The Conjuring & “Bad” Witches

by Mike Duran · 15 comments

the-conjuring-poster

The Conjuring broke box office records in its debut weekend, beating out some much bigger budget movies. The movie’s generated a lot of press, not just in good reviews, but in the conversation it’s generated regarding demons and exorcism. While some are calling it the best “possession” film in years, others cite the theological  issues it raises for its appeal.

One plot element has received less press, but is pivotal to movie’s worldview.

*** Possible spoilers ahead ***

The Conjuring is said to be based on the true story of Ed and Lorraine Warren, world renowned paranormal investigators, who were called to help a family terrorized by a demonic female entity in a secluded farmhouse. Apparently, the ensuing possession relates to… a witch who was hung on their property during the Salem witch trials.

Earlier this week, Brian Godawa, Christian screenwriter and novelist, while critiquing The Conjuring for its absence of “the name of Christ” as a necessary component to true exorcism, praised the film for its positive portrayal of the Christian religion. Part of this was its depiction of “evil witches.” In The Conjuring: Got Demons? A Little of Jesus Goes a Long Way, Godawa writes:

The story depicts one of the original evils as being rooted in a witch from the Salem trial! Of course, in the Hollywood delusionary universe, witches don’t exist except as lies created by Christians in order to persecute. Well, here, we see that is a lie itself. Witchery is real and it is evil. Sorry, all you pagans. (bold mine)

But apparently, some are seeing this as a weakness of the film. In a guest essay at John Morehead’s TheoFantastique, Heather Greene, a film student as well as “an initiated Wiccan Priestess,” suggests that “the character of the Witch within Hollywood film language is derived from fictional constructs with little basis in reality. In other words, the Hollywood witch is not at all a caricature or representative of the modern day Wiccan, Heathen or Pagan practitioner.” In The Conjuring and Horror Depictions of Evil Witches, Greene summarizes:

From what I understand, The Conjuring… uses the legacy of the Salem Witch trials, steeped in Christian superstition, and brings that to life with occult practices. They step it closer to reality by burning-at-the-stakeclaiming the story is true. This is nothing new.

For modern Pagans who strive to demonstrate that real witches aren’t and have never been fearful figures, Hollywood’s perpetuation of this myth can be troublesome. However, that battle is a monster in and of itself. The stigma on the witch has moved well beyond the realms of theology and is now embedded in secular society.

While we, Pagans, should be mindful of Hollywood’s portrayal of witches, we also should be conservative in any outrage directed toward Hollywood. There are very few cases where any type of real Pagan theology has informed a Hollywood witch character. The Conjuring is a perfect example. The Hollywood witch is not us nor has she (he) ever been. She is a fictional creation. We may have some common roots but we are not one and the same.

While Greene may be correct about Hollywood’s caricatures of witches, the suggestion that “real witches aren’t and have never been fearful figures” downplays the stark differences between Christianity and “Pagan theology.” And the Scriptural warnings against things like divination, necromancy, the worship of false gods, animism, and sorcery. In fact, the narrative that pagans are mere “naturalists,” harmless earth worshipers, and quite nice people is gathering its own head of steam in Hollywood (see: Avatar and its deity, Eywa, the “All Mother,” described variously as a network of energy and the sum total of every living thing).

Scripture defines “evil” not simply in terms of the acts one performs and their injury or non-injury to others, but in the deities and power they invoke. And the direction they point others. In the biblical worldview, Satan is a real being vying for the soul of humanity, deception being his primary tool. Not only do the-wicker-manmany contemporary witches deny such a being exists, they attribute and appeal to “powers” the Bible expressly forbids.  So while “real witches” may not be the “fearful figures” Hollywood conjures, for the Christian, the worldview they ascribe to, the powers they invoke, and the aims of their “craft” is ultimately evil.

In this sense, suggesting there are “good witches” may be the most evil thing of all.

In contrast to Greene’s objections, the horror classic, The Wicker Man, draws clear lines between Christianity and paganism. In my article The Wicker Man’s Enduring Relevance, I suggested that one of the abiding strengths of the film is that

…it portrays a distinct difference between paganism and Christianity. A distinction, in fact, that has deadly consequences for one of the parties. Not only does The Wicker Man serve as a warning against spiritual naivete and complacency, it illustrates the stark, very real differences between world religions. (emphasis in original)

The Conjuring may employ a Hollywood-ized caricature of witches. It also may inaccurately portray the Salem witch trials. The most important thing, however, may be whether or not it puts some distance between Christianity and paganism. As Godawa said, “Witchery is real and it is evil.” To believe otherwise is to believe “the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44).

