2. ‘The Conjuring’ reminds us that the only way to stop Satanic baby-killers is to punish women

Can a horror film lead people to God?” asks the Religion News Service article responding to Warner Bros. aggressive bid to lure evangelical and Catholic audiences to see The Conjuring.

Filmmaker brothers Chad and Carey Hayes say their film isn’t your typical “Christian” movie fare, but it nonetheless carries a strong religious message that can appeal to faith-minded audiences.

It is, they say, a “wholesome horror film.”

The Conjuring centers around the real-life Ed and Lorraine Warren, a pair of ghost-hunting “consultants of demonic witchcraft.” In 1971, they were called to a 19th-century Rhode Island farmhouse where things had gotten downright spooky.

“To have two characters that were so strong in their faith, we didn’t have to preach it, we didn’t have to thump it, we just had to show it,” Carey Hayes said in an interview. “Their faith was the sharpest tool in their toolbox.”

The word “faith” has to do a lot of heavy lifting in those paragraphs, but it’s not clear what the Hayes brothers mean by the word. For a clearer sense of Lorraine Warren’s faith, check out the beginning of this recent interview she did with Devin Faraci for Badass Digest:

I wanted to talk about ghosts and demons and the way she and her husband fought them.

Whether you believe in these things or not, Lorraine does. Very much so. I have no question that everything she told me is genuine. Whether any of this stuff happened — whether she has psychic abilities, whether she can communicate with the dead, whether she has ever exorcised a family — she firmly believes it did. She is not a faker, she is not a phony. She is not running a scam. That is the spirit with which I approached this interview.

But the first thing I had to do was get myself a free psychic reading. I hoped she didn’t sense anything malicious hovering around me – my luck the last few weeks indicated that could be the case.

… I was told I had to open up by asking what you saw in my aura.

OK, let me see. I have to look at you a while. There’s something blue around you, but I don’t know what that really means. [stares intently] Decision? Do have a decision-making thing?

I’m at a crossroads.

There. That’s what the blue is. You have to really weigh. Don’t move too fast. Don’t move too fast at all. You have to give it a lot of thought, pros and cons, before you make the decision. Because the decision is going to be maybe lasting … if you do the right one.

Faraci is convinced that Warren is convinced — that she “firmly believes” in her own psychic abilities. But this initial response — “Do you have a decision-making thing?” — is such a lazy, half-hearted bit of perfunctory cold reading that it seems to undermine Faraci’s belief in the genuineness of her belief.

The faith on display there is Lorraine Warren’s abiding faith in the credulity of her audience. And just like the producers of The Conjuring, the Warrens learned how to repackage their paranormal woo in order to sell it to “faith-minded audiences.”

The Warrens’ shtick is a Gothic Catholic variation of the same con Mike Warnke and Bob Larson have long used to fleece evangelical Protestants with a propensity for “spiritual warfare” ideology. This racket is contemptible at just the basic level of any con that preys on gullibility and fear to separate vulnerable people from their money. But it’s also far worse than that, because it reinforces the very worst impulses of its audience, fueling a hate-filled, self-righteous crusader mentality. Whether that mentality is framed in terms of Lorraine Warren’s crypto-Catholicism or Bob Larson’s circus-tent Pentecostalism, it always ultimately winds up in one place: A fearful hatred of imaginary Satanic baby-killers, an evil that can only be combatted by punishing non-imaginary women.

It’s tempting to dismiss the Warrens and Warnkes as fringe characters with little influence on the larger culture. But consider this: American Christianity and American politics today are both shaped by the very same impulse fed and fed-on by these fringe hucksters. American Christianity and American politics today are based on a fearful hatred of imaginary Satanic baby-killers and the impulse to combat them by punishing non-imaginary women.

None of this is new. It was already an ancient pattern long before it was embraced by the “divines” who executed innocent women in Salem.

And lest you think I’m stretching there to tie these attitudes back to the days of the witch-hunt, please note that this is precisely what The Conjuring does. It harks back to Salem and takes the side of the witch-hunters, as Andrew O’Hehir explains in his review for Salon:

Here’s the real “true story” behind The Conjuring: Any time people get worked up about a menace they believe in but can’t actually see – demons, Commies, jihadis, hordes of hoodie-wearing thugs — they’re likely to take it out on the weakest and most vulnerable people in society.

