Jewish Horror Theory

Kafka and the An-iconic Voice

In a note to his publisher when releasing ‘The Metamorphosis’, Franz Kafka was careful to specify that the cover-art for the story should not depict any specific insect. In the text, Kafka remains vague with regards to describing the insect Gregor becomes, his descriptions limited mostly to ‘his hard, as it were armor-plated, back’, a ‘domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments’, and ‘numerous legs’. While readers may assume Gregor’s appearance, the author refuses to grant the spectacle of confirming these assumptions, rejecting the iconography and symbols that we see so often in gentile and Christian horror. Kafka’s narrative voice therefore rejects the Christian mode of visualising narrative in favour of a Jewish mode, focusing more on description than direct representation.

The an-iconic (as in, rejection of icons) is a specifically Jewish tradition, as it corresponds both with Talmudic opposition to false idols and the social need to obscure Jewish themes and narratives within more mainstream works due to anti-Semitism. Henry Bial argues that Jewish-American artists do not have the privilege of transparency in their works due to their status as a marginalised community, and we can easily apply this to Jewish horror. Bial and Omar Bartov both point to a growing trend in the late 20th century of Jewish identity being normalised on screen through characters and scenarios that feature few overt references to Judaism, but give viewers a vague sense of ‘Jewishness’ (e.g. Seinfeld). Before such depictions were commonplace and in a far more aggressively anti-Semitic environment, the more subtle indicators of Jewishness, such as the an-iconic voice aid in smuggling Jewish undertones into the text and interrogating anti-Semitism in early 1900s Europe. By maintaining this an-iconic voice, Kafka again encourages the reader to sympathise with his unwilling monster: we are unable to discriminate against him in the same way as those who can ‘see’ him within the narrative, and therefore a counter-narrative is offered to his dehumanisation. In addition to this, Kafka is able to circumvent the need for specifically Jewish iconography, and instead establishes Jewish subtext via his use of an an-iconic narrative voice. 

What is perhaps less clear, however, is why Kafka does this and what we can infer about Jewish horror from the use of the an-iconic voice. Consider the Catholic iconography of martyrdom: Catholic art of figures such as St Sebastian, the patron saint of holy deaths, focuses on the beauty in suffering, the sacred experience of martyrs whose pain brings them closer to God. Little to no thought is afforded to the realities of such suffering – repulsive bodily fluids, tremendous amounts of pain, and the varied guts and gore one might typically associate with the horror genre. While there are films such as Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2009) which explore the physical, political, and emotional complexities of suffering, these are few and far between, and are widely considered too distressing to be within mainstream horror fare. Death and its associated spectacle in mainstream art is rarely explored in terms of the visceral realities: what Julia Kristeva would consider the abject elements of death (the aforementioned bodily fluids, guts, and gore), are rather oddly disregarded in much mainstream modern horror, with deaths made so rote that they are often robbed of their true terror. These operatic, aestheticized, and often even eroticised depictions certainly bear more resemblance to Catholic art, with suffering being elevated to the level of the sacred, and the realities of such suffering being side-lined. Therefore, one might infer the reverse from Kafka’s an-iconic voice. He refuses to provide readers with an explanation for Gregor’s transformation, keeping the magical, mystical, and possibly religious elements of it completely irrelevant to the narrative. Instead, the reader is made to pay attention to the squalor in which Gregor lives (‘he left traces behind him of the sticky stuff on his soles’, ‘his warm room…turned into a naked den’) and to face the abject elements of his slow decay and death. In ‘The Metamorphosis’, Gregor’s suffering is not noble, nor poetic, nor aestheticized; it is simply suffering, and is thus attended with everything that suffering entails.

For more on ‘The Metamorphosis’, check out A Swarm of Flies: Kafka vs Cronenberg, our piece on the king of horror’s iconic film adaptation of the story,.

Or if you want to learn more about Franz Kafka’s unique contributions to the horror genre, read our article on two of his other short stories, ‘A Country Doctor’ and ‘In The Penal Colony’

Case Studies

A Swarm of Flies: Kafka vs Cronenberg

In constructing a working definition of Jewish horror, one of my main analytic ports of call was comparing Jewish horror works with their counterparts across the horror spectrum. The most obvious route into decoding Jewish horror is to define what the sub-genre is not, and (to pretentiously quote Shakespeare), by indirection find direction out. Clear examples of ‘Christian horror’ texts, which focus on the occult or have implicitly Christian themes, are useful in comparing ideology and depictions of religion, but in my research, this also created a new problem: to position ‘Christian horror’ in opposition to ‘Jewish horror’ made monoliths out of the two, ones that I, of all people, am not entitled to make. In trying to avoid adopting hegemonic ideas of ‘Christianity’ and ‘Judaism’, I decided to drill a little deeper into one of my personal favourite examples of Jewish horror: The Metamorphosis. 

