Across the Levant, and into the modern-day countries of Iraq and Iran, archaeologists have discovered hundreds of ceramic objects that they refer to as “demon bowls.” Also known as “incantation bowls,” these handheld, shallow, earthenware pots are decorated with an elaborate, delicate Aramaic script circling around their rims, oftentimes with an illustration of a demon at their center. During the height of the Sassanian Empire, incantation bowls were used by Christians, Zoroastrians, and primarily Jews as a means of protective magic against infernal powers.
Demon bowls were operated by being buried upside down in the ground, often near a cemetery, so that any malicious demon would be trapped within their net of Aramaic letters. Viewing pictures of the strange, amateurish-looking yet eerie objects, reminds me of the scene early in William Friedkin’s 1973 adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist when Father Merrin, the film’s titular character, encounters a fearsome, reptilian statue of the Babylonian deity Pazuzu while on an archaeological dig in Iraq. Bowl illustrations appear oddly childlike in their execution, yet that contributes to an overall uncanny sense, a feeling of unease, as if these bowls express some secret we’d be better to remain ignorant of.
The demon bowls are a type of Jewish magic that wouldn’t look out of place in the new horror film The Golem, from directors Doron and Yoav Paz. Halfway through that film we see their main character, a 17th-century Lithuanian Jewish woman named Hanna, as she prepares the creation of a golem, that infamous artificial man of clay endowed with life through Kabbalistic magic. Spread out before her in the flickering light of her wood-timbered home are the theurgic tools of the magician; we see Hanna performing gematria on Hebrew texts, and examining occult symbols; there are diagrams of anatomy and drawings of the clay man. In such a Faustian scene one could easily imagine a stray demon bowl sitting somewhere on the table next to Hanna’s grimoires.
Hanna’s golem exists as a means of protection, in this case against the gentile nobleman whose daughter is afflicted by the plague, and who blames the Jews for her ailment. And, as with those older versions of the story, the creator of the golem discovers that creation is a dangerous act when performed by humans rather than by God. The directors of The Golem, who are Israeli brothers, have explored the horror genre before, in their 2015 film JeruZalem, which portrays a supernatural demon infestation in the Holy City. The Paz brothers revel in their influences, a conscious embrace of allusion that will be enjoyable for any serious horror cinephile.
In an affecting (and frightening) revision on the traditional golem legend, Hanna’s creature takes on the form of a small boy, who the audience is meant to understand is a surrogate for Hanna’s son who drowned seven years before. The mute golem of the Paz brothers’ film evokes other uncanny, otherworldly, malevolent children as depicted on screen, from Damian, the anti-Christ of Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976), to Regan in The Exorcist. By making the golem’s creator a woman, the brothers perform a clever inversion of the traditional story, rejecting all of the womb-envy implied in the standard golem narrative. Rather they connect their film to the bio-horror of movies about troubled pregnancies, like Roman Polanski’s classic Rosemary’s Baby (1968). And in setting The Golem in a 17th-century shtetl, their film is an immaculately conceived contribution to the historical horror genre, with aerial shots of swaying trees in the woods around Hanna’s village evoking the countryside of Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015) or the attempted hanging of Hanna alluding to Michael Reeves’ classic Witchfinder General (1968). But while the Paz brothers clearly have a depth of knowledge and appreciation for classic horror, The Golem offers something relatively rare in film: Jewish horror.
Interestingly, three of the auteurs who clearly influenced the Paz brothers—Friedkin, Polanski, and Donner—were all Jewish; yet there is nothing particularly Jewish about The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, or The Omen. To the contrary, all of those films explore a type of supernatural horror that is strongly Christian, if not specifically Roman Catholic. The Exorcist gives us Father Merrin, but Friedkin never filmed a Rabbi Merrowitz. Reasons for the dearth of Jewish horror fiction are varied, ranging from producers possibly fearing that the ethnic particularism of these themes wouldn’t draw in as wide an audience, to the (incorrect) sense that Judaism doesn’t offer the same baroque supernatural possibilities that Christianity does.
This is not to say that Jewish horror fiction is unheard of. The theme of the golem, after all, has been explored several times before, from the silent film era of Paul Wegener’s expressionist Der Golem (1916) until today, including in The X-Files and The Simpsons’ annual “Tree House of Horror” Halloween episodes. There have also been a small number of horror films that explore Jewish folklore, such as Ole Bornedal’s The Possession(2012), which in lieu of The Exorcist’s Pazuzu features the malicious spirit of legend known as a dybbuk, an entity which also appears in David Goyer’s The Unborn (2009), and even in the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man (2009). Yet despite a preponderance of Jewish horror directors from Curt Siodmak, creator of The Wolf Man (1941) to Polanski, Hollywood has tended not to explore explicitly Jewish themes in horror.
