“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 his much-hyped 2018 feature debut, Hereditary, Aster depicts the Graham family in the aftermath of the death of their maternal grandmother. The bleak atmosphere conjured between Annie (Toni Collette), a harried, neurotic artist trying to balance her work and her family, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), her stoic and somewhat ineffectual husband, and their strange children, Peter and Charlie (Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro), as they descend further into a bizarre occult plot is enough to make audiences squirm, but Aster never loses that vein of dark comedy that makes the film unique.
As the family are forced to confront the family’s sinister history of violent deaths and the possibility of Satanic influence, Hereditary could be dismissed as yet another occult movie (albeit one of the more critically-successful ones). However, the occult elements of the film are ambiguous, with the demon-king Paimon having roots in both Arabic religions and in the occult – Aster refuses to frame occult activity through any particular religion. His dodging of Christianity pervades the film, and in comparison to other occult-themed films that grab the low-hanging fruit of Christian-inspired demons or the vague invocation of the devil, Hereditary becomes something harder to pin down. In various interviews, Aster has been careful to emphasise the homage Hereditary plays towards melodrama and family dramas, but is also conscious of the territory he enters by toying with the occult. He has credited his Jewish upbringing with the approach he has taken to the occult, saying ‘I guess nothing is really sacrosanct for me… There was no reason for me to be reverent about it or reverential because I’m a Jew, so for me, it’s about, what can I do to enhance the story and give it the best legs to stand on?’ (Slate) and suggesting that ‘“It’s something that we can actually abuse a little bit and then it’s going to affect other people in a different way because they were raised with it.” (FT). This somewhat playful approach to occult theology incorporates not only the djini from pre-Islamic Arabic beliefs and demons from the work of noted Satanist Aleister Crowley, but also sees words such as ‘Satony’ (used in a Ritual of Necromancy), ‘Zasas’ (another Crowley-ism ), and ‘liftoach pandemonium’ (‘open pandemonium’ in Hebrew) scrawled on the walls of the family home. It all comes together to form a chaotic antagonist that allows the audience significant scope for interpretation. For audiences who are watching Hereditary for a terrifying two hours of occult fun, Aster’s use of Paimon might register merely as yet another movie featuring a minor demon to avoid cliche or as a straightforward case of JHR’s notion of Catholic drag, in which Christian imagery is used to covertly satirise the Jewish family. However, if we interpret Paimon as a djinn, which predates Christianity, Hereditary becomes a narrative of haunting, in which Abrahamic religion returns to a decidedly atheist/agnostic family, drowning out their conflicts and neuroses by reminding them that what they’ve inherited can never quite stay repressed.
The film’s incisive look at trauma, repression, and the role the family plays in exacerbating the two, especially with its streak of dark humour and irony, ends up resembling the psychoanalytic melodrama of Jewish writers like Philip Roth more than typical occult horror texts (note: I’m not the first to make this observation). For example, look at Portnoy’s Complaint, in which Roth whole-heartedly embraces the stereotypical Jewish family, with a neurotic, overbearing mother, a largely inadequate father, and the coddled son who is treated like a prince. Self-described ‘neurotic Jewish guy’ Aster mimics this family dynamic almost exactly, adding another generation of domineering, ambitious mothers, a daughter who is quickly shunted aside on account of her gender, and having the son actually be crowned a prince — of Hell. The family are not depicted as religiously-inclined in any way, with both funerals featured being quite secular affairs, and no reference is made to their cultural identity, but the sensibility of the family, with their concerns over inherited traumas, fraught parent-child relationships, and intergenerational neuroses, feel atypical. This is not a typical, white-picket-fence American family — even their home is implied to be sinister, a cavernous dollhouse where everyone’s free will must be called into question. The precarious atmosphere of the film echoes the experience of diasporic communities, with even the home becoming a loaded environment, both at risk from outside influences and from the repressed trauma always one scratch away from re-emerging.
Recent epigenetic research has suggested that traumas like the Holocaust can impact the health of descendants generations detached from the actual event, and for a movie concerned with what we inherit from our families and literally titled Hereditary, the connection isn’t an obscure one. Just like the ritual words and phrases adorning the walls of the Grahams’ home, the truth is there for anyone who wants to see it. The writing is, quite literally, on the wall. The film centres around a female line, with Annie, her mother, and her daughter being the main instigators and victims of traumatic events, and also the characters most obviously affected by their heritage. Just like Jewish identity, Hereditary is concerned with matrilineal bloodlines, and what is passed down, providing a bleak satire of the family’s inability to confront their inherited traumas, and a horrifying allegorical depiction of what that can entail.