Friday, July 19, 2013

The Conjuring: A Dread-filled Treat
for the Intelligent Horror Fan

"Fear sees, even when eyes are closed." - W. Gerard Trotman

I'm betting there are plenty of closed eyes in movie theatres across America tonight.  In some of those theatres medical personnel and even priests are standing by, because such is the nature of this particular little piece of movie-making that insubstantial feelings like fear, dread, and terror come unexpectedly, and very palpably, to life.  Say what else you will, "The Conjuring" certainly lives up to its hype.
I confess that I am a fan of horror films, especially horror films that deal with supernatural subjects.  However, as an occultist and paranormalist, my "bar" is set especially high; let's just say, it takes a lot to get my attention and even more to hold my interest.  Because of my avocations in the area of the inexplicable, and although I truly try to resist the temptation, I immediately set to dissecting what I am watching.  And although I like the B-horror movie premise as much as anyone who grew up steeped in American pop culture, I do believe that any film positing itself as dealing with major, profound, or deeply disturbing supernatural subject matter better be worth the money and the mental attention I'm putting up to experience it.  "The Conjuring" is all this, and more.

Opening the door to the Harrisville Haunting;
the cast of "The Conjuring" in a happier moment.

The plot of "The Conjuring" is culled from two sources:  one is the real-life experiences of a typical American family of the 1970's, the Perrons of Rhode Island, who move into a home that is nothing short of a bee's nest of dangerous supernatural activity; and the second source is the experiences had by paranormal researchers Ed and Lorraine Warren as they try to analyze the activity and help the family.  The Warrens, as any paranormalist worth his or her salt knows, are considered the "Godparents" of paranormal research, and as there has been no small amount of grousing about the role of the Warrens in the story told in "The Conjuring" we will deal with them at some length below.
The Perron family, fleeing a life in a suburbia that seemed to be devolving before their very eyes, and seeking a more wholesome place to raise their family, purchase some country acreage boasting a beautiful, rustic farmhouse, a ready-made barn, a babbling brook, and even an outhouse.  In the film, as well as in the real life experience, strange things begin to happen to the Perrons almost immediately.  Familiar tropes such as the family pet that refuses to enter the new homestead to the youngest child in the family suddenly gaining a brand-new invisible friend are introduced early; the latter, at least, is used successfully throughout the film.  Indeed, it is the Perron children - five girls ranging in age from 13 to 6 - who are the first to acknowledge the supernatural occurrences, and the first to be victimized by the entities in the home that clearly mean no one any good.
While the youngest Perron daughter, April (Kyla Deaver) is immediately befriended by an unseen little boy named "Rory," the next-eldest daughter Cindy (Mackenzie Foy) begins to exhibit the habit of sleepwalking; during her nocturnal forays, Cindy is inexplicably drawn to a creepy old armoire located in eldest daughter Andrea's (Shanley Caswell) bedroom.  Over several apparently random nights Andrea is awakened by Cindy who is standing before the antique armoire, banging her head against the doors.  As the atmosphere begins to change throughout the house, whisperings, knocking, unexplained footsteps and shuffling are experienced.  But it is the experience of daughter Christine, played by the amazingly gifted young actress Joey King, that introduces genuine, dread into the film. 
Up to this point the frights have been somewhat subdued and almost predictable, and even the catalyst of Christine's fright - something apparently standing in the shadows behind her bedroom door - might be considered lame.  Yet as we watch Christine's complete and utter immersion in fear, her implosion, if you will, into abject terror, we share every emotion with her and we know, just by looking into her eyes seeing something none of us can see, that absolute dread has quietly taken hold of our experience.  From this moment on, the fright takes on a life of its own; it is palpable and we might almost be able to touch it, if we were not hiding our eyes with our two shaking hands.  From this moment - and its effectiveness is due in no small part to the amazing ability of Ms. King to convey it to us - the dread never stops; relentlessly, in scene after scene, we are shocked and shaken, riveted to the screen until the final second.  This is the mark of excellent filmmaking meeting an excellent and talented cast.  Further, it is the hallmark of an amazing story, made all the more amazing because we know that it is real.

Lili Taylor and powerhouse actress Joey King
in a meltdown of fear, terror, and dread in "The Conjuring"

The man behind all this on-screen terror is director James Wan.  Many of you may remember him as the director of that other little piece of haunting supernatural terror, "Insidious" - a movie that had (at least up until I witnessed Joey King's meltdown) the most effecting and, for me at least, disturbing scene I had witnessed in a horror film in a long time.  Those of you who saw the film may remember when Patrick Wilson (who appears in "The Conjuring as Ed Warren) is lost in "The Further" and encounters a woman weeping in a room and only a shadow of a shape can be seen, cowering in a dark corner.  Everything NOT revealed in that melancholy and highly disturbing scene first marches across little Joey King's face and then presents itself in all its ghastly, hope-destroying dread in the exorcism scene at the climax of "The Conjuring."  Here, at least, any nit-picking of mine was brushed completely aside, and as the sights and sounds of a possession that puts little Regan McNeil of "The Exorcist" to shame seemed to fall out of the theatre screen like crushing brick walls, two things happened:  I made the Sign of the Cross, and I was momentarily struck with fear that something, surely something, might follow all of us home.

A possession scene that puts "The Exorcist" to shame
from "The Conjuring"
In short, anything that can cause that reaction in me, who has lived through demonic hauntings of my own, who writes "excellent stories about really horrible things," who knows her occult bearings and whereof she speaks when she says something is truly frightening - that, THAT is incredible!  You must see "The Conjuring" . . . !

