Jul 22, 2013

'Conjuring' belief in demons

Forty years after The Exorcist made $441 million and lodged itself in the American imagination, the latest cast-out-demons based-on-a-true-story film hit theaters this weekend. The writers and director are hoping the $20 million production called The Conjuring makes some money -- and gets some viewers seriously considering demonic realities. 

"People should never be ignorant of demonic forces and think it can't happen to them," said Chad Hayes, one of the screenwriters. 

Chad and his twin brother and co-writer Carey Hayes have been adamant about the connection between their faith and this horror film, a connection which has pretty seamlessly blended with some of the studios' promotional efforts. The film's distributor, New Line Cinema, has subcontracted with Grace Hill Media for a specific faith-market campaign. The company arranged advance screenings for faith groups, including groups of priests, and has made the writer-brothers and the real-life exorcists available to the religious press.

The people behind this film hope those who believe in demons go to theaters and watch. Chad Hayes, for example, said, "Men and women of faith should see this film because they will see the power that only God holds to overcome evil. They can be witnesses to that moment of darkness that only the power of God can defeat."

The people behind the film don't only want believers to go and see it, but one way to market it to believers it to talk about how the product will be powerful and especially spiritually useful for those who don't believe. This is part of why there's all this talk about the reality of demonic forces. It's aimed at those who like their scary narratives to teeter on the question, "is it real?," and also at those who think it is real and want to believe that such a film could transform the beliefs of others.

That evangelical message is clear enough that some reviewers are reacting to it. At Salon, the film has been dubbed "one of the cleverest and most effective right-wing Christian films of recent years," which is not framed as a compliment.

At a recent screening, the director reportedly spent some time trying to persuade incredulous critics of the film's serious intent. The final words on the screen, too, from one of the real-life exorcists involved in the real-life version of the film's fictionalized events, emphasize this point:
Diabolical forces are formidable. These forces are eternal and they exist today. The fairy tale is true. The devil exists. God exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow.
Whether or not they believe in The Conjuring, marketing a movie to people who believe in demons isn't a bad idea.

For one thing, there's a good number of them. There's not a lot of really solid information on exactly how many, but one poll reported that 41 percent of Americans agreed with the the idea that demons exist, and another, which just looked at self-identified Christians, put the number at 64 percent of Christians, which is about 48 percent of the general population. That works out to more than 150 million Americans as the potential market for this marketing campaign of this movie, plus, presumably, the people they know and think might be somewhere on the edge of possible belief.

For another thing, appealing to religious audiences has paid off in recent years. There are success stories inspiring this marketing drive: The Passion of the Christ, The Blind Side, Fireproof, and others. Add the successes of faith-"infused" TV shows that have fared so well lately, Duck Dynasty, The Bible, etc., and the people who decide what movies get made are going to pay attention. And they are: At this year's Annual Faith and Values Awards Gala and Report to the Entertainment Industry, a Hollywood affair celebrating films pitched as faith-friendly and making lots and lots of money for it, marketing strategists were saying they could sell anything that is faith friendly. It was reported that in the last 21 years the number of films classified as having "at least some Christian, redemptive content" has grown from about 10 percent of the movies produced to nearly 57 percent, but there is still demand for more.

It turns out religious right's efforts to demonstrate the economic strength of conservative Christians actually worked. If not with boycotts, then with theater tickets and big buckets of popcorn.

According to Carey Hayes, "the essence of this movie is, God wins."

One could say the same of The Exorcist, of course. That's what these movies do: God wins, demons are dramatized, some segment of the audience wonders if maybe that fictionally depicted reality is really real, and others say yes, yes!, and a bunch of money is made and more such stories are put into production.

The Conjuring continued that tradition this weekend, pulling in box office receipts worth $41.5 million,  earning more than twice what it cost with just it's North American debut.