In 1971, Roger and Carolyn Perron move into a dilapidated farmhouse in Harrisville, Rhode Island with their five daughters Andrea, Nancy, Christine, Cindy, and April. Their dog Sadie refuses to enter the house and one of the children, while playing a game of "hide and clap", finds a boarded-up entrance to a cellar.
Paranormal events occur within the first few nights: all of the clocks stop at exactly 3:07 AM and Sadie is found dead in the backyard. One night in bed, Christine encounters a malevolent spirit only she can see, prompting her to claim that the spirit wants her family dead. Another night, Carolyn hears clapping in the hallway. When she goes to investigate, following the noises, she gets trapped in the basement by the spirit. At the same moment, Andrea and Cindy are attacked by the spirit on top of the wardrobe.
Carolyn decides to contact demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, who have recently investigated a possessed doll called Annabelle. The Warrens agree to take on the case, conduct an initial investigation and conclude that the house may require an exorcism, but they need authorization from the Catholic Church and further evidence before they can proceed.
Ed and Lorraine discover that the house once belonged to an accused witch, Bathsheba (a relative of Mary Towne Eastey), who sacrificed her week-old child to the devil and killed herself in 1863 after cursing all who would take her land. They find reports of numerous murders and suicides in houses that had since been built on the property.
To gather evidence, Ed and Lorraine place cameras and bells around the house. They see Cindy sleepwalking into Andrea's room, and from the EVPs coming from the radio, they hear a spirit luring Cindy into the wardrobe, where she reveals a secret passage inside. Lorraine enters the passage and falls through the floorboards to the cellar, where she sees the spirit of a woman whom Bathsheba had long ago possessed and used to kill her child.
The Perron family decides to take refuge at a motel while Ed and Lorraine take their evidence to the Church. The Warrens' daughter Judy is attacked in their own home by Bathsheba, though Ed arrives in time to save her.
Carolyn, now possessed by Bathsheba, takes Christine and April back to the house. Ed and Lorraine find Carolyn in the cellar trying to stab Christine. After tying Carolyn to a chair, Ed decides that an exorcism needs to be performed on Carolyn, but realizes there isn't enough time to wait for a priest to arrive. Ed decides to perform the exorcism himself, and in the process is attacked by Bathsheba. Though Carolyn escapes and attempts to kill April, Lorraine is able to distract Carolyn from killing her daughter by reminding her of a special memory she shared with her family, allowing Ed to complete the exorcism, saving Carolyn and April and lifting Bathsheba's curse forever.
Returning home, Lorraine tells Ed that they had been left a message saying that they had gained approval from the Catholic Church to perform the exorcism. They also have another case to investigate on Long Island. Before leaving, Ed adds a music box from the Perrons' house to a collection of items he and Lorraine have saved from past cases. It inexplicably opens and plays music until the screen cuts to black.
Development began over 20 years prior when Ed Warren played a tape of Lorraine's original interview with Carolyn Perron for producer Tony DeRosa-Grund. DeRosa-Grund made a recording of Warren playing back the tape and of their subsequent discussion. At the end of the tape, Warren said to DeRosa-Grund, "If we can't make this into a film I don't know what we can." DeRosa-Grund then described his vision of the film for Ed.
DeRosa-Grund wrote the original treatment and titled the project The Conjuring. For nearly 14 years, he tried to get the movie made without any success. He landed a deal to make the movie at Gold Circle Films, the production company behind The Haunting in Connecticut, but a contract could not be finalized and the deal was dropped.
DeRosa-Grund allied with producer Peter Safran, and sibling writers Chad and Carey Hayes were brought on board to refine the script. Using DeRosa-Grund's treatment and the Ed Warren tape, the Hayes brothers changed the story's point of view from the Perron family to the Warrens'. The brothers interviewed Lorraine Warren many times over the phone to clarify details. By mid-2009, the property became the subject of a six-studio bidding war that landed the film at Summit Entertainment. However, DeRosa-Grund and Summit could not conclude the transaction and the film went into turnaround. DeRosa-Grund reconnected with New Line Cinema, who had lost in the original bidding war but who ultimately picked up the film. On November 11, 2009, a deal was made between New Line and DeRosa-Grund's Evergreen Media Group.
Pre-production began in early 2011, with reports surfacing in early June that James Wan was in talks to direct the film. This was later confirmed by Warner Bros., which also stated that the film would be loosely based on real-life events surrounding Ed and Lorraine Warren. In January 2012, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson were cast to star in the film. That month, Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor were also confirmed for roles in the film, which at that time was developing under the working title of The Untitled Warren Files Project. The film's title was temporarily changed to The Warren Files based on a suggestion by Wan, but was later reverted to The Conjuring prior to the commencement of the film's marketing campaign.
