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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