How “The Conjuring” seamlessly blended horror styles into the scariest film of the year
Spoilers for The Conjuring ahead.
Horror is actually surprisingly versatile genre. A film can ostensibly be horror while venturing into more straightforward dramatic territory (Let the Right One In/Let Me In), or action (the climax of 28 Days Later) or have healthy mixes of satire (Dawn of the Dead) or perverse (in the most twisted sense) comedy (Audition).
But when it comes to scaring you, most horror films adopt one of two approaches. Let’s call them “Confrontational horror” and “suggested horror”.
Confrontational horror bludgeons you with frightening, disturbing, and otherwise unsettling material. You can’t escape it. It’s confrontational and invasive. The Exorcist exemplified this approach, showing 1973 audiences that top-notch execution of potentially absurd material could scare the daylights out of people. Slasher films rely on this approach, as do zombie films. We know the adversaries in these films, and the knowledge of what they are capable of is the fuel for most of the scares.
Suggested horror does the opposite. It scares you with what you can’t see. It raises horrible possibilities and doesn’t let you off the hook. It plays off your imagination’s ability to create frightening possibilities. This approach was probably most famously used in The Blair Witch Project, although the thriller The Vanishing (the Dutch original, please) is my favorite example. The film makes no effort to mask its villain or his crime, but the sense of dread regarding the fate of his victim, and the hints the film gives to that fate without playing its hand, builds to a truly horrifying ending. Until that ending, not one scene in the film would allow you to peg it as a thriller out of context. The film hints, suggests, and slowly unravels, and grows all the more unsettling along the way.
In short: suggested horror scares us with the possibility of horror in what we don’t know. Confrontational horror scares us by not letting us escape from the horror we do know.
Upon watching The Conjuring again today, I was struck by how effectively the film uses both approaches. The first act is a masterful example of using what we can’t see to frighten us. The film’s exposition is tidy, establishing that SOMETHING malevolent is about, and targeting the Perron family (a man, woman and their five daughters at the center of the film’s plot). It introduces us to Ed and Lorraine Warren, experts in battling all things demonic, as the characters who’ll combat this malevolent spirit.
And then it begins to get scary.
The first third of the film is beautifully restrained. The spirit inhabiting the Perron’s house is alluded to, hinted at, through little details that are unsettling but that could still, hypothetically, leave room for a rational explanation. Throwaway remarks about a foul stench, Carolyn Perron’s odd post-coital bruises, the house’s clocks stopping at the same, are classic horror buildup: things we know indicate that something very bad is about to happen, but the characters don’t.
The beauty of the first act, and when the film starts to become really scary, is how the Perrons, one by one, realize that they are not alone. The film’s first instance of a member of the Perron family seeing the spirit in their house is elegant and terrifying in its method: it refuses to show it to the audience. The scene involves Christine, the middle of the five Perron daughters (a splendid little performance by 13-year-old Joey King). In the scene, Christine finally wakes up after being plagued by something grabbing her feet at night. The moment she realizes that it’s not her older sister Nancy is creepy enough. But the moment when her eyes fixate on a dark corner behind the door, unable to look away, is truly chilling. King sells the scene perfectly, demonstrating one of my favorite, underused tenets of horror: the fact that a character’s reaction to something horrifying can be as disturbing as seeing it yourself.
When Nancy gets up look in the corner to assuage her sister’s fears, the scene grows all the more terrifying, even though at no point do we expect whatever it is that Christine is seeing to actually attack Nancy. The terror of the scene is entirely that we believe that Christine is seeing something, even if neither we not anyone else in the film can. The horror is purely suggestion: we can’t see it… but we know it’s there. Christine can see it. We believe her. And whatever she sees is horrifying.
This splendid scene stands in contrast in style to the ending of the film, which is a full-blown phantasmagoria. The beauty of The Conjuring lies in how it builds from the spare, unknown horror of its first act to the brutal, inescapable horror of its last. Most horror films know only one volume. The Conjuring slowly increases its volume in increments that are almost imperceptible.
