Religion Cannot Save You: Mothers and the Function of Womanhood in The Conjuring
Written by Taylor Hunsberger as part of the Valkyries Horror Festival focused on Women in Horror.
The Conjuring of Motherhood
The year is 1971. The Perron family has just moved into an old house on Rhode Island. They have five daughters and a dog, Sadie. Since this is a horror film, Sadie will serve as what I like to call “Chekhov’s Pet”; the family animal who mysteriously dies at the hands of a demonic spirit. As the family piles into the house and moves in their things, Sadie refuses to enter, and is found dead outside the next morning. Thus begins The Conjuring, the 2013 haunted house feature based on the real-life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren. Once the Perrons begin experiencing unusual occurrences, they call in the Warrens to investigate the house in the hopes of expelling the demonic forces.
Though religion is a common theme in the horror genre, The Conjuring franchise is engulfed in a strict Catholicism. This series holds the belief that if your family is being haunted by a demonic presence, the way to rid yourselves of the spirit is to devote yourself to God and perform a Christian ritual. The Christian traditions of the film extend too into the portrayal of gender. The Perrons are a solid example of a nuclear family with a mom, dad, and five daughters. Carolyn chooses to become a mother of her own accord, as does demonologist Lorraine, who also has a daughter. These women follow the traditional expectations of caretakers; a tradition often exemplified in the “ideal” Christian household.
A Woman in Limbo
Carolyn is the matriarch of the family and becomes the primary target for possession by the demon spirit of Bathsheba, a previous owner of the house. The story goes that Bathsheba sacrificed her child to Satan and then hanged herself in the back yard. The ghost of Bathsheba lives in the house, taking advantage of each incoming woman. Bathsheba then possess the women and uses them as vessels to sacrifice more children. Though a reasoning for this action is never given by Lorraine, the rules of this game are dictated by the religious affiliation of each woman. Bathsheba is acting in accordance with her dedication to Satan, and Lorraine is working in accordance to her dedication to a Christian God. Carolyn, however, is a presence in the middle; at a purgatory of sorts. She exists between the two as a non-religious woman.
Though the film would originally have you believe that Christianity is Carolyn’s savior, it’s much more complicated and nuanced than that. Bathsheba and Lorraine are essentially fighting over who gains control over Carolyn. In turn, they communicate to the audience which version of womanhood is “right” or “acceptable.” Bathsheba possesses Carolyn to condemn her decision to become a mother and align herself with the patriarchal expectations of women. However, even as Lorraine tries to save Carolyn through Christian ritual, she is haunted by visions of her own daughter dying, plaguing her with the fear of a violent future for her child.
The Exorcism of Carolyn Perron
During Carolyn’s exorcism, Lorraine tells her to remember a moment she’ll never forget: running along the beach with her family. The upbringing and care of Carolyn’s family is the result of genuine love for her husband and daughters. This too, is a testament to the validity of the women who desire this familial life. Carolyn remains a woman free of religion, showcasing a happy medium, continuing to muddle The Conjuring’s stance on the women characters and their lifestyles. Carolyn chooses to have a family, one that is simple and supportive, but her absence from religion makes her vulnerable to possession. Even Carolyn’s positioning as a representation of both ideals is condemned as not being an appropriate form of womanhood.
Bathsheba’s origin points to her own condemnation of motherhood. Now, however, she must live out eternity warning other women of the danger that may lie ahead. When the woman who is haunting these other generations of mothers is also disturbed and cannot rest, it begs the question: what IS the correct positioning and role of women? Bathsheba is a figure against the Christian traditions of motherhood and must suffer for eternity, but the mothers she haunts must suffer, too. The moral of this story is that no matter the choice, women will be forced to live within the confines of an inherently patriarchal culture.
Thank you to Taylor for her piece “Religion Cannot Save You: Mothers and the Function of Womanhood in The Conjuring“. You can check out more of her work here and here.
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