‘The Conjuring 2’ Writers Discuss What Makes A Good Horror Sequel

Don’t forget to read Part 1 and Part 2 of our interviews on The Conjuring 2.

In the past decade and a half we have, in many ways, erased the stigma that sequels are generally bad. We live in a time where sequels to major movies are given a great deal of resources and attention and often even wind up surpassing their predecessors in terms of quality. Sure, you can still point to dozens of crummy sequels released every year, but we no longer assume that a sequel is going to be bad – an assumption we used to maintain for a long, long time.

Horror sequels, though, are something of a different animal. Every horror fan has their favorite horror series, but even they will admit that half or more of those movies are probably garbage. I recently attended an all-night marathon of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies at the New Beverly Cinema, and while the sum total of the night was fun, that stretch between The Dream Master and Freddy’s Dead was a real drag. Even more recent horror series like Saw or Insidious haven’t been able to overcome the problem of diminishing returns.

But somehow, The Conjuring 2 is the real deal. It’s perhaps not quite as good as the original, but it comes damn close. It maintains the things that made the first film great, without feeling like a stale retread. When I – along with writers from several other publications – had the chance to sit down with Chad and Carey Hayes who, along with David Leslie Johnson, wrote this new film, I was very interested to hear about their approach to making sure this movie was not only scary, but also moving and earnest.

How much of this was really true? Did the demon actually appear at Lorraine’s house, and then go to England?

Carey Hayes: Here’s the thing: with Lorraine, I want to say yes in certain respects. In the spirit of this story, absolutely. They were confronted, in their own house, with a very dark spirit.

And it was the same one?

David Johnson: I feel like that aspect is sort of an amalgam from other cases they worked on. Cases where something had followed them home. Sometimes they would talk about how they knew when a case was going to come because weird things would start happening at home.

Chad Hayes: So in the spirit of the story and tying it together and bringing in what she experienced in the first movie during the exorcism scene, we felt it very well could have been the exact same one, and Lorraine had felt the same way. It was like, ‘okay, let’s tie that in, and let’s pay off what happened in the first movie and bring it into the second film.’ That was a great journey for her to go on, we felt, just on an emotional level, and what she and Ed got to experience. You don’t think of those people ever being haunted because they go to other people’s homes and help them, but by being those conduits, they tend to attract things as well. We’ve asked Lorraine, ‘how do you protect yourself?’ and she says, ‘well I have God, I have the spiritual authority to not let these things affect me.’ So that’s how she lives.

It’s been said that horror and comedy are the two hardest genres to get right. Can you just talk about that from the writing point of view? Getting it right, finding the right balance of scaring people, character motivation, and finding the right mix of all that.

Johnson: I feel like the reason they’re difficult and how they’re similar is that it’s not something you really have control over. Being scared and laughing are just these involuntary things that you really have to tap into. You kind of have to get under the hood a little bit. For me, it’s all about looking at myself and what’s doing to scare me. What are the things that creep me out, and what are the things that are hopefully universal that will creep other people out? But in order for that to play on screen, you have to care about the people it’s happening to.

Chad Hayes: I think that’s a really good question because sometimes it’s very difficult to get it right, and you do a lot of different stabs at it. Our approach in writing these things is, you love a roller coaster, and a great horror movie is like a roller coaster ride to us where I’m going to go sit down, I’m going to go on this outrageously great journey, and I know I’m going to be scared to death, but then I’ll also have little moments of reprieve. So, you start off these movies, and you’re going ‘tick, tick, tick, tick, tick tick, tick,’ just going up that first hill, and then ‘whoosh!’ we take you down, and just when you can’t take any more we give you a break. So if you can create the rhythm and the structure of that, it’s a great journey, so that’s where you start. Then you do what David said, you bring on these amazing characters. What we feel makes a successful horror film is when people can identify with them – they’re on an emotional journey with them. With Ed and Lorraine, David pointed out earlier, that the first movie was used to set them up as characters and we had to spend a lot of time saying, ‘this is their world, this is what they’re about.’ In the second film, we didn’t have to do that.

Johnson: Now it’s more, ‘who are they? What makes them tick? Let’s get more into their relationship, their love story, and less about what they are and why they’re doing it.

Carey Hayes: Also, answering your question, the similarity between comedies and horror is all timing. It’s all timing. If you do too many scares too fast you get burnt out, you become numb, but what James does really good is milk the tension. You’re just waiting, and then it doesn’t happen, and then it happens. It’s like setting up the joke in a comedy.

