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.
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.
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.