Golems, Dybbuks and other Movie Monsters: The Search for a Jewish Horror Film
I am currently in Krakow, Poland as the guest of the Jewish Culture Festival who have brought me in to give a series of four lectures on Cool Jewz topics. I’ll put these lectures online here for folk to read at their leisure.
I’ve had this idea floating about my head for pretty much for the last 20 years. So I’m very excited to finally get around to playing with the topic for the Jewish Culture Festival. This lecture is going to be more ‘informal’ than my other three; that is, I want to take you on a personal journey through my favourite genre.
I’m a horror movie fan. And I have been for longer than I can remember. As a child, I saw every monster movie I was legally allowed to see – this was before home video changed the way we consume movies – whether on TV or at the cinema, if it was a monster movie, I was there. But as a Jewish horror movie fan, I became highly conscious of just how Christian-centric the monster movie world was. The metaphysical worlds depicted excluded me from believing in them. Even when the movies were directed by Jews, or written by Jews, or Jewish producers, studio heads, etc. all monsters challenged (and therefore frightened) the Gentile world. If I were to be scared by these films, then I would have to think like a Gentile, to believe like a Gentile. So what was a poor Jewish horror fan to do?
First of all, we need to look for Jewish, or quasi-Jewish, representations in horror movies. The history of Jewish representation in horror movies more or less parallels the representation of Jews across Hollywood films – to wit, that throughout the classical Hollywood period (roughly from the birth of sound in 1927 to the emergence of ethnic characters in the 1960s & 70s, or from The Jazz Singer to Funny Girl) was one of invisibility. Jewish characters were often in hiding, ethnicity erased to a bland American melting pot homogeneity. Recognition of Jewish representation in Hollywood movies often results in what Daniel Boyarin calls “Jewissance”; a play-on-words of the French jouissance, to denote intense pleasure (to the point of orgasm, really) – “Jewgasm” if you will. Within a Jewish context, Boyarin refers to the kind of intense pride Jews experience when a film or TV show allows Jewish images, characters or ideas to be expressed. Jewish viewers discover what Nathan Abrams refers to as “Jewish moments” in a film; moments when some kind of wink or nod to the Jewish audience creates this kind of connection. Within critical theory, the idea of jouissance has been suggested by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to refer to those moments of intense pleasure that goes beyond the pleasure to the point of pain. Returning to the Jewish context of Jewissance, the pleasure of discovering a Jewish presence in a horror film is not only the pleasure of recognition, but also the painful awareness of this presence’s rarity. Although I guess that’s only painful if you’re a horror fan in the first place.
So, where do we see Jews in horror movies? I want to start with Roman Polanski’s 1967 comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers. In this film, a professor of the Occult and his schlemiel assistant travel though Eastern Europe (intentionally undefined) looking for vampires to stake. They stop in a small village which appears to be under the thrall of the local aristocratic vampire Count von Krolock. The movie as a whole is a parody of the British Hammer Horror films which were then sufficiently popular as to warrant parody. In particular interest for me, however, is the character of Shagal, the Innkeeper; a stereotypical Ostjuden, with payez, lusts after the busty wench Magda, and is the first of Count von Krolock’s victims we encounter. In probably the film’s most famous sequence, Shagal’s Jewishness is made explicit.
As Patricia Erens noted, in reference to John Landis’s 1981 An American Werewolf in London but is equally applicable to Fearless Vampire Killers, that “when ethnic additives appear in classic genres, the result is comedy” (Erens 1984, 375). Simply by including Jewish specificity into a horror film (or a Western, or an action-adventure movie) means that the film is automatically comic, so incongruous is any kind of ethnic specificity in these genres. The implication, to read backwards, is that Hollywood genre production is traditionally (normally) ethnically bland. Any alternative flavour added disrupts the genre irrevocably. I don’t necessarily agree with this, but wanted to throw it out there anyway.
Now I want to turn to one of my favourite films of all time: An American Werewolf in London. The question for me is: is David Kessler, the films titular hero, Jewish? The actor who portrayed him, David Naughton, isn’t. And yet, for anyone who has seen the film, there is a very strong “Jewish vibe” to his performance. We also get this scene:
Most commentators, specifically Jewish commentators like Lester Friedman & Patricia Erens, make note of this exchange as some kind of evidence of David Kessler’s Jewishness, despite the refutation of the evidence’s conclusiveness: that being circumcised is no automatic sign of Jewishness. And yet, these commentators make no mention of this next clip – a dream sequence – where the Kessler family’s Jewishness is made explicit:
Did anyone see it? On the bookshelves in the back of the shot, there is a menorah on the mantel. That’s it.
