Editor's Note: This piece contains statements that could, loosely, be construed as spoilers, but honestly, they're phrased in a way that won't make the film any less scary, so let's all just relax, okay? Read the piece, which is, after all, about slightly more elevated things than what's BOO! scary in the film.
James Wan’s The Conjuring is that rare thing: a contemporary horror film that doesn’t suck. Critics and audiences seem to agree on this point, and I hope that the film’s minimal use of digital effects and focus on good acting, effective story-telling, and dramatic mood-setting will be imitated by other makers of horror films. Such qualities once stood, not as the exception, but as the rule in horror film production, and Wan’s film pays homage to the genre’s great era, the 1970s. Set in 1971, The Conjuring is haunted, not only by the demon tormenting the Perron family in their rural Rhode Island home, but by the specter of an era that disturbingly resembles our own.
Rising unemployment and inflation, soaring gas prices, oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, nuclear accidents, rising gun violence, terrorism, and divisive party politics: these constituted daily life in the 1970s as they do today. Yet unlike today, the films of the era reflected these grim experiences, offering audiences a chance to see their fears and anxieties brought to gritty life on the screen. Certainly the period had its share of escapist films, but unlike today, these did not dominate the Cineplex. The period was also less attached to that most clichéd of plot devices: the happy ending. But while The Conjuring succumbs to this temptation somewhat, it remains haunted by the dark forces of the past the film has unleashed.
Tellingly, these dark forces reside in an archive kept by the paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. Based on the actual husband and wife team who investigated over 10,000 hauntings, including the Amityville Horror, they are marvelously portrayed by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, who accurately convey the zealous, sober earnestness that attended unexplained phenomena in the 70s. As a kid I devoured the seemingly endless documentaries produced for theatrical release by studios like Sunn Classic Pictures, responsible for such “classic pictures” as The Outer Space Connection, The Mysterious Monsters, and The Bermuda Triangle. It was a great time to grow up, when there seemed to be a whole lot of adults who believed in the same fairy tales you did. In The Conjuring, the Warrens look like 70s televangelists, but instead of a desperate studio audience, they preach to audiences of college students, who listen to their lectures with rapt attention, and all simultaneously raise their hands for questions at the end.
The real-life Warrens continue to maintain an occult museum in the back of their Connecticut home. Its portrayal in The Conjuring remains one of the film’s more potent images, part Ray Bradbury-esque curio emporium, part small town museum. All of the objects stored there are cursed or possessed by spirits, and the Warrens keep them there for the rest of the world’s protection. The most terrifying of these is a grotesque doll (is there any other kind in horror films?) named Annabelle, whose story serves as a kind of prelude to the Perron family haunting. Her sinister grin and lifeless features serve as reference points to a host of haunted manikins, from the Zuni warrior doll hunting Karen Black in Trilogy of Terror (1975), to Anthony Hopkins’ malign ventriloquist’s dummy in Magic (1978), to the evil clown in Poltergeist (1982), not to mention Chucky and his seemingly endless (and, frankly, not very scary) brood from the Child’s Play franchise. Annabelle serves as an emblem of the film, which itself is a kind of archive of past horrors not entirely put to rest.
The Conjuring is very much a period piece. Polyester and plaid play a significant role in the costuming, The Brady Bunch plays on the television, and the film texture is slightly grainy, with the muted palette and natural lighting distinctive to seventies cinema. As such, it takes its place as part of a growing list of recent films set in the period, including Zodiac, No Country for Old Men, Super 8, Argo, and key sections of Cloud Atlas. These films project a common picture of the 1970s, as a decade,rife with random violence, Byzantine politics, and unexplained phenomena: in other words, the weird decade.
This is a truer picture than the one conveyed by the period’s better-known denomination, the “me decade.” It has always seemed to me a gross injustice that the period in which women’s and gay rights issues emerged into political and social life, along with widespread recognition of gross disparities in the American economy and the way those disparities served to broaden racial and class differences, would be given such a selfish sobriquet. That name would better be given to the decade that followed, when right wing leaders like Reagan, Bush, and Thatcher pandered to business interests, fostering a culture based on greed rather than community. In their various ways, contemporary films that return to the seventies share a mutual preoccupation with the darker underpinnings of the period, and how it might serve as a guide to our own. We are left with the legacy of the eighties’ political and economic injustices—renewed and deepened in the second Bush era—but we seem to have lost the shared sense of anger, frustration and fear that characterized the seventies, and that was reflected in the era’s films.
And yet The Conjuring falls short of fully realizing such possibilities. The moral of the story ultimately rests on a conservative affirmation of the power of religion and of family. The Warrens marshal the same Christian forces that defeated the demon haunting Linda Blair in The Exorcist (1973), enhanced by the powerful maternal feelings of the demon’s host, Carolyn Perron. This triumph of Christian family values is buttressed by Lili Taylor’s portrayal of Carolyn as a bland, almost childish mother of five (!), who blithely accepts her husband’s long periods of absence on his trucking runs, smilingly managing the large household alone. This is a family portrait rather out-of-sync with the age of Gloria Steinem, Maude, and the E.R.A. While Taylor’s Stepford Wives-like behavior lends an effective character arc for her later possession—and there is a certain subversive tension in her being possessed by a witch who killed her own child—the blithe ending seems to foreclose on these more intriguing possibilities, effectively replacing the values of the seventies with those of the eighties and the Moral Majority.
But in the last scene of the film, we return to the Warrens’ occult museum, where Ed places a haunted music box from which all of the occult mayhem emerged. The sinister music box—an abiding horror trope used to haunting effect in such films as The Innocents, Deep Red, and The Ring—as if its melody weren’t scary enough, contains a pop-up clown, possible sibling to Annabelle grinning evilly in the museum’s corner, effigy of the girl doll who fought back. This music box contains a mirror that might serve as another emblem for The Conjuring. When we look in it we see a distorted reflection of what’s behind us. Wan’s film conjures the sense of unease and violence that permeates our memories of the seventies and seemingly puts them to rest. But the grinning doll doesn’t look like she wants to stay put.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.