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Is Your House Haunted? Blame your Wife! Patriarchal Representations of Women as Conduits for Evil in The Conjuring

By Emma Williamson

James Wan’s 2013 The Conjuring marries modern horror with the sordid drama of early-modern witchcraft pamphlets, while bringing the gendered perspective of the latter along with it. The heavily Catholic narrative follows the Perron family as they struggle with growingly strange occurrences in their new home. Carolyn and Roger, as well as their five daughters, are terrorized by their new haunted house and call in the help of self-proclaimed demonologists, Ed and Lorraine Warren, to ward off the presence. The film explores a distinctly feminine vision of monstrosity as the Warrens come to understand the demon’s historical connections to women, witches, and specifically, mothers. The Conjuring juxtaposes conceptions of good and bad mothers, glorifies men’s heroic impenetrability, and perpetuates misogynistic constructs of women’s susceptibility to evil. In doing so, the film reveals its true horror: the idea that women are the conduits of evil, and men have been right to try to save them from themselves for centuries. 

The film’s central mother, Carolyn, embodies the gender roles that patriarchal society idealizes for mothers; however, this maternal image is coupled with an inability to ward off evil or protect her family. Carolyn’s husband, Roger, is the one who investigates the first paranormal occurrence and affectionately brings his mysteriously sleepwalking daughter back to bed, all while Carolyn is nowhere to be seen (23:40). While not outwardly criticizing the mother, this first instance of protective, fatherly power establishes that Roger is in control and can manage the forces at play. When Carolyn and Roger hear Christine screaming early on, Carolyn cannot get in the room until Roger breaks in the door. It is Roger who investigates and finds nothing in the room, and it is his arms Christine goes to for comfort and safety (33:50). The gender roles presented during this initial demonic encounter establish that while Carolyn tries to be a good mother, only the father can save his family and control the situation. The film continues to express women’s ineptness coupled with the importance of patriarchal values when Roger, who is the sole breadwinner, leaves to provide for his family and the real horrors begin. When he is gone, the mother and daughters are exposed to the evil forces Carolyn cannot protect them against, and the demon takes full advantage. Terrorizing the daughters one by one, the demons pounce from above and screech from blood-soaked mouths. Calling out for help from their mother, the daughters are left to fend off the evil themselves as Carolyn is thrown into the basement, screaming for help herself. Order is only restored when Roger heroically returns home and the horrors that had overwhelmed the house cease. Roger does not even see the monstrous forces behind his family’s fears during these first occurrences, suggesting a blatant association between women and susceptibility to the demonic (42:56). The dark entity latches onto solely feminine spaces to suggest that women are the conduit to evil; it is through women, or around them, that evil ensues. Ed Warren later suggests that the “most psychologically vulnerable” who are chosen to be terrorized by demons (44:50). By continually having Roger exert control and not see the demonic entities, the film situates men outside of this “vulnerable” state. This not only perpetuates the patriarchal idea that women are weak and need men to protect them, but also the dangerous idea that women are defenceless in the face of evil forces that seek to overtake them. 

The film presents a patriarchal dichotomy that associates women with a weakness to the forces of evil and a masculine need to control that weakness through the dynamic of Ed and Lorraine Warren’s marriage. Ed constantly attempts to marginalize and limit his wife’s efforts in their demonology exploits to “protect” her from the evil forces they reckon with. Lorraine’s clairvoyant gift is the only effective piece of their demon-hunting tirade, despite this, however, he still believes she is a weak and helpless woman in need of protection. Ed imparts the narrative that when she uses her gift, it “takes a piece of her” (1:09:53). While painting Lorraine as a victim of her own abilities, Ed attempts to argue that his need to control her and her choices—despite her desire to continue her work—is only for the sake of protecting her from herself. He represents the patriarchal idea that men need to keep women in check because, left to their own volition, they become a danger to themselves. This idea is reaffirmed when Ed needs to save Lorraine after she, with her smaller frame and female curiosity, investigates the Perrons’ hollow wall and falls through to the basement, injuring herself (1:17:14). Her helplessness emphasizes the film’s undercurrent that suggests women who seek out knowledge separate from their husbands will be punished. Even at the film’s climax, after Lorraine discovers the demon’s motivations and habits of behaviour, Ed still demands she leave the room during his pseudo-exorcism because he “can’t lose [her]” (1:39:22). Ed completely ignores the fact that Lorraine has had the power and strength to uncover everything they needed to know about the demonic presence, and reverts to the patriarchal, masculine need to control women under the pretence of protection. Other women in the film also reaffirm these patriarchal standards. Carolyn tells Ed that the “kids feel a lot safer with you around,” yet does not mention nor include Lorraine in that statement (1:06:12). This emphasizes that in the idealized patriarchal vision within the film, it is the man, despite all the woman’s contributions, that will save and protect the family.

