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

2. ‘The Conjuring’ reminds us that the only way to stop Satanic baby-killers is to punish women July 29, 2013

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.


"No. Bob Bakker had suggested they might be. They're definitely on the bird branch of ..."

LBCF, No. 256: ‘Menacing flowers’
"I like the implication that preachers are more successful if they define themselves like Smurfs. ..."

‘Mrs. Whiling’s Faith Cure’
"Salt water taffy is awesome! And Shriver's is the best. That is all."

‘Mrs. Whiling’s Faith Cure’
"Yeah, agreed.Honestly, that was essentially my notes for a hypothetical sequel, before I'd even left ..."

LBCF, No. 256: ‘Menacing flowers’

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • MarkTemporis

    Damn. I wanted to see this one. Apparently the soundtrack and some of the possession scenes are done by Diamanda Galas.

  • Grey Seer

    The Imperial Inquisition tends to get a pass in my book, on account of the fact that the Witches they hunt are verifiably real and unfortunately prone to being possessed by daemons that then annihilate entire worlds.

    (They still come down on the Evil side of the spectrum, by and large, but that’s because just about everything in 40k does.)

    The modern-day persecution of out-groups just looks kind of pathetic by comparison…

  • Grey Seer

    Eh, that sort of thing is basically traditional by now. I mean, Guy Fawkes was basically a religiously-motivated terrorist who intended to commit Grand Treason, before getting caught and executed in the most degrading and painful way we knew how.

    Nowadays, we celebrate that with bonfires, candy and fireworks.

    So, really, The Witch Way is fairly tame in comparison.

  • Veylon

    I second this. It’s a wonderfully open-hearted that has compassion for all it’s characters that not only subverts the usual ‘evil witch’ motif, but also the ‘evil Puritan’ one. It’s terrible that vindictive stuff like this horror flick get the nod as “Christian”, but not this deeply mature kids’ movie.

  • Lori

    That’s what they were called when I was a kid.

  • FearlessSon

    The Imperial Inquisition is also prone to putting entire planets to the torch. Good to know that there is at least a ceremony for that kind of thing.

  • Rhubarbarian82

    I’ve had that issue with deleting posts as well. Another reason Disqus fails.

  • Srsly. If that were me, I’d look intently at the mark, tilt my head to one side, and say, “You have a big decision coming up, don’t you?” Then I’d nod wisely and say, “You have to follow your instincts.”

  • Have you heard of Cheapass Games’ Witch Trial? It sounds right up your alley.

    “In Witch Trial, you play an attorney at a prestigious law firm. You will act as a prosecutor or defender in several cases involving unmarried women, free thinkers, vegetarians, the homeless, and other undesirable types. While witchcraft per se isn’t really a crime, it’s customary to bring suspects into court on related offenses, such as card playing, smoking, and tampering with the post.”


  • Lori

    No, no. Not instincts. That implies that the answer lies within the mark, and if that’s the case they don’t need you. What they need to do is follow their heart. That feeling is clearly a dearly departed loved one trying to speak to them. For a small fee I can help the message get through. Or they should heed the signs. For a small fee I can interpret them. You get the idea. There is no money in the mark making decisions on their own.

  • J_Enigma32

    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

    I think the point may have been missed. The issue isn’t the use of witchcraft, it’s the market in question.

    For instance, Africa. I can’t begin to tell you what happens on that continent to individuals who are thought of as witches without a mountain of content notices and warnings, and even then, that does no justice. Saudi Arabia too, and Malaysia, and Indonesia (although those are Muslim countries, generally speaking). Papua New Guinea has an especially bad case of the Fundie right now, and many women are actively tormented and horribly abused and mutilated in ways that the Inquisition would never even dream about by bands of roaming “hunters.”