But now, consider the demons that attack David’s family. They’re wearing SS uniforms and helmets. Despite no visible swastikas, the sequence has very strong echoes of a Nazi attack on a bourgeois Jewish family’s home – the indiscriminate and meaningless of the violence, the massacre of the entire family, the consumption of the room in fire. There is particular irony in the sequence in that on the television, in an episode of The Muppet Show, Kermit and Miss Piggy are discussing on stage violence as theatrical tradition – in the guise of Punch and Judy – just prior to our witnessing ‘movie violence’ with Rick Baker’s Oscar winning special effects. But there is another level to the irony too: namely, that the SS-like monsters who attack the Kesslers are firing Uzis, the standard weapon of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) since the mid-1950s.
Patricia Erens notes “[American Werewolf] plays upon the traditional role of the Jewish Victim. And what could be more appropriate than a Jewish monster, the ultimate outcast, who must die to preserve society” (Erens 1984, 375)? While I’m not sure David Kessler ‘died for our sins’, what American Werewolf does particularly well, or at least one of the reasons I respond to this film with such Jewissance is Kessler’s monster-as-tragic-hero motif. But Erens is correct in seeing Kessler as ‘ultimate outsider’, someone who will never be accepted by mainstream (that is, Gentile) society. Kessler’s monstrosity is his status as victim: because he didn’t die in the werewolf attack, he continues the curse. He’s blamed for simply surviving. And other than on a night of the full moon, he is a charming, nice and well-liked fellow, not a dangerous and bloodthirsty monster. His victims, who return as revenants to torment him into suicide, see only his monstrousness. An American Werewolf in London is a remarkable testimony to how it feels to be secularly Jewish in a Gentile world; how we can feel blamed and punished for circumstances beyond our control. This is not to say that secular Jews existing in the Gentile world are monstrous, but sometimes the Gentile world can make us feel that way.
Thinking about American Werewolf in London in this way brings me to consider another, more metaphysical point: what is the cosmology we inhabit within a particular horror film? Is the universe a Christian one wherein Jews function as Eternal Other for the righteous to compare themselves to? Or does a film’s narrative construction posit a Jewish metaphysics? One recent film which is very Jewish in this metaphysical way is the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man (2009) – but doesn’t really fit into my discussion here. Instead, consider the two iterations of Lt. Kinderman, the Georgetown detective who appears in both William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist III: Legion (1990). Kinderman is the same character in each, but played by different actors – Lee J. Cobb and George C. Scott, respectively. While Blatty wrote the screenplay to the 1973 film (an adaptation of his own novel), Friedkin’s Jewishness and the casting of Cobb give Kinderman a different Jewish vibe to the character. When Blatty wrote and directed the 1990 sequel to the film, as an observant Roman Catholic, the performance of the character is different. Two clips – one from each of the films – first Lee J. Cobb in The Exorcist.
Firstly, the crucifix Chris finds under Regan’s pillow becomes menacing – a sign of unwanted oppression rather than spiritual redemption (reflected, in part, by the music in the clip). But it is the tone of rationalism and ratiocination which Cobb brings to the sequence that strikes me as implicitly Jewish. Kinderman is cool, logical, and scientific in his investigation into the mysterious death of Burke Dennings. And Kinderman’s calmness juxtaposes the supernatural hysteria which permeates the rest of the film.
Now consider George C. Scott in the same role: Kinderman here is given the opportunity to express his skepticism towards the Christian metaphysical world in his litany of secular evils he believes exist. But at the conclusion of that speech, he admits, almost against his will, that he also believes in (the Christian perception of) the Devil. Add to that, Blatty has Kinderman pinned against and up the opposite wall in a crucifixion position in a display of supernatural power. And at the sequence’s end, somehow the Devil is able to conjure up lightning inside the asylum cell which zaps the floor away which reveals either a portal to Hell, or the lighting fixture shop downstairs.
The Jew-in-the-Christian-Metaphysics motif is also present in the 1988 film by Carl Schultz, The Seventh Sign, wherein a heavily pregnant Demi Moore tries to prevent the Christian Apocalypse. In this film, Moore’s character, Abby, is positive that her new and mysterious tenant David Bannon is breaking the Holy Seals outlined in the Book of Revelations bringing about the end of the world. In this first clip, Abby steals one of David’s strange parchments and looks to a Rabbi to help her translate it.
