Note: This essay contains story details for The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It that may be considered “spoilers.”
“The Devil is an optimist if he thinks he can make people worse than they are.” – Karl Kraus
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is not a good movie. Which, if you recall my Summer Preview write-up from last week, comes as a bit of a personal surprise to me. I have complicated feelings toward the first and second installments of this series of films, finding them undeniably effective ghost stories in the service of hagiography for two real-life deceitful money-grubbing predators taking advantage of vulnerable, impressionable people during difficult times in their lives.
But excellent filmmaking goes a long way, and oh boy do The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 have that in spades. And not just in terms of cutting, lighting, sound, and acting, either; they also succeeded better than either of them had any right to in the fundamentals of storytelling. Of setups and payoffs. Of character development and building thematic meaning organically from the story. Horror needs this as much as any drama, and I’m not the first person to observe that the best horror movies could easily work as standalone dramas. James Wan understands this. And damn him, he and the Hayes Brothers made sure that a successful dramatic framework was in place around all the demonic possessions and terrifying apparitions and… *ugh*… Warren apologetics.
But not this time, it seems. Not with a different creative team at the helm. But why? Our own Joey Magidson, also a fan of the previous two films, didn’t much care for The Devil Made Me Do It, finding this one far more overwrought and clumsy in its attempts to scare him. I agree with him completely. But what I find interesting isn’t that this is just a bad horror movie, which it totally is, but on a deeper level… it’s an ineffective one. It’s movie that I doubt will scare anyone at all. I don’t think the explanation for this lies solely the feet of director Michael Chaves and screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, either.
After all, plenty of badly-directed and badly-written horror movies still worked at taking advantage of collective anxieties, even if the audience didn’t realize it at the time. Just look at The Amityville Horror, Friday the 13th, or Saw. I would almost go as far as declaring that all three of those movies are objectively poorly executed as cinema, but it is inarguable that they were the perfect reflections of, respectively, the fear of home ownership as a debt prison in the 70’s, Reagan-era Boomer parent anxieties about teenage transgressiveness and sexuality, and America’s sense of barely-coherent post-9/11 vindictive semi-masochistic rage.
But here, in The Devil Made Me Do It, there really doesn’t seem to be much of a relatable threat beyond the goofily over-literalized demonic forces that leap right out and shriek with over-mixed sound design from the jump (scare… just, so many ineffective jump scares this time). Heck, there’s even a human villain in this one, with a Dark Origin Story™. Because like a lot of bad storytellers who crawl up the asses of their own invented mythologies, Chaves and McGoldrick commit the fatal error of abandoning the mythos (dramatic devices that bring out the deeper psychological, emotional, and spiritual truths of a story) and doubling-down on the logos (the literal and prosaic “world-building” aspects of a story). Probably better known to Millennials as J.K. Rowling Syndrome. Suddenly, it’s really important this time for us to know the intricate workings of totally-real-and-not-at-all-made-up Satanic cults and the complicated “rules” that they operate by. Evil witch lady has to collect three horcruxes, erm, I mean, souls! To complete the curse within the time limit set by the demon who granted her powers! And we should care about this for some reason!
Are some people maybe genuinely scared of demons and supernatural curses? Perhaps, but millions more people my age are definitely scared of trying to raise a family in a broken economy that no longer supports them. Oh, you thought it was a coincidence that the Perrons were on the brink of financial ruin in the first film and that Peggy Hodgson was a destitute single mother living in public housing in the sequel when they started being tormented by a malevolent spirit? Producer Tony DeRosa-Grund tried shopping around what would become the first movie for over a decade and wasn’t successful until a few months after the 2008 financial crisis, by the way.
Because that’s the thing about truly effective – not always “good,” but always effective – horror: their demons or ghosts or monstrous aliens or axe-wielding maniacs provide the necessary mythos to the real fears, however irrational, of a culture that can’t articulate or confront those fears. It’s why the horror movies of the 80’s that tried to assert the literal existence of satanic influences are remembered today as unintentional comedies (like Mazes and Monsters, starring Tom Hanks as a young man brainwashed by a D&D-esque tabletop role-playing game into becoming a serial killer… yes, really). Because most people weren’t actually afraid of Satanists, but a lot of men in the 80’s were terrified of losing their patriarchal power and a lot of women were internalizing deeply-ingrained maternal shaming from their parents’ generation at going out into the workforce instead of staying at home with the kids.
There are no cultural or familial anxieties articulated in The Devil Made Me Do It, save one brief exchange between Arne and Debbie vaguely alluding to wanting to leave Brookfield, Connecticut one day. Even when Ed ominously declares “we have to go back to the beginning,” there’s nothing that deepens our emotional investment in the Johnsons or the Glatzels beyond our general desire for them to not die, and the Warrens just end up finding a “totem” that symbolizes nothing and leads them to another plot coupon explaining the literal mythology of this evil satanic final boss lady. To Chaves and McGoldrick, she’s the only threat they need for the audience to care. Why bother with drama when we have so much money to blow on CGI twisty body contortions, I guess?
And let’s be clear, I didn’t even like the way the drama worked in the first two films! The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 are both unabashedly conservative at their cores, never once questioning the supremacy of the traditional Christian nuclear family unit, and both times the marital heteronormative True Love of Ed and Lorraine is what ultimately saves the day. It’s patronizing reactionary bullshit, but it’s bullshit that works. It’s bullshit that,clearly, millions of people were clamoring for in the previous decade. I can’t help but begrudgingly admire The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 for doing such a good job at tapping into a desire from audiences to go back to a simpler time when everyone believed that families are always safe and good and best, and anything that threatens that sense of security is evil and all you have to do is shine the light of love onto evil to defeat it forever.
That’s why the grift didn’t work this time. It’s why even people who claim to believe in the Warren’s bald-faced lies can’t bring themselves to buy this one, and certainly aren’t scared of it. Because deep down, people know what they’re truly afraid of… and it ain’t satanic final boss ladies.