    And lest you think that happens in the backwards parts of the globe far away from here, remember that we have our own backwards parts – I seem to remember the preacher for a certain failure of a human being/potential VP who was also a witch hunter, in addition to a particular “I’m not a witch” wannabe senator…

    The last thing I want to do is give these people even more reason to believe their dangerously delusional persecution fantasies. Witch hunts, were and still are, fundamentally misogynistic. They disproportionately target women, they build up this “mystique” about women, helping to Other them (women are weaker to the wiles of Satan than men, don’t you know), and feeds into their Paleolithic belief system. I suspect there are ways to handle witch craft in fiction without whipping them up, but what’s up for criticism about the movie isn’t the use of witches as a plot device so much as it is the market the movie is aimed at – delusional Fundies who get their rocks off thinking about ways to become those witch hunters.

    And because of that, the movie is tapping into the foundational misogyny already present in that subculture. That, I think, is where the danger is.

  • The psychic can’t really contact the spirits of your loved ones, but he can contact this one low-ranking demon who invisibly rifles through the client’s personal belongings and feeds the psychic information helpful in convincing them he’s got an inside track?

  • Ross Thompson

    There’s no way to prove to the convinced that one is not a witch.

    What if you weigh more than a duck?

  • J_Enigma32

    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

    Critical thinking: you’re doing it wrong.

    I don’t care if you firmly believe the sky is purple. If you come to me and say that, I’m going to want evidence. Will i discount you? Maybe not immediately, depending upon the degree of your claim. It’s when you stumble and fail to supply the evidence that I’m going to get suspicious.

    And the bigger your claim, the more evidence you need to be supplying.

    This is the way that Creationism, anti-Vaxx lunacy, and Global Warming denialism spread. You accept a claim without even bothering to research it, start from a position of belief, and then do everything in your power to defend that belief by taking evidence out of context and sometimes spinning it up to 180-degrees the original meaning to back up what you’re claiming. This is an intellectually dishonest way to approach any interview. Get someone with some critical thinking skills to interview Lorraine or her husband next time.

  • Dash1

    She looks very much like the stylized witch that adorns the Salem, Massachusetts, police cars.

  • Gently Feral

    But I want to read the non-academic version of that book.

  • “The Witchfinder General” is from 1968 or 1969 and features Vincent Price’s best performance IMO. It was released in the States as “The Conqueror Worm” and passed off as another Roger Corman / Vincent Price / Edgar Allan Poe movie.

    EDITED TO ADD: Whoops, several hours too late to the party on this one.

  • mattepntr

    I saw this movie, and strangely, I don’t remember anything about the Salem witch trials being mentioned. Though there is a giant burst of exposition dumped in a pretty big rush at one point, and it could have been in there. I tried to follow along to understand the “mythology” behind the disturbances, but really only got as far as “demon-possessed mother/ghost wants to kill a child”.

    Going in to the movie, I already knew the Warrens were discredited scam artists, so I settled in to enjoy the movie (or not) through the same lens I watch all horror movies- as fictional stories. (Full disclosure: I’m an atheist and horror movie fan)

    My thoughts: It’s very very ably directed by James Wan, and the acting is especially good on all fronts, but especially Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as the Warrens, and Lilli Taylor and Ron Livingston as the owners of the house. In fact, it’s the sincerity of the performances and commitment of the actors that draw you in, and keep the whole endeavor from imploding into a singularity of silliness.
    It’s well-written too, taking the time to build actual characters that you can come to worry about and care what happens to. And the screenplay doesn’t fall apart in the third act, like horror scripts usually do. The first hour is especially good. The movie takes its time to build up to the bigger horror elements slowly, consisting mostly of strange, creepy sounds and things barely seen.

    “The Conjuring” may indeed be a “good movie with a bad message”, but I’d need to see it again, since that message whizzed right past me on first viewing.
    I can’t believe anybody would use it as a proselityzation tool (well, I can believe they’d try, but has anyone really been converted by a horror movie or book? “Scared into belief”? Did “The Exorcist” manage it? “Left Behind”? The “Red Brick Room of Horrors” in the Creation Museum?)

  • I remember those! :D They were like the paper version of the magic 8-ball.

  • Well, that’s what I get for taking my cues from the mystics in stories. Narratively speaking, it’s unsatisfying for the fortune-teller to solve the protagonist’s problems; the audience wants to see the protagonist figure things out.

