A long, long time ago a vile, angry woman worshiped the devil on her family farm and sacrificed the life of a precious infant to her dark lord, seeing the infant not so much as a human child, but as a gift to Satan that could increase her power. She was an ugly woman, with masculine features, haggard wrinkles, and glowing eyes, and shortly after killing the innocent infant, she hung herself from a tree by the farm’s lake, where those who are in touch with the world of the dead can still see her hanging, her decrepit, gnarled gray feet waving in the wind. To this day she haunts the farm, invading the bodies of caring mothers and compelling them to kill their children. Beware. Should you set foot on her farm, you might be the victim of this restless spirit’s demonic ways. (Insert hyperbolic ghost howl here).
So that’s basically the backstory that The Conjuring would have us believe, a horror film based on the case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren (demonologist and psychic, respectively) that Michael and I watched for the second time last night to prepare for the release of The Conjuring 2 this Friday. As far as horror movies go, it’s a relatively scary one; the action escalates slowly, but when the intensity increases, it increases, and there’s plenty of ghoulish imagery to scare the faint-hearted (or not so faint-hearted) viewer.
And ghoulish imagery is good, but at whose expense? The movie professes to be a true story, a near-lethal haunting situation that Vatican-recognized demonologist Ed Warren and his wife Lorraine ameliorated in the 1970’s when the seven-member Perron family was under assault by the malicious ghost of a 19th century “witchy woman.” But some (admittedly quick) research into the haunting’s backstory verifies what I suspected was true before I did my internet searching: the story of the so-called witch, Bathsheba Sherman, is only valid depending on who you ask. Some dissent exists over her history, but there’s no real proof that she stabbed an infant with knitting needles or was reverentially involved in the occult. She may well have been an ordinary woman with her own set of hopes and dreams. On the one hand, The Conjuring makes me really want to like Ed and Lorraine Warren (Ed died in 2006 but Lorraine is still alive); they are benevolent and self-sacrificing in the risks they took to help the Perron family, according to the film. And who am I to say that demonology is bunk, or that Lorraine isn’t really a psychic? I don’t have a right to make those claims.
On the other hand, if I were Bathsheba, and I lived a relatively ethical life with a husband and four kids (three of whom died in early age, which is likely more a byproduct of the times than Bathsheba’s foul play), I would not really want to be known as a malicious witch who killed babies in life and possessed people in death, just because a Hollywood film company (correctly) surmised that the plot synopsis would be palatable and profitable to a horror-hungry audience. There are even claims that the reason her grave is defiled (split in half, to be precise) is because fans of The Conjuring were outraged at Bathsheba’s (alleged, unproven and highly contested) evildoing. As someone who does not like to brand herself a skeptic or make unfounded accusations, I don’t want to say the Perron family was lying about their experience, but it seems fair to suggest that Hollywood had troublingly few qualms with slandering this woman’s name.
Which raises, I think, an interesting observation: in American Horror lore, we love a hag, a sinister crone who’s as ugly on the outside as she is on the inside. Take a shriveled old woman and give her an insidious agenda and satanic powers, and you’ll satiate even your most hesitant horror audience. The “old-woman” ghost in Insidious supports this claim well, along with the once highly anticipated Blair Witch Project and the more recent film, The Witch, to name a few examples.
None of that hype is necessarily sexism when enshrouded in the veil of fiction and consumed, knowingly, that way. But when Hollywood takes the very specific name of a once-living woman, with no validation, and turns her into a vicious spirit, we may have a less violent incarnation of the mindset that rested behind the Spanish Inquisition or the Salem Witch Trials. Of course, defaming a dead woman’s name and murdering a slew of young girls are not the same actions, but there may be some resonating, unnerving 17th century pathos behind our willingness to accept the story and condemn the mysterious Bathsheba. My point? See The Conjuring 2, by all means, if you’re a horror fan, but enter the theater knowing that since Hollywood’s portraying Ed and Lorraine’s stories for profit, you may be consuming some fiction alongside the ostensible facts.