In preparation for their roles, Farmiga and Wilson traveled to Connecticut to spend time with Lorraine Warren, who also visited the set during production. Over the course of spending three days at the Warren home, both actors took in information that could not otherwise be achieved from secondary research. "I just wanted to absorb her essence. I wanted to see the details, she has such mad style. I just wanted to see – the way she communicates with her hands, these gestures, her smile, how she moves through space," said Farmiga on her observations of Warren.
Principal photography began in late February 2012. Lasting for 38 days, shooting took place primarily at EUE/Screen Gems Studios as well as other locations in and around Wilmington, North Carolina. Filming also took place at the University of North Carolina Wilmington in March 2012 while the campus was on its spring break. Diana Pasulka, professor of Religious Studies at UNC-Wilmington, was the chief religious consultant for the project. After wrapping up in Wilmington on April 20, the film concluded its principal photography on April 26, 2012. All scenes were shot in chronological order.
The film was in post-production in August of the same year. Around 20 to 30 minutes of footage was removed from the first cut of the film, which initially ran at about two hours in duration. After positive test screenings, the final edit of the film was locked in December 2012 and awaited its summer release.
The musical score for The Conjuring was composed by Joseph Bishara, who previously collaborated with director Wan on Insidious (2011). "James asked me early on about [The Conjuring] while the film was still coming together", explained Bishara on his involvement. "The studio and producers were very supportive in allowing him to bring along who he wanted, with many of his longtime crew from Insidious and even earlier returning." Further into the development process, Wan offered Bishara the chance to act in the film, which he had previously done in Insidious. "We talked about music first and then James had mentioned that he might want me to play one of the entities in this. After reading the script it turned out it was Bathsheba," said Bishara. Because of his early involvement, Bishara was given more time to work out the musical palette of the film. "For whatever reason I was hearing brass clustering as an early response to the material, a quiet shimmering flutter tongue effect, and it grew from there", said Bishara on his creative process.
A soundtrack album was released by La-La Land Records and WaterTower Music on July 16, 2013. In addition to Bishara's themes, the soundtrack also includes a track titled "Family Theme" by composer Mark Isham. Avant-garde musician Diamanda Galás also contributed to Bishara's score, performing raw vocal improvisation on top of the previously recorded brass instrumentation. Other songs featured in the film include: "In the Room Where you Sleep" by Dead Man's Bones, "Sleep Walk" by Betsy Brye, "Time of the Season" by The Zombies, and "Wish I May" by Breaking Benjamin.
The first promotional images were released in November 2012, introducing Farmiga and Wilson as Ed and Lorraine Warren. A teaser trailer, previously shown at the 2012 New York Comic Con, kicked off the film's marketing campaign in February 2013. Throughout the campaign, the film was promoted heavily as "based on a true story." In the weeks leading up to the film's release, trailers and TV spots began to feature the real-life Perron family. This was followed by a featurette titled The Devil's Hour in which Lorraine Warren and other paranormal investigators explain some of the supernatural occurrences seen in the film.
Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema initially intended to release The Conjuring in early 2013, but decided on a summer release date after gaining a positive reception from test audiences. The film was ultimately released on July 19 in North America, and in the United Kingdom and in India on August 2. Because of this, it is one of the first horror films to receive a wide release in the United States during the months of June or July since 2006's The Omen. A trailer and a clip from the film were shown at the 2012 New York Comic Con. In March 2013, the film was given an R-rating by the MPAA for being what Wan described as "too adult." "When we sent it [to the MPAA], they gave us the R-rating," said executive producer Walter Hamada. "When we asked them why, they basically said, 'It's just so scary. [There are] no specific scenes or tone you could take out to get it PG-13.'"
The world premiere took place June 6, 2013, at the closing night of the first edition of Nocturna: Madrid International Fantastic Film Festival. This was followed by two screenings of the film at the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 21 that also featured a Q&A segment with director James Wan. A red carpet premiere was then held for the film on July 15, 2013, at Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles.
The Conjuring was released in DVD and Blu-ray formats by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment on October 22, 2013.
Norma Sutcliffe and Gerald Helfrich, the current owners of the house on which the film was based, are suing James Wan, Warner Bros. and other producers, on the ground that their property is being vandalized constantly as a consequence of the film. Entertainment Weekly obtained documents in which the owners affirm various invasions and ratify that they have found numerous objects affiliated with satanic cults. The lawsuit also reveals that the current owners bought the house in 1987 and lived "in peace" until 2012. Both owners are seeking unspecified damages. When questioned, a spokesperson for Warner Bros. declined to comment on the issue.
Gerald Brittle, author of the 1980 book The Demonologist about Ed and Lorraine Warren, filed a lawsuit against Warner Bros., New Line Productions and director James Wan regarding the film. Brittle claims the film, alongside the subsequent sequel and spin offs, infringe upon an exclusive contract he had with the Warrens to make any works based on the subject of his book. The film rights were briefly with original publisher Prentice Hall before reverting to Brittle. Warner Bros. has refused to comment on the case.
