This review was originally published on Film Fisher.
Russell Kirk, commenting on his own ghost stories, once wrote:
“Alarming though (I hope) readers may find these tales, I did not write them to impose meaningless terror upon the innocent… What I have attempted, rather, are experiments in the moral imagination. Readers will encounter elements of parable and fable. Gerald Heard said to me once that the good ghost story must have for its kernel some clear premise about the character of human existence – some theological premise, if you will. Literary naturalism is not the only path to apprehension of reality. All important literature has some ethical end; and the tale of the preternatural – as written by George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and other masters – can be an instrument for the recovery of the moral order.
The better uncanny stories are underlain by a healthy concept of the character of evil. Defying nature, the necromancer conjures up what ought not to rise again this side of Judgment Day. But these dark powers do not rule the universe; by bell, book, and candle, symbolically at least, we can push them down under…
As a literary form, then, the uncanny tale can be a means for expressing truths enchantingly.”
If we take Kirk’s sense of what makes for a good ghost story – tales about human experience grounded in theological premises, tales which remind us that dark powers do not, in fact, finally rule the universe, and tales that enchant us in the execution – we may well conclude that The Conjuring 2 is the best Russell Kirk ghost story that Kirk never wrote.
The Conjuring 2 is an example of the kind of movie that conventional wisdom tells us cannot be: a sequel that is better than its (very good) predecessor; a haunted house movie or, more accurately, another haunted house movie that nonetheless strikes the viewer as vigorous and fresh; a horror movie that makes regular use of jump scares, but the kind that enhance the story rather than cheapening it.
Furthermore, and to the highest degree of countering our expectations, The Conjuring 2 is a film absolutely steeped in an upright moral order that is downright enchanting.
The audience enters the central narrative of The Conjuring 2 by following the four Hodgson children home from their school in North London. Once there, we meet the matriarch of this crew, Peggy (played by Frances O’Connor), who is (not unlike The Babadook‘s protagonist Amelia) a single mother eroding under the demands of raising and providing for her children alone in the squalor created when her husband abandoned the family not only physically but financially. In short order, we find out there has been no child support in months and the family dwells in a moldy and crumbling tenement where even the basic task of keeping clean clothes is made more difficult by failing plumbing.
If you are familiar with The Conjuring franchise, you already know it is based on the real-life careers of Ed and Lorraine Warren (played here by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), high-profile paranormal investigators who rose to prominence in the mid- to late 20th century. Prior to meeting the Hodgson family, we are reintroduced to the Warrens and go along with Lorraine as she experiences a powerful vision where she confronts a ghastly nun and sees the death of a man cloaked in shadow. So shaken by this vision is Lorraine that she insists to Ed that they take no new cases.
Back in the UK, things are going from bad to exponentially worse for the Hodgson family. The second youngest of the children, Janet, is experiencing escalating paranormal phenomenon, eventually manifesting the voice and personality of a hateful old man named Bill. Janet moves from channel to victim as Bill, who claims to be the spirit of a former tenant of the building now occupied by the Hodgsons, not only terrifies but also physically wounds the girl.
It is in this section of the film, a collection of scenes capturing the escalating chaos in the Hodgson home, that James Wan’s abilities as a visual storyteller present themselves for appreciation. Wan is the master of shading the darkness of his scenes in such a way that the ghostly presence in the corner is not so much revealed as slowly resolved. Lesser filmmakers (and lesser films) desperately reach for this delicate sense of an outline in the dark, representing both a real threat but, at the same time, the evocative power of the unknown. Wan makes this elusive visual effect his stock in trade with an almost aggravating ease.
The media finds out about the Hodgson family’s desperate circumstances, and this triggers the Catholic Church’s involvement. One of their American members reaches out to the Warrens. Lorraine, still terrified by her earlier encounter with evil, initially refuses, but eventually Ed, evidencing a strong moral compass, convinces her that they are only going to investigate the validity of the situation on behalf of the church.
At this point, The Conjuring 2 reveals that the Warrens’ marriage and faith are at the heart of this story. Quite literally in the middle of the movie, we see the couple within the context of the home and family they have created. Acting, generally speaking, is a strength of The Conjuring 2, but Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga truly captivate as Ed and Lorraine. The viewer is drawn in to not just the Warren home but even the Warren marriage, easily believing that the actors are a lovingly committed married couple whose work on behalf of others flows out of their own care for each other as spouses. Specifically, it is the Warrens’ commitment to help those in need that pushes Lorraine out of her fears about resuming their work.
