When Sister Nicole Reich returned to her convent late Saturday night after seeing The Nun in theaters, the familiar shadows and doors felt oddly menacing.
“OK, we didn’t think ahead on that one,” Sister Nicole thought as she and the one other sister at her convent who’d dared join her for the Blumhouse horror movie wandered through the halls. “We’re the only ones in that theater who had to come home to a dark convent.”
The two sisters encouraged one another's paranoias on as they wandered through the halls. “Why did that light get left on in the basement? You should go shut that off.”
“Let me just tell you, that light stayed on,” Sister Nicole says.
SYFY WIRE spoke with three Catholic sisters — Sister Maria del Rosario Resendez of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament, and Sister Rhonda Miska and Sister Nicole Reich, OP of the Sinsinawa Dominicans — in the wake of The Nun’s premiere to get their takes and analyze the details. Like any other movie-goers, the sisters had varying opinions on this entry in the Conjuring-verse. Not all horror movie-goers, though, happen to be the subject of the horror movie.
The Nun, the fifth movie in the Conjuring franchise, is so named for its antagonist, a demon named Valak who takes the form of a habit-wearing, yellow-eyed nun. In the movie, young Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) visits a cloistered abbey in the wilds of Romania alongside Father Burke (Demián Bichir), a “miracle hunter” for the Catholic Church. Rome tasks Father Burke with investigating a mysterious death at the abbey (the real-world Cârța Monastery), which is said to be haunted by an unspeakable evil…
In an email interview, Sister Maria said her mother watched a lot of horror movies, so she grew up with a love for them. Now, she enjoys watching horror in theaters, “though most of the time I have to go alone since no sister in my community or any of my friends want to go with me,” she says. Of the three sisters, Sister Maria enjoyed the film the least of them, calling the lack of accurate details "offensive."
Sister Nicole, also a horror fan, admitted in a phone interview that most of the other sisters in her convent weren’t interested in seeing The Nun, partly because they don’t like horror and partly because of the complications that might come with a horror movie about a nun. She enjoyed the movie the most, though she says it can't beat the original Conjuring.
The third sister we spoke with, Sister Rhonda, told SYFY WIRE via email that she was only convinced to go see The Nun when seven of the undergraduate students she teaches at Dominican University wouldn’t stop asking her to go with them. She didn’t not like the movie, but she says she was initially nervous as a person who doesn’t generally enjoy horror.
Stereotypes of nuns and Catholic sisters don’t often leave room for idiosyncrasies. They’re all one face, one habit, and represented by either Whoopi Goldberg or Julie Andrews, depending on who you ask. Their individualism is even more muted in horror movies, in which nuns and sisters are vilified, deified, or, most commonly, sequestered into acting as props.
Sister Nicole liked that the film's Sister Irene was more than a prop and even admits surprise that she’s such an integral part of the story. Sister Irene remains true to her faith despite what some audiences might usually consider to be temptations (read: Jonas Bloquet’s Frenchie). The sisters were also impressed with the accuracy of the Latin used in prayer throughout the film (“Ave Maria, gratia plena...") and the cloistered nuns’ undying loyalty to their faith and protecting the world from evil. In The Nun, nuns and sisters — an important distinction since all nuns are sisters but not all sisters are nuns — are the heroes.
“Most of [horror involving nuns] is unrealistic fantasy,” Sister Maria says. “Don't be afraid of us religious sisters, we're nothing like that. Most of us are pretty cool.”
The three sisters emphasized that nuns are people. They exist. And, a majority of the time, they’re not terrifying entities looking to drag unsuspecting innocents to hell.
“Shocking, I know,” Sister Nicole says. “It's not a horrible thing to have a movie called The Nun because people will then start to talk about what it means, but at the same time, know that it's not quite the same as it was in, y’know, the early 20th century in Romania.”
That’s where their questions arise.
First off, all three sisters raised concern over Sister Irene’s “title,” to put it in layman's terms. At first, Irene is introduced as a “postulant” to Father Burke but, later, she tells Frenchie she’s a “novitiate.” These are two different stages in a long and complicated undertaking; the steps to becoming a sister include affiliate or aspirant, postulant, novitiate, junior sister or temporarily professed, and then perpetually professed, according to Sister Maria. Even the word “novitiate” is used incorrectly in the film.
