Killer Nun (1979, dir. Berruti)

Sacrificial Lambs and Bloody Virgin Marys

Trends in Catholic Horror and the Unholy War Against Reproductive Rights in America



Growing up in Virginia, the birthplace of the Christian Coalition of America, I often saw pro-life billboards lining city highways. I briefly attended a Christian faith-based private school called All Saints and passed the billboards during and after my time there as a little girl. These billboards may have looked like random propaganda by extremists with a check and a dream to shame strangers, but these fleeting tableaus were sometimes funded by conservative fundamentalist organizations with prospective lobbying powers in my local government.

One billboard that I remember in particular embodied the dangers of conflating religious faith and political action, asking: “What if the Virgin Mary had access to abortion?” The story of the Virgin Mary and her son, Jesus Christ, represents the corporeal sector of Christian belief, when the spirit intervened physically by impregnating Mary. Mary’s sainthood is directly defined by her reproductive labor and sexual purity. The story is nightmare fuel when we reflect on it objectively.

In two recent “feminist convent-horrors,” Immaculate and The First Omen, virginal characters experience forced pregnancies. As the protagonists take their own rites of passage that bring them closer to their God, the Church, and spiritual-institutional submission, their paths are lined with thorny reminders of patriarchal order, not dissimilar to the constant reassertion of reproductive injustice today. In 2024, the idea of fictitious malignant pregnancies rings like an allegorical dog whistle, reflecting the horrific current state of reproductive rights in America. Conservative politicians have been promoting oppressive legislation to prohibit reproductive justice for the country’s most vulnerable under the guise of religious extremism. From the Supreme Court’s overturning of abortion access legislation in 2022 to Arizona’s terrifying recent attempt to ban abortion, forced pregnancies are a fear-inducing reality that lends itself to a reexamining of Catholic horror, a subgenre that has historically magnified the social horrors women endure and the theft of their bodily autonomy. What good horror can do is reimagine the fears of our reality and assert new possibilities to push back against them.

Catholic Horror as Feminist Media

The use of nuns in film to elicit feminist rhetoric is not a new tool. “Catholic horror” is a subgenre of horror storytelling that typically takes place in Catholic-based settings, and the horror usually comes from a test or critique of blind faith, involving the threat of the Antichrist or demons. These films can produce socially and politically engaged horror, as Christianity is fundamental to many Western social and political practices—in America, religious belief and political agendas are at times entirely overlapping. Using dominant religious ideology is an easy metric of morality in media for a Western audience. But Immaculate and The First Omen offer more nuanced depictions of conventional Christian practices, highlighting how religion can suppress people even under “good faith.” Feminist themes are a recurring subtext in Catholic horror, as many are set in female-centric convents, which can serve as sites for subversions of feminine performance under patriarchy.

Catholic horrors and thrillers became popular during the second wave of the feminist movement, when international nunsploitation films became a genre. The extremely pious culture of Catholicism reflected the constraints of traditional conservative gender roles. Notably, The Devils (which was made in 1971, the year 2024’s The First Omen is set in), utilizes the setting of a cloistered convent to represent the suppression of women’s sexual liberation and political corruption. The climax of the film shows the women of the convent stripping themselves bare of their habits and experiencing mass hysteria. Killer Nun is another 1970s horror set in a convent that also includes scenes of sexual deviancy and themes of monstrous nuns subverting expectations. The Catholic-themed films released in the 1960s and 70s were in dialogue with the sexual liberation that second wave feminism emphasized and have since become pieces of feminist film history for their unflinching depictions of barbaric and unhinged women. This makes present-day regressions all the more horrifying and telling. 1960s and 70s nunsploitation films were subcultural when they were released, while advertisements for 2024’s Immaculate and The First Omen are plastered advertisements all over New York City subway stations. These contemporary films produce interesting entry points to feminist issues but are far less confrontational against patriarchal norms.

