The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021)
Director: Michael Chaves
Performers: Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga
Unless you’re completely out of touch with modern horror, you’ve heard of The Conjuring franchise. It’s a series of films in which paranormal investigator couple Ed and Lorraine Warren help solve hauntings and help struggling families. Lorraine Warren (played brilliantly by Vera Farmiga) is a psychic, and she relies on her husband Ed (Patrick Wilson) to keep her grounded as they work together to uncover the horrors of the paranormal. This film is in that vein, but you don’t have to have seen the other Conjuring films to follow the plot. It’s a fun, spooky romp with some impressively unsettling moments. And, as always, Wilson and Farmiga are fantastic as Ed and Lorraine Warren, portraying them believably as sympathetic and strong protagonists fending off the forces of evil. But like all Conjuring films, there are some of the same problems.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
If you don’t buy into Christian iconography as a powerful force for good, then the film inevitably requires deep suspension of disbelief. That’s nothing new with Satanic Panic films, of course, and it’s a big reason why plenty of people today fear just the sight of a simple Ouija board. But this installment of the franchise takes things a bit further: the enemy is a witch, and the Warrens are advocating for using what is essentially spectral evidence in court. And they are of course, by the movie’s logic, right to do so. A young man who stabbed his girlfriend’s boss over 20 times is painted as a heroic, wrongfully accused man who must be saved. The argument goes, again by the film’s logic, that the devil made him do it. And the film buys into this wholeheartedly, with uplifting music playing in the background as the killer, Arne (Ruairi O’Connor), kisses his girlfriend, Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook), on the steps of the courthouse before the judge’s final verdict. And as Ed Warren argues, “The court accepts the existence of God every time a witness swears to tell the truth. I think it’s about time they accept the existence of the devil.”
The flaws in this line of thinking are pretty obvious for anyone, especially if they are non-Christian. Here in the United States, schoolchildren learn about the Salem Witch Trials which had disastrous results. The U.S. legal definition is as follows:
Spectral evidence refers to a witness testimony that the accused person’s spirit or spectral shape appeared to him/her witness in a dream at the time the accused person’s physical body was at another location. It was accepted in the courts during the Salem Witch Trials. The evidence was accepted on the basis that the devil and his minions were powerful enough to send their spirits, or specters, to pure, religious people in order to lead them astray.
In spectral evidence, the admission of victims’ conjectures is governed only by the limits of their fears and imaginations, whether or not objectively proven facts are forthcoming to justify them. [State v. Dustin, 122 N.H. 544, 551 (N.H. 1982)]“Spectral Evidence”
The film makes clear that what they call a Satanist – but we can all clearly see is a witch – is the main antagonist. The daughter of a priest, who battled the occult, but, unlike the Warrens, sought to understand and empathize with the people who practiced such beliefs. She has no given name in the film – the credits list her as simply The Occultist. Her appearance is dour: long, shapeless frock and slicked back short hair. There’s a clear attempt to present the character as androgynous and, by the film’s logic, less human. We get no details of her motivations for attacking these young people by cursing them and making a pact with a demon. Her death has the same impact as watching any flat villain be killed for their crimes.
Not Arne though, our boyfriend killer. He murdered someone, but he feels bad about it. He’s a Christian, after all. Something just came over him. The devil made him do it.
Since this entire movie claims to be based on a true story, it adds another level of complexity to the tale. Real life media reports from the time are skeptical. In a Washington Post article, there’s a pretty clear implication that Arne’s friends and family were bored, unworldly, and happy to get attention. Arne himself, by pleading innocent by reason of possession, was an instant celebrity.
“Without the devil, the aftermath of Alan Bono’s death would have been different. Life would have continued much as it was for the Glatzels and the Johnsons, hard, disconnected and uncontrolled; ordinary in the way that boredom and bitterness and the slow death of ambition is ordinary — in the way that they go on from day to day, unlamented and unfinessed.
But now there is the media blitz, the phone calls from the Hollywood producers, the book proposals, the constant state of tension and attention. These had been lives untouched by the more complicated temptations, and it would seem that the devil would have something better to do than to mess with these people. But then maybe it isn’t the devil who has nothing better to do.”Darling
In fact, when analyzed more closely, this case has a history that Conjuring fans might not like very much:
Once [Arne’s] innovative defense was barred, media attention evaporated from the trial. But in 2006, the Warrens’ book on the case was reissued, and another Glatzel brother sued for damages, calling the occult claims a “phony story . . . to get rich and famous at our expense.”“Arne Cheyenne Johnson”
It makes for a cool film, but there’s something unsettling about watching witchcraft, non-Christians, and even the law get thrown under the bus for entertainment. The Warrens, we must all remember, were con artists. Regardless of how likable the actors portraying them are, the film shapes public opinion. The real-life Debbie Johnson, in a featurette on HBOMax for the film, is very clear about how she hopes the film will clear Arne’s name.
Now that’s truly scary.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021) is now in theaters and streaming on HBOMax.
My rating: 4/5 stars
“Arne Cheyenne Johnson”. The Courtroom Sketches of Ida Libby Dengrove. University of Virginia Law Library. https://archives.law.virginia.edu/dengrove/trials/demon-murder
Brothers Sue World Famous Psychic Lorraine Warren for False Accusations in Devil Book. Mass Media Distribution Newswire. 8 October 2007. Archived: https://web.archive.org/web/20080829012011/http://www.mmdnewswire.com/brors-sue-world-fmous-psychic-lorrine-wrren-for-flse-ccustis-in-devil-book-2347-2.html
Darling, Lynn. “By Demons Possessed.” The Washington Post. 13 Sept. 1981. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1981/09/13/by-demons-possessed/3479fa6b-eee3-4233-a2fc-b9defa403504/
“Spectral Evidence”, The Salem Witch Museum. https://salemwitchmuseum.com/2013/02/15/spectral-evidence/