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THE CONJURING and the Specter of the Seventies

THE CONJURING and the Specter of the Seventies

Editor’s Note: This piece contains statements that could, loosely, be construed as spoilers, but honestly, they’re phrased in a way that won’t make the film any less scary, so let’s all just relax, okay? Read the piece, which is, after all, about slightly more elevated things than what’s BOO! scary in the film.

James Wan’s The
is that rare thing: a contemporary horror film that doesn’t
suck.  Critics and audiences seem to
agree on this point, and I hope that the film’s minimal use of digital effects
and focus on good acting, effective story-telling, and dramatic mood-setting
will be imitated by other makers of horror films.  Such qualities once stood, not as the
exception, but as the rule in horror film production, and Wan’s film pays
homage to the genre’s great era, the 1970s. 
Set in 1971, The Conjuring is
haunted, not only by the demon tormenting the Perron family in their rural Rhode
Island home, but by the specter of an era that disturbingly resembles our own.

Rising unemployment and inflation, soaring gas prices, oil
spills in the Gulf of Mexico, nuclear accidents, rising gun violence,
terrorism, and divisive party politics: these constituted daily life in the
1970s as they do today.  Yet unlike
today, the films of the era reflected these grim experiences, offering
audiences a chance to see their fears and anxieties brought to gritty life on
the screen.  Certainly the period had its
share of escapist films, but unlike today, these did not dominate the
Cineplex.  The period was also less
attached to that most clichéd of plot devices: the happy ending.  But while The
succumbs to this temptation somewhat, it remains haunted by the
dark forces of the past the film has unleashed.

Tellingly, these dark forces reside in an archive kept by
the paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.  Based on the actual husband and wife team who
investigated over 10,000 hauntings, including the Amityville Horror, they are
marvelously portrayed by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, who accurately convey
the zealous, sober earnestness that attended unexplained phenomena in the
70s.  As a kid I devoured the seemingly
endless documentaries produced for theatrical release by studios like Sunn
Classic Pictures, responsible for such “classic pictures” as The Outer Space Connection, The Mysterious Monsters, and The Bermuda Triangle.  It was a great time to grow up, when there
seemed to be a whole lot of adults who believed in the same fairy tales you
did.  In The Conjuring, the Warrens look like 70s televangelists, but
instead of a desperate studio audience, they preach to audiences of college
students, who listen to their lectures with rapt attention, and all
simultaneously raise their hands for questions at the end. 

The real-life Warrens continue to maintain an occult museum
in the back of their Connecticut home. Its portrayal in The Conjuring remains
one of the film’s more potent images, part Ray Bradbury-esque curio emporium,
part small town museum.  All of the
objects stored there are cursed or possessed by spirits, and the Warrens keep
them there for the rest of the world’s protection.  The most terrifying of these is a grotesque
doll (is there any other kind in horror films?) named Annabelle, whose story
serves as a kind of prelude to the Perron family haunting.  Her sinister grin and lifeless features serve
as reference points to a host of haunted manikins, from the Zuni warrior doll hunting Karen Black in Trilogy of Terror (1975),
to Anthony Hopkins’ malign
ventriloquist’s dummy in Magic (1978), to the evil clown in Poltergeist (1982), not to mention Chucky and his seemingly endless
(and, frankly, not very scary) brood from the Child’s Play franchise.  Annabelle
serves as an emblem of the film, which itself is a kind of archive of past horrors
not entirely put to rest.

The Conjuring is
very much a period piece.  Polyester and
plaid play a significant role in the costuming, The Brady Bunch plays on the television, and the film texture is
slightly grainy, with the muted palette and natural lighting distinctive to seventies
cinema.  As such, it takes its place as
part of a growing list of recent films set in the period, including Zodiac, No Country for Old Men, Super
, Argo, and key sections of Cloud Atlas. These films project a
common picture of the 1970s, as a decade,rife with random violence, Byzantine
politics, and unexplained phenomena: in other words, the weird decade. 

This is a truer picture than the one conveyed by the
period’s better-known denomination, the “me decade.”  It has always seemed to me a gross injustice
that the period in which women’s and gay rights issues emerged into political
and social life, along with widespread recognition of gross disparities in the
American economy and the way those disparities served to broaden racial and
class differences, would be given such a selfish sobriquet.  That name would better be given to the decade
that followed, when right wing leaders like Reagan, Bush, and Thatcher pandered
to business interests, fostering a culture based on greed rather than
community.  In their various ways,
contemporary films that return to the seventies share a mutual preoccupation
with the darker underpinnings of the period, and how it might serve as a guide
to our own.  We are left with the legacy
of the eighties’ political and economic injustices—renewed and deepened in the
second Bush era—but we seem to have lost the shared sense of anger, frustration
and fear that characterized the seventies, and that was reflected in the era’s

And yet The Conjuring falls
short of fully realizing such possibilities. 
The moral of the story ultimately rests on a conservative affirmation of
the power of religion and of family.  The
Warrens marshal the same Christian forces that defeated the demon haunting
Linda Blair in The Exorcist (1973),
enhanced by the powerful maternal feelings of the demon’s host, Carolyn
Perron.  This triumph of Christian family
values is buttressed by Lili Taylor’s portrayal of Carolyn as a bland, almost
childish mother of five (!), who blithely accepts her husband’s long periods of
absence on his trucking runs, smilingly managing the large household
alone.  This is a family portrait rather
out-of-sync with the age of Gloria Steinem, Maude,
and the E.R.A. While Taylor’s Stepford
-like behavior lends an effective character arc for her later
possession—and there is a certain subversive tension in her being possessed by
a witch who killed her own child—the blithe ending seems to foreclose on these
more intriguing possibilities, effectively replacing the values of the
seventies with those of the eighties and the Moral Majority.

But in the last scene of the film, we return to the Warrens’
occult museum, where Ed places a haunted music box from which all of the occult
mayhem emerged.  The sinister music
box—an abiding horror trope used to haunting effect in such films as The Innocents, Deep Red, and The Ring—as
if its melody weren’t scary enough, contains a pop-up clown, possible sibling
to Annabelle grinning evilly in the museum’s corner, effigy of the girl doll
who fought back.  This music box contains
a mirror that might serve as another emblem for The Conjuring. When we look in it we see a distorted reflection of
what’s behind us.  Wan’s film conjures
the sense of unease and violence that permeates our memories of the seventies
and seemingly puts them to rest.  But the
grinning doll doesn’t look like she wants to stay put.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

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No I completely understood that from your last paragraphs. Well written article. And I agree that the film's heart is in the right place. I love The House of The Devil, Kill List, Martyrs, The Last Winter and Red, White and Blue. These are the horror films that are getting less attention than they deserve and it is so sad.


This film had a real chance to dig up the 70's and show it in all its glory. The family was bland as could be. Livingston was woefully miscast and the kids are interchangeable. Friedkin took time to plant seeds of a family in decline, a child ripe for possession and teenage angst etc. This film over-explained everything and the period dress/music was foregrounded to laughable proportions. I liked the doll and the imagery of coming its hair was effective, as was the final exorcism but everything was a bit too tied up at the end.

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