“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.”
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.
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.
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