It’s worth noting, at least parenthetically, that Rabbi Ornstein is played by Rabbi William Kramer, giving a touch of ‘authenticity’ to the film by association. Abby and Avi team up together to try and decipher the prophecies and prevent the world from ending. .
The Seventh Sign is problematic from a Jewish perspective because the metaphysical universe is clearly predicated on Christian belief, particularly in the truth revealed by the Book of Revelations. “The Jew” functions merely as an aid to assist Christianity. The literal truth of Christianity is presented on-screen within the film’s narrative; it is not an interpretation or a code of ethics. Like in The Exorcist III: Legion, the Christian mythology is literally true.
The script by Clifford and Ellen Green, writing under the pseudonyms “George Kaplan” and “W. W. Wicket” respectively, are difficult to track down. They appear to have only a few film credits to their name (according the Internet Movie Database). What they have worked on tends to be strongly religious oriented light-genre movies like The Seventh Sign (they also worked on Bless the Child and Three Wishes). In The Seventh Sign the story centres on the Jewish idea of “the Guf” – the well of souls in Jewish mysticism which will eventually be empty and thereby bring about the Apocalypse. Through Abby’s sacrifice of herself for her baby’s life, the Guf is refilled by the Messiah; Christ has returned and was actually her creepy tenant David all along. At the end of the film, Yeshiva boy Avi and David/Jesus pass one another in the hospital corridor and Avi is commended by Christ to be this story’s chronicler.
Despite the Jewish trappings, including the Guf, The Seventh Sign is a strongly Christian film which occasionally wears Jewish drag for legitimacy and authenticity. By recognizing the Jewish role within Christian mythology, films like The Seventh Sign use elements of Judaism to justify its own (and self-serving) “Judeo-Christianity”.
My initial intention with this presentation was to take a wander through Jewish folklore and look at some of the narratives and motifs which horror filmmakers have drawn on to explore Judaic monsters. As the research on this topic progressed, and as my own thinking on the subject developed, I began to see some more intriguing patterns than simply adaptations of Jewish lore. The commentary on Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, as a classic of German Expressionist cinema, is vast. Some of you might also be aware that the film we call Der Golem is but the third and final Golem film Wegener made (as it is the only film to have survived). In 1916, Wegener made, with his co-director Henrik Galeen, Der Golem; and it is only recently that a few meters of this film was discovered in someone’s attic.
The following year, he made the comedy Der Golem und die Tänzerin and the film we’ve inherited as Der Golem is his Der Golem: wie er indie Welt kam, made in 1920; and it is this film which tells the more traditional tale of Rabbi Loew and his monstrous creation.
Lester Friedman, in an article on Jewish horror movies, spends a fair amount of time discussing Wegener’s Der Golem as a proto-Nazi Anti-Semitic film. Friedman notes that “horror films may contain powerful social attacks that ‘serious’ films cannot hope to duplicate and deliver their message to an audience not usually inclined to watch … social dramas” (50). In understanding the central theme of a horror film as “normalcy is threatened by the monster”, Friedman sees Wegener’s Golem to be evidence of a Jewish threat to Christian normalcy which must ultimately be destroyed. Friedman’s is a solid reading, to be sure; although I don’t think I entirely agree with it. One could easily read F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) as equally (if not more so) anti-Semitic. My problem with Friedman’s account is that it doesn’t allow for discussion of the issues of anti-Semitism; it is sufficient to say this depiction is racist, or that depiction is not. Tomorrow, I’ll be discussing Jewish self-stereotyping in some recent comedy films, so I’m not letting this issue entirely drop. The significance of the Golem story for Wegener, significant enough for this non-Jewish filmmaker to make three different films about the monster (with him playing the central role in each) is what interests me. What does the Golem mean?
As I’ve discussed elsewhere (in reference to The X-Files episode, ‘Kaddish’), the Golem stories ask us to mediate, to think about, the limits of our scientific knowledge. Rabbi Loew, in making the Golem, has created life; but it is life without a soul (as only G-d can bestow a soul – presumably from the Guf). So the legends of Rabbi Loew ask us to think about what separates us from ‘base clay’. What makes us human? The metaphysical repercussions of such questions are what need discussing. Significantly, James Whales’ 1930 Frankenstein owes much more to Golem legends than it does to Mary Shelly’s novel. And by extension, with Dr. Frankenstein being one of cinema’s first “mad scientist”, in many respects all those horror and science fiction films where science has gone too far harken back to this old Jewish legend.
