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As Annabelle: Creation hits cinemas, we track the short history of modern cinema’s most effective horror series so far.

Horror films are notoriously hard to get right. Having spent several decades succumbing to the scaring power of masterpieces like The Exorcist and Halloween (and the long line of spin-offs and sequels that followed them), we’ve come to learn every trick and trope in the book. As a result, it means we go into horror films with a good idea of what’s going to happen, who’s going to die and, lately, knowing we’ll leave feeling a little disappointed. But while superhero franchises tear up the industry, there’s a series of (comparatively) low budget horror films that have managed to achieve the impossible: box office success with the critical accolades to match.

Under the watchful eye of horror master James Wan, The Conjuring has become one of the most profitable movie franchises of the 21st century, grossing close to $1 billion. But horror films pulling in big bucks isn’t exactly an industry revolution; what has everybody talking is the sheer quality of these ones. Based on the hauntings and possessions witnessed by real life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Conjuring films feel like atmospheric, somewhat refreshing throwbacks to old Hollywood horrors; their latest spin-off is no different.

Annabelle: Creation tells a fictional story of how one of The Conjuring’s most prolific real life cases came to be. Set in 1960s America, it follows a group of orphaned girls and a nun as they move into a rural farmhouse to help a doll maker look after his elusive, bedbound wife. While there, the girls fall victim to one of the doll maker’s most evil creations. Following the slight chink in The Conjuring’s armor with the first Annabelle movie, Creation is a real return to form, delivering some seriously chilling moments that are sure to be felt by scare-seeking audiences when it hits theaters today.

To mark its release, we’re breaking down the reasons why The Conjuring has managed to become the scariest and most successful horror franchise of the 21st century so far.

James Wan knows how to make a successful horror series

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Considering he’s the brains behind series such as Saw and Insidious, you’d be a fool to doubt that James Wan’s name screams success in the horror realm. While most struggle to make a sequel to their original film, Wan has managed to spawn six (soon to be seven) sequels to 2004’s bloodthirsty torture series Saw and two for Insidious, with some more on the way. Although the critical and box office success of Saw started to dwindle as the series went on, it still deserves the title of this century’s most famous horror series, having earned a cool $873 million worldwide and making James Wan a bonafide stalwart of modern horror.

However, with just three films already released before Annabelle: Creation hits cinemas worldwide, The Conjuring franchise has somehow manage to trump Wan’s original feat, pulling in $895 million in ticket sales. It’s thought that by the end of the summer, Annabelle’s twisted and terrifying sequel will push the series over the $1 billion mark – a first for a horror franchise made exclusively this side of the millennium.

The films tap into our childhood nightmares

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Kids are a common sight in horror movies, but most directors use them as the embodiment of evil while the adults are rendered victims. For many horror movies, particularly those that deal with ghosts and demons, this focus on a 20-something being haunted can be a fatal flaw; after all, haven’t we come to make sense of such stupidity by that age? As we get older it becomes clearer that ghosts and spirits were once just figments of our imagination, tricks that our naive minds liked to play on us.

What many films of the series do, Annabelle: Creation especially, is tap into that naivety, putting you in the shoes of its young protagonists who are subjected to the torment of the demons you were terrified of as a kid. Annabelle: Creation is a brilliant tension builder: laden with human-shaped shadows, darkened stairways, and toys mysteriously moving, its bone-chilling vision of possession manages to follow you home. Suddenly, as you watch this haunting unfold on screen, you question whether or not those strange sounds and silhouettes that filled your bedroom as a kid were really just your mind playing tricks on you, and not something altogether more sinister.

The movies prove that in horror, less is sometimes more

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It’s the oldest trick in the book: grabbing the viewer’s attention by diving straight into the nail biting horror and not letting up until 90 minutes later once the credits begin to roll. For some reason, this tiring method of horror filmmaking seems like the ideal way to win over an audience who pay $10 for a movie ticket and leave feeling seriously spooked. But nothing from those films tend to resonate. The oldest horror tropes – visitors arriving unannounced and loud bangs in the night – have been rehashed for decades, but without serving any narrative purpose, they ultimately detract from the film when you think of it in hindsight.

In reality, great horror movies are like marathons. The pace should change as the race goes on, but nothing good comes from running at full speed the whole way or from stopping for a rest break. The films of The Conjuring series are shining examples of why tension should be omnipresent throughout. In the original film, tension starts from the opening scene, where we meet Annabelle the doll, and ticks on throughout the film’s rather lengthy two hour runtime until we reach the exorcising conclusion. Not every scene in between promises to turn you into a scarred insomniac. Instead, it fits together like a jigsaw puzzle, and makes the entire situation feel more real – but more on that later.

And they expand, rather than simply moving forward

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Few audience members really care about the protagonists of scary films and, morbidly, whether they survive or not. After all, what good is a horror series if every character returns relatively unharmed for the next chapter? In order to grab the viewer’s attention, a different kind of progress needs to be made.

The Saw series faltered because it jumped back and forth between timelines but tried to keep its focus on Jigsaw’s influence, so much that viewers came to expect what would happen next before they’d even sat down in the movie theatre. On the other hand, The Conjuring franchise has two recurring characters that just so happen to be the heroes. Instead of using Ed and Lorraine Warren’s continued appearance as ploys to give horror a more human element, the films use the paranormal investigator’s stories as inspiration for where the series might go next. And while the mainline series deconstructs the cases the famed duo dealt with, there’s a series of spin-offs that allow for a little more creativity story-wise.

The first Annabelle may have been a bit of a critical dud, but its follow-up is much more in line with the main series in terms of its scaring ability and quality of old-school horror filmmaking. Hopefully the two planned spin-offs match it: The Nun is inspired by that terrifying saintly apparition in The Conjuring 2 and is slated for release next year, while another titled The Crooked Man is set to follow it not long after.

It puts the based-on-a-true-story label to the test

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“Based on true events” has become the most overused, tenuous and yet somehow effective way of convincing a cinema-goer to buy a movie ticket. It’s used by practically every horror film producer working today, though its source usually amounts to nothing more than folklore and hearsay.

Focusing on the experiences of real life paranormal investigators, The Conjuring is one of the few franchises that actually has the receipts for its “true story” label. Although Ed died quite a few years ago, Lorraine (who’s still an active investigator) consults on The Conjuring’s main films during their production. As an apparent first hand witness to the events that the films are based on (The Perron Family Haunting in The Conjuring and The Enfield Haunting in The Conjuring 2), director James Wan relies on Lorraine heavily when it comes to the shooting and scripting process.

The argument about whether or not the events that the Warrens claim to have witnessed really happened is one that the jury’s still out on. Still, there’s no denying one thing: four films in, this terrifying franchise still manages to scare popcorn audiences and film critics alike, and the genre is all the better for it.

Annabelle: Creation hits cinemas worldwide on August 11th.

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