This post is based on a true story.
(SPOILERS for various films)
The Conjuring movies are about good and bad women. In the first movie the central antagonist is the spirit of a dead witch who killed her own baby and then herself, and whose spirit subsequently possesses every women who movies into her house, or onto her former grounds, and makes them kill their own children. The ultimate evil then, for a woman, is to pervert the virtue of motherhood. In the story, a mother of five daughters finds herself in the home of this dead witch, gradually possessed by her. Her ultimate salvation, the thing that enables her to defeat the witch who is possessing her and trying to make her kill her daughters, is a memory of a perfect family day at the beach. Yes, that’s right – in the end, all it takes is for Elaine Warren (psychic investigator) to touch the woman’s head and enjoin her to remember family values. Ed Warren’s attempt at an exorcism fails, but Elaine is able to connect with the possessed woman directly, via their mutual motherhood. This connection allows the possessed woman to defeat the evil infanticidal witch using just the strong loving strength of her strong maternal love. Elaine is, needless to say, a near-perfect mother herself, and when the witch ghost tries to attack her, it does so by threatening her own daughter. It threatens the daughter using (or possibly in alliance with) Annabelle the evil porcelain doll – an emblem of childhood in that it is both a toy and a figure of a girl.
In the second Conjuring movie (just out), Ed and Elaine are called in to evaluate the case of a young girl who is supposedly being possessed by the spirit of an old man who once lived in her home, and who died there. One of the best moments in the movie is when Ed visibly stops himself from vocally disapproving of the fact that the girl’s mother is a single parent. It turns out that the entire business is a kind of trap set for Ed by a demon called Valak, which manifests as an evil-looking nun (for some theological reason that totally makes sense).
The self-conscious positioning of both these movies in the setting of what we call ‘The ‘70s’ exacerbates the implications here, especially in the first film, because this was the era when the huge social effects (including panic) of women venturing out of the home, taking advantage of greater freedoms, were felt to the point of moral panic. The late 60s and early 70s were the heyday of second-wave feminism.
In both films, the supernatural evil manifests in, is personified by, and is channelled by, females. This is far from new. That the films clearly stake out an intended position of support and admiration for female strength doesn’t change much. The witch in the first Conjuring movie (called Bathsheba when she lived, thus named after one of those women in the Bible who causes men to do bad things by being too sexy) is said to be related to people from Salem, thus implying that there were actual witches in Salem, rather than just, y’know, people the patriarchs of Salem feared and resented, like women with unconventional sex lives, money, age and wisdom, or brown skin. Again, this isn’t new. There’s an entire industry built on pretending there was something to the idea that witches were at large in Salem, from the tourist industry in the town itself to the TV show Salem. (This industry co-exists quite happily with another (smaller) one based on the other narrative about Salem, the Crucible one.) The brilliant movie Berberian Sound Studio ruthlessly satirises misogyny using the post-production of a fictional movie about women burned as witches taking supernatural revenge from beyond the grave, taking full advantage of the ambivalence inherent in the idea, even down to having a movie producer bullshitting about how he’s made a feminist film.
What’s more, both Conjuring movies are explicitly about mother/child relationships. This, like many things in these movies, deliberately harks back to earlier cinema. In The Exorcist, The Omen, and Rosemary’s Baby, the mother/child relationship is highlighted. In the cases of the first two, the relationship becomes overtly hostile and violent owing the child’s possession by demonic forces. In the third, the mother accepts the child despite its possession of a demonic nature. However, it’s interesting to note that in the Conjuring films it is the child or children that are victimised. The anxiety has been turned on its head. It’s no longer about the potential horrors of parenthood, and has become instead about the potential horrors of having a mother. Even so, the young victims – almost all female – remain implicated. It is the intensely female world of the household in the first movie – a mother, her husband, and five daughters; all living in a home haunted by a witch and various ghosts, mostly female – that seems to be the cause of the trouble.
The Babbadook is another recent horror film (though I quibble with that classification) which centres on the potential of a mother to harm her child if ‘possessed’ by an evil force. It literalises the threat by reifying depression and grief into the metaphorical/hallucinated titular monster, but is still fundamentally about a ‘bad mother’ who is open to alien forces (the film’s view of depression is strangely simplistic) which pervert the ‘maternal instinct’.
