A funny thing happens when someone makes a billion dollars: Everyone they know thinks they might be able to make a billion dollars in the exact same way. That’s how Marvel Studios became the belle of the Hollywood ball, a template for success that no other studio has been able to use successfully, in spite of more than a decade of trying. The one exception might be the consistent achievement of Warner Bros.’ Conjuring Universe — which could become the best cinematic universe, mostly because it doesn’t feel like one at all.
There’s no flashy logo, à la Universal’s failed Dark Universe. There’s no pre-existing intellectual property being mined, outside of some allegedly true stories spun by the self-proclaimed demonologists who inspired the main series. And each film, including the numbered sequels, mostly stands alone just fine. I didn’t even know there was a Conjuring Universe until my friend, critic Scott Meslow, called it “the other successful cinematic universe” in 2017, after four movies had premiered. In 2021, it’s still going strong — a third Conjuring film just premiered, the spinoff The Nun has a sequel inbound, and a fourth spin-off, The Crooked Man, is in development.
Much like Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the original 2013 film The Conjuring doesn’t work terribly hard to set up a sprawling web of sequels and spin-offs. In fact, it doesn’t even put in as much effort as Iron Man — there’s no “Avenger Initiative” to tease a future franchise, there’s just a little unexpected inventive world-building. The Conjuring introduces fictional versions of Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), paranormal investigators who look into hauntings, possessions, and the like, and if necessary, convince the Catholic church to send a priest to perform an exorcism. (Because the answer is usually a demon.)
When the audience is introduced to the Warrens in the first film, they’re already several years into their career as demonologists and investigators, and they’ve recently sealed away a possessed doll named Annabelle. They keep it in a room full of other haunted curios, and their collection is the heart of what makes up the Conjuring Universe. The idea is that every object in that room could have its own horror movie, or even several — starting with Annabelle, which kicked off its trilogy. Two other movies have joined the franchise: The Curse of La Llorona and The Nun.
Some of the connections between these movies are slight, and others are more involved: The Curse of La Llorona features a priest from the Annabelle movies, The Nun is about a ghost that appears in The Conjuring 2, and the Warrens themselves — usually confined to the main Conjuring movies, even though they’re the Universe’s connective tissue — appear in Annabelle Comes Home, the third Annabelle film. For the most part, though, these connections are effectively Easter eggs, details that reward fans for following along, and give them a better understanding how this world of supernatural horror fits together. For everyone else, they’re just standalone horror movies.
A big part of the reason the Conjuring Universe works so well is because its lightweight approach to world-building is antithetical to the continuity-heavy MCU. At 23 movies and counting, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is complicated. For a long time, part of the series’ appeal was seeing the intricacies of comic books reflected in their movie adaptations. But the Conjuring movies don’t ask anyone to keep their sprawling continuity straight to get what’s happening now. Complexity does creep into horror movies, usually as a natural consequence of justifying how a franchise villain keeps returning in multiple sequels, but the Conjuring Universe sidesteps that problem by having a multiplicity of antagonists. They don’t have to justify why a demon or ghost is back — it’s just a different ghost or demon.
In some ways, cinematic universes are antithetical to what makes movies special in the first place. Part of the magic of cinema is in the way filmmakers can invite viewers into a whole world of their own, bound only by the screen and the film’s runtime, where anything is possible if they can convince you it is. The temporal trickery of Tenet, the body-horror VR of eXistenZ, the unlikely-yet-tender friendship of First Cow: Each of them is a universe in microcosm. They’re stories told by deciding some things matter, but everything outside the frame doesn’t. At least, not right now.
Cinematic universes, however, are about potential energy — suggesting every nook and cranny of a frame could spawn its own movie or movie franchise. But they aren’t about the thing that sets movies apart from television, which is closure. When filmmakers commit too much of that “setting up future hooks” energy toward a real resolution for the story they’re actually telling, a film in a cinematic universe loses a bit more potential than it would have, had it kept its options a little more open.
