What up, ghouls? After a week like we’ve had, when I don’t recognize the world or the people in it and it’s still summer seriously why won’t it end, I seek something spooky. I’m back with two this month, and I got the urge to cover The Conjuring , both 1 and 2. So tonight, we’ll cover The Conjuring, and next time, I’ll cover The Conjuring 2, which as of this penning I have not yet seen. That’s kind of exciting!
The Conjuring is based on a real family, the Perron family, and their ordeal. The line between “actual events” and actual, actual events is about to get real blurred. But a real family existed who really believed they were being tormented by a dark entity.
It’s unusual to see a horror universe keep expanding within a franchise. After the Conjurings, we had Anabelle, and soon we will have a movie based on a nun that apparently plays a role in number 2. I don’t mind a horror franchise breaking out of the endless-sequel mode (ahem, Saw, I’m looking at you) and trying to create some new stories. I just wish the franchise wasn’t based around these 2 specific people.
Here’s the thing.
If you are a fanboy or fangirl of Ed and Lorraine Warren, you might want to stop reading now, lest the illusion be completely shattered. (You can skip to the next section)
The Warrens are con artists. I won’t go into the events that inspired The Amityville Horror until I actually cover that movie (or movies!). I will say that they have been a part of countless paranormal scams throughout their career, and seem to show up every time a case picks up some notoriety. Although Ed passed in 2006, Lorraine shows up everywhere: at Cons, in documentaries, and in many episodes of A Haunting and Paranormal State. Allow me to explain my rage:
The Warrens founded the New England Society for Psychic Research in 1952, and before they made themselves para-famous, they were peddling paintings door-to-door. As Ed himself states, the pair would look up spooky newspaper stories, go to the poor people’s house, and Ed would stand in the middle of the street and sketch the house with ghosts coming out of it. Lorraine would then take it and knock on the door and present it to the family. That was how they got “in.” I wish to God I was making that up.
The 1970’s were kind of the perfect conduit for this nonsense because everyone had Satanic Panic, exorcisms were the vogue horror, and people were a little loose with their spiritualism. With those conditions, you can find a sucker in no time. Do I hate the Warrens? I do, and that’s because I love the paranormal, and I think largely because of these two crooks the field will never be taken seriously, either as science or theology. They make the mistake of straddling both worlds: science and religion, and consider themselves to be experts in both worlds. They aren’t.
The Warrens have attached themselves to the following famous cases:
- The Amytville Horror
- A haunted ragdoll (Annabelle)
- The Perron Farmhouse witch
- A Haunting in Connecticut
- The Enfield Poltergeist
- The exorcism of a “werewolf demon.” (it’s ok if you laughed just now)
- The murder trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, who murdered his landlord and claimed the “devil made him do it.” The Warrens testified on his behalf. He was found guilty.
So you can see how these two are famous; they appear whenever a ghost headline shows up and then paint their names all over the result. This movie presents them in a different light. Let’s de-bunk:
- Did the Warrens have lectures at colleges like they did in this movie?
- Not exactly. They did hold lectures about the Perron family’s case during the time of the haunting and gave the Perron’s actual street address out to seas of strangers, who then traveled to the home and harassed the family. The word “lecture” isn’t appropriate; “spectacle” is. (Sidebar: they did participate in many live tv séances back in the 70’s)
- Is Ed the only non-priest demonologist recognized by the Catholic Church?
- No, the Catholic Church has stated that it does not recognize the Warrens in any way.
- Did the Warrens actually have a room full of haunted and cursed objects?
- This room exists and is currently a “museum” run out of the back of the Warrens’ home residence. I believe the fee to enter is about $12.50.
Amityville was their crown jewel, and I don’t want to spoil how much I’m going to rip it open when I deconstruct that movie. But what about the Perron family and their witch ghost? Gerald Brittle, who wrote about the events in The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed and Lorraine Warren, admitted that the Warrens were lying about everything:
“Lorraine and Ed Warren’s claims of what happened in their Perron Farmhouse Case File, which the Defendants freely and publicly admit their ‘The Conjuring’ movie was based on, does not at all jive with the real historical facts,” Brittle’s attorney Patrick C. Henry II wrote. “This is a pattern of deceit that is part of a scheme that the Warrens have perpetuated for years … There are no historical facts of a witch ever existing at the Perron farmhouse, a witch hanging herself, possession, Satanic worship or child sacrifice.”
Give that article I linked to a read. You’ll find it illuminating. It details how, during the Haunting in Connecticut scam, Ed Warren tells another writer sent to pen the tale, “They’re crazy, […] All the people who come to us are crazy, that’s why they come to us. Just use what you can and make the rest up. You write scary books, right? Well, make it up and make it scary. That’s why we hired you.”
This is all a lengthy way of me asking you to not take the Warrens seriously, and to think of them in this franchise as characters, and not as real-life people with these real-life stories. You dig?
Wait, is this movie *not about a doll?
Weirdly, The Conjuring opens with Annabelle the doll’s story and some dumb white people who thought that a ghost asking permission to inhabit a doll was totally normal and fun. I mean, seriously? Look at this thing, it obviously came from Jigsaw’s Warehouse of Spooky Notions:
Oh, here’s what the real one looks like:
Super terrifying, right?
The sewing together of these two stories is sloppy and makes no sense. I fully believe that when this film was shot, they intended to expand the franchise and planted that in as a way of tying things together.
Moving on, we meet our family of 7, parents Carolyn and Roger, and their five daughters, who have just moved into their newly purchased home, and old-fixer upper that needs a lot of work, but has a lot of heart, blah blah. We really don’t get much of an intro into this family, which kind of sucks because they aren’t terrible, just sort of flat. It’s a lack in the storytelling that they couldn’t find a way to make these people compelling. They are basically a vessel for the paranormal events that follow. Spooky stuff starts happening immediately. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
- The dog hates the house and won’t enter it, and then is mysteriously killed.