Johnson: I’ll be honest with you, writing a comedy just terrifies me. I couldn’t imagine doing it.

Carey Hayes: I think also, in our movie – what David brought up before – the love story is first and foremost. There’s a horror story happening amongst it, but if you can relate to that love story, you’re in. Everything else that happens is kind of ancillary, but because you’re invested in these characters, you’re going to start feeling for everybody in there.

Was that how you approached this. Did you start with their relationship or was that in later revisions of the script?

Carey Hayes: Chad and I, when we were on the earlier drafts of the script wanted to expand their relationship, because the response in Ed and Lorraine on the first movie was so overwhelmingly positive, and Patrick and Vera working together- it just warms your heart to see these two. It’s like they’re the married couple, so the opportunity to go, ‘okay, how are we going to open this more and make it different, and it was literally about the setup for seeing Ed’s death and ‘make me that promise,’ and all of that is their new journey, but I love their love story in this movie.

Johnson: It’s fun. Doing the second movie, they’re the thing that carries from one to the next, so by doing the second one you want to go deeper with them than you had before. That seems like the reason to do it. To find out more about them.

For horror movies, that’s somewhat unusual. A lot of times, you’re following the monster from sequel to sequel to sequel, but this time, you follow the heroes. Was that something that was always planned or did that come later in the development or after the response from the first movie?

Carey Hayes: Actually it was the early development of Conjuring 1, because the true story of the Perrons was given to Chad and I, and it was the family backed up the moving truck to a haunted house, but we went, ‘oh my god, Ed and Lorraine Warren investigated this? What if we tell this story from the Warrens’ point of view?’ Because they’re always called into a house when it’s already really bad. It’s like calling a cop, ‘911, I need your help.’ With them stepping in, it was very important to go, ‘what influences the professionals? How does this rock their world, how does this change them?

Chad Hayes: I’ve given David this credit on what he said earlier too, but what separates this and what makes it a good movie is it’s a horror film with a happy ending. You should comment on that because I thought that was a great analogy.

Johnson: It sort of touches on what you were talking about, how most horror films tend to follow the villain. I was not involved in Conjuring 1, but looking at it from the outside, I think what made that work and what I wanted to work on with this was the fact that it wasn’t following the villain, that it was a movie with a happy ending, that instead of putting a bunch of people in a haunted house and just torturing them and then killing them all – which isn’t bad, I like those movies too – but, what was fresh and interesting about this to me, was that now I’m rooting for this family to succeed. And the fact that you have the sort of happy ending at the end of Conjuring 1 was very cathartic and was absolutely not something you usually see in a horror movie. With this one, it’s a love story, and it has a positive ending, and everyone gets out of it okay, and they’re dancing at the end, it just seems like such an interesting twist on the genre.

Going back to what you said earlier about how James likes to milk the tension, in coming into this one, knowing that that’s his style, were you able to write closer to how you thought he would shoot it?

Chad Hayes: Oh yeah, definitely.

What would be a prime example of a ‘James-ism?’

Carey Hayes: The engine coming out of the tent. When the little boy looks down and he hears the noise, and he looks out there. You know right away you gotta do it three times for James, right? So he looks out again.

Johnson: The other thing I like that he does in this, and it isn’t always scripted, but the long shot that he does. There’s so many long shots where you stay in this shot for so long that you start to accept nothing’s going to happen. Usually you’re cutting to a scare, but in this one, you’re going to be in Mom’s room, then you’re going to follow Mom down the hall, and now we’re in this other room and she’s looking around this room, we still haven’t cut, and then something that has been in frame for this whole long shot suddenly moves across the room and scares the crap out of you.

Chad Hayes: It’s like the mirror shot down in the basement when you first reveal the nun. Carey and I had such a great experience with James on the first one when the really scary scene where one of the girls looks under the bed and doesn’t see anything, but she sees something behind the door in the shadow. We’re on the set with James and we’re going, so when you come in on that, what are you going to put in that darkness?

Carey Hayes: Is the witch going to like come out?

Chad Hayes: And he goes, ‘no, I’m not going to put anything there. Your brain puts it there.’ So what’s she looking at? He says, ‘a good actress will tell you what she’s looking at.’

I just wanted to go back to the comedy thing. In comedy often they say there are rules, there are things that you don’t make jokes about. Is there anything in terms of horror where you just wouldn’t go there?

Johnson: I think the purpose of horror is to go there, right? That’s almost where you start, I think,  if it’s really scary. And it’s not always the monster; the movie that pops into my head is The Exorcist. For me, part for the scariest part of The Exorcist is, ‘my kid’s sick.’ And you start off there. That’s the line you don’t cross: my kid is sick, and that takes you immediately to an uncomfortable place, and then it gets worse.

