Most of the terror that The Conjuring (2013; dir. James Wan) conjures comes from off-stage, so to speak. Only at the end does the source of the terror—a demon that has possessed the mother of a family—become clear. To the film’s credit, it inspires a good bit of suspense and uncertainty. To its discredit, the revelation that the source of the family’s problems is a demon simply tosses this film into a pot of other like films where the supernatural plays a decisive role.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991; dir. Jonathan Demme) inspired terror through the psychopathology of Hannibal Lectern, just as Hitchcock’s Psycho did through Norman Bates in 1960). There was nothing supernatural about Hannibal. But his deviance and his personality, his sense of humor, his relish for good food, made him a truly frightening, dangerous character.
Is there room for more films about demonic possession. They’re a cliché. And a fiction. I can give myself up to them occasionally. I remember what it was like to come home one Sunday evening back in the early 1970s to my room in the basement of my mother’s house. My siblings and I had gone to see The Exorcist (1973; dir. William Friedkin). The basement was empty, and dark. Every small sound was reason for insomnia. I managed to go to sleep with the lights on.
The Exorcist created its own formulaic cliché. It ultimately became its own victim. With good writing and acting and production values, it was truly frightening. Most films that have tried to emulate it have not come close to succeeding. Even a re-viewing of The Exorcist proves unsatisfying—rather than something innovative and new, it seems hackneyed, because of the very clichés it popularized. The Conjuring doesn’t try to be The Exorcist, but it does resort to demonology and exorcism, and the supernatural fiction at its heart—that there is a supernatural realm beyond our own—ruins the frightening moments it manages to produce.
The appeal of these films is a sign of weak-mindedness in the people attracted to them, including me, I suppose.