– By Joe Campbell –
Spoilers below for: The Conjuring (2013), The Nun (2018), Annabelle Comes Home (2019).
Horror movies have a problem: they’re horrific.
Oh I know that comes with the territory, but the problem with the genre isn’t so much what it’s about as how it’s about it. In trying to wring out maximum chills, too many horror films forget about the light at the end of the tunnel. We don’t come to these movies to see good people torn apart for a couple hours, we come to them to see a visceral battle of Good vs Evil. Sometimes we come to these movies for morality tales, to learn something about human nature, much like the Grimms’ Fairy Tales of old. And yeah, we come to these movies for a frightening thrill.
A down-beat ending is appropriate — welcome, even — if it means something. The problem is that too often these movies end with evil triumphing over good with no discernable purpose other than to leave the audience with a sense of dread as the credits roll. A good horror movie should leave me exhilarated and looking over my shoulder at the conclusion, whether or not it turns out well for the heroes. I shouldn’t be left with a feeling of pointless despair.
When The Conjuring was released in 2013, it set a new bar for horror films. It was legitimately frightening, giving us powerful demons preying upon an innocent family, but the film made a point of putting a greater focus not on the monsters themselves, but on the upright people making a stand against evil. As enveloping as the darkness was, the light was always stronger.
Several years, sequels, and spinoffs later, the Conjuring films have built a name for themselves as the Cinematic Universe of horror. Initially based loosely on the demon-hunting escapades of real life couple Ed and Lorraine Warren, the films quickly spun off into a fictional version of our world where dark corners and ancient recesses are plagued by demons and ghosts. Each film focuses on a different entity (usually demonic in nature) harassing some family until someone knowledgeable in the supernatural (usually connected to the Catholic Church) comes to drive the entity off.
Frightening imagery comes first and foremost in these movies, as the stories are practically driven by spooky set pieces and jump scares (so…so many jump scares…). There is no shortage of legitimately unsettling scenes. Though the dread might be suffocating at times, it’s rarely overwhelming, as (most of) the characters almost always come out of the other side of the movie alright.
Over the years the films have evolved in the way they tackle the battle of Good vs Evil, but the central mantra has changed very little. At its best the series is almost rousingly Catholic in its approach, at its worst it’s well intentioned if misguided by its secular viewpoint.
The film that started it all, The Conjuring, is perhaps the strongest of the bunch. It tells the story of demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren as they investigate demonic activity in the home of a Rhode Island family. The Warrens are respectful of the Catholic Church’s position when it comes to the supernatural, and it’s clear the characters work closely with Church authorities in all of their activities. From the outset, the Warrens are upfront about the fact that they aren’t investigating the activity to stop it, they are merely trying to build a strong enough case for the Church to intervene.
Of course, in theatrical Hollywood fashion things go south quickly, and the mother of the family is possessed, threatening the lives of her children. When she can’t be contained long enough for the Church to send someone to the home in time, Ed has to jump in as an unofficial exorcist.
Though the movie may jump quite a few theological hoops, the heart of the movie is in the right place. In this film the Catholic Church’s authority in these matters is established early on, and the Warrens’ first and only inclination is to defer to those in authority. Even more than that, the Warrens are a happily married couple, their marital bond a source of strength in the bleakness. It’s a rare instance of a movie couple who isn’t going through domestic drama.
Although the climax may not be theologically accurate by any means, it gets perhaps as close as we’ll ever see for a flashy Hollywood horror film. If nothing else, after the battle has concluded, it was refreshing to see the movie end on a quote from the true life Ed Warren that warns against the very real dangers of the demonic, yet at the same time reassures the viewers that God exists as well, and that our “…destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow.”
Although future entries in the Conjuring Universe may not live up to the hopeful strengths of the first movie, they rarely lose sight of the bigger message. Last year’s spinoff of The Conjuring 2, The Nun, is a more gothic film, full of heavy fog, crumbling castles, and spooky spectres. It instantly evokes memories of old Universal Monster Movies, such as The Wolf Man and Dracula. It’s the latter’s source material particularly that came to my mind while watching The Nun, especially in how it handled sacred objects.
Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula features a scene where the famed vampire hunter Van Helsing crumbles up consecrated Hosts and places them in the chinks between a coffin and its lid to keep the vampire inside from getting out. It’s heartening to see a mainstream work of fiction acknowledge the sacredness of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, since its purity is strong enough to hold hellspawn at bay, and Van Helsing even mentions that he has “an Indulgence” to use the Sacrament in this way. On the other hand to crumble up and leave the Eucharist just lying around so crudely is an obviously sacrilegious misuse of the Sacrament. All the same, the spirit of the text is admirable, if the actions misguided, and considering Dracula isn’t a theologically accurate novel, but a thrilling horror story, I tend to appreciate that it gives any reverence to the Eucharist at all.
In the spirit of Dracula, The Nun similarly uses a holy relic (a vial containing the literal blood of Jesus, presumably collected from before His Resurrection) in a theatrical way, confirming its Sacredness in the face of evil forces, but is still an egregious misuse of the relic. Even more so than Dracula, The Nun falls back onto its dramatic trapping. It’s a monster movie at its heart, with a demon-hunting priest teaming up with gifted novitiate to expel demonic forces from an ancient castle-turned-convent. It’s almost suffocatingly dark at times, opening with a nun’s suicide and spending most of the runtime in narrow catecombs and haunted cemetaries, and in the finale the movie turns into a full blown action spectacle with a final triumph over Evil, giving way to a brighter, greener ending in daylight. There’s nothing subtle about the movie, but it’s a throwback to classic horror storytelling where Good always reigns.
But one of the most recent Conjuring spinoffs, Annabelle Comes Home, gives us one of the more timely, realistic take on the battle between Good and Evil. The events of Annabelle Comes Home get kicked off when a grieving teenage girl unwittingly reaches out to the supernatural in an attempt to contact her dead father. What reaches back is far more sinister than she expected, and she spends the rest of the movie trying to put the genie back in the bottle, so to speak.
Annabelle Comes Home is the cinematic equivalent of an amusement park spookhouse, with a spectrum of spectres jumping out to scare the audience in creative ways; if you like horror movies, it’s a rip-roaring fun time. It is also serves as an important warning about the dangers of an unhealthy obsession with the otherworldly. The movie itself may be silly, but the issues it deals with are real. Today ouija boards and mediums are either waved off as superstitious nonsense or regarded with dangerous curiosity. In either case, openly inviting such elements into our lives as either a gag or a test can have real-world consequences. Where The Conjuring may provide us with an important reminder at how powerful faith is in the face of darkness, Annabelle Comes Home serves as a real-world application of how approach spiritual matters with gravity and an informed conscience.
I’m not going to pretend the Conjuring movies are textbooks to live our lives by or that they provide a realistic depiction of the spiritual, or even the Catholic Church. But in the landscape of horror films they are a powerhouse, regularly raking in a healthy profit at the box office, and it’s heartening to find that within the jumps and the spooks there is an uplifting message to be found within them. The tales of dread within the movies may be fictional, but the wholesome power of their heroes’ faith is very real. I’m glad that there’s at least one horror franchise out that reminding us that no matter how frightening Evil is, Good is always stronger.
About the Author
Joe Campbell graduated from JPCatholic in 2012. He now works as a production manager for filmilliterates.com, in addition to being a stay-at-home dad to two kids. He was born, raised, and currently lives just outside Seattle, Washington. Some of his favorite filmmakers include Andrei Tarkovsky, Sam Raimi, and Joe Dante. Besides film, his other interests include hiking, the board game Dominion, and coffee.
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