But the Golem variant I want to consider for a few minutes is the little-discussed French film made in 1936, Le Golem, directed by Julian Duvivier, who is probably more famous for directing Pepe le Moko the following year. Le Golem acts as a sequel to Wegener’s surviving Golem film: a generation after Rabbi Loew created his Golem to defend the Jews of Prague, his successor, Rabbi Jacob is confronted with an even greater threat to the community in guise of the highly paranoid Emperor Rudolph who has not quite recovered from encountering the Golem with Rabbi Loew. On his deathbed, the great Rabbi prophesized that only when the Jews most need defending, the Golem will awaken one last time. Unlike Wegener’s film, it is Emperor Rudolph who is surrounded by magicians and sorcerers trying to reproduce Loew’s Golem.
What makes Le Golem fascinating for me is less the Jewish horror element (which is relatively minor) than the artistic context of Duvivier and his cinema. Julien Duvivier, along with Jean Renoir, Jean Vigo and Marcel Carne are the key filmmakers of the French Poetic Realist movement of the 1930s. Strongly linked with the Popular Front and supporters of short-lived socialist government of Leon Blum, these films tended toward highly studio-bound and stylized films, but unlike German Expressionism which tried to visually articulate psychological states, French Poetic Realism attempted to explore real-world political and social issues through stylized filmmaking. When we put Le Golem into the context of Poetic Realism, the social discourse Duvivier is articulating come to the fore.
French Poetic Realist films tend toward the allegorical, and with Le Golem it is possible to read Rabbi Jacob’s call for liberty and freedom to create a strong sense of “fraternité” among the French people of all races and religions against the aggression coming from Germany. The “Jewish nation” of the Prague Ghetto stands in for the French nation as a whole. France calling on the Golem to defend it against German oppression. In one sequence, Rabbi Jacob is tortured by Emperor Rudolph (echoes of Furher Adolph?); the young Rabbi is shirtless and bound almost in a crucifixion pose. To cast the Rabbi in a Christ-like, Duvivier suggests a bond between contemporary Jewish suffering and how all Christians, likewise suffered under the Romans (Emperor Rudolph also feeds his “Jews” to his pet lions). By creating the parallel between Jews and Christians, the film is trying to unite opposition (if not outright rebellion) against the decadent, corrupt and despotic Emperor. At one point, Rudolph does an excellent impression of Hitler, angrily banging his fist on a table. Rachel, the Rabbi’s wife, is the one who awakens the Golem finally (this 1936 call for rebellion is nothing if not also fighting for greater gender equality), and rouses the Jewish prisoners to action with her call that “Revolt is the right of the slave!” There is a final sad coda to add to this discussion: With Rachel awakening the Golem for the last time, the creature is, of course, no longer able to defend the Jews any longer. Duvivier’s Golem seems tragically prescient in hindsight, and not entirely by accident I think.
From Golems to Dybbuks. There is a surprisingly diverse demonology within Judaism, although I’m in agreement with Gershom Scholem, that most of these “demons” were folk appropriations of various surrounding peoples and tribes. Scholem suggests that the various cultures ancient and medieval Hebrews encountered would often “Judaicized” the local beliefs, finding ways of incorporating local beliefs into forms acceptable to Judaism. Scholem also suggests that these appropriations were often “in name only” and were used metaphorically as poetic descriptions of psychological or natural forces. “Satan” for example, is not a cognitive spirit, but a personification of the forces of temptation which distract the pious from doing their good works. Later Kabbalistic traditions attempted to create a “systematized demonology” out of these inchoate beliefs; the results were less a definitive “Book of Demons” than an attempt to put the outside world and its beliefs into a Jewish world view. I’ll return to this issue in a moment.
A dybbuk, in its most basic form, is a possessing spirit; that is, should a pious individual be tempted from the righteous path, they run the risk of being possessed by an evil spirit or demon. If we’re dealing with metaphoric and poetic personifications of natural processes, then the innocent bocher who gradually loses interest in their studies in favour smoking weed and watching porn, clearly they’ve been possessed by a dybbuk.
