The Conjuring: a Witch, a Wardrobe, and a Basement

When we started liveblogging our reactions to these exorcism cinema films, sometimes our friends on Facebook would wonder why we were doing it, which lead into some interesting discussions.  During one of these discussions, my colleague at Dominican University suggested a movie that we should watch because it had an interesting variable that made it different from the other exorcism cinema out there.  She suggested we watch The Conjuring (2013) “because the religious part of the exorcism is not enough, the wife intervenes and finishes it off by reaching out to the mom through their shared maternal sensibilities.”

The-ConjuringI responded how indeed that was interesting, as it seemed to be saying something about the power of sisterhood, how women can share a common bond that will help them negotiate and cope with traumatic events…like a demonic possession.  And we have seen this occur elsewhere in a film; The Last Exorcism Part II contained a similar narrative beat involving a woman attempting to help the possessed woman become not so.  Given the preponderance of male priests being the saviors in exorcism cinema, with women relegated to a position of either possession or fretting over the possessed — i.e. both positions of powerlessness — it is interesting to note instances where the woman is the protagonist, attempting to help another women no longer be possessed.  Indeed, to an extent, this positioning was also seen in The Devil Inside, as the daughter initiates the story by trying to help her possessed mother.

However, these three movies differ in how they resolve the conflict of the woman-as-protagonist and the woman-as-possessed-as-antagonist.  In The Conjuring — spoiler! — there is a happy ending to the conflict, at least for two of the three women involved in this conflict (more on that in the notes).  In The Devil Inside, the resolution does not appear to be good for either mother or daughter, but the ambiguity of the ending makes that determination rather hard to say with any certainty.  In The Last Exorcism Part II, well…the determination of who exactly the protagonist is can be confusing.  I would argue the possessed woman is the protagonist, meaning that the woman who tries to save her is the antagonist; however, the movie would have us see this woman as the protagonist and the demon as the antagonist, with the possessed woman being the battleground for their conflict.  Depending on your read of this film, the resolution of the conflict is either good or bad for the possessed woman, and those around her.

Unlike the other two movies, The Conjuring does not leave its viewers with any doubt as to the resolution.  This unambiguity may be due to the movie being based on “true events” unlike the other two, which either utilized found footage or metatextual techniques for their semblance of realism.  In The Conjuring, we are sent back in time, to the 1970s, when real-life paranormal investigators and married couple Ed and Lorraine Warren were called in to investigate the mysterious happenings at a newly purchased house in Rhode Island.  When the movie came out, much was discussed about the Warrens, who even have their own 1990s-style website: http://www.warrens.net/.  They even famously investigated the house that would come to be featured in The Amityville Horror.  Thus, the realism for this movie came in the perceived credibility of the real-life investigations of the New England Society for Psychic Research.

The real Ed and Lorraine Warren on site.
The real Ed and Lorraine Warren on site.

Given that we have been following the real-life investigations of The Atlantic Paranormal Society since 2004 on the SyFy Channel, it is not hard to see that there is interest in the country for such realistic takes on the supernatural.  And as Ghost Hunters and the various spin-off series have all dealt with demons and demonic possessions on their cases, showing a cinematic version of such cases make complete financial sense for any Hollywood studio.  Add in the pedigree that comes from the Amityville case and a director in James Wan who made torture porn lucrative, and the movie’s popularity was almost ensured.

So, as always, what follows is my reactions to the movie while we watched it — with a colleague from Australia, who found it just as creepy, if not more so, than the two of us hardened horror film buffs.  We really liked this movie, so, of course, do not read any further if you do not want to be spoiled.

The movie brings in demons right away with the demon using the doll as a conduit — who sought getting inside of the young women.  The rape analogy is a repeated motif in these films.  Also, I really, really, really hate scary dolls.  So thanks for starting off with this.

THE CONJURING

The focus of the movie is on the couple who are demonologists, paranormal researchers, ghost hunters. This is the true story of their investigations.  Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) is a clairvoyant and Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) is the only non-ordained demonologist recognized by the Catholic Church.  The movie maintains the time period of the original period when the story occurred, i.e. 1971.

Okay, now we are introduced to a family with only five young daughters moving into an old farmhouse.  The clocks stopped just after 3 o’clock, 3:07, the so-called “witching hour” — this provides a link to The Exorcism of Emily Rose.  Said to be when demons are most powerful.

Lorraine the clairvoyant had a negative experience during an exorcism. And the couple are also parents of a young girl.  So we have a lot of women either in danger or possibly in the path of danger here.

The demon is seen attacking the tomboyish daughter first — the one with short hair. Earlier it had apparently attacked the mother Carolyn (Lili Taylor), but the attack was not seen, just the aftermath as a bruise.  Next the young daughter Cindy was sleepwaking, supposedly, and was found in a room hitting her head against the wardrobe. We saw a similar behavior in The Devil Inside with the mother hitting her head on the wall.  Carolyn is getting bruises on her body that are unaccounted for.

