A Hollywood film called The Nun was released last week which uses demonic possession and exorcism to grab its audience.

The Nun is a prequel to The Conjuring movies, Annabelle, Annabelle: Creation, The Conjuring and Conjuring 2. It follows the story of a demonic spirit, Valak, who appears in the cloisters of a secluded abbey in Romania in 1952. He reappears in The Conjuring 2.

Catholic meaning and imagery runs deep throughout this film. To begin with, the Vatican sends a peculiar team — a Catholic priest who is a trained exorcist and a novice nun who has visions — to investigate whether the grounds of the convent remain consecrated (ie, holy) after a man who delivers food to the abbey finds a deceased nun hanging from a rope. 

Without giving too much away, throughout the film the demon Valak’s power is less effective when one seeks the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary through reciting the Hail Mary prayer in Latin, using the Catholic prayers of exorcism, carrying a cross, relying on relics and praying to Christ.

So while there is less of an appetite for the practice or public display of Christianity in the US, Europe and Australia, horror films that explore the Catholic Church’s fight with the forces of evil are a hit.

There are five films in The Conjuring universe including The Nun. The other four are in the top 20 highest grossing horror films of all time. And over the weekend the five films combined have amassed more than US$1 billion at the box office – making The Conjuring universe the biggest R-rated horror franchise of all time.

The stories underpinning the franchise are real cases investigated by American demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren. The Warrens always worked with the Catholic Church. When demons caused havoc they didn’t call four middle-aged men or women wearing jumpsuits to get rid of the spirits but a Catholic priest. In desperate situations the Warrens themselves would pray the Catholic prayers for exorcism.

So what makes a seemingly irreligious generation continue to flock to see films that support the reality of demons, Satanic power and the power of Jesus Christ and his followers?

Could it be that reported occurrences of paranormal activity or supernatural phenomena are way scarier than an alien invasion or an unstoppable monster, because it could happen to you or me if we were to open ourselves up to the forces of evil?

Perhaps it’s because the way in which angels, demons and the deceased interact with the world is left up to our imagination. A devil in the shadows is more terrifying than a devil in broad daylight.

Regardless of what conclusions the audience draws from The Nun or from any of The Conjuring movies, they support what Christians still believe: that prayer, trust in God, the sacraments, sacramentals and the sanctity of family are effective weapons for combatting demons.

The brain behind The Conjuring movies is writer, director and producer James Wan. Although Wan doesn’t identify as a Christian he has said: “For me, at the end of the day, it’s all about telling the stories of Ed and Lorraine Warren, and these two characters are such devout Catholics, and there was no way I could make a movie about them and not touch on the role of religion and faith and all that. It’s such a big part of who they are.”

Wan based the character Valak, who appears in The Nun and Conjuring 2, on an entity that haunted Lorraine Warren for many years, perhaps trying to dissuade her from continuing to do her work. Wan said of this:

“From talking to Lorraine in passing, she mentioned a spectral entity that has haunted her in her house. And so, it kind of took me a while to cement in my head what this vision was. And it came across eventually in a very organic way. Because it is a demonic vision that haunts her, that only attacks her, I wanted something that would attack her faith. Something that would threaten the safety of her husband. And so that was eventually how the idea of this very iconographic image of a holy icon cemented in my head.”

And because Wan was trying to be in some way faithful to the Warrens' story, he ended up being accused by some critics of making heroes out of Christians. In one interview he said: “You know what's funny is, when I made Saw, I got accused of being a fascist; when I made Insidious, I got accused of being godless, and now I made The Conjuring films, and I'm accused of being too much God.”

In 2013 a journalist from the Huffington Post said he felt he had to believe in the Catholic Faith to believe in the story behind The Conjuring. Wan responded:

“Well, let me ask you: A lot of people just go along with The Exorcist, right? And that is an extremely faith-based movie. But even non-believers just kind of go along with it, just because they love the film. I guess what I say with this particular movie is, well, I'm not here to ask you to believe in what they believe, so to speak. But this is who the characters are and this is what makes them tick. And this is the journey they've gone on.”    

One thing is sure. Wan is not afraid of being painted as a God-botherer. The record shows that faith-based horror films with a twist of possession and exorcism put bums on cinema seats.

Postscript: Are you wondering whether The Nun is worth watching? Probably not. It is probably the least scary of the five films, is not based on real-life events, and doesn’t really add much to The Conjuring universe. Rotten Tomatoes give it a 26% fresh rating. But if your taste runs to nuns in black-and-white habits with blood trickling over their razor-sharp teeth, you'll love it. 

Sebastian James is a Sydney journalist.