I would guess that the most famous (or at least significant) dybbuk-oriented film is Michael Waszynski Yiddish-language film, Der Dybbuk, based on the stage production written by S. Ansky. Unlike the other dybbuk-films I’ll be discussing momentarily which have some appeal to mainstream and non-Jewish audiences, this Polish film from 1937 seems to be made for an almost exclusive Jewish audience. While there is certainly a supernatural realm in this film, the entities are less demonic than spiritual. The strange figure of the Messanger (an angel of G-d by definition) is only one of two supernatural entities in the film. The other, of course, is Chanon – the Yeshiva bocher who is denied the hand of Leah, the woman he loves, by her father. Chanon then turns towards the supernatural in order to possess her; an act which kills him. Leah, in her grief, asks for her dead lover to possess her so they will always be together.
As I have been arguing all along, monsters – whether ghosts, Golems, werewolves or vampires – are some kind of metaphor or poetic image to discuss larger social, political, psychological issues that may be difficult, if not impossible, to articulate in any way other than the symbolic. As a profoundly religious and spiritual play, Ansky’s The Dybbuk is much less a horror story, than a morality play warning Yeshiva bochers to not be seduced by magic and witchcraft, and a warning against excessive mourning the loss of a loved one and wanting to selfishly possess them. Just as Channon possesses Leah literally, she equally possesses Channon in her refusal to let him go – either to marry who her father has chosen, or after her lover has died.
Within the past few years, two mainstream Hollywood horror movies have been produced which touch, in some way, on the Dybbuk belief traditions, although they do so very differently. In writer-director David S. Goyer’s The Unborn (2009), Casey Beldon discovers a different variant on the dybbuk story. Unlike in Ansky’s play, the possessing entity is not the ghost of someone Casey knew and couldn’t let go of, but is a preternatural evil presence which incarnates in babies waiting to be born. What The Unborn nicely demonstrates is the combination of traditions which screenwriters draw upon when fashioning a “new” screenplay: the Dybbuk tradition which I’ve been discussing so far is only one of the narrative traditions Goyer is exploring. And as a screenwriter (who also co-wrote the Christopher Nolan Batman movies), Goyer can pick and choose from a variety of traditions, although hopefully his choices won’t violate any of the traditions he’s playing with. First, here is The Unborn’s definition of a dybbuk.
Before continuing on, I want to draw your attention to a couple of the traditions Goyer is playing with. Firstly, in addition to the Jewish dybbuk tradition, Goyer is equally rooted in what I call “mall-horror”; recent horror movies which are designed to give teenage audiences enough of a fright so they’ll cuddle up in the cinema seats, but nothing too extreme that mummy & daddy will write to the cinema about to complain. As a horror fan, “mall-horror” is antiseptic and bland, despite the large amount of marketing and publicity these films receive. Part of the cultural logic of “mall-horror” is that, unlike earlier horror and supernatural films, which require you to pay attention to storytelling involved in order to fully understand the narrative, “mall-horror” repeats its salient points continuously to ensure everyone in the cinema understands what is going on, no matter how many times they’ve gone to the toilet or checked their phones. Effectively, Goyer is operating in two main traditions in this film: the Jewish dybbuk narrative and the Hollywood “mall-horror” tradition. The sequence keeps certain aspects of Jewish lore – dybbuk by name, disembodied spirits (not demons), familial dedication – but integrates these with “mall horror”-movie clichés.
In trying to understand whether or not The Unborn is a Jewish horror movie or a horror movie that has appropriated its Jewish trapping as a kind of ‘drag act’, we need to consider the cosmology within the film. Is this a Jewish cosmos? I’ve demonstrated (hopefully) how films like The Exorcist, Exorcist III: Legion and The Seventh Sign use Jewish content to tell distinctly Gentile narratives. I do not have a problem with strict adherence to a particular legend core – is this an ‘accurate’ or ‘authentic’ dybbuk story? I’m happy for a film narrative to play with its ideas and potentially to add to the tradition it is building upon. But the overall logic of the universe must be consistent. Eschatology in The Unborn is discussed, but never committed. While the malevolent spirit in the film is never dismissed as a demon, neither is it named. Also, while the film references the Sefer ha-Marot, a fictional mystical book, its title is authentically Hebrew, translating as “The Book of Mirrors”; if such a mystical volume existed, it probably would be called the Sefer ha-Marot. Writer-director David S. Goyer has done his research. Consider this next clip – a lengthy one, I apologise: Casey has found the Sefer ha-Marot, but it is in Hebrew and consults a Rabbi (played by Gary Oldman) to help her with an Exorcism.
