The Conjuring. Starring Vera Fermiga, Lili Taylor and Patrick Wilson. Directed by James Wan. 112 minutes. Rated MA 15+ (Strong horror themes and violence).
The Conjuring has been the subject of discussion in the media, especially about what the Catholic Church thinks of this kind of horror film based, allegedly, on actual events. (And, it made $42,000,000 in the United States alone in its first days of release.)
Not that it is not an interesting film, and delivers for its audiences enough scares and shocks for people to jump in their seats. The director, James Wan, was the director of the first Saw film and has made a number of horror thrillers, including Death Sentence and Insidious, to prove that he is more than adept at this kind of film.
The main interest is the theme of satanic possession, the presence of evil in the world, mediated through human beings, the experience of hauntings and the possibilities of exorcism.
The Conjuring is based on a story by Ed and Lorraine Warren, the latter acting as a consultant for the film, a Catholic couple who have been involved in investigating hauntings and possessions for many decades. Their pictures appear in the final credits as well as do the family who are the central focus of this particular film.
Because there are references to the Catholic Church in the screenplay, with the Warrens being Catholic, and having a familiarity with Catholic rituals, especially for exorcism, and consulting a priest about this particular case, many have thought that it is a Catholic film. However, it is difficult to say that The Conjuring is ‘a Catholic film’. The references are scattered, sometimes slight, relying on crucifixes and holy water, and the general statement that Hollywood writers of fond of, ‘it will need approval from the Vatican’, without explaining who in the Vatican, how or why this kind of approval is needed or given. This contrasts with the original The Exorcist, 1973, which drew on an actual case, had Jesuit advisers and used the text of the ritual exactly. It also contrasts with the film, The Rite, 2011, which showed audiences aspects of the course on exorcism currently available in Rome.
Later in the film, because the Vatican approval has not come through, Ed Warren performs the exorcism himself. The introduction to the film states that he is one of the few lay exorcists approved by the church.
This is really a haunted house film, all stops out. A family of father and mother with five daughters moves out of the city into an old house sold by the bank. They should have checked on its reputation because it is connected, not with any Catholic history at all, but with descendants of a Salem witch of the 17th century, Satan worship in the 19th century which leads to human sacrifice and suicides. It is these characters who are haunting, wanting to get back into the world with their malevolence, taking possession of the mother (Lily Taylor subject to terrible torments), while inhabiting some of the daughters at times. So, there is religious background from the Protestant past. The haunted family is not religious at all, though the Warrens suggest it might be better if they were baptised.
But, ‘the Catholic thing’, is the background of the Warrens (Ed dying in 2006, aged 80) and Lorraine, now 86. They have been described as devout Catholics and this is taken for granted in the film. The most famous case, movie-wise, is that of the Amityville house and its haunting, filmed in 1978 as The Amityville Horror, with half a dozen sequels for television, and remade in 2005. There have been other films based on their cases, The Haunted, 1991, and A Haunting in Connecticut, 2009. They appeared in a number of television programs and are described as ‘paranormal investigators’, he a demonologist and writer, she a clairvoyant and medium.
While Ed Warren, played rather stolidly here by Patrick Wilson, mentions scepticism quite often, he and his wife, a sympathetic Vera Farmiga, give lectures which are packed out with eager students asking questions. There are some episodes where they visit a house and explain the sounds and creakings quite rationally. But it is a reminder that it is often easier to believe in a haunting than to believe in God, that the credibility of possession is more credible than that of a truly spiritual world. While the Warrens have been consistent and public in their work, there have been accusations of fraud and hoaxes.
So, The Conjuring is an entertainment of the ghosts/poltergeist/hauntings kind. The clever writers, Chad and Carey Hayes, have drawn on the conventions of the horror genre and borrowed, without depthing, some Catholic associations.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out July 18, 2013.