I’m leaving for vacation tomorrow (EXCITING) and I was determined to post this video about The Conjuring before I leave in the morning. I made it yesterday!
Ignore the part where I totally got the name of Legend of Hell House wrong (oops).
But you all know how much I love haunted house movies. I dedicated my whole October to them last year. Of course I was excited when folks started telling me how great The Conjuring is. How scary, how old school. Old school haunted house movie? Yes, please!
What did I think of it then? Generally I like it! I have a few issues but for the most part it’s fun and spooky.
Here’s everything here for you to watch me talk about!
And then here’s all of my thoughts written out for your reading pleasure:
I love Haunted House movies. They are hands down my favorite sub-genre of horror movies. Why?
Because they scare me.
They get into my brain and push my buttons and every boogey man I believed in as a kid suddenly becomes real again. And then I wake up in the middle of the night convinced someone is poking me THROUGH THE COUCH I AM SLEEPING ON. AND WE BETTER NOT GO UPSTAIRS OMG GET OUT OF THIS HOUSE RIGHT NOW.
I also love ghost stories because they come from such a rich literary tradition. I spoke last time about the Slasher genre and its Rules. These rules, while sure they are story elements, are also very much so rooted in the language of movies. A lot of horror tropes are visual, stylistic elements.
With ghost stories, we have traditions that are older than film. I’m talking mythological Joseph Cambell stuff here. And that’s all really cool. Appeals to the nerd in me.
Why do we love ghost stories?
There’s something about the unknowable, the uncanny. Ghost stories push the limits of our belief, defy our search for rational explanation. Evoke a feeling of primitive fear.
We can also bring some Freud into this… I mean when we’re talking about primitive fear are we talking about fear that humans have felt since primitive times? Fear in an anthropological sense? Or primitive fear as Freud talks about it. When he talks about fear and returning to a primitive state, he’s talking in an Oedipal context. According to Freud, the uncanny is anything that reminds us of our earlier psychic state, things that have been repressed.
And then he goes on to relate this all to castration cause he’s Freud. So there’s that.
But why is this different for ghost stories than it is for say, slasher movies?
It’s because our brains know the difference between fantasy and reality. Slasher movies appeal to that adrenaline junky in us. It’s very physical. Ghost stories are different because, in real life, we can believe in ghosts. We know Jason is a fictional creation. We may know that that old lady ghost in The Conjuring is also fiction… but she might not be. It’s because these ghost movies reach for a sense of realism that they affect this experience of the uncanny. That they have the ability to scare us on a whole other level.
I could go on for a really long time about ghost movies and why they’re awesome.
But let’s talk about The Conjuring. How does The Conjuring fit into this tradition of ghost stories? Is it successful? Does it scare us?
I have to admit I’m a hard one to please when it comes to ghost movies. Because I love them so much, I have some pretty high standards. Mostly, I like The Conjuring! It meets standards!
First off, I love that it’s clearly aware of the genre, it’s self-aware but not in an obnoxious, kitschy way. Through the decision of the filmmakers to make this film very cinematic in style (I’m talking camera movements, framing, etc.) as well as the very obvious meta-references to not only fictional ghost movies but those “true life” ghost hunter shows on television, The Conjuring lets us know that it knows what it’s doing. Every decision, every turn, is very consciously made. And it’s also rooted in this reality.
This in turn leads to a series of excellent set-ups and pay-offs. Take for example the game the girls like to play – “Hide & Clap.” The first time we see them play this game it serves two purposes. One, it introduces us to the family, we meet the girls in their pre-life, their life free from terror. We see how they all interact. And this is important. It motivates a lot of the action that happens later in the film as well as connects us emotionally with this family. We care about them.
So that’s one.
Two, is it sets us up for a really great scare. I’ll just leave this at that, because spoilers. Let’s just say I’m really happy with how they played this out.
A thing that gets me about a lot of modern ghost movies, and The Conjuring is guilty of this as well, are the designs of our ghosts. Rather than opting for subtlety, which I argue is scarier, they go more for the grotesque. Which is okay? I guess? I just have a hard time staying in the moment when the ghosts are so clearly works of fiction, so clearly designs of make-up or, more often nowadays, CGI. I like the grotesque and all, I mean if you’re going there then by all means, bring it! The problem I find is in marrying the overly designed to be scary with the otherwise relative realism in these films.
What The Conjuring does so well, and many people said this to me before I even had a chance to see the movie, is it returns to what is I guess we can say, a more old school sensibility. For the most part it doesn’t rely on ghoulish figures. It’s moments of tension arise from mysteriously swinging doors, clocks that stop at the same time, a dog barking at nothing, a little girl pointing to a figure that only she can see.
That’s friggin terrifying!
Where The Conjuring starts to lose me is in its secondary, or I guess really primary story. The story of Ed and Lorraine Warren. If you’re not familiar with them, they’re the real life couple who investigated that other classic haunted house story, The Amityville Horror. Ed and Lorraine are paranormal investigators, real life ones, and this story is based on one of their cases. Whether or not you believe in their claims, it’s hard to argue that they don’t make for compelling stories.
But where The Conjuring builds a really effective emotional connection to the family being haunted, it, at least for me, fails to build that same connection with the Warrens. I would say that too much of their story is told to us, rather than shown. We’re given a lot of information in a small amount of time and I’m not entirely sure that the movie ever really earns the connections it’s asking us to make.
That’s maybe a small thing but I think it’s also the thing that holds The Conjuring back from being completely successful. It’s good, it’s fun, it does a lot really, really well. But emotionally it just never quite gets me there.
In any case, I did like it. But what do you guys think? Have you seen it yet? Did it scare the beejezus out of you? Whatever else I will say about it, I definitely had some funky dreams after first watching it.
If you’re looking for some other scary movies to watch, here are a few you can check out.
For more of the Warrens inspired ghotsly happenings, there is The Amityville Horror. Not the new one, I’m talking the 70’s one baby. It’s campy and silly and arguably not always great, but it has some classic, terrifying moments. I mean, the blood oozing walls. How can you top that?
One of my favorites in the genre, and maybe a bit obvious of a suggestion, The Exorcist. One thing I didn’t talk about is The Conjuring’s basis is Catholicism and the ideas of the Church on demons and possessions. Both the Amityville Horror and The Exorcist are based on these same ideas. So they’re as much Religious Horror as they are Haunted House films.
For just some good old house haunting stories that I love, try out The Haunting, again the original based on Shirley Jackson’s story, The Legend of Hell House, based on Richard Matheson’s story, and, hell, because why not? The House on Haunted Hill with Vincent Price because it is William Castle and it is hilarious.
There you have it! What else do you guys think? Do you like the haunted house genre and the ghost movies? Have any favorites? Any recommendations I missed?
Aaaah, I want to talk more about ghost movies all of the time! True story.
Some references for you: