With A Most Horrific Year, Senior Staff Writer Randall Colburn analyzes and reflects on the most critically acclaimed horror movie of every year, starting in 2015 and moving backwards. Spoilers are guaranteed.
The Conjuring (2013)
Worldwide Gross: $318,000,141
Certified Fresh: 86%
I don’t believe in ghosts.
I want to, though. I watch Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures obsessively. I heard host Zak Bagans on a podcast and he said ghosts reveal themselves to him because they’ve “chosen” him. Other ghost hunters say you must be willing. Your mind must be open. Sure, that sounds like some kind of convenience, a way to shrug off the skeptics, but I dunno, I sorta buy it.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but I believe ghost hunters. They’re seeing something, I reckon. For whatever reason, I’m not seeing it. And I assume that’s my fault.
I remember being at my high school’s senior all-night party. They brought a hypnotist in, and I was pulled onstage with a bunch of my classmates. He did the swinging pocket watch routine, and I began to feel a sense of panic set in because literally nothing had changed. Next to me, my friends were glassy-eyed and slack-jawed. The hypnotist started telling us that we were in a pool and now we’re a chicken or something, and they were all swimming and clucking and I was, too, but only because I felt like I had to. I wasn’t hypnotized and they were.
Overwhelmingly, I thought: I’m the one who’s wrong here.
The hypnotist brought us back. I told him that I wasn’t hypnotized. Discreetly, he told me to get the hell off the stage. I did and felt bad about myself. I watched them all clucking and wanted to see what they were seeing, to feel what they were feeling. I pondered what was broken inside me that made me impervious.
I believe ghost hunters because I want to believe in ghosts, but you can’t force yourself to believe in a thing.
You can, however, believe a person.
The Conjuring is about ghost hunters. The first ghost hunters. Well, the first famous ones. I’m sure there were cavemen looking for green orbs in stegosaurus caves or something, but the Warrens brought some kind of credibility to the field, what with their highly publicized work on the Amityville case or the Enfield poltergeist. Before either of those events occurred, however, there was the case of the Perron family and their haunted home in Harrisville, Rhode Island. That’s what The Conjuring is about.
Well, it’s about a lot of things. So many things. First, it’s about the Warrens’ encounter with a haunted doll named Annabelle. It’s also about Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) themselves, their home life and the struggles they face trying to live a normal life when your vocation concerns the afterlife. Chiefly, though, the movie centers around the Perrons, who move into a creaky old farmhouse and soon encounter a series of malevolent spirits that first toy with them before attempting to possess matriarch Carolyn (Lili Taylor). The Warrens are eventually brought in to chronicle the haunting, identify its source, and assist with an exorcism.
Horror was floundering in 2013, though not for a lack of trying. Original studio films like Dark Skies and Mama were valiant efforts, but lacked the personality to make much of an impact. The massive success of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s 2012 horror-comedy Cabin in the Woods, it seems, had left the mainstream adrift, what with its bizarre, esoteric vision being essentially inimitable. That’s why, outside of the aforementioned originals, the year was mostly clogged with halfhearted sequels (Texas Chainsaw 3D, The Last Exorcism Part II, Fright Night 2) and a remake of Carrie that couldn’t have been more pointless. Original voices emerged on the fringe — Fede Alvarez’s nutso remake of Evil Dead drew some eyeballs while Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are and Álex de la Iglesia’s Witching and Bitching found some cult love. Found footage horror was even enjoying a mild uptick in reputation due to the success of the lo-fi V/H/S franchise. But those movies weren’t permeating culture so much as laying the groundwork for the careers of their creators.
The Conjuring surpassed all of them both critically and commercially, opening in July and going on to gross over $318 million on a $20 million budget. That’s both impressive and surprising since it’s not as if the material itself was all that eye-catching — the Warrens were a cult curiosity, after all, not the stuff of mainstream obsession. But the film benefitted from smart marketing that properly mythologized the Warrens, as well as dual trailers that, respectively, highlighted the film’s balance of pot-boiling tension and practical effects with its abundance of quick-fire jump scares.
Its spectral bent didn’t hurt, either. 2013 was an ugly year, violent and tumultuous. The Newtown school shootings occurred just weeks before the new year, and the Boston bombings just a few months later. Just days before The Conjuring’s opening, long-gestating seeds of racial unrest sprouted when a neighborhood watch volunteer named George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the racially-motivated death of Trayvon Martin. A few weeks after that, footage of Syrian villages being decimated by chemical weapons hit the Internet. Filmgoers wanted to be scared, but not when they turn on the news. The Conjuring’s period milieu and nonviolent scares were far enough removed from these real-world horrors, providing some kind of respite in a dark year.
