When I was 20 and dabbling with the idea of becoming more religious than my liberal, mostly-secular Reform Jewish upbringing , I once sat with other college-aged Jews of varying religiosity as a young rabbi provided a brief primer on Kabbalah. He explained how Jewish mysticism was once forbidden from anyone under 40, as young people are too irresponsible to be trusted with such arcane knowledge. “Otherwise you might all go around creating golems or something.”
“Wait, we can do that?” I interrupted.
“Greg, this is what I’m talking about.”
Every culture has its own spooky folklore, like the jinn of Islam, Baba Yaga of Russia, La Llorona of Latin America, and other boogeymen from every corner of the world. For a lifelong horror fan like me, learning about monsters like dibbukim (dead spirits who possess the the living), shedim (invisible demons), and my favorite, the golem (a super-powered humanoid made from clay) made me feel connected to the history of my people in ways that I couldn't through conventional religious education alone. I can’t speak for those raised in more orthodox branches of Judaism, but I didn’t learn about cool monsters like that in Hebrew school or synagogue, and most of the Jews I’ve met have never even heard of such things.
Religion is just one facet of Jewish culture, so not all Jewish stories are necessarily religious ones. For millennia, Jewish communities have grappled with diaspora, systemic oppression, and genocide. With horror as a genre borne out of existential fears and the furthest reaches of human pain, is it any wonder that Jews around the globe would develop eerie folk traditions separate from the shared religion?
Naturally, as new forms of media took shape, Jewish horror expanded from the oral tradition into novels, theater, comics, and more. But I’d like to focus on Jewish horror in film, because film being arguably the most mainstream form of entertainment in the modern era presents a fascinating challenge for storytellers of Jewish horror: when this brand of frightening folklore is obscure even among the 0.2% of the world that’s Jewish, how do you make it palatable – or even accessible – to general audiences?
That didn’t seem to be much of a concern for 1920’s The Golem: How He Came Into the World or, in its original German: Der Golem, Wie Er In Die Welt Kam. The silent German classic was not only a pioneering example of Jewish horror in film, but an influential touchstone of German Expressionism. Retelling the 16th century legend of Rabbi Loew as he erected a Golem to save his Jewish community from antisemitic violence, it spends remarkably little of its 70-minute runtime explaining Jewish customs and beliefs to the mainstream (read: non-Jewish) German audience that viewed it at the time. But of course, silent films didn’t have the same luxuries that today’s films do when it comes to using verbal exposition to explain such esoteric material.
A century later, the conventions of modern filmmaking –including, you know, sound – mean audiences prefer more narrative hand-holding. That creates a slew of challenges for anyone trying to make a mainstream film about subject matter that strays from the dominant culture. I’ve written about this before, but even if you were never Christian, you probably know a great deal about Christianity through cultural osmosis – at least if you live in a country like the United States where that’s the dominant religion. Christian dogma has been the subject of countless horror films, and filmmakers behind classics like Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen enjoyed the assumption that most audiences already had a working knowledge of spooky Christian concepts like demonic possessions and The Devil.
Jewish horror has no such luxury, and frankly, I suspect that’s a major reason why I’ve found many Jewish horror films to be… lacking. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who wants to like Jewish horror films more than me, but I can’t pretend there’s a stellar track record.
Take 2009’s The Unborn, by Jewish-American writer/director David S. Goyer. The story of a young Jewish woman (Odette Yustman) haunted by a dybbuk with roots in Auschwitz, its premise had the potential for an affecting fable about the ways generational trauma affect the descendants of genocide. Its inelegant exposition, paired with an inappropriate application of teen horror sensibilities (as one may suspect from the poster, which titillatingly places a scantily clad Yustman in the foreground) means neither the Jewish folklore, nor actual Jewish history, are taken appropriately seriously.
I saw it with some Jewish friends in high school, and we responded in kind. During what was meant to be a tense scene in which Rabbi Joseph Sendak (played by Gary Oldman) reads a Hebrew text from left to right rather than right to left, we laughed out loud. It may seem petty, but such an elementary oversight wouldn’t be made in even the trashiest demonic possession movie about Catholics.
That lackadaisical quality plagues another relatively mainstream dybbuk film called The Possession. Released in 2012 by Danish director Ole Bornedal and “based on a true story,” the story follows divorced, non-Jewish parents Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgewick as they enlist a Jewish exorcist (erstwhile Hasidic reggae star Matisyahu, in a remarkable stunt casting) to save their dybbuk-possessed daughter. Once again, inauthenticity is hardly the only problem with this film. The plot is contrived, it isn’t scary, and other than being based around Jewish mythology, it’s full of cliches audiences have already seen -- and have been executed better -- in countless other horror films about Christianity like The Exorcist. But it certainly doesn’t help that the pacing grinds to a tedious halt as the film clumsily explains the lore around dybbuk boxes, nor the way it exoticizes Judaism.
The pattern that I’ve found in these lackluster Jewish horror films is that they do not treat the material with appropriate weight. That’s not inherently problematic; horror comedy is a potent subgenre, and with the rich history of Jewish humor, there’s no reason why we can’t have great Jewish horror comedy.