  • Lori

    You just don’t have the soul of a grifter. If you’re the “mystic” you don’t give a crap about the protagonist’s narrative, you care about the protagonist’s cash.

  • What’s the Red Brick Room of Horrors? Googling got me nothing.

  • Lorehead

    Well, with your qualifications and experience, you should just tell your denomination to take your cure of souls and—oh, wait, I thought you were a football ref.

  • mattepntr

    That’s just my nickname for it.

    Basically, after you’ve threaded your way through the “exhibits” in the “museum”, the last room you stop in is a sleazy, brick-lined long room lit with red light, and a wall that is slathered with magazine and newspaper clippings detailing all the horrors of the secular world.

    The room is basically a summation. After the museum makes the astoundingly-persuasive case for its brand of “biblical literalism” (and you’ve fully embraced RTCism for evah!), the red room is where you get the REAL message – here’s who god wants you to hate: gay couples, women who want to control their bodies, other stuff. I’ll see if I can find a picture of it.



  • mattepntr

    Here’s another pic. Of course, all museums have a room like this, don’t they? Why, just last week, I was at the Museum of Natural History, and after all the sciency stuff, was the room showing how god was wrong and religion was stupid and evil. The animatronic Richard Dawkins even said so, if you press the “talk” button.


  • And I thought the worst thing about this movie was that they were recycling horror tropes created by the Paranormal Activity franchise. Sadly, it seems I was wrong.

  • mattepntr

    I wouldn’t compare it to “Paranormal Activity” at all. As far as tropes go, it slots right into the template established by every haunted house movie you’ve ever seen. “The Haunting”, “Poltergeist” and “The Exorcist” are obvious influences.

  • Jenny Islander

    This post needs to be at or near the top when people google this movie.

  • themunck

    I love that game. It’s amazing just how much of the world of darkness they managed to weave into the story, with none of it seeming out of place.
    Seriously, all that’s missing are some of the minor clans and mages. Everything else is there.

  • arcseconds

    How much worse is The Conjuring than hundreds of other horror narratives that veer a bit close to the mark to historical horrors of witch trials, etc?

    I mean, basically any narrative including witches, or exorcisms, could be accused of perpetuating myths that people continue to take seriously today. There’s a whole spectrum of people here, from those who outright believe in covens flying through the night, transforming themselves into animals and making pacts with the devil, through to people who don’t believe in the supernatural who nevertheless do believe in satanic cults who engage in sexual abuse of children. You could argue any portrayal of an evil witch plays into this, including the Wicked Witch of the West, but certainly anything connected with actual witch trials or the mythology surrounding them does.

    I think one of the essential tools of the horror genre is that while on the surface we might not believe in this rot, somewhere deep down we’re not quite so sure there aren’t dark power or strange things from outer space, and human beings in their thrall. Blurring the line between fantasy and reality is a tried-and-tested horror trope. ‘Based on a true story’ is not so far removed from ‘this thing totally happened to a friend of my cousin’s two summers ago’ of the ghost story trope, which Fred has otherwise endorsed here. And of course it’s much easier to do this with mythology that continues to have currency today.

    I’m a bit of a fan of the Hellboy comics, and I certainly enjoy the retelling of folk tales that the likes of Mignola and Gaiman are wont to do, but it does worry me that this continues to perpetuate witch myths as quasi-truth.

    (For somewhat related reasons comic book nazis also worry me. Actually, in some ways the problem is the reverse one: pushing a very real menance that current Western society still seems to often have insuffient distance from into the shadows of myth)

  • Launcifer

    Nah, that just proves you aren’t made of wood…

  • William Dhalgren

    Lili Taylor deserves so much better.

  • Boidster

    This is the most awesome thing I have read today. I must now go get inside the…heads?…of as many Magic 8-Balls as I can.

  • Carstonio

    Oh, magic 8-balls are so 20th century. The modern version is Siri.

    But either Siri’s word recognition algorithms are faulty or I’m a mushmouth, because when I use it, the software mangles half of my words.

