From eighteenth century Gothic novels to contemporary popular culture, the tropes and sacred culture of Catholicism endure as themes in entertainment. OUP author Diana Walsh Pasulka sat down with The Conjuring (2013) screenwriters Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes to discuss their cinematic focus on “the Catholic Supernatural” and the enduring appeal of Catholic culture to moviegoers.
Diana Walsh Pasulka: Your recent movie The Conjuring was financially very successful and is the third highest grossing horror film about the supernatural, behind only The Exorcist (1973) and The Sixth Sense (1999). Each of these films engage Catholic themes, and more specifically, the supernatural. The Conjuring, of course, is based on the lives of Catholics Ed and Lorraine Warren. What is it about Catholic culture that you think resonates with audiences?
Carey Hayes: Catholic culture is global. It also has a long history that almost everyone in the West identifies with on some level. Medieval cathedrals, priests in black robes and white collars and nuns in habits, in many ways these visuals are like short hand or code, and audiences understand them. For example, take the movie, The Exorcist. When it is apparent in the movie that the little girl is possessed by evil, they call in the priest. The priest, with his identifiable clothing, his crucifix and holy water, is the representation, visually, of the antidote to evil. Of course it doesn’t hurt that authors and filmmakers have used these themes over and over again, and this adds to the recognizable effects. The more we see elements of Catholic culture used in visual culture this way, the more we understand what they mean.
Diana Walsh Pasulka: That’s interesting. The meaning of these tropes, then, can take on a second life, of sorts, in popular culture. Non-Catholic audiences might equate what they see about Catholicism in the movies, with Catholic-lived practice.
Chad Hayes: That could be the case, of course, but in our experience we’ve had only positive reinforcement from Catholics. When we promoted The Conjuring in San Francisco a Catholic priest approached me and said “Thank you for getting it right.” That one comment was one of the best compliments I’ve received about the movie. We were also interviewed for U.S. Catholic, and they were very positive.
Diana Walsh Pasulka: A few years ago, Carey, you coined the term “The Religious Supernatural” to differentiate what you were doing from other screenwriters who wrote movies about the supernatural. Why designate it “religious?”
Carey Hayes: I coined the term to identify a certain framework, and, I suppose, to suggest a history. Today there is a lot of focus in popular culture on the supernatural or the paranormal. It is almost all secular. In the past, the supernatural and paranormal occurred within a worldview that allowed for the supernatural but within a religious framework. People had tools like prayers to deal with the supernatural, which, you have to admit, is scary. We wanted, in our movies, to return to that. We thought that, in many ways, religion deals with the big questions, and the supernatural is usually a scary thing that interrupts daily life and causes people to think about the big questions. So, we wanted to pair the two, religion and the supernatural, and remind audiences that this is, ultimately, what scary movies are about: ultimate questions about life.
Diana Walsh Pasulka: Are you ever frightened by what you write about?
Chad Hayes: We’re not afraid when we write and produce movies about the supernatural. But our research frightens us!
Carey Hayes: Right! It is frightening because some of this is supposed to be true, or based on events that are true.
Diana Walsh Pasulka: I wondered about that. Part of the appeal of your movies, and other movies like it such as The Exorcist, is that they play on the ambiguity of fiction and non-fiction, or the realism of your subject. The Blair Witch Project (1999) is a great example of the play on realism. The movie was presented as recovered footage of an actual university student project. I was in Berkeley, California for the pre-release of that movie, and I couldn’t get tickets for three days because the lines outside of the theaters were so long. When I finally got to see the movie members of the audience were wondering, is this real? Of course, we knew that it wasn’t, but we were also intrigued that it was presented as real. That definitely contributed to its popularity. The marketing campaign for that movie was unique at the time, too, in that they emphasized the question of the potential realism of the movie.
Chad Hayes: We purposely look for stories that are based on true events. We do that for this very reason: because people can relate. They can Google the story and see that maybe its folklore, or its real, but it is out there and is an experience for other people. So that contributes, no doubt, to the scare factor.
Diana Walsh Pasulka: Do you think this also has something to do with the appeal of the Catholic aesthetic, like the use of real Catholic sacred objects — the sacramentals, the crucifix, and the robes of the priests?
Chad Hayes: Absolutely. Ed and Lorraine Warren are practicing Catholics. Ed has passed away, but Lorrain still attends a Catholic Mass almost every day. That part of The Conjuring is based on her real Catholic practice. We were in contact with Lorraine throughout the writing of the movie and we included the objects that she and Ed actually used, like the sacramentals, the blessed objects, and holy water. My Catholic friends tell me that most Catholics don’t use these objects in their daily lives, but then they aren’t exorcizing demons, are they?
Diana Walsh Pasulka: I suppose not!