“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!
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.
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.