Haunted houses occupy a particularly compelling corner of the horror genre, because they tend to invert the origin of malice. In many horror stories, the source of danger enters an innocent victim’s life; there is a sense of invasion and violation that drives our emotions. But with haunted houses, the victims are the ones doing the invading, and the violating. They are the ones, often unknowingly, who are treading upon ground that is not theirs, and they are made to pay the price for it by forces they cannot understand, bargain with, or control. Their only option is to leave, but since abandoning where we live is anathema to us, a dread kind of conflict results between the living and the dead. The dead have all the time and patience and energy they need to prevail. The living never do. Such is the horror at the core of The Conjuring.
The story, which is loosely based on the real-life accounts of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, takes place in 1971, as the Perron family moves into an old farmhouse in Rhode Island. Almost immediately after moving in, the family experiences a nonstop barrage of increasingly disturbing and threatening paranormal encounters. The clocks all stop at the same time. The dog-who refused to enter the house (never a good sign) turns up dead. The mother is led into the basement by mysterious sounds and then trapped there. The kids start seeing a malevolent spirit in their bedroom, which at first threatens them, then later physically attacks them. It is all enough for the family to reach out to the Warrens, who are coming off of an investigation into a demon-possessed doll named Annabelle—easily the creepiest product ever produced by the toy manufacturing industry. The Warrens swiftly understand how bad the Perron’s situation is and begin making the case for the Catholic church to exorcise the place. But the forces in the house are gaining strength much faster than the Warrens are gathering evidence, and it becomes clear that very soon, one of the players in this sinister game is going to lose…and pay with their life.
This is a movie that, while made in 2013, clearly draws its story and technique from the ghost stories of the early 1970s. As such, there is almost no CGI here. There are no grand, flashy effects. The entire movie is made with a kind of analog approach that makes every creak, every sudden detail, every bit that is out of place feel that much more terrifying. It is the kind of movie whose technique makes viewers feel that they shouldn’t touch the screen, lest they allow whatever malevolence that lies within to enter their own home. A lot of movies do not have the confidence to take such a low-fi approach to storytelling when there are such good and relatively cheap computer effects at their disposal. But the Conjuring’s insistence on telling this story as if it were really shot in 1971, and with whatever effects would have been available then, lend a strange sense of reality to the proceedings. Were it not for the clarity of picture, there are times when we might mistake this for a mockumentary with sinister, rather than comedic, effects.
There are tripartite forces at work in the Conjuring that make it such a fine ghost story. The first are the Warrens, a pair of likeable investigators with whom we instantly sympathize. Even though they know what they are getting into, and even though we know they are capable demonologists, we cannot shake the feeling that they are playing with fire. That Lorraine bears psychic scars of past encounters with the supernatural is a warning sign. That Ed keeps a room filled with the trophies from past cases—some of which with big DO NOT TOUCH labels on them—is another. These are the heroes of our story, and we can never shake the feeling that one day, they will take a case that is too big for them. The Perrons might be that case.
The Perron family is the second front; a group of innocent folk who just want to enjoy their ramshackle fixer-upper and instead find themselves overwhelmed by something they never could have anticipated. They are all paying for a crime they did not commit, so as the stakes get higher, so does our feeling of dread. Rare is the audience member who can easily stomach the sight of a child under assault; in this story, we have five kids at risk, each increasingly terrified by something that is slowly turning the people they trust most in the world into the instruments of their destruction. Somebody isn’t getting out of this alive, but we dare not imagine who, for fear of being right.
And then there is Annabelle, the demon-haunted doll, lurking in the background. This story is not about her. But her presence constantly reminds us that there are very real forces at work that extend well beyond mortal ken and capability, forces no human can oppose and remain untouched. Merely sharing a world with forces such as that is a kind of horror unto itself. Annabelle knows it. That’s why she always smiles.
Where is the moment of truth in a story such as this, where behind ever door, around every corner, within every shadow there lurks the gnawing prospect of ancient evil? Surely not in the nominal triumph and expulsion of such things. It is in the denouement, when the Perrons clutch each other, their ordeal now passed, and as the Warrens bid them farewell, their mission accomplished. They all must go to bed at night knowing that wherever they call home, something else might call it the same thing. When you know that you can be at your most vulnerable in what should be your most intimate of spaces, nowhere can ever be safe. That is a terror that does not die.