The film perpetuates misogynistic constructs of women’s susceptibility to evil through its central villain and anti-mother figure, Bathsheba Sherman. As Lorraine investigates the house’s evil origins, she learns that Bathsheba was a witch who had sacrificed her newborn baby to Satan and cursed the house and the land before hanging herself. To add veracity to this story, Lorraine cites Bathsheba’s lineage, linking her to a witch hung in the Salem Witch Trials (56:02). Here, the film presents its most horrifyingly misogynistic moment; positing that the persecuted women killed during the tragic seventeenth-century religious mania were not in fact victims, but instead Satanists, bad women who deserved their premature deaths. The Witch’s connections to the tragedy at Salem, Massachusets reasserts a woman-hating attitude deeply buried within patriarchal structures that cites women’s historic susceptibility to evil is in fact real and provides evidence for their crimes even centuries later. This historical “evidence” reaffirms the idea that women are inherently weak, and men have been right to persecute them all this time. The feminine language around Bathsheba’s demonic presence also emphasizes a distinctly feminine connection to evil. When the ghost of Rory’s mother whispers, “she made me do it” she reminds the audience not only that she was weak enough to listen to evil forces, but also that the forces were indeed female (1:19:02). These cycles of female hysteria and evil, cut off from the masculine world, are tragedies that Bathsheba forces women, and specifically mothers, to commit in a loop of private, maternal atrocities. This perpetuates the idea that the worst thing a woman could ever be is a bad mother or a mother who kills their own child, feminizing monstrosity through a patriarchal lens. When Bathsheba possesses Carolyn, Carolyn is unable to leave the house, or else the witch will kill her (1:31:40). Despite cursing all her land, not just the house, when sacrificing herself to the devil, Bathsheba’s domain of control exists only within the walls of the home. As the home is a private, female space for womanly duties, the film’s patriarchal lens extends to suggest that the female demon can only exude her power within the female realm. The motif of female anxiety connects the mothers and anti-mother alike: both Carolyn and Lorraine wonder “how could a mother kill her own child?” and question how a mother could be so evil (59:43). Lorraine answers that it is because children are the greatest “gift” from God for women, it is the greatest “offence” against him to kill them (59:50). Even in the basest ideas of evil, women still have no agency of will separate from the maternal vision of patriarchy. The film thematically asserts that motherhood is what defines women, and even the evillest among them cannot escape this patriarchal identification. 

At the film’s climax, the women are unable to assert the agency they need to overcome the all-consuming evil forces, and become passive objects for the men control and save. At the climax of the film, Roger is once again absent and, tempted without the masculine, patriarchal presence to keep order, Carolyn takes the children back to the house to be killed (1:29:30). The domesticated space of the home is the realm where visions of the mother and anti-mother are effectively juxtaposed to reaffirm the film’s notion that the worst thing a woman can do is kill her child. As Ed and Roger circle Carolyn, they create an image of a female victim surrounded by male bystanders attempting to save her from her own weakness. When Roger says “leave my wife alone” as they try to save her, she becomes a possession to be fought over, not a human being to be saved (1:33:52). As Roger continues to encourage Carolyn to fight against Bathsheba, Ed encourages Roger’s actions, and focuses on his attempts to bring her out of possession, instead of crediting Carolyn with fighting for herself (1:41:20). When Lorraine finally appeals to Carolyn’s maternal instinct, it becomes clear that Carolyn has no agency separate from motherhood. The film presents Carolyn as if it is her supernatural connection to womanly maternal love, not her own strength and willpower, brought her back from the edge of evil. The film ends reaffirming the importance of patriarchal structures when Ed and Roger give each other a knowing look while the women around them are overcome with emotion, as if acknowledging that they, the men, are the protectors and controllers of everything around them. 

The Conjuring disturbingly reaffirms that traditional gender roles and patriarchal social structures as the only thing that keeps women from succumbing to the forces of evil. It perpetuates stereotypes and victim-blaming based solely around gender, while also stripping women of identity apart from domesticity and motherhood. Carolyn and Lorraine are differing embodiments of what happens when a good wife and mother stays Godly or strays toward the path of weakness. The film argues that it is women’s fault that witchcraft and maternal evil continue to take place, and takes a page from the witch-craze ideology that believes that when women are alone and left to their own volition, cycles of dangerous monstrosity occur. This patriarchal propaganda, dressed as a horror film, problematically promises that while innocent husbands attempt to protect their wives, it is in fact these women that are behind what goes bump in the night. 

Work Cited

Wan, James. The Conjuring. New Line Cinema, 2013.

About the Author: Emma is a third-year Honours English Literature student and varsity athlete on the McGill Alpine Ski Team. She has loved writing her entire life and always knew she wanted to be an English major. Emma’s World Cinemas minor gives her a keen interest in film criticism as well, and an enjoyment in close reading the subtext of films to understand how they creatively mirror the world around us in fictional universes.