Sunday, 24 July 2016

Re-conjuring the afterlife

Upon exiting an evening viewing of The Conjuring 2, I was left with a sense of unease. Not so much due to the film itself, though it offered up its fair share of demonic spectres (fast becoming a staple for James Wan) that sprang out from dark places, providing my companion with ample amusement as I jumped and blasphemed. No, this sense of unease came from the dislocation between the film's narrative, and the series of events I had previously associated with the Enfield haunting. I've nowhere near read all there is to read on this subject, but I thought I'd got the basics right. Lorraine & Ed Warren banished a demon in Brimsdown? That "minor" detail passed me by! Then again, Brimsdown (the part of Enfield in which the case is centred) is rather close to Brimstone, phonetically speaking (I think they missed a trick there).

Of course, The Conjuring 2, like so many films based on 'true stories', takes rather large liberties with the historical record. This is true of all manner of genres and subject matter concerned with historical occurrences, but it seems particularly pertinent to tales involving the supernatural. Largely, I would argue, they are advertised as being 'based on a true story' in an attempt to preserve their authenticity. This sense of the real, as being grounded in the everyday, and to ordinary people, is key to the scare. In this sense, the advertising of supernatural (and usually scary) film as 'based on a true story' blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, and in doing so, raises the supernatural - often boxed safely into imaginary spaces in other fictions - much closer to home. Look, it says, you can turn the television off, or leave the cinema, but you can't leave behind the fact that the supernatural does happen. It happened here... supposedly, it could happen to you. At least, that is the subliminal message one might pick out from this kind of publicity. After all, such films often provide 'follow ups' before the credits roll, with little snippets of what happened next to the characters involved (again, this is fairly common for all genres retelling of true stories), reinforcing the context in which said events occurred with a traceable legacy.

An embellishment of personal accounts, anecdotes, or historical events is perhaps necessary for such tales of the supernatural, due to the subtle nature of most supernatural events - a smell doesn't offer much for building dramatic tension. But also, at least my own research suggests, supernatural events often lack clean endings. The Enfield haunting, for example, seems to have drifted into gradual anonymity (save for the recent media interest due to its recent re-tellings and the on going concerns and discussions of the Society for Psychical Research), having divided scientific and public opinion of its legitimacy, and so Janet and her family disappeared from public life. Janet re-emerged on my path a few of years ago via a chapter in Will Storr's excellent Will Storr vs The Supernatural, but here she seemed a spectral character, haunted in relative obscurity by the events that momentarily elevated her to the heights of controversial reality star. Storr captures the unfinishedness of this story when he writes:
"But, but, but… I can’t achieve resolution. And so my memories of Janet just hang there in the back of my head, bumping around every now and then, my own noisy ghost. And whenever I hear talk of it, or see fictionalised retellings in the TV schedules, I can only think, "Oh yes, Enfield. That was weird."" (

While Lorraine Warren has been cited as regarding the film as 'fairly accurate', I find this somewhat difficult to consider with any seriousness as - from what I can gather - the Warrens were only present at the Enfield House for one day, back in 1978. And, according to Guy Lyon Playfair, one of the chief researchers for this case, they arrived uninvited (NB - there are some accounts that dispute this, and say that they were invited). But the accuracy of a film such as this is not my concern here, rather, it is the manner in which the narrative has been changed, and the significance of those changes and additions, that has captured my interest.    

In The Conjuring series, we have two paranormal investigators who are, first and I would argue foremost, devout Christians. Their beliefs are clearly symbolised through several different physical mediums, for example, the wearing of a large cross, their regular use of, and reference to, the bible, and their recognition and orientation to demonic evil as the cause of paranormal activity. Both films are not concerned with human spirits so much as they are with the battle against the demonic. And it is a battle, of words and crucifixes primarily, but a battle nonetheless.

Christianity has long been intertwined within supernatural fiction, but certainly not exclusively. We can see this in Bram Stoker's Dracula, whose heroes are all good practising Christian men. While many Western ghost experients may seek help from the church, the influence of the demonic tends to be more frequent in American interactions than with British ones. This most probably represents the higher percentage of devout Christians and explicit Christian identities in America as opposed to those in Great Britain, where church attendance and its presence in the public has dwindled over the last hundred years. Furthermore, there appears to be higher percentage of Christians who subscribe to the reality of evil as demonic forces in American, than those Christians in Great Britain who are not so convinced. A quick comparison of ghost investigation shows, say Ghost Adventures in the USA and Most Haunted in the UK, show this difference quite clearly - you are much more likely to encounter a demonic presence in the company of Zac Bagans than you are with Yvette Fielding (so, depending on what you're looking for, this might help when it comes to "who you gonna call").

The role of the demonic binds The Conjuring films to a particular cosmology: one in which there is a very definite and definitive God and the Devil, a very real Heaven and Hell. Demons are depicted as malevolently operational: they have a presence in the world of the living, and may appear as spectres or possess human hosts. Their sole motivation is a corruption of humanity; they're pretty primal in that regard, and not likely to engage you in any deep theological debate. I've long been rather disappointed by this, considering the longevity of their lives and the possibilities for knowledge they might have at least made a start on. Their desires are insatiable, and their purpose in a narrative is one of irredeemable horror, where such insatiability is at the root of their power to inspire terror (their immortality also makes them excellent fodder for sequels). The battle between demons and the Warrens is a sacred quest played out amid the landscape and inhabitants of the profane.

