Last night, my life-date, Kandace, and I managed a night out at the movies, where we actually managed to catch a rare double feature. First we saw “World War Z,” the Brad Pitt zombie extravaganza, which is first rate. When the zombie apocalypse comes, I want Brad on my side!
Then we saw “The Conjuring.” The movie is a classic ghost story, with elements of poltergeists, exorcisms, and all the standard tropes. The bad news is that the production has gone to great lengths in all the attendant promotion (and in some respects within the film itself) to loudly proclaim itself “based on a true story.” The good news is, if you can divorce yourself from the stew of paranormal mysticism and Catholic superstition, what’s left is a perfectly entertaining horror flick with some fun scares.
The director, James Wan, notably the director and writer of the modern classic horror film, “The Saw,” that spawned the series (and for which he produced several of the subsequent films), has given viewers a well-crafted ghost tale that has a great look and feel, conjuring up a New England of the 1970s that as a setting could have almost served as well had it needed appear a century older. Also, Mr. Wan appreciates restraint in the horror form, letting out his scary fishing line just a bit at a time, and not overdoing the scares to the point that the audience becomes inured. There’s a pleasant supply of scenes that take the viewer from anticipatory frozen-in-the-seat tension to jump-out-of-that-same-seat fright.
This skilled approach to craft has served the producers well, with the low-budget shocker, made for a mere $20 million (a pittance by any contemporary studio standards, much less the summer blockbuster field), has already more than doubled its costs in its opening weekend. Quite an accomplishment for a horror movie, a genre that studios rarely try to offer as summer competition.
The story recounts supposed events, which occurred in 1971 when the Perron family moved into an old farmhouse in rural Rhode Island. Suffering the usual signs of a haunting – slamming doors, stopping clocks, dying dogs, and the like – things get gradually more and more out of hand, leading the family to contact the ghost-hunter paranormalists, Ed and Lorraine Warren. You remember them – they’re the folks behind the Amityville Horror hoax – uh, story – movie – books – whatever.
Well, they’re back in the movie business, so to speak, having, after twenty years of trying, managed to get the Perron story to the big screen. Although Ed Warren has since died, his widow, Lorraine, now 86 years old, served as a consultant on the film (no word if she contacted Ed by séance for collaborative input). Thirty years after the alleged spookifications, one of the Perron daughters, Andrea, wrote a book about the haunting, entitled “House of Darkness, House of Light,” about which the top few reviews on Amazon probably tell us all we need to know (summary: don’t buy the book).
Suffice to say, the paranormal duo come to investigate, they are oh-so-skeptical at first, saying that most claims of haunting merely have logical non-paranormal explanations (said by no TV ghost-hunter, ever). Eventually, however, when the children are being forcibly dragged and thrown around the place, this raises their suspicions slightly, and they move in with their high technology (cameras that trip when high temperature is sensed, microphones in every bedroom, UV lights that reveal ghostly footprints) and manage to record sufficient proof to bring the case to the local diocese and formally request an exorcism. This would be hilarious if it wasn’t for the fact that the Catholic Church still believes in this horseshit. What is hilarious is the moment when the priest first demurs from helping these terrified folks, because the children haven’t been baptized, so apparently he prefers they just get sent to hell forthwith. What a guy!
Well, I won’t offer any major spoilers here; suffice to say there are the usual floatings and slammings and screamings and such, maybe a couple too many moments copped from “The Exorcist” (and a brief visual nod to Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” but one is left with the ancient Brian de Palma question: rip-off or homage?).
But don’t get the wrong idea: I liked this movie and if you’re a fan of ghost tales and medium-scare horror, I recommend it. (As for the medium-claim, well, the ratings board gave the movie an R rating for sheer scariness, as they had no real justification in terms of explicit violence, sex, language or other. Just … it’s scaRRRRRRy!)
The problem is that the goofy paranormal gravitas and the crazy Catholic ritualism may serve to take skeptics out of the story here and there. But personally I think that’s a shame – I’m a big fan of this genre, I love Stephen King books, and whether the folks involved actually believe they experienced these things, or are taking advantage of an ongoing income opportunity, that’s another story for another day – a day not spent at the movies.
And as for those latter questions, I suspect the Perrons managed to scare themselves and believe that something strange happened at their Rhode Island home. Andrea Perron claims in one interview that at one point the refrigerator door kept slamming open and shut as its contents sprayed and flew out of the unit. Do I believe this happened? No. Does Andrea believe it – now? Perhaps.
As for the Warrens, it would be difficult to claim that they are purely cynics who don’t believe the worldview they devoted their lives to, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t ready and willing to exaggerate or even completely confabulate tales like that of the Amityville Horror for commercial purposes.
As Dr. Steve Novella has commented, “The Warrens are good at telling ghost stories. … You could do a lot of movies based on the stories they have spun. But there's absolutely no reason to believe there is any legitimacy to them.”
Or in the words of that great skeptic, The Cowardly Lion: “There’s no such thing as ghosts.” True dat!
Jamy Ian Swiss is Senior Fellow at the JREF. He blogs regularly at randi.org.