As part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, I was able to get an early look at Attachment, a queer dybbuk story written and directed by Gabriel Bier Gislason. I really enjoyed it and would highly recommend it to anybody interested in Jewish horror, but if you want a full analysis of what stuck with me about this film, click here to head over to In Review: Online for my full review.
For JHR’s (and Molly’s) first podcast appearance, we joined Denver Horror Collective’s Josh Schlossberg, the award-winning editor of The Jewish Book of Horror and writer (Malinae), on JOSH’S WORST NIGHTMARE, a podcast exploring the dark landscape of biological horror fiction. In this episode, we discuss all things cannibalism, from Hannibal Lecter to Cannibal Holocaust, and specifically where Jewish horror and cannibalism intersect.
To listen to the episode, click HERE or search “Josh’s Worst Nightmare” wherever you get your podcasts.
“Contrary to popular (mis)conception, great horror doesn’t often come from trying to evoke fear from viewers. The audience is a vague, nebulous concept, and trying to pin down their fears is like trying to capture smoke. It’s an effort that leads down the same lowest common denominator path as blockbuster horror cinema, full to the brim with the few things that can elicit a physical response from pretty much anyone — jump scares and loud noises. Technically speaking, it’s not an entirely ineffective strategy, but it’s not one that is likely to stay in viewers’ minds for long after the credits roll. What David Cronenberg understands is that horror’s greatest successes can be found in the specific, not the universal. Great horror finds a person or a group, extrapolates their worst fears, and confronts that character with those fears, and with the entire dissolution of everything they consider to be safe and right. Fear doesn’t often come from seeing characters afraid, but from seeing them angry, desperate, driven to madness by grief, at the mercy of their own circumstances. Cronenberg pulls this off with style in The Fly and Dead Ringers, but it’s in The Brood that we see this approach to horror at its most intimate. Cronenberg chooses for his study Frank Carveth (Art Hindle), a man facing similar agonies to the director himself circa 1979 — separated from his wife, negotiating the details of what a permanent separation might mean, and staring down the barrel of a potentially agonizing custody arrangement — and tunnelling directly to the heart of his insecurities.”
For our full review of David Cronenberg’s The Brood, head over to In Review: Online’s Kicking the Canon series. Click here!
Proud to announce the release of THE JEWISH BOOK OF HORROR from Denver Horror Collective, a truly fantastic anthology featuring twenty-two new, original stories of Jewish horror.
This is a project that I’ve been involved with for a while now, and I’m so grateful to the wonderful folks at DHC (in particular, editor Josh Schlossberg, one of the sweetest guys in horror) for letting me write an introduction to these fabulous stories, giving readers a brief primer on the basics of Jewish horror and discussing where this under-appreciated sub-genre might lead us.
If the book alone simply isn’t enough for you, a bunch of us got together via Zoom on the first night of Hanukkah this year to do a bit of community education, in the form of JEWISH HORROR 101.
The lovely folks at DHC were kind enough to immortalise the evening on YouTube, so if you’d like to hear myself and several other contributors to the book talking about dybbuks, Lilith, golems, and all other kinds of weird and wonderful inventions, check out the video below!
(psst – if you want to skip to my bit on Lilith, it starts at the timestamp 28:08)
‘February 1986. The playwright Tom Stoppard has organised a demonstration in support of the Jewish refuseniks trapped in Russia without human rights or means of leaving. The demonstration, taking place in front of London’s National Theatre, involves various actors, celebrities, and activists reading a roll call of the names of over 10,000 Jewish dissidents. One of these actors was Andy Nyman… as a student, his time slot to speak was dependent on the schedules of bigger names and subject to frequent change. So imagine his surprise when, during his turn at the podium, out of the 10,000 names, Nyman reads his own.
24 years later, in 2010, Nyman stars in Ghost Stories, a play co-written with Jeremy Dyson and the first successful horror play to grace the West End since The Woman in Black. The play, taking the form of a lecture by parapsychologist and sceptic Professor Philip Goodman (played by Nyman), contains three ghost stories collected by the professor – from a night watchman, a teenager, and a businessman on the verge of fatherhood.’
Jewish Horror Review are once again moonlighting at JewTh!nk, this time to write about Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s Ghost Stories. Check out the full article by pressing the button below!
Since its birth as a genre, horror films have been preoccupied with religion and why not? The ritual, dramatic iconography, and terrifying promises of punishment in fiery pits for sinners to be found in Christianity are the perfect fuel for horror.
However, if you’ve ever wondered where the non-Christian entries into the British horror canon can be found, you’ve come to the right place. This week, we headed over to JewTh!nk to explore six films that fall into the niche-within-a-niche of British-Jewish Horror.
