How did The Conjuring conjure the masses?

This weekend, The Conjuring, a small budget horror movie about a family who endure frightening experiences after moving into a possessed house , beat Hollywood’s big blockbusters like R.I.P.D and Turbo in the US box office, debuting to $41 million.  Why do filmgoers have such an insatiable appetite for such superstitions?

Since the dawn of history people have believed that demons and other spiritual entities could possess creatures and places. Possessed humans often exhibited hideous symptoms, such as a personality transformation, unseemly behaviour, aggression, unnatural voices, physical deformities and epithets spewing. Those hapless individuals were treated by an exorcist, usually a man of deity, who performed an elaborate ritual or simply commanded the ungodly entities to depart in the name of a higher power.

Following the advances in medical science, which ascribed possession symptoms to mental illnesses such as epilepsy, psychosis, Tourette’s syndrome, schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder, the practice of Exorcism began to fade in the 19th century. But not anymore.

Following the release of the classic horror movie, The Exorcist (1973), which claimed to be based on the true story of a girl who was possessed by demons, exorcism reportedly experienced a staggering resurgence, prompting the Catholic Church to train priests in the forgotten ancient practice in order the satisfy the overwhelming demand.

Other than giving millions of people around the world a fright, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, spawned a multitude of other films about the subject, and although none has matched its originality, creativity and critical acclaim, they have still commanded commercial success and instilled fear in the hearts of millions. Like The Exorcist, the ensuing movies often claimed to be based on true events, perhaps because they were too incredulous to be accepted by a rational mind. After all, how do you expect someone to believe that Linda Blair could spin her neck 360 degrees without breaking it or float in the air unsuspended in The Exorcist!

The Conjuring also claims to be inspired by a true story based on the accounts of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, who come to assist the Perron family in evicting the demons that tenanted their house and tormented them.

Demonic possessions are mainly experienced by religious people, but the Perron family is secular. Ironically though, they seek out the help of the people of God instead of science. We all see visions and imagine things around us, but unless we are firmly religious, we either ignore them or  resort to medical help. After all, visual science taught us that seeing is believing.

Apparently, the cast of the movie were also conjured.  When I met them  in San Francisco prior to the release of the movie, they told me that they had all kind of spooky experiences on set, while making the film, like fire alarms going off, or three slashes appearing on the computer screen. Actress Vera Farmiga, who plays Lorraine Warren, pulled a photo from her cellphone to show me a blue claw mark on her thigh, which apparently appeared the day after they started shooting. “Unless I had a mosquito bite and I scratched it with these three fingers, I don’t know what happened.”

Unlike Lorraine Warren, who had an unshakable conviction in the metaphysical world of demons and spirits, Farmiga insists that she neither has such convictions nor is a religious person. “It doesn’t matter what I believe about the spirit realm or the diabolical, Satan, God, none of that matters. What matters is that I buy into the story because I am portraying her.”

Interestingly, the Oscar-nominated actress, who has recently delved into the horror genre in the TV show Bates Motel and directed Higher Ground, a movie that deals with spiritually, perceives these projects as merely love stories, and that is what truly draws her to inhabit their characters. “I love the love,” she exclaims. “I feel like I am a monk, looking for all types of enlightenment, and I love overtly projects that challenge you, to define conceptually what God means to you, projects that challenge your belief or lack thereof, but even in those projects, I hard boil it down to love stories. If you YouTube any video of Lorraine and Ed together, they have such a mystical, beautiful, rare kind of love.”

Indeed, there is a tender love story at the core of this movie, but romance is a genre you wouldn’t ascribe to it. This is a scary movie, and that was exactly what drove the masses to see it; they were looking for sensational fear, and they got it. But how much truth is there behind the sensation?

While I was watching the movie, the image of Jim Carrey, playing the a cop with dissociative identity disorder, in Me, Myself and Irene leapt into my mind. Every time, he forgot to take his medicine, he turned into a hideous character, with many of the symptoms of a possessed person. But instead of fear, that film elicited laughter in our hearts.

I confess that expulsion of demons is far more dramatic and entertaining than taking a pill, but I very much doubt that such an ancient practice is a valid form of treatment for people afflicted with mental illnesses. In fact, there were incidents in which the procedure was fatal, as it was dramatised in The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), which tells the story of a priest who was persecuted for causing the death of a mentally-disturbed girl while performing exorcisms on her. So why do we still embrace these superstitious beliefs of demonic possession?

“There’s an aspect to all this which is like you may be scared, but if you keep scaring yourself, then there’s still something in you that want to be that and experience it,” say Formiga, who had a scary spiritual experience in her youth.

Indeed, fear is a weapon that has often been exploited by religion and authorities, to spread their dominance over the multitude. Filmmakers, on the other hand, are using it for the sake of entertainment and selling tickets at the cinema theatres.