In March 2018, Forbes writer Paul Tassi reported on 10 movies available (at thetime) to watch on Netflix that were apparently too scary to finish. The streaming company based this data on the fact that a significant number of people turned off these movies after watching roughly 70% of the film.
Director James Wan's 2013 film The Conjuring, a fictional account based on real-life paranormal researchers and "demonologists" Ed and Lorraine Warren, appeared on this list. It features a runtime of about 110 minutes. Mathematically speaking, if users turned off the film around the 70% mark, as Netflix claims, that means they stopped watching at around 77 minutes, or 1 hour and 13 minutes, into the film. This is the exact moment Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) falls through the floor in the crawlspace and plummets into the basement, where even more horrors await.
What is it about this particular scene that causes people to turn off the film? Perhaps viewers simply check out because they're bored with the story. According to Tassi, Netflix addressed this concept:
I asked Netflix how they decided when people were turning off movies because they were scared, versus when they just really hated a movie. They said that by using the 70% threshold, that if most people truly hate a movie, they’ll turn it off well before that.
For some of these [films] that I’ve seen, mainly The Conjuring, I buy the idea that they could be too scary to finish for some people.
Wan's film is a slow burner, to be sure, with scares belonging more to the Gothic ghost story tradition than to more modern and bloodier fare - slashers like Halloween or Friday The 13th, gory zombie narratives like The Walking Dead, or so-called "torture porn" films like the Saw and Hostel franchises, etc. The first 40 minutes feature creaking doors, mystery knocks, and jump scares that turn out to be human, rather than supernatural. The scares intensify as the minutes elapse, slowly but surely ratcheting up the tension. This approach is part of the narrative's overall hook - investing in this family and their increasingly terrifying experiences - but some viewers may find this storytelling approach too slow and possibly even boring.
While the film certainly has its detractors, it was mostly well-received upon its release - so much so that it spawned an entire franchise of films, including spinoffs The Nun and three Annabelle movies, not to mention direct sequels featuring the Warrens investigating other paranormal incidents. Moreover, Tassi isn't alone in the sentiment that Wan's film might be too intense for some viewers. The Wrap's Alonso Duralde said it "it scared me more than any other movie in recent memory." Variety's Justin Chang made a similar statement, calling The Conjuring "a sensationally entertaining old-school freakout and one of the smartest, most viscerally effective thrillers in recent memory." The Washington Post's Michael O'Sullivan opened his review with this bit of high praise:
The Conjuring is one heck of a ghost story. Based on the highly scientific DLPG scale - measured by the number of times I looked over my shoulder as I hurried through a Dimly Lit Parking Garage after the movie - it’s a well-above-average thriller. If it isn’t quite up there with such classics of the genre as The Haunting (1963 version, please) or The Others, it isn’t far behind.
Article ImageFurthermore, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) gave The Conjuring an R-rating for "sequences of disturbing violence and terror." There is no nudity in the film, with only a brief and squeaky-clean suggestion that the tormented couple at the center of the haunting, Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston, respectively) have some adult relations on the mind. There is virtually no swearing, and the "disturbing violence" featured in the film pertains to a somewhat nasty cheek-bite and a bloody sheet toward the end. By comparison, a far more graphic scene of face-peeling appears in the 1982 PG-rated film Poltergeist. This scene helped to create the PG-13 rating, because it wasn't gory enough for an R-rating, but was a bit too much for PG. For all intents and purposes, The Conjuring should have been rated PG-13, but its terror was so intense that the film tipped over into R territory.
Then again, as The Atlantic writer Ian Buckwalter points out, the MPAA is a notoriously draconian entity whose methods for rating films seem based on a system that refuses to take into account context and precedence (as outlined in Kirby Dick's documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated). As such, it may be difficult to accept that The Conjuring is too scary for anyone under the age of 17 not accompanied by an adult, let alone adults viewing the film without any minors present. However, Buckwalter, an adult well-versed in the realms of horror, argues that the MPAA's assessment was correct:
Does The Conjuring deserve to be singled out as more intense than its peers purely on the basis of terror...? Others may disagree, but I'd argue the answer has to be yes.
Wan's approach to horror is resolutely old-fashioned, but finely tuned to maximize techniques we've already seen a million times before...
Yet his ability to deliver thoroughly disturbing images without resorting to ostentatious gore or violence is something to marvel at. I'm fairly desensitized to this sort of thing - maybe that's the fallout of my teenage horror viewing - but my guts were wrapped up in knots and every follicle on my head sizzled with fear on multiple occasions. If the MPAA is looking for an objective standard for R-rated terror going forward, they might as well just add to the rating, "as scary as The Conjuring."
Article ImageThere is ample evidence that the film may, in fact, be too scary for some viewers to watch all the way through, but this raises the question: Why do they wait until Lorraine falls through the floor, or at any point during the tense scene that plays out in the basement following this moment, to turn off the film? Why not turn it off at an equally scary moment much earlier in the film, when Carolyn gets trapped in the basement and we get our first glimpse of Bathsheba Sherman, the dark witch terrorizing the Perron family?
This scene kicks off the second act and directly leads to the Warrens investigating the home. We begin to learn the horrible history of the house and its surrounding property, and we discover why Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) wishes Lorraine would stay far away from the case: During their last investigation, her psychic abilities backfired, and she saw something in the mind of a possessed man that physically and emotionally debilitated her for an entire week. Why would viewers invest their time in the narrative, only to abandon all this plot and character development when faced with yet another scary moment? For those who aren't familiar with the scene or need a refresher, watch this clip. Article Image
Of particular note there is the near-total absence of light, which mirrors the other major scene set in the basement, when Carolyn has only a box of matches to ward off an entity playing a disturbing game of hide-and-clap (made famous in the film's first trailer). If viewers were spooked by the first basement scene with Carolyn, they were perhaps unwilling to go back down into the dark depths of this deeply haunted space.
Consider, too, that Lorraine's descent into the basement is marked not only by darkness, but also by a sense of being trapped or immobilized; moreover, she is injured in the process, and there is the potential for further bodily harm. There is even a threat against her life. All these elements combined play into primal fears that transcend the scenario itself. Even out of context, this scene remains terrifying because it plays into an almost preternatural fear, existing deep within our psyche. In the words of problematic horror author H.P. Lovecraft, "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." Lorraine, and by proxy the viewer, have no idea what awaits around the next corner.
Beyond these considerations, however, the most terrifying aspect of the scene relates back to the character and plot development mentioned previously - so much so that certain viewers can no longer handle the film's intensity. We see earlier that being in the basement literally causes Lorraine's knees to buckle, and she is keenly aware that "something awful" happened down there - something she does not want to face, even though she desperately wants to help the Perrons. We're all too aware that dealing with the entities in the basement may very well break Lorraine - and if that happens, evil will assuredly win. So to have the character literally plummet into the dark depths of this space in such a traumatic way might be too much for viewers to bear, because we know it may be too much for Lorraine, as well. Perhaps some viewers are simply okay with not knowing what becomes of the character and the story following this scene, because they'd rather be blissfully ignorant than witness something utterly horrific.
Again, we only have Netflix's word that some movie watchers switch off The Conjuring at this point, but given the basic building blocks of the scene - primarily its atmosphere, well-used scare tactics, and its placement within the overall narrative - it is more than plausible that viewers are doing just that.