With every other franchise trying to emulate the continuing multibillion-dollar success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, amazingly, the most impressive and lucrative imitator is a series of horror films. The Conjuring franchise (the CCU?) is five films deep and counting, collecting over $1 billion globally without a single production budget exceeding $40 million. And whereas the MCU picks various superheroes for its spinoffs, the Conjuring series has simply chosen extremely creepy footnotes from the source material. The first Conjuring movie had a scary doll with beady eyes named Annabelle, so of course, enter Annabelle and Annabelle: Creation. And the main takeaways from The Conjuring 2—a movie that has been hard to shake from the recesses of my mind—were the brief but memorable appearances of a demonic nun. The Conjuring 2 isn’t a perfect film, but this scene is one of the best moments of pure horror this century, which is especially noteworthy given that it mostly occurs in daylight:
True to form, all of this demon nun hype has led to another Conjuring spinoff called The Nun. Now Valak, the name of the demon that takes the form of a nun, gets its time in the spotlight. This is a huge breakthrough for nun-related cinema, as nuns have not been featured this prominently since The Exorcist III, with its shears-wielding sister. (Sorry, I’m not counting the fish nuns from Star Wars: The Last Jedi—human nuns only.) But what is there to really glean from a previously teased demon nun when it serves as a horror film’s main attraction?
Honestly, if Valak just prowled the halls of the ancient Romanian abbey that serves as The Nun’s setting and showed its terrifying face from different vantage points, that’d be enough to incite plentiful frights. (It’s really not much of a spoiler to say that, yes, this does happen quite a bit, and yes, each time will make you clench the armrest of your seat until it nearly breaks.) It’s the unshakable aesthetic of Valak—and the actress Bonnie Aarons, who can look terrifying with the help of a makeup department (see: Mulholland Drive)—that serves as the film’s biggest selling point. Upon seeing Valak for the first time, the novitiate Sister Irene (played by Taissa Farmiga) says, in one of the best “No shit!” moments of the movie year, that “she felt anything but holy.”
But if you look under the veil—not literally, God no, Valak almost certainly has razor-sharp teeth and wouldn’t hesitate to chomp off your finger—there is more to this unholy creature. Valak contains multitudes.
Like Pennywise in It, Valak doesn’t just haunt its victims in one form—if not literally embodying them, the demon preys on fears and insecurities. (Fittingly, both It and The Nun share the same screenwriter in Gary Dauberman.) The nun is essentially Valak’s base form—smart move because, like clowns, they’re just scary-looking sans context. It’s doubly useful when trying to blend in at an abbey. But Valak terrorizes with the help of other forms. For instance, the exorcist Father Burke (played by Demián Bichir) is haunted by an exorcism he performed during World War II that killed a young boy—the film explains this tenderly, but the bald truth is that he literally exorcised Too Hard—and so a creature comes to him in the form of that boy, with a serpent crawling out of its mouth. A villager, Frenchie (played by Jonas Bloquet), was shaken when he discovered the hanging corpse of a nun, so that is the thing that chases him in the abbey’s graveyard like a zombie.
This weapon ultimately allows Valak to get closer to its goal of inhabiting and possessing a host, but to what ends? It’s hard to immediately say, especially because in the film Valak doesn’t speak so much as growl, hiss, or stare menacingly. But upon deeper reflection, it’s simple: Evil does as evil is. Valak is a demon released from the pits of hell—its modus operandi is to sow horror, and that perhaps is the scariest thing of all. Even Pennywise had a clear motive for all its heinous deeds in Derry: It needed to feast every 27 years. Valak is evil for evil’s sake.
Following Valak’s lead, The Nun is an amalgam of different horror tropes. No sooner is the film jolting you with a traditional jump scare, than is it showing the exorcist father saying—I’m paraphrasing here—that it’s time to kick some demon nun ass, like a self-serious version of Bruce Campbell from Evil Dead. What is really required to counter Valak, however, isn’t any manner of weapons—Valak isn’t going down with a shotgun blast or a chainsaw—but an antithesis to its darkness. The film’s cinematography often contrasts the darkness of Valak with the light of the purehearted Sister Irene. Irene’s motivations are about as thin and vaguely conceived as Valak’s, but maybe that’s the point: At its core, this is light against dark, good against evil.
It’s in this simplicity that The Nun derives its baser thrills. When push comes to shove, it always reverts to the scary, eponymous demonic abbess at its center. Not without good reason, though. In the final act of the film, when Valak slowly rises from a pool of water and walks on it like Christ, you don’t think anything except “Jesus, that is scary.”