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.