Since the Holocaust, Gentile media has propagated a very specific idea of the prototypical Holocaust survivor – as the victim par excellence of the Western subconscious, Jewish survivors frequently get stereotyped as gentle and passive, fuelling the dangerous lie that Jews did little to resist their own genocide. In art this takes shape as overly sentimental dramatisations of Jewish trauma that focus more on Gentile saviours, and refuses to engage with trauma’s problematic tensions, eradicating conflict but with it any meaningful attempt at empathy and understanding. For every narrative like The Pawnbroker, there are a dozen more like The Tattooist of Auschwitz – maudlin tearjerkers designed more with their audiences in mind than their subjects. However, like any emerging cultural narrative, there were counterarguments aplenty if you knew where to look – one such place was Bari Wood’s largely forgotten 1981 novel The Tribe.
In The Tribe, a group of Jewish men imprisoned in the Belzec death camp mysteriously survive the Holocaust unharmed; several decades later, when the rabbi’s son is murdered in a random act of gang violence, the teenage gang involved are found brutally murdered, nothing left behind but clay. Two years later, when another random act of violence occurs, a similar consequence follows. Bari Wood, the horror-queen behind the novel that became David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, weaves a decade-spanning story of revenge as a means of emotional and physical survival, folding in perhaps the most iconic of all Jewish horror figures: the golem. Wood’s readers have to confront their own reaction to survivors who don’t conform to their ideals, who are embittered and hardened by suffering, and who enact revenge. Created from animated clay, the golem was originally a figure of protection, brought to life in order to protect the Jews of Prague – following the Holocaust, the tale evolved into one of revenge. After all, even an unstoppable Kabbalistic creation would have trouble tearing down the Nazi machinery of terror – where protection is impossible, vengeance can be a comforting second option.
Thankfully, Wood doesn’t moralise on the notion itself, instead opting to observe its consequences. Not only does this prevent the novel from straying into didactic territory, but it allows The Tribe to explore how revenge blurs the lines between victims and perpetrators, and its ineffectiveness in healing trauma. In a motif that subtly critiques the gender politics of Judaism, Wood associates the figure of the golem with physical dominance and a return to masculine, patrilineal power. The intense focus on the golem as a fierce, masculine combatant isn’t an uncommon reading of the post-Holocaust golem, with this figure popping up everywhere from Eli Roth’s character in Inglourious Basterds to the Golem of Marvel Comics (although these are not the only interpretations of the golem, with writers like Michael Chabon taking the tale in other directions). Wood allows her tribe of survivors the catharsis and escapism their golem provides, but never wavers in her throughline – the golem is ultimately ineffective, and with each new golem created, wounds are reopened, and every trauma simply becomes a repetition of the first.
Thanks to a recent re-release under Valancourt Books’ ‘Paperbacks From Hell’ imprint (a revival of forgotten paperback horror gems spearheaded by the inimitable Grady Hendrix), The Tribe is experiencing something of a renaissance. As a sophisticated tale of intergenerational trauma, Wood refuses comforting narratives of survivors whose suffering enlightens them in favour of the nuance these stories deserve, and pierces, with astonishing accuracy, to the core of what is both heartbreaking and horrifying about the modern golem tale – witnessing the suffering of those whom, no matter your personal strength, you cannot save, only avenge.
For more on Bari Wood’s The Tribe, read Grady Hendrix’s article ‘Survival At A Price: Welcome to Bari Wood’s The Tribe’ at Tor. For more on depictions of the golem through the ages, check out Maya Barzilai’s monograph ‘Golem: Modern Wars and Their Monsters’
“Since the birth of the horror genre, especially its occult and supernatural sub-genres, Christianity has had the market fairly cornered. Rife with ubiquitous symbolism and substantial lore to draw upon, horror writers have had plenty to keep them occupied, with the devil and exorcisms being only the tip of the iceberg. Even when writers don’t engage with the religion behind the imagery, allusions are typically enough, with theology twisted to fit whatever the horror demands. Unfortunately, these religious horror films often run screaming down the same well-traveled road: a white, middle-class family is set upon by a demon, who is subsequently vanquished by the unshakable power of white Christian faith. It’s a blueprint that The Exorcist established so well that few have bothered to alter it in any meaningful way. Into this stale subgenre comes writer-director Keith Thomas and his film The Vigil, a 90-minute chamber horror following Yakov, a young man who has abandoned his Orthodox Jewish community and lost his social safety net. Exiled and struggling with his new life, Yakov agrees to serve as a shomer, a spiritual role that involves staying with a deceased person’s body and reciting prayers the evening before their burial. While the job seems at first to be a godsend, the night quickly takes a dark turn, forcing him to confront the trauma that made him leave his community in the first place.”
In his much-hyped 2018 feature debut, Hereditary, Aster depicts the Graham family in the aftermath of the death of their maternal grandmother. The bleak atmosphere conjured between Annie (Toni Collette), a harried, neurotic artist trying to balance her work and her family, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), her stoic and somewhat ineffectual husband, and their strange children, Peter and Charlie (Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro), as they descend further into a bizarre occult plot is enough to make audiences squirm, but Aster never loses that vein of dark comedy that makes the film unique.
