The Enduring Mystery and Power of Scary Nuns in Fiction

Valak holding a man's face

“The Conjuring” film series is one of the most popular horror movie franchises of recent years. And just like many popular film franchises, it released a spin-off movie in 2018. Titled “The Nun”, the movie follows the demonic possession of a young Romanian nun and her subsequent haunting. The movie grossed over $365 million in its worldwide release and became a staple horror movie conversation piece.

The popularity of this movie prompts us to ask: “why are scary nuns so popular in horror fiction?” Why are there endless stories of creepy nuns? What is the source of this endless fascination?

Learn all the answers to these questions on why scary nuns are such a staple of horror movies.

Scary Nuns in Popular Media

Valak of “The Nun” is just the latest scary nun to grace the big screen.

It should be noted that the titular religious woman in “The Nun” isn’t actually scary or evil on her own. In the movie, she is being possessed by a demon known as Valak. In death, the demon has taken on the nun’s appearance when haunting its victims.

Thanks to the popularity of the movie, ghost nuns and similarly horrific representations of the brides of Christ have exploded. This is very similar to like how Carmilla of “Castlevania” has created a conversation on female vampires. But even before “The Conjuring” added a scary nun to its roster of horrors, creepy nuns have appeared in many horror movies.

The endless fascination with nuns created its own subgenre of films in the ’70s and ’80s: nunsploitation. Popularized mainly in Europe, nunsploitation films would often take extremely distorted looks at the world of nuns, usually painting them in three ways. First, many nunsploitation would depict all nuns, even Catholic school nuns, as sexually repressed and lustful. Second, they would sometimes be portrayed as violent killers, making them seem even more intimidating. And finally, there is the ever famous scary nun, whose aura of dread may or may not stem from a supernatural force.

Nuns in this subgenre of film can be scary or intimidating in any number of ways.

First, she can be the archetypical stern nun, always ready to punish evildoers or naughty children. Or she could be scary because of her proclivity to violence as depicted in many “nuns with guns” movies. Or she could be a subversion of her holiness, an evil creature masquerading as a servant of God. This means she could be a witch, an angle films such as “Suspiria” has taken before, or she could be a supernatural monster like a demon in disguise.

Although the nunsploitation genre has mostly died down, the popularity of “The Nun” showcases that ghostly nuns will always remain a staple of horror.

Creepy Nuns in Folklore

house in grayscale
The ghost nun of Borley Rectory is one of the most famous ghost stories in the world.

Even before the advent of cinema, creepy nuns were very much in vogue in many ghost stories. Most famously, the spirit of a dead nun and a priest, said to have been buried alive for an illicit affair, were said to haunt Borley Rectory, one of the most famous haunted houses of all time. Borley Rectory’s stories of a spirit nun may have been hotly contested, but its undeniable the alleged visitations fueled many ghost stories.

There also countless stories all over the world about ghostly nuns wandering the halls of catholic schools, appearing in old churches or even stalking the halls of hospitals. These stories aren’t all apocryphal as well, with many historic accounts of nuns doing creepy things being noted by historians.

One famous example of scary nuns involves the alleged demonic possession of an entire convent of nuns in medieval France. According to historical records, a group of Ursuline nuns, based in the city of Loudun, encountered a spirit that then proceeded to wreak havoc on the all the nuns present. The scandal even led to the execution of a priest and the eventual disgrace of the nuns involved.

Why are Nuns So Scary?

Nun praying in front of an altar
Nuns are inaccessible and ethereal which leads to the creepy nun imagery.

So its clear that ever since the Renaissance that people have been uncomfortable with nuns. But why are scary nuns so prevalent? Is it because many people associate Catholic school nuns with unpleasant memories? What about them to people find so off-putting?

There are many theories about the persistence of the creepy nun myth, and one of them postulates that people’s fascination and fear of nuns stem from the fact that they are so rare.

Even at the height of the Catholic church’s recruitment, there were less than a million nuns registered worldwide and now those numbers have fallen even further. This means that nuns, with their outdated garb are becoming an even rarer sight.

And the rarer something is, the more likely people are afraid of them.

The threatening mystique associated with nuns isn’t helped by the fact that they are by design supposed to be inaccessible. Nuns are supposed to eschew worldly contact in favor of building a relationship with the divine. Even more so, they are a mystery to men with whom most nuns aren’t supposed to form relationships with. The combination of their rarity and their enforced mystique and isolation brought on by their religious duties makes then unknown variables.

And people have always feared the unknown.

The myth of the scary nun stems from people forgetting that they shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. If people took the time to empathize and learn more about the lives of nuns and the hardships they face, they would know that nuns aren’t the scary threats horror movies make them out to be.

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