… Without getting too deep into spoiler-hood, the Perrons’ house turns out to be inhabited by a demonic female spirit. She preys on the living, yearns to possess a delicious and vulnerable young female body, etc. Nothing new here in terms of horror movies, or borderline Judeo-Christian theology, or generalized male panic. But along with the overall tone of hard-right family-values messaging, The Conjuring wants to walk back one of America’s earliest historical crimes, the Salem witch trials of 1692, and make it look like there must have been something to it after all. Those terrified colonial women, brainwashed, persecuted and murdered by the religious authorities of their day – see, they actually were witches, who slaughtered children and pledged their love to Satan and everything! That’s not poetic license. It’s reprehensible and inexcusable bullshit. …

In American Christianity and American politics, such reprehensible and inexcusable BS is regarded as “wholesome.”

And this wholesome demonization of marginalized women is expected to “appeal to faith-minded audiences.”

And it does.

 

  • Lori

    “Do you have a decision-making thing?”

    You mean a brain? The answer would seem to be, “Apparently not.”

  • Vermic

    Any time people get worked up about a menace they believe in but can’t actually see – demons, Commies, jihadis, hordes of hoodie-wearing thugs — they’re likely to take it out on the weakest and most vulnerable people in society.

    That reminds me: Everyone should go on Netflix and watch ParaNorman, it’s a terrific movie and a great antidote to this kind of toxic thinking.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    The whole thing sounds like cold and then warm reading from a flimflammer.

  • Lori

    But like Fred says, a half-hearted cold read. I can literally do better than that.

  • connorboone

    And, remember, kids – the women who were killed in the Salem witch trials were largely women with property, but without a strong male protector in the form of a husband or father. Because, really, why just punish women for daring to live without a man telling them what to do, when you can do that and profit by seizing their assets at the same time, amirite?

  • damanoid

    That is uncanny! I was just thinking that you could do better than that!

    SHE’S A WITCH! GET OUT OF MY HEAD WITCHY WOMAN!

  • caryjamesbond

    Eh- I dunno. The Salem Witch Trials, to me, seem to come under some sort of Bad Shit Statue of Limitations. 99 out of a hundred people already have no idea what went on at the witch trials. Ask most anyone, and they’ll tell you that fundy preachers got worked up into a lather and burned innocent women- which contains three fundamental mistruths right there. It was a community thing that notable fundy preachers worked to stop, they weren’t all women, and they were hanged, or in the case of the amazingly badass Giles Corey- crushed.

    I just think that reading into a movie that says “oooooooh, one of them was a reaaaaaal wiiiiiiitch!” all sorts of misogyny and claims about marginalized women that applies to the hear and now is……reaching.

  • caryjamesbond

    To expand on the above- Werewolf myths, for example, also grow out of this same history of semi-medieval villagers tormenting marginalized populations out of superstitious fear. And yes, it is terrible that people with certain diseases were killed or hounded into the wilds to die because people didn’t understand- but if I wrote a review of a Lon Chaney movie drawing on that real historical example to say the movie was a “demonization of marginalized people”- that would be ridiculous.

    Myths take on a shape of their own that has nothing to do with their birth- witches, werewolves, vampires, Salem, Zombies- all these things are rooted in real life oppression of marginalized people. The way in which we use these now mythical elements TODAY, however, is no longer about oppression. Primarily because the oppression and the current use are divided by a massive span of time and a near universal lack of knowledge about the oppressive roots of the myth.

  • Jason Jones

    I think what’s coming across as distasteful about recasting Salem as something that had an element of truth to it is that even though not everyone knows all the correct details about Salem, everyone does agree that it was a Very Bad Thing and it involved the unjust deaths of many innocent people. Though other monster myths are also rooted in this same problem, the inciting incidents aren’t immediately recognizable to the general populace.

    Also, I’d contend that witches have a special place in monster mythology because they haven’t been so thoroughly divorced from the core humanity of their originators. Even turned into hags, anyone can recognize that the archetypal witch is a woman who has power and threatens the stability of the community around her. A werewolf may be based on unfortunate souls who were insane and shunned by society, but they’ve been changed into monsters with less recognizable human parts. Also, to be blunt, we don’t know the names of the people who were cast out and marginalized as monsters. We do know the names of the victims in Salem, and we recognize that like any historical victim with a face, it’s unseemly to suggest that they might have deserved what happened to them.

