The Nun—director Corin Hardy’s horror movie set in 1952 in a remote, ultra-traditional Catholic convent in Romania—is a smash hit, grossing $294 million worldwide to date. That’s undoubtedly because The Nun is one of several recent prequels to the enormously successful The Conjuring (2013) and The Conjuring 2 (2016), which chronicle some of the real-life cases of alleged demonic possession investigated by paranormal entrepreneurs Ed and Lorraine Warren during the 1970s.
The Conjuring 2 introduced the series’s most frightening supernatural creature to date: a gaunt and shark-toothed sister in full veil and wimple who looked like a scarier version of Sister Mary Athanasius from fourth-grade class in parochial school. The nun is, in fact, the demon Valak, listed as one of Satan’s lackeys in real-life grimoires from the seventeenth century. Valak possesses human beings in order to wreak his murderous mischief, and the plot of The Nun concerns the Romanian convent where he has made his first twentieth-century appearance. One of the nuns there, Sister Victoria (Charlotte Hope), has hanged herself, and her dead body has taken demon-nun shape.
To investigate the unholiness, the Vatican dispatches Father Burke (Demián Bichir), a veteran exorcist haunted by demons of his own. To gain access to the convent, whose rule permits no males to enter, Father Burke enlists the youthful Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga). She is new to the religious life and unsure about committing herself, but as a child she had a series of visions culminating with the words, “Mary points the way.” “Frenchie” (Jacques Bloquet), a charming but profane-mouthed and irreligious French-Canadian, joins them in their quest along the rutted roads of rural Romania. He had discovered Sister Victoria’s body while delivering produce to the forbidding mountaintop convent. There, it seems the nuns have been on their knees day and night, praying frantically in an attempt to ward off Valak (unloosed by World War II bombing from a stony underground chamber where he had been consigned for centuries since his conjuring from Hell). The convent houses a reliquary containing Christ’s blood, which might save it, except that the relic is hidden and guarded by the demon nun and her epigones.
Despite audience enthusiasm for The Nun, critics have hated the movie (Variety: “standard-issue jump scares and supernatural hokum”). And for good reason. For one thing, director Hardy and screenplay author Gary Dauberman needed a consultant on actual Catholic liturgy and practice. Placing a Catholic convent in Romania was an odd choice, given that Romania is overwhelmingly Eastern Orthodox. Latin-rite Catholics make up only 4 percent of the population, with nearly all of them living in the ethnically Hungarian Carpathian Mountains region of Transylvania. I suppose Hardy and Dauberman decided saying “Transylvania” in yet another horror film might make people laugh instead of shiver, but substituting “Romania” isn’t conducive to a willing suspension of disbelief. And someone should have informed the moviemakers that Sister Irene isn’t a “novitiate,” as the movie repeatedly calls her, but a “novice” (a “novitiate” is a religious novice’s period of training, not the novice herself). The nuns at the demon-haunted convent aren’t in “perpetual adoration,” as the movie says, since there is no Eucharist present (Hardy and Dauberman seem not to have realized that even the strictest orders of Catholic nuns import priests to say Mass for them).
Oddest of all is the fact that in a movie set years before the Second Vatican Council, Father Burke and Sister Irene seldom wear religious dress—something that would have been unthinkable in the Catholic Church at the time. One explanation could be that then-Communist Romania forbade such attire, as many anticlerical governments did and as some still do. But The Nun never even mentions Romania’s Communist regime, passing up a ripe thematic opportunity to tie the demon Valak’s emergence to the militant Marxism that decreed God and religion were dead. Instead we are treated to a seemingly endless round of hokey, if technologically adept, filler scenes: fog rolling along floors, bells ringing mysteriously, heads crashing off statues, crucifixes rotating upside-down, and far too many lightning-sudden appearances of the demon nun with her grisly dentition. As I watched, I longed for a simpler era of horror movies, when the opening of the 1978 Halloween could invoke boundless terror merely with a tinkling piano and a zoom-in on a jack-o’-lantern.
And yet, The Nun at its heart profoundly understands Catholic theology. Like all successful horror movies (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen), The Nun trades on the beliefs, imagery, and trappings of a pre-Vatican II Catholicism now deemed childish and superstitious among up-to-date Catholics who prefer felt banners to crucifixes and deem the devil only a metaphor. The Nun, like those other movies, forces its viewers to accept the sheer naked power of evil that can’t be wished away by deciding that we’re past all that now. Satan and his minions really do roam through the world seeking the ruin of souls, including that of poor, deluded Sister Victoria, who imagined her suicide might spare the convent. Even good-hearted Father Burke and idealistic Sister Irene are ultimately helpless against such malevolence, since the devil knows very well how to play upon the self-doubts of both.
There is only one thing more powerful than evil: the blood of Christ. In the most affecting—and genuine—scene in the movie, Sister Irene clothes herself in her snow-white postulant’s habit, insists that Father Burke receive the religious vows she has heretofore put off, and hangs the reliquary bearing the Holy Blood around her neck. Vulnerable, but armed with the very source of human redemption, she goes out to confront that which seeks to destroy her. She has found the relic because Mary—a statue of Mary in this instance—has indeed pointed the way. It is the luminous and heroic Sister Irene, we realize, who is “the nun” in this movie. (Of course, as we also learn a few minutes later, we will have to wait until Judgment Day for the human race to cease being entirely beset by Valak and his fellow henchmen of the Father of Lies.)
I wish Hardy and Dauberman had made a better movie about the central Christian mystery of Christ’s sacrificial death. But let those who insist the pre-Vatican II Church reduced women to insignificance contemplate Sister Irene and think twice.
Charlotte Allen is a writer living in Washington, D.C