Because, weirdly, there’s something comforting about ghosts. There’s a reason we tell stories about them over campfires or let tour guides lead us through landmarks defined primarily by their presence. Maybe it’s the possibility of a life beyond death or the idea of a second chance. We love it when our ghosts want something, to connect with us or find peace or maybe exert revenge on their assailants. It’s tough to find meaning in violence. It’s easier to find meaning in ghosts. They used to be us, after all.
Before I got married, I ruined a dozen OKCupid dates by asking girls about ghosts on the first date. Did they believe? Had they seen one? Had they spoken to one? They’d inevitably turn the question back on me, expecting some kind of revelation based on my interest in the topic.
But I never really had anything to share. I want your stories in lieu of my own.
Okay, I lied. I have one, but I don’t trust it.
I was 16, on vacation in Wildwood, New Jersey, with my parents, their friends, and their son, Matt. Matt was a lot cooler than me, better looking with more charisma. We tried to pick up chicks. He succeeded. I didn’t. I met one from Texas and wrote my Michigan number on a ripped-out page from Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan. She never called.
We were in my hotel room one night, preparing for another night of cruising the beach. He was shaving; I was watching TV. We heated up something in the microwave moments before. The microwave door was open, its inner light glowing. Suddenly, silently, the lights went out. So did the TV. But Matt’s electric shaver continued to whir. And there was still light. The microwave cast a rectangle of dim light across the dark carpet. Five seconds passed; we sat in silence. And then everything was back, the lights and clocks and TV. Matt and I were puzzled, but not all that concerned. We saw his mom in the hallway, leaving her room next door.
“Did your lights just blink out?” we asked.
I forgot about it until I got home to Michigan. A friend called, wanting to play tennis. I picked him up and he asked me if I heard. About what? Erika, he said.
I hadn’t. Erika was my friend. Well, she had been before I’d developed a crush. We had grown close, her and I, eating lunch and laughing and hanging out at my locker, and, back then at least, it didn’t require much more to be close. When you’re young and dumb, the ability to consistently laugh in the presence of someone you think is pretty is all you need to fall in love. And when I think back on Erika and being 16, I’m almost positive that I loved her in the best way I could at 16.
But, well, I was 16 and that’s even younger, I think, than we remember it being.
Post-lunch one day, we’re at my locker and I asked if she’d be my girlfriend, because, being what some might call “horrible” with women, I had yet to discover what dates were. She smiled a little and said, “I don’t know, let me think about it.”
We walked to French class. I made comments about how she’d say no. She got awkward. And, over the next few weeks, I avoided her. I stopped talking to her, so she stopped talking to me. It was a bizarre way to ruin a friendship, but I’d managed it. I found out later she was going to say yes. I didn’t believe it then.
She died in a car crash. She drove into a tree. I read in a story how the leaves of the maple she’d driven into had covered the front window. My friend told me she died the same night the lights blinked out in my hotel room. It happened around 8 p.m. Central Time. It would’ve been 9 p.m. in Wildwood. That’s what I remember seeing on the microwave, the only thing still glowing during those dark seconds.
I spent years entertaining the idea that maybe she was trying to tell me something.
And that’s what the Warrens understood. Those who feel as if they’re being haunted need answers. They want to know why. In The Conjuring, there’s some unintentional comedy when the Warrens first arrive at the Perron household — the scant details Carolyn provides about their haunting causes Ed to immediately exclaim that the haunting is likely demonic in nature, scaring the ever-loving piss out of the family just minutes after he and Lorraine’s arrival. You’d almost think the film was exposing the Warrens’ greatest trick: breed chaos and unease among the haunted, then spin a narrative that allows them to make sense of it. What’s insane is that film treats this as authority.
The biggest problem with The Conjuring (and its dire sequel, which never once reaches the heights of its predecessor) is how it elevates Ed and Lorraine Warren to the status of infallible do-gooders. They’re written with a homespun folksiness — “It’s like stepping on gum,” Ed says about a haunting, “you take it with you” — and a level of certainty that never once questions their credibility. I’m not calling them frauds, necessarily, but numerous others have, and to ignore that entirely, to posit them as The Hardy Boys of the supernatural realm, feels sorta icky. What I love about ghost-hunting shows is that the networks that air them aren’t expressly telling us that what we’re seeing really happened; rather, we’re operating on the word of these passionate eccentrics and the ways in which they manipulate their evidence. I can believe in the beliefs of others, but I can never quite believe in the stories they weave around those beliefs.