The Devils (1971, dir. Russell)

Fear No Evil, Unless it’s Men with Audacious Power

In Immaculate, Sydney Sweeney plays Cecilia, an American who moves to Italy to join a monastery that offered her a position as a novitiate in their order. The convent is full of other young women, each seemingly picked to be there. The head priest is a charming young man who left his position as a biologist for the cloth. Through a montage, we see Cecilia get acclimated to convent life—she learns how to kill a chicken for their dinners, hand-washes clothes, and develops a routine of prayer times. She soon discovers she is pregnant and is canonized by the other sisters as an immaculate conception. The conception of her child is not miraculous, as we find out in the final act: the church has been using a nail thought to have been used on Jesus during the crucifixion to secretly impregnate women, who the church has chosen for their troubled or lonely pasts, in an attempt to biologically manufacture the second coming of Jesus. Cecilia suspects something malignant before this is revealed and tries to escape, only to be imprisoned in her bedroom until the birth. Once she is prepped for labor, she retaliates, killing the nuns and priests who helped orchestrate the forced conception. She burns the experimentation room where women were artificially inseminated and escapes through the catacombs that lie underneath the convent, giving birth to the child alone in the surrounding forest.

Immaculate (2024, dir. Mohan)

The First Omen is startlingly similar in its premise. A young woman named Margaret, played by Nell Tiger Free, is brought to Italy to work at an orphanage and senior care home for elder nuns while preparing to take her vows in a convent. She notices women in the convent who seem to be silenced by the head nuns and Cardinal; a particular young girl staying at the orphanage is taken to an isolated room for bad behavior. It turns out that the leaders of the convent have been experimenting on these select few, attempting to orchestrate the birth of Lucifer’s son. Through a demonic ritual, Margaret is seemingly drugged and brought to a hidden chamber in the church where its members summon Lucifer to inseminate her as she is tied to a bed. By the time she figures out what the convent is doing, she is already pregnant. Her water breaks in a scene that pays homage to the 1981 film Possession, as Margaret’s stomach bloats and she collapses on a street outside the convent. White liquid spills from her vagina, and she twitches and contorts while the demon offspring rapidly develops inside her. She is taken by members of the order, and a cesarean procedure removes the child, which turns out to be a set of conjoined twins—a boy and a girl. Thus the son of Satan is born (the girl twin is disregarded, as it seems only a boy can be the child of Lucifer), and the origin of Damien in the Omen franchise is put into motion.

The First Omen (2024, dir. Stevenson)

Each film shows its young female protagonist forced to bear a child—both are impregnated by the leaders of their church, and both fight to regain bodily autonomy. Pregnancy is used as a weapon by the institutional powers that they obey as devotees to their Catholic vocations. In this small resurgence of Catholic horror films in the United States, instead of sex-crazed nuns, we have pregnant women whose bodies are the sites of horrific visual effects. The source of evil is not within their bodies, despite the pregnancies being central to the horror. The evil is distinctly outside of their bodies, found in the suffocating systems surrounding them and men playing God. When watching within the context of conservative American politics, the throughline is clear: the threat of demonic insemination in film mirrors the literal hijacking of our reproductive freedoms.

Bloody Chambers

Physical space itself is a visual device used to suppress each film’s characters and further amplify real-life similarities in America’s politics. The settings of both films showcase tight enclosures that the protagonists are bound within and fight to break free from. The cinematographers’ usages of windows, imposing pillars, and doorways frame the nuns in the orderly constraint of architecture. In The First Omen, there is the aforementioned “bad room” that houses unruly girls who disrupt normal procedures, which is where Sister Margaret is placed when she uncovers the truth about the orphanage her order serves. The psychological torture of alienation is also present in Immaculate. The first scene shows an unknown nun running away from the convent, seemingly aware that the convent is forcing her to reproduce. She is captured and subsequently buried alive by nuns who later welcome Cecilia to the convent. We as viewers are intimately close to the unnamed nun in the tiny enclosure of the casket, suffocating with her.

