The Conjuring — Lessons in Magical Memories

19 Aug

–If you care about SPOILERS for The Conjuring (2013), don’t read this post–

It’s probably overdue for me to say a bit about this summer’s supernatural smash The Conjuring. After all, the film’s central characters are Ed and Lorraine Warrren, real-life demonologists. If you’ve seen the film already and want to learn more about them, there are a few web resources spawned from the film’s success. (Like this article at the Daily Beast or this “fact-checking” blog post at History vs. Hollywood.) If you’re really keen, you can even go ahead and get House of Darkness House of Light, which is a first-person account of the events of the film.

Film poster for The Exorcist - Copyright 1973,...

My hesitation to write about the film was simple–I didn’t like it. I didn’t think it was a helpful movie to introduce audience to spiritual warfare or demonologists like the Warrens. If anything I believed the movie was a shallow reflection of the rather serious consideration of evil spirits by actual exorcists. Most viewers would be better off seeing The Exorcist or, and I can’t believe I’m even writing this, the gory A Haunting in Connecticut.

Here’s a quick summary of the film: The Perron family moves into their new house in rural Rhode Island in 1970 only to discover that a malevolent spirit of a murdered 19th century witch posses mothers and makes them kill their children. With the help of supernatural specialists Ed and Lorrain Warren, the family is able to exorcise the demon and survive to tell the tale.

Done. That’s the whole film. Plot-wise, you can see, it’s pretty thin. There’s lots of creepy slow-pans over ominous shadows and objects that have spooky relevance to the story, but in a nut-shell it’s a haunted house story with a happy ending.

One of the many challenges of telling such a story in today’s spiritual/religious world is the complexity of beliefs surrounding the supernatural. Is a spirit the same as a ghost? Are demons fallen angels controlled by Satan? Are they exclusive to Christianity or are evil spirits independent of religious hierarchies.

The Conjuring deals with some of these issues immediately and directly. There are no ghosts, and all spirits in the film will be presented as variations within the range of Christianity’s demonology. The murdered witch, moments before she commits suicide, declared her loyalty to Satan, which explains her continued haunting of the home. She isn’t an apparition trapped in limbo or some kind of spirit that emerged beyond humanity or the range of spiritual beings described in the Bible. She’s Satan’s minion, doing his work because she has fallen so far from grace in her embrace of all things evil.

The Conjuring

You can see how flimsy things get when one travels down these roads. It is pretty difficult when the filmmakers try to establish a hard line–there are no ghosts–and then proceed on *multiple* occasions to violate that very premise by giving characters flashbacks of murdered characters that appear entirely ghost-like.

The production studio and money behind the film appears to have been motivated rather directly by spiritual warfare in a contemporary Christian sense. Daniel Silliman has a great post about that on his blog. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll have a bit of deja vu when I quote from a manual about cleansing one’s home from spiritual darkness:

Today, I firmly believe in haunted houses; not only that, but haunted church buildings. I don’t mean ghosts, in the sense of spirits of the departed, I mean demonic spirits. Some spirits aimlessly wander through buildings; others are specifically assigned to them. Some portray themselves as ghosts or spirits of the dead. Why do they do this? Because the enemy desperately seeks to interact with humanity. Satan is still “seeking whom he may devour.” Demonic spirits crave a material presence. Therefore, they continually search for a physical object, be it a human body, or an object made of wood or stone, to manipulate for their purposes.

–Eddie Smith, Spiritual House Cleaning (Houston, TX: SpiriTruth, 1997), 3.)

In one sense, this is letter-perfect for the events in The Conjuring. The Warrens explain as much to their clients in the opening scene of the film. And yet when the film comes to its climax, this premise is thrown out the window. Mother Perron is possessed by the murderous witch and pursuing her own child through the crawlspaces of the house. Seconds away from killing her daughter, the mother is grabbed by her husband as Lorraine Warren pleads with her to remember a perfect day the Perron family spent at the beach. This memory restores the mother to semi-sanity, giving her something to resist her possession. The memory is so powerful it defeats the demon and the family is safe.

On Twitter I called this moment, “Happy beach memories magically exorcise demons.” For me everything up to this climax might have been part of a significant religious triumph. The “power of Christ compels you” and all that. But no. Instead, Jesus and the holy spirit–the centerpieces of spiritual warfare success–are omitted. Crucifixes, which featured prominently in the documentation/proof stage of the exorcism, were reduced to dowsing rods. They were only provocative, not salvific. What saved the family? Happy heathen beach parties. 

When the film concludes, the audience is told “The fairy tale is true. Evil exists. God exists.” Of course, God seemed to play an exceedingly small role in evil’s defeat. The Warrens insist in the film that they are together because it is “God’s will” and it is natural to assume that because their presence was destined, the outcome was to be expected. Yet there is something profoundly selfish about the mother’s reliance on a family memory to overcome her possession. Where is the humility in the face of the reality of evil? Where is the pleading for intercession? Where is the power of God in smiting the devil?

One of the central features of older exorcism films is the utter reliance of possessed person on the spiritual authority and power of the exorcists. It is a test of wills, a battle between the agents of God and the minions of Satan. The host for Satan’s minion is the ground where this battle is waged. Re-personalizing the possessed person with significant agency suggests not only that the exorcists are secondary, but that it is somehow not the religious weakness of the host that has permitted their oppression. In the spiritual warfare literature, possession is inevitably linked to a spiritual defect. While the Perron family says they are not baptized nor religious, any pretense for a religious remedy is abandoned. The spiritual defects of the family turn out to be far less essential than the “reality” of evil. They were saved without needing to come to Jesus or even an affirmation of belief.

This is obviously part of the message, right? It doesn’t matter if you believe. Evil is real. Frustratingly, this seems to be an abandonment of the narrative of the spiritual warfare movement. They have consistently argued, as I suggested recently, that all problems are spiritually rooted and this is why they call for spiritual solutions. For the film to lose sight of this logic in its defeat of the murderous demon spirit suggests it doesn’t quite buy into its own logic. Perhaps Insidious 2, which comes out in a few weeks, will better live up to my high spiritual warfare standards.

Insidious (film)

Insidious (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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