The Horrifying Way 'The Nun' Confronts Images Of Faith, Religion And Demonization

There's a moment in The Nun when I thought I had it all figured out. It's when Father Burke (Demian Bichir), the priest sent from the Vatican to investigate the mysterious death of a nun in 1952 Romania, falls and is subsequently trapped inside an open coffin while following behind an ominous presence outside at night. It's because he comes this close to being yanked deeper into the ground by the creepy phantom fingers of a rabid demonic nun while inside the box. He's a priest. He shouldn't be so susceptible to demonic presences, right?

That is, unless this latest installment in the Conjuring series went the way of an early example of modern religious horror — The Exorcist. That 1973 classic also follows a priest sent from the Vatican to investigate a demonic presence, in that case one that overtakes a young girl, and is so terrified by the sight that he drops his Bible right out of his hands. I figured that, like what happens in the William Friedkin-directed film, The Nun would reveal that Father Burke had been struggling with his faith, which effectively leads him to become prey for demonization. I was wrong.

(This post features minor spoilers for The Nun.)

What disrupts that genre tradition is the fact this demonic force doesn't come in the form of an innocent human. Rather, it has the face of one of religion's most recognizable symbols — a nun (Bonnie Aarons). Even despite the distortion of her features, her incredible fury, and obvious possession, there's comfort in the fact that she wears a habit meant to highlight a figure whose devotion protects her from this kind of evil. It is that horrifying contradiction that plagues Father Burke, the same one that disrupts the foundation he's relied on for so many years. Where do you go when an emblem for all that is holy is also the very thing that must be forsaken? This is the horrifying and bewildering double-edged sword that The Nun explores.

The film confronts a series of images we've come to see in religious horror, which has been known to demonize aspects of Catholicism in particular. Though, The Nun may be one of the genre's most direct affronts because it vilifies a symbol of hope to a degree that may unsettle some audiences. Remember that scene early in The Omen when evil little Damien's (Harvey Stephens) nanny (Holly Palance) hangs herself in the middle of his party? Well, that's essentially replicated with a nun hanging herself in The Nun, which sets off the action of the story. She jumps out of her bedroom window with a noose around her neck to avoid succumbing to a powerful demonic force. The camera zooms out to show her body dangling directly in front of the palatial convent with her eyes gauged out by crows, seemingly serving as the establishment's horrifying "Do Not Enter" sign.

There is a persistent theme of corrosion throughout The Nun, one that aims to interrogate our relationship with faith and religion. Like Madonna's 1989 "Like a Prayer" video, which features her dancing seductively amid burning crosses, the film shows controversial images like a headless Jesus statue hanging on the cross where demonic nuns kneel and pray. There's also a scene where the habit of Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), who accompanies Father Burke on this fateful mission, is ripped open to expose her bare back and she is then whipped by an invisible evil force. It's disturbing and frightening and blasphemous — and that's the point.

The Nun Reviews

What might turn certain audiences away is also what makes The Nun so special. It makes you question what you may believe in by showing you images that are the antithesis of that. In doing so, it turns the genre on its head. Even the ever-devout Sister Irene, who's yet to take her final vows, is challenged when she meets a young man by the name of Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) who openly flirts with her and ultimately joins her and Father Burke as they fight to ward the convent of its evil spirit — and save their own lives in the process. Romance is rarely something that is on the table when it comes to religion, much less that between a devotee and someone who is not of the church like Frenchie. While it doesn't come close to the film's most terrifying moments, it disrupts a principle that many have come to stand by.

The Nun takes it a step further by possessing Sister Irene at one point. It's not because her faith wavers. It's because The Nun is trying her best to bring another devoted figure to the dark side with her. She can't reach the nun who hangs herself to avoid her in the beginning of the film, so she comes after Sister Irene instead. Because Sister is young, not crossed over yet, and decidedly pure, infiltrating her provokes an image that is particularly effective. After all, that seems to be the point of the film. Even if you don't have any relationship with religion, the film challenges what you are familiar with, whatever that may be, and succeeds at startling you to the core.

It's less about jump scares and gore, though there are plenty of moments that will make you gasp. It's about suspending the very foundation that you walk on — and challenging you to maintain that despite showing you all kinds of images that prove otherwise. That itself is a frightening thought. If you don't have your beliefs, what do you have? Watching Sister Irene and Father Burke try to exorcise an entire convent overridden by an ever-powerful demonic force is petrifying at times. But what might be more disturbing is the fact that they choose to stay there to get the job done. They choose to restore the image they've come to know and base their entire practice on — for the sake of not only their own souls but also their sense of morality and what is familiar to them. Because they understand that the alternative is so much more horrifying.