It’s hard for horror to be agnostic. Truly and fully agnostic. Horror is often seeking and questioning but is rarely uncertain, either the genre proves a relationship to God or the Devil or tells us these concepts do not exist. The late William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) is the standard bearer. It’s not a horror film because a young girl’s head spins around and she spews bile all over the room — those are just good effects — The Exorcist is a horror film because it is about a Crisis of Faith, and so thoroughly has it shaped the language of horror films about religion, that its ideas are apparent in any movie that will touch on faith.
Naturally, you can make a horror movie about something else. Then you can further analyze whether it has anything to say about spiritualism, biblical values, the interior faith of its characters, or demonic forces. But when a filmmaker makes a horror movie about faith they are doing a specific thing, usually approaching the topic from a sensationalist perspective that proves a point about what we believe and are afraid of.
The Nun movies are possibly rare exceptions outside of these categorizations. It’s not on purpose, they just do not have anything in particular to say. When a Nun gets Western and starts wreaking havoc, it’s just some ancient curse that keeps getting passed down and through prayer and teamwork, maybe you can topple the Nun. But let’s be real: these are god-fearing, pro-faith movies. That’s fine. It’s just what they are, possibly not out of intentional design, but because other movies like it are that. The theology of these movies starts with The Conjuring movies, where this character is birthed from. The concept of The Nun is a religious entity but we know what these movies think about religion because Patrick Wilson’s Ed Warren tells us what they think at the end of The Conjuring and everything in the universe must fall into this worldview:
Diabolical forces are formidable. These forces are eternal, and they exist today. The fairy tale is true. The Devil exists. God exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow.
Everything after The Conjuring (2013) falls under the definition of purpose. These are movies about people trying to divine what the right path forward is when presented with outsized forces of evil. These forces, as this first film defines, are strictly out of a religious imagination or a “fairy tale that is true.”
Then when we reach a movie like The Nun (2018) & The Nun II, they do not add much further value to this theological theory, or at least are not strongly reasoned enough to withdraw anything like a clear message beyond the same moral ones the series has presented. These are simple movies. The Nun, as a character, initially has a coming-to-faith moment in the first movie’s lore but there’s also a shared premise between the movies that the Blood of Christ always overpowers evil. The sequel literally suggests that transubstantiation is accomplished through sheer belief, you just have faith and lots of wine.
The good news is that this all-girls boarding school used to be a winery! Lots of Blood of Christ around still barrelled up in case it needs to explode on any demons. And there are demons around. The new film centers around the protagonists and antagonists racing to find the eyes of Saint Lucy, a historic clergy member who had her eyes gouged out and died as a virgin martyr. The odd interconnected universe myths happening in the movie seem to imply that several of the primary characters, of The Nun and The Conjuring movies, are related to Saint Lucy. Makes no sense but sounds and feels like a use of themes and motifs. Everything has to connect to something.
The eyes of Saint Lucy as used as a focal point for the film, as it’s so often about projected light. The characters find this stained glass portrait of a goat demon. Maybe the Devil. Doesn’t matter. Shape and form are imprecise in The Nun movies, as our main antagonist remains Valak, a shape-shifter who haunts all these Conjuring movies. Valak, while not from the bible — instead sourced from a Medival grimoire about the figure of King Solomon, who is from the bible — continues the tradition of shape-shifting as a Nun. That gimmick is drying up and the movie has nothing else to say about this relationship with evil.
The hard part of divining any further meaning out of The Nun movies is that they do so little and have so little say. The religious themes are excuses for would-be sacrilegious jump-scare playgrounds, but they end up being pretty basic affirmations of faith. There is not any juice left after the second movie, just as there was none left after the first, and if you’ve seen its trailer which has played ahead of everything (seriously, my six-year-old watched it ahead of two family movies), then you know all of the horror moments that happen here. It truly doesn’t have another trick up its habit sleeve.
The thudding nothingness of this arc of horror movie sequels tells us primarily that these concepts make money. It is still just as popular to twist the reverent symbol and people will just go in droves and see if it makes them jump in the dark. Sometimes it does and that seems to be the only thing the audience wants out of movies. What these movies can tell us about theology, is that the horror movie can never be truly agnostic. Even in a movie that seems to be saying nothing at all and is just drawing on devout imagery to sell fear to the god-fearing moviegoer, there is nothing else under the hood. It does remind us that religion and horror often operate in the same arena, and ahead of a new fourth film from The Exorcist franchise, the god-fearing business is always good, even when the movies have nothing else left to tell us. The fairy tale is true. Good movies exist. Bad movies exist. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to support.