During the Halloween season, it’s a popular tradition to watch horror movies. A really scary movie can engage our “fight or flight” response, keeping us on edge as our bodies are pumped up with adrenaline and dopamine.
One such film that came out recently was James Wan’s “The Nun” – the latest in his “Conjuring” movie series. Any films involving demonology and exorcism are intriguing in that for many people, these are believed to be very real dangers. The fact that the story includes numerous Catholic elements created another layer of intrigue; some critics latched onto the demonic possession scenes in the movie as a metaphor for the plague of scandals infesting the Catholic Church. Interestingly, this is far less of a fringe theory than it might initially seem – just ask Pope Francis.
However, in this post we’re simply going to focus on how the movie portrays certain supernatural elements as compared to actual Catholic doctrine.
Before we discuss some of the specifics of the movie, it’s important to understand a bit about demons in general. The basic beliefs regarding the metaphysics of demons are shared across Christianity. It goes something like this: a beautiful and powerful angel became consumed with vanity and fancied himself an equal to God. This angel rebelled, rallying many others to his side. In response, God banished him and his acolytes from Heaven. These fallen angels would spend the hundreds of years mocking God and his faithful in the form of demons, passing between Hell and Earth through portals.
Demon possession and exorcism appear a few times in the Bible, giving credence to the basic plot element of The Nun. In the Book of Matthew, Jesus casts out a group of demons from some men. The spirits ask if they could instead possess some nearby pigs, to which Jesus agrees – establishing a Biblical basis for the notion that demons can possess or control animals as well as people.
In the Book of Acts, some Jews invoke the name of Jesus to cast out demons from possessed men. One demon claims that while he knows of Jesus, he knows nothing of this group of “non-believers” and attacks and overpowers the group. This shows that the invocation of Christ can ward off or disturb demons.
What’s interesting to note about these passages is that both Catholics and Protestants believe them to be describing real historical events. Present day protestants, however, reject the Catholic view of the permeability of the physical and supernatural worlds. By and large, protestants do not believe in demon possession and therefore do not have an official rite of exorcism.
Is ‘The Nun’ Authentically Catholic?
The best answer we can give: sort of. The story takes place in mid-twentieth century Romania and after a mysterious event takes place at a monastery, the Vatican dispatches Father Burke, a man with a traumatic past involving exorcism, and Sister Irene, a young woman afflicted with visions who hasn’t yet taken her vows to become a full-fledged nun.
The two arrive to investigate the incident and determine if the monastery is still holy. They are haunted by apparitions as physical objects around them are being supernaturally manipulated. Some characters become possessed by an evil spirit that often takes the form of a nun.
The evil spirit also takes the form of a young boy who can summon and control snakes. This closely resembles Valac, the grand president of Hell as described in the Lesser Key of Solomon, a book on demonology. The filmmakers even use Valac as the name for their evil character.
In the movie, Father Burke and Sister Irene also find a door beneath the monastery, which they refer to as a portal, marked “Finit hic, Deo”, which is Latin for God ends here. Portals in actual Catholicism would be any route by which one invites sin into his life. This would be something like pornography or tarot cards, for example.
The characters often hold crucifixes and rosaries, which would be common for actual Catholics. These are used during prayer in both the film and in real life. The characters are often seen praying to the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. This is also a common practice for Catholics.
All in all, The Nun was a fairly entertaining movie, even if it did exaggerate or sometimes flat out get things wrong about Catholic doctrine. Of course, it is not exactly intended to be a vocational film for aspiring demonologists. However, if you do you want to learn more about demonic possession and exorcism, we recommend picking up a copy of An Exorcist Explains the Demonic, newly available in our online store.