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Do We Not Bleed?: The Strange Absence of Judaic Horror

golem

Der Golem (1915)

Horror, in its most honest form, is a distillation of cultural and historical trauma, a generation’s culmination of disaster, inhumanity, and marginalization. Dracula reflected the Western xenophobic anxieties of an increasingly modernized society. Cthulhu reminds us of our cosmic helplessness. Hiroshima and Nagasaki awakened Godzilla, while the Cloverfield beast hid inside the debris clouds of September 11th. It would stand to reason that one of the most persecuted ethno-religious groups in history would eventually explore its past through horror, but we see almost no representation of authentic Jewish culture in the entirety of the genre. As Shylock asks in The Merchant of Venice, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

It’s not as though horror motifs are uncommon in the Torah. As a child in Hebrew school, I was introduced to desolating Egyptian plagues, deep-water leviathans, chariots of flame, and the original cosmic terror manifested in a rather ornery, wrathful G-d. Modern Judaism doesn’t concern itself too much with a Hell or Satan, and really, why should we? Our grandparents looked into the faces of the Devil in the architects of the Holocaust, our ancestors saw them in the European pogroms. There was Babylon, and there was Egypt. The only synagogue in Jackson, Mississippi, the one in which I was bar mitzvah’ed, has been firebombed, picketed, and vandalized. We don’t need religious evil, it’s next door.

And yet, we are clearly not the only group to endure cultural tragedy. Almost every population experiences its own disasters, and, once the panic has abetted, internalizes the calamity. Adjustment creeps its way into popular culture. Catastrophes become punchlines for boundary-pushing humor, are analyzed in music, and in many cases, are explored cinematically through the horror genre.

Two of the aforementioned films, Godzilla (1954) and Cloverfield (2008), were each released less than a decade following their respective catalysts. Both initially received mixed reviews, and critics accused the filmmakers of exploiting national tragedy, but that didn’t stop them from climbing their countries’ box offices. The Japanese kaiju has gone on to star in thirty movies, and the original film is considered a Japanese cinema classic. Cloverfield has not produced any sequels as of yet, but it arguably kick-started the rebirth of American monster cinema with the subsequent releases of Monsters (2010), Pacific Rim (2013), and even the U.S. Godzilla (2014) reboot.

Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu (1922)

Despite this, there have been few instances of films derived from Judaic horror. Outside of the silent German expressionist movie, Der Golem (1915), filmmakers have not portrayed Jews very flatteringly, and it’s frustrating to see as a fan of the genre. And while Henrik Galeen, one of the co-directors of Der Golem, went on to pen the legendary Nosferatu (1922), its vampiric antagonist, Count Orlock, bears an all-too-familiar resemblance to medieval anti-Semitic caricatures, and even foreshadows the hate propaganda of Nazi Germany. Galeen may have been raised by Jewish parents, but it’s fairly certain Orlock’s makeup artist was not.

For decades afterwards, Jews were relegated to the fringes of the genre. A film like Frankenstein (1931) echoes the golem of film and folktale, but aside from that, it is hardly Judaic. The state-sponsored Nazi film Der Ewige Jude (1940), or The Eternal Jew, may not technically be classified a horror film, but it was assuredly intended to frighten German audiences into fearing Jews, painting us as heartless, conniving, sadistic parasites. There are even theories that Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) is a Holocaust allegory, but those arguments remain subject to criticism and counter-theory.

It makes sense that Western religious horror throughout the twentieth century is largely a New Testament affair. The majority of American audiences are Christian, after all, and economics dictate that films like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973) get made before those with a Judaic influence. This is not meant to disparage the subgenre—just about every religious horror classic follows Christian theology. But many times the suspension of disbelief requires the suspension of belief, as well. Judaic horror does not occur in the worlds of Rosemary Woodhouse and Regan Macneil because Jewish theology is flawed—the true scares are reserved for true believers. As a Jew, it slowly becomes problematic film after film.

The Possession (2012)

The Possession (2012)

There is one major release exception to this whole argument, and although it took almost a century to finally arrive, it falls far short of a thoughtful, frightening Judaic horror film. The Possession (2012) follows a family as they are terrorized by a dybbuk, the mystical Jewish equivalent of a minor demon or djinn, and only with the help of a Hasidic rabbi’s son can the spirit be exorcised. Theoretically, this seems as good a Judaic horror premise as any, but its execution actually does a disservice to the potential subgenre.

