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A Doll’s Place is in the Home: The Sly, Semi-Subversive Domestic Politics of “Annabelle Comes Home”…

Annabelle Comes Home is an intriguing film. It’s arguably more intriguing than it is successful.

A large part of that is down to the way in which it very much basks in its position as an unlikely lynch pin of a horror shared universe populated by a variety of ghosts and ghouls that seem to be clamouring for their own spin-off movies like Annabelle or The Nun as the eponymous demonic doll just sits back and watches. It’s a surreal spectacle, particularly for a horror movie. Annabelle herself often feels like something of a passenger in her own movie, instead a tether for a variety of episodic horror adventures.

However, there is something more subversive and intriguing happening beneath the surface of the film. As the title implies Annabelle Comes Home is a story centred on the domestic environment, on a suburban family home menaced by a sinister supernatural threat. This is a standard horror movie set-up. A lot of horror movies focus on the idea of evil within the family environment, whether coming from within or without. Annabelle Comes Home borrows a number of cues from The Shining, including the bass on the soundtrack and a possessed typewriter, but it runs much deeper than that.

A lot of horror films focus on the nuclear family placed under siege, often as a metaphor for the pressures at work in the real world. Stephen King has pointed to movies like The Amityville Horror as examples as “economic horror”, reflecting the anxieties of families sinking into debt in their family homes during the seventies. (As if to underscore the point, the real life case that inspire the film was a fraud to help the family get out of debt.) Similarly, the liberal single-parent household in The Exorcist turns back to the Church, perhaps expressing deep-seated anxieties about liberalisation or shifting cultural norms.

There is often a strongly reactionary subtext to these sorts of horror stories. It is not always a conscious choice on the part of the production team, but it is rooted in the fact that change is scary and that subversions of conventional conservative dynamics are unsettling in large part because those conventional conservative dynamics are so ubiquitous. In short, audiences tend to see conventional family units as the default, so anything that attacks or erodes that is potentially uncanny and unsettling, and so many horror movies play on that instinctive reaction.

There are any number of obvious examples of how this approach can lead to very uncomfortable and unsettling implications. The Curse of La Llorona is perhaps an obvious (and easy) contemporary example. The basic set up of the movie finds a single (widowed) mother struggling to provide for her children; she has to leave them for extended periods to work at her job, but is also held back at that job because she is a single mother. Meanwhile, a Mexican spirit invades the family home and attaches itself to her children. The result is a film that seems to be about a single mother who leaves her children open to a foreign threat.

Part of what makes Annabelle Comes Home so interesting is the way in which it seems to play with this central dynamic, how it teases out and subverts some of the central subtext of the larger horror genre to which it belongs. Annabelle Comes Home is not so much a story about outside forces menacing a conventional family within the seeming comfort of their home, but is instead a story about two young women who end up trapped inside a suburban home and attacked by the monstrous forces that the family have consciously placed there and even folded built into the structure.

Annabelle Comes Home offers a slyly feminist twist on the familiar domestic horror.

It should be noted, of course, that the horror genre is much more complicated and nuanced than the above summary might make it appear. It is entirely possible to construct horror movies that explore and subvert the conventional trappings of domesticity. Wes Craven frequently told these sorts of stories in films like Nightmare on Elm Street or The People Under the Stairs. James Whale used the horror genre to smuggle in all sorts of radical notions in films like Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. Feminist theorists have explored the nuance and the complexities of the slasher genre.

At the same time, the horror genre does have certain reactionary tendencies. It is rooted in a primal fear of “the other”, and that “other” is often characterised in terms of race or class or sexuality. As a result, anything that exists outside established norms can be transformed into something monstrous or horrific. With that in mind, it is interesting how many of these films focus on a nuclear family under attack. The traditional family unit seems second only to promiscuous teenagers as a target of external menace; from The Hills Have Eyes to The Purge to The Strangers to Funny Games.

Of course, many of these stories suggest something more primal and anxious beneath the surface. Films like Poltergeist and Pet Sematary find their nuclear families moving into a home that has been build atop (or near) something far more ancient and powerful than the civilised world will allow. The metaphor in these sorts of stories is also apparent; the anxiety of the white European settlers who built the United States atop the North American continent. In these films, the threat still comes from outside the home, albeit bubbling up from underneath rather than invading from the darkness around.

The films in The Conjuring franchise return to this traditional template time and again. The original film is about the Perron family on Rhode Island being menaced by a sinister force. The Conjuring 2 starts with the Amityville Haunting of the Lutz family before hopping across the pond to investigate the Enfield Poltergeist that has been menacing the Hodgson family. Annabelle: Creation is about the Mullins family grieving the loss of their daughter. In fact, they even take in foster children as a means of coping with that loss. So the standard template hews quite close to that story of a family menaced by an outside force.

Part of what makes Annabelle Comes Home so interesting is the manner in which it plays with this familiar set-up. There’s a sly subversive element to Annabelle Comes Home, tipping the narrative template on its side. Annabelle Comes Home opens with the Warrens taking the eponymous murderous doll into custody and bringing it into their home. By the time that the title appears, the doll is trapped in a glass case in the family’s trophy room, where it can be blessed once a week by the local priest. The Warrens were not tricked into housing Annabelle. She did not sneak into her house. Instead, the Warrens built her into their home.

Annabelle Comes Home does not focus on the Warren family. Ed and Lorraine Warren are heavily featured at the beginning and the end of the movie, but the bulk of the film is given over to three young women. There is Judy Warren, their young daughter who is just turning ten. There is Mary Ellen, the wholesome babysitter who has been tasked with keeping an eye on Judy while her parents are away. There is Daniela Rios, Mary’s best friend who is decidedly more assertive and aggressive. (It is heavily implied she is also more promiscuous.)

