A 17th-century medieval book of magic first described Valak the demon as "a Boy with angels wings, riding on a 2 headed Dragon."
Skeptics are quick to dismiss the veracity of horror movies that claim to be based on real events, but references to the demon Valak — the one at the center of The Nun — stretch back centuries. And while the demon itself may not be real, we can at least investigate where history and cinema align and where they diverge.
Ed And Lorraine Warren
Although the disturbing, supposedly supernatural events, were later widely reported to be a hoax, the popularity of the 1977 book The Amityville Horror and subsequent 1979 film catapulted the Warrens into the spotlight.
Finally, another one of the Warrens’ cases made it onto the big screen in 2017. The Conjuring tells the story of another famous American haunting and proved to be such a huge horror hit that it spawned an entire film series based off of the Warrens and their exploits.
The authenticity of the investigations behind these stories is controversial, with some skeptics arguing that the “based on real events” tagline is just there to boost ticket sales. But the origins of Valak, the creature featured in the series’ latest installment, The Nun, stretch back centuries.
Valak In History
The Nun tells the story of a demonic presence that haunts a Romanian monastery, dressed in the garb of a Catholic nun. The demon made its first appearance in the film series in The Conjuring 2, during which the Lorraine Warren character is able to stop it wreaking havoc and banish it back to hell by using its name: Valak.
The first known reference to that name, centuries upon centuries before the Warrens, comes from a 17th-century grimoire titled Clavicula Salomonis Regis, or the The Key of Solomon. University of Hertfordshire Professor Owen Davies, an expert of the history of ghosts and witchcraft, describes grimoires as “books that contain a mix of spells, conjurations, natural secrets and ancient wisdom,” and Solomon indeed describes itself as a guide to “the ceremonial art of commanding spirits both good and evil.”
The Solomon referenced in this particular grimoire’s title is the same King Solomon of Old Testament fame. The biblical Solomon was renowned for his wisdom and, at some point around the second century B.C., the idea spread that the king’s realm of knowledge had also included certain secrets of astrology and magic. The grimoire bearing his name lists the 72 demons that the king supposedly vanquished during his reign, providing readers with their names and instructions for expelling them.
Fact Vs. Fiction
Valak is the 62nd spirit listed in Solomon, according to which he “appeareth like a Boy with angels wings, riding on a 2 headed Dragon.” His special power, according to the text, is finding snakes and hidden treasures while leading an army of 30 demons. (Other spirits include Bune, a dragon with three heads — one like a dog, one like a man, and one like a griffin — and Purson, a man with a lion’s face who rides a bear and carries “a cruel viper in his hand.”)
Valak’s recent depiction as a nun was pure invention on the part of the director of The Conjuring 2, James Wan.
“I had a strong outlook on the whole movie, but the one thing I wasn’t quite sure of [was the design of the demon character],” Wan said in 2016. “I felt like I was still discovering it. And believe it or not, I always knew that I was going to do additional photography. So I was saving it because I was hoping I’d discover what that thing would look like as I was putting the movie together in post-production.’
According to Wan, the real Lorraine Warren had told him about a “spectral entity” that appeared as a “swirling tornado vortex with this hooded figure.” Wan then decided to have the figure don the costume as a nun to put it more directly in conflict with Warren’s Catholic faith.
“It kind of took me awhile to cement in my head what this vision was,” Wan continued. “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.”
The idea of being haunted by your own faith was so potent that Valak became a central character in 2018’s The Nun, wherein the demon terrorizes and possesses the devout members of a Romanian abbey in 1952. With black veins and lips peeking out of a ghostly-white face, Valak is truly a horrifying presence.
The Bible itself contains no reference to Solomon’s 72 demons, but Solomon was actually listed in the Vatican’s Index librorum prohibitorum, or the List of Prohibited Books, which the Church continuously updated until scrapping it in 1966. The Church considered the text not only non-religious but heretical. However, to the dismay of many inquisitors, the grimoire was still found in the possession of many a Catholic priest.
Despite being banned, the grimoire remained hugely popular in Europe and, given the success of the Conjuring movies, it seems that its contents still hold a terrifying appeal to this day.