Essays · Movies

How ‘The Nun’ Fictionalizes Our Real Fears of the Catholic Church

It’s easier to be scared of a demonic entity than the real evil that lies within the Catholic church.
By  · Published on September 10th, 2018

There are several genres of films that represent the fears and attitudes of the time they were made. Film noir shows the cynical attitudes that emerged during the Great Depression. Science fiction films in the 1950s expressed the fears brought on by the Cold War and an imminent nuclear war that people couldn’t grasp. Those touchstones of society show how writers and filmmakers can make fictional stories inspired by real emotions shared by society.

There are a lot of films today that certainly represent current fears (and there are many) that people will be able to look back on them and understand what it was like to live in today. Horror is naturally a good indicator of what many of us are afraid of and the latest installment in The Conjuring franchise The Nun expresses that clearly. In a convoluted story of demonic possession, The Nun represents our very real fears of the evil that lies within the Catholic church, and that can’t be cast out by an exorcism.

Corin Hardy’s The Nun opens and ends with allusions to The Conjuring films, but the main story opens with a nun killing herself in a Romanian abbey. The reasons why are sparse, but that’s where Father Burke (Demián Bichir) and Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) come in. Sent by the Vatican to investigate a death that is completely kept from any law enforcement officials, Father Burke and Sister Irene have to determine why a nun would kill herself and whether or not the abbey is still holy. Within the first night there, they realize there is an evil at work in the abbey that needs to be stopped. They employ the power of all kinds of relics and traditional Catholic tactics to cast the demon back into the ground, but he moves on in an unsuspecting victim.

The Catholic church is by far one of the most corrupt institutions in history, and their wrongdoings are nothing new. Perhaps now the only reason their issues are more prevalent are the brave people willing to come forward and tell the secrets that have been buried for centuries.  Anyone with any knowledge of the church can see that that demonic possession is by far the least scary villain to prey on innocent Catholics. The true evil within the church is just beginning to be represented in entertainment. Best Picture winner Spotlight told the story of The Boston Globe’s investigation into sexual allegations against priests in Boston. Netflix’s The Keepers is a heartwrenching true crime mini-series that begins with the death of a nun but brings to light the dark and sadistic abuse that went on in a Catholic school for young girls. These examples only touch on the very few instances that people actually came forward about the abuse they experienced, but more importantly that they weren’t covered up.

Just last month a grand jury report released 99 names of individuals who worked in the Catholic Church of Pennsylvania that were accused of not only sexual abuse but distributing child pornography as well. This was in one state alone. Even more troubling is that the officials from the Dioceses of Pittsburgh deny any claims that these allegations were covered up, but many of those accused of sexual abuse went on to continue their careers in the Catholic church and probably perpetuating their abuse. Not long after this report shook the state of Pennsylvania, a Vatican official came forward claiming that the Pope knew about allegations against a cardinal long before dismissing him. The man at the top of the institution, the one that is supposed to be closest to God, is even guilty of covering up the wrongdoings of the church.

It’s terrifying that the institution that is supposed to be holy, supposed to be a safe place for those seeking guidance, is made up of people who make detrimental mistakes or even worse, heinous acts that ruin the lives of many people who trusted them. The institution meant to help people ends up being more concerned with saving face than owning to its mistakes. This realization breeds many confusing emotions that are impossible to process for many people who follow Catholicism. Most people could not watch a film that explicitly shows the fears of the Catholic church that are real, so filmmakers turn to demons instead.

The evil demon of The Nun doesn’t possess devout Catholic parishioners, but those that have dedicated their lives to the faith, the nuns, at the beginning of the film. Although, we see it is causing trauma in the village close by. People are committing suicide, and the village knows it is because of what goes on in the abbey. The evil may be of a different world and not at all the church’s fault, but it still takes over the people who are supposed to be holy and makes them do awful things. Their evil acts are excusable in the audience’s mind because it is something else behind what they are doing. The possessed are at the mercy of evil at this point. Instead of demonizing the Catholic church and its officials, The Nun blames an entity that was present before they came in and tried to, shocker, cover it up.

