In an age of corporate marketing, movie audiences, more than ever, are divided into tidy demographic slivers, even if some of the slivers are pretty big (e.g., teenage fanboys). One demo that has received increasing attention from the industry over the last decade is the faith-based audience: evangelicals and other Christians. Hollywood first saw the light of their box-office clout in 2004, when Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” became the “Star Wars” of faith-based cinema. Ever since then, though, evangelicals have been targeted almost exclusively with painstakingly wholesome message movies — dramas of feel-good middle-class holiness like “Heaven Is for Real,” “God’s Not Dead,” “War Room,” and the recent sick-child-healed-by-God drama “Miracles From Heaven,” starring Jennifer Garner, which had a total domestic gross of $91 million. At their best, these movies exert a disarmingly virtuous and chaste appeal; at their worst, they edge into the pious and the treacly. Good or bad, they’re a genre unto themselves, and they have fed a perception of the faith-based audience as G-rated pursuers of storybook uplift.
We do not, however, think of evangelical moviegoers as seekers out of grisly, flesh-ripping horror and ghostly figures rising from the dead (well, okay, except for “The Passion of the Christ”). We don’t think of them as fans of over-the-top fright films. But maybe we should, given that the most popular faith-based drama of the summer season so far is “The Conjuring 2.”
It’s a movie about screams and omens, a spectre who looks like Marilyn Manson in a nun’s habit, and a girl who speaks in a deep dark voice from beyond the grave. Mostly, though, it’s a movie about how God can rescue us from all these things. Especially if His spirit is conjured by two nice married Christian channelers of the paranormal who dress in cozy televangelist sweaters. Were faith-based moviegoers a key element of the ticket-buying horde that, this weekend, made “The Conjuring 2” into a $40 million-grossing hit sequel? There’s one intriguing indicator: Back in 2005 (the year after “The Passion of the Christ”), a little movie called “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” snuck into theaters on the second weekend of September — usually the deadest weekend of the year — and shocked everyone by making $30 million in three days. The picture was heavily marketed to evangelicals, who turned up in droves. In the war between God and Satan, fought on the battleground of an innocent girl’s body, they had come to see God triumph — or, perhaps, just to see God, period. He is, after all, kind of a character in these movies.
He has been going all the way back to “The Exorcist,” which opened at the end of 1973 — yes, it was a Christmas movie! — and launched a new age of religious horror. At the time, the film seemed a complete aberration, an apocalyptic Biblical domestic gross-out creepshow, with a wizened Catholic priest as hero, launched right into the sleazy wilderness of the godless ’70s. In essence, “The Exorcist” was the super-explicit sequel to “Rosemary’s Baby,” a movie that had featured the infamous 1966 Time magazine cover asking “Is God Dead?” “The Exorcist” answered that by saying, “Yes, the devil has now arrived — and no, he’s not a baby anymore.” (By the time of “The Omen,” two years later, he would grow up into a schoolboy who squints at you. You could put all three movies together into a box set called “Raising Satan.”)
At the time, no one was talking about faith-based moviegoers. In fact, no one was talking very much at all about the rise of a new evangelical movement in America. Yet we were just two years away from electing our first born-again president, Jimmy Carter, and it was during his term that Jerry Falwell began to mobilize the forces of what would become known as the religious right. Did “The Exorcist” exert an early influence on that rise? It’s regarded by many, quite simply, as the scariest horror movie ever made, but perhaps another way to think of it might be as the world’s most graphically intense and disturbing evangelical recruitment film. The power of Christ compels you to see this movie! And, more than that, to believe in it as a parable of what’s happening in the world.
Tales of demonic possession are now a full-scale horror-chiller category, and “The Conjuring 2,” like most entries in the genre, does variations on the sounds and images that “The Exorcist” made into a kind of ritual: the writhing and the levitating, the liturgical devil voice, the whole freakish midnight theatrics of demonic takeover. That “The Conjuring 2” begins as a haunted-house film and turns into an exorcist movie doesn’t seem to matter all that much. Ever since the ’70s, the two forms have been fused. If you’re someone who — God forbid — doesn’t actually believe in all this stuff, you might even be tempted to think that there’s an obvious cinematic (rather than otherworldly) explanation for the two “documented” cases from the ’70s that carried the mystique of the haunted house into the modern media age. The Lutz family moved into the soon-to-be-famous eye-windowed house in Amityville, Long Island, in December, 1975, and moved out 28 days later. The much-buzzed-about haunting in a council house in North London that “The Conjuring 2” is based on began in 1977. If you ask what was going in the hearts and minds of the people occupying those two houses, it’s tempting to think of both cases as the families’ suggestive psychological replaying of “The Exorcist.”
Taken together, the two cases add up to the Roswell of paranormal activity: a tantalizing myth of inhuman sightings that has become, in the culture, a kind of catechism — a testament to the existence of the uncanny. But also, in the very absence of definitive documentation (sorry, but that photograph of a girl in England who looks like she’s jumping off a bed doesn’t cut it), a test of faith. Ed and Lorraine Warren, the ghost hunters in “The Conjuring 2,” want to send the demons back to where they came from, and as the film presents it, the only real tool they have is the power of their Christian love. A movie like this one teases out the secret underpinning of the haunted-house genre — that whether we happen to be evangelicals or just good old moviegoers out for a scare, we all, in our childish hearts, want to believe. In the things that go bump in the night, and in the transcendent force that makes them go away.