The Conjuring and the Darkness of Witchcraft

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  July 25, 2013 — 44 Comments

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.

The-Conjuring

“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?

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    Excellent article, Jason; thanks for covering this. I’ll simply add that this old Witch is almost always sound asleep at two o’clock in the morning. Sometimes I wish I had half the energy the xians seem to think Witches have.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Yeah, coven from midnight to two? Gimme a break…

      • Zan Fraser

        Actually there is a great deal of historical precedence for the idea of Witches meeting in groups (covens, if you will) between the hours of midnight until one or two or three in the morning: the Windsor Witches of the 1570s (the best historical example of Witches forming a coven, although they do not use that term) met at specified spots around Windsor Village around midnight; in Shakespeare’s play The Merry Wives of Windsor, the villagers dance a “customary dance” around Hern’s Oak from midnight until one in the morning (they are not Witches and this was apparently a tradition of the village, but the timing of midnight-until-one o’clock is notable); and Hamlet calls midnight “the very Witching time of the night.” I protest the notion that historical Witchcraft was always “evil,” but in England at least, there seems definitely to have been an idea that the hours around midnight were powerful for Magick-Working.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          Midnight: The Witching Hour.

          My thinking is that midnight may have been seen as a liminal time and such times are often considered to be where reality is ‘thinnest’.

          • Garrett

            Midnight is actually not “the witching hour.” That would be 3 AM. Christianity and Judaism often consider 3 AM the witching hour, because Jesus was supposedly crucified at 3 PM. Also, Friday the 13th is considered bad luck supposedly because it was the day he was crucified.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            As with any established folklore, there are various theories about them.

          • http://www.forgingthesampo.com/ Kauko

            Why would Judaism consider 3am the witching hour based on anything involving Jesus?

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          This 71-year-old witch is NOT convening Coven at midnight!

          • Wyrd Wiles

            I don’t know about what’s his name making the claim, but I have a job that requires me to be awake in the morning. I’ll not be summoning ANYTHING at Midnight+ in the morning lol.

          • Hecate_Demetersdatter

            Wyrd Wiles,

            Perzactly. If I’m up at two+ in the am, it’s, old woman that I am, to pee and head straight back to bed. Otherwise, I can’t get up at 6:00 am to treadmill, breakfast, commute, and produce prose for pay by 9:00 am. Younger and more energetic Witches are welcome to my two o’clock am slot. They can join the xians who are apparently up then worrying about whether or not they can croak “Jesus” out of their dry throats.

    • Northern_Light_27

      As a naturally nocturnal Pagan, I can attest to this too. I’d have been going to a lot more rituals if they’d been offered during my natural “day” instead of in late morning. I don’t exist at 11am, I *wish* there were midnight-2am rituals!

  • cernowain greenman

    “all the spirits gathered as a coven of witches. They had burning torches.” I wonder how they knew if was a “coven”? Were there 13 of them? What does a witch wear anyway? Can you tell a person is a witch by her torch? Did the spirits all convert to Witchcraft in the afterlife? Why would spirits want to become witches anyway?

    Seems to me they like to spin a yarn. Insert whatever word or idea that makes it sound scary. Why anyone believes them is beyond me.

  • Lady Raven Song

    This movie actually sparked a pretty positive conversation between me and my boyfriend. Him being agnostic knowing full well that I’m a “witch”, after watching the movie, he asked me if I believed in demons. I told him that yes I believe in dark entities that one might call demons. He then asked if I thought that meant there really was a heaven, hell, and Christian devil, and I told him no and explained about this world and the world beyond the veil and how even though there are dark entities out there that they don’t come from one place such as hell and then I proceeded to explain my views of death, life, rebirth, the afterlife and souls. I think most people who watch this movie will be intelligent enough to realize that “based on a true story” doesn’t equal absolutely 100% true and will not go out on their own “witch hunt”, the people who already fear witches will continue to do so whether they see this movie or not, and who knows maybe it will spark more positive discussions about what real witches actually do and believe. Oh and if you haven’t seen the movie yet, I recommend it, its a good scare without a bunch of gore, though some parts were uncomfortable to sit through such as when the Warrens talk about the past of the “ghost witch”.