The most telling representation of the real Catholic issues in The Nun‘s plot is the origins of the demon at hand. Long ago in the Dark Ages, a cult built the giant castle where the abbey now resides to summon a demon Valak. Just as he rises from the castle’s stone floor, the church swoops in and condemns him back into the ground with an artifact containing the blood of Jesus Christ. Valak is pushed back into the ground, and the crack where he came from is sealed, but not indefinitely. Valak still resides in the foundations of the abbey and the church by no means tried to make him disappear. They just pushed him further into the ground, where he couldn’t affect the surface of the church. With its countless relics and traditions, the church only proves to delay the evil from causing havoc. Despite the fact that the evil was summoned by a cult, the problem in the church in its foundations. Covering up the problem and trying to operate as usual doesn’t work in this film, just as in real life. World War II breaks the barrier, and Valak again comes out to possess the nuns of the abbey. Even the blood of Jesus Christ, a relic that is supposed to be the end of all evil, was only a temporary solution.

You’d think that Father Burke and Sister Irene would try to find other ways to fight Valak once they find out what the church did to bury him before. The Vatican officials that sent them made one thing clear, find out what is going on so that it doesn’t get out and ruin the reputation of the church. None of the nuns that they meet (which we find out are dead) share the information with them about Valak. Even members of the church aren’t given the privilege of knowing what goes on for fear that it may get out, whether that be Valak or proof that the church has made mistakes.

Once they find out about the history of Valak, their plan is to enact the same procedure as before, use the blood of Christ to patch up the opening in the floor where Valak escaped. It’s not an easy task, but the ending shows that it still didn’t work. Valak possessed someone else, the Frenchman (Joseph Bloquet) who tagged along with Father Burke and Sister Irene. The tone of the film makes it feel like the evil has subsided and everything will be okay, up until the final moments once we see that Frenchie is exorcised in a later Conjuring film. Sister Irene is happy to have made the place holy again, or so she thinks, and everyone leaves the place proud of their work.

Same as Father Burke and Sister Irene, the Catholic church has been using their relics and traditions to remedy evil that’s possessed so many of its members to no avail. It’s obvious that just by taking a vow to serve God, doesn’t evade you from acting evil. They have been satisfied by dealing with the sexual assault, the abuse of power, and even the murder in ways that don’t get rid of the problem, but just keep it at bay. They use tactics that many have believed in for centuries, but at what point will they realize that what they are up against cannot be prayed away? The problem is in the foundations of Catholicism, just as the problem with the abbey is that the foundation holds the evil. If the film represents anything relevant, it’s that the church’s isolated solutions and secretive tactics cannot ever destroy evil, whether that be in a demon or human form, by using their traditional fixes. Not even the blood of Jesus Christ himself can do that.

Warner Bros.

That failure to condemn evil and its consequences is present in Father Burke’s backstory as well. In his time as an investigative priest for the Vatican, he has seen the unnatural cases that involve the church. One that the film hones in on his a failed exorcism he tried to do on a young boy. He performs a typical exorcism, and the church claims that the evil had been cast out and the exorcism was successful. The boy died a few days later, and despite doing everything the church believes needed to be done, Father Burke couldn’t save him. In some ways, this mirrors the paths of some victims of sexual assault at the hands of priests. Many of them are dealt with inside the church without ever consulting law enforcement or legal help. They never seek the real help they need and suffer for years afterward, some even turning to suicide. Just as with the young boy in the film, the consequences of evil are just as deadly as any demon. It’s impossible to fix an evil act after it is already ruined a victim’s life, especially without ever seeking help from outside the institution.

For a lot of Christians, the idea of a demon possessing you without any reason is one of the scariest fears ever presented on screen. No matter how great of a Christian you can be, it doesn’t always protect you from evil. Perhaps this is just a misdirected fear, originating from the idea that if you are the best Christian you can be,  that makes you vulnerable to be preyed upon by those in the Catholic church. The abuse that happens to parishioners in the Catholic church certainly possesses the victims, leaving them powerless, voiceless, and hopeless. In many ways, maybe it’s easier for us to fear a demon than the priests we trust but have shown they are fully capable of reeking the level of evil comparable to any demon. Abusers are nothing without the victims they possess. Just as demons they feed off of the power over others. What’s even more terrifying and that became obvious with the PA report is that there’s probably sexual abuse or worse going on in the church that we will never know about because it will continue to be covered up.

The Nun‘s plot isn’t anything new. It sticks with many typical tactics overdone in horror films, but it does come at just the right time to reflect the fears of today. It perpetuates tropes and jumpscares just as the church perpetuates its traditions. It has its terrifying images, but what’s scarier is what it seems to show about the Catholic church in a fictionalized manner. We cannot destroy the evil that possesses the Catholic church, only keep it at bay until something else is done, but when will that be?

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_