Later on, Cecilia attempts to leave the convent to seek professional medical help during her pregnancy. She runs into a large, green field, symbolizing a rejection of her oppressors and liberation from the convent. Two priests capture her and bring her back to her living chambers where she is locked in her room (à la “The Yellow Wallpaper”) for the rest of her pregnancy. Architecture is crucial to Catholic horror, as part of the genre’s concept usually relies on the convent as a setting. The terror typically exists within these tyrannical enclosures, forcing women to attempt an escape by any means necessary. In the United States, people are also entrapped in patriarchal social and religious structures that attempt to define their reproductive rights. Currently, there are 14 states that have banned abortion, with several others creating local rubrics to limit abortion access and develop their own punitive codes for illegal abortions. Instead of convents, state lines can restrict and suffocate inhabitants with invasive jurisdiction. 

Reclaiming Power: “Don't you hear His voice?” “No, I only hear my own.”

While these Catholic horrors show how perverted faith can become antagonistic, they also show protagonists subverting the tools of the church to reject the establishment. In Immaculate, there is a montage of papal-themed kills: Cecilia blungeons a nun by her bedside with a heavy metal cross and proceeds to strangle the head priest with a set of rosary beads before stabbing another priest with a nail from Jesus’s crucifixion. In The First Omen, Margaret uses a surgical scalpel to stab the Cardinal after it was used to remove her cursed offspring from her womb. Each protagonist becomes murderous, using the antagonists’ own instruments—the oppressor reaps what they sow. Just as nunsploitation films etched a space in the radical filmography of the 1970s, the foundational visual and conceptual art that reckoned with gender and sexual violence in the later half of the 20th century is influential on the feminist work produced today. While Immaculate and The First Omen have a level of obscurity that dilutes their overt political themes, they hold a sense of lineage from second wave feminist retaliation and anger. When I think about feminist horror, I return to conceptual artists Jenny Holzer, Ana Mendieta, and Marina Abramovic often—in particular, to their word and body pieces that magnify the visceral urge to seek vengeance. Jenny Holzer’s “Truisms” from the late 1970s contain radical mantras that are still prevalent regarding contemporary state-sanctioned violence. One piece states,“The Breakdown Comes When You Stop Controlling Yourself and Want the Release of a Bloodbath.” When people are placed under extreme oppression, revolt often follows. There is glory in apocalypse.

On the Periphery in Catholic Horror: Intersectionality in Repro Rights

Back in Virginia, when I rode to All Saints as a child, we passed an exit that led to Jefferson Davis Highway (yes, there is still a highway in a major city named after the president of the American confederacy). My commute to and from school was riddled with historical and political narratives emblematic of the current state of America. In former slave-owning states like Virginia, reproductive violence toward enslaved Black women was once a common practice to produce more laborers. Decades after the Civil War, legalized methods of population control and the eugenics movement shifted the reproductive onus from Black women and other marginalized groups—white women were expected to be domestic mothers, while women of color were often working in public spaces and distant from white feminine performance. Coerced sterilization became a weapon in and outside of court jurisdiction to curb the prosperity and growing communities of Black, Brown, and Indigenous populations for the better half of a century. American second wave feminism was heralded in Betty Friedman’s white-centric 1963 survey of women’s oppression in The Feminine Mystique, which helped produce the most publicized rhetoric of the women’s movement—narratives by and for white, educated, middle-class women took center stage. In the 1960s and early 70s, while mainstream feminist dogma called for legal pregnancy termination nationwide, attention on the coercive sterilizations happening at the same time to poor migrant women was scarce in white feminist advocacy and American politics. Reproductive medical abuse still engenders fear for women of color, with 2020 whistleblower accounts alleging forced sterilization in an ICE detention center as well as consistently alarming childbirth mortality rates documented for Black women and infants under medical care.

