‘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 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.
“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.
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’.
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.
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 TheFearless 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.
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’.
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.
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’.