  • Lori

    One other difference is that people can prove that they’re not werewolves. Wait for the full moon, fall to come over all hairy —> not a werewolf. There’s no way to prove to the convinced that one is not a witch.

  • caryjamesbond

    Even turned into hags, anyone can recognize that the archetypal witch is a woman who has power and threatens the stability of the community around her.

    Well, but that’s not the origin of the witch myth. The origin of the witch myth are older, outcast, powerless women living alone who get blamed for milk souring and cattle dying. And the reason that accused witches were marginalized people is the same reason that marginalized people have always been targeted- easy targets, no chance of retribution.

    Which is not to say that powerful women weren’t accused of witchcraft, in much the same way that powerful women today are accused of being lesbians. Pretty much every independent queen/princess/Tsarina (Catherine the Great got a lot of this) was accused of witchcraft by some muckraking preacher or pamphlet, but it tended not to go much further because, well- queen.

    Interestingly enough, its more likely to have been true with powerful women- there is interesting evidence that, particularly at the court of Louis the XIV, some courtiers did practice the Black Mass and other Iron Maiden album cover type stuff- primarily out of boredom, it seems.

    We do know the names of the victims in Salem, and we recognize that like any historical victim with a face, it’s unseemly to suggest that they might have deserved what happened to them.

    I mean, I see your point, but that seems like…..sentiment influencing our perception. Not to mention that we CAN’T, for the most part, name them. I certainly can’t remember any of their names without google.

    I think there is an interesting conversation to be had about popular concepts of witchcraft and witches and misogyny.

    I think that saying:

    “n American Christianity and American politics, such reprehensible and inexcusable BS is regarded as “wholesome.”

    And this wholesome demonization of marginalized women is expected to “appeal to faith-minded audiences.”

    And it does.”

    is stretching the point further than it can bear.

  • caryjamesbond

    I always thought there was a good, psychological horror/serial killer type of movie to be made about one of the FAKE witchfinders that used to go around ginning up evidence of witchcraft.

  • Lori

    I’m actually surprised someone hasn’t already done it because yeah, that would be good.

  • mattmcirvin
  • Lori

    This is totally OT, but I need to repeat a question I asked before (because I can’t remember which thread that was, so I can’t find the answers)—-now that Google Reader is dead which services are people using & liking? My first choice was Old Reader, which started out fine. However the post-Google influx of users has killed it & it’s going back to being private only for the developers and their friends and people who signed up before March. I understand that & don’t begrudge them, I just need to find another reader that’s easy to use, has a decent refresh rate and isn’t going to blow up. Suggestions?

  • AnonaMiss

    In my opinion, it has to do with how large a role the Good Guys continue to play in the mythos.

    Vampires have vampire hunters, but in modern times these are drawn primarily from the expansion of Dr. Van Helsing into a whole fictional family of hunters. There is no mythic group dedicated to the persecution of werewolves.

    But the witch trials – particularly the witch trials as they have entered the cultural narrative – pit witches against (usually fundie/Puritan) Christian holy men. Christian holy men still exist. For this reason it seems… inappropriate to make stories in which they persecute the outcast, and are totally justified in it.

  • AnonaMiss

    I use Feedly. I think Fred says he uses it too. It took some getting used to – particularly the fact that there’s no way to leave articles unread by default, you need to click ‘mark as unread’ every time – but I’m comfortable in it now.

  • Czanne

    I’ve had good results with feedly (using the newsify front-end because my primary computer these days is an ipad). Feedly works fine on my laptop through Firefox. Refresh rates are near instant, though very rarely, the feed will pull in something ancient for no readily apparent reason. (This happens say 1x/month and I think it’s a WordPress twitch, but it’s not significant enough that I’ve tried to track it down to sent anybody a bug report.)

  • Daniel

    “And the reason that accused witches were marginalized people is the same reason that marginalized people have always been targeted- easy targets, no chance of retribution.”

