I conjure you, by that which you profess-Macbeth
George Orwell said rightly that, "all art is propaganda." The obverse, all propaganda is art, is patently not true.
Horror films aren't on many people's list of modern art anyway. But they should be. From Murnau's Nosferatu to Carpenter's The Thing, they can soar over the limitation of genre and say something universal about the human experience, especially its darkest corners.
The summer surprise hit, The Conjuring, is not one of those films. It not only fails as art, it enlists as part of the cultural guerilla war on women and, seemingly so the general public's misunderstanding of the historical witch panics can grow, it suggests that the victims of Puritan persecution in Salem more or less got what they deserved.
As Andrew O'Hehir shows in an excellent critique of the film, Brothers Chad and Carey Hayes have been very open about the religious content of their demon fest. The Conjuring entered theatres with a Warner Bros. backed, faith-based marketing campaign to churches and religious groups. This may have worked. Horror films that pop up this time of year seem to disappear in the haze of the mid-summer heat. The Conjuring made $41 million dollars its first weekend, outperforming all the typical superhero/giant robot/zombie blockbuster fare.
The brothers Hayes (also the writers behind the '90s Baywatch spinoff, Baywatch Nights tell the story of a New England farmhouse, and ultimately a young woman, possessed by demonic spirits. Ed and Lorraine Warren (based on a real pair of Satan sleuths that ran something called the New England Center for Psychic Research) are the heroes of the piece, putting their Christian faith fully on display, along with a set of neo-traditional attitudes about marriage, the role of religion in society and the power of faith.
It's a film with a workmanlike charm. The acting is frankly terrific and overcomes a problematic script. It entertains us with a view scares and doesn't have to resort to blood and guts to achieve it.
The Conjuring's conservative politics are mostly implicit. Its historical revisionism, on the other hand, is all up in our grills. We learn that the persecuted people of 17th century New England were not, in fact, victims of religious fanaticism. They were Satanists who presumably got exactly what they deserved. The Crucible, and generations of historiography, has gotten it all wrong.
Salem is only the most well known American slaughter of at the hands of the demon-obsessed. Conservative estimates of the victims of the trans-Atlantic witch-hunts in the early modern world come in at around 50,000 people. Women made up about 80 percent of those victims.
Some might see this a historical nit-picking that historians too often bring to the theatre. In fact, It's about the history of victims who can't speak for themselves. It's also about our religious and cultural obsession with women as conduits for evil. Western Christianity has played this dangerous game since St. Augustine (and arguably since the origins of the urban societies and the consequent growth of patriarchal systems of control).
And we still do, especially since the explosion of what we might call "religious horror" films since the early '70s. Young women, on the verge or just crossing into their sexuality, are the favorite houses for demons to haunt. The demonic stories we tell each other about men are few and far between.
I'm in no way suggesting that horror films cannot deal with matters of faith. Quite the opposite-they do all the time. The roots of the horror tradition are steeped in a Christian ethos. The emergence of gothic literature owes something to the sense that Christianity had gone into decline in the rationalistic atmosphere of the enlightenment and that the supernatural could and should come roaring back. It's impossible to imagine either Shelley's Frankenstein or Stoker's Dracula with Christianity as foundational myth or sparring partner.
Recent horror has followed much the same trajectory. The Exorcist contains a deeply conservative religious message, one that trumpets the power of the Church over modern medicine and psychiatry. Father Karras, in some respects an archetypal Vatican II era priest who studied psychiatry at "Harvard Belvue, places like that", recovers his flagging faith through his encounter with evil.
Perhaps even more terrifying are the cultural and gendered politics of film. Ellyn Burstyn's character plays the single mother of the possessed girl. Seventies cinema was filled with acrimony between divorcing spouses, reflecting the changing marital demographics of the decade. The Exorcist proved no different and at least one of the films many subtexts seem to suggest that Regan's absent father and "broken home" allow evil to enter her.
However, The Exorcist is a great film, in fact its an important aesthetic document in the way that films like The Conjuring can never be. It contains the ambiguity common to all serious efforts at exploring the mystery of evil. Its documentarian style introduces us not only to the horror of heads turning backwards and pea soup vomit, but to the terrors of faith on trial, the desperate need and concern of parental love and the whole question of hw belief overcomes the empirical nastiness of the world. Its B-Movie as art and at the end of the day, it evangelizes us with a love for great film rather than for traditionalist Catholic faith.
Art may not transform its audience and it may certainly do little for its society. But it often transforms itself. Dante's Inferno could have been a lurid medieval demonology, a political allegory of 14th century Italy. Dante transformed it into architecture of dark beauty, exploring love, suffering, and all the complicated choreography of conflict and desire inherent in the Seven Deadlies. Paleolithic politics and religious propagandizing can be excuse the expression, transubstantiated into something more.
The Conjuring fails utterly to rise above its reactionary politics. The brothers Hayes wield their faith message like a truncheon. The film is too flat to contain much subtext and the overall effect has all the emotional subtlety of someone who has had too much to drink. And, just in case you somehow missed it, they conclude the film with a nice solid punch in the solar plexus, abjuring artistic ambiguity for a sales pitch:
"The devil exists. God exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny as people hinges on which we decide to follow."
The Conjuring contains a few creepy moments; about this there can be no argument. But what's creepier is its latter day abuse of the victims of demonology, the women and men of Salem. Perhaps more disturbing still is our need to tell the story, over and over again, of women as vessels of evil. The Hayes brothers have created an ahistorical mess and propaganda of the worst sort. Propaganda always fails as art. But sometimes it succeeds at entertaining. Its then it does its dirtiest work.