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Bloodied Battlegrounds

On the use of nuns in horror movies.

Why do so many horror movies feature nuns? This question has been on my mind in one form or another since 2018, the second year of my novitiate, when The Nun was released. In the U.K. the film was advertised with billboard images of the film’s protagonist, Sister Irene, wearing a white veil and habit, viewed from behind and apparently facing a blank wall. I found this immensely funny, for it seemed that Sister Irene was playing the same practical joke that I—at the time, a similarly white-clad novice—enjoyed playing on the other sisters in my convent: taking my black shoes off, standing against a blank white wall in the convent, and shouting, “Look sisters, I’m camouflaged!” (I was very young, both in years and in psychological maturity, when I entered religious life.)

For the uninitiated, The Nun is a supernatural horror set in the same thematic universe as The Conjuring and its sequels. A demon named Valak stalks the cloisters of a Romanian convent (Valak, not Sister Irene, is the eponymous character). Accompanied by a token cleric, Sister Irene arrives to sort the matter out and wage spiritual battle against the demon. In its 2023 sequel, The Nun II, the young sister (now sans cleric) travels to France for a second round of demonic warfare, which ends satisfactorily but not so conclusively that a third film is ruled out. There are a fair few precedents in the history of cinema for this kind of pseudo-Gothic silliness, which I will leave the reader to investigate for themselves, if so inclined.

So back to my original question, which I am probably not the right person to be asking: why so many horror movies with nuns? I say I am not the right person because these films are clearly not aimed at the kind of viewer who snorts with laughter at the sight of poor Sister Irene playing camouflage. The appeal of the religious life as a foreboding backdrop to horror can (I assume) only endure if the vast majority of the audience knows nothing about it in practical terms. I, frankly, do not fit in this category. I am not overawed by the sight of a medieval cloister. I am not impressed by the mere sound of somebody praying in Latin. And too many times have I dropped tomato sauce on my sleeves or had to pull my own scapular out of the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner to labor under the misapprehension that habited nuns are ethereal and otherworldly figures. As far as I am concerned, the main horror of the two Nun films is the utterly chaotic state of Sister Irene’s initial formation, which proceeds entirely without reference to a Rule, Constitutions, or Book II of the Code of Canon Law. I am hoping for a third film in the franchise purely so that I can find out if she has the temerity to apply for Final Profession.

In search of answers and humbly acknowledging my total lack of insight, I found a couple of video interviews on YouTube (the same place I find my nun horror clips, to be clear, in case anybody fears I’ve been buying D.V.D.s with funds from the common purse) with the cast and crew of the two Nun films. Answers were forthcoming, but not particularly profound. The actors and scriptwriters spoke in various ways about the shroud of mystery surrounding nuns, the sense that these women are untouchable archetypes of holiness, and (this amused me) the fear which intensely religious people instill in other members of the public. The assumption, it seems, is that nuns belong in horror films simply because they are horrifyingly abnormal.

This heavy reliance on the public perception of nuns as, for better or worse, just not like us would certainly explain the slightly perfunctory feeling of the two films’ jump-scares. The filmmakers lean heavily—far too heavily, in my case—on the eerie unfamiliarity of crucifixes and habited women as a means to build up cinematic tension and propel you out of your seat. Even before Valak has bared its unhygienic fangs, the mere sight of a wimple (or indeed the back of Sister Irene’s white-veiled head) is meant to inform the audience that strange and inexplicable things are about to happen, because after all, we are in the presence of the strangest and most inexplicable of people.

May I suggest this is a wasted opportunity? Yes, nuns are a little mysterious; yes, they are preoccupied with something odd and half-understood called holiness; yes, they do come across as frightening to some people. But that is not what makes nuns so appropriate for horror movies. What makes them appropriate is the fact that every single religious woman, be she a nun or apostolic sister, is a woman deeply and radically conformed, by virtue of her consecration, to the ultimate and definitive defeat of evil: the Paschal Mystery of Christ. Having been sacramentally united to the mystery of redemption in her Baptism, the consecrated religious is then totally handed over to it in her profession. The interior battle against evil that is waged across her lifetime in the utter depths of her soul, on the bloodied battlegrounds of poverty, chastity and obedience, is enough to make even the most seasoned horror fan’s hair stand on end.

This is why I was particularly pleased that it is Sister Irene, not the priest, who personally defeats Valak at the end of the first Nun film. Admittedly this may have just been so that Sister Irene’s veil has another opportunity to fall off, revealing her shiny feminine tresses (another occasion of horror for me: imagine having to go about your daily business with such an ill-fitting veil). But it spoke, even if completely unintentionally, of the distinct role of the consecrated life within God’s plan of salvation. For most consecrated religious, living out this role will not involve being throttled by demons. But it will most certainly involve naming and confronting the evil which we find in the world, in our own souls, and even within the Church Herself.

My question about nuns and horror began life as a simple complaint. Now, several years later, it’s more of a lament. The more I reflect on the matter, the more it seems to me that to rely so heavily on the shock value of nuns as weird, pious, untouchable figures not only deals diminishing returns for horror films—surely, quite soon, every moviegoer is going to be as bored with nun jump-scares as I am—but is also a terrible waste for the whole genre. Surprising as it may seem, I am all for more nuns in horror movies, but only as long as these fictional sisters are permitted to live up to their full potential as experts in the triumph of God’s goodness over evil.