The middle act of the film is crucial in this regard. The attacks on the Perrons grow increasingly brazen and visual. Paintings and pictures are dashed to the floor. Carolyn gets locked in the basement and taunted. This culminates in one of the film’s two jump scares: the first visual revelation of the spirit to the audience.
All right, time for an aside on jump scares. Jump scares are not inherently bad. However, they are a component of horror, not an approach. “Confrontational horror” and “suggested horror” reflect styles that influence the entirety of a work. Jump scares are a type of scene. Films that rely too much on startling the audience quickly grow dull, since being startled is not the same as being scared.
However, being startled can be a component in scaring you. Drag Me to Hell, for example, used a neverending barrage of jump scares to help maintain its off-kilter, self-aware, darkly comedic tone. Every aspect of the film was so over the top, that jumps became part of the fun. The Conjuring uses jumps in a far more restrained way, more effective for purposes of scaring you.
Rather than jarringly slam the camera from side to side, James Wan gets a lot of mileage out of jumps that are not jumps at all, but creepy little set-pieces that work because they exercise just enough restraint, knowing that a pair of hands where none should be, or the realization that someone else in the room with you, can be terrifying.
In his scathing review of the film, critic Simon Abrams complained that The Conjuring relied too heavily on jump scares. I couldn’t disagree more. The film has a small handful of jump scenes, but in none of them is simply startling the viewer the method of scaring them. For example: the first big jump scare is the aforementioned first sighting of the demon within the Perron family’s home. The film stages the scene within the bedroom of the oldest Perron daughter, Andrea. It deliberately parallels the previous scene, presenting two daughters (the other, in the case, is the second youngest, Cindy).
It is here that the film uses its biggest jump scene. Unlike a typical jump scare, this one has us plenty scared already. Its similarity to the previous scene (which, as I mentioned, was terrifying without showing the audience anything) has us on edge again, well before the demon is actually sighted.
More than that, the reveal of the demon is a beautiful work of visual craftsmanship. A typical jump scare relies on throwing something unsettling at the screen without giving the viewer time to prepare themselves. In this scene, the film all but telegraphs the location of the demon at the top of the screen, hiding on top of a closet.
We know it’s going to be there. And that is terrifying.
The startling reveal of the demon is a coup de grace. It’s the icing of a very, very scary scene (which, it’s worth noting, is spliced together with Carolyn’s rather frightening search of the house’s basement, which is devoid of jump scares), not the entirety of the scares all on its own.
The final act of the film is all Grand Guignol, phantasmagorical horror, and it stands in contrast to the minimalistic opening scares. However, the film builds fluidly to its end, establishing its own sense of logic (the Warrens explain very carefully the nature of the demon, and how it plans to ultimately possess one of the family members) and following through. More than that, by the end of the film, we have been run ragged.
The final scene is aided by a splendid, physical performance by Lili Taylor as the now-possessed Carolyn. This may not seem like difficult acting, but it absolutely is. I have no idea how she found footing on the right side of the all-too blurry line between camp and horror, but find it she did. The ending of the film is a full volume blast of confrontational, loud, visceral horror. It is pure confrontational horror. There is no escaping it.
Could the film have worked as well as it did if it played at this volume throughout? I don’t know. I think it would have needed more of a sense self-awareness (a la The Cabin in the Woods or Drag Me to Hell). However, The Conjuring stands in stark contrast to those sendups of the genre; it is old-fashioned horror, earnest to its bones. And to maintain that face of utter seriousness in a movie that ends with so much excess, it was essential for The Conjuring to lure us into its world, rather than hold us above it. We had to believe this material. We had to be willing to let ourselves be scared without feeling the need to laugh about it at the same time. That is very, very difficult to do in these modern times, when it seems like every horror trick in the book has been played. And maybe they have. But The Conjuring demonstrates how polish and careful construction can make the funhouse look as good as new.