Not all Jewish writers and filmmakers are religiously devout, or may identify as Jewish while actually being atheist or agnostic in belief. These are crucially important distinctions in the study of Judaism as a religion versus ‘Jewishness’ as a cultural concept and identity, and by looking further into these distinctions, we can really get to the nuances at the heart of Jewish horror. Across its different iterations, The Metamorphosis always has some core tenets: through what is mostly unfortunate coincidence, a man is transformed into a gigantic insect against his will, radically altering his relationship with his own body and with his loved ones. The original author of the tale, Franz Kafka, was a pioneer of Jewish horror with stories such as ‘A Country Doctor’ and ‘In The Penal Colony’ laying the foundations for future generations of genre writers (read more on Kafka’s influence *here*). David Cronenberg, on the other hand, who loosely adapted the short story into his 1986 film ‘The Fly’, has admitted publicly that he does not identify with his Judaism. This example gives us a valuable example of the same story told in two different ways, the first of which is deeply aware of the prevalent anti-Semitism abundant in pre-Holocaust Europe, and one that by Cronenberg’s own admission is not attempting to engage with the idea of the Jew as ‘other’.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between the two stories is in their protagonists. In ‘The Fly’, the main character is Veronica (Geena Davis), the journalist girlfriend of Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), who is condemned to watch helplessly as her lover transforms into an insect. Kafka, on the other hand, chooses his victim of transformation, Gregor Samsa, as a protagonist. It would be easy to put this creative choice down to a difference in mediums (as critic Iris Bruce does): Gregor’s interior narrative works well in prose, but would be difficult to elegantly translate to the screen, whereas Veronica provides a good audience stand-in and source of conflict, ensuring that the film isn’t just Jeff Goldblum suffering alone in his apartment for 90 minutes. But beyond just being a creative choice inherent to adaptation, the addition of Veronica adds a voyeuristic boundary between the audience and the horror of Seth’s transformation. We see his suffering through her eyes, asked to relate to her grief in losing a lover, rather than to relate to Seth’s alienation from his own body. This isn’t the only time we see this dynamic in ‘The Fly’: the only time we see Seth’s suffering through his own perspective, it is through a video-diary, establishing another barrier between the audience and the horror we are witnessing.

Seth exerts his own agency, choosing specifically how a hypothetical audience will perceive him, and that includes us. The works of David Cronenberg are often noted for their somewhat clinical detachment, their willingness to stand back and observe horror, but in the context of Jewish horror this voyeurism adopts another meaning. One of my key hypotheses when it comes to defining Jewish horror is that in this sub-genre, the source of horror is often in suffering itself, rather than in the observation and spectacle of suffering. Cronenberg complicates this, perhaps because of his disinterest in engaging with ideas of ‘otherness’.

‘You talk about Kafka. You say of course he was the other because he was German-speaking. He was Czechoslovakian and he was a Jew, so he was the other twice removed. So on and so on. I don’t feel that about myself per se. I don’t think that’s what I’m expressing, at least not on a level I feel very strongly. Consciously anyway. I think the other is a seductive possibility. A dangerous one perhaps and a scary one, but something you could become. You’ve seen the example of someone else being that. That means it’s a possibility for you’

David Cronenberg

Kafka, on the other hand, dives head-first into detailing Gregor’s specific experiences of metamorphosis. His perspective is limited to the confines of his own body, his immediate surroundings, and what little he can hear of his family – it’s nothing short of visceral, and perhaps one of the reasons this tale has stood the test of time. Readers are forced into Gregor’s perspective, and just as Veronica’s perspective shapes the narrative into a tragedy of love, loss, and hubris, Gregor’s interiority and Kafka’s descriptions of abuse and physical pain make The Metamorphosis a gutting depiction of being othered.

The Metamorphosis and The Fly interact with the idea of horror in entirely different ways. For Cronenberg, horror is a spectacle, the unfortunate result of grand ideas gone wrong, while Kafka’s horror is random, a brutal stroke of bad luck that transforms the lives of all those who come fall in its path. Seth Brundle is punished for his hubris; Gregor Samsa isn’t punished for anything other than having poor luck. If we follow Robin Wood’s definition of horror as ‘Normality [being] threatened by the monster’, Cronenberg and Kafka fundamentally reconfigure the roles their respective monsters and their normalities play. The normality in the world of The Fly is forever changed by his transformation (with Veronica still carrying his unborn child, posing an evolutionary threat to humanity, and Stathis horrifically maimed by their encounter), while Gregor’s status quo is somewhat regained after his disappearance. Jewish horror allows no meaningful significance to Gregor’s suffering, which is treated as merely a drop in the ocean, largely forgotten once it is no longer an inconvenience. While he is sympathetic as a monstrous figure, Kafka emphasises his lack of agency; Gregor is not even afforded the hostility that Brundle eventually acts out, and as one of a small number of Jewish monsters, Gregor is defined not by hostility but by his passive refusal to be engaged with as a monster. Jewish horror does not just reconfigure audiences’ ideas of normality and the monster, but also forces them to confront which one is actually attacking the other.