    • mvlinn21

      Unfortunately, most people are NOT “intelligent enough to realize that “based on a true story” doesn’t equal absolutely 100% true and will not go out on their own “witch hunt””.
      I live in Wichita, KS, and I am surrounded bu Christians of all kinds. Believe me, the intolerant ones are already using this movie as “proof” that “all Witches worship Satan.” It’s sickening and backward. This movie was not scary at all. All the scary parts had already been shown in the commercials aired before the movie came out. I didn’t know who the Warrens were or I would not have paid a dime to see this POS. Two thumbs way down.

    • Jake

      You have way more faith in humanity than I do. It’s not the agnostics and atheists that I worry will take the wrong message from this, but the Christians who already believe in the spiritual warfare crap.

  • Dawn

    Why does everyone always “assume” it has to do with witchcraft? If anything, Christians are the ones who made up Satan and demons and possessions of human bodies. The devil is a Christian belief. Not a Pagan belief. We accept ALL religions, why can’t other religions do the same? Don’t be ignorant and just “assume” things you don’t understand. Research it, ask questions. That is how you learn. We don’t all have covens…Most of us are Solitary.

    • AnantaAndroscoggin

      Not only do most of them not care to learn about other people’s religions, far too many Christians never bother to learn much about their own religion.

      The Unexamined Life is a staple of the conservative and reactionary cannon fodder.

    • Alexa

      While Satan might be a Christian belief, ancient pagans most certainly did believe in “demons”. The Sumerians, and other Mesopotamian religions, had very specific beliefs on demons (or Udug, as they were specifically called). There are many different cultures that believed in demons, they were not a Christian creation.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        Agreed.

        The very word ‘demon’ comes from the Greek δαίμων (daimōn, “dispenser, god, protective spirit”).

        Ironically, some the of the first things to be demonised by the Christians were, in fact, ‘demons’.

  • Zan Fraser

    I just saw The Conjuring yesterday (the title alone should tell you something, as the “conjuring” in the movie unleashes such dark, malevolent forces); while its portrayal of “the Witch” is pretty retro, what struck me the most was its presentation of the Warrens as sort of paranormal super-heroes, fighting the “dark forces” of the supernatural: they keep a special room in their home, where various trophies from their various investigations are stored in something like the manner one would store plutonium (everything in the room, they say, is either “haunted, cursed, or had been used in some sort of ritualistic practice”; their small daughter is strictly forbidden from entering the room, which is blessed on a regular basis by a priest; their stockpiling of these objects is described as something akin to “keeping guns off the streets”). They claim that Witches will have babies to sacrifice to Satan, as this “elevates them in Satan’s eyes”; appear to keep rosaries as sort of supernatural weapons-of-power; believe that “God brought them together for a reason” (to fight the malevolent forces of the supernatural); say that they are fighting for the “soul” of the woman possessed by the evil Witch; and basically believe that anything supernatural is “demonic,” while “holy objects” such as crucifixes and rosaries serve almost like Green Lantern’s ring, as talismans to oppose such “unholy forces.” The Conjuring is much like The Exorcist, removed to a haunted house, with the Devil replaced by the spirit of a devil-Worshipping Witch. The movie is notable in that it is a very, very modern throwback to an almost medieval way of looking at “the Craft of Witches” as something that must be opposed and overthrown by the Catholic faith.

  • Luminous_Being

    Most of the time I don’t think it serves any purpose for us to get mad about witch films because they tap into the same folklore that we do rather than trying to represent us. This is different; I do see the argument that it is in poor taste to depict witch craze victims as actual brides of Satan as this film and the recent Season of the Witch do. That would be like a film depicting the Holocaust as the Nazi’s attempt to save the world from Gypsies who turn into werewolves or to stop the Jewish population from summoning a world-destroying Golem. I wouldn’t stomach those so I can see the argument against this.

    I don’t want evil witches to be off limits for all films though… Anjelica Huston anyone?

    • Jessica

      I agree. I’ve seen other Pagans get all up in a tizzy about the Marvel Thor, Beautiful Creatures, The Covenant, Charmed, etc. The way I look at it these films are not depicting US, they are depicting tales and spinning them. I figure there are much worse things going on out there against Pagans that I’ll worry about, there’s no sense in wasting energy on being irritated that the ladies from Charmed can’t use a pendulum right to save their lives. However something like this movie is a differant matter. I was thinking of going to see it (I love horror movies), but I didn’t know what it was about. I rarely watch commercials for horror movies anymore because it ruins the film. I’m glad I read this however. I’m sure the film would have just upset me. I hate it when people put out crap like this under the guise of “Based on”, as there are people out there who think that because of that it is a full true story. I always want to tell people that if it were the “true” story it would be a documentary, not a movie.