Disoriented birds, also seen in The Devil Inside and The Last Exorcism Part II. This is a very common motif in supernatural stories.

The young daughter with curly hair is talking to an imaginary friend, Rory. She was the one who found the music box. Apparently you can see Rory in the mirror behind you when the music stops. The Exorcist has Regan playing with Captain Howdy, who she later says possesses her. Do apparently see Rory’s hands during the hide and clap game.  So the idea of getting at innocent children by taking the form of a child.

The demon or ghost or whatever is seen attacking the tomboy Christine again during the night. She sees someone in the shadows that her sister Nancy doesn’t see – she also hears it, says it wants her family dead.

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The Warrens are like The Atlantic Paranormal Society Ghost Hunters people, as they enter in skeptically to disprove all but the real hauntings. They even have all kinds of scientific equipment, audio and film recording, to help them “prove” the real hauntings.  In The Exorcist, we also saw the attempt to utilize some science to help prove the possession, and in The Possession it was science that ultimately proved it to the family.  So while we have science sometimes being seen as the obstacle that has to be overcome to allow the religious solution to be utilized, it has become increasingly common to rely upon science to help prove the realism of the supernatural, especially to the skeptical in the film and in the audience.

So far the entity has only interacted with or gone after the women in the family – the husband Roger (Ron Livingstone) has been unaffected. The demon or spirit attacked, knocked the girls’ pictures off the wall. This occurred while the husband was away on a job. Carolyn gets knocked down the basement stairs. Rory says “Want to play hide and clap” and you see the hands again. This was a true jump-out-of-your-seat worthy moment.  The movie has a lot of jump scares, which work because of its creepy atmosphere.

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Cindy is sleepwalking again, beating her head on wardrobe where Rory was. And then it makes the knocking noise itself. So by this point all the women in the family have experienced the paranormal. Definitely a “she”, older, spirit attacking everyone. And Roger comes back just in time as the spirit attacks the eldest daughter, Andrea. It is telling that no help is sought until after Roger returns to find all of his girls hysterical. Almost as if there was permission needed to seek help from the Warrens — which, of course, would go along with the gender politics of the era in which the film is set.

Demonologist Ed Warren in a class showing a film of a man being possessed. Ed is not authorized to do exorcisms. We get the explanation of the three stages of demonic possession, which has been discussed in other exorcism cinema: infestation (environmental influence), oppression (crushes will, especially of the psychically vulnerable), and possession (final stage). Carolyn is the one who seeks out the Warrens, and Lorraine agrees they will come investigate. An indication of the sisterhood bond, the bond between mothers.

The rancid smells for demonic possession is also seen in other exorcism movies. And the banging in 3s is related to demons trying to insult the holy trinity.

The Warrens recommend a cleansing, exorcism, for the house — so, basically, the house is possessed, not a single person. A dark entity has latched itself to the family, feeding off them. The Warrens need to investigate and gather proof to convince the Church on the need to exorcise the house.

The daughters had not been baptized. Is that an indication of their not being innocent in some way?

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Satanic worship found in the house’s past – a mother killing her child — witchcraft, time of death at 3:07. Mothers and children dying on the land. Witches don’t care about life.  Perhaps the most direct link between witchcraft and exorcism in these movies, but a connection that was made in the history of demonic possession and exorcism trials.

Fascinating switch in format as they briefly go into found footage mode to film their investigation of the cellar – indicated by different aspect ratio. So that approach to the realism aesthetic is brought in, if only briefly.  It also matches the style of showing the supposed real exorcism in the class, the one that hurt Lorraine psychically. An aesthetic link to further the idea of such exorcisms as actually occurring.

Now, interesting, the couple did have sex the first night they were there, and that was the night the mother got her first bruise.  So a clear connection between the loss of innocence and demonic possession.

And there is the possession of the mother – by the spirit coughing blood into her mouth — similar to The Possession. But Carolyn seems unfazed, just a little bit nauseous — almost equating possession with pregnancy, which would also refer to the rape analogy of possession and the abortion analogy of exorcism. Lorraine saw the ghost and ran to see the mother. While this was happening to the women, the guys were out working on the car.

According to Ed, every time Lorraine sees ghosts, it takes something from her. During a previous exorcism, something she saw really took it out of her, and she hasn’t said what it is. I do like how brave the clairvoyant is – knowing how much damage she takes and thus how much danger she is in, she willingly goes into these investigations, believing this is what God wants of her. She is no weak willed person – she will not cry out unless the horror is immense and immediate.  But boy the women are getting beat up in the movie.