The Conjuring grossed $137.4 million in North America and $180.6 million in other territories for a worldwide total of $318 million, against a budget of $20 million.
In North America, the film opened on July 19, 2013, alongside Red 2, Turbo and R.I.P.D., and was projected to gross $30–$35 million from 2,903 theaters in its opening weekend. The film earned $3.3 million from its Thursday night showings and $17 million on its first day (including Thursday previews), doing slightly better than The Purge a month earlier. The film went on to gross $41.9 million in its opening weekend, landing in first place and breaking The Purge's record as the biggest opening for an original R-rated horror film. For Warner Bros., The Conjuring surpassed the debut weekend of the distributor's big-budget film Pacific Rim, which had opened to $37.3 million the weekend prior. While horror films usually drop at least 50% in their second weekend, The Conjuring only dropped 47%, taking in $22.2 million and placing in second behind new release The Wolverine. After its run in theaters, the film was officially named a box office hit, grossing over fifteen times its production budget with a worldwide total of $318 million. Calculating in all production and promotional expenses, Deadline.com estimated that the film made a total profit of $161.7 million.
Outside North America, the film had a total gross of $180.6 million from all its overseas markets. In Australia, it grossed $1.8 million in its debut weekend, placing third at the box office behind The Heat and This Is the End. Its total gross in Australia was $8.2 million. In the United Kingdom, the film opened on August 6 alongside The Smurfs 2, making £2.6 million ($3.3 million) in its opening weekend, and grossing $16.2 million in total there. It had its biggest international gross in Mexico, opening in first place on August 23, where the film made $18.9 million overall.
The Conjuring received generally positive reviews from critics. The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports an 86% approval rating, based on 203 reviews, with a weighted average of 7.2/10. The site's consensus reads, "Well-crafted and gleefully creepy, The Conjuring ratchets up dread through a series of effective old-school scares." Metacritic assigned the film a weighted average score of 68 out of 100, based on 35 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews". CinemaScore reported that audiences gave the film an "A-" grade on a scale of A to F.
In her review following the Los Angeles Film Festival, Sheri Linden of The Hollywood Reporter said, "With its minimal use of digital effects, its strong, sympathetic performances and ace design work, the pic harks back in themes and methods to The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror, not quite attaining the poignancy and depth of the former but far exceeding the latter in sheer cinematic beauty." Justin Chang of Variety gave the film a positive review, calling the film "a sensationally entertaining old-school freakout and one of the smartest, most viscerally effective thrillers in recent memory." Additionally, Alonso Duralde of TheWrap also praised the effectiveness of the film, explaining that it "doesn't try to reinvent the tropes of horror movies, whether it's ghosts or demons or exorcisms, but Fred Astaire didn't invent tap-dancing, either." Chris Nashawaty of Entertainment Weekly gave the film an A-, citing the effectiveness of "mood and sound effects for shocks that never feel cheap."
However, some critics reacted negatively to the film's similarities with films such as The Exorcist and Poltergeist. Indiewire's Eric Kohn explained that, "The Warrens may know how to handle demonic possessions, but The Conjuring suffers from a different invading force: the ghosts of familiarity." Andrew O'Hehir of Salon said the film provided "all the scream-inducing shocks you could want, right on schedule", but thought the central concept – that the innocent women accused and executed in the Salem witch trials "actually were witches, who slaughtered children and pledged their love to Satan and everything!" – was "reprehensible and inexcusable bullshit".
In June 2013, it was reported that New Line Cinema was already developing a sequel. Both Farmiga and Wilson are signed on to reprise their roles for an additional film. The Conjuring 2 was scheduled to be released on October 23, 2015, but in October 2014, Warner Bros. moved the film's release date to an unspecified 2016 release date. On October 21, it was announced that James Wan would return to direct the sequel. On November 11, 2014, the film was set for a June 10, 2016, release. The sequel was later re-written by David Leslie Johnson, with a script from Eric Heisserer. The film will deal with the Enfield Poltergeist case, which occurred in London from 1977 to 1979. Principal photography began in September 2015 in Los Angeles, and concluded in December 2015 in London.
On a potential third film, director James Wan stated, "There could be many more [Conjuring] movies because the Warrens have so many stories." Screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes have also expressed interest in working on a story for another sequel. However, Wan stated that he may be unable to direct the film due to his commitments to other projects. He stated to Collider.com, "Assuming we are lucky enough to have a third chapter, there are other filmmakers that I would love to sort of continue on the Conjuring world, if we are lucky enough." Wan has also stated that, if a third film was to be made, it would ideally take place in the 1980s. In June 2017, it was announced that a third installment was in development, with The Conjuring 2 co-writer David Leslie Johnson hired to write the screenplay.
The success of The Conjuring has spawned several related films along with the main series' sequels, including 2014's Annabelle and its 2017 prequel Annabelle: Creation. In addition, two others films featuring supernatural threats first seen in The Conjuring films, The Nun and The Crooked Man, are also in development.