The Dubious Adventures of Self-Proclaimed Psychics: The Conjuring (2013) and Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)
The conflict between faith and evidence has served the horror genre extremely well for as long as there has been a horror genre. As a plot device, it allows characters to examine their own beliefs, assumptions and insecurities while at the same time allowing the monster in the story (a ghost, a mythical creature, a psychopath, etc.) to amass a sizable body count before the final act. At the end of such narratives, skepticism usually falls away and the surviving characters become true believers in whatever terrifying impossibility has entered their lives. Yet what happens when the true believers in a horror story have a shoddy history of telling the truth about even the most mundane events?
In this post, I'll look at two movies that assume the perspective of self-professed psychics: The Conjuring (2013) and Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964). The Conjuring has been hyped as being based on a true story, while Séance is a morality play about the complex relationship between personal belief and truth; as such, both films may share similar ideas, but they are extremely different in how they depict subjective encounters with the supernatural. Read on for my comparison, with minor spoilers.
The Conjuring was directed by James Wan, and it depicts the struggles of an average family, the Perrons, during their encounter with a haunted house in the early '70s. As haunted house stories go, it follows familiar beats (strange noises, ghostly visions, moving furniture and so on) and it's expertly directed by Wan, who obviously has a talent for horror filmmaking. Where this film differs from most other haunted house flicks is in the roles of the psychics and paranormal investigators: one or both usually appear in this kind of film at some point, often to help the main characters make sense of their supernatural living situation. In Conjuring, the paranormal investigator/psychic duo Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) play a larger role, mostly because these characters are based on a real-life couple who were involved with the original story. The actual Ed Warren considered himself to be an "expert" demonologist ("the only non-ordained Demonologist recognized by the Catholic Church", according to the movie) and his wife regards herself as a psychic ("a trance medium with strong powers of both clairvoyance and ESP", according to a press release).
The Warrens have told--and sold--their stories of their many encounters with the supernatural through books, lectures, personal appearances, and TV and movie adaptations. Ed passed away 2006, but it appears that his and his wife's work will live on in films like The Conjuring. According to IMDB, the Warrens have already been portrayed by other actors in previous adaptations of their paranormal escapades. This isn't a unique situation, since Hollywood loves to take real people and events and rework them into overtly melodramatic depictions for the sake of entertainment value. The Conjuring is no exception, yet that's also its biggest drawback. It felt distracting and extremely fake to me not because of the acting, direction or the production values, but in its role as a blatant vanity piece for the Warrens.
Legends in their own minds: the actual Ed and Lorraine Warren.
In the movie, the Warrens are depicted as peerless ghost hunters who tirelessly protect innocent people from dangerous spirits who wish to do harm. As you can see in wording on The Conjuring poster at the beginning of this post, the story "was based on the true case files of the Warrens", suggesting that the Warrens were the investigative equivalent of the FBI when it comes to the paranormal. The movie begins with the Warrens protecting a group of people from a possessed doll named Annabelle, a doll that is very creepy in appearance and does creepy things; however, the only purpose that it serves in the narrative is to remind the audience that what the Warrens have done in their work was allegedly dangerous. Throw in the dire warning from Ed himself at the end of the movie--"the devil exists", he proclaims--and we’re encouraged to believe that the services the Warrens provided during their lifetimes were nothing less of essential and life-saving, if not demonic apocalypse-preventing.
Upon closer examination, the real version of the Warrens falls far, far short of their cinematic counterparts. For all of their claims that evil forces lie in wait to possess unsuspecting mortals, evil forces that only the Warrens themselves can understand and foil, past investigations into their claims have demonstrated that telling the simple truth is a significantly bigger problem for them than any haunting, possession, or evil artifact. Their actual collection of occult artifacts that's depicted in the movie as potentially hazardous--so hazardous that it has to be regularly blessed by a priest to keep it under control--looks more like a yard sale than a demonic entity containment facility, and Lorraine still charges admission at over $100 per ticket for people to tour it. Click here to see the tour for free via YouTube. Even the Annabelle doll is there, although the real version is merely a Raggedy Ann doll. (No, you don't get to see a possessed Raggedy Ann doll terrorize people in The Conjuring. Dammit.)
Apparently, Ed Warren didn't like it when other
people played with his Raggedy Ann doll.
Of the many details that Conjuring gets wrong, the most egregious of which would be the Warrens’ identification of the evil spirit that menaces the Perron family: Bathsheba Sherman, a previous resident of the house where the Perrons resided. The story in the movie is that in the mid-1800s, Sherman killed her first born infant in the house and then immediately committed suicide afterwards in an act of sacrifice to Satan. She would go on to possess whoever lived in the house, including the Perrons, so she could commit even more murders. The Warrens stand by their claim that Sherman was the evil spirit that tormented the real-life Perrons, but the actual life story of Sherman is extremely different than what the movie depicts. She was accused of murdering an infant, but she was found innocent due to lack of evidence. Sherman later died an old woman in 1885 and she lived to see her son get married--things that are impossible to do when you kill yourself right after murdering your first newborn offspring. I guess the moral of The Conjuring is that you can never be too dead to be accused of Satanism.
In contrast to Conjuring is Séance on a Wet Afternoon, which was written and directed by Bryan Forbes and was based on a novel by Mark McShane. Séance tells the story of Myra Savage (Kim Stanley), a British housewife who believes that she has exceptional psychic abilities. Determined share her gift with others, she convinces her timid husband Billy (Richard Attenborough) to carry out an elaborate scheme that will put her name in the headlines and get the attention of high-profile clientele. Even when the scheme begins to falter, Myra remains determined to see it through ... even if her own gift won't let her.
Billy (Richard Attenborough) and Myra (Kim Stanley),
the Savage couple from Séance on a Wet Afternoon.
Séance is not a horror film--it's more of a suspense thriller, but it understands the mindset of people like the Warrens in ways that The Conjuring does not (or will not). Even though her scheme is illegal, Myra does not engage in it exclusively for money like a con artist would. What she wants is recognition for her ability, which she sees as an absolute, irrefutable truth; thus, resorting to falsehoods as a means of ultimately sharing the truth with others (a truth that she just happens to embody) is something she regards as both necessary and noble. The film never verifies whether the supernatural actually exists or not; the way Séance sees it, just because a person can experience the supernatural does not preclude that person from having a narcissistic personality disorder. It also helps that Séance is a fantastic film in its own right, with Forbes' atmospheric direction and Stanley's chilling performance as Myra. Another character that could be compared to the Warrens would be Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), the troubled governess in the 1961 film The Innocents who is determined to save her charges from a supernatural menace that only she can see.
The Conjuring and Séance on a Wet Afternoon are two sides of the same coin, and I find it amusing and ironic that the fictitious story of Séance is much more honest about human nature than the supposedly fact-based Conjuring. No matter what claims they have made over the years, the only thing that the Warrens have ever excelled at was self-promotion, something that Hollywood can appreciate. Unfortunately, it appears that more supernaturally-based megalomania is on its way: this summer, Eric Bana will star in Deliver Us from Evil, a demonic possession film. The film is based on the writings of an actual New York police officer named Ralph Sarchie, who has claimed to investigate demonic possessions and believes that there are over 8,000 organized Satanic covens in the US that breed babies for solely for sacrifice to Satan (you know, like the false Bathsheba Sherman from the true Warren case files did). Heaven help us, indeed.