An ecumenical minyan is formed including an Episcopal priest (Idris Alba); the spirit is thought to be ancient and preternatural. Slowly the “mall-horror” clichés are creeping back in; while the universe never fully reveals itself to be a Christian one, it does appear to be a chthonic one. This pre-religious entity and the ecumenical exorcism effectively remove any Jewish specificity from the narrative. While this may not be a Christian cosmology, neither is it a particularly Jewish one.
The Possession (2012) is purported to be a true story. In 2001, Kevin Mannis bought something described as a ‘wine cabinet’ from an estate sale that had belonged to a Holocaust survivor. When he opened it up, he discovered several strange artefacts inside. But then he began to be haunted by bad nightmares, his mother suffered a stroke, light bulbs exploded anywhere around this box, and electrical equipment failed. By opening the box, Mannis appeared to have released some kind of spirit. Famously, he sold the box to a couple of university students on Ebay, but when then similar strange events began happening to them too, they sold the box on to a medical historian, Jason Haxton, who wrote a book about the object called The Dibbuk Box (2012).
The film itself uses the idea of the ‘Dibbuk Box’ to tell a story of this haunted wine box, bought at a yard sale by a young girl. When she opens the box, she begins to become possessed by the evil spirit. As a possessing spirit, the entity is by definition a ‘dybbuk’. Despite the family at the centre of the film narrative being non-Jewish (no definite faith or ethnicity is actually defined), young Emily’s father, Clyde, contacts a young Hassidic man, Tzadok Shapir (played by Hassidic Beat-Box and Reggae superstar Matisyahu) for help in exorcising the entity out of her.
What interests me about this film is how it reverses the paradigm of some of the pseudo-Jewish horror films discussed here. Instead of Jews living in a Christian cosmos, here the (nominally) Christians have to contend with a Jewish cosmos, or at least a Jewish folk cosmos. Awareness of arcane Jewish mysticism impacts directly on a modern Gentile family.
Unlike the ecumenical exorcism in The Unborn, the exorcism in The Possession is specifically Jewish. [And watch for Matisyahu’s particularly rhythmic davening!]
The possessing spirit may very well have responded to a Christian, a Muslim or a Buddhist exorcism – as Rev. Wyndham noted in The Unborn, the exorcism rituals are all pretty much the same due to these spirits predating religious codification. But Christianity isn’t given a look in this film. Which is odd by its very inclusion, particularly since neither director nor screenwriters appear to be Jewish. What protects the innocent young WASP girl is the Jew’s tallis, wrapped around her. And the twisted malevolence of the dybbuk is nicely rendered in CGI.
The last point I want to make regarding these two films is a fascinating example of how these films seem to echo one another. The image of the dybbuk’s hand emerging from the mouth of the possessed was used to advertise The Possessed. One of the more famous images from the film is early on, Emily feels like she’s choking and explores her mouth only see two fingers creeping up her throat.
The dybbuk’s hand fully emerging from Clyde’s mouth before the spirit fully crawls out of him is central to the film denouement.
This central image or motif is what The Possession is built around and yet does not appear to be part of the “Dibbuk Box” narrative. The motif appears to come from what is apparently a medieval woodcut of a Jewish exorcism which features this ghostly hand emerging from the mouth of the possessed.
Now, unless anyone can direct me to a source for this woodcut and can verify its authenticity, I’m pretty sure it was a creation for The Unborn, as this is where I’ve taken the screengrab from.
I hope my description above of The Possession reflects how the film is “based on a true story” in so far as the existence of this mysterious wine box which has been given the name ‘dibbuk box’ by Kevin Mannis. The film keeps the box and its purchase at a yard sale (I think the contents of the box are also reputed to be authentically reproduced), but that is the extent of the film’s veracity. Now, not wishing to cast too many aspersions on the legend of the “dybbuk box”, but Haxton’s book was published in February of the same year that the film was produced. And two days before the film was released in the US, the SyFy channel’s Paranormal Investigations series did an hour-long documentary on this story featuring interviews with Kevin Mannis, his mother, student Iosif Neitzke, and medical historian Jason Haxton along with dramatic recreations typical of this kind of documentary programme. What emerges from this documentary is a demonstration of what medical folklorist David Hufford refers to as an experience-centred approach to belief: various and similar phenomena are experienced around this wine box. Mannis, who is Jewish, refers to it as a ‘dibbuk box’, a term he apparently coined to describe the box on EBay; that is Mannis names the phenomenon through his own cultural (Jewish) lens. The name sticks to the item and those who encounter the box likewise keep the name (whether they’re Jewish or not). Enter the film producers to use this story as a basis for their horror movie, but build on the ‘dibbuk’ aspect. And like Scholem argued with regards to Kabbalistic attempts to fashion a coherent demonology within a Jewish frame of reference, so too did Mannis attempt to describe the phenomena around this haunted wine cabinet.
