When large numbers of people all watch the same thing, like the Olympics or a news channel, it binds them together into what Benedict Anderson called an imagined community. Participating in a mass cultural event, consuming the same narratives, helps people identify as belonging to a group, or a nation, or the fanbase for a certain genre of film. Because this is one way groups consolidate power, imagined communities represent a political category. What matters about them is not “their falsity or genuineness” but “the style in which they are imagined.”
The big summer movie has traditionally functioned as precisely such a bonding event for American society. The archetype is Jaws, which in 1975 proved that suspense mixed with sand, sea, and monsters held a universal appeal. Over time, Hollywood’s book-balancers have refined the formula for estival profit, and the summer blockbuster has lost many of its delightful quirks—the idiosyncratic humor and charm, say, of breakout films like Bring It On (2000) or My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002). Franchises that capitalize on popular intellectual property generated the infinite sequel principle, and by the mid-2000s the summer movie had become an ever-more-profitable and ever-more-boring series of franchise installments, returning to “universes” like those of Marvel’s superheroes or Harry Potter. To this day they come around every year, losing a little momentum each time, like a tethered ball tracing a shrinking orbit around its pole.
It’s a relief and a return to an older style of summer movie bonding, therefore, to see that The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It debuted at the top of the box office two weeks ago. Released pandemic-style, with one month of streaming on HBO Max, it’s a fairly orthodox horror movie featuring beloved, returning characters, and a dark horse in the race for summer supremacy. Although it is technically a franchise, and represents a valuable bit of intellectual property for Warner Bros., The Conjuring movies couldn’t be less like their superhero counterparts. Their stars age as time goes on, for example, and lead middle-class existences that only the devil’s presence enlivens. They fight to contain this supernatural evil but can never succeed entirely: In a pandemic year, so disturbed by the primal force of disease, the ritual exorcisms of the Conjuring series proffer the fantasy that somebody is in charge of this world’s sufferings.
Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson reprise their roles as Ed and Lorraine Warren, experts in demonology who have appeared in two previous Conjuring films (2013 and 2016) and three about a possessed doll named Annabelle (2014, 2017, 2019). The Annabelle movies flesh out the history of the Conjuring universe, tying the Warrens’ cases together through a chain of demonic causation, while The Nun (2018) took the action to Romania and The Curse of La Llorona (2019) to historical Mexico and present-day Los Angeles.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is the eighth in this series, and, like all of them, it’s based on a real story about a demon supposedly ravaging a household. The first movie was set in 1971, when Ed and Lorraine had gleaming eyes and big coifs, but this one takes place 10 years and many gray hairs later. Despite the health issues presented by late middle age (Ed has a dicky ticker), the story revolves around a family they assist whose small son David (played by Julian Hilliard) and then their daughter’s boyfriend, Arne (Ruairie O’Connor), are provoked into bizarre episodes of violence by the forces of evil.
The answer to the mystery of the movie’s success lies in its pre-title sequence, as little possessed David cowers in a bathtub. Looking up, he studies the black rings attaching the shower curtain to its rod. Slowly, however, some of the rings start to move, revealing themselves in fact to be the vicious claws of a demon from hell. They’re elegant, with long nails, but certainly not supposed to be there. Blood blasts David in the face from the faucet, and as his family drags him away and down the stairs, the boy’s little hands leave monstrous claw marks in the wallpaper—suggesting the existence of a creature more terrifying for the fact we can only see a tiny part of it, and the horror that the claws are now a part of him.
The motif of claws lurking in the details of one’s own home functions as a kind of shorthand, therefore, for the larger unseen evil, and recurs as often in the Conjuring universe as haunted houses, clouded-over eyes, and creepy dolls. Inevitably, the demon will crack and twist the possessed person’s body until they are a big horrible demon, too. Fountains of blood spurt frequently. Every movie has several scary basement scenes. But these movies’ repetitiousness is the key to the pleasure they offer, in large part because Farmiga and Wilson—two very good and busy actors—have done such a thorough and skillful job in establishing the Warrens over time.
The Conjuring films also propose an idiosyncratic and coherent version of possession, loosely draped over Catholic definitions of the soul as mobile—something that can float into and away from a person’s body, and coveted by a greedy Satan. In the series, demons are persistently motivated to invade the homes of bourgeois American families and can only be helped by this perfectly heterosexual—but profoundly nonsexual—couple of demon experts. In every film, the life of a child is threatened by a demonic presence that enters into the lead family’s home via some creepy local legend. Every time, the bond between parent and child or husband and wife is the secret ingredient the devil doesn’t have, and the perfect marriage of the Warrens helps close whatever portal to hell is ajar. Ultimately, The Conjuring movies argue that it’s a compliment to be haunted. That Satan wants to eat your baby suggests that your baby is delicious; that a demon lives inside your home means your home has some kind of soul capable of being disturbed.
Over time, The Conjuring has established a view of Catholic cosmology as so conventional it’s almost camp. Those claws curled around the shower curtain rod, after all, are only one instance among possibly hundreds in the franchise; while everybody human in the movies is straight, the demons frequently wear elaborate costumes and gesture with well-manicured fingers toward their victims, which makes them the source of all things threatening and theatrical. One, in the excellent Annabelle: Creation, even changes his nail color (from nude to black) between shots in the same scene. Curiously, the demons of the Conjuring universe even seem to enact a kind of drag: They invariably appear at first in the invaded bodies of children or mothers or pretty dolls but later turn out to be ripped, hypermasculine demons with horns and scary teeth.
Like a lot of horror films, these movies usually have a happy ending of sorts, with the lead characters freed from their demon by the power of love or something. Despite all the Satanic jump-scares, Ed and Lorraine generally save the day in these films. Familiar to fans by now, they are the mommy and daddy of the exorcism genre, and settling into a movie from their universe means entrusting yourself to their care, which is almost a cosy feeling. Underneath all the weirdly conventional family values of the Conjuring universe, which frame demonic evil as a somewhat fruity threat to the American household, is something more compelling: the reassurance of ritual.
The appeal of ritual is also the lead actors’ theory about the movie’s success. In a bizarre but delightful recent interview with Uproxx, Farmiga appeared to assert that she believes in “spiritual warfare,” and Patrick Wilson said of Catholicism that “if [exorcism] helps [a person] in their life, who cares?” Farmiga added, “Absolutely. Right. That ritual just might be the key.”
This year has been brutal, and as a lover of movies, I have—for reasons I’ve been content to leave unexamined—gravitated toward the experience of being brutalized. Some people just get scared by scary movies, but for me their very extremity feels therapeutic. They repeat the same types of possession stories and jump-scares and demon claws, over and over again, which feels like being lulled or rocked to sleep. The summer blockbuster is a ritual, too: a high holiday in the tinseltown calendar, like September for magazine publishing. In these rhythms and repetitions, we invest our belief that there’s a purpose to everything; that good will conquer evil, and that there’s enough value in the times we already live in to carry on.