The Scariest Scene in 'The Conjuring' Transforms a Game Into an Exercise in Terror

(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror with your tour guides, horror experts Matt Donato and Ariel Fisher. In this edition: one of the scariest scenes in The Conjuring isn’t playing games.)

Regardless of your opinion on its various spin-offs and the fluctuating quality of the franchise as a whole, director James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013) ushered in a new approach to horror.

Well, I guess not new so much as refurbished, like the rotation of period-specific fashion trends: the flares of the ’70s making a comeback in the late ’90s/early 2000s, the neon of the ’80s had its day in the sun not too long ago, followed closely by ’90s grunge (which is still sticking around). 

Rather than revive the fashion trends of a bygone era, The Conjuring manages to resurrect the tone and pacing of classic horror movies like The Exorcist, The Changeling, Repulsion, and The Haunting. We get to know the family and we come to care about them in a natural way that doesn’t feel rushed or forced, making it all the more frightening when the scares crop up. 

This column’s predecessor, Meagan Navarro, wrote about a scene from The Conjuring. In that piece, she gave an exceptional rundown of what makes this film so influential and impactful. She also discussed one of three scenes in the film that I consider to be some of the scariest of the past decade: the wardrobe

This week, I’ll be breaking down and discussing the one that still gives me chills and made someone scream in the theatre when I first saw it: hide and clap.

The Setup

It’s 1971 and, presumably because of financial troubles, Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) and their family have moved to Harrisville, Rhode Island. Shortly after they arrive, strange things start happening. Though relatively small at first, things get progressively worse as they are wont to during hauntings. 

When the terror becomes too much, they seek help from Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), paranormal investigators who would make a career of solving problems like the Perrons’. Based on the real-life couple who were frequently accused of being hucksters (among other heinous things), Ed and Lorraine come to the Perrons’ aide to help cleanse their home of the evil spirits that threaten their lives. 

The Story So Far

The Perrons seem like a lovely family. We meet them as they first pull up to their new home, a massive place they got for a steal that’s full of potential with the right amount of elbow grease. But it’s the kind of space they need for their large family as Roger (a truck driver) and Carolyn have their dog, Sadie, and five daughters: from eldest to youngest, Andrea (Shanley Caswell), Nancy (Hayley McFarland), Christine (Joey King), Cindy (Mackenzie Foy), and April (Kyla Deaver). They start to unpack as The Zombies’ “Time of the Season” plays in the background, and we learn bits and pieces about them along the way: Andrea, the eldest, is largely pissed to be there; they make their own quirky windchimes; they love to tease each other; but most importantly, they just love each other.  

Off the hop, we’re meant to love these characters, and they’re presented in such a way that it’s impossible not to. We watch as the daughters play hide and clap, tripping over boxes in the hallway as they try and find each other while blindfolded. “You don’t know the house well enough, someone’s gonna get hurt!” Carolyn warns. “I’m alright, I’m alright!” Christine insists. As she finds her sister, they accidentally jostle a wooden board in what they thought was a closet but proves to be an entrance to a hidden cellar. 

The next day, the family wakes up to a frigid house. Two of their clocks have stopped exactly at 3:07 am, Carolyn has strange bruises on her legs, and Sadie, who refused to come inside, is found dead by their youngest, April. 

The next time we see the Perrons, Christine’s feet keep getting pulled in the middle of the night. Assuming it was her sister, Nancy, with whom she shares the room, she dismisses the disgusting smell that follows as a careless fart. Second youngest Cindy starts sleepwalking again, creepily walking into and banging her head up against the wardrobe in Andrea’s room. One day not long after, April, the youngest of the bunch, starts talking to her new imaginary friend, Rory. You know, normal kid stuff…that is until you add in the terrifying music box that summons him. Follow that up with an understated yet terrifying game of hide and clap and another sleepless night of understated terror, and you’ve got yourself a good ol’ fashioned haunting!

Did I mention yet that this is within the first 30 minutes of the movie? It all happens fast but is paced out in such a way that you don’t feel bludgeoned or suffocated by jump scares.

The Scene

It’s late at night, Carolyn is home alone with the girls, and Roger’s away on a job that’s supposed to take about a week. Folding laundry and listening to the radio while everyone else is in bed, she hears something in the hallway. Giggling? She turns down the radio to listen more closely and hears the telltale clap clap of a game of hide and clap.

“Girls, it’s way past your bedtime,” she says, clearly frustrated. But she goes to check on the girls only to see everyone snugly tucked away. There’s no one up but her. 

As she double checks on her eldest, something that sounds like a bomb going off in the hallway shatters the family portraits hanging by the stairs. The sound of stomping feet running away and gleeful giggles follow. 

Clearly terrified, Carolyn goes downstairs to find out what the hell is going on. The sink drips and the floorboards creak as she peeks around corners.

Clap clap

“Who is that?!” Carolyn yells, clearly rattled. 

As she rounds the corner looking into the kitchen, the door to the aforementioned cellar creaks open, and the dilapidated piano chimes on its own. “Who’s ever down there, I’m going to lock you in now!” Carolyn yells, and just as swiftly as she decided to act tough, the door to the cellar slams in her face, knocking her backward down the stairs. She sits in stunned silence, clearly in pain. Then, out of nowhere, a toy ball bounces out at her on its own as if it’s auditioning for The Changeling

Carolyn bolts for the stairs, terrified, as the cellar light explodes and she’s left in complete darkness with no way out, screaming for help, banging her fists on the door. 

A giggle in the darkness. 

She fumbles with a box of matches and strikes one, finding little comfort in the dim light. 

It burns out. 

She scrambles to light another as she looks into the darkness at the bottom of the stairs. It lights.

“Hey,” a disembodied voice whispers, “wanna play hide and clap?” 

Silence. 

Clap clap.

The Impact (Matt’s Take)

The impact is simple — Ariel and I are writing about The Conjuring‘s most infamous scare, also chosen as the trailer’s hook, roughly eight years later.

James Wan has proven to be a modern master of horror’s domain, and this children’s game turned spine-tingler represents his launchpad into Conjurverse notoriety. Basements are forever the no-no zone of haunted house culture, and Wan still manages to generate an original thrill that acknowledges dusty subterranean unknowns. We’re right back to the conversation about bounding upstairs from cellar depths out of paranoia that something might drag you back down, except Carolyn’s already by the basement door when palms smack. Whatever’s down there can’t be worse.

Or maybe it can.

We also must recognize Wan’s callback by using the daughter’s innocent clap game because that’s where genuine fear lurks. Anything from Child’s Play to Small Soldiers confirms there’s nothing freakier and more disquieting than when evil turns joyful objects or antics against their targets. Every time Carolyn hears a clap henceforth, she’ll shudder because the craftiest, most wicked beings want to ensure their torments linger. It’s also a veiled message to Carolyn’s children since the entity clearly stalks the entire family. The gesture is both a momentary scare and a thinly-veiled threat.

Wan’s expert fright architecture boasts atmosphere for days, planting Carolyn in a position where horrors lurk no matter where she turns. A locked door, the dark basement, or surrounding shadows. The lip-smacking and snickery manner in which the clapper wants to break its victim’s spirits stands out most, and that’s why the clap devastates beyond a cheesy jolt. Sound design pierces the silence as a thing that should not be delivers such a monumentally customary gesture with just the right thrust. It’s a disturbance, a haunt, and a twist on joviality that becomes the inverse of its everyday intentions. Happy claps are now horror claps. So James Wan hath rewritten.

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