Still 8 from The ConjuringTHE CONJURING

Something about how mothers and their children are in danger in this movie – the witch is possessing the mothers to kill their children. In other exorcism movies, it is a demon doing the possessing, and it is often gendered as male. Here it is a witch and thus gendered as female. So the exorcism is to get rid of a witch – which means it is the Catholic Church versus a witch, with the history there that indicates all kinds of gendered, sexual, political issues. It is basically making that connection about possession of women to the idea of women being possessed as being hysterical to the way to act out against the patriarchy. In the witchhunts, there was the idea of the Church trying to squelch women’s power in their communities and their lives. Well, here the Church would be doing the same thing – squelching the witch – only the witch is coded as real, as demonic, as a Satan worshipper, meaning it is coded in exactly the same way as done by the Church during the witchhunts. So you have the undoing of the work that tries to discredit how the Church demonized the women it called witches by saying witches are real and they are demonic.  That is troubling, as it reaffirms the Church’s traditional stance on the danger of women who “act out” or do not wish to be oppressed.

The Warrens beseech a priest for help, but he is initially reluctant because the children are not baptized and the family is not part of the Church. Well, technically, neither were others in these exorcism movies — positioning the Church as only caring about tending to its flock? The priest relents, perhaps because he fears for the children’s safety.

Earlier, Lorraine has vision of the daughter dying with the locket on her.  So also the witch is going after the Warrens’ daughter – who is also young and innocents. Apparently the witch latches on to people — so it is not just a house that has to be cleansed, but the people who become possessed.  Doll is not in its case. Witch has the doll, scares daughter Judy, who calls out to Lorraine — Lorraine is able to psychically hear her, that bond of sisterhood again. And they put the doll back.

The family had fled the house, but then Carolyn took some of her daughters back to the house, because she is possessed. She took Christine and the young curly one, April.  Because of the urgency, Ed has to do the exorcism, but clairvoyant Lorraine won’t leave him to walk into this alone, again saying God brought them together for a reason. They try to remove her from the house, but the witch burns her skin, refusing to let her leave, inflicting more pain on her.  Carolyn attacking the men who are trying to restrain her could be read as the witch seeking vengeance on the men that hunted and killed her fellow women.

Now it is not really demonic possession, at least as seen in other exorcism movies, as there is no talking in tongues and no psychic manipulation – definitely nothing sexual about this one – but because the witch worships Satan she is vulnerable to holy symbols.  There is telekinesis, levitation, so some of the same behaviors and activities as seen in other cases of possession.

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Crows and pigeons flying into the house and around the house, smacking into the car – like the other movies — and like The Birds, oddly enough, which is also sometimes read as an indictment about women for being impure and defying the patriarchy.  Crows in particular have a history of being evil omens in Western cultures as they are commonly associated with witches.

Lorraine telling Carolyn to fight it, to not give in.  Ed commands the witch to reveal herself, and then we do get facial contortion to reflect being possessed by the evil spirit. Roger confronts the witch, demanding it let Carolyn go — but the witch says she is already gone, that everyone will die. When the whereabouts of the missing daughter is discovered, the possessed Carolyn takes off after her.  Ed speaks its name at her and Lorraine lays her hand on the witch’s head, saying she cannot give in, which Roger reiterates as Lorraine calls on Carolyn to remember a good time, to remember her daughters. So it is not the exorcism so much that saves them as it the clairvoyant getting her to remember her love for her children that does it, causes her to cough up, or purge, the witch’s blood. It is the power of sisterhood, of motherly love, that does the job.

The mother is saved, Lorraine is alive, and the witch is banished — but is the house clean?  Two women come out of the conflict well, while the other, the one that has the problematic ties back to the Church’s history with women, does not.  Not sure to be happy about the resolution, or troubled by it.

More realism over the ending — a quote from Ed Warren, pictures of the people whose lives served as the basis for this film.  The movie is bookended by these rhetorics that call out for authenticity.  Whether or not you believe the interpretation of the real events as supernatural — well, that’s what the science is for, isn’t it?  When belief and faith are not enough, then realism comes through evidence.  In a culture where rational thought is displacing superstition, the reliance on science to explain the unexplained is necessary to create belief and faith.  In this culture, then, the Church must co-opt science to tend to its flock.

7 thoughts on “The Conjuring: a Witch, a Wardrobe, and a Basement

  1. Interesting reading of ‘The Conjuring’ – what stood out to me, and confirmed by an article on Salon, was the “witch shaming.” Insisting that there were actual witches in Salem, and they’re depraved baby-killers. Indeed the evangelical right uses this constantly to shame women in alternative religions (right down to Yoga)

    Ed & Lorraine Warren are also of great interest to me. I grew up in their region of Connecticut as a kid. There was even a possession case in a town 15 minutes from where I live, which spawned a bestseller, a made for TV flick (you can see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iu1mEBbgOEs), and an actual murder trial where the defense tried to argue demonic possession. I wrote a blog post about it here: http://chillerpop.blogspot.com/2015/03/march-20-2011-1141pm-demonnecticut-rate.html (again, apologies for the formatting, I had to save all these posts quickly from another platform).

    I do think there’s something dangerous about believing the Warrens and their claims.

    Liked by 1 person

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