The Possession treats Judaism as a foreign, lost-in-time faith and culture. The hero, played a religiously-neutral Jeffrey Dean Morgan, is not familiar with anything Jewish. The only Yids in the film are the keepers of mystical and spiritual knowledge from a bygone era, essentially irrelevant and obsolete unless called upon to dispel obscure spiritual forces. The film makes cute asides towards Jewish culture in order to ratchet up its legitimacy—the family must remove their shoes upon entering their new home, much like Moses entering G-d’s sacred ground in Exodus, and the rabbi’s son is played by former-Hasid and reggae star Matisyahu—but there is no weight or sincerity to its Judaism. The culture is not the vehicle for the horror, it is only a set piece, a backdrop.

Shylock demands a pound of flesh as payment in The Merchant of Venice not just for debts owed to him, but debts owed to the Jewish people. He was on to something. It’s far past due to address and to explore our collective fears through Judaic horror; to analyze not just the societies that have wronged us, but ourselves, our fears, our shortcomings, through the medium. “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Yes, in fact, we do. And it’s time to do so for the genre.

It’ll be okay. We’ve survived worse.

About Andrew Paul

Andrew Paul's work is recently featured online or is forthcoming in Oxford American, Trop, Jewcy, Lent Magazine, and The Bitter Southerner. His collection of short fiction, The River Thief, is a recipient of the 2012 Portz National Honors Award. He lives in Mississippi. Follow him on Twitter @anandypaul.

3 comments

  1. Thank you for addressing this interesting and neglected topic. On my blog where I explore the cultural and religious aspects of genre, I have touched on Judaism a few times, including a mention of “The Possession.”

    http://www.theofantastique.com/2012/08/22/the-possession-presents-jewish-perspective-on-possession-and-exorcism/

    Perhaps you heard that recently the Toronto Jewish Film Festival had a segment on horror:

    http://www.theofantastique.com/2014/05/01/toronto-jewish-film-festival-and-jewish-horror/

    Thanks again for this.

  2. I think if you really pay attention, Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws is about as Jewish a horror film as could be imagined. For the most part, American horror is preoccupied with Christianity (especially Catholicism), Voodoo and the religions of the African diaspora, spiritualism and the New Age religions, and indigenous religions. Each of these have their roots in the Gothic horror literature of America and England, where at most Judaism is represented in terms of the Wandering Jew as a threshold figure of ill omen. Perhaps the treatment of American Gothic horror from an immigrant’s perspective could open the way to more Jewish representation.

    In horror, the tendency is often to bring in religious practitioners as a counter-balance to the force of supernatural evil, a Van Helsing to a Dracula. The Golem as a film that seems to have premonitions of the Holocaust is ambivalent toward Jews. For all the stereotypes, certainly they are more sympathetic than the smug hubristic Christians who casually institute a pogrom. And Rabbi Leow demonstrates a pragmatic wisdom on behalf of his community in summoning the demon Astaroth to gain access to the word of life that will animate the Golem, knowing that God has no intention of protecting them of his own accord. Alas, neither Golem nor God intervened in the event, and thereafter it is difficult to sell to an audience that Jewish religion will afford supernatural protection to the characters in a horror film. Especially since the practitioners of those religions more prevalent in American horror have increasingly been getting their tails kicked, and even turning up dead.

    As a Holocaust survivor, Roman Polanski’s strategy in Rosemary’s Baby and The Fearless Vampire Killers is to confront Christian audiences with a world in which God is dead and evil triumphs over good. Underlying such a metaphysical pessimism is a secular Jewish outlook, as Nathan Abrams’ article in Haaretz emphasizes http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-world-features/.premium-1.542215 . Stanley Kubrick was also a secular Jew, and Hiroshima and the Holocaust as historic landmarks that signal the potential for humanity to destroy itself was never far from mind on any project. The arguments for symbolism from the genocides of indigenous people and Jews in The Shining are compelling, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what had been happening in horror since Psycho in 1960.

    Alfred Hitchcock had already worked on a Holocaust documentary in Memory of the Camps, and if audiences couldn’t believe that Marion Crane too could be murdered in the shower 30 minutes into the film, this was in part because they had forgotten lessons of the Holocaust. In the recent Hitchcock, there’s an apt piece of dialogue where Hitchcock turns down the opportunity to direct The Diary of Anne Frank because he would turn it into a murder mystery about a body in the attic, which is itself what Psycho ultimately turns out to be. The scenario of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre seems to envision in microcosm the prospect of another American Holocaust (after those already visited on black and indigenous peoples) with the collapse of the American Dream. Films like Saw, Hostel, and Martyrs draw upon the memory of the Holocaust and the death camps in the decades to follow amidst issues of the 2000’s like overt governmental torture, human trafficking, and the resurgence of neo-fascism. It would seem that where the Holocaust is often conceived in horror, how to represent Jewish people in the genre is less explored territory.

  3. Interesting article/editorial. I enjoyed it and found it thought provoking.

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