When the Warrens land across the pond they get to work, setting up shop in the Hodgson residence and interacting with the family. Ed interviews the spirit tormenting young Janet and begins to fill out our understanding of the spirit named Bill. According to Janet’s supernaturally deep voice while allegedly under the thrall of the evil spirit, Bill died in the very recliner sitting in the corner of the family living room. Bill claims dominion over the house, hence the attacks on the family’s persons and peace. Ed Warren insists on confronting Bill’s claim to the house, and this on-going confrontation is where the major theme of the movie begins to emerge.
Ed Warren’s presence in the Hodgson’s household is nothing short of transformative. Ed is fearless in the face of the hostile supernatural presence. In fact, Ed begins to advocate for a more direct and active opposition to the spirit. He tells the family that Bill is nothing more than a bully and that bullies need to be stood up to. He begins to lead this charge in a number of ways.
At one point, Peggy remarks that when her husband left he took the music from the house. This is no metaphor; despite the children’s love for music, their father took every record from the home when he departed. Ed and Lorraine seize on this and bring back to the family a sackful of Elvis records. Sadly, one of the effects of the nasty’s spirit’s presence in the home was that the household’s electronics failed. Undaunted, Ed picks up a nearby guitar and, through a series of jokes and a corny-dad Elvis impression, soon has the children joining him in both smile and song.
Ed’s impact doesn’t end here. Soon we see him under the sink, fixing a leak while conversing with Janet. Next he rehangs a busted door and gets to taking care of a spraying clothes-washer line that featured prominently in the beginning of the film. Later, during another of Bill’s nasty manifestations, we find out that Ed’s example is catching on – rather than retreating from a darkened kitchen where scary noises are being made, one of the Hodgson boys advances, referencing Ed’s point about standing up to bullies. In short, Ed turns this family and its living space into a home.
We find that, above all, it is Ed’s faith – not just in helping others and doing the right thing – but his literal faith, typified in the crucifix he has worn since receiving it as a gift from his father during childhood, that is his most powerful weapon against the supernatural evil in the home, and the thing which empowers and drives his transformation of the Hodgson home and their circumstances.
The message that emerges from The Conjuring 2 is simply this: home is where the father is. More pointedly, home is where the faithful father is. The Hodgsons are a family with no father, and their lives are objectively and demonstrably the worse for it. Their biological father’s abandonment left the family exposed – exposed to grinding poverty, the stresses that accompany it, and bullies of all sorts. Ed reverses this trend, restoring function, hope, and faith to the home. Conversely, when Ed is eventually driven from the home through deception, the Hodgson family crumbles – emotionally and in terms of their safety.
It would behoove us, in the midst of all this father-centric cheer, to ask if the emphasis on Ed works out in such a way that the film becomes an empty-headed journey through misogyny. In answer, we must conclude: no, far from it. Peggy Hodgson is stalwart on behalf of her family and will not leave Janet during even the most frightening times. Even moreso, Lorraine Warren is an essential partner to Ed – the wisdom to his courage – without whom Ed would not be able to function, let alone serve such a restorative function. They are portrayed as soulmates – the ones who married each other because they were, for each other, the only one who truly believed the other. And for all of Ed’s bravery, the viewer also concludes that Lorraine gives no ground to Ed in terms of valor. In the course of the movie, she learns that the demonic nun is directly involved in Bill’s torment of the Hodgson family. The terrifying nun seen throughout the movie is a manifestation of a more powerful spirit who is using the Hodgson situation to hurt Lorraine by hurting Ed. Nonetheless, Lorraine faces the demon down and in the process comes to Ed’s aid, doing so in such a way that she saves both Ed and Janet.
The Conjuring 2 reveals itself to ultimately be a ghost story in which the realm of demons and malicious spirits gives way to the power of love, family, and faith in the end. Really, the only sad note about the film is that a story presenting this theme has to be set in the past because we have concluded, quite wrongly, that the world where a story like this can take place belongs to history, long before our own cynical age began.
Would it be fair to say that, by presenting such a strong statement about the positive effect of a courageous and faithful (in multiple senses of the word) father, partnered with a strong and insightful wife, that The Conjuring 2 presents any family dynamic without those elements as fatally incomplete and destined for destruction? No, that would go too far. What this film does do is unapologetically display the virtues of courage, faithfulness, and mutual dependence as authentically, compellingly beautiful.
And how does the film end? With Ed and Lorraine, back in their home, safe even if bearing the scars of the preceding events, taking one another’s hands in the living room to dance. In closing with this scene, Wan signals to everyone who sees that this story of demon nuns and the evil dead is much more a classical comedy than tragedy. More significantly, we find in the deliverance of the Hodgson family and the beauty of the Warren household a world, once given over to chaos, gloriously re-ordered. It really is quite enchanting.
 “A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale”