Over decades, the film industry has both embraced and abused the haunted house cliché. It would be all to easy to consider this trope to be overused and played-out, yet, there is something that keeps brining it back to the forefront. This is why an established horror director like James Wan pounced on the opportunity to direct The Conjuring (2013). There is something that keeps pulling us back to this simple horror premise. Haunted houses and demonic possessions exist in the deepest darkest corners of the human psyche.
In good ghost stories, something visceral and unrelenting hides directly in the fabric of our safest place. It threatens children in their beds when we they are most vulnerable. Evil spirits destroy the lives of their subjects, tearing apart relationships and often possessing family members. Most importantly this evils seeps from every crack and crevice of the very same place that the family goes for protection. This omnipresence burrows deep in our fabric and culture and to this day it remains inextricable from our storytelling.
Around the 2000s, the haunted house theme began to suffer a bit of a malaise as the horror-remake-engine began to crank at full force. The full weight of remakes, CGI and the rise of jump-scares threatened to sully the proud history of the haunted horror film. I am looking at you House on Haunted Hill (1999), 13 Ghosts (2001) and Amityville Horror (2005). When James Wan directed the 2013 release, The Conjuring, audiences held some skepticism. Fortunately the trailers had me enthused enough to take the chance. Minimally, The Conjuring screenplay, written by Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes, offers fresh content rather than another Hollywood retread.
The film beings with a sub-plot. Ed and Lorraine Warren, well known Paranormal Investigators, relay the story of a possessed doll named Annabelle to a University class. Annabelle houses an ancient demonic force. Having investigated the case, the Warren’s ultimately take possession of the doll for their occult museum. Even a marginally acute horror radar indicates that we will be seeing more of Annabelle. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play the roles of Ed and Lorraine.
The main plot begins in 1971 when the Perron family moves to greener pastures after procuring a remote farmhouse in a bank auction. The house needs some work, but this young family proves ready to take on the challenge. Ron Livingston of Officespace fame plays the role of Roger. Lili Taylor, who would later play Verna Sawyer in Leatherface (2017), portrays Carolyn. Immediately upon moving in, the family begins to encounter strange occurrences. The clocks stop at 3:07 AM every morning and birds kamikaze against the exterior walls of the home. Almost immediately, the family dog inexplicably dies.
3:07 AM? Has anyone ever wondered what ghosts do during daylight savings time?
Quickly, the events escalate in severity. Children are pulled form beds. Pictures fly from the walls. Carolyn beings to see visions and unexplained bruises appear on her arms and body. Fearing for their safety, the Perron’s make a plea to the Warrens to investigate their home. The Warren’s find horrifying answers that ultimately lead the Perron’s into a head-on conflict with demons to survive.
The Art of the Haunted House
The Conjuring summary clearly shows that great haunted house films care little about plot. In fact, by simply switching out the names we could be talking The Amityville Horror (1979) or The Haunting in Connecticut (2009). What really drives a good haunted house story is the art of the scare. If the director can artfully suspend the audience by threads of dread and apprehension, they can punctuate those with an terrifying release. Done properly, these ebbs and throes enthrall an audience. This all sounds so simple, but unfortunately it’s exactly why so many directors fail miserably.
James Wan demonstrates deep understanding of how to combine these techniques. Understanding the push and pull of building and releasing tension makes Wan better than most at his craft. In fact, when he does this properly he creates nearly as much fear simply by building tension and feigning a release . The nuance is subtle, but it is something Andrew Douglas missed in his 2005 remake of The Amityville Horror. Whereas Douglas asked “how MANY jump scares make a haunted house?”, James Wan asked “what about jump scares make a haunted house?”
Without revealing too much, James Wan really goes after the finale by cranking the tension into a crescendo that pits the bowels of hell against a man’s love for his wife and his own desire to protect his children. The climax is genuinely terrifying and Lily Taylor once again stuns with her versatility as both an protective mother and the definition of pure evil. It’s a tale about demonic possession that rivals all but the The Exorcist (1973) and so much more than James Brolin running back to 112 Ocean Avenue to save Harry.
Brilliantly, this film seems to have been built with the franchise in mind from the outset. First, New Line Cinema introduces the real-life ghostbusting duo of Ed and Lorraine Warren. In doing so they, New Line established a lineage of supernatural artifacts to explore in the same way that James Wan’s Saw (2004) introduced a never-ending supply of gory murder puzzles for unwitting victims. Anyone with business aptitude knew implicitly that an Annabelle sequel would quickly follow. Congratulations to New Line Cinema for their solid horror franchise architecture. They have a solid business model if you ask me.
Claims that The Conjuring treads old ground do ring true. James Wan did not reinvent the haunted house or the techniques that drive them. In the same way that a master chef doesn’t invent his ingredients, James Wan simply assembled the proper quantities and let is simmers into a wonderful stew of horror. With The Conjuring, James Wan also proves to the world that his skills transcend the narrow bands of torture porn. Although, his first Saw movie really didn’t qualify as torture porn in my book.
Haunted House stories permeate our culture and our folklore. If we are to live with this perpetual drive to not only create, but also consume these stories, we need to them to be good. For I while I genuinely thought that good haunted house stories were slowly dying from poor direction, CGI overload and lazy jump scares. James Wan reinvigorated the haunted house story and demonstrated the art of the scare. I can only hope that his contemporaries take note.