The Conjuring: A Dull Lesson in the Horrors of 'Based on a True Story'

The film would rather remind viewers that it's 'real' than it would scare or entertain them.
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The Conjuring is a fairly standard-issue Hollywood horror possession film. There's a dog that does the usual thing dogs do in horror films. There's a doll that does what dolls usually do in horror films. There's some eerie TV static, some doors banging, some ghost hunters with motion detectors and UV lights, and some creepy ghosts who appear on cue when you expect to least expect them, complete with ominous music and the spooky makeup that all ghosts wear so you can identify them. And there's an eerie whispered catch phrase, because the supernatural loves memes (in this case it's "look what you made me do.")

There's only one difference between this film and all those other films.

(Dramatic pause. Eerie whisper voice.)

This one... is real.

When I say "it's real," I mean several things. First, and most obviously, the film is based to some degree on real events. It tells the story of the Perron family, who moved into a supposedly haunted farmhouse in Rhode Island in 1971. The Perrons contacted well-known ghost hunters Ed and Lorrain Warren to help them rid their home of evil spirits (after which Ed began the long journey through the netherworld of development hell to bring the story to the big screen.)

But the "reality" of the story in the end has little to do with its no doubt extremely loose basis in fact, and a lot to with its thematic concerns. Which is to say, the movie is in a lot of ways less focused on the supernatural than it is on its own reality, and on demonstrating its own reality.

Some of these demonstrations are quite charming--like the period hairstyles, or the selection of the relatively-homely-by-Hollywood-standards Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston to play the Perron parents. Other assertions of truthiness, though, are less enjoyable. There are, of course, the newspaper clippings and actual photos that play over the end credits. And then, at the other end of the film, before we even get to our main haunted house, we have scenes of the Warrens (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) working other cases, and answering questions in lecture halls to underline their expertise and truthiness. We even see a case later on where they ostentatiously prove that the haunting is just some creaky floorboards and uneven heating, to show that they don't certify just any ghosts. Hauntings overwhelmingly have a "rational explanation," Lorraine assures the relieved family, before we trundle back off to the Perrons and their checklist of movie horrors.

In some sense, that checklist works against the reality. The situations and the spooks and the characters (noble ghost fighters, loving mother, confused but sturdy dad) are all so well-worn that it's hard to take the suggestion that we're seeing "truth" as anything but a deliberate joke. You half expect the next door to bang open to reveal a prostitute with a heart of gold, or a crusty but cunning police chief. Why don't they just throw in all the tropes and be done with it?

The thing is, the assertion "this is true" is every bit as much a familiar tent-pole of exorcism horror as the chair lifting off the floor or the catch phrases. Some recent films, like The Last Exorcism or the excellent The Devil Inside, use the found-footage genre to get that requisite feeling of verite. The Conjuring isn't that clever; its claim to truth boils down to repetition and assertion--and maybe the odd bodily assault on the skeptical police guy to show him the error of his ways.

The pretense to realism can be enjoyable as part of horror. In 'The Conjuring,' it's an incessant theme that Director James Wan mistakenly seems to believe can carry the entire film.

The Conjuring, then, is not convincingly real. This isn't a bad thing in itself; hardly anybody goes to a horror film expecting to see documentary realism any more than you listen to campfire ghost stories to get factual information about guys with hooks for hands. It's the pretense to realism, not the realism per se, that's enjoyable.

Or at least, the pretense to realism can be enjoyable as part of a horror movie. In The Conjuring, though, the pretense is more than just a part--it's an insistent and constant drumbeat, an incessant theme that Director James Wan mistakenly seems to believe can carry the entire film. On the strength "based on a true story", he has forsworn interesting characters, an inventive plot, and memorable villains.

As a result, all we're left with at the conclusion is some sentimentality and a real quote from the real Ed Warren warning us that demonic powers are real and our moral choices matter. Which may or may not be the case. But if evil and moral choices were what the filmmakers cared about, I wish they'd made a movie about them. Instead, The Conjuring is dedicated to the completely pointless task of encouraging its viewers over and over, in various ways, to pretend that the derivative nonsense on screen actually happened. That isn't scary. It's not even startling. It's just banal.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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