For more on this subject, read Iris Bruce’s chapter ‘The Medium is the Message: Cronenberg ‘Outkafkas’ Kafka’, available in Mediamorphosis: Kafka and the Moving Image, edited by Shai Biderman and Ido Lewit

Case Studies

Demon (dir. Marcin Wrona, 2015)

It’s impossible to discuss Marcin Wrona’s Demon without some melancholy: it was Wrona’s only feature film before his suicide while promoting it, and in his death the film achieved something of a notoriety. The film depicts a man barrelling right to the edge of his own sanity and has such an air of tragedy that is only compounded by the tragedy of its director’s early death.

A week before the UK’s lockdown started, the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies hosted Dr Mikel Koven, giving a talk on ‘Golems, dybbuks, & other movie monsters: the search for a Jewish horror film’. At the time I was just starting my research into Jewish horror and had either seen or knew in passing most of the titles Dr Koven referred to. All the staples were there – Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, Yiddish-language classic The Dybbuk, and some more subtly Jewish fare, including John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London and Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers. Yet there was only one film that caused a hush to fall over the audience. Demon.

Demon follows a young man called Piotr as he returns home to Poland to marry Zaneta, his friend’s sister, a woman he has so far only communicated with online. As a blessing to their union and a gesture of goodwill to Piotr who has been an expatriate for many years, Zaneta’s affluent father gifts Piotr land, which Piotr then begins renovating ahead of the wedding. In his renovations, Piotr discovers (and reburies) the skeleton of a young woman. As the wedding reception progresses, Piotr begins behaving erratically and sees a ghostly woman among the crowd of drunken guests. 

The dybbuk is a uniquely Jewish phenomenon, falling somewhere between a ghost that haunts the living and a demon who possesses them. Dybbukim are one of three iterations of soul transmigration, unable to enter the Garden of Eden due to either the sins they committed while alive or ‘unfinished business’. Ghost stories are often concerned with the return of the repressed, and traumas that refuse to be confined by temporal or spatial rules, the dybbuk is far more specific. The horror of the dybbuk is that it brings justice. The dybbuk forces all its witnesses to acknowledge the crimes committed against them, and therefore to admit their own complicity and profiteering from those atrocities.

Instead of pitting straightforward, simple forces of good against vaguely malicious forces of evil, the dybbuk has a clear motivation for its possession and is often justified in their rage. The dilemma audiences face is whether they would rather re-bury the skeleton or give it its due.

Stories like this use horror to defy simplistic, black-and-white ideas of justice, with the dybbuk walking a thin line between being a figure of restitution and a figure of retribution. In Demon, Hana, the dybbuk, is somewhat malevolent, but is just as often lost, afraid, and confused. As much as the other characters deny it, Hana is right, and her cause is only to reclaim what was taken from her. The dybbuk comes to function as a far more interesting foil to Christian demon narratives. Instead of pitting straightforward, simple forces of good against vaguely malicious forces of evil, the dybbuk has a clear motivation for its possession and is often justified in their rage. The dilemma audiences face is whether they would rather re-bury the skeleton or give it its due. It’s not an easy thing to condone – in Demon, the possession is a violent one. Piotr loses all autonomy over his body, Zaneta wails at the loss of her husband, and it doesn’t feel at all like justice. There is no triumph to be found here, only tragedy and suffering on all sides.

Perhaps Demon’s most interesting and important contribution to Jewish horror is in exploring the radical potential of the dybbuk. In a world eager to downplay the real, harrowing impact of anti-Semitism, the dybbuk forces us to confront our complicity in it and what our denial means. Dybbukim and other ghosts have no statute of limitations, and historical crimes can be acknowledged with frightening new relevance. By the end of the film [SPOILERS INCOMING], Hana has taken over Piotr’s body and they have fled. With no body to bury, there can be no hiding of the past, no respectable explanation of what has happened. With no body to bury, all that the characters are left with is a nonsensical defence that Zaneta’s father dictates carefully to guests: ‘We must forget what we didn’t see here’.