Ed and Lorraine Warren

Now to the subject of the Warrens, about whom there has been much grousing from some quarters.
Anyone familiar with the ad campaign leading up to the release of "The Conjuring" will certainly have seen a creepy doll featured prominently and scenes showing Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga (as Ed and Lorraine Warren, respectively) lecturing college students on the subjects of the supernatural and paranormal investigation.  In fact, the doll, which is meant to portray "Annabelle," an infamously haunted Raggedy Ann doll that is still kept guarded under lock and key in the Warrens' museum of the supernatural, is integral to the first scenes of the movie.  It is the doll and immediately subsequently the Warrens whom we meet first, even before we are introduced to the Perron family.  Now this might strike some as odd, especially because the movie is ostensibly intended to be based upon the Perrons and their experiences.  But when one considers that literally for years the working title of the film was "The Warren Files," the technique of framing the beginning and end of what we see with the Warrens begins to make more sense.
Certainly, Ed and Lorraine Warren were deeply involved in the Perrons' story.  They did take on the Perrons' case, did conduct extensive investigations of the family and the property, and were involved in attempts to cleanse the house that may - or may not - have included a full-scale exorcism.  The movie presents this last as an absolute, something that actually did take place.  But what appears as drama differs somewhat from the facts of the story as related by Perron daughter Andrea in her trilogy of books, "House of Darkness, House of Light."  In fact, Andrea Perron is quick to point out that the Warrens' involvement quite definitely reshaped the nature of the hauntings in the Perron farmhouse, making the activity more negative and the spirits more threatening.  Perron traces this change in the course of events to a failed séance conducted by the Warrens in which, Perron alleges, a dangerously negative entity was set free inside the already crowded supernatural landscape of the home.  Further, according to Perron, the Warrens never successfully cleansed the home or rid the family of the spirits tormenting them. 

Andrea Perron, survivor of the Harrisville Haunting
and author of "House of Darkness, House of Light"
one of the sources used in "The Conjuring"
In the Warrens' defense, they were in the act of becoming pioneers in a field of research that, even in the 1970's when the Perrons were living their experience, was largely considered to be a sideshow of speculative science - if it was ever considered at all.  Unlike today with its oversaturated field of paranormal "experts" and "paranormal reality" television shows, the 1970's and to some extent the 1960's before it, was the time of those pioneers.  Where the 1960's saw a blossoming of renewed interest in magick and the occult (thanks in large part to the seminal work "Morning of the Magicians" and to a rediscovery of the works of Aleister Crowley), the 1970's saw a natural expansion of all that inwardly focused curiosity to the next logical step: the realm of the unseen and beyond.  It was in the 1970's that the Warrens were minted, along with Hans Holzer, Sybil Leek, Brad Steiger, and yes, even Satanist Anton LaVey as self-absorbed seekers peered into what lay beyond the scrying mirror or the edge of the circle of work.  In short, all that occult and drug experimentation produced a ton of bad vibes and bad trips.  The world needed someone to deal with it, and the Warrens were in the right place at the right moment.
Most of the antagonism now directed toward the Warrens seems to revolve around one case in particular: the Amityville Horror.  Owing in large part to the patent unbelievability of George and Kathy Lutz, who along with their kids were the alleged focus of the Amityville events, Ed and Lorraine Warren ended up being painted with a broad brush in a color just a shade lighter than "fraud."  That Ed maintained until his death a few years ago - as Lorraine maintains to this day - that the haunting in Amityville was very, very real only seems to annoy the grousers more.

But the Warrens' detractors are either ignorant of the occult and supernatural laws governing the manifestation of haunting activity in a given environment, or they are willfully ignoring certain details within the publicized details that support the Warrens' contentions that the Amityville house was, indeed still is, haunted.  For example, it is a well-known axiom in magickal workings that "like attracts like," and in the case of an alleged haunting the activity can be manifested to meet the expectations of those living in the environment or investigating the environment: a condition I like to call "bring your own ghost."  So it is not unreasonable that spirits connected with the investigators, over the years of being steeped in the energy of the investigators themselves and/or of the homeowners, will appear and act in a manner that meets the expectations of the humans involved. 
Further, specifically with regard to Amityville, the interest of George and Kathy Lutz in eastern meditative and mantric practices - particularly Transcendental Meditation, which they indulged in regularly, even while living at Amityville - was very probably directly related to the manifestation of negative entities in their environment, or at the very least exacerbated the hauntings.  TM and other mantric practices have been proven to produce supernatural occurrences in the practitioner's environment and regardless of the will of the individual involved; it has also been proven to be physically, mentally, and psychically detrimental to those engaged in the practice.  So, when Lorraine Warren says, "That house is haunted," about the Amityville house, I believe her because I am willing to give her credit for what she obviously does know and benefit of the doubt because I know something about the nature of hauntings.
Patrick Wilson as Ed Warren
Vera Farmiga as Lorraine Warren,
with Rory's music box
Most of the objections I have read or heard seem to be from those who doubt the veracity of the story of "The Conjuring" because the Warrens are in it and allege it to be "true."  But, in fact, it is Andrea Perron's story that is the basis for the "true" claim.  Anyone interested in reading the REAL story, which encompassed ten years in the life of the Perron family, should purchase Andrea Perron's books as soon as possible.  The books are filled with more information and more vividly frightening details than the movie could provide.  The real nightmares are living in the pages of those books and, of course, in the memories of those who lived through them.
"In the presence of the ... darkness and [dread], which might be concealed but a few paces away, he felt disarmed and helpless."  - Sienkiewicz.
WHAT:  "The Conjuring" (R)
WHEN:  Now playing.
WHERE:  Everywhere.
Follow this link for more about priests being posted at screenings of "The Conjuring":