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A Love Letter to The Conjuring: Finding Representation in the Strangest Places

Updated: Oct 28, 2023

I’m quite the frequent hate-scroller of far-right Twitter accounts. Call it “research” on what the far-right is saying about LGBTQ folks, or my Two Minutes Hate a la 1984. I scroll through the posts about kids needing to be homeschooled just because a school has pride flags hanging in front and calling gay teachers groomers by virtue of them being gay — which, being a lesbian educator myself, always sends a chill down my spine. Fairly tame for these accounts, on any given day.

And then I see it — the kind of post that always makes me roll my eyes. A post about The Blind, a film rejected by “two big Hollywood studios” (they don’t name which) because it depicted Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame committing to his Christian faith.

I’ve heard this refrain a thousand times before. The underlying implication is always thus: Hollywood is a Godless cesspool that maligns the Christian infecting American minds with their perverted, atheist, woke agenda. They look back with fondness on the Hollywood of yore, when Biblical epics the likes of The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur and Passion of the Christ were the blockbusters.

But then I pause. I think about the fact that I don’t know if I’ve ever actually seen a Christian lesbian anywhere in the media before, or if I’ve seen a Christian character in mainstream media depicted with genuine respect instead of being framed as stupid or backward or annoying because of their faith. I think about Carrie or The Whale or The Devil All the Time and so many other films with one-liners about Christians being foolish, the jaded voice in my head saying I told you so.

If I were a different kind of Christian, I would probably turn to the “persecution complex” style of Christian media popularized by the God’s Not Dead franchise with its denouncement of the atheist intellectual sphere. But, tempted as I am to agree with these far-right commentators, I can’t. While they parrot the same trite, tired lines about “the good old days of Hollywood,” decry the supposed moral degeneration of the entertainment industry, and pump out five more God’s Not Dead installments, they totally ignore the genre where deeply religious, devout Christian characters are turned to for guidance instead of shunned.

The horror genre.

Storm Reid and Taissa Farmiga in The Nun 2
Art by Lyvie Scott

Yes, the horror genre — the genre that all sorts of weirdos and lovers of the macabre have been flocking to for decades. In the supernatural horror subgenre specifically there’s a more radical, genuine acknowledgement of God, the Devil, and Christianity than any genre because countless priests, exorcists, and other such believers are the heroes. To me, it feels rather strange that so many Christians write off these movies as satanic when the whole point of them is to defeat the demons who terrorize and possess the innocent. Doubly strange, because they believe those entities exist and hold power, but think showing them, even in these faith-centric movies, is “letting the Devil in.” Hmm!

The realization hit me like a brick about midway through, of all movies, The Nun II. (Please bear with me.) At the start of the film, the Vatican calls upon Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) to investigate a series of strange suicides and spontaneous combustions of clergy that appear to be spreading from Romania to France — ones they believe are linked to the powerful demon Valak, whom she fought once before. She brings along with her a doubtful-yet-curious novice, Debra (Storm Reid), to investigate and after much research, discovers that Valak is searching for a lost icon: the Eyes of Saint Lucy. (The Eyes, conveniently, can be found at a monastery-turned vineyard-turned-girls boarding school where her old friend Frenchie works. As you do.) She succeeds in finding them, but it’s too late to actually use them to kill Valak; the demon absorbs their power and attempts to kill Irene.

But in the eleventh hour, Sister Irene reminds herself of her faith. She remembers her late mother’s words of reassurance and encouragement to believe in God and her visions, and she stops the demon from killing her. It’s a miracle, but she still needs to damn Valak to Hell. In a stroke of genius (or, perhaps, divine inspiration) Irene calls on Debra to help her pray over broken caskets of wine; and since Debra previously expressed lack of faith in the act of transubstantiation, this is a huge display of belief and faith. And these two young women, not trained in the Eucharist and forbidden from performing it by the Catholic Church, are able to turn the wine into the Blood of Christ and kill Valak once and for all. To watch Debra put her trust in God and, for lack of a better phrase, have faith because Irene does, left me amazed. Their demonstration of faith is able to turn the tide of the holy battle and makes them triumphant. It’s a fearless display of God’s awesome power over the forces of evil.

At that moment, this essay was born. Sister Irene, I realized, was a genuine Christian heroine. She has faith that God exists and that He can protect her from any demonic adversary and say: you have no power over me. All very philosophical for a sequel franchise movie that only got 52% on Rotten Tomatoes, but representation can be found in the strangest places. I walked in with a desire to see Taissa be beautiful and be scared out of my mind, but left feeling more affirmed in my faith than ever before.

The most successful horror franchise of late, The Conjuring, is probably the most notable and visible depiction of Christianity in mainstream media today. The franchise’s recurring characters, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga), and Sister Irene are all deeply devout Catholics whose faith makes them the agentful hero who rescues the innocent, instead of the ignorant villain out to persecute unbelievers. Without question, The Conjuring accepts that this world is dark, scary, and full of forces outside our control — and offers the unwavering perspective that the existence, power, and presence of God are real in a way that God’s Not Dead or Heaven is For Real never could.