This is perhaps where the movies in the Conjuring Universe are at their weakest. As a whole, they aren’t really about anything. The main Conjuring series is built around the relationship between the Warrens, bringing a very human touch to the well-worn horror trope of possession movies. But its spinoffs lack that emotional core. Without Wilson and Farmiga’s powerfully portrayed characters, the whole enterprise comes across as cynical, an attempt to slap a trademark on what would otherwise be run-of-the-mill horror.
The Conjuring movies don’t really say anything, which is unusual in horror, a genre that thrives on exploring the social anxieties of the moment. They’ve found success precisely by avoiding everything that’s going on right now — every Conjuring film is, notably, a period piece. Their stories of possession and spirituality take no interest in linking their fears about the supernatural to modern concerns, unlike Evil, the excellent CBS/Paramount Plus show about present-day characters who share the Warrens’ profession. The series also avoids overt attempts at social commentary, which is arguably the reason the Purge movies are one of the great horror franchises of the last 10 years. The Conjuring Universe is bafflingly inert, a Disney-esque world of horror where fans can go year after year, where the only evil is the work of demons and the fools who invited them in, and the world is set right by those who mirror the simple Christian goodness of Ed and Lorraine Warren.
But what makes the Conjuring Universe worth rooting for is that it feels like it can be held to a higher standard, because it’s built in such a malleable way. This is what makes The Conjuring and its first sequel so memorable — the heroes’ considered performances and James Wan’s stylish direction makes it feel like any one of these unassuming horror movies could really sing, if the right talent were involved.
And every spinoff is a chance to root for a new favorite. Marvel movies are “In for a penny, in for a pound.” You don’t have to watch every movie to appreciate Loki’s setup, but you’ll probably want to watch a couple, and the films as a whole are so interconnected that some movies are downright incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t keeping up with the series. By contrast, there’s no need to be a completionist with the Conjuring films — don’t like creepy-doll movies? Go ahead and skip the Annabelle trilogy! But knowing these films are interconnected serves as a lure for the hardcore fans who want to obsess over what they saw before, and speculate about what they might see next. This is the good part of any cinematic universe: filmmakers can, theoretically, leverage familiarity and the promise of a larger narrative to convince leery audiences to try out types of movies they might not normally consider.
In response, the Conjuring Universe, with its sprawling timeline and haunted curiosities from around the world, has shown it can grow in unpredictable directions, telling stories about anyone who encounters a haunted space or artifact, anywhere. It can be downright nimble compared to the MCU, which only recently started experimenting with tone and style, but still largely has to adhere to its established house style: a grounded sort of sci-fi realism that, at this point, starts to feel like a weight on more fantastic stories like WandaVision or The Eternals. (This, ironically, is what the DCEU started to demonstrate in movies like Aquaman and Birds of Prey, right before Warner Bros. decided to splinter its upcoming DC films into disparate universes.)
Horror can be braver than superhero action movies. It’s a genre prone to experimentation, where any subject or setting is fair game, as long as it means new scares can be wrung from a familiar nightmare. Given enough time, any horror franchise can be reinvented, or suddenly dive deeply into a subtext audiences may not have realized was there all along. The most recent Conjuring film, The Devil Made Me Do It, leaves the series in a good place for that, advancing the timeline to 1981 where, in the real world, the Satanic Panic was beginning to get underway in the United States. The screenwriter shows no interest in that context, but it’s not hard to imagine that maybe whoever writes the next film in the series will.
This is the place where the Conjuring Universe could surpass the MCU in a small but important way: by giving us a thesis statement for the whole enterprise, a reason we’re all tuning into these stories. These movies could make the kind of statement the MCU often struggles to make, because every MCU project must eventually set up and yield the floor to the next one. The Conjuring Universe doesn’t have to do this work. The dark implication of the Warrens’ collection is that evil persists, and cannot be extinguished. There’s always another demon. The trick is in giving them names we recognize.