As the family are forced to confront the family’s sinister history of violent deaths and the possibility of Satanic influence, Hereditary could be dismissed as yet another occult movie (albeit one of the more critically-successful ones). However, the occult elements of the film are ambiguous, with the demon-king Paimon having roots in both Arabic religions and in the occult – Aster refuses to frame occult activity through any particular religion. His dodging of Christianity pervades the film, and in comparison to other occult-themed films that grab the low-hanging fruit of Christian-inspired demons or the vague invocation of the devil, Hereditary becomes something harder to pin down. In various interviews, Aster has been careful to emphasise the homage Hereditary plays towards melodrama and family dramas, but is also conscious of the territory he enters by toying with the occult. He has credited his Jewish upbringing with the approach he has taken to the occult, saying ‘I guess nothing is really sacrosanct for me… There was no reason for me to be reverent about it or reverential because I’m a Jew, so for me, it’s about, what can I do to enhance the story and give it the best legs to stand on?’ (Slate) and suggesting that ‘“It’s something that we can actually abuse a little bit and then it’s going to affect other people in a different way because they were raised with it.” (FT). This somewhat playful approach to occult theology incorporates not only the djini from pre-Islamic Arabic beliefs and demons from the work of noted Satanist Aleister Crowley, but also sees words such as ‘Satony’ (used in a Ritual of Necromancy), ‘Zasas’ (another Crowley-ism ), and ‘liftoach pandemonium’ (‘open pandemonium’ in Hebrew) scrawled on the walls of the family home. It all comes together to form a chaotic antagonist that allows the audience significant scope for interpretation. For audiences who are watching Hereditary for a terrifying two hours of occult fun, Aster’s use of Paimon might register merely as yet another movie featuring a minor demon to avoid cliche or as a straightforward case of JHR’s notion of Catholic drag, in which Christian imagery is used to covertly satirise the Jewish family. However, if we interpret Paimon as a djinn, which predates Christianity, Hereditary becomes a narrative of haunting, in which Abrahamic religion returns to a decidedly atheist/agnostic family, drowning out their conflicts and neuroses by reminding them that what they’ve inherited can never quite stay repressed.
The film’s incisive look at trauma, repression, and the role the family plays in exacerbating the two, especially with its streak of dark humour and irony, ends up resembling the psychoanalytic melodrama of Jewish writers like Philip Roth more than typical occult horror texts (note: I’m not the first to make this observation). For example, look at Portnoy’s Complaint, in which Roth whole-heartedly embraces the stereotypical Jewish family, with a neurotic, overbearing mother, a largely inadequate father, and the coddled son who is treated like a prince. Self-described ‘neurotic Jewish guy’ Aster mimics this family dynamic almost exactly, adding another generation of domineering, ambitious mothers, a daughter who is quickly shunted aside on account of her gender, and having the son actually be crowned a prince — of Hell. The family are not depicted as religiously-inclined in any way, with both funerals featured being quite secular affairs, and no reference is made to their cultural identity, but the sensibility of the family, with their concerns over inherited traumas, fraught parent-child relationships, and intergenerational neuroses, feel atypical. This is not a typical, white-picket-fence American family — even their home is implied to be sinister, a cavernous dollhouse where everyone’s free will must be called into question. The precarious atmosphere of the film echoes the experience of diasporic communities, with even the home becoming a loaded environment, both at risk from outside influences and from the repressed trauma always one scratch away from re-emerging.
Recent epigenetic research has suggested that traumas like the Holocaust can impact the health of descendants generations detached from the actual event, and for a movie concerned with what we inherit from our families and literally titled Hereditary, the connection isn’t an obscure one. Just like the ritual words and phrases adorning the walls of the Grahams’ home, the truth is there for anyone who wants to see it. The writing is, quite literally, on the wall. The film centres around a female line, with Annie, her mother, and her daughter being the main instigators and victims of traumatic events, and also the characters most obviously affected by their heritage. Just like Jewish identity, Hereditary is concerned with matrilineal bloodlines, and what is passed down, providing a bleak satire of the family’s inability to confront their inherited traumas, and a horrifying allegorical depiction of what that can entail.
With Christianity having a stranglehold over most of Europe for several centuries and large amounts of early modern visual art being devoted to religious scenes or figures, even the most agnostic and atheist among us are familiar with certain images: the crucifixion, the resurrection, the Virgin Mary, and the Eucharist to name a few. However, the ubiquity of these images has somewhat defanged them. When writing horror, cliched depictions of the devil and the like just don’t cut it anymore. What’s a lazy screenwriter to do?
