In 1971, the Perron family—husband, wife and five precious, precocious daughters—move into an ancient Rhode Island farmhouse. It’s a risky move: They sink their life’s savings into the place and Roger’s earnings as a truck driver barely cover the mortgage. But still it’s theirs, and that makes it special. Sure, the house has seen better days, but it’s got lots of space for a lively family and is full of rustic charm. The woodwork is exquisite. The surroundings are beautiful. And the former owners were kind enough to leave a few antiques behind: a massive wardrobe, a creepy jack-in-the-box, various pieces of furniture kept in a boarded-up cellar.
It’s not perfect, but it feels like it could be home someday. Maybe that’s why no one seemed too alarmed when Sadie, the family dog, refuses to go inside. It’s sad when they find the pooch dead the next morning, but hardly reason to call a priest. And when daughter Cindy starts sleepwalking again—bumping her forehead over and over into the doors of that massive wardrobe—they just think the big move has stirred up her old habits. And, yeah, some rooms smell like rotting meat in the middle of the night, but a good cleaning can take care of that.
But time goes on and the girls begin to see things that whisper and leer. When unseen hands clap in wardrobes and throw balls in cellars … when all the clocks stop at 3:07 a.m. … when no one can sleep because of all the screaming, that’s when you have to call in the experts.
And if the folks from PBS’ This Old House aren’t available to pound some nails into all those loose boards, why not bring in the demon-hunting Warrens?
Who knew that living in a demon’s house could be a catalyst for family bonding time?
The Perrons seem like a pretty close-knit clan anyway. Most of the kids are initially pumped about their new abode, and rather than wasting time watching television, these girls like playing games together. A particular favorite: hide and clap (a game that feels very much like hide and seek, only the kids hiding have to clap three times if asked, giving the seeker a better chance to find them). Granted, the whole clapping shtick proves to be an effective scare tactic for the home’s wraithful resident, but how were the Perrons supposed to know? And when the demon really starts making life difficult, the family takes to spending the night all together, in one communal room. Clearly, this is a family that cares deeply for its members.
The Warrens care pretty deeply too. When Carolyn Perron asks the couple for their help, they come—despite the fact that psychic Lorraine Warren had a horrible experience at her last exorcism. Ed at first wants to keep Lorraine at a healthy distance from whatever’s going on in the Perron household, but Lorraine refuses. God brought them together for a reason, she says—and this could well be it.
“I don’t want to lose you,” Ed says.
“You won’t,” Lorraine answers. “Let’s finish this together.”
At the end of the movie, a quote from Ed Warren pops up onscreen:
“The fairy tale is true. The devil does exist. God indeed exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow.”
And that’s from the real Ed Warren. He and his wife, Lorraine, are indeed real people—devout Catholic demon hunters who’ve earned a measure of notoriety for their work. (They were also called in on a certain widely publicized case in Amityville, N.Y.) They practice their craft because of their faith, and the movie embraces their worldview from the get-go. As steeped in the occult as it is and as questionable as the overarching theology might be, The Conjuring is, essentially, a Christian story—shoving aside the spiritual waffling that we’ve seen in other recent exorcism flicks (like The Possession). It insists that demons are real, and that the only protection we have from them is God.
When the Warrens agree to help the Perrons, Ed asks Roger if the kids have been baptized. “We’re not really a churchgoing family,” Roger admits.
“You might want to rethink that,” Ed says.
We’re told in the beginning that the Warrens work in unison with the Catholic Church, and that Lorraine is the only non-ordained exorcist out there. She’s also psychic, seeing spirits of the long-dead, images of the haunting demons and visions of things that might yet come to pass. The Warrens keep a room filled with knickknacks from their previous cases, most of which are said to contain demons or evil spirits (including a crucifix). When a reporter ask why not just destroy them, Ed says that it’s often better to keep an evil entity bottled up than release it into the world; he adds that they have a priest come to bless the place once a month. We see a video recording of an earlier exorcism, in which we hear a barely literate man speak fluent Latin; an inverted cross presses outward against the inside of his belly.
In the case of the Perrons, the Warrens supposedly discover that their place is haunted by Bathsheeba Sherman, a mortal-turned-demon whose mother was accused of witchcraft in Salem and who, in 1863, sacrificed her son to Satan shortly after he was born. (Lorraine says the sacrifice is the final perversion of God’s ultimate gift to women, that of childbirth). She then hanged herself and cursed the land, and in the 110 years since, a number of mysterious murders and suicides have happened in the area. Now, Bathsheeba’s modus operandi is to possess a mother and force her to kill her own kids. (Not good news for the Perrons.) One more perversion of note: When the demon knocks on the wall in a pattern of three, Ed says it’s mocking the Trinity.
Ed and Lorraine set a number of holy symbols around the house, hoping to trigger a reaction. When the demon does possess someone, Ed reads religious passages from a book and demands obedience from the evil spirit in the name of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The demon, eventually, obeys. Holy water is sprinkled, and the vial in which it’s in shatters.
Carolyn asks Roger if he’s too tired to “christen” the new house. He’s not. (The camera cuts away before we see anything but cuddling.) The next morning, Carolyn finds a bruise on her leg and coyly asks what Roger did to her.
Lorraine asks Ed if he remembers what he said to her on their wedding night. “Can we do it again?” guesses Ed.
A participant in the exorcism has part of his cheek and throat ripped open, and it bleeds significantly. Birds smash into windows, killing themselves. A specter shows her slashed wrists to someone. Another seems about to stab her own boy. Children are threatened with knives and scissors. A girl is yanked around by her hair. Others are pulled by their feet. A possessed character spits blood (her face is covered with a sheet) and burns (her skin sizzles and mottles on her arms and face) when anyone tries to drag her outside. Someone weeps blood. Lorraine sees a vision of her own daughter, dead, floating in water. A corpse hangs from a tree.
By the standard of most R-rated scarefests, the content here is lighter than you might expect. There are no dismemberings, no beheadings, no truly graphic deaths. Though director James Wan presided over the outrageous content found in the first Saw movie, he shows some restraint here … which still doesn’t mean the film’s A-OK for the faint of heart. “When we sent it [to MPAA], they gave us the R rating,” says producer Walter Hamada, as quoted by worstpreviews.com. “When we asked them why, they basically said, ‘It’s just so scary. [There are] no specific scenes or tone you could take out to get it PG-13.'”
One s-word. Six uses of “d‑‑n” (half the time paired with God’s name), one “h‑‑‑” and one “p‑‑‑.” God’s name is misused by itself another half-dozen times, and someone says “jeez.”
Characters drink wine and whiskey.
Possession here carries with it the side effect of vomiting blood. Bathsheeba throws up in someone’s mouth. A demon-filled doll commits acts of vandalism.
The Conjuring is a very effective fright flick—maybe the scariest movie I’ve ever reviewed, quite frankly. It’s also quite disturbing. We see parents threaten to murder their children here—and if you’re a parent yourself, that’s a hard thing to rub from your mind.
So perhaps that’s the thing we must land on with The Conjuring.
Many Christians will have issues with the film’s theology and how that theology is portrayed. Others may embrace the heart of the thing—its sincere declaration that there are forces beyond our real understanding and that no matter how fearsome those forces are, our faith in God can triumph over all.
But however one sees this movie spiritually, most moviegoers will be scared by what they see. Images of Bathsheeba clutching a knife or vomiting blood haunt long after the credits roll. The sounds of terrified girls screaming echo beyond the theater parking lot. This is dark stuff that leaves a darkness in the mind. And as we see in the movie’s message itself, darkness tends to cling.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.