The pending release of The Nun, a spin-off movie based loosely around the Conjuring 2, got us thinking — there sure are a lot of evil nuns in horror. Where did they come from? Why are there so many of them in genre, and so comparatively few nice nuns? What is the trope based on, if anything?
Nuns on film
Evil nuns exist in movies at least as far back as the silent film Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages. Now considered a masterpiece of the silent era, the film initially polarized audiences, in no small part due to scenes like the one where a nun becomes enthralled by Satan and causes hysteria to break out at her convent. Nuns that meet with Satan for about five seconds and completely lose control of themselves would go on to pretty much become its own genre, but it took a few years.
The next major example of the evil nun in genre was the horror film Black Narcissus, released in 1947. The story follows a group of Anglican nuns traveling to the Himalayas to set up a hospital and supposedly extend charity to those that live there without the healing potential of modern medicine. The place itself seems to have an effect on the nuns, and they find themselves increasingly aware of their repressed sensuality. A local British agent named Mr. Dean doesn’t exactly help when he shows up to flirt with everyone, attracting both the good sister, Deborah Kerr’s Sister Superior, and the bad sister, Kathleen Byron’s Sister Ruth. Ruth rapidly loses touch with reality, and the story culminates in a showdown between the three.
Technically pioneering, with its vibrant, almost shockingly bright Technicolor that occasionally transforms the film into something akin to a surrealist painting, Black Narcissus is effective for many reasons, not the least of which being that Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth is absolutely terrifying. Byron is a bit of a B-movie genre hero, and she has turned out some excellent horror performances over the years in movies like Burn, Witch, Burn! and Twins of Evil. Still, Sister Ruth might be her most unsettling role.
Many film directors were influenced by Byron and her turn as the wicked, lustful nun, and so nunsploitation was born, gaining slow momentum during the ‘60s and becoming its own subgenre of horror by the ‘70s. Directors like Fulci and Ken Russell, both very different but both known for their penchant towards shocking subject matter, would go on to create visually lush films about wicked nuns.
In film, nuns are more commonly viewed as somewhat asexual or at least presumed chaste due to the vows they’ve taken, but in nunsploitation, the supposedly perverse sexuality of nuns takes the center stage, and their ability to seduce paired with a desire to demean and dominate their victims is consistent across genre. Most if not all stories about evil nuns center a repressed, desperate sexuality which inevitably becomes monstrous over the course of the movie.
In Ken Russell’s The Devils, we see an extreme example of this. Loosely based on Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun, which was in turn loosely inspired from historical events, the movie is about Urbain Grandier, a priest in the 17th century. Very little of the true story around Grandier can be confirmed, but it's agreed that he was burned at the stake for accusations of witchcraft and seducing nuns.
In the film, the person responsible for those accusations is a hunchbacked Sister Superior played with relish by Vanessa Redgrave, who lusts after Grandier and lies about him raping her when he refuses to reciprocate her affections. In typical Ken Russell style, the movie is an exercise in hysteria, meant to warn us of false accusations and taking belief so seriously that it turns us in on ourselves. Grandier is the hero of the film, and Redgrave’s Sister Superior is a compelling villain. That said, it isn't an easy movie to watch. What Black Narcissus left to our imaginations, The Devils doesn’t. The movie caused a great deal of outrage, and it was cut and banned and very nearly ended Russell’s career. Many of the most upsetting scenes have been removed from subsequent showings, but it still tends to fill even the most horror-experienced audiences with a sense of unease. It is a relentless horror show, but in the way that those can sometimes be interesting. The Devils remains a strange entry in film history that directly inspired many subsequent movies in its own right.
Sexual undertones become overtones
In School of the Holy Beast (1974), a young girl joins a convent where her mother disappeared years before and encounters sexual sadism. In Behind Coven Walls (1978), a repressed and cruel Mother Superior is unable to prevent the sexual undertone within her convent as many of the nuns under her watch take secret lovers. In Killer Nun (1979), we are introduced to a nun who has a brain tumor removed, then experiences a downward spiral into addiction and madness. She has an affair with another nun and tortures the elderly patients at the hospital where she works, but eventually, it is the Mother Superior who is compelled to put a stop to her antics. You might be sensing a bit of a theme here.
The gorgeous, desolate set designs mixed with sporadic, rushed pacing that mark Russell’s filmography inspired many Italian and Spanish directors, both countries in which Catholicism has historically taken on more meaning for culture overall than it ever has in the United States. Obviously, Catholicism is a major religion here as well, but it’s not dominant, while in Italy and Spain much of the architecture and public art is in direct reference to Catholic belief systems. Now, there is a lot of common knowledge of cases in which the Catholic Church was responsible for fostering abusers, but for well into the 21st century, the word of priests and nuns went unchallenged in the public sphere. While nunsploitation might have been a bit heavy-handed in making its points, it was based in a very real need of many to rebel against oppressive and violent regimes. The lingering resentment of the cruelest aspects of organized religion in some ways became the basis for nunsploitation. Films like Sergio Grieco’s The Sinful Nuns of Saint Valentine are sexualized and exploitative, but they’re also reacting to real criminal acts committed by the church during the Inquisition.
In genre films, specifically in horror where they appear the most, nuns that are queer are meant to convey a deep amorality and wickedness within the church, usually lusting after their convent and abusing them. In the ‘70s, a queer nun would be about the most shocking thing possible, and indeed nunsploitation thrives on its shock value above all else. Even now, the image of an evil nun is still used to discomfort audiences. The blasphemy of it has proven far too titillating and intriguing for many filmmakers to ignore.
While stories of queer nuns have always been negatively sensationalist, there are some nuns that are now considered to be LGBTQ icons. Juana Ines de la Cruz, who was born an illegitimate child in the 1600s, is said to have snuck into a chapel to read her grandfather’s books despite the fact that women reading was strongly frowned upon. She asked her mother for permission to dress as a boy so that she might go to a university, but her mother refused. After she became a nun, De la Cruz wrote several feminist texts, including infamous letters defending women’s right to education. She also happened to be in love with a countess and wrote her love letters constantly. The Bishop of Puebla and others were outraged by de la Cruz’s writing and ordered her to sell all of her books and cease her work, focusing only on charity. She died shortly thereafter when she caught the plague while helping to care for her fellow nuns. In her lifetime she was controversial, but now she’s recognized as an early feminist and a queer icon. She’s appeared in many works of fiction, including the biopic I, the Worst of All, by director Maria Luisa Bemberg. While not genre heroes (yet), it is important to remember that many nuns have been surprisingly progressive, and joined convents out of what appears to be a genuine sense of belief and even altruism.
Nuns in real life might seldom be the evil monsters we see in nunsploitation, yet there is certainly precedent for even the cruelest evil nuns that exist in genre. Due to a long real-world history of criminal acts by members of the church, it seems fair that there would be an artistic counterpart for the brutal effect on those who were victimized by cruel and abusive nuns and priests. Evil nuns seem to appear when a filmmaker wants to make a point against organized religion, or push the envelope with a character. When a nun is corrupt, the power that she wields over children and communities becomes terrifying, as their presumed morality is essentially unquestionable.
Perhaps in real life there are relatively few orgies or murders among nuns compared to how many we see in genre, but bad sisters have been around since before film, and with historical atrocities like those committed at the home for unmarried mothers run by the Bon Secours Sisters in Tuam and the nuns of several organizations that were meant to care for the Duplessis Orphans, it’s understandable that not all portrayals in film are going to be positive. Thus, sometimes these films can be just as shocking and unflinching in their subject matter as the crimes those real-life evil nuns were accused of.