Jewish supernatural horror films might seem a redundancy in a world that has plenty of real Jewish horrors, past and present, upon which to dwell. Moreover, they might seem an oxymoron, because supernatural horror generally requires powerful entities—witches, demons, and rampaging spirits —that either exist in a universe without God or are in direct conflict with God. Whatever that is, it’s not a Jewish universe. In our universe, a benevolent and omnipotent Creator is a given.
Yet, our world—like that of our biblical ancestors—is filled with war, disease, death, and disaster. Wild beasts abound. Plagues defined our past and persist now in our present. How those horrors can be consistent with a benevolent and omnipotent God is a question for the ages. But one answer our tradition teaches is that these are trials to be overcome, like the ten trials of Abraham. That they are natural consequences of living in a world in which each of us must one day die. That they are a fulcrum for the free will we must exercise if we are to choose between right and wrong.
Jewish supernatural horror can be Jewish, supernatural, and horrific if it reflects this philosophy. If—for reasons we may not understand—the horror comes from the One Source of all good and all evil. (It’s easy to bless God as the source of good news; to bless him as the source of bad news, as we are enjoined to do, is less easy.) Last year, a little independent film called “The Vigil” hit the Jewish-supernatural-horror trifecta. It made this accomplishment seem easy.
Apparently, it’s not. Now comes another independent film proposing to be a Jewish supernatural horror: “The Offering,” produced by Millennium Media. [Mamish spoilers ahead.] The Offering tells the tale of Arthur, a lapsed Hasidic Jew who returns to the family-home-cum-funeral-home of his father, Saul, in a Hasidic enclave in modern-day Brooklyn, with Claire, his pregnant, non-Jewish, wife. While a domestic drama unfolds above ground, a supernatural one unfolds in the basement mortuary. An ancient demon, which we’re told feeds on children, but which seems to have more eclectic tastes, enters the house, hitching a ride within a corpse. It eventually takes over the house and haunts its inhabitants before killing them. Yeah, that’s it.
The creative team behind the movie has said it wanted to present Hasidim, and the relations between Hasidic men and women, in a positive light. In this it surprisingly succeeds. The least attractive character is Arthur who, in casting off his Judaism, seems to have cast off some moral scruples as well; the Hasidim, in contrast, are in various degrees loving, loyal, and thoughtful. In one particularly poignant moment, Saul, as part of his Friday night rituals, sings Ayshes Chayl (A Women of Valor) to a photograph of his dead wife. And it’s an underspoken refutation of the actions of Yosille, another widower, whose obsession with bringing his late wife back from the dead kicks off the plot by summoning the demon.
The film mostly looks and feels Hasidic, with its detailed and authentic production and costume design. Which is why it’s odd that Saul responds to Claire’s outstretched hand in greeting by embracing her. True, it demonstrates his fervent hope that the family can overcome the schism that the intermarriage has caused. But how much more authentic, more Jewish, it would be if Saul struggled with the restriction his faith places on touching a woman not one’s wife, while seeking another way to show his feelings.
That’s not the only example of casting aside authenticity when it gets in the way of lazy storytelling. In Orthodox Judaism, a Chevra Kadisha (Holy Brotherhood) would quickly and sensitively cleanse a corpse and otherwise prepare it for the immediate burial that tradition requires. There’s no Chevra Kadisha here to attend to Yosille’s corpse, nothing much seems to go into preparing it for burial and, over the next day or so (the passage of time is tough to reckon), it’s just kept about the mortuary to no particular purpose.
The problem isn’t just that the movie gets these details wrong. It’s that getting them right, and using those details to propel the storytelling, would have given The Offering the authenticity for which it seems to strive. It would have justified the Jewish setting and made Judaism an organic, integral part of the story.
Without faithfulness to the tradition in which it seeks to wrap itself, The Offering is merely exploiting the Jewish context. It’s dressing up a creaky old mannequin in new clothes. This is costume Jewry, true enough as long as you don’t scratch the surface.
But The Offering does far worse than miss opportunities. It turns one of the most basic tenets of Judaism, one of the crucial teachings that Judaism gifted to the world, on its head. God revealed himself to Abraham, according to the bible, in the midst of a world that practiced human sacrifice and, even more odiously, child sacrifice. It was the story of the Akeidis Yitzchak (The Binding of Isaac) that taught Abraham, and through him the world, that God abhors this, that he wants us to cherish human life, not destroy it in the name of worship.
Irony then doesn’t begin to describe the shock upon finding that the “offering” of The Offering is human sacrifice: Arthur and Yosille both sacrifice themselves with the expectation that it will “bind” the demon, and Yosille has sacrificed a little girl to win his late wife’s return from the dead. In a bit of an explainer, a kabbalist tells us that this has gone on throughout Jewish history – that Abraham’s “sacrifice” of Isaac (never mind that he didn’t in fact, sacrifice Isaac) was undertaken to bind the same demon.
This is a calumny upon the Jewish faith, a vicious twist of the knife that is the blood libel. Now, Jews don’t just kill to make their matzos, they kill – themselves and others – as they are taught in ancient Jewish, kabbalistic texts of demon worship.
The promotion of that belief is the real horror at the heartless core of The Offering.