Taissa Farmiga in The Nun 2
Art by Lyvie Scott

Take Ed and Lorraine, the real-life husband-and-wife team of everyday believers and demon hunters that the Conjuring franchise is centered around. Ed was the only non-priest permitted by the Catholic Church to perform exorcisms, guided by Lorraine’s ability to see and navigate the spirit world. They travel around the country, debunking paranoid haunting claims and genuine cases of possession alike. When Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) attends one of their lectures desperate for answers about her daughter’s sleepwalking, her mysterious bruises, and their mysteriously killed dog, Lorraine begs Ed to take the case.

Throughout the investigation, the Warrens are depicted as upstanding and moral people who want to use their faith to help those in their hour of need. When the Church finds out that the Perron daughters are unbaptized, they refuse to help, but Ed and Lorraine, ever the do-gooders and protectors, stay and fight with the Perrons. Lorraine gives some of their faith to Carolyn as she struggles against the witch possessing her, and is able to successfully damn it to Hell. Without her unwavering faith in the power of God, Lorraine would have never been able to do this act.

As a Christian woman watching these movies, it’s impossible not to identify with Lorraine and Sister Irene. I was raised Catholic, even made my Confirmation as an adult before leaving and becoming more Protestant than Catholic. These women are praised for their spiritual gifts because they are in a genre where those abilities are valued. In any other genre, they’d be called weird. Delusional. Mentally ill. Hysterical. It’s rare that Christian women are depicted as anything other than meek and submissive or ignorant and hateful, but The Conjuring franchise has always loved its powerful women. And they have it all! They’re traditionally feminine, devout, and kind-hearted — but those are the things that make them such capable heroines.

Most Christian media defines what a “good Christian woman” is along lines of submission and obedience to a husband. But Sister Irene has no husband; as a nun, a bride of Christ, she answers only to the Lord. When she decides to finally take her vows in The Nun, it’s what gives her the strength and courage to fight Valak for the first time. If she had any doubts about the sisterhood before, they were wiped clear with the decision to officially embrace life as a woman of God. In the face of the demonic and the unknown, Irene publicly commits to God for strength; it’s only through this visible, ritual act that she can enter the battle of good and evil and come out with her soul intact. And even though the Catholic Church excludes women from virtually every major Church duty, putting nuns the lowest on their pecking order, the Vatican calls on Irene again in The Nun II as an exorcist because of her powerful visions and experience with Valak. Irene isn’t uppity or dangerous because of her discernment; she’s valued and necessary for the mission of God.

(I actually briefly considered becoming a nun before realizing that I am definitely not cut out for the #NunLife, even though I think it’s a beautiful academic and spiritual pursuit. I now teach at a Jesuit institution in Boston, so I see nuns pretty much every single day.)

Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson in The Conjuring
Art by Lyvie Scott

It’s not even the case for Lorraine, who is a wife and a mother, because her strong spiritual discernment gives her an equal place beside Ed. He doesn’t see her visions as “delusional”; they’re foundational to the demon-hunting they embark on together. In The Conjuring 2, when Lorraine confesses that the reason she locked herself away for eight days is because she saw a premonition of Ed’s death, he doesn’t take pause; he says that they’re a gift from God and that she might be powerful enough to prevent it. He takes them in hand and uses them to guide his diagnosis of a possession. She speaks, and he listens. Compared to final girls who are forced to fight for their lives in the face of horror, Lorraine is a shining example of having a support system to protect you from and affirm your fears.

In The Devil Made Me Do It, Lorraine is the only one who can sense that the demon possessing Arne and formerly his brother was a curse; she can even tell which murder weapons were used for which crime. She has to take charge in investigations, because she’s the only one other than the possessed who can see the demons and spirits lurking in the home. Her overwhelming distress when investigating the Hodgsons in The Conjuring 2 hits particularly close to home for me. I started sensing things when my sister passed in 2009, and ever since then I can feel forces pulling at me when I walk into a Church. And there’s something just… really nice about getting to see women like Lorraine and Irene who receive visions — ostensibly from God — and not be mocked but rather praised for their connection to God.

There are few places where women of God get to hold narrative power outside of horror and The Conjuring franchise. When Ed Warren defends Lorraine against skeptics by shouting that his wife’s gift is not a sideshow attraction to cops or on TV, or Sister Irene reassures the skeptics in her convent, I get an undeniable rush of validation. And more importantly, these are stories of everyday believers, not the clergy we typically turn to for guidance on all things related to God, the Bible, and faith. The Conjuring’s co-writer Chad Hayes said that if he “can expose people to this kind of story where they realize, ‘Wow, I have the power of faith. I can do this within myself. I just have to believe,’” then he’s done his job — and I think he’s more than proven that with women like Lorraine Warren and Sister Irene.

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