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Jessica Thomas July 25, 2013 at 5:55 AM

This is the first I’ve heard on the movie, so I can’t comment on it; however, I do agree most modern day Wiccans are probably far removed from the Hollywood caricature. (I say probably because I don’t know any personally. Not that I’m aware of, so my opinions are based on what I’ve read and documentaries I’ve seen.) I think many become involved in Wicca with good intentions, wanting genuine connection with God or the divine. And I’m sure their practices bring some positive results, otherwise, why would they continue? If satan prowled around as his true evil/liar/horrifying self, few would be deceived. Instead he appears as an angel of light. That’s some good PR. But it’s bad for people who fall for it (as we all do on a daily basis, unintentionally, but some to much higher degrees than others.)

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Teddi Deppner July 25, 2013 at 1:16 PM

Most of the Pagans and Wiccans I know put themselves across as relatively peaceful people who not only consider themselves “not evil” but don’t necessarily have a belief that “evil” (as defined by Christians) really exists. There is just nature, and existence, and energy, and people striving for what they desire, and maybe the Divine (though not as a single God so much as a spirit realm of sorts with many denizens).

So I think your impression is pretty accurate for the average lay-pagan, Jessica.

Nonetheless, I also have the impression that (just as with the Mormon church or the Masonic order) there’s the average Joe of that religion who is relatively harmless and believe their religion is fluffy and nice… and then there’s those who press deeper into their beliefs to find where the power source is. They want to see results. They want to climb the ladder. And my impression is that if they travel much down that path, then they start getting involved in things that (whether they realize it or not) engage demonic spirits. However, this is based more on books written by folks who took that path than anyone I know personally.

I think saying that “bad witches” don’t exist is as silly as saying that “hypocritical Christians” or “power-hungry pastors” don’t exist. There are people in every religion who consciously use their religion to serve themselves, whether they engage supernatural power or social power to do it.

Trying to get fiction (or Hollywood) to portray only the examples of our various religions that we want it to is silly. Hollywood is going to tell whatever story it thinks will sell. I’m usually just glad for a storyline that shows up evil for evil and portrays God (especially the Judeo-Christian God) as the source of good.

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Sergius Martin-George July 25, 2013 at 6:08 AM

Another thoughtful, provocative piece, Mike. Let’s hope you don’t get besieged by 600+ angry Hogwarts graduates.

Two questions: (1) has any credible, historical evidence ever been uncovered to suggest that there were actual witches in Salem? and (2) is Brian Godawa the only Christian screenwriter in Hollywood? Every time I see a piece that has anything to with a “Christian” take on film, I immediately think to myself: How many paragraphs will I have to read before I see Brian Godawa quoted? Nothing against him personally or professionally–it’s just that he’s become perfunctory.

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Mike Duran July 25, 2013 at 8:42 AM

Sergius, I have the same question about the Salem witch trials. I’d love some balanced resources — meaning someone who’s not necessarily out to prove or debunk the trials. If any of the readers know of such a resource, could you leave a comment. Re: Godawa — I do mention other Christian critics and insiders. Brian just happened to be the one commenting on the subject.

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Sergius Martin-George July 25, 2013 at 8:51 AM

Point well taken.

SMG

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John W. Morehead July 25, 2013 at 1:21 PM

Paul Boyer’s Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft is a good place to look: http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=lSgtq5rZUkEC&oi=fnd&pg=PR9&dq=salem+witch+trials&ots=cmykg0x7Lm&sig=6W3P1k3X_PttETg8JSjSErvFI3w#v=onepage&q=salem%20witch%20trials&f=false as is John Demos’ Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=HtjGqzB6NNAC&oi=fnd&pg=PP2&dq=salem+witch+trials&ots=UbsJx1EZwY&sig=jt-eSDVESByc6fAYzdmZyiFf3ds#v=onepage&q=salem%20witch%20trials&f=false. I’m away from my personal library at the moment or I’d list the volumes in my research collection. I can list more if others are interested. I’ve also been to Salem, visited the moving memorial to the tragedy, and have spoken with local witches and Christians about it. Fascinating historical topic with contemporary applications.

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Bill July 26, 2013 at 12:00 PM

“Mackay, Charles. “Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.” Has some information on the witch mania in Europe as well as in Salem. At the height of the mania to be accused of witchcraft was to be guilty. A common test was to bind up the witch and throw them in a pond, if innocent they sank and died, if they floated guilty, they were then drug out and burned. Many confessed under torture. A few commit suicide by confessing. Mackey seems to be of the opinion that very few if any of the accused where true witches but some people did try and become witches to try and gain the power they imagined witches had.

