The Terrifying Real-Life Ghost Story That May Have Inspired 'The Nun'

In the 1970s, demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren saw a spectral sister in a British abbey.
IMAGE courtesy of Tony Spera

In The Nun, the latest movie in the ever-expanding Conjuring universe, a cowl-clad demon with piercing yellow eyes and dagger-like teeth haunts the cloisters of a Romanian abbey and terrorizes local clergy. The film is a prequel to The Conjuring, which detailed the real case files of noted demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren. Those case files have also inspired The Conjuring 2, Anabelle and Annabelle: Creation, and the 1979 horror classic, The Amityville Horror.

So how much of the story about The Nun is based on actual events?

The couple's son-in-law, Tony Spera, tells that The Nun's ecclesiastical phantom bears resemblance to a "real" spectral nun the Warrens encountered during a trip to the haunted Borley church in southern England in the 1970s. After learning about a string of eerie events at the church—including bells ringing without warning, rumors of a headless monk thought to have left cryptic messages on walls, and a ghostly nun spotted walking around at night—the Warrens recruited several photographers to accompany them in a quest to capture evidence of the spirit.

They ended up coming face-to-face with the churchyard's ghost who was, according to lore, a nun buried alive in the brick walls of the convent centuries ago after having an affair with a monk.

"I feel the presence of a nun in this church," Lorraine apparently told the group, as they entered the church, around midnight.


It was pitch black, and there were no lit candles or lights. Their photographers snapped photos on a 35mm camera with infrared film. When they developed the images, what appeared to be a spectral nun was seen walking down the aisle, praying.

"Was it the Borley nun? Definitely could have been," says Spera, who has run the Warren's New England Society for Psychic Research—where the possessed Raggedy Ann doll named Annabelle, which appeared in The Conjuring and subsequent spinoffs Anabelle and Annabelle: Creation, is on display—since Ed passed away in 2006.

"Is The Nun based on that experience?" Spera asks. "I think Hollywood takes bits and pieces of different stories and puts them together... They couldn't just come up with [The Nun] out of the blue."

A rep for Warner Bros. said filmmakers were unavailable to comment.

Fans of The Conjuring universe will have certainly recognized the Nun as the same specter that terrorized Ed and Lorraine in The Conjuring 2. In both films, the dark, towering figure dressed in religious habit is named Valak and its existence is rooted in established mythology.

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According to The Lesser Key of Solomon, a book on demonology from the 17th century, Valak (also spelled Valac, Volac, Valax, etc.) is the Grand President of Hell. In the text, Valak appears not as a nun, but as a child with angel wings and delivers "true answers of hidden treasures" while commanding a legion of demons. 

Spera says that Valak's look in both films was inspired by a conversation between The Conjuring 2's director James Wan and Lorraine about an experience she had shortly after investigating the Amityville horror house in 1976.

"Lorraine was at home in her bed, reading, when she started to feel a presence" Spera says. "Something wrong, and she saw a black whirlwind of black mass enter the room, it was like a vortex blacker than the night."


Lorraine prayed to be released "from the forces of evil," he adds. "She told it, 'Leave and go back where you came from!' It vanished as she kept repeating those words."

Wan told Gizmodo two years ago that his first thought after hearing about Lorraine's encounter with the "swirling tornado vortex," was: "Oh, crap, that's going to be a CGI character."

I didn’t want to do that. And so, it kind of took me awhile 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."

Today, Lorraine is 91 years old and, due to health issues, was unable to see The Nun. 

"But I think she would have enjoyed it," Spera says. "She and Ed used to say that any movie that portrays evil as real and the devil as real is good, because it warns people that the devil exists and to not dabble in occult practices."

This story originally appeared on Esquire.comMinor edits have been made by the editors.

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