  • So, a bit like the “Hell House” as portrayed in Something Positive: http://www.somethingpositive.net/sp10042006.shtml

  • Lori
  • Alix

    I think the other thing that sometimes concerns me about witches-as-myths is that there are still a not-insignificant number of people who identify as witches, in addition to what you say about there being plenty of people who very seriously believe in demonic possession, Satan, pacts with the devil, etc. – and the latter group has a track record to this day of turning on people in outgroups they dislike – and, literally, demonizing them.

    I mean, hell, I tell stories about witches sometimes, though my personal taste in fantasy tends to run to the decidedly weird/not-really-human. I’ve got a whole series of short fics I’m working on based on the premise that magic powers are real and there’s a secret society of sort-of-amoral witches running around, doing what they damn well please and occasionally keeping the world from running off the rails. But, y’know, the borderline horror elements in those aren’t about the witches so much as the rest of society, and I think that makes a difference.

    I used to work at a new age/pagan shop. Something approaching one in four people coming into the shop came in sneering at us for being some kind of stereotypical fantasy/horror witches (even odds on whether they referenced horror/folklore tropes or Harry Potter, really), and every so often we’d get the odd Good Christian(TM) who would come in, look horrified, and flee. Another pagan store relatively near me got forced out of their location when their landlord realized just what kind of gift shop they were. And of course, this is really, really mild compared to some of the things that happen to real people accused of witchcraft in other areas of this world, as noted upthread.

    Maybe this makes me oversensitive, but I don’t like feeding that, for pretty much the reasons you list. (I’m similarly bothered by the Wacky Nazi thing – way to cheapen real cruelty, folks.) On the other hand, I can sympathize strongly with the position held by a lot of my fellow pagans – that this horror archetype can be a power fantasy for pagans, that it can be reclaimed and reveled in.

    But, well. There are plenty of people perfectly willing to go to extreme and cruel measures in the name of their God, and the mythic witch is, frankly, a primarily (culturally) Christian myth at this point. It’s still buying into that narrative, y’know?

  • Arresi

    Somehow I’m not surprised. The first trailer was decent, but the second . . . “Watch a presumably innocent family get menaced by every horror movie cliche we can think of!” (Seriously, with the amount of cliches they threw in to that one trailer, will they even have time for characterization?)

  • heckblazer

    Hey, satanic witches were totes real! Here’s a pact signed by Lucifer, Leviathan and Astaroth, and if you can’t trust something signed by Lucifer what can you trust?

    Seriously though, I mention this pact to note that with hunts were more than just misogyny directed at low status women, as shown by the fate of the Father Grandier who was convicted of signing the above. While definitely prime targets women were very definitely not the exclusive ones; for example five of the nineteen Salem witch executions were of men. Being wealthy and powerful was no shield either when the paranoia was really raging. Heck, in the Bamberg witch trials being the mayor or even the head judge of the witch tribunal was no protection from being executed as a witch.

  • arcseconds

    Yes, contemporary self-identifying witches were very much in my thoughts when I wrote the above, but somehow I neglected to actually write about it.

  • DavidCheatham

    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.

    I don’t think that works.

    The ‘original’ vampire myth of Dracula (Which is not actually the original, but gave us a lot of the mythos) may have had a hunter, but I don’t see any evidence that werewolves aren’t equally ‘hunted’.

    The main distinction appears to be that _most_ universes are set up where werewolves are ‘people with a disease’, whereas vampires are ‘inhuman monsters’. And vampires _sentiently_ kill people, aka, are murderers, whereas werewolves, if they kill people, tend to do it accidentally. So it is ethical to immediately kill any vampire, but not werewolves.

    That doesn’t mean you can’t have ‘good guys’ hunting werewolves…they just have to be _bad_ werewolves. Aka, how the hunters on Supernatural behave, or how the hunters on Teen Wolf are _supposed_ to behave.

    Of course, universes vary, and there are places where vampires are also just people with a disease. (I can’t think of one offhand…Forever Knight?) Along with universes where werewolves are inhuman monsters. (Often switching over to the Native American ‘skinwalker’ mythos.)

  • Daniel

    It’s pretty accessible- Sage wrote it for general publication as well. If you’ve read any of the classic horror (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Castle of Otranto, any Poe etc) it’s a great book to read.