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 The Fearless 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’.