Given all we’ve been through, do Jews really need supernatural horror movies?
The question arises anew with the streaming release of writer/director Keith Thomas’ supernatural horror film, The Vigil. Kudos to Thomas for a Jewish horror film with nary a dybbuk nor golem in sight. Despite their occasional film portrayals, traditional dybbuks are more tragic than malevolent, more spiritual warnings to the rest of us than independent entities of evil. Golems began as a way for Sages and Kabbalists to draw closer to God, then evolved to protect Jewish communities from pogroms; only later did they turn (a bit) destructive. Not much horror potential in a frum golem, really.
Jewish supernatural horror is mostly an oxymoron because supernatural horror generally requires powerful entities—witches, demons, space aliens—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 (don’t we know it!) persist. 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.)
The Vigil pulls off this trifecta. The movie describes its demon—a “mazzik”—as created from residual sparks of the original Creation: it’s a being of energy but not physical form, and, like us, is a creation of God. Why did God create such demons, what purpose do they serve, how should we understand encounters with them? Those questions are left for us to ponder.
While Jewish supernatural horror has been a rarity through the ages, there are precedents. One that still delivers a shiver is The Homunculus of Maimonides. Master folklorist Howard Schwartz commends our attention to this story which, he notes, was first published in 1847 and was likely based on oral versions at least several decades earlier (Schwartz’s version is included in his Leaves from the Garden of Eden, Oxford University Press, 2009, page 245). Schwartz suggests that the story was originally meant as anti-Maimonidean propaganda in the conflict between traditionalists and rationalists, which makes it a highly unusual inspiration for a Jewish folktale.
In any case, the story is hugely discomfiting; in Schwartz’s skilled hands, it’s a tale of growing suspense, foreboding, and horror. The unease starts early, when a student of Maimonides confesses “I do not yet understand how far it is permitted for the human spirit to enter into the secrets of nature, but such daring seems to me sinful for a son of man and can only incite the wrath of the Creator.” To which Maimonides airily replies that all knowledge “belongs to the human spirit, which can observe and employ it as it wishes.”
To prove his point, Maimonides decides on an experiment. Reading from an ancient text, he quotes: “Kill a healthy man, cut his body into pieces, and place the pieces in an airless glass container. Sprinkle upon them an essence gathered from the sap of the Tree of Life and the balsam of immortality, and after nine months the pieces of this body will be living again. It will be unharmable and immortal.”
Maimonides summons the Angel of Death and his student slumps to the floor, dead. The rabbi then follows the horrific instructions and leaves the room that contains the jar and its dismembered corpse. As Schwartz continues his story:
“Finally, tortured by doubt and curiosity, Maimonides returned to the room [four months later] and looked at the mass of dead flesh. And behold, there were no longer severed pieces but structured limbs, as if crystallized in the glass container.… In the fifth month the form of the human body could already be recognized. In the sixth the arteries and nerves were visible, and in the seventh movement and life in the organs could be perceived. The researcher, however, became worried…. ‘What horror threatens the human race if I let this being come into being?’… At the end of the eighth month, uncertain and most deeply troubled, he approached the growing being and was staggered as the almost completely developed face smiled at him. Unable to bear the demonic grin, he ran out of the room. ‘Oh, Lord, what have I done!’
“At the beginning of the ninth month, Maimonides stepped into the room, intending to destroy his creation. He brought a dog and a cat with him, and he released them and let them fly at each other. In the midst of this fighting, the glass container crashed to the floor and broke into a thousand pieces. The dead man lay at Maimonides’ feet. After he recovered himself, Maimonides buried the body and took the pernicious volume and threw it into the flames of the fireplace. But nothing was the same again….”
Hundreds of years old, Jewish supernatural horror still packs a punch today. It will likely continue to do so as long as the unknown lurks just a hair’s breadth beyond our peripheral vision.