This fundamentally alters the structure of the familial horror film, by reversing the core dynamics. Mary and Daniela are both outsiders who are drawn into the home, while the threat itself is something that the Warren family have actively incorporated into their domestic environment. There is a sense in which the suburban trappings of the Warren household might actually prove dangerous to these young women, not because of anything outside the home, but because of what the Warrens have eagerly taken in.

One of the most interesting formal elements of Annabelle Comes Home is how director Gary Dauberman eschews one of the formal signatures of the series; the long lingering tracking shot through the domestic environment to orientate the audience; there are similar shots in The Conjuring, The Conjuring 2 and The Curse of La Llorona. Dauberman seems to want the Warren household to remain more unsettling and unknowable that other family homes in the franchise. Notably, the climax of the film finds Mary navigating the creepy claustrophobic crawl space of the house, its dusty and creaky insides.

Along those lines, Annabelle Comes Home largely avoids bringing in any overtly masculine figures into the household. Indeed, everything starts to go wrong when Daniela sneaks into the basement of the house and uses a religious artifact to contact her deceased father. Daniela invites a patriarchal authority into the household. Indeed, although Mary has a strange encounter with a creepy child at the front door, the first scene that there is something wrong inside the house is when Daniela catches a glimpse of her father through a window from the chicken coup.

The film does have a young male protagonist in Bob Palmeri, who is nicknamed “Bob’s Got Balls.” However, the film eventually reveals that the nickname has nothing to do with his sexual prowess, instead resulting from his administrative skill as sports equipment manager at school. Bob is largely useless in Annabelle Comes Home. Notably, he doesn’t actually get into the house until the crisis has passed. More than that, he spends a significant portion of the movie cowering in a henhouse, while a monster stalks in the darkness.

Annabelle Comes Home explicitly genders its threats. Bob is menaced by a “Shelkie”, a monstrous wolf man that kills at least one of the Warrens’ hens. (The beast stalking the hen house feels like a metaphor for the film itself; a group of female characters threatened with primal violence.) Within the house, one of the monsters that hunts the three women is a possessed and murderous wedding dress. Of the dress, Judy helpfully explains, “It changes people. Makes them violent.” The wedding dress actively stalks the house, looking for a host. At one point, it even takes possession of Daniela, removing her agency and autonomy.

The image of a predatory wedding dress hunting a promiscuous teenager through the corridors of a suburban home is certainly evocative. It is notable that the murderous wedding dress evokes the design of the eponymous monster from The Curse of La Llorona, a mother who drowned her children in a local stream and who wanders the world looking to steal away other children to replace them. However, the murderous wedding dress in Annabelle Comes Home is interesting because it is actually armed. Unlike most supernatural threats in the Conjuring films, it carries a knife, which it plunges into its victims.

There is a sense in which the horrors of Annabelle Comes Home are recognisably misogynistic. Notably, the murderous knife-wielding wedding dress marks one of the rare occasions in which the Conjuring films employ the cinematic language of slasher cinema; the penetrative stab of the knife into the body of a young teen girl. Similarly, the wolf at the door is another explicitly masculine threat to these young women, evoking fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood and its own implicit threat of sexualised violence. Even the wedding dress itself seems to work as an expression of anxieties about smothering social conformity.

(It’s notable that the seventies settings of the Conjuring films suggest a period of social strife. Even in Annabelle Comes Home, a newspaper article decrying the Warren family as charletons is printed alongside the latest breaking news of the Watergate scandal – a formative American horror story of itself. The mid-seventies would have seen the women’s liberation movement entering the mainstream, challenging the sort of conventional gender roles suggested by the murderous wedding dress. It seems likely that Mary and Daniela do not long for the life of suburban matrimony suggested by the Warren home.)

Repeatedly in Annabelle Comes Home, the women find themselves menaced by projections and images of themselves, grotesque doppelgangers and replacements. When the wedding dress first attacks Daniela, it travels through windows and mirrors in a slow pan around the room; it enters the space as an image before it physically arrives. In the basement, Daniela is confronted with a television set that plays a time-distorted image of herself back at her, presenting horrible possible futures. In the crawlspace, Mary confronts a monstrous version of herself that has been incorporated into the house’s architecture.

To be fair, Annabelle Comes Home does not entirely commit to this reading of the film. Early in the movie, Judy finds herself menaced by a ghostly priest. Initially, he appears to be another expression of grotesque patriarchal authority, like the mangled and monstrous corpse of Daniela’s father. However, the climax of the film suggests that he is there to help. “Not all ghosts are bad,” Judy tells Mary and Daniela. He guides the three women – perhaps a holy trinity unto themselves – into the basement where they trap the demon by reciting Our Father and appealing to the highest possible paternal authority.

Of course, there are still little hints of subversion to be found. Notably, the closing scenes of Annabelle Comes Home largely marginalise Ed Warren in order to allow Lorraine a small moment with Daniela. It is this conversation that affords Daniela some peace of mind about her deceased father, but it also contextualises Lorraine as something of a rebel herself. She remembers her own wild teenage years, when she ran away from home with a boy for three days without telling her parents. There is a sense in which this small shared truth between women is important.

It’s too much to describe Annabelle Comes Home as radical, but there are interesting things happening within it, particularly in the context of its relationship with the other films in the Conjuring universe. It is a movie that is consciously playing with the conventions of this sort of horror film, even if it never descends into explicit or graphic deconstruction of these elements. The result is a fascinating piece of film, one just a little smarter than its familiar horror movie trappings might suggest.

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