Looking back at the films of the Conjuring universe so far — the original Conjuring and its sequel plus two Annabelle movies — is like leafing through a yearbook of supernatural assholes and trying to decide which villain was truly The Worst. Was it the first screen-incarnation of that awful doll, so infamous that Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) had to keep her in a special case within their consecrated closet of horrors? Or was it the demon witch Bathsheba terrorizing the poor Perron family in the James Wan film from 2013 that started it all?
This weekend, The Nun will try to cement the demon Valak as the Conjuring-verse’s most formidable foe. This will be a three-peat for the most wicked bride of Christ, after appearances in Conjuring 2 and Annabelle: Creation, putting her one credit shy of matching the cameos of the worst doll since Poltergeist. So before you time-travel back to 1952 Romania and witness known ghost-bait Taissa Farmiga having her habit lashed off her body, take a reverse chronological walk down memory lane and decide for yourself who (or what) is the baddest hell-beast of them all.
The Conjuring sequel is, according the internal timeline, the most “recent” story in the extended universe, taking place in 1977. In it we join the Warrens as they are called to confront a haunting in the London suburb of Enfield — just a few years after investigating the DeFeo family murders at the famed Amityville Horror house. While surveying spirits in Amityville, Lorraine has a vision of Ed being murdered by a demonic nun (yes, that demonic nun) whom they’ll soon encounter again in the U.K.
Enter the Hodgson family, whose youngest daughter, Janet, is a real magnet for possession. According to an angry voice she hears in the night, Janet is being persecuted by a dead man named Bill Wilkins insisting that the Hodgsons are squatting in his house. He lived and died there, and now he wants them out. The freaky occurrences around the house, and within Janet, get so severe that the Warrens hear about her case all the way across the pond, and they are called in to see if the Hodgson problem is just a big hoax. But before they fly all the way to London, Lorraine has another vision of the evil nun. The nun appears in Ed’s study, emerges from a horrible painting of her that Ed made and for some reason hung on his wall, and then screams a name at Lorraine. This will be important later!
So, once the Warrens meet the Hodgsons they obviously realize this haunt is for real, but what they’ll have to figure out is that dead Bill Wilkins is just a puppet for the demon Valak — otherwise known as that nasty ghost nun. This piggybacking trick will come up again in the Conjuring-verse, because all these demons are total dicks. Lots more bad stuff happens to Janet and her family, but a final showdown between Lorraine and the nun ends when she screams out the demon’s name, Valak, which is the tried and true method for sending a creature back to hell. Obviously, this is only a taste of what’s to come for Valak in the franchise.
It’s hard to top the first film in a franchise, and the original Conjuring still stands alone as the absolute best movie in the extended universe. Set in 1971, the Warrens go to Harrisville, Rhode Island, to help the Perron family, whose house is being ravaged by a spirit that’s a real pill. For the one and only time in the whole extended universe, the demon villain is disconnected from the events of the rest of the films. This is a solo mission for Bathsheba, an accused witch who used to live in the Perron house, who before killing herself in 1863, sacrificed her own newborn to the devil and cursed everyone who would dare to live on her land (like the Perrons, for example!). While Bathsheba might have been a real bitch, on the scale of Conjuring villains she was no Annabelle (who we see locked away in the Warrens’ home earlier on in the movie), and she was certainly no Valak. Points for trying, angry witch, but you’re just a day player here.
The first Conjuring spinoff was the creative low point of the franchise, but as this is still a well-appointed ghost story with a nice little studio budget, it packs in some excellent jump scares. (It also stars a working-hard Annabelle Wallis, and fake Eddie Redmayne, Ward Horton.) Annabelle opens with several roommates recounting their horrifying haunting experiences to an unseen listener, who we will eventually know from his voice is demonologist Ed Warren, there to investigate the curious case of a demon doll. The nurses tell Ed that their creepy toy is possessed by a girl named Annabelle Higgins, who lost her parents when she was alive. What we’ll soon find out, though, is that Annabelle Higgins was a crazed cult member who slaughtered her parents and sought to conjure demons through blood sacrifice.
Annabelle breaks into the home of our central family, the Forms, and slits her own throat while holding the doll, causing blood to drip into its eye and creepily absorb into the socket. After the invasion, the Forms of course try to toss the doll in the garbage and purge all those traumatic memories, but naturally, she comes back! Then it’s the standard fare: doll causes the drapes to blow when there’s no wind, the sewing machine and record player to run on their own, mysterious ghost children to run through hallways, etc. But, surprise, that super eerie Annabelle doll is actually a front for a much worse demon (one that looks similar to but is different from the Red Face Demon in Insidious) that’s just impersonating her spirit so it can swindle souls from the living. Typical!
The Warrens are connected to the story by a priest who tries to seek their advice about Annabelle, as well as the nurses who come into possession of the doll after the resolution of the Form family’s storyline — which does include possession of a new soul for the beast attached to Annabelle to feed on, sparing the Forms from horrors untold. As a closing title card tells us, Annabelle now lives in the artifact room of the Warrens, where she is blessed twice a month by a priest.
Before landing in her holy prison in the Warrens’ terrifying objects closet, Annabelle had to be made, and for that origin story we go to the much more capable sequel, Creation. It turns out the doll was originally created by a toymaker in 1943, who would eventually lose his daughter, Annabelle, and go into an understandable period of forever mourning with his wife. In their grief, the parents Samuel (Anthony LaPaglia) and Esther Mullins (Miranda Otto) sent up a wild prayer asking whatever could help them to put them in contact with their daughter on the other side. Once again, though, it was an old demon switcheroo job, with a malevolent spirit posing as the departed Annabelle so her parents would invite it to live inside one of Samuel’s dolls. Surely you know by now which scary doll the evil jumped inside of, and the Mullins family only realized it too late, leading them to lock it in a closet in Annabelle’s also locked-up bedroom.
Twelve years after the girl’s death, the Mullins family invites a group of orphan girls to stay with them at their large and empty home. (And they have a nun chaperone, so that’s not totally as weird as it sounds.) A whole crop of fresh souls ends up being a bunch of new opportunities for the evil being in the house, which two of the girls accidentally spring from the closet prison when they go snooping around. Kids! Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em disturbing haunted artifacts in your lonely old house! Eventually, the doll demon latches onto one of the girls, Janice (Talitha Bateman), kills the married couple, and raises utter hell around the property. The orphans and the nun make it out alive and the police collect the doll as evidence, but the possessed Janice escapes and makes her way to an orphanage in Santa Monica. Going by the name Annabelle now, Janice is eventually adopted by … the Higgins family! They raise her up but she runs off to join a Satanic cult, and will one day return home to slaughter her parents and attack the Form family in search of the doll vessel the demon exited years before. And thus we circle back to the first Annabelle movie.
With The Nun we go all the way back in time to the beginnings of Valak, which is really just a cute short name for “Valak the Defiler! The Profane! The Marquee of Snakes!” as Lorraine Warren told us in Conjuring 2. Okay it’s not actually that far back, since it’s just like ten years before The Conjuring timeline, taking place in 1952. (And really, The Nun doesn’t even go as far back as Annabelle’s origin story — but now we’re just splitting hairs!) To learn about the creation of that hell nun, we will follow a Catholic priest named Father Burke (Demián Bichir) and his novitiate, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), as they investigate the alleged suicide of a nun at a Romanian monastery. It’s all going to go so wrong and so bad, and even if the Father and Sister live to fight another day, we know from all these sequels that Valak will also have a whole lot of fight left in him/her/it to go terrorizing the Warrens in America and Britain later on.