James Wan’s horror film ‘The Conjuring’ is a superbly crafted thrill-ride, packed to the gills with brilliant sequences of terror and populated by three-dimensional characters.
But the real horror comes from its claim to a basis in true historical events.
Not for the reasons you might think, however — not because this story of ghosts, demons and possession convinces us to believe in the terrifying reality of the same. Rather that the explanation provided for these events fits all too well with the dominant rhetoric supplied to us in American mythology; namely, that the Salem Witch Trials were somehow legitimate, and that the women murdered under Puritanism were actually Satan-worshipping witches.
The reason why you shouldn’t believe this ghost story is that it is, oddly enough, a comforting lie told to protect us from the real haunting truth, substituting a superstitious fear of demons (giving a strange amount of power to the Devil for a story purportedly siding with God) for the horrifying knowledge of our culture’s historical tendency to dominate women at any cost, including their lives.
What’s really demonic here is actually all-too human: we want to believe in sensational, scary stories of murder and darkness, but only insofar as they reinforce our beliefs. We ought to be haunted by what lies buried in our collective memories — that what we have as the descendants of European Christian colonists, we received at a terrible price, and while we don’t share the guilt of our ancestors, we do have a responsibility to let the sun in on their crimes.
The demons of ‘The Conjuring’ are fictional. They were fictional before they appeared onscreen. Once depicted, however, they take on the power of obfuscation, distracting us with the primal fear of the Other from the terrifying potential we all share to do unspeakable evil — even in the name of God.
Cinema has the alchemical power to let symbols alter our reality, but this power applies to our belief systems, and from thence our actions. The films we make and consume eventually create our future. If the mythology accepted and promoted by ‘The Conjuring’ goes unchallenged, we will allow history to repeat itself, with the tragedy of Salem repeated by a new generation. We have nothing to fear from fictional phantoms — except the mournful ghosts they hide.