This is a little belated, but a friend of mine and I were discussing the new American Horror Story, The Conjuring and other horror movies. Originally from Mississippi, he is a horror aficionado and has a masters in history. (He is not Pagan at all). I really enjoyed his response and I thought you might enjoy what he had to say.
He has graciously given me permission to post his long rambling reply back to me, with the understanding that it was not intended for anyone else to see it, nor was it edited.
The Salon article we were talking about can be found here.
The Wild Hunt article we were talking about can be found here.
I am certainly interested in hearing any of your own responses to the articles or to what he had to say!
The Wild Hunt’s review was far superior to Salon. I’m not a fan at all of Salon. I mean, sometimes they do good investigative work, but their cultural haughtiness is sickening. Plus, they are one of the most important participants in modern “travel guides” about the South written by “outsiders.” Meaning, they, probably more than most other media sites, perpetuate this negative image of the backwoods, insidious South, like if Deliverance mated with Mississippi Burning. Talk about shortsighted…
Anyway, I might just have to see the movie. If Salon doesn’t like the complicated cultural politics of the Conjuring, what do they think of the Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, or the Omen? They could make a case that two of those are “progressive,” but certainly not the Exorcist if we’re going by Salon’s, or even Wild Hunt’s, rubric. The Wild Hunt’s critique focuses on the hegemonic nature of Christian theology in American culture. That seems more like a political statement than an actual critique. And, I totally understand why and don’t mean to disparage that. It’s necessary. I like that it furthers this critique in discussing how it obfuscates the true meaning of witchcraft, shines a light on the Warren’s bullshit, drums up “reality” to sell tickets, and pigeon holes a historically troubled religion with dualism. But, as it points out, aren’t the Warrens Christian culturalists, self-promoters, and publicity hogs? Hell yeah. Is this their first time to drum up notoriety with a movie? Another Hell Yeah (plus a couple more). (another sidebar: what horror film isn’t dualistic?) I also think it’s shortsighted to suggest it could be anything but a Christian horror film (in the dualistic sense of good v evil). It’s true it’s not a subversive Christian horror film, like those others I mentioned. Thought exercise: what would a pagan horror film look like? I’m thinking it would be similar in a lot of ways.
I’m not sure what the cultural impact of this film will be. Where Salon and Wild Hunt see problems of upmost gravity, I see marketing techniques and horror clichés. I agree wholeheartedly that it sounds like there is nothing flippant, politically revolutionary, or that. But, I’m cautious. People wrote off Saw as a horror film beset by reactionary politics, as if they were totally unaware of the Christian/moral culture wars taking place at that distinct historical moment of the early 2000s. I saw it as a grotesque reflection of the early 2000s. An old white man punishes those he feels are unresponsible drains on society? God damn, did he sleep with Ayn Rand?
The feminist angle is a good critique. It sounds like both reviews hit that point pretty solidly. Once again, I need to see it. Does the female character/witches have a sort of agency? Who is viewing that agency, or what perspective is the film told from? A man’s? The Warren’s? A woman’s? These are big deal questions that should go a long way in establishing, or supporting, the points made in the Salon article. Or they could totally discount those points. Case: Rob Zombie just released another horror movie revolving around a new England town and the Salem Witch trials. It looks to be pretty subversive, a coven of witches reaching through history to empower women to take their revenge on the hegemonic culture… It doesn’t sound like this is the Conjuring.
The Salem Witch Trials thing… Whatever. I mean, getting all in a tizzy over whether or not a horror movie portrays an event in history accurately is like getting mad at the clouds for raining. It’s pointless. Anybody can search Salem Witch Trials in google, go the the Wikipedia page, and discredit any premise put forward by a horror movie about the historical event. You could say the same about a Wikipedia search for “witches.” (Wikipedia the Warrens, it isn’t a favorable “toneless” article). This doesn’t mean that the influence of culture on how people describe horrific events, or supernatural events, doesn’t trickle down to our “enlightened” 21st century. I could see, if I were Wiccan, that this would make me uncomfortable, but it’s pervasive. It’s also pretty campy. So many of American totems, or popular culture figures/stock characters, are so campy. Horror, even at the most horrific, is campy.
I guess I see transgressive and subversive properties in the Christian-American bastardization of the Wiccan religion, especially in some horror movies or just our culture. If a bunch of little girls are dressed as witches and terrorizing the boys, I would like to give them a “right on.” Horror films are all about anxiety, so even when they’re told from the reactionary perspective they’re automatically exposing the faultlines in their own logic thinking by showing where that culture breaks downs, or where the weak points are in the ramparts. The best horror is written like a satire, in a fit of discontent. The Conjuring probably wasn’t coming from that angle.
**Have you seen House of the Devil?
American Horror Story Coven promo shot