In a fantastic lecture given for the Miskatonic Institute in March 2020, Dr Mikel Koven suggested the idea of horror movies adopting a kind of ‘Jewish drag’. The lecture (initially an article on Dr Koven’s blog) offers several examples of narratives that use Jewish theology, folklore, and culture to tell distinctly Gentile, if not overtly Christian narratives. These texts get the best of both worlds: using Jewish theology or folklore is refreshing, something audiences are probably less familiar with, but the narrative is still able to conform to Christian (aka Western-box-office-friendly) norms. Koven’s examples, including The Exorcist (1973), William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III: Legion (1990), and Carl Schultz’s The Seventh Sign (1988), all utilise Jewishness, whether through overtly Jewish characters, agnosticism framed through a Jewish perspective, the existence of dybbukim, or Jewish eschatology (the area of Jewish theology that discusses the role of Jews in the end of days, etc.). While Koven concedes that films such as Ole Bornedal’s The Possession subvert this somewhat by grounding themselves firmly in Jewish cosmology and granting no power to Christianity, this is quite clearly the exception to the rule. Judaism is rarely invoked in service of Jewish horror, instead bolstering Christian horror. The use of a non-conventional iconography in horror strengthens the norm instead of subverting or questioning it, and audiences are left with an amalgamated vision of Judeo-Christianity, and thus ‘Jewish drag’ comes to be, as a narrative mode in which the other Abrahamic religions are only valid if they become supporting players in Christian narratives.
With all this in mind, Dr Koven’s choice to invoke drag made me consider the reverse. If Gentile writers can have ‘Jewish drag’, can Jewish writers don ‘Catholic drag’? In Judith Butler’s seminal monograph Gender Trouble, the author outlines three key elements of constructing gender anatomical sex, gender identity, and gender performance, in no particular order. None is more ‘real’ or instrumental in constructing gender than any of the others, and the three endlessly contradict and destabilise one another. The effect of drag and other means of impersonation is that attention is drawn to the inherent contradictions at play, highlighting how identities have no ontological status outside of the acts that constitute its reality. Drag can reveal artifice and revels in it, be this in terms of gender or, in my case, religion, mocking both the imitator (through parody) and the very idea of an ‘original’ (through pastiche). On top of this, drag has never been limited only to gender. The 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning emphasises the subversive elements of drag within multiple cross-sections of society, particularly within race and class. Ideas of opulence and adopting the aesthetics of the upper class from the New York City drag subculture have provided venues to interrogate power relations between the imitator and the imitated. Drag can be seen as a subversive act with the potential to envision radical new ideas about gender, and if we apply theories of drag to religion, I believe they can facilitate discussion of the dialectical tensions between Christianity and Judaism.
I’ll be the first to admit that this is a niche within a niche, and there are certainly discussions to be had about whether this is an empowering, satirical mode, or merely another example of Jewishness and Judaism being side-lined in the horror genre, even by Jewish writers and directors. However, three of the most famous occult horror movies of all time, The Exorcist, The Omen, and Rosemary’s Baby, were directed by Jewish creators. Alongside modern contributions such as Hereditary and the filmography of Michael Haneke, there is some evidence of a pattern here. But what purpose can we ascribe to this pattern? I believe that Catholic drag has three key functions:
Catholic drag allows for covert satire even in films that would normally flinch away from criticising Christiannity, and with an abundance of self-serious, melodramatic rituals and fire-and-brimstone preaching rhetoric, the Catholic church is ripe for parody and mocking. Plus, the far darker elements of the Catholic church, such as historic sex abuse scandals, and the individual bigotry found in many sects of Christianity, such as the Westboro Baptist Church, provide ample targets for satirists (non-Jewish horror films such as Kevin Smith’s Red State (2011) provide incisive critique of the latter).
- De-centring Christianity
In much the same way as I am trying to do with this research, here Catholic drag is used as a Trojan horse of sorts, facilitating explorations of other religious and cultural groups in the horror genre. For example, one of the films Dr Koven cites, The Exorcist III: Legion, uses Catholic iconography and submits to a Catholic cosmology, but explores the roles of Judaism and agnosticism within such narratives. This subversion or expansion of Christian narratives to include other perspectives aids in both deconstructing Christianity and in providing space for alternative religious narratives.
- Interrogating Christian fears
Ultimately, Catholic drag serves to denaturalise the hegemonic Christianity that we see in horror by way of poking fun at it, using it as a device to discuss the roles of other religious and cultural groups in the horror genre (for example, one might find a valuable space to explore queer themes through Catholic drag), or interrogating what objects or sources of fear are dominant in a Christian worldview, who Christians are afraid of, and why they are so afraid in the first place. Catholic drag is a narrative device that enables Christianity and Judaism to be in conversation with each other in the horror genre, in ways that destabilise the hegemony of the former and explore the potential of the latter.