Last summer, I needed a day off from work. I had exhibited at too many trade shows in only a short time and had written too many business proposals. A talented member of my staff had resigned and I had to scramble to finish some projects he had left behind.
In addition to being a talented professional, he also happened to be a major fan of horror films. I hadn’t seen too many flicks in some time; that’s what happens when you’re the father of a two-year-old. You don’t get out that much.
So with a mental health day in order, I decided to head off to the movies to check out The Conjuring. There’s nothing quite like going to the movies by yourself in the middle of a weekday when the stadium seats are all empty and the rest of the world is at work. This is especially true if you’re going to see a horror flick. No one’s hand is available to hold onto either. When the terror strikes, you’re on your own. I love that feeling.
I left the theater two hours later and it was only after I stepped out of the dark and into the mid-afternoon sunlight that I stopped being seriously rattled. The afternoon had been well spent with its share of scares and gripping storytelling. Walking home, I also tried to figure out what I had enjoyed so much about The Conjuring. We definitely need more stories like it, I thought. Eventually, I came up with three reasons why.
1. The Conjuring doesn’t claim to remake the horror genre, but it does a good job of telling a story.
Sometimes the greatest courage in storytelling comes not from struggling to surpass what’s been done before and reinventing the wheel, but just from telling a good story within an existing genre. People like horror films. They have been around a long time, a very long time. Remember Nosferatu? That was 1922!
What that means is that you already know there’s an audience for the kind of story that will scare people, and so there’s no need to overthink things. You get too cerebral and sometimes the visceral fear that comes from a good horror story disappears. It gets too intellectual.
Here are the titles of some classic horror films. The Omen. The Exorcist. The Evil Dead. And now we have: The Conjuring. The writers of The Conjuring were wise in keeping with a simple title, the kind that has a tradition of success. Odds were, the writers were positioning themselves for similar success.
2. The Conjuring is based on real events. There’s nothing scarier in horror than something that might have actually happened.
Ed and Lorraine Warren were real-life paranormal investigators from the 1950s up to the present. (Ed died in 2006). They founded the New England Society for Psychic Research, which, according to Wikipedia, is the oldest ghost hunting group in New England. The couple had, at least if it’s an accurate depiction in The Conjuring, a rather extensive museum of occult paraphernalia.
The Conjuring is based on a case the Warrens believed profoundly disturbing. A family moves into a Rhode Island home, where weird, horrible things promptly start happening. The family dog is found dead one morning after spending the night outside. Children are nearly yanked out of bed in the middle of the night by an unseen presence.
The presence then manifests itself in different ways–as a dark spirit that leaps at one of the daughters from the top of a bureau (truly frightening) and then consumes the soul of the mother after hovering malevolently over her in bed (um, that was pretty damn frightening too).
It gets sick and twisted real fast. The Warrens, in the film as in real life, are brought to the home where Lorraine, a clairvoyant, quickly feels the presence of the hateful spirits and convinces her husband they need to exorcise the entire house.
The Conjuring tells the story (in dramatized fashion, presumably) of this family and of the Warrens’ involvement in trying to free the family from the supernatural presence that has latched itself to them.
Anyone who ponders the intersection of horror cinema and “actual events” may be disturbed by The Conjuring. But it’s also one reason why more stories like this must be told, to challenge viewers and us as a society with the knowledge that there may be more to the universe than we can imagine.
Which leads me to my third point…
3. The Conjuring advances the importance of horror cinema in society.
Horror, in one sense, represents a rebellion against the norm and against all that is good and well in society. Compared to, say, romantic comedies, of which there are many, horror represents a smaller but, in my opinion, fundamentally important and threatening, niche.
Most people like to pretend if you do the right things and make the important decisions in life, then all will be well. You go to school, get educated, get a job, a family, a house and live happily ever after. Many horror films, including The Conjuring, begin with such a premise: the story of such a well-meaning family who stumbles unknowingly (and undeservedly) into unspeakable evil with no idea how to confront their supernatural oppressor.
That is closer to the way much of real life works too, where our best intentions get sideswiped by unpleasant, unexpected and–yes–undeserved realities. Many of our personal horrors have less to do with the supernatural and more to do with every day tragedies: domestic violence, murder, theft, drug and alcohol abuse and the toll addiction takes on families. And ten million other occurrences that reflect humankind’s many foibles. Really, there are a lot of ways human beings can be truly horrible.
Ironically, as a society, we also don’t like to face such unpleasantness though it happens all the time, everywhere. We do our imaginative best to avoid them. Many of us don’t exactly consider ourselves creative yet we somehow manage to pretend that lots of thing don’t or won’t happen. And if we do, we consider them aberrations, things that happen over there, in someone else’s yard or in someone else’s neighborhood.
But the reality is, bad things happen, even in your own home. Horror cinema taps into emotions we would rather not face most times, fear or even pure, abject terror. Films like The Conjuring evoke a portrait of simple, family life and turn it into something dreadful.
Maybe most or all of us will never face the supernatural as the Warrens and the Perrons did, but many of us have homes and families whom we want to protect, and life is filled with enough violence and hardship to represent a perpetual threat.
Word has it, a sequel to The Conjuring is in the works for 2015. Let’s hope it’s as good as the first film.