The Conjuring cinematic universe—now eight films strong—is the second highest-grossing horror franchise of all time, having earned nearly $2 billion. Technically, only Godzilla stands taller (with more than $2.3 billion in earnings), but the big guy comes with some asterisks. One, it took Godzilla 36 movies to claim its top spot, and two, it can hardly be called horror if 10-year-old me could watch Godzilla vs. Monster Zero at midnight and still go nightmare free.
What has made the Conjuring franchise so strong? It embraces some old-fashioned horror basics: creepy houses, terrifying creatures, families in peril.
Oh, and faith, of course. You can’t have a good supernatural horror flick without a sense of faith.
The Conjuring universe is inherently, inescapably spiritual. And The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is perhaps the most religious movie of them all. Released this weekend in theaters and on HBO Max, the film puts the devil on trial, much as The Exorcism of Emily Rose did.
“The court accepts the existence of God every time a witness swears to tell the truth,” paranormal investigator Ed Warren says. “I think it’s about time they accept the existence of the devil.”
It’s 1981, and Ed and Lorrain Warren (whose real-life case files serve as The Conjuring movies’ inspiration) are trying to help the Glatzel family through a difficult exorcism. Their little boy, David, is possessed, and the nasty who has claimed his body is a strong demon indeed. Things look like they’re getting out of hand when Arne—boyfriend of David’s sister, Debbie Glatzel—looks into David’s eyes and addresses the demon directly. “Take me!” he says. And so the demon does.
It’s a while before anyone knows this, of course. But after Arne stabs his landlord 22 times, it’s pretty obvious something’s the matter with the guy. He’s quickly arrested and charged with murder. The state means to seek the death penalty. But Ed and Lorraine believe that Arne wasn’t at fault. When someone is killed in a hit-and-run, you don’t arrest the car: You arrest the driver. And Arne wasn’t driving his body that day.
Arne’s real-life court case became known as The Devil Made Me Do It trial. And the movie itself features some authentic, and authentically chilling, recordings from David’s original exorcism.
“Maybe you’re a total skeptic,” director Michael Chaves said in an interview with reporters (and quoted from Collider). “Maybe you don’t believe in demons or God, or any of that. But you can’t listen to that tape and say that something powerful was not going on there.”
I find it fascinating that, as the United States supposedly moves into a post-Christian space and the number of non-believers grows, movies predicated on God and the devil still pack such a wallop. The Devil Made Me Do It was the highest-grossing movie this weekend, even though it also aired on HBO Max. The Unholy—another film predicated on faith and doubt and demons—made its own splash this spring and still ranks in the year’s top 15.
Secular critics don’t always care for these sorts of films. Decider.com called The Devil Made Me Do It “supernatural hooey.” But these stories unquestionably have power. They remind us that this “hooey” just might tell us something about ourselves, our lives and our world that science just doesn’t have the tools to answer.
When Annabelle: Creation—part of the Conjuring universe—was released four years ago, I had a chance to talk with the movie’s screenplay writer Gary Dauberman (who also wrote the screenplay for IT, which was released that same year). When I asked him what drew him to supernatural horror. He told me this:
I love horror of all kinds, but you’re right. I do have an affinity for the supernatural especially, and I think that has to do with me really being a believer that there’s something that’s greater than all of us, andthat death is not an end. So writing and researching these stories kind of reaffirms that for me in a way. Even if there’s a demonic presence, I’m always going, ‘If there’s a demonic presence, that means that somewhere out there there’s good.’ And a lot of times in these movies, the good comes from within.
And sometimes, what’s within us is … God.
The Devil Made Me Do It is filled with prayer and holy water. Not everything in the film would necessarily pass theological scrutiny, but the movie suggests something that would likely get you laughed at if you mentioned it on Twitter: Demons are real, and they’re terrified of God and Jesus.
When Lorraine Warren tries to stop a supernatural attack, she shouts, “By the blood of Calvary, I command this!” You’ll not find such blatant Christian verbiage most Christian movies these days, and yet here it is—in the No. 1 movie of the weekend. And while the country itself may not believe in the numbers it once did, you’ll find skeptics of every stripe tremble in the sanctuaries of cinema as they grapple with good and evil, God and the devil and watch a little prayer save the day.