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In and through every preliminary concern the ultimate concern can actualize itself. Whenever this happens, the preliminary concern becomes a possible object of theology. But theology deals with it only in so far as it is a medium, a vehicle, pointing beyond itself.” – Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology Vol. 1

This week I saw The Conjuring 2: The Enfield Poltergeist on opening night (apologies in advance for referencing the horror genre twice in two weeks, but it is what it is), which is the story of Ed and Lorraine Warren, 1970s ghost hunters working unofficially for the Catholic Church. They are invited to investigate an alleged haunting in London, and what follows is a well-crafted, classic-in-style movie that is almost–if not equally–as good as the first. The theater was surprisingly crowded.

As hard as it is for me to find someone with the pluck to watch a good spooky movie with me, those people do exist, and my guess is that they exist because horror movies do the honorable work of reminding us of what Paul Tillich calls our “ultimate concern.” They have the knack of, for an hour or two, taking us from the perceived smooth sailing of everyday life to the raucous stormy waters of human vulnerability, in a way similar to action or apocalypse movies. In fact, horror movies probably make that jump too quickly for many tastes.

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According to Paul Tillich’s definition, anyone watching a horror movie may well be a “theologian” regardless of his actions during said movie–he may be curled up under his girlfriend’s arm, shrinking back as far away from the screen as possible, or laughing as a defense mechanism. But the theologian can’t really be divorced from human vulnerability because his concern is always the “ultimate” or the “infinite”:

Our ultimate concern is that which determines our being or not-being. Only those statements are theological which deal with their object in so far as it can become a matter of being or not-being for us….Nothing can be of ultimate concern for us which does not have the power of threatening and saving our being.

For Tillich, “being” doesn’t necessarily mean physical existence in “time and space.” It’s not just a matter of survival but is instead “the whole of human reality, the structure, the meaning, and the aim of existence. All this is threatened; it can be lost or saved.”

Nothing awakens us to the threats to our sense of structure/meaning like a good horror movie. For example, when the poltergeist moves the TV remote from one couch to another, everything we know–our sense of reason, safety, physics–is threatened. Our purpose shifts from trying to unwind  after a long day at work by watching a sitcom to trying to suss out our relationship to the “invisible things.” We are cast into total disorientation and require more than ever an ultimate savior to put the pieces back together. Tillich continues:

Pictures, poems, and music can become objects of theology, not from the point of view of their aesthetic form, but from…the point of view of their power of mediating some aspects of that which concerns us ultimately.

In other words, our “preliminary concerns,” or, the aspects of daily life–movies, circumstances etc.–can serve as conduits pointing us towards the “ultimate concern”–whatever it is that determines our being. The Conjuring movies do this primarily through emotional bullying–throwing us into the scary unknown until we are unable to not acknowledge our need for a savior. As evidence, after leaving the theater, my friends and I, while slinking back to our homes at 1AM, alone, couldn’t help but exchange encouraging Bible verses: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it!” (Jn 1:5). In a matter of hours we had been transformed from vaguely moralistic millennials into Syrophoenician women begging for Jesus’ help. Idealists may say what they will about the filmmakers’ scare tactics, but, emotionally speaking, they work.

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Additionally The Conjuring 2 (and The Conjuring, too) goes a step further than many other horror movies in that it is driven theologically, not just philosophically. Whereas in Insidious, for example, the haunted house was investigated by a religiously detached/unaffiliated medium who seemed, to me, completely lacking in roots–not to say that philosophy is rootless but only that it will ideally represent the more detached of the two fields–The Conjuring brings us to the base of all theology with a one-two punch–first: love embodied, and second, explicit Christianity.

The protagonists, the Warrens, are linked by their marriage and their love for each other. With the Warrens as our leads, these horror movies are also love stories (cf. “every love story is a ghost story”). Both climactic exorcisms faithfully hinge on the very personal and free flow of love from one person to another. Lorraine’s fear is most apparent not when she comes face-to-face with the ghouly-ghouly but when Ed decides to risk his life. Their marriage represents (serves as a medium for?) the actualization of the infinite–love incarnate, manifested by grace, against dire odds, in people. In this way, the Warrens’ power isn’t conceptual; it’s personal. It has very little to do with their psychic visions and good deeds, and it has everything to do with themselves and the love that they, as people, share. Tillich: “No myth, no mystical vision, no metaphysical principle, no sacred law, has the concreteness of a personal life.”

The Conjuring is most of all unique (to me, at least–I haven’t actually seen that many horror movies) because it unashamedly applies Christianity to “the situation.” Overly critical Protestant viewers may get bogged down by the ins-and-outs of the movies’ Catholic specificities–the politics of Church involvement, the usefulness of the Rosary wrapped around Lorraine’s hands, the relative value of speaking Latin when addressing your everyday demon–but in both The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 the theology of the cross remains: after a long, scary walk to Golgotha full of jump-scares and creepy, wheedling music, there can be no ultimate end besides a happy one. A good old exorcism, an empty tomb, a fresh start. As viewers, we are just grateful to have been carried through.