    Keith Thomas (Religion and the Decline of Magic) makes the argument that actually the powerlessness of the women was what made them cultivate the role of wise woman. If people believed the frail old dear who was too weak and old to grow her own food was capable of cursing them they’d help her out, and they wouldn’t exploit her or turf her out of her home. The woman in question would also be able, to some extent, to have the respect of the community and would be protected from its more powerful members who might otherwise try to take her land or property. He makes the point that it was in her interests to seem not demonic but otherworldly, and magical. The curse as suggestion could frequently work particularly in a culture where both parties believed it would, and so it was one of the few defences the vulnerable had. This changed with the reformation, and the identifying of “wise women” with “witches”, and the counter reformation when the Inquisitions got into their swing.

    This was before Salem, but he argues that this is how the belief in magic old ladies was fostered, and then it was simply adapted in a similar way to “the poor” being re-dubbed “benefit cheats” and so on.

    I think the really interesting point though is that the accused could actually believe their own guilt- they lived in a world where witchcraft was “real” and so the evidence they were presented may well have genuinely convinced them that they had committed the acts.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Oh fuck.

  • Daniel

    Witchfinder General with Vincent Price.

    Based on a True Story.

  • Daniel

    Hadn’t seen this before I recommended it above. Sorry.

    And not to ruin it for anyone, but the real Matthew Hopkins died peacefully in his bed, in real life.

  • Daniel

    Not a brain- one of those folded paper things with decisions under the flaps that girls make in primary school… this comment would be so much pithier if I knew what they were called.

    I apologise. I’ve wasted everyone’s time.

    THANK GOD FOR WIKIPEDIA!
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paper_fortune_teller

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam
  • Lori

    Yup. The fact that it’s been down more than up for the last week+? Apparently can’t be readily fixed and the developers are sick of the thing they wrote for themselves eating their lives. I can’t argue with that. If you didn’t sign up before March 13th you have 2 weeks to export your data and find someplace else to park it.

    I’m playing with Feedly now and it seems fine.

  • Daniel

    For anyone interested (I am) in werewolves and witches, the other children of the night and so on (really, it’s hard to talk about this without getting camp) I’d recommend Sabine Baring-Gould’s Werewolves, and Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic. They’re both very interesting sociological(ish in the case of Baring-Gould) studies of the origins and developments of the myths across Europe and the rest of the world.

    http://www.sacred-texts.com/goth/bow/ (SBG, book of werewolves)

    and sadly I can’t find a link for the Thomas one.

    Margaret Murray’s “The Witch Cult in Western Europe”

    http://www.sacred-texts.com/pag/murray.htm is also pretty interesting, though a lot of it has since been discredited.

    I’ll stop now.

  • Daniel

    I know now. We never had a name for them when I was in school, they were just things girls had some inherent ability to make and they were… bewitching.

  • http://www.oliviareviews.com/ PepperjackCandy

    My mom always called them “cootie catchers.”

  • Launcifer

    Maybe she meant one of those magic 8-ball things?

  • LL

    RE “But along with the overall tone of hard-right family-values messaging, The Conjuring wants to walk back one of America’s earliest historical crimes, the Salem witch trials of 1692, and make it look like there must have been something to it after all.”

    Well, that’s not cool. This movie has been getting generally positive reviews, but I’m certainly not going to go see it now.

  • Lori

    Well obviously all sensible people have a magic 8-ball.

  • Jim Roberts

    Well, it’s ghosts, not witchcraft, but The Frighteners is a pretty good take on a paranormal investigator who’s a fraud, but in ways that are difficult to explain without revealing key plot points.

  • Launcifer

    Ah, Keith Thomas… I need to dig that book out of the cupboard.

    Seriously, those latter two were on my required reading list when I studied Reformation history at uni’. They had nothing to do with the course, really, but the guy running it thought Decline of Magic especially was just that good.

  • Daniel

    I’d also recommend Victor Sage’s Horror and the Protestant Tradition- it’s an exploration of the fear of Catholicism in post-reformation Protestant nations and how this influenced their fiction, giving rise to the heavy anti-Catholic subplots in classic Gothic fiction. Personally, following his thesis that Gothic and horror are essentially based on a fear of the Other (which here is irrational foreign Popery) I’d argue that it’s corresponding Catholic genre is Decadence which relishes the otherworldly and accepts there’s always a chance for redemption.
    I wanted to write a PhD on it.

