Friday, July 19, 2013

The Conjuring (and Why We Like the Dark)

Disclaimer - in the first part of this post, I make broad statements.  I know that not all of my readers are horror fans and I know that not all of my readers are Christian.  And many who are one, the other, both or neither may just not like scary stuff.  I'm making very large generalizations and I know that.  I'm also not trying to convince my friends/readers to partake of subjects that they truly are not interested in.  Read on . . . 

A few weeks ago I was part of a conversation between Christian writers where we talked about some of our favorite authors and books.  As we got to know each other, we relaxed a bit and admitted that we liked to read darker material - Stephen King and Ted Dekker in particular.  Even if we (I mean, THEY) didn't stick with reading "scary stories", they all at least tried a few here and there.  (I say THEY because I always stick with scary stories - unless they aren't well written.)

Go back and really read that first paragraph - we only admitted that we liked darker stuff after we got to know each other and relaxed.  It seems that in Christian circles, we can't freely talk about how we are drawn* to the dark side of literature/film/television.  I have Christian friends who apologize for watching The Walking Dead just before we have wonderful conversations about the latest episode.  Same with watching Breaking Bad.  Why do we automatically think that if we're Christian we have to instantly turn our back on things of a darker nature?  Yes, Philippians 4:8 says, "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things."  But isn't good triumphing over evil good and true?  Isn't watching bad choices reap bad consequences right?  

Here's the next question - WHY are we drawn to them?  We know that they are dark.  We know that they are scary.  We know, and least in the "we = Christians", that they are not of God.  So why do we entertain them?

First, there's the old stand-by - we live in a fallen world.  It's our nature as fleshly human beings to wander away from God.  God gives us a choice whether or not to follow Him.  And we look at those other choices - even when have chosen to follow Him.  For me, though, it's not a "grass is always greener thing".  It's kind of a "wow, I'm glad I have the hope of Christ" thing.  I read books and see movies where characters make choices that I once would have (and sometimes did), but now that I know Christ and have His Word, I wouldn't make those choices.  For me, it's a "Whew!  Look what could have happened to me!"  (Yes, even in the fantasy/supernatural theme - "Whew!  I'm so glad that a scary man in my dreams can't REALLY kill me!  Uh, I'll just have one more cup of coffee.") 

Second, you have to admit that scares give you a thrill like a roller coaster!  No, you won't die, you're going to be perfectly safe.  You'll just FEEL like you're in danger.  A lot of the time that is true - you aren't in danger.  How many of us will be stalked by a serial killer or captured by a vampire or torn apart by a werewolf?  We read/watch things that maybe have a hint of truth or possibility (could I sell drugs to provide for my family?), but we know that it's all fantasy.  We know we'll walk out of the theater/close the book/turn off the TV alive and in one piece.  But the thrill is there.  It gets our blood pumping.** 

There's a third reason we like to enter into the scary realm.  We want to shine the light on the darkness and make sure that it really will go away.  Darkness cannot exist in the light - it can exist around a beam of light, but it cannot exist within that light.  We want to see the figurative of that statement. We want the light to win.  And we want to SEE that.  As Christians, we have the Bible that tells us that God wins in the end.  On a day to day basis, we may not see that as much as we want to.   We want to make sure that everything is going to be okay.  (And if it's not, we just leave the theater/close the book/turn off the TV and thank God that wasn't us!)  So we willingly enter the world and go along for the ride.  When we read a book or see a movie or watch a TV show, most of the time the good guys win - a few may not make it (#cough#thewalkingdead#cough#), but they die fighting for a purpose and their purpose prevails.***  It's satisfying.  We can sleep at night.  (Or maybe the next night.)

So now, we come to the latest scary movie out in theaters today:  The Conjuring.

I was sent to see The Conjuring by Grace Hill Media.  They are a PR and marketing firm established to reach "religious America".  They have sent me to several screenings of movies that are "family friendly" or movies that had a strong theme of God and morality.  So I was very surprised to see an e-mail from them offering a screening of The Conjuring.  Thrilled, yes!  But also surprised.

The Conjuring is a film about real-life couple Ed and Lorraine Warren.  They were/are (Ed passed away in 2006) paranormal investigators and demonologists.  This film chronicles their involvement with the Perron family - mom Carolyn, dad Roger and five daughters - and the spirits that inhabited the farmhouse they moved into in 1971.  It's a formulaic plot.  The Perrons are excited to move in, but the dog won't cross the threshold (don't get attached to the dog).  They start to feel things/smell things/see things.  It escalates.  They bring in help.  There's a final battle.  Yawn, right?  Wrong!!!

Director James Wan (Saw, Insidious) has impeccable timing.  He gives you the first BOO scare within five minutes and then he never lets you totally relax.  You let your guard down, yes, but you don't ever relax.  Just when you think that you know when/where the next scare is coming, he fools you.  I cannot tell you the last time I was in a movie theater and the entire room screamed like they did during The Conjuring.  We (the audience) would scream and then laugh - not because the scare was followed by a stupid joke or because we were embarrassed that we screamed, but just because we were having so much fun!  At one point the friend that I took with me nudged me and said, "How did my knees get up here?"  She had curled herself up on her seat.  Three minutes later, my knees were up, too.

In my opinion, the women characters dominate the story.  Patrick Wilson and Ron Livingston do a great job as Ed and Roger, respectively, but when I think back on the movie, it's the women who stand out as characters and actors.  I loved Vera Farmiga as Lorraine.  Lorraine is weak from a previous supernatural encounter that drained her, and Farmiga does a wonderful job of showing the strength that is wrapped in the fatigue.  She also has a calming presence even when she is not on screen.  It's almost as if you know that there is victory because Lorraine is involved.  I'm so glad to see Lili Taylor again.  She always brings a believability to her roles - from Say Anything to Dogfight to Ransom.  She doesn't disappoint here.  She is a mom who is scared, and who is desperate, but who is committed to her family and her home.  She will protect her girls from anything and the pain on her face when she realizes who she has to protect them from is heartbreaking.

The movie is rated R (another reason I raised my eyebrows when Grace Hill contacted me), but the rating is for intense horror, not sexual situations, nudity or language.  I appreciated that.  And it certainly deserves the R.  It was scary.  Walter Hamada, one of the producers, is quoted at saying,
“When we sent it [to MPAA], they gave us the R-rating. When we asked them why, they basically said, ‘It’s just so scary. [There are] no specific scenes or tone you could take out to get it PG-13.’”

It is one of the most terrifying movies I've seen in a long time - maybe even second to The Exorcist.  Creepy-scary, boo-scary and soul-scary.  A trifecta!  

And as a side note, I really appreciated the limited use of CG effects.  Real stuff is always scarier.

***Spoiler at the bottom***

*Yes, I said we are "drawn" to darker themes.  Why do you think we actively shun them?  Because we're interested.  I don't have to actively shun chicken livers.  I'm not interested.  I don't partake.  I don't even think about partaking.  However, I am VERY interested in chocolate.  I have to turn my head when a gluten-heavy chocolate cake is presented in my presence.  I have to actively think about how I would be miserable should I partake.  I think it's the same with darker subjects - some of us are drawn to them.
**I've worked at haunted houses - The Haunted Hotel in Beaumont and then The Nightmare Factory in Austin - and they do a ton of business.  People like to be scared.  Even though we had signs everywhere that the actors couldn't touch the guests, people ran screaming from each scene like they were being chased.  They willingly bought into the fantasy.  I've thought about this a lot and I think it's almost the same reason that people go to a comedy club - they WANT someone to entice strong emotions and reactions out of them.  People WANT to scream just as much as they WANT to laugh.  And they'll dare you to make them do either.  (But that is another post entirely - my tenure in horror as well as my tenure in comedy and how they are alike.)

***There is a trend of having the bad guys win, or making the bad guys the good guys for the purpose of the film, but that - again - is another post.  I'm not going to split hairs here.)  


The spoiler is that God wins.  Okay, it might not be a spoiler.  Most of the time in these types of movies, the evil force is defeated or at least squelched for a while.  Sometimes there's the promise that it will come back.  However, in this film, God wins.  Period.  The evil spirit is sent away through Ed speaking scripture over it and the love of Carolyn and Lorraine for the daughters.  The family leaves intact and the case is closed.  Yes, there is talk of a sequel.  But it is not going to be Bathsheba (the evil spirit) coming back and getting revenge.  It will be another case from the files of the Warrens.  (I think that they are already thinking of changing the name of the movie to The Warren Files: The Conjuring so that they can start a Warren Files franchise.)  God wins and Bathsheba is no more.   

Of course, I would have gone to see the movie even if Grace Hill hadn't sent me, but when I read the press release it just made me that much more excited to see a fresh take in a horror movie.  A quote from the press release:   

THE CONJURING was intended by screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes as a movie where “God wins.” “That was a non-negotiable for us,” Carey said. “We’re never going to glorify evil.” Added Chad: “We want people to feel great after seeing it. To be scared and entertained, of course, but to walk out of the theater with a good feeling because good, God, is victorious.” 

Indeed, Lorraine says to Ed quite a few times, "God put us together for a reason.  This is it."  It's nice to have Christians portrayed in a good light as good people who stand in the Truth and that Truth is victorious. 

So, in calling on the first part of this post, as a Christian I feel very confident in recommending this movie to friends - even Christian friends - WITHOUT and apology.  I even gave away my second set of free passes in the lobby of our church on Sunday morning.  ;-)

Movie Mama Millie says - YES!

I would love to hear what your take on why we love horror as well as your thoughts on the movie - if you go see it.  Just be warned - it's scary!

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