In The VVitch, the fear of witchcraft is again justified, with witches depicted as a genuine threat at the end of the film. It’s a bit more complex here, as for most of its runtime the movie seems to be potentially about paranoia about witches, and it’s arguable that the film depicts witchcraft as a reaction against, an act of resistance to, a patriarchal family system. Patriarchy thus creates witchcraft literally rather than just metaphorically. The idea of witchcraft comes into the world as a social force because of the paranoia about (mostly) women and girls, but in The VVitch this social dynamic is again literalised and reified. Nor is The VVitch simplistic in its depiction of how patriarchy works. It depicts the male head of the household as intensely weak and passive, and his wife as a dominant personality. We see an essentially submissive personality forced into the role of ruler, while an essentially dominant personality is forced into the role of ruled. We see both trying to negotiate their roles in ways that cripple the family’s ability to function. Here again, though, the film is intensely concerned with the ‘bad mother’, as the wife of the household redirects her frustrations at being subordinated into hostility towards her eldest daughter, a hostility that eventually has catastrophic consequences. The VVitch is far from a misogynist film, in that it shows the behaviour of the mother stemming from intense alienation within a patriarchal system that has subordinated her to a weak man. Even so, you see a common thread with other less sophisticated films – such as the Conjuring movies and The Babbadook – in that The VVitch is concerned with treating witch crazes as if they were real things, and thus treating women as a potential supernatural threat to the family order. It is also concerned with the ‘betrayal’ of children (especially female children) by a mother who forgets her ascribed nurturing role (though The VVitch subjects this ascription to some scrutiny). It is also about an intensely felt loss of male potency in the face of the responsibility that supposedly comes with patriarchal power in the family.
The Conjuring movies both portray Ed Warren as, essentially, the theological and detective intellect accompanying his wife’s intuitive, emotional, psychic abilities. But he is definitely the ‘sidekick’. It’s notable that his attempted exorcism in the first film fails, and it’s Lorraine’s emotional connection with the possessed mother (along lines of shared family feeling) which ultimately defeats the evil. Similarly, though Ed has an insight which helps solve the case in the second film, it is Lorraine who ultimately saves him from the demon which is targeting him. There seems to be a distinct attempt to represent issues of haunting and possession as both emanating from, and ultimately only resolvable or curable by, females. Even so, the films place a huge onus on women as both sickness and cure, with the derangement and reordering of female gender roles with patriarchal family as primary in causing and solving the problem. Meanwhile, the men are left floundering on the sidelines. It’s almost comical the way men try to console themselves about their sidelined status in the Conjuring movies, especially the first one. There are long pauses in the action when Ed and the father of the haunted house stop to bond over car maintenance, and talk about the pain of being unable to help their wives. When the evil force is defeated, the two men share significant manly looks as they both hug their respective families. To be clear, I’m not doing an MRA and complaining about ‘misandry’ in the films. I’m pointing out the way in which maleness is depicted as being threatened with marginalisation in a disordered family system in which uncanny forces emanate from, and can only be resolved by, women. The takeaway isn’t to decry the depiction of men but to see what such depictions tell us about how patriarchy is being negotiated and recuperated in texts which centre upon the threatening power of women. This, again, is nothing new. A huge part of the power of Dracula comes from the fact that all the male heroic characters attempt to recover their masculinity and patriarchal authority in the face of a threat to the established order, a threat which is channelled through the deranged, uncanny, and potentially disastrous power of female sexuality.
A huge influence on James Wan, director of the Conjuring movies, is the original Poltergeist. Poltergeist is notable for its intensely female-centred storyline. The main character is the mother of the family, who is aided by a female paranormal investigator and a female psychic in venturing into the netherworld beyond death to recover her abducted daughter. Wan’s movie Insidious is, in some respects, almost a remake of Poltergeist. And yet in Insidious it is a little boy who is abducted to ‘the other side’ and his father who must venture in and get him. Similarly, in the actual remake of Poltergeist (not directed by Wan), it’s still a little girl who is abducted but the story centres far more on her father, it is the son of the family who ventures into the abyss to find her, and the psychic who eventually sorts everything out becomes a man.
It’s interesting that we’re telling ourselves these kinds of stories now, contextualising some of them in terms of the semiotics of the 70s. It’s like an attempt to resurrect the anxieties of a previous age, and then twist them into something more pertinent to us. It would be easy to see the reconfiguration of these kinds of movies to centre more upon the threat of disordered women, bad mothers, family units menaced by loss of clear gender roles, etc, as nothing more than a reaction against progress. And certainly, in the age of rotting zombie neoliberalism, threatened by endemic crisis, there is a retrenchment of reactionary values that these films could be seen as expressing. But I think it goes a tad deeper than that, though it’s probably a factor. I think what we’re seeing in this films is a representation of the feeling (widespread but erroneous) that we now live in some species of post-sexism or post-patriarchy world. It is felt to be permissible now to craft texts with such emphasis on the threat of women and mothers, the threat to the nuclear family, the embattled role of men in the face of deranged and uncanny forces unleashed by women and girls, and about (in some cases) the reconquering of male roles as hero and saviour, because we now live in a world where such things no longer have the same political valences they once did. Notice that the films where men are passive, confused, shut out, unable to help with a hermetic female problem, threatened, or even saved by women, are set in the past (The VVitch, the Conjuring films). They are period pieces. Costume dramas. The films where the man is repositioned as (ultimately) the hero are set in the present day (Insidious, the Poltergeist remake). This is, of course, far too schematic an account, but I think it holds as a description of a general trend, at least in horror that centres upon the uncanny rather than on any other kind of threat. The idea is that you can represent the era of strife and misunderstanding between the genders as something in the past, particularly in terms of an irruption of female power. Meanwhile, we today have sorted everything out. Equality has been achieved. You know that because the proper people are back in control.