The role of, and their expertise in, Christianity is what sets the Warrens apart from the other protagonists. The Hodgson's Christianity is a quiet faith, and they are certainly no experts in demonology. Furthermore, because we can see are told through the film that the demonic is real by showing it, this also sets them over Maurice Grosse, who is situated as more of a concerned amateur paranormal enthusiast than lead investigator in The Conjuring 2. He is almost (unfairly) downgraded to a bumbling attention seeker, bar a 'touching' scene between himself and Lorraine in which he responds to her question of his integrity with the tale of his dead daughter, and his compassionate intention. All this plumps up the idea that the deeper you know of the bible,  the more committed you are to it, then the more likely you are to be able to be a proper hero. Devoutness is key.

The role of the demonic, and its corresponding Christian cosmology, was a controversial move in the original The Conjuring, primarily because of its 'reinterpretation' of history. Again, from what I can gather, there was supposedly some speculation that the spirit in question was, in life a witch, but this largely seems hearsay, and she certainly wasn't hung from a tree. The internet can be a rather frustrating resource when it comes to such matters. As the primary antagonist here is supposed to be descended from a witch executed in Salem, we see, I think, the problem with this kind of retelling. As W. Scott Poole writes:
"The Conjuring’s conservative politics are mostly implicit. Its historical revisionism, on the other hand, is all up in our grills. We learn that the persecuted people of 17th century New England were not, in fact, victims of religious fanaticism. They were Satanists who presumably got exactly what they deserved. The Crucible, and generations of historiography, has gotten it all wrong." (

The issue of femininity, and the good nuclear family, are also important components for the film's narrative. Writers like Stephen King have established a popular strand for horror fiction as the malevolent intrusion of the extraordinary into the ordinary. Rather than the ghostly ensnaring of wary trespassers in off the road villages, circa M R James and H P Lovecraft, the terror stems from our powerlessness to control and protect our familial arenas. In these films that powerlessness can only be overcome by invoking the power of Godly forces; God, quite literally, has to be invited into the homestead, has to be endorsed as subordinate and supreme, and the evil therefore made to submit and subsist. In both films, the mothers are unable to protect their children, and so must be aided by the Warrens, who act as spiritual parents/guardians. Similarly, both films work with images of the anti-mother or anti-woman, of a reversal of the archetypal qualities of good mother and womanhood; in The Conjuring the spirit of Bathsheba is a child killer, and in The Conjuring 2 the demon Valak appears in a nun's habit. Andrew O'Hehir examined this further, calling into question the first film's reflection of:
"...America’s obsession with evil, and how easily that gets pointed in the wrong directions. It’s a movie based on the reassuring premise that when something is wrong in your family, your community or your country, you don’t have to worry about the priests, the cops, the dads or the other male authority figures. They’re the good guys. Blame the women." (

There's a kind of irony about the association between Catholicism and the demonic reveal in these movies (NB - The Warrens are cited as Catholic, and invoke Catholic paraphernalia). After all, Catholics gave plenty of theological space and consideration for spirits of the dead, particularly those springing forth from purgatory to beg for absolution, and remind the sinful living to repent in memento mori. In both installments of The Conjuring, we can find that the 'true' stories are presented as fairly typical ghost encounters, that is, that the families were haunted by spirits of deceased people. There was no terrifying possessions, no attempted child murder, no mass furniture levitation. But likewise, in both installments, these spirits have mutated via their translation to the silver screen, into the powerful demonic. The irony of this comes from that fact that it was the Protestants who called into question the reality of spirits. The development of Protestantism altered the afterlife map, by removing purgatory, distancing God's involvement in the world from actual interloper to hands off observer, and making the road to heaven and hell a one way system. Once you had been assigned to one of those two places there was no going back, and so the dead - quite simply - could not return to haunt us. The answer to the repeated protestations that ghosts had been experienced was that either the experient was mistaken, or that it had in fact been a demon in disguise. 

This is a rather light brush over the surface of these films, but the question that lingers in my mind is: so what? Does it really matter if we play around with history, if we glam up the God role and dumb down the bad? I go and see these movies after all, and if I'm honest, its not always due to 'research' as I'm sometimes heard to protest. Perhaps not, but then again... my thoughts turn to how these films, and the stories they represent, may be regarded in a hundred, or two hundred years time. After all, Bram Stoker took simple inspiration from Vlad Tepes' historical entry, and nowadays Tepes and Dracula are often regarded as one and the same. The power of fiction as a river into which the public imagination drinks from should not be underestimated. Still, maybe that doesn't matter, or maybe, as Poole and O'Hehir have suggested, we should critically consider what these films are really communicating to us about the societies we live in.

Finally, another thought lingers. If we start making our ghosts into demons, what might we be missing? An exploration of Sky TVs recent serialisation of The Enfield Haunting (a far superior effort in my humble opinion), while no doubt also adding great big dollops of made up happenings, captured something much more poignant. Through a much closer - and more genuinely empathetic - exploration of Grosse's terrible grief we are reminded that while demons stalking you in a creepy house is momentarily all rather spine tingling, bereavement, and our search for what awaits us after we and those we love die, is a much more meaningful, and sometimes agonising, affair.