“The word ‘novitiate’ describes the stage of formation or the building where the formation happens, and the word ‘novice’ describes the person in that stage,” Sister Rhonda explains. “So, saying ‘I'm a novitiate’ is like saying ‘I'm a high school’ instead of ‘I'm a high schooler.’”
Sister Nicole acknowledges that Sister Irene might have gone through to the next stage by the time she left for Romania with Father Burke, but thinks it was probably a mistake on the filmmakers’ part.
Sister Irene’s grammatical error aside, Sister Nicole and Sister Maria also took issue with the film’s historical accuracy and Sister Irene’s free-wheeling ways.
“Now, she should not have been traveling by herself. That shouldn't have happened,” Sister Nicole says. “In a horror movie, [if they wanted Sister Irene to be alone] they should've had another sister and then killed her off pretty quickly and moved on, but... there should've been another sister there.”
The Nun takes place in 1952, 7 years before 1959’s Vatican II, which revitalized the Catholic Church under Pope John XXIII and acted as a sort of spiritual renewal. In a pre-Vatican II world, a religious sister would never have been able to go without her habit, according to Sister Maria. And Sister Irene traveling outside the convent without another sister at her side and only a priest and a flirty farm boy for company? Not even in the realm of possibility, as Sister Nicole points out.
Sister Maria found herself shaking her head throughout the film at the thought that Rome would ever ask a novice to leave the convent with a priest she doesn’t know for an “investigation” she technically knows nothing about. “It seemed to me no research was done,” she says.
Then there’s the cloistered abbey’s perpetual adoration, which sees the sisters taking rotations so that someone is always praying to keep the evil at bay. The Latin is still great, but Sister Nicole found herself wondering just what the nuns were adoring.
“In the Catholic church, they have the Tabernacle and inside the Tabernacle is… the host,” Sister Nicole says. “Catholics believe it's the actual body and blood of Christ and during adoration, that's brought out of the Tabernacle so that you can actually see it.”
As far as Sister Nicole could tell, the abbey’s nuns weren’t necessarily perpetually adoring anything, as there was no host — they were just perpetually praying. She admits that (spoiler alert) the fact that the nuns were actually dead the whole time might throw a wrench into her observation, but doesn’t think that really makes a difference. “Maybe they thought enough to put Jesus away [before they died], but I doubt that. And since they’re visions of a bygone time, I don't think anybody thought that much ahead,” she says.
Sister Maria says that if Valak were real and if this were a real-world situation, “Valak would never have come out” while the sisters were in perpetual adoration. “Whether the seal had been broken or not it would have stayed hidden because the Lord was present,” she says.
Unlike Hollywood’s portrayal of religion and all its adornments, the demons and the possessions and their subsequent exorcisms, none of the sisters’ real-world interactions with ghosts and the “darker” side of the religion have been so dramatic as Sister Irene’s time with Valak.
Yes, Sister Maria says, there are people within the Church who are tasked with hunting miracles and apparitions to “deem them credible or not.” But whereas Cardinals and Church leaders in The Nun meet in darkened rooms to determine where Father Burke will take his expertise next, Sister Maria says so-called “miracle hunting” isn’t “this secretive organization like the movie makes it seem…
“That's not to say that some sisters including myself have not had a few run-ins with the supernatural, but it's nothing like you see on the big screen,” Sister Maria says. “I've asked some sisters in my community if they've ever experienced the ‘dark side’ of the supernatural and the majority have told me they had not. Hollywood really likes to exaggerate.”
Sister Nicole has had her own run-ins with the supernatural. The other sisters at her convent like to tell stories of the ghosts of former nuns they’ve seen wandering the halls.
“One of the great stories is, when a sister dies, it’s not unusual to see other sisters come for her,” Sister Nicole says. “Other sisters in full habit from back in the day. That’s not an unusual story. We have a separate building that is our nursing home and the doorbell always rings… one of the alarms for the locked doors always goes off every time a sister dies — a little before or a little after. The story goes that the sisters are coming from the cemetery to come get her.”
There’s nothing inherently creepy about the ghosts, Sister Nicole says with a laugh, because “we don’t sit on the portal to hell. And… these are pleasant ghosts. These are sisters coming for us, welcoming us to the next life.”
If only the cloistered sisters of The Nun had been so lucky.
The Nun is now playing in theaters.