The Warrens were successful because they could build out a narrative from the hauntings. For the Perrons, it concerned a witch named Bathsheba who sacrificed a child to the devil, resulting in a history of murders and suicides at the house. As we see in The Conjuring, the Warrens can then package these disparate hauntings into a tidy box with Bathsheba stamped on it. The Warrens bent reality into a narrative, and The Conjuring bends that narrative into a template, one familiar to many watchers of modern horror.
Of course, this is what any filmmaker has to do with material that’s based on true events. It just stands out that much more in horror, where ghosts seem to operate in ways that cater exclusively to humans. Take the maid who haunts the Perron’s kitchen: She appears, then, bizarrely, holds out her razor-sliced wrists. “Look what you made me do!” she screams. Is this what ghosts do? Provide hints and erect signposts that point to their fate? Based on the stories I’ve heard of what people claim are true hauntings, the ghosts are much more content to let us tell their story than to tell it themselves. They’re flickers, manifestations. The Conjuring is best when it favors suggestion over storytelling.
It should be said here that director James Wan is a fantastic filmmaker. The Conjuring is masterfully composed, both structurally and visually. Part of its appeal upon the year of its release was its understanding and deconstruction of the current trends in horror at that time. It manages to be a ghost story, a possession flick, and a creature feature, and even has a detour into the shaky-cam scrabble of found footage. It does so effortlessly, with Wan’s camera fluidly oscillating between long, acrobatic tracking shots and anxious movements that mirror the tics of a spooked spectator.
The Conjuring’s scariest scene comes early. Ten-year old Christine Perron wakes up at night, sensing she’s not alone. Silence underscores a tense look beneath her bed. There’s nothing there. As she turns herself back upright, the camera turns with her, centering itself on a slice of pure darkness sandwiched between her open door and the wall. It’s a disorienting shot; we’re still wavering from the flip, eyes adjusting, waiting for the darkness to soften, to reveal what lies beyond. It never does, though. Christine begins screaming, waking her sister, Nancy. Christine screams that something is there in the darkness, and it’s “looking right at us.”
Nancy sees nothing. Nobody sees anything. And nothing emerges, no spectre in harsh makeup, no shouting or snarling. All we know is that Christine sees something, and whatever she sees sees her, too. That’s all.
That, I believe.
I don’t believe myself, though. I spent years ruminating on whether Erika’s spirit had tried to send me some message by blinking out the lights. A regret, perhaps, that nothing had ever happened between us. Or, more likely, that our friendship had ended so abruptly.
I remember praying at one point, wanting to get some kind of confirmation. But I realize now that those were just theatrics, a way to process her death in a way that I could easily grasp or, even worse, a way to make her death about me. It was a tragedy. It was pointless. It wasn’t about me. I needed to stop trying to make it about me.
I still want to believe, though. I just got married last month, and something happened then, too. Thunder cracked, loud and booming, just as my wife began reciting her vows. It did again just as I began reciting mine. And after we were pronounced man and wife, the bulbs dangling from the rafters blinked out for a moment before rippling back to life. It made us remember the night we got engaged. It was on the porch of her great-aunt’s house in the small Indiana town where she grew up. Her great-aunt had passed, and the house was being foreclosed. It was empty inside. We came to say goodbye.
A stray cat was on the porch with us. It curled around our legs and, when we eventually sat down, our arms. It loved us immediately. When I proposed and she said yes, the cat climbed in between our arms and sniffed the ring.
Suddenly, we heard footsteps through the leaves outside. They were loud enough that we both said hello. No one appeared. No one was there. Nobody could’ve been there, really, not with the way the lawn was laid out.
We joked about ghosts then. The cat was her great-aunt, and maybe the footsteps were her papaw, who had also recently passed. After the wedding we joked some more. It was them again. By that point, though, they weren’t really jokes. Because it’s comforting to think of her great-aunt and papaw being there, and of my grandpas and my Uncle Bill, to think that they’re all still around somehow.
It’s not something I claim, because I don’t believe in ghosts.
It’s something my wife does, though, and I’m grateful for that. I feel a pleasant chill every time she talks about it.