But when so few Jewish horror films exist in the first place, the tendency toward unintentional humor almost feels insulting. The umpteenth bad Exorcist ripoff is no major loss of potential, because there’s no shortage of other, better horror films geared towards Catholics and lapsed Catholics. But in the case of a film like the 2015 Israeli zombie flick JeruZalem, I mourn the missed opportunity. The demonic apocalypse foretold by all three Abrahamic religions as a gate to hell opens in Jerusalem is a killer setup, and I appreciate the emphasis on the diversity within Israel/Palestine. But would it have killed them to hire an American to take another pass at the script?
The film stars three American students, all played by Israeli actors (with a particularly “what even is this” attempt at an American accent by Yon Tumarkin), on their Jerusalem vacation, and the lost-in-translation dialogue brings an inexcusably amateurish quality to what could have been a breath of fresh air for the stale zombie sub-genre. Twenty-something Sarah (Danielle Jadelyn) refers to her ex as “a bad lay” --a phrase I can’t imagine coming out of the mouth of anyone under 60 --and later asks the Palestinian hostel host she’s crushing on (Tom Graziani) for “the best hash in town.”
It seems to me that some filmmakers think a Jewish twist is enough to save otherwise by-the-numbers horror from mediocrity, and in their defense, they at least have me as the one consumer willing to watch any vaguely Jewish spooky movie. I suppose this is experienced by anyone who belongs to a marginalized community and is a fan of genre fiction. I figured I wouldn’t get a masterpiece out of the 2019 New Zealand horror comedy Killer Sofa when I stumbled upon it either, but when I learned the titular evil furniture is possessed by a dybbuk, I was hungry enough for representation that I gave it a shot. It’s not good, even in a “so bad it’s good” way, but where else are you going to get a film where a Kiwi rabbi battles an evil chair? He’s even married to a Black woman, while the rest of the entertainment world still doesn’t seem to have figured out that Jews of Color exist.
While the good-to-bad ratio of Jewish horror films is disappointing, I don’t want to give the impression that it’s impossible to make a good one, or that good Jewish horror isn’t already out there. One of my favorite horror films, period, is 2015’s Green Room written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier. With no golems, dybbuks, or supernatural elements at all, it’s not as obviously Jewish as the other films I’ve mentioned. But with a young hardcore punk band fighting for survival after unwittingly performing at a remote skinhead hideout led by Patrick Stewart in a rare villainous role, the framing of Neo-Nazis as horror villains speaks directly to Jewish fears. In a key early scene when bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin) second guesses his idea to open the show with a cover of The Dead Kennedys’ classic “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat) threatens that if he chickens out she’ll “tell them you’re Jewish.”
The best Jewish horror films seem to be the ones that directly grapple with themes of antisemitism. As is the case with Green Room, violent hatred toward Jews doesn’t necessarily need to be explicitly depicted (the Nazis certainly do a number on Pat and his band, but they never find out he’s Jewish), but making that central to the film’s themes is powerful when done right.
The 2015 Polish film Demon, written and directed by Marcin Wrona, is another great example. Unlike Green Room, it’s not scary in the conventional sense and doesn’t really try to be, so one could argue it’s more of a supernatural drama than a horror film. Either way, it certainly belongs in the conversation, as a non-Jewish wedding in rural Poland is interrupted when the groom is possessed by a dybbuk. We later learn that the dybbuk is not malevolent, but simply heartbroken: she’s the spirit of a young Jewish woman victimized by antisemitism during World War II. Wrona, who tragically committed suicide shortly after Demon was first screened, was not Jewish as far as I can tell. But as a condemnation of Polish complicity in antisemitic violence during Hitler’s reign and beyond, Demon is a chilling statement.
At the end of the day, and despite it’s aged faults, I do recommend 1920’s The Golem; not just as a Jewish horror film, but as a piece of film history. It’s entertaining in its own right, too, with impressive visuals and a surprisingly unflinching approach to the subject matter for pre-Nazi Germany. I like it more than other silent horror classics like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. But if you’d prefer a tale of the Golem with modern sensibilities, try the 2018 Israeli film also called The Golem.
While not as scary as you may hope if you crave that stuff as much as I do, it’s a much better film by JeruZalem directors Doron and Yoav Paz. The plot revolves around antisemitism directed at a Jewish-Lithuanian village at the height of the Bubonic Plague, but I especially appreciate how this version of the Golem is very much a cautionary tale. That theme of “how far can you go to protect your own people before you’ve gone too far” is crucial to the legend, and too often overlooked. (It’s also why I hesitate to agree with scholars who compare a superhero like Superman to the golem, but that’s a subject for another essay).
After all, “bigotry is bad” is a fine theme, but that alone cannot drive a good story. One of the things I love about The Vigil, one of my favorite horror films of the past few years, is that while antisemitic violence is certainly core to the the film’s plot and themes, the mazzik (an invisible, troublemaking demon similar to a sheyd) that serves as the central antagonist represents a more psychological struggle than a political one: after his younger brother dies as a result of an antisemtic attack, Yakov (Dave Davis) is in the process of transitioning out of his Hasidic community and into a more secular lifestyle. When he’s asked to keep vigil over a strange woman’s deceased husband as part of a Jewish mourning ritual, the mazzik afflicting him forces him to confront not only his generational trauma, but his present guilt and alienation from his own community.
Horror can and should do more than entertain, as storytellers from all cultures have known throughout history. Horror shines a light on our own fears, and when we engage with horror from a culture that’s not our own, we get a glimpse of what makes that culture tick. There’s a place for mindless entertainment, but political urgency, emotional honesty, and authentic craftsmanship makes not only the best Jewish horror, but the best horror in general.