The newest installment in the Conjuring universe of films, The Nun, hits theaters this Friday. The Nun takes place in Romania in 1952. Father Burke (a Catholic priest) and Sister Irene are sent to investigate a nun’s mysterious suicide at the Cârța Monastery, as well as assessing the sanctity of the grounds. They find that the local village lives in fear of the Monastery, believing it to be deeply evil. What the investigators find is that the Abbey has a connection to a mysterious and evil demon, Valak, that has spread corruption throughout the area.
Valak, debuted in the second Conjuring film, is often shown to take the form of a demonic nun (ergo the title) and it is a force to be reckoned with. Before you buckle down and see The Nun in theaters (debuting Friday, September 7th), let’s take some time to understand what Valak is in the Conjuring universe, its basis in demonological lore… and why it takes the form of a nun.
Valak in the Conjuring Universe
We’re introduced to Valak in The Conjuring 2 as Ed and Lorraine Warren travel to England to help the Hodgson family deal with a haunting in their home. The Warrens investigate and initially find nothing, until Lorraine realizes the demon Valak is behind the hauntings, disguised in the form of a nun with a particular hatred for Lorraine Warren. While the primary form taken by Valak in the Conjuring film is as a demonic nun, Conjuring fandom generally accepts Valak as the entity behind the Crooked Man in the same film (though this has not been fully confirmed and will be presumably clarified in the forthcoming Crooked Man spinoff).
Valak in Demonological Lore
Knowledge about Valak is attributable to the Lesser Key of Solomon, a 17th century grimoire that identifies the major players of Hell (and for Hereditary fans is the source of knowledge about the demon King Paimon). Valak is referred to as the Great President of Hell, described as choosing to look like a small, winged child. Valak is often pictured riding a two-headed dragon and commanding 30 legions of demons. Valak is said to be on the stronger side, willing to share strength and knowledge to devoted magical practitioners.
So… Why A Nun?
If Valak often appears as a winged child and maybe is sometimes in the form of the Crooked Man, why take the form of a nun? Surely The Nun will explain the history of Valak at the monastery, which may well explain its connection to that form in the Conjuring movie universe. Beyond that, there are two answers: the real-world answer and the mythological one.
Realistically, in an interview with io9, creator James Wan noted that the nun form of Valak was actually added during reshoots. He states:
‘I had a strong outlook on the whole movie, but the one thing I wasn’t quite sure of [was the design of the demon character]… I felt like I was still discovering it. And believe it or not, I always knew that I was going to do additional photography. So I was saving it because I was hoping I’d discover what that thing would look like as I was putting the movie together in post-production.’
Talking to the real Lorraine Warren, she noted to Wan that she had seen a hooded spectral entity which haunted her in her home. Meditating on the concept (and desiring to avoid CGI-heavy effects), Wan eventually settled on the visage of a nun as a character which could attack Lorraine’s faith, subverting the sacred religious iconography that grounds her character and makes her feel safe. This ties into the mythological aspect of why Valak would take on a nun’s visage.
Subverting sacredness, corrupting innocence, and making safe spaces dangerous are key elements of horror, scaring audiences through transforming what makes us feel safe and using it to make us feel vulnerable. This is the main reason why home-invasion horror and thriller films are so effective. When we see The Strangers, Funny Games, You’re Next, or Hush, it heightens scares both because the characters are trapped with the danger and because we identify with them from our own fears that where we feel most safe—our homes—may be far more dangerous than we imagine.
Amplifying this fear is the unease that comes with the corruption of the sacred. For religious believers, what they find sacred is just that—a sacred, pure source of positive intent and safety. In Christian belief, for example, a singular, good, all-powerful God is a source of protection, love, and blessings for believers. When sacred spaces (e.g. monasteries, churches) and iconography (crosses, priests, or nuns) are violated by powerful evil entities, a feeling of safety gives way to a feeling of endangerment, and the certainty of positive spiritual forces as the ultimate appeal give way to doubt—if holy imagery and spaces can be subverted so brazenly, what does it mean for believers? These are the questions surely terrorizing Father Burke and Sister Irene in The Nun, just as we’ve seen them play out in The Witch as the family of Puritan believers finds themselves subject to the forces of darkness.
So Valak would take a form that highlights its brazen power and attacks the religious symbols that make its victims feel safe. But what will become of the Monastery’s residents against Valak’s terrors?
Find out in theaters this Friday!