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T. W. Johnson July 25, 2013 at 8:32 AM

I enjoyed your article, Mike. It also got me thinking about the TV series “A Haunting”, which my wife and I like watching. Funny thing is, many of the episodes end up being about demons or demonic spirits rather than the ghost of someone with unfinished business, etc. Possession is real, and general demonic activity can happen as well. I’ve literally witnessed both types.

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John W. Morehead July 25, 2013 at 9:42 AM

Much to comment on here. First, thanks for mentioning and quoting the essay at TheoFantastique.

Second, we need to keep in mind that this film is fictional, even though it claims to be based upon real events and a true story. There are connections to the real world, but it is fictional. Thus, one wonders whether we should be as concerned as we are about the portrayal of the witches, whether we are Christians or Pagans. After all, we don’t get too worked up about the witches in Snow White or other fairytales and fictional stories.

Third, we need to be aware of the tragedy that happened in regards to the Salem Witch Trials. Innocent victims were put to death after being falsely accused. They were not witches, and even if they were, the church’s legacy in witch trials and persecutions is a dark stain on her history, and not in keeping with Jesus’ call and example to love neighbor and enemy.

Fourth, both Brian Godawa and this blog have made the mistake of misunderstanding and mischaracterizing witches and Pagans as “evil,” or seemingly at least more evil than the rest of humanity from a biblical perspective. We must also be careful in equating Satan with Paganism since they do not believe he exists, and our “logic” of equating this figure with their religious practices is problematic, sounding more like a form of Manichaen dualism that springs from an overdose of spiritual warfare theology than a carefully crafted theology and praxis of religious understanding and loving engagement.

While the Biblical materials do include prohibitions against various things we may associate with Paganism (and for what it’s worth, the Bible does not include a universal condemnation of all forms of divination, and at times mentions it in Israel’s story without recourse to prohibition [e.g., Joseph’s use of the cup in Gen. 44), we need to be careful and ensure that we understand contemporary Pagans by actually engaging them lovingly, and then avoid the tendency to demonize them. Satanic panics and persecution are the next unfortunate steps, but there is a better way, the one of valuing Pagans as fellow human beings created in the image of God, forming real relationships, engaging in conversations to learn as well as present our point of view, and then allowing for the mutual sharing of our respective spiritual messages when acceptable to all involved. This is the formula my colleagues and I have practiced, and those interested in learning more can pick up a copy of the book Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue (Lion, 2006) by Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega, or read the free online journal Sacred Tribes, Vol. 2, numbers 1 and 2 (2005) which included a focus and engagement with Paganism (http://www.sacredtribesjournal.org/stj/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2&Itemid=54).

As a Christian scholar and practitioner working in Pagan studies and interreligious engagement (not to mention the study of religion and pop culture through genres like horror), I think we can do better. Yes, we want to clearly differentiate between Christianity and Paganism, but do we really want to increase the distance? Surely we want to decrease it as we follow the example of Jesus who approached the despised and marginalized of his religious culture.

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Teddi Deppner July 25, 2013 at 1:23 PM

Fascinating stuff, John. With the pagan friends and co-workers I’ve had, finding ways to have “religious diplomacy” has long been on my heart. Glad there are others out there playing this music.

As you say, “valuing Pagans as fellow human beings created in the image of God”. Just as with the issue of homosexuality, Christians often seem to lose perspective when it comes to certain things. But a lost human being is a lost human being, regardless of the specific zone in which they are lost. One is not “more lost” than another.

Every human is only one revelation away, only one breath away from becoming a reborn child of the living God. Let’s love others every time we have the chance… and let’s treat others in a way that they let us close enough to shine that Light into their hearts.

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Mike Duran July 25, 2013 at 5:57 PM

Thanks for the lengthy reply, John. While I wouldn’t consider witches or pagans “more evil than the rest of humanity from a biblical perspective” — meaning that we’re all sinners — the dark arts were definitely framed in both the Old and New Testaments as evil practices to be avoided. The list of such warnings is quite extensive. Interestingly, the prohibitions are seemingly not intended to invalidate the craft (as in “magic isn’t real!”), but to keep one’s affections focused on the Real God, as opposed to a false one.

The New Testament, likewise, is filled with exhortations to discern the evil one and resist his cunning. For instance, in Acts 19, the Ephesian converts burned their occult paraphernalia: “Also, many of those who had practiced magic brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all” (vs. 9). As you know, Ephesus was home to the Temple of Diana, the Greek temple dedicated to the goddess Artemis. Thus, true repentance was evidenced in their distancing from the practice of magic.

