Scared Straight: The Conjuring
I keep thinking about these two kids who left the theater early. Say, ten minutes shy of the end, right when things were at their goriest, most sacrilegious frenzy. I mean, first and of course, eight- and ten-year-old girls shouldn’t be seeing The Conjuring. Boys either. I’m not even sure I was old enough to see The Conjuring, really. But I did stick it out all the same, and, because I stayed, I was processed through the horror. I saw the daylight at the end of the tunnel, and I moved toward it. Not those two girls. When their parent or sister or whoever it was finally got responsible and shepherded them out, it was only after they’d had all these images grafted onto their psyches forever. For them, now, this family’s still in that haunted house, the evil’s still out there, the nightmare’s never over.
So, parents: if you take your kids to a horror movie for some insane reason, please, don’t wimp out three quarters of the way through? I don’t think that promotes restful sleep.
Anyway, yes, The Conjuring. Yes yes yes The Conjuring.
It’s cool to watch the pendulum swing in horror, isn’t it? Last year’s breakout horror was Cabin in the Woods, which was crazy and fun and smart and aware of itself—it was every bit Scream’s inheritor, and put the slasher on everybody’s map again. This year, however, we’ve got The Conjuring dark-horsing The Lone Ranger, of all things. And, The Conjuring, while it definitely shares some stuff with Cabin—the toys aren’t in the attic, they’re in the cellar—still, it’s from a completely different horror tradition. It’s less the roller-coaster ride, more the dared walk through that broken-down house at the end of the street when you’re twelve.
And, sure, The Conjuring is most definitely a haunted house movie trying to live and breathe in the post-Paranormal Activity world. Whereas Paranormal Activity effectively wiped the horror slate clean before telling its story, though, The Conjuring is a lot more in touch, and honoring, what-all’s come before. It’s every bit Poltergeist’s inheritor, I’d say. And it tropes through all the same steps The Haunting of Hill House and its movie mapped out for us, that nearly every haunting story since Haunting has modeled itself on. At the same time, it’s very aware of Sinister and Insidious and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Mama and a Haunting in Connecticut and The Messengers and The Last Exorcism and An American Haunting and the rest of that pack, starting with and especially featuring The Amityville Horror.
I mean, The Conjuring, it’s got a malevolent entity occupying a house, it’s got an unwitting, trapped family, there’s the mediums and the isolation and escalation—The Conjuring is strictly by the numbers, yet, unlike most every other haunted-house outing since The Shining and Burnt Offerings, this one’s kind of legitimately spooky.
As for how The Conjuring manages that—here there be spoilers, I suspect. So be wary, you not-yet-watchers.
Most haunted house stories, three-quarters of it’s just random weird stuff happening (which are often either excuses for the director to show his or her suspense tactics or a thin story beefing itself up with CGI), and then somebody digs up the past and figures out that this haunting, this ghost or whatever, it’s just a victim itself, and what they need to do to end this story is ‘release’ the ghost, punish the guilty, all that.
Completely boring, right? Those stories are pretty much mysteries with supernatural elements sprinkled in. And, because of the imagery and the jumpscares, they get packaged as horror.
The Conjuring takes a different tack.
You know how haunted house stories basically divide into two kinds? There’s the Family Buying the Bargain House kind, and there’s the Scientist Investigating This Place kind. Really. Amityville, say: George Lutz there, he got the house for a song, and is going to stick it out. Jack Torrance is a version of that as well: watching the Overlook for the winter is a bargain for him. And, Hell House or The Haunting of Hill House: each happen because of scientific curiosity. Or, to come up to the present, Paranormal Activity: what’s Mica if not a self-appointed scientist, trying to record these strange happenings?
So, going into The Conjuring, it initially looks like this is a house this bad-luck family got for one heck of a deal. However, there’s this parallel ‘scientist’ story running alongside it, almost in the background, and then—surprise—The Conjuring plugs those scientists/proto-Ghostbusters/John Constantin-models in as the mediums every haunted house story needs. Except they’re not the typical mediums this time out. Usually the medium shows up, looks around, says something ominous, then is useless against all this bad stuff. They’re pretty much just expositional devices, though they also serve to objectify the horror, to make it real, not just this family’s collective projections. Like: Dark Skies. That medium they go see? All he does is lay out some rules. When it’s time to actually do something, though, no, sorry, I’m just here to say stuff, not help you1. That’s the medium’s traditional role. They give their little lecture then leave. You can track it all the way to Bret Easton Ellis’ Lunar Park if you want.