    • Charles Cosimano

      I think in a few decades, maybe fewer, there will be a film depicting the Holocaust as an heroic attempt to stop golems and werewolves.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        Thinking about it, it’d probably make more sense if the werewolves were trying to stop the golem. (Consider that lycanthropy was used as a curse from YHWH to Nebuchadnezzar II – he of Isaiah 14:12-5 fame.)

    • Genexs

      Well said. But Golem & the Nazi’s? Sound like the plot of “The Keep”. :)

  • Evan Camomile

    As a Pagan friendly Satanist (Hi there!) this is silly on many levels. I already know how the notion that Paganism leads to Satanism is absurd but confusing Satanism with Devil-Worship is equally ignorant. This film does both, but haven’t we seen this constantly across the horror genre?

    The film is simply Christian propaganda, and the work of people who don’t want to see their medieval worldview replaced, but that’s nothing new. At best, talking about how incorrect the film is can educate the public one by one. Stay strong and carry on.

    • Pip Geraghty

      I totally agree. I was born into a chatholic family and was a practicing Catholic till i got too good at it, and took up Paganism.
      Blessed Be and may your God go with you.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

    There is an irony here, at least for those who keep up with current scholarship on historical Witchcraft. The irony is this: the description of historical Witchcraft by the Warrens is considerably more accurate that the view of Witchcraft currently promulgated by many of the leading scholars in the field, including, for examples, Owen Davies, Wofgang Behringer, Erick Midlefort, and many others. Those scholars insist that historical Witchcraft was purely malefic both in terms of the intentions of its practitioners, and in how it was viewed by non-Witches. The Warrens, however, are absolutely correct in their view that Witchcraft has always been associated with beneficial magic (again, both in terms of the intention of practitioners and in how Witches were viewed historically by non-Witches). But it is of course quite true that just as those who understand basic chemistry can use that knowledge to cause both harm and good, those who are proficient in Magick possess the power to cause harm, as well as benefit, through Magick.

  • Franklin Evans

    I prefer to apply Occam’s Razor: witches met at midnight — a usage originally used to designate the mid-point between dusk and dawn, much like Midsummer — because it was the least likely time they would be discovered by others.
    I leave it to the storyspinners to speculate about what they were doing. I prefer to assume they were simply practicing traditional ways away from the hostile eyes of their Christian conquerors. Shrug.

  • AnantaAndroscoggin

    These reactionary-type freaks stare at themselves in the mirror for days, and then they set off to accuse everybody they don’t like of the very things they themselves wish to perpetrate. May the deity they pretend to worship judge them by the very self-same criteria they apply to others.

  • PurplePagan

    G-g-g-g-g-ghost witch! Zoinks, Scooby!

    Really? Has anyone tried to perform a ritual carrying a torch? It’s a bugger! One hand for the torch, one for the athame and one to hold the sacrificial apple still. Not easy for bipeds.

    Lorraine Warren is one flying buttress short of a full Cathedral, maybe more.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      You’re doing it wrong. Place the apple between the clenched buttocks of your virgin. You will find that much easier. :p

    • DaBroad

      “[o]ne flying buttress short of a full Cathedral”. Gotta remember that.

  • Raven Rin

    I also think it’s important to point out that the Warrens have been sued and found guilty of fraud in some cases concerning their “true” encounters with the paranormal. Type “Lorraine Warren sued for fraud” in any search engine. Some of their biggest cases that they’ve confirmed as “genuine” have been proven hoaxes which they were in on. Her guest appearances on Paranormal State where what prompted those who didn’t already to scrutinize the show to the point that they had to admit much of the show was doctored or flat out made up.

  • Pip Geraghty

    Firstly, I must say that I am a Pagan, a Witch. I have not seen the movie or read the book but, I don’t watch movies or read books of this ilk because they all do the same thing; they have a beginning, a middle and an end. They all tell more or less the same old Bigoted attitude and thus portray a false representation of what Witchcraft is all about, Yes there are people that do what we call negativity but these people either ignor or do not know about the lore of Witchcraft which is said at the end of all workings, “AN IT HARM NONE”.

