One of the best of the current spate of occult films is James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013), which opened to critical acclaim and the distinction of being rated “R” simply for its terrifying sequences (on which promise, in my view, it certainly delivered).
One notable characteristic of occult horror is its seeming resistance to socio-political meanings. After all, it translates its principal conflict to the afterworld: human characters are beset by ghosts, demons and poltergeists—often forces of uncomplicated “Evil”—not by more recognizable and more complicated “evils” of this world. The “dark entity” in The Conjuring, for instance, simply wants the unoffending Perron family dead. Articulating what seems true of occult films in general, Douglas Kellner writes of Poltergeist that it “deflect[s] people’s legitimate fears onto irrational forces.”[i]
Often though, the stark battle between good and evil, innocent and demonic, is, in fact, mapped onto socio-political-economic anxieties (”legitimate fears”), albeit more buried, perhaps, than in some other horror films. When I recently taught The Conjuring, one of my students claimed that he “thought of abortion the entire time he was watching it” (thanks, Michael!)[ii] His comment was one of those brilliant remarks that suddenly made me re-think the entire film: it was a reading that made sense. Yes, The Conjuring is about abortion.
Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingstone) have five children—and one of the first things we hear Roger say is that they need to finish up the pizza because “it’s expensive feeding you girls.” The Perrons clearly have money trouble: Roger, a long-distance truck driver, struggles to get jobs, and when they find out their house is inhabited by dark forces, they have no choice but to stay. They can’t move (as the Lamberts do in Insidious—not that it does them any good) because all their money is “tied up in the house.”
The last thing the Perrons seem to need is a new mouth to feed, and so it’s perhaps telling that what kicks off the haunting is Carolyn and Roger’s “christening” of their new house on the night they move in. Carolyn asks Roger what he did to her when she wakes up and finds bruises on her body—and then she discovers the clocks have stopped and the dog is dead. Sex is at the origin of what goes wrong.
What follows is, first, a general malevolence directed toward the Perron girls and then the possession of Carolyn in order to make her kill her children. It “possesses the mother to kill the child,” becomes the refrain of Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson), who enter the film to try to dispossess the house and then Carolyn of the demon. The demon has a history of killing children, beginning in the 1860s when Bathsheba Sherman sacrificed her baby, proclaimed her love for Satan, cursed anyone who took her land, and then hung herself from a tree. Years later, a woman who lived in the house in the 1930s killed her son. While in some ways, Bathsheba herself seems to be the possessing force (and does try to possess Carolyn), she is in fact just a vessel for something beyond herself, something older; she herself is related, we’re told, to a woman who was hung for a witch at Salem—and the line could go back further.
This demonic force, I would suggest, is not one woman who gave herself to Satan (Bathsheba) but is a more impersonal and destructive maternal drive that is directed at children. While the film plays out, overtly, as a struggle between Bathsheba’s efforts to possess Carolyn, and the latter’s efforts to resist by drawing on her reserves of maternal love, covertly the film is about Carolyn’s inner struggle: she might be pregnant again; does she want another child when they’re already teetering on the financial brink?
Tellingly, Carolyn succumbs to Bathsheba one afternoon when she’s lying in bed (where she and Roger earlier had sex); like any mother of five, she’s tired and grabs the one single chance she’s had to be alone, ever, that we’ve seen. Immediately after the possession—Carolyn rushes to the bathroom and vomits. The “possession” coincides with what certainly seems like the sickness that is a tell-tale early sign of pregnancy.
The Conjuring is set in 1971—and abortion wasn’t legalized by Roe v. Wade until 1973—which makes the scenes in which Ed and Lorraine try to exorcise the demon in the Perrons’ cellar seem uncannily like an illegal abortion. Roger tells Ed he’s not qualified before he begins and then yells, “You’ve got to stop. You’re killing her,” during the violent procedure to rip out what inhabits Carolyn, at the visual center of which is a bloody sheet.
Carolyn’s destructive drive escalates to out-and-out infanticide, as she tries to kill her youngest child, April—and as she does so the film itself seems to drive toward the idea that only a thin line separates abortion and infanticide.
That the film makes so much—almost nauseatingly much—of Carolyn’s love for her children is merely the sign of all that’s being repressed. “How could a mother kill her own child?” Carolyn asks Lorraine. That dark question hovers in the air as Lorraine (also a mother) and Carolyn look at the photograph of Carolyn and her family, which Lorraine will later urge Carolyn to remember as she casts out “Bathsheba.” But it’s not really Bathsheba that grips Carolyn: it’s the force that knows why a mother would kill her own children, a knowing is so unthinkable it must be cast as an external entity that possesses her utterly against her will.
Occult horror is necessary, perhaps, precisely because it does seem so apolitical. We need the demonic because sometimes it’s the only way some ideas can be expressed. Infanticide is one of those ideas, and, in this film, abortion gets swept up along with infanticide—leaving us to wonder whether The Conjuring is an anti-abortion horror film.
[i] Douglas Kellner, “Poltergeist: Suburban Ideology,” Jump Cut 28 (April 1983).
[ii] Definitely credit goes to Michael Harrison for this idea. I hadn’t thought of it before—and it doesn’t seem to have come up in reviews/criticism of the film yet.