I want to talk about one last film; a film which is highly controversial and, I think, the most Jewish of any of the films discussed so far – Eli Roth’s Hostel Part II. While Abrams’ otherwise excellent book focuses on the central character of Beth as a strong Jewish woman fighting against these murderous sickos – she is one if his “New Jews in Film” – he is less developed about “New Jew” filmmakers, like Roth. Both Hostel and its Roth directed sequel (there is a third Hostel film, but not directed by Roth), young Americans vacationing in Europe are abducted by a secret society who sell young people to the rich for torture and murder. The opening sequence of Hostel Part II – the first images we see in the film – are of the personal effects of the victims being sorted through. Valuables in their luggage are appropriated while clothes, photographs and other identifiable materials are burned in an incinerator. From a diegetic perspective, within the storyworld, this is simply the menial staff hired by this club to cover up their victims’ disappearance. But the echoes of the concentration camps are too obvious to ignore. Europe, specifically Eastern Europe, is a killing field, the locus of atrocities hitherto unknown in humanity’s history of atrocities. And the evidence of these crimes is being burned up – literally consumed by fire. Even the setting of an old abandoned factory has visual echoes of the Nazi death camps’ architecture.
Hostel Part II in particular develops the wealthy libertines who try for entry into this society in the guise of brothers Stuart and Todd; Stuart is meek and mild, while Todd want to make a man out of his nebbish brother through torture and murdering another person. Stuart embodies Hannah Ardent’s ‘banality of evil’ figure. Stuart becomes intoxicated with brutality, loving the freedom of being one of life’s victimizers, rather than a being a perennial victim. What Roth has produced in this film is to give a human (and banal) face to these Nazi-like monsters, instead of, for example, Landis’ Nazi-like demons in American Werewolf.
I think there is a further, and more profound, dimension to Roth’s films: both Hostel movies play on the fear of tourist safety. We assume, when we travel, that we are safe; although this might be a particularly North American assumption. In the Hostel films the protagonists are (fatally) betrayed by those who they have trusted. People who you thought were your friends are in reality selling you to others who want your slow and agonizing death. Of course, this is not the “reality” of world travel, but it does reflect a “cultural truth”, and “emotional truth”. A persistent suspicion and paranoia. Which, given the history of Eastern Europe, is kind of a Jewish head-space to be in.
I’d like to conclude with a series of interpretive question; that is, questions which, rather than definitively answer the problem, suggest further questions and (hopefully) facilitate discussion.
What is a Jewish horror movie?
• Are there “Jewish moments”; a sense of “Jewissance”?
• What are the impacts on the film by inclusions of ethnicity?
• Despite what the film says, is the cosmology shown in the film Jewish? Is it a Jewish universe? Or is this a Christian film in Jewish drag?
• Is the film based in Jewish folklore?
• What are the traditions woven into the film’s screenplay? Are those traditions Jewish?
• What is the impact of a “Jewish reading” of a horror film? What does reading a horror film through a particular cultural (i.e. Jewish) lens open for interpretation?
Each of those questions suggests further questions. And not everyone will derive the same answers. But by beginning to discuss, in this case, horror movies, from some kind of Jewish perspective(s), a greater understanding develops not only about fantasy cinema, but also ontological questions about what it means to be identified as a Jew.
Abrams, Nathan. 2012. The New Jew in Film: Exploring Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Cinema. London: I. B. Tauris
Boyarin, Daniel. 1997. Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Hetreosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Erens, Patricia. 1984. The Jew in American Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
Friedman, Lester. 1982. Hollywood’s Image of the Jew. New York: Ungar.
Friedman, Lester. 1984. The Edge of Knowledge: Jews as Monsters/Jews as Victims. MELUS 11.3: 49-62.
Haxton, Jason. 2012. The Dibbuk Box. Kirksville: Truman State University Press.
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