Gender and Power in The Conjuring

I’m short on time for writing this week, so I’m putting up a piece I wrote for Erin Riordan and Kat Kelley’s creation, Feminists-at-Large last summer. 


Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir has turned out the most fauxned-in diatribe you’ll read all month. Pretend-outraged rants against masculine values have to be the new lazy-man’s response to art. In the same way that early critics of Lolita’s ‘pro-pedophilia’ message were both ignorant and misguided, O’Hehir’s review of The Conjuring managed not only to miss the point, but portray the work’s message entirely backwards.

The Conjuring tells the story of the Perron family, mother, father, and four girls who move out to a house in the country. Soon enough, they discover an ominous boarded-up basement, and a standard possession-haunting scenario develops, with flying pictures, creepy sleepwalking, and terrifying apparitions. Coming to their aid are the Warrens, a husband and wife team of ghostbusting paranormal experts, with Ed Warren playing the academic and his wife the strong-willed psychic.

The soon-to-be-less-happy Perron Family

The soon-to-be-less-happy Perron Family

O’Hehir imagines the film’s politics to be reactionary, but his is the only retrograde thinking in taking a feminist dream and writing it like a nightmare. He claims that the women in the movie are the fount of all its evil, and he’s right, but only because the women are the only important characters in the film.

The witch that constitutes the main antagonist is a descendant of a Salem witch (and one should remember that the Salem witch trials were driven by women, for better or, obviously, for worse), and her power worked its way through an impressive number of generations. When she has a child to sacrifice, it’s a girl, and when her husband discovers her, he doesn’t stop her but stands impotently by as she curses the land, a motif that permeates the story. More, the land that she curses is hers, not his, and she controls its ultimate fate.

Warrens on the left, Perrons on the right

Warrens on the left, Perrons on the right

O’Hehir points out that the ghosthunting couple were Catholic radicals in the real world, but they represent anything but Catholic values in the film. O’Hehir notes that the husband of the duo, Ed Warren, played by Patrick Wilson, tends to play the fool, presenting painfully simplistic explanations for their paranormal cases, and his silliness extends to his plaid worsted wool ties and general seventies faux pas, while Vera Farmiga remains regal and “curiously sexy” as Lorraine Warren throughout.

The aformentioned

The aformentioned

More, she’s the only half of the team that seems to bring any benefits. When they first inspect the house, Ed gets a couple awkward and cliched lines about bad smells indicating demonic presences, while the wife is already seeing the demon at hand. O’Hehir points out the focus on baptisms, the Church, and Latin foolishness as the solutions to the movie’s evil, but each is as impotent to stop it as the original witch’s husband. The baptisms, though counted on as essential, are neither carried out nor key to the climax. The Church only approves the planned exorcism after the denoument’s nearly ended, and the Latinate exploits of Ed Warren fail entirely in driving out the witch. It is only the hand of Mrs. Warren and the appeal to Carolyn Perron’s motherhood that manage to stay her hand.

In fact, every traditionally male institution in the film can only stand idly by while the women steal the scene. The Vatican, though treated as the supreme solution, plays only an obstructive role, The haunted family’s father, played by Ron Livingston, is as ineffective here as he was at turning in his TPS reports. He’s perenially absent when the real shit goes down and plays an inactive role in the investigation. When the Warrens volunteer to watch the house for awhile, Ed heads off to work on the car, while Lorraine does the more important washing and goes on discovering more ghosts. The cop, officer who gives a shit because he’s a dude, is the only skeptic and his chief role is to leave a Chekovian shotgun around during the exorcism for the witch to make use of.

The only apparition without a speaking role is also the only male. The little drowned boy is seldom seen and never heard, only given voice by the youngest daughter. Each female spook is granted at least a couple lines and a physical presence in the movie.

Ed Warren constantly tries to marginalize his wife, with good intention, to protect her from the evil that she sees. She, however, never suffers to be left behind, because without her, her husband is less than half a team. She refrains that ‘God put us together for a reason,’ and that reason was to saddle his male access with her female effectiveness. He never asks her what she saw during the last exorcism, and we are made to believe that whatever terrible vision it was has robbed her of some of herself, but she seems almost unspeakably brave in the face of terrors that we can barely stand and that he has never even been permitted to see. She confronts his fear with her own bravery at every turn, and this is supposed to be a testament to masculine values.

If we want to see a film actually playing to the male vibe, take a look at The Exorcist.

dun dun dun-dun dun DUN dun-dun dun

Dun dun dun-dun dun DUN dun-dun dun

The daughter, Regan, is possessed by Pazuzu, a male demon. Her mother, Chris, finds herself totally unable to help, and turns first to the (in the seventies and in the movie) male medical profession and then to the male Catholic Church. The methods the demon uses to terrorize and disconcert stem from the feminine: he imitates father Karras’ mother and causes Regan to masturbate with a crucifix. The salvation, moreover, comes from the masculine—”the power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!” And Pazuzu’s final defeat is only achieved through the sacrifice of both father Merrin and father Karras. At no point in that film does a woman wield any power. Compare that to the awe-and-terror-inspiring women in The Conjuring

It seems clear that if O’Hehir had taken some time to think about the movie before tapping out his fashionable little put-down, he might have thought better of it. But no harm done. Everybody’s got deadlines.

One thought on “Gender and Power in The Conjuring

  1. “He claims that the women in the movie are the fount of all its evil, and he’s right, but only because the women are the only important characters in the film.”

    Couldn’t agree more! That being said, as a feminist and a horror movie enthusiast, I felt as though the appeal to motherhood was overdone. It often seems as if female characters get to be sexual (and killed) or mothers (and survive), as though motherhood is the only source of strength that a woman can draw on.

    That’s why – despite some other aspects of the film – I heartily enjoyed Prometheus. It threw the expected value of motherhood on its head when, completely reasonably, the protagonist performed her own abortion of an alien fetus and then goes on to survive….because she’s a human being, and we’re quite fond of that.

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