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Arts and Culture

Family Ghosts

Movies may be scary, but family always presents the truest terror.

Dorothy Woodend 17 Aug

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other Friday for The Tyee. Find her previous reviews here.

I am afraid of many things: sharks, large spiders, zombies and tight spaces, to name only a few. So naturally I go see films about these things. The things that scare me the most haven't changed much since I was a kid -- a dark night, a remote farmhouse and things that go thud. Add in a little demonic possession and you have a film that causes every nerve ending to leap to attention. Like a dazzle of tiny signal fires that ignite up and down the length of my body, every spark screams, "Get the hell out of there!"

I haven't been to a film that caused this type of reaction for a while, until recently. And even as it was happening, some analytical part of my brain, the section that sits apart, said "That's interesting."

The Conjuring is a throwback to classic 1970s horror, the heyday of possession, if you will. Tiny touches from other horror films abound throughout: the buzzing snow of a dead TV signal, a terrifying dolly with a rictus grin and crazy eyes, and some truly horrific turtleneck ensembles. The film is based on the real-life cases of the Warrens (Ed and Lorraine), a couple of paranormal investigators who solved cases and occasionally exorcised demons.

Like a Scooby-Doo team, but with no dog and no awesome van, the Warrens' fame coincided with the most famous possessions of the '70s. The Amityville Horror was based on one of the most well known of their cases. Whether or not you believe in spooks and demons, the storm of controversy that surrounds the Warrens only takes the most cursory of pokes on ye lode interwebs before it all comes tumbling out. Fakes, right-wing Christian nut jobs, charlatans or soldiers of righteousness, etc., their various case files have already spawned a legion of Hollywood films. But the story of the Perron family, highlighted in The Conjuring, would give even the most doubting of Thomas's some pause.

Something in that house

When the Perrons moved to a rambling old manse in 1971, they had little inkling what was waiting for them. Perhaps if they had, they would have rented a nice basement suite somewhere. But the poor suckers sank all of their pennies into this ancient farmhouse and moved kit, kaboodle and five kids. The only member with an inkling that something was awry was the sensible family dog, who took one sniff of the place, and said, "No goddamn way."

The animals are always the first to know.

The animals in my family (and I don't mean my brothers) did similar stuff in my grandparent's farmhouse. You only had to watch them for a little bit to know that something weird was going down. One particular cat sat at the bottom of the stairs and simply stared up into the darkness of the attic. Another hissed, spat and arched its back at some invisible thing. "Look at that crazy cat," my grandfather would say. But I knew that the cats knew something we didn't know.

There was something in that house.

The Green House is what we called my grandparents' place. It was built by a man named Pierre Longueval, and so named because it was painted a shade of pale green. In addition to the house itself, the traces of Pete's work were scattered around the farm: an ancient bit of fencing here, a touch of human intervention there. My grandparents moved to the farm in the '50s, long after Pete was dead. Drowned in Kootenay Lake. The story was that he and his girlfriend had been fishing in the middle of the lake when a storm had come up. The lake is prone to sudden violent squalls that blow out of nowhere and turn the blue-green water an ugly shade of grey, topping it with yellowish flags of foam. Their canoe tipped and Pete urged his girlfriend to swim to shore, assuring her he would be right behind her. When she made it to land and looked back, he was gone.

When telling the story, my grandmother maintained that his work boots had filled with water and he'd gone right down. The image of Pete slowly sinking into the blackness to join the host of other bodies that purportedly reside at the bottom of Kootenay Lake resounded in my head like someone hitting a church bell with a hammer.

It was at this point that we would start making noises at my grandmother that we didn't want to hear any more stories. But she was only just getting going. The dandelion wine was kicking in, and things were starting to ramp up. The ghost stories began with Pete, as he had been the first to die. His ghost showed up every so often, but these interactions were pretty benign, and no one ever seemed that scared of him. He opened and slammed doors on a regular basis. But other than putting in the occasional appearance and making some noise, he didn't actually do much.

Other ghostly happenings occurred in the Green House. Once, a mysterious figure showed up and hovered in the doorway of my grandparent's bedroom. My grandfather, every inch a hard-bitten skeptic, would get up and walk through it to prove it wasn't there. But the ghost only shook apart and then shimmered back together. It was another entity that shook the house and the family to its foundations. Things started slowly, with noises in the upstairs part of the house like someone was moving furniture. But of course, there was no one up there.