    As for Witchcraft and Satanism, the two have only one simularity; they are both relgions. Witchcraft deals with the good of everyone and Satanism is a sigular religion, as in it’s about themselves; which is fine for them in the sense that they work for themselves but, they don’t promote the idea that they wish harm on anyone else. We must also remember that Witches were the first midwives, herbalists and Doctors for the want of better terminoligy.

    Paganism for me is a religion that is native to the country in which it is practiced, meaning, it is an indiginous religion, be it in England, South America, Australia or New England. The Lady Gaia, Mother Earth is the basis for the religion, She provides everything that we as a species need, Water, Vegitation and meat ect, there is and always has been enough to feed all ; the unfortunate side of it all is, man is inherantly greedy and always wants more than he has. Our religion is female, we have multiple Goddesses and Gods, for without the female there would not be any males. You cannot have the Ying without the Yang for the two go hand in hand.

    Wicca is a relativly new religion based on Whichcraft and is praticed for the good of everyone. We tollorate other religions not becuase we were here first or ours is the right path but, if our religion is important to us then we must remember that other religions are important to those that have chosen that path, no matter which path that may be.

    Blessed Be. Pip

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      ‘An it harm none’ is from Wicca, not Witchcraft. It might seem like a semantic distinction, but it is an important one.

  • MeganIsHere

    Since no one has mentioned it yet, Bryan Fischer’s “demonic” account sounds exactly like the symptoms of sleep paralysis, a completely mundane (yet undoubtedly terrifying) experience.

    • PurplePagan

      Here’s an amusing precis of Mr Fischer’s interests. FWIW. :)

      http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Bryan_Fischer

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      I had considered that one, myself.

      Of course, sleep paralysis is a far less interesting story than ‘I got jumped by a sex-demon’.

    • http://www.forgingthesampo.com/ Kauko

      I used to get frequent sleep paralysis back in my teens- I had no idea what it was back then, though- and it’s definitely terrifying and very easy to confuse with something supernatural.

  • NoBodE

    I have not and will not see this movie. I don’t care for this genre. I would like to recommend a very good show on the Witch trials that ran on the History channel titled “Salem:Unmasking the Devil”. It shines light on things that the xians DO NOT want illuminated. I found it not only interesting but also a very likely explanation.

  • Christian Day

    Thank you, Jason, for addressing this issue so well. I’ve loved many of the big bad Witches of Hollywood and seldom get up in arms about them, but this film is cloaked in a number of purported truths that could potentially hurt Witches. As you’ve shown above, it’s already being used as a teaching tool by those who despise our ways. If Amityville’s lasting legacy is any indication, I worry about the longterm effects that that this film may have.

  • Sonny Gardner

    I first encountered the Warrens as a teen on the old Fangoria “documentary” video on Satanism & Witchcraft from back in the 80’s which featured some personalities from the NYC occult scene like Herman Slater from The Magickal Child and Lady Rhea of Enchantments, plus some old footage of LaVey, Hans Holzer, some Satanic priest named Valentine… and the Warrens. Even as a teen I could smell the b.s. through my t.v. screen when they featured the Warrens doing their thing. They were/are either dangerously deluded or total frauds (likely somewhere in-between).

    I’m not gonna try and state what Witchcraft is or isn’t as people reading this are likely from many different backgrounds and traditions and I’m not about to preach to the choir. But, IT’S A MOVIE…! Maybe a good one even (Diamanda Galas did some vocalizations for the film)! I’ll see it when it comes around, AND ‘The Lords of Salem’ too! WHY? I like horror, supernatural, occult thrillers. They’re fun. ‘Aradia Gospel of the Witches’ (a cornerstone of modern Witchcraft – Pagan revival) names Lucifer as Diana’s brother / lover / consort without ever making him into an evil being. He is the Light-Bringer (Apollo). Aradia as the witchy messiah daughter of Diana saves the poor pagan people from their oppressors (xians). We are children of magick, of twilight; we dance between the Light & the Darkness. We do no harm but take no sh:*#!

  • Russell Erwin

    Kudos here too Jason. Very informative and timely.