In Acts 13, the apostles encountered “a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus” who “opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith” (vs. 8). In Acts 8, Simon, who “practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria (v. 9) and was even “called the Great Power of God” (vs. 10), is so astounded by the power of the Holy Spirit at the hands of the disciples that he seeks to purchase it! (vs. 18-19) The inference being that the power of the Holy Spirit was distinct from the power of Simon’s sorcery.

Then there’s the many NT reminders of the devil being an angel of light, that we should have no fellowship with the works of darkness but oppose them, and put on the full armor of God because we battle against “spiritual forces of wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6).

All that to say, suggesting Christians must “be careful in equating Satan with Paganism since they do not believe he exists,” basically renders the Bible moot. It places Paganism on the same level of authority as Scripture, allowing their belief to dictate the terms of the conversation. Of course, we must be tactful in conversation and seek to understand their worldview. But the question is not whether Pagans believe in Satan, but whether Satan really exists and influences Pagans.

While I’d agree that “valuing Pagans as fellow human beings created in the image of God, forming real relationships, engaging in conversations,” is good, embracing their theology and beliefs, even worse, synthesizing those beliefs into our own, strikes me as the precise thing the Old and New Testament stand against.

Once again, John, thanks so much for participating in this discussion!

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D.M. Dutcher July 25, 2013 at 10:47 PM

I don’t know if it’s good to like possession stories. Not that it opens a door, but that it causes unrealistic expectations and people can see possession everywhere they look. Especially with Christians, sometimes primal fears shouldn’t be exploited any more than doctrine should be for effect.

I agree with showing the difference, but the Wicker Man pagans were atavist throwbacks to the old ones. Modern pagans are anything but, and it’s good not to overreact. They are trying to retcon something they’d be horrified to be associated with if they went back in time.

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S.R. Fuentes July 27, 2013 at 7:54 PM

Unfortunately the world’s idea of Satan, Lucifer, Baal, or Helel (whatever name you have) is flawed. If you read a bible written by the fallen most of us would probably be Luciferians today but one was never produced. Each religion has a bit of truth to it however if you look at every “god” in a religion they are all related as extraterrestrial beings that came to Earth and helped spawn mankind. Each existed and was granted a region on Earth to supervise and nurture. This is why different cultures depict different gods as their own, misunderstanding these beings were only guardians and messengers themselves. You can track this down yourself (Greeks, Romans, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, & Hopi Indians to name a few all have essentially the same origin story with interchangeable “gods”). God from the Christian religion was said to be the engineer behind the genetic manipulation of hominid ape cells with Anunaki (the name of the beings that we were created from) or extraterrestrial cells. God did create us but it was in a lab similar to the experiments we conduct today. After the humans were created there was a debate between God and his peers whether these beings should be given knowledge and free thought or to be kept in the dark only to be lead where needed and to follow the divine blindly. Lucifer opposed this idea claiming it was oppressive and not fair to the beings. Offended by his disloyalty God challenged Satan to a war in Heaven, the victor would reign over Heaven and the failed would be banished for all eternity, never to return. Lucifer had at least 1/3 of Heaven’s legion fighting along his behalf but they were still defeated. Since this was the outcome it was very easy for Christian’s to denounce Lucifer and his follower’s as evil or sacrilegious, flagging him as a hideous being with horns and hooves who lives in the fiery depths. However, Lucifer was the Morning Star, he would be the most beautiful being you’d ever lay eyes on. The Christian religion is propaganda against the one being who wanted humans to have free choice and thought without persecution, “Satan”. Looking at the big picture who should we have worshiped, the being that vied for our liberty of conscious or the tyrant who chose to oppress and confine us with rules, tablets, and punishments?

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Teddi Deppner July 28, 2013 at 3:34 PM

That’s one way to look at it! Heh.

The Spirit I follow doesn’t ask for my “blind” allegiance. In fact, the way I’ve heard the story, the Creator gave humanity a choice. We had the freedom to choose, and we decided to figure out good and evil for ourselves rather than trust the one who created us. The Creator allowed this.

And now, we all tell our stories, passed down through the ages, and try to convince each other what’s true, what’s right, and what matters. Some of us consult the supernatural, and draw conclusions based on what we hear and which spirit or spirits we believe.

Funny world we live in.

My King’s Spirit lives in me, and He doesn’t oppress or confine me. He doesn’t beat me down with rules and punishments. He fulfilled all the rules when He took on human form and lived as one of us. He took the death and punishment that would have been mine when He — the Perfect One, the All-Loving One — died to fulfill the universal laws that required blood for acts of un-love.

It’s a good story. He’s a good King. I’m happy with my Spirit and who He is.

Hope it works out for you and yours.

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