For more on Marcin Wrona’s Demon, I would highly recommend Rebecca Booth’s ‘Between Two Worlds: Regression, Restitution And Soul Transmigration in The Dybbuk (1937) and Demon (2015)’, which can be found in House of Leaves’ 2020 anthology ‘Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion and Worship in the Horror Film’.

Case Studies The Canon

An American Werewolf in London (dir. John Landis, 1981)

Calling An American Werewolf in London a hidden gem might seem like a reach – it’s easily one of the most popular horror-comedies of all time, and one of a shamefully small selection of top-quality mainstream werewolf stories to grace the silver screen. Its special effects at the masterful hands of Rick Baker are the stuff of horror legend, influencing Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video two years later, and a countless score of horror directors for years to come. And yet, even with the 21st-century’s long overdue re-appraisal of marginalised identities in film, American Werewolf seems oddly neglected. Under Landis’ darkly comedic direction, the film has become a werewolf in sheep’s clothing. Far from being just a run-of-the-mill horror-comedy, American Werewolf brings us the first (and perhaps only) Jewish werewolf.

As a staple of the horror genre, the werewolf is not exactly a typical representative of the Jewish community. Before the turn to werewolves as a metaphor for adolescence, it wasn’t uncommon in American cinema to liken Nazis and other assorted fascists to werewolves, with stories such as The Wolf Man (1941), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), and The Werewolf (1956) all making use of lycanthropy as a blood-red flag. Underneath a civil facade, a predator could await – just like fascists. In the cinema of the 1940s, the werewolf became one of horror’s most potent symbols of the repressed, the hidden, the Other inside…

In an unforgettable and, in some ways, painfully bittersweet opening sequence, we bear witness to the trauma that will haunt our Jewish werewolf: on a backpacking trip across Europe, David’s companion Jack is slaughtered by a werewolf, which is itself then killed. David narrowly survives. Unlike some horror movies, in which the instantly forgotten opening kill is merely a set-piece to hook an audience of restless teenagers, Jack’s grisly death haunts the narrative in a truly meaningful way. While Landis manages to do this without sacrificing the film’s sense of humour (particularly in the iconic cinema scene in which Jack and David’s recent victims recommend methods of suicide), Jack’s death triggers a survivor’s guilt in David that permeates the narrative. While David fears the werewolf he becomes, it is this haunting that gives voice to those fears, providing a psychological counterpart to Baker’s stunning visual effects, telling David (often quite cheerily) that he is in fact the very predator he is afraid of.

In his wonderfully insightful essay, ‘A Terrifyingly Fragile Border: Jewish Assimilation in An American Werewolf in London’, Daniel Anderson writes, ’Upon his attack by the werewolf, [David] remembers that though he has been assimilated into the larger American identity, he is still Jewish’. Anderson points out numerous places where Landis nudges David’s Jewishness into the spotlight – from David’s bright, blood-red jacket, the insistence of the woman barkeep that there is no food, and even the name of the pub (The Slaughtered Lamb) coalesce into an extended Passover metaphor in which David and Jack are the sacrificial lambs. It’s important to note that the film’s Jewish themes and imagery aren’t exactly hidden. Not every reference to Jewishness and Judaism is as subtle as the opening ‘Passover’ scenes.

Landis shows us in great, gory detail, that normalisation can come at a sometimes deadly price: assimilation. The process of assimilation in American Werewolf is a bloody one.

Rather, every other time Jewishness is referenced, it’s almost entirely sub-textual or obscured: a menorah hidden in the background, Nazi werewolves in a dream sequence, a throwaway reference to circumcision. American Werewolf is one of a growing trend of films in the 1970s and 80s which sought to de-exoticize Jewish identity by depicting Jewish protagonists as everyman characters, assimilating them into generic white/Christian/North American backgrounds, and thus the audience relies almost entirely on the sensibility of the film to inform its Jewishness. And, as Landis shows us in great, gory detail, that normalisation can come at a sometimes deadly price: assimilation. The process of assimilation in American Werewolf is a bloody one. In his subconscious, David is made to watch his family’s throats be slit by werewolves in Nazi uniforms, suggesting perhaps that he is the very predator destroying his own culture. The film’s title insists that the outsider element is that David is an American in London, but the subtext of the film suggests otherwise, implying that the real trauma is of being an assimilated Jew in Europe and suffering from the repressed cultural memories of anti-Semitic violence.

For more on John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, read Joshua Rothkopf’s ‘How ‘American Werewolf in London’ Transformed Horror-Comedy’ and Daniel Anderson’s essay ‘A Terrifyingly Fragile Border: Jewish Assimilation in An American Werewolf in London’, available in the collection ‘Monsters of Film, Fiction, and Fable: The Cultural Links between the Human and Inhuman’.