With The Conjuring, though, the medium might even be the protagonist, finally.
And, once you settle in with that weirdness, of the two kinds of haunted house stories working in tandem for one of the first times ever, then The Conjuring hits you with one more twist: this becomes a possession story, with full-on Regan antics2.
It keeps you guessing, I’m saying. And that’s one of horror’s best tools: if the audience is off-guard, then they’re so much easier to surprise. And you can see that The Conjuring is built like this even in the camera- and sound-work: every time the noises all dies off, we know to hold our breaths, to clutch our armrests, to peek through our fingers, if that. We want the payoff, sure, but we also don’t. The Conjuring, though, first, it never pays off in the same way twice, and, second, it never pays off in the way you’re really expecting. It’s completely effective. Which makes me again want to apologize to those two little girls who probably went in thinking this was going to be a safe movie.
Another trick The Conjuring pulls off is the simple one of setting itself in the early seventies. Well, it also tries for that ridiculous trick that all horror feels like it has to try, lately—“based on a true story” (hint: if you have to say it, you’re already suspect; rather, convince us)—but we’ve learned to completely ignore those PT Barnum antics. But . . . remember that Beavis & Butthead episode where they’re watching driving safety videos from the fifties, and Butthead says that that’s back when people were dumb? Of course we know Butthead is wrong—exaggerating, anyway—but he’s also right, in that we associate the past, specifically the pre-digital age, with a sort of unblemished innocence, of ‘before the fall’-ness. Yes? Or, if not innocence—I don’t mean to sell 1971 as Happy Days or Pleasantville—then at least we posit it as a time with less perceived narrative subterfuge, with fewer camera tricks, or at least the absence of our own internet chicanery and photoshop aptitude.
Which is to say, these sideburn dudes with their has-to-be-developed film, we sortakinda trust them, don’t we? Test it yourself. Search up some chupacabra videos, say, and see which ones you trust: one shot in a dark alley by some kids with their phones, or one shot on Super 8 in 1986, with some obviously-mustached dude (you can hear it rustle) saying “What the frog-hell’s that, Danny?”
Storytellers can use this prejudice against us. The Conjuring uses it very well.
And, that backstory most haunted house stories have that tends to erase the horror, in that suddenly everyone’s a victim? Like the old The Changeling, say, where suddenly we feel sorry for all those antique wheelchairs. Mama kind of cued into this not-helpful tendency, and made the ‘mama’ not so wholesome, kind of twisted even, and that was definitely a step in the right direction. The remake of The Woman in Black is leaning that way as well, as is The Innkeepers. And, of course, there’s no righteously mad dead people in Paranormal Activity3. The Conjuring takes it even a touch further, though. Worry not, this is no Stir of Echoes: things don’t get better once the crime’s revealed, the guilty punished. No, once the real evil is revealed, then things really escalate.
All haunted house stories that come after this, please take note.
But is there anything weak with The Conjuring? I mean, no story’s perfect, and no story should be, I don’t think. What’s perfect is our reaction. What’s perfect is what the story makes us feel. And, by that standard, yeah, The Conjuring is flat-out pretty hot, and, I’d say, maybe the best wide-release horror of the year so far.