- There is a second basement our characters didn’t know about when they bought the house.
- The father character is a bit of a dick and a little angry.
- The clocks stop running around 3 am.
- The littlest girl has an imaginary friend. Who has a human name and age and knows the history of the house.
This stuff bums me out because there is so much possibility in a haunted house story! As a writer, you are relying on the haunting’s history. To write a haunted house story is to take a horrible life of one character (or characters) and then tell it in terrifying fragments to the current inhabitants of said house. You can make it hard for those living people to understand and piece together. You have every spooky tool at your hands. You can do anything. So why do we fall back on these same tropes?
But, this movie has some of the best horror sequences I’ve seen in the last 6 or so years.
G-g-g-g-ghost witch demon!
Let’s talk about what The Conjuring gets right. There are some truly terrifying moments in this thing, well worth highlighting, most of which take place in the second act:
- Possibly the scariest scene is of two of the daughters in their bedroom in the middle of the night. Girl 1’s legs are pulled and she is nearly jerked out of bed. She wakes and looks under the bed for her hidden tormentor. The camera flips upside down with her head and pans around the room. Through this view, she sees the bedroom door close slightly. This sequence of her describing to her sister what she sees in the corner of the room is super effective because we don’t actually see anything. We’re poised the whole time waiting for the reveal, but it doesn’t come and it doesn’t need to. Mwah! The pacing of this moment is just perfect. The scare is drawn out and more filled with dread than jumps.
- The second scariest sequence happens with Carolyn is trapped in the basement after chasing the ghost (or intruder, as she thinks), downstairs. The basement door slams in her face and she falls violently down the stairs. She looks around for the assailant and sees nothing. Out from the shadows, a ball is thrown at her. She runs back up the stairs, but the light bulb explodes and she is lost in the dark. She finds the matches Roger left on the stairs, and lights match after match, holding it to the darkness as if it could ignite it and light up the space, but she is still in the dark again and again. Then, two hands come out of the shadows and clap next to her face. Hhhnnnnnn!!
- When Lorraine falls through the house into the basement and sees the ghost in the reflection behind her, it’s far scarier than seeing the ghost get up in her face. The hunched over form and whispered, “She made me do it,” is so much better, more ominous and confident. We don’t need to see the ghost’s face.
- Overall, the music box mirror trick and the hide-and-clap game are especially effective horror tools. Each time these are used, wonderful horror is created.
- The video tape of Ed and Lorraine heading down into the basement works as a callback to those live tv séances that were so popular in the 70’s. I love the way the audio cuts out when the mic is pointed away from people, and how Lorraine is saying the typical clairvoyant nonsense, “my hands are so cold,” and Ed shouts, “Speak to us!” It’s classic 70’s spiritualist fascination. Nom nom nom, I love that garbage.
The wholesome heroes
I think the biggest flaw with this movie is that everyone, and I mean that literally, is 100% wholesome. No one has any internal demons, just the external ones. I read a great piece on The Ringer that reflected on this a bit, but I’m going to dig a little deeper and ask the hard questions.
There are really only a handful of swear words uttered in the entire film, even though the house is haunted by a demon/witch/ghost and everyone is under attack. The story often pauses for Ed and Lorraine to remember their first night of wholesome marriage and that “God brought [them] together,” that the Perrons “have such a beautiful family, don’t they?” And after a full night of ghost torment and scares, they all have a bright and bustling pancake breakfast with the investigators. In moments like these, I found myself shaking my head and mouthing, “WTF is happening?” And while I’m pondering why these heroes can’t also be full-rounded characters fighting other battles, Lorraine says this about the demon/witch/ghost, who sacrificed her newborn baby to the devil:
“She just used her God-given gift to use it against Him. Witches believe it elevates their status in the eyes of Satan.”
Take note, ladies. You better be usin’ that God-given gift.
I can also mention how the Warrens shame the Perrons for not having baptized their children, and that it puts them at bigger risk of demonic influence. I guess I’m saying that the problem with the good vs evil tension here is that it is entirely driven by modern day religious beliefs. Not Christianity, not even Catholicism, just that anti-women, our-beliefs-are-the-right-beliefs tone. Which would be more interesting if Ed and Lorraine’s characters were actually fully developed and had their own problems to work through, while still being a force for good (see: The Exorcist). And if the Warrens can’t be corrupted and aren’t actually putting themselves at risk here, how is this a threat to them? If their moral compass is locked on North, how are we supposed to find them interesting?
Someone be a lamb and flip the cliché switch, please?
I don’t have much to say about this textbook horror movie exorcism that wraps up the film. The fourth act is very slow, full of the usual notes, and disappointing. Our possessed mother is surrounded by howling winds, flickering lights, and speaks in a contorted demonic voice-box thing. It is a little hilarious that they put her under a sheet, like a ghost costume. I called a full stop when a shotgun levitated and fired at people. No, no, no, no. A ghost should not be able to fire a weapon. The last note I wrote down was, “that poor daughter is going to need so much f’ing therapy. ‘Well doc, there was the one time my mom was possessed by a witch and I hid under the floorboards so she wouldn’t kill me with scissors. But then she found me.’”
I’m intrigued to see if the Warrens will actually be corrupted in the sequel, or if we’ll have more of the same. I am looking forward to the scares; I’ll admit I ruined one for myself on YouTube by accident. I couldn’t help it! It’s like an itch. I need new scares.
Next time, I’m planning to deconstruct The Conjuring 2. Thanks for following along, kiddos! You can turn in your 70’s floor-length prairie nightgowns on your way out.