White women are conservatives’ focal point in current restrictions to abortion access, as some conservatives and Christian extremists fear the threat of a decreasing white population in America. Another essential facet to consider in the aforementioned convent horror films is the absence of people of color. The convents of Immaculate and The First Omen are full of white women wearing clean white habits or bathing in white smocks, emphasizing the imagery of whiteness as pure and fertile. This is not to say that the writers and directors of this media should be more inclusive; rather, it amplifies the fact that people of color are not the primary subjects of concern for today’s anti-abortion rhetoric and in turn, pro-choice media. Despite the restrictions of abortion having extreme adverse effects on people of color, there are limitations to the discourse around reproductive healthcare in the media. The breadth of reproductive justice goes beyond abortion access—it is advocacy against state-regulated control over all marginalized bodies by politicians. It is a fight for bodily autonomy for all, for healthy family planning practices and education for various intersections of identity; it is to reckon with all forms of historical and current sexual violence. It's important to create space for wider conversations when considering these films under the feminist lens of reproductive rights.

Beyond Convent Walls

So, “What if the Virgin Mary had access to abortion?” Well, this question does not address the fundamental grievances of systematically suppressing reproductive justice. The issue is not Catholicism but the methodological quest for total power—misappropriated faith is one of the machinations of political domination in and outside of Western countries. Radicalization should confront the weaponization of religion in politics. The prelude of The First Omen shows a pair of movers raising a stained-glass image of a saint atop a cathedral. The pulley they are using breaks, and the image falls, shattering into chromatic shards and stabbing an unassuming priest involved in the grand scheme of forcibly impregnating generations of women. One of the initial reasons I began writing this piece was because when I watched Immaculate and saw the convent sitting atop catacombs, I saw a reflection of America relying on the ideologies from dead men to maintain a fragile society nearing atrophy. We are in need of iconoclasm, a deconstruction of manipulated ideology to combat the conservative extremism infecting American and Western politics. It is an individual onus and a collective one.

While both aforementioned films skim the surface of radical topics (feminism is only as sexy as it is marketable), they offer examples of personal liberation. In The First Omen, one of the most jarring sight gags shows a demonic hand reaching out of a pregnant woman’s vagina during labor as Sister Margaret looks on. She proceeds to pass out. When she awakens, the Cardinal visits her and simply says, “The miracle of life can be messy business,” downplaying the monstrous birth that Margaret saw. Later on, when she learns of her own pregnancy, Margaret rejects the “miracle of life” by declaring she needs the child out of her immediately, regardless of its importance to sustaining their religious order. This is Margaret’s refusal to forfeit herself, and it is the film’s line most directly reflective of pro-choice sentiments. Comparatively, the coup de grâce against authority in Immaculate is found in the final scene. Cecilia is in a lush forest, screaming for several moments and covered in blood from killing her oppressors. We see the stained whites of her teeth and her contorted limbs and face in anguish (it’s a distressing scene, and my friend felt genuinely nauseous while we watched it) and become aware that this is what unchecked violations of a woman’s bodily autonomy can produce. After the child is born, she raises a large rock above her head and over the experimental child, representing the extent of the convent’s abuse. For the first time in the film, the gaze of the camera is below her. She throws down the rock to shatter the last remnant of her constraints. Self-liberation can be a messy business.

Immaculate (2024, dir. Mohan)

For further viewing of unhinged nuns, retaliation against order, and feminist subversions:

Dark Habits (1983, dir. Almodóvar)
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
(1970, dir. Jireš)
Mother Joan of the Angels
(1961, dir. Kawalerowicz)
(1977, dir. Moctezuma)
The Little Hours
(2017, dir. Baena)
Sister Death
(2023, dir. Plaza)
Story of a Cloistered Nun
(1973, dir. Paolella)
Satanic Pandemonium
(1975, dir. Solares)