It starts with a doll. Wide glassy eyes, grinning eerily into the camera. We listen to the story of a mere child’s play object, a symbol of displaced love, affection, and desire that becomes twisted and corrupted into an object of deceit, jealously and malice by dark spirits. In a nutshell, this is the story at the core of The Conjuring, a tale of displaced joy and attention that so steeply turns from playful to deadly. This is the story of the real life Perron family whose love for their new home, joy for new life sours into hatred and fear.
In 1971, a family of seven moved from New Jersey to a plot of land in Rhode Island. Soon after moving in, a series of strange events began to plague the household, culminating in a necessary exorcism on the part of professional demonologists. The story is simple but the film’s crafting an exquisite work of fine tuning that places it high on the pedestal of modern horror films.
The Conjuring is a welcome change in the winds of previous horror movies over the past decade. It isn’t scary because the monsters hide in closets and jump out to yell “Boo!” in the night. We don’t find it unsettling because children speak in tongues, giggle maniacally or do any of the many unexplainable things that children are prone to do. It’s not even the whispers and shrieks in the darkness that make us scream, although all of these are certainly contributing factors. The Conjuring is absolutely terrifying because it so skillfully invokes what is at the core of all horror movies — the notion that the innocent, the unassuming, the undeserving could suddenly become the unwitting victims in a plot over which they have no power or influence to control. And what’s worse is that we enjoy it.
As a young man frequenting London movie theaters, Alfred Hitchcock astutely noticed that people enjoy feeling frightened in non-frightening situations, hence why we flock to horror movies and ride roller coasters. It’s been theorized that the rush of endorphins upon surviving a near death experience makes the situation all the more enjoyable.
That strange sense of enjoyment can likewise be felt on the part of the person causing the fear. Anyone with siblings can attest to the perverse glee of jumping out from a hiding place and striking terror into the heart of an unsuspecting victim. The joy of scaring someone is most often committed in good fun, but is the same feeling of glee felt on the part of violent aggressors who victimize others. It is this dark sense of malice mingled with joy that makes The Conjuring such an effective thriller. While terrifying and uncomfortable, the feelings it evokes are oddly familiar.
The film rightly uses a creative child’s game — “hide and clap” — a variation on hide and seek combined with an element of “Marco Polo” in which stealthy siblings slink and sneak around one blindfolded seeker, clapping on command when asked in an effort to make their locations known. The thrill of excitement and the unknown is replicated later by the spirits who haunt the family. We sympathize with the Perron family, but at the same time, in the back of our minds and in the deepest pits of our denial, we get it. We understand why the family is being haunted, and as voyeurs we even become a part of the joy experienced on behalf of their suffering.
Perhaps the most frightening of all is the way in which The Conjuring lends an eye to the point of view of the spirits. Same as we can feel the Perron Family’s terror, we can also feel the haunters’s glee in their scratchy whispers in the night, pulling toes and slamming doors and making people jump in the night. We’re on the other side of the coin and even though we really should know better, we go along for the ride. It’s all in good fun.