Chad Hayes: And it’s tropes that you use, like – people love this in the first movie – Lily goes to the door down to the basement, she hear the noise and we’ve been in audiences where they go, ‘don’t go down there!’ But then, of course, you have to have her go down there. The way you twist it up is she turns around to leave and ‘boom!’ the door hits her and forces her to go down there. That’s the little twist in this kind of movie instead of being the dumb mom like, ‘I’m going to be brave and do all that,’ she’s actually terrified and thinks she’s going to lock it in there. So you try to do that as much as you can so you don’t fall into that, ‘oh, I’ve seen that before,’ kind of thing.

Carey Hayes: You try not to get a laugh when it’s supposed to be scary.

Patrick said that there is a rumor, maybe, of another movie? This is already getting great reviews. Are you working on a third one?

Chad Hayes: We were just talking about that. The idea really is where do you go with their relationship next? I thought that was a very good point you brought up, and then work backwards from there. It really has taken center stage on it, and you can come up with scares. When we first started, we gathered about twenty seven of their episodes from Lorraine.

Carey Hayes: Case studies.

Chad Hayes: Case studies, yeah. Just like Annabelle, just like this one, Enfield, and the Perrons, so I think that’s the important next step to really come up with what that’s going to be.

I was speaking with James earlier about how there really hasn’t been an epic horror movie since The Shining. Was the script any longer or did that all come in the cut?

Johnson: I don’t think the scripts ever seemed long.

Chad Hayes: No.

Johnson: But as writers I think we’re always surprised how long they wind up being. But there was always built in from Conjuring 1 this sort of epic idea of starting with two stories. You have the family that this is happening to, but then, the first half of the movie your main characters are almost a subplot. Their story has to be big enough in the first half to be worth cutting back to, so it just becomes bigger because of the way those movies are structured.

Chad Hayes: Yeah, these movies have become collision courses. Where do they come across and then what happens when they get together? It’s fun because you get to build up on two different levels, two different families, two different family dynamics with the characters. A lot of what makes good horror movies is the acting. It makes such a difference. This little girl who plays Janet was just remarkable and has a huge career in front of her. It makes all the difference. And then James knows how to pick ‘em.

You’re talking about doing the research and you have like twenty seven files. Were there any of them that you just had to put down because they were too scary?

Carey Hayes: [David] writes at night.

Johnson: I don’t have the experience that these guys have with the Warren files, but for me, I was writing at night one night, looking at Amityville crime scene photos as I was writing the vision bit. My family’s in bed asleep, I’m looking at all these crime scene photos of this family in bed, and I was like, ‘I’m calling it.’

Carey Hayes: Every noise is echoing out of your empty house.

Chad Hayes: That picture always freaked me out: the little ghost boy with his reflective eyes. Carey, during the first Conjuring started having water poltergeists show up at his house in his kitchen, so that was kind of freaky. And we would hear, when we talked to Lorraine on the phone just doing research with her and we would start to hear (whispers indistinctly), like voices on the phone, and she would say, ‘remember what we’re talking about. They don’t want this.’ And she would start, ‘in the name of Jesus, I command you, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah’ and they would go away, and it would be quiet.

Carey Hayes: But it was just ordinary. For her, she’s so use to it, just like anything else. ‘Oh, hold on a second. I forgot the oven was on, let me turn it off.’

So she’s still doing these investigations on her own at 85?

Johnson: Stuff comes in to her.

Chad Hayes: Not like she was.

Johnson: Not like she was, but, I mean, she can’t turn it off. This is just how she goes about her life, going into rooms and knowing what happened there.

Is there any scene she said that really affected her?

Chad Hayes: I haven’t talked to her about this one. I don’t know, has she seen the movie?

Carey Hayes: I don’t know about this one, but talking about the movie, though, she was very tortured being a parent and knowing what was going on with this other family, with the kids. You just want to fix it. You just want to make it right, and the only way you can make it right is understand what it is, and then deal with it. The hardest thing is, because you can’t just go away from it, is keeping them in the mix and keeping things as normal as they can. Because they alway felt blessed. ‘We have this blessed marriage, blessed child, blessed life, so we can step in.’ So they’re always stepping into families that are so disrupted by darkness that she says, ‘it always weighs on you to fix it faster.’

David Daut

David Daut

Though his taste has been described as ‘broken’, David maintains that the Fast & Furious series is the greatest cultural achievement of the modern era.