Watching through laced fingers

So too, things start small in the Perron household. A creaking door, clocks that stop at the same time every night and mysterious bruises on the body of the mother of the household. When the family discovers an eerie basement that is blocked off and boarded up, they traipse down below to poke about. Even when you know exactly what's coming -- an ominous waltz of piano keys, or a faulty light switch tipping you off -- it still works. To its credit, the film provides ample space to get to know the people involved and the physical place they inhabit. Hallways, doorways, empty rooms and staircases are all given long, measured attention. The camera glides through the halls, padding along like a big cat. When the action begins to heat up, this aspect becomes increasingly important. It is critical to know where exactly you are in a house, so that you can try to escape the evil that would consume you.

The action begins with a gentle tug on the foot of a sleeping girl, but it is a game of clap and catch that sets things in motion in a more fundamental way. Ghosts have a weird sense of humour, it seems. Or maybe they're just jerks that play with humans like a cat with a mouse, pulling them this way and that and then locking them in the basement and turning out the lights. The most terrifying moments mount up with near-orchestral detail: first the woodwinds, then the muttering cello and finally the shrieking violin. Someone once told me that if you wanted a good survey of 20th century composition, the soundtrack of The Exorcist wasn't a bad place to start. The album Tubular Bells is pretty terrifying all on its own, but George Crumb's piece Black Angels will convince you to douse yourself in holy water and pray for divine intervention.

The film adds layer after layer of disquiet, like a good paint job, thickening slowly in increments of atmosphere. By the time Mama Perron is locked in the basement with only a box of matches to cut the absolute blackness, you will be reduced to a shaking wreck. I cannot attest fully to all the details of the film at this point, as I was watching only a tiny corner of the screen through my laced fingers. Telling a good scary story is an artful thing, and I should know, as I learned at the feet of a master.

Towards the end of the film is where the body memory of terror kicked in and sucked me backwards through time to childhood nights spent at my grandparents' house. When my grandmother started telling ghost stories, initially it was all fun and games -- a bit of spookiness and tall tales before bedtime. But it didn't take long before things got more serious. By the time bedtime rolled around and my sister and I had headed upstairs to the attic, I remember terror so profound that it morphed into a weird form of fatalism.

"Maybe it's just better to have it over and done with," I thought as the house creaked and groaned, and I tried to keep my sister awake by poking her in the back. The lights from a lone car on the highway crawled up and over the ceiling and then faded away. The idea that at least one other person was alive and awake gave me a tiny spark of hope like a match lit to ward off the darkness, but it burnt out just as easily. "This is what it feels like to die of fear," I thought. Death actually seemed a better option than finally coming face to face with the thing in the Green House.

A family fright

Like The Exorcist before it, The Conjuring reaches a furious climax with a scene of demonic possession that harkens back to the days of Regan and Captain Howdy. Even typing these words makes me nervous.

In my grandmother's story, the first indication that something more malevolent than Pete's ghost taking up residence began with noises in the attic, but progressed quickly to more intimate encounters. Grandmother maintained that something had followed my aunt home from Nelson after she got involved with a bunch of Satanists. "They sent something after her" is how she described it. Whatever "it" was, it didn't take long before it progressed from banging about in the attic to attacking my grandmother in her bed.

It was at this point in the narrative that one resigned oneself. There was no getting out, there was only getting through, getting to the end of the story. "I knew it wanted to get in me, to possess me," said my grandmother, curling her fingers into claws and baring her teeth to physically embody this malignant evil. She morphed in front of our eyes from a funny and loving woman into a creature right out of hell. The story came to a thundering, operatic crescendo.

After being bounced up and down in her bed, choked, and supernaturally stalked, my grandmother decided to stage a showdown. She put a bible beside her bed and went to sleep. That night when the violent visitation began, she leapt up and commanded the evil thing to begone in a voice that channeled Joan Sutherland. I pictured this scene like a Cecil B. DeMille production. There is glowing light, smiting action, and a clarion call of justice. But mostly there is a soundtrack, lifted whole from the final scene of Gounod's Faust when the heavenly host descends and vanquishes evil with shining swords. This final moment satisfied my appetite for holy vengeance. I've been looking for its equivalent in horror films ever since.

Why we're attracted to the things that terrify us is understandable. The more curious part is why we come to love them. After a while they feel like home. My grandmother is dead and only her stories survive. I now watch my mother tell these same stories while my son listens in rapt attention, riveted by details worn as smooth and strong as river rocks, and feel something come full circle.

Family is, was, and always will be terrifying.  [Tyee]

Read more: Film

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