Yesterday I highlighted a scathing review at Salon.com of new horror-thriller “The Conjuring.” Critic Andrew O’Hehir found the Salem witch-trials subplot to be tasteless revisionism, despite admiring the film’s creepy construction.
“Here’s the real ‘true story’ behind “The Conjuring”: Any time people get worked up about a menace they believe in but can’t actually see – demons, Commies, jihadis, hordes of hoodie-wearing thugs — they’re likely to take it out on the weakest and most vulnerable people in society [....] along with the overall tone of hard-right family-values messaging, “The Conjuring” wants to walk back one of America’s earliest historical crimes, the Salem witch trials of 1692, and make it look like there must have been something to it after all. Those terrified colonial women, brainwashed, persecuted and murdered by the religious authorities of their day – see, they actually were witches, who slaughtered children and pledged their love to Satan and everything! That’s not poetic license. It’s reprehensible and inexcusable bulls***.”
It’s just a dumb subplot in a scary film, right? Historically shoddy movies are far from a new invention, so why bother even critiquing it? But the catch, the problem, centers on the hook of this being a “true” story, and the media subtext that is gently emerging concerning “witches” and “dark” powers. For example, The Blaze interviews Andrea Perron, one of the daughters who lived in the house when Ed and Lorraine Warren came to bust some ghosts back in the 1970s, and she says the scariest part was left out of the film.
“I’m really glad that they didn’t include all of the stories, because I think that people would find it unbelievable [...] One of them is the night that my mother laid beside my father in bed and all the spirits gathered as a coven of witches. They had burning torches.”
A coven of demonic ghost witches? You’re right, it does seem somewhat unbelievable. However, this tidbit was enough to get fringe Christian froth-er Bryan Fischer to share a little story about witches on his radio program.
“Covens, and there are covens, these are clusters of witches that meet, they’ll start meeting at midnight, they’ll break up at 2-o-clock, 3-o-clock in the morning, and they will send demonic spirits out on assignments against their chosen targets. One night, 2-o-clock in the morning, I’m awakened by something grabbing my ankle. It never happened to me before, never happened to me since, but something grabbed my ankle and was trying to pull me out of the bed. I realized immediately what it was, I knew I needed to say the name Jesus, I tried, his name got stuck in my throat! They tried to keep me from saying the name Jesus, when I was finally able to say the name of Jesus it broke, went away, and it was lifted.”
Fischer reinforces this idea as not only true, but something that happens today with living witches. As for the prime sources of this true story, Ed and Lorraine Warren, they have a, shall we say, complex relationship with the notion of witchcraft. Here’s a quote from Lorraine Warren in the book “The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed and Lorraine Warren.”
“Wicca – or witchcraft – is 4,000 years old, often called the ‘Old Religion’ because it predates both Judaism and Christianity. People who practice Wicca are known as white witches, and worship Mother Earth. They manipulate natural forces for positive results – healing, good luck, lasting love, and bountiful harvests. After that, however, you digress into gray witchcraft, black witchcraft, and Satanism. This is where problems develop because witchcraft goes both ways and can be used to bring about positive or negative ends.”
After that brief disclaimer-of-sorts about “white” Witchcraft, the Warrens proceed to expound at length about the dangers of witchcraft, and how it opens you to Satanic possession.
“Nowadays, lone individuals performing rites gleaned form a drugstore paperback may not be prepared for the ghastly reality often bound, by what Ed calls cosmic law, to confront them.”
So we’re back to the idea of witchcraft as doorway to Satanic/demonic powers. That positive “white” Witchcraft is simply the bright side to a two-faced coin. A spectrum from good-to-evil that we’re tied to, no matter our own theologies or beliefs.
The promotional hype for this film has been built around Lorraine Warren’s input, and this story being true. Outreach to Christian media has been ongoing and thorough, with Warren’s demure gloves being taken off somewhat for this niche audience.
“If I could only explain to people how not to get involved in certain things where the occult is concerned. I [wish] I could explain that to them [...] the only way to protect yourself is through your faith. … If I could only get over that hill for people to understand that if they had faith and they witness all of these [demonic encounters] that they could call on God and ask for his protection. That’s really my goal.”
As for the filmmakers, Chad and Carey Hayes, they are fine invoking spiritual warfare rhetoric to sell tickets.
“The Hayes brothers describe themselves as “Christians” without wanting to go into further labels or detail, and they’re convinced of the reality of demonic forces and spiritual warfare. ‘For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms,’ Chad Hayes said, easily quoting from the New Testament Book of Ephesians. [...] ‘We’re 100 percent aware of the reality that there is darkness and there is light,’ Carey Hayes said. ‘We’ve seen it. We’ve witnessed it.’ ‘We’ve seen things,’ Chad chimed in, ‘that I wish we never saw.’”
The truth is that the film, in constructing its (by all accounts compelling) ghost story, tapped into source material that has deeply problematic attitudes about the idea of witchcraft. Attitudes that fuel a specific Christian view of spiritual reality, and casts the occult as part of a dualistic sinister world that can only lead to horror if one “dabbles” for too long. Witch-hunting revisionism, mixed with Christian spiritual warfare, leads to nowhere good if left unexamined. I hope that with this new influx of attention, more people take a critical eye at the Warrens’ work, and that the memes of destructive witchcraft, of non-Christian spiritual forces being demonic, are deflated in the process.
A scary film, in isolation, is nothing to worry about. A scary film that taps into deep wells of fear and misinformation to sell tickets? As Christian Day says, “this film has the potential to have a real legacy,” but will it be a legacy we don’t wish to see propagated?