That isn’t to say it doesn’t sometimes feel like Sam and Dean couldn’t waltz in and solve this all in fifty-two minutes. But, talking TV, really what The Conjuring starts to feel like at a certain point, it’s American Horror Story—and I don’t conjure it here just because there’s a ‘Farmiga’ in each. No, it’s more that sometimes in The Conjuring there’s just flat-out too many ghosts in play. Each sequence is wonderfully executed, no doubt—there’s even some upside-down shots that so rock—but . . . remember Darkness, with Ana Paquin? It’s troubled in a lot of ways, sure—still, for my money, it’s one of the more original, legit-scary haunted house stories going (that end4)—but a guy beside me in the theater kind of made me especially aware of one, and I think it pertains here: there’s a scene where we’re kind or Orphanage-tracking some ghost-kid through the house. The usual thing. But then the camera backs up a bit, and that kid’s just one of like twelve or something, all just standing there in a Blair Witch 2 line. The guy sitting beside me, who had been actively nervous a moment before, and kind of embarrassed about it, he laughed when we saw all the ghosts in the room, and even said something along the lines of “Well, shit.” And everybody laughed with him. As they/we all should have.
Why? Because one ghost, man, one ghost is scary. Five, though? Not so much. Thirteen? Even less. And it’s not just ghosts. The Descent rocked, don’t get me wrong, but it was so much more tense when I thought there was just one crawly. When it turns out there’s a nest of them, that they breed like ninjas, then, yeah: I knew this was going to get fun, but it was no longer really scary.
The Conjuring suffers from that a bit: too many ghosts. Maybe it should have taken its lead from the pre-Cabin slasher, and understood that one Jason, one Michael, one Freddy, that’s enough, man. Too many chainsaws spoils the bloodfeast.
However, The Conjuring does make one very smart move. In Paranormal Activity, I thought the smart move was blurring out select magnets on the refrigerator. In Scream, it’s Drew Barrymore’s character’s ‘seeing’ the killer behind the mask. In The Conjuring—and again, let me spoiler-warn—it’s this random, unconnected scene where we find out that Vera Farmiga’s character’s voice didn’t record like it should have. Which, yes, is proof that something’s going on. But, at this point, we-the-audience don’t need that proof, and the characters in the story are already seeing visions etc, so they don’t need it either. It’s just this random outlier, that I’m hoping director James Wan had to fight for. For me, it kind of makes the movie, it lends it that one fiber of randomness which we associate with real life, which—that’s what makes a story true, isn’t it? It’s not that these events have showed up in a Reader’s Digest spooky-stuff anthology. It’s not newspaper clippings. It’s not eyewitness testimony or police blotters. It’s the story’s own integrity that makes it true. That lets it be true.
The Conjuring, it’s got that, and it’s maybe even got it enough to trick us into not noticing all the other stuff the studio or some ‘entity’ probably made it do to get to us.
What’s also cool about The Conjuring, it’s that, surprise, it’s topical, or at least germane to the news crawls. Not so much in a feed-the-issue/watch-it-grow kind of way, but: there’s a very definite way to read The Conjuring such that the horror stuff is all just trappings, that the real horror is a mother’s plight, trying to deal with her own depression, and the violence that depression is slowly walking her toward. Mothers who do violence to their own families, they’re so much scarier than ghosts, yes? But, what if a story could, like, add those both together? Wouldn’t one plus one equal more than two?
For The Conjuring, yes. It’s solid. See it on the big screen if you get a chance. Just, don’t bring your kids. Or, understand that movies like The Conjuring, they turn us all into kids for a couple of hours. In the best possible way. And, yes, The Conjuring should take The Lone Ranger down. I say that not because I have anything against The Lone Ranger—I haven’t seen it, can’t say anything about it—but because horror, it’s the best game going, any day. When horror’s working as it should, it bypasses all our critical faculties and rips a visceral response right from us, whether we want to give it or not. More than that, it changes our behavior, it makes us leave a light on, makes us say goodbye a little better. There’s a reason horror never goes away. We need it to be human, we need it in order to stay human. And maybe those two little girls in the theater for it this afternoon, maybe they’re the most human of all, now. At least for tonight.
1. Fright Night might be the exception here. Though the ‘medium’ there is for a vampire, not a haunted-up house. Also, note how Randy from Scream is a version of this useless medium: a font of information, but no good when the gloves are off
2. luckily no Emily Rose contortions, though; I couldn’t have handled that again, so soon (eight years would have been about forty too soon)
3. or in Sara Gran’s Come Closer, which I’m always contending is Paranormal Activity’s blueprint
4. the director’s cut, I’m talking. ignore the theatrical