    But I’m a lazy lazy man.

  • FearlessSon

    Remember that friend of mine from Louisiana that I mention every few threads or so? That is her favorite film. I could tell why within the first five minutes when I started watching it.

    Her mother never understood why her daughter found it so appealing, even after seeing it.

  • http://www.oliviareviews.com/ PepperjackCandy

    Have you ever tried playing “20 Questions” with a Magic 8 ball? You ask it yes or no questions and try to guess what it is thinking of.

    One time I tried it, the ball was thinking of a house spider and another it was thinking of a head of green cabbage.

  • Launcifer

    Damn it, now I’m going to drop silly money on a book for a course I finished ten years ago for a degree I don’t even have.

  • quinnthebrain

    Keith Thomas WAS just that good. I took a year-long class in the history of magic and witchcraft (bloody brilliant class) and it was by far my favorite of the texts.

  • Daniel

    I bought my copy by chance at an antique book shop near York Minster (it’s quite sad but I can remember where almost all of my books come from. I’m a bit Sepulchrave about my “library”) just because it sounded fascinating. And it was. And compared to earlier studies (I’m thinking of Frazer) of similar subjects it is so much more enjoyable to read. Have you read Murray? Because following her book Robert Graves wrote The White Goddess which is largely thought to be crap and I’d like to know if anyone has read them- I haven’t read Graves.

  • FearlessSon

    (really, it’s hard to talk about this without getting camp)

    I remember a recording in Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines done by a psychiatrist who ended up being attacked an embraced by a mental ward patient who happened to be a Malkavian (a clan of vampires known for both prescience and insanity in equal measures.) When he discovers the rest of Kindred society, he makes audio notes to himself for further research. One of those notes:

    “…their linguistic flourishes belie a faith in superstition over the providence of empirical reason that must be an all-pervasive theme in this society of darkest night…damn it all, now I’m doing it too.”

  • Daniel

    In terms of campness in horror, I’m very much looking forward to returning to England because there’s an ongoing James Whale exhibition in Dudley which I’d love to see. Doctor Pretorius is the epitome of camp evil.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-Asplund/1212542247 David Asplund

    Check out “Witchfinder General” with Vincent Price an old one but very much worth a look..enjoy.

  • Guest

    When someone talks about witch hunting, this is the first place my mind goes.

  • FearlessSon

    When someone talks about witch hunting, this is the first place my mind goes.

    [EDIT]: Okay, what the heck was with that blind double-post? The image was not resolving, so I found another host and deleted the old post, now the old post is up as a guest? WTF?

  • ReverendRef

    I’ve got one on my desk that a former parishioner gave me. Unfortunately it was made in China so it kind of hard to actually read. Makes for a good conversation piece, though.

  • Daniel

    This is where mine goes

  • Daniel

    “The Salem Witch Trials, to me, seem to come under some sort of Bad Shit Statue of Limitations.”
    In Lancashire now there’s a bus route called The Witch Way, between Pendel and Manchester. The reason is the ten men and women executed for witchcraft in the Pendel Witch Trials. So I think they agree that there’s a Bad Shit Statute of Limitations- especially as the buses are named after the witches. (that’s a big witch on the side. She’s saying “Ooh look at me, I’m a giant witch”.)

  • ReverendRef

    Filmmaker brothers Chad and Carey Hayes say their film isn’t your typical “Christian” movie fare, but it nonetheless carries a strong religious message that can appeal to faith-minded audiences. — It is, they say, a “wholesome horror film.”

    Nevertheless, I’m going to be showing The Princess Bride at Movie Night this coming Thursday. Firstly, because I’m sure it’s a better movie. And not lastly, if I showed The Conjuring I’ve got a pretty good idea I would be asked to look for other employment.

  • Lori

    That’s just tacky.

  • Daniel

    Apparently the Romany word for Lancashire literally translated is “land of witches”. They have tried, occasionally, to make a tourist draw out of the Pendle Witches but it hasn’t really caught on. Possibly because the convictions rested on the testimony of a child, and three of those convicted were her mother, brother and sister.

    Also this:

    “A petition was presented to UK Home Secretary Jack Straw in 1998 asking for the witches to be pardoned, but it was decided that their convictions should stand.”


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