is. Is that a person in a white sheet? I don’t know, and that’s the point.

One of the advantages of being an all-purpose skeptic is that you can see commonality among apparently unrelated phenomena. What do ghosts, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and UFOs all have in common? The photographic and video evidence for them is blurry and ambiguous (when not outright faked). I would argue that the ambiguity is the phenomenon. This is why skeptics often refer to Bigfoot as “blobsquatch”. If the photo or video were clear and in focus, then it would be recognizable as something mundane. The ambiguity is therefore a feature, not a bug.

The maximally cynical interpretation of all this (not one I am outright claiming, just pointing out) is that Ed knew this too. If you wanted to produce a video that was as provocative as possible without being clear enough to determine that it was a person in a sheet, then that video is perfect. At the time of our viewing we asked Ed if we could borrow the tape so that we could have it analyzed, and he refused. I understood why he might not want the original out of his personal possession, so we asked for a copy, and he still refused. At this point we were still friendly and cooperative, so his refusal was puzzling. He simply did not want us to take a close look at that tape. Now that the video is on Youtube for the world to see, I have to wonder if the extra graniness is also not a feature.

But even being maximally charitable, the video is worthless as evidence. Someone might have been punking Ed, pranking someone else, or making a video of their own, and Ed was just happy to get his video and not question it further. I would expand the list of possibilities based on the current version of the video only, but my memory of the clearer video is that there was definitely something there, not a trick of the light or a video artifact. My clear impression at the time was of a person dressed in white fabric, which would explain Ed’s insistence that we do not get a closer look.

There are many more details and stories involved with our long term investigation of the Warrens, but I want to just make one final point. The impression of who the Warrens were, built up by the media, movies made about them, and their local reputation, was nothing like the couple we encountered. For me it was a very personal example of the power of myth. Ed and Lorraine were really just a couple of people with a hobby in ghost-hunting. They had no clue about science or investigative techniques and were blissfully unaware of real phenomena that could be mistaken for ghosts. They just somehow managed to parlay their hobby into a career, propped up by a media all too happy to treat the topic as fluff and manufacture a myth that took on a life of its own. But when you dig down, it’s just a regular Raggedy Ann doll and just a video of an indistinct blob.

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