The Golem is, in a sense, the Paz brothers’ attempt to show us what a Jewish version of The Exorcist might look like. While none of those previous Jewish directors who arguably influenced the Paz brothers provided a full-throated examination of Jewish horror fiction’s possibilities, demon bowls alone should dissuade anyone from the misapprehension that Judaism doesn’t have a rich enough vein of supernatural content. Considerations of demonology exist in both the Talmud and Kabbalah. Jewish literary fiction often has a strong sense of the uncanny as well, with authors from Sholem Aleichem to Isaac Bashevis Singer sharing much with the gothic.
What’s interesting about the phenomenon of Jewish horror fiction is in what sense it offers an implicit, particular metaphysic that marks it as Jewish. When we analyze a film like The Exorcist it’s reasonable and correct to conclude that the narrative in some sense reflects a Catholic theological perspective, despite the controversy that attended its release: The basic philosophical position as expressed in Friedkin’s movie is that there is separate, absolute metaphysical evil in the universe; that it is embodied in the person of Satan; that representatives of that being can posses the innocent; and that the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church are required to exorcize that evil.
For horror fiction to be properly Jewish in a similar way, films and literature can’t just have characters of the faith, nor would superficially drawing from Ashkenazic folk culture necessarily signify that a work is Jewish horror. Rather, by definition, Jewish horror has to explicitly explore those dark themes from a uniquely Jewish philosophical perspective. But what exactly would differentiate Jewish horror fiction from some other type? There is arguably a sense that there is a redundancy to Jewish horror fiction: No need for Pennywise the Clown when there are Cossacks; no fear of poltergeists and ghosts when there are Nazis. Yet the sense of the terrors of the real world is fundamental to monotheistic horror, for it asks what the ultimate origin of evil is.
No need for Pennywise the Clown when there are Cossacks; no fear of poltergeists and ghosts when there are Nazis.
The Franco-Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov in The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre distinguished between what he called the “uncanny,” whereby the supernaturalism of a story can be ultimately explained by rational recourse, and the “marvelous” in what’s been depicted is to be understood as genuinely supernatural. For Todorov, that which is fantastic in literature exists in the ambiguity between the uncanny and the marvelous, where the characters in a story (and the reader) are unsure as to whether events witnessed are genuinely supernatural or not. Todorov writes: “The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.”
Genuinely Jewish horror fiction enacts a similar ambiguity—save what’s uncertain is whether the supernatural events witnessed are due to the intercession of God or from some other force. Jewish horror soberly looks at the nightmares of the world, and is troubled that the answer as to who is responsible—God or the devil—remains uncertain. Or rather, that there might not be as much difference as one assumes between them. Either way, man is always happy to step in and commit atrocities.
Here it is useful to introduce some critical neologisms, in this case between what I’ve termed “monotheistic horror” in contrast to “dualistic horror.” The latter is any work which posits supernatural evil as somehow separate in agency from God, while the former steadfastly holds to all things—even evil things—as having their origin in the Lord. I’d argue that Jewish horror fiction, for all of its diversity, must be resolutely defined by an overpowering sense of monotheism, and that it is that sense of the fundamental unity of reality that makes those works terrifying. Ghosts, goblins, and ghouls can exist in both types of horror, but in dualistic horror God is either configured as explicitly separate from those evil things, or mention of Him is passed over.
Such a sentiment is on display in The Golem, where Hanna’s rabbi father-in-law tells his son that darkness and light must by cosmic necessity be forever intertwined. The Paz brothers’ film is an example of Jewish horror not because it takes place in a 17th-century shtetl, or because its story deals with that most Jewish of monsters, but rather because there is no sense that anything that happens doesn’t occur due to the power and sovereignty of God.
The Golem is resolutely not as terrifying a film as a classic like The Exorcist, and yet there is something more disturbing in its implications. In The Exorcist, God arrives in the form of the priest to defeat the devil, yet in The Golem the creature is fashioned in adherence to God’s reality. Hanna’s creation is not demonic, but rather divine—if still capable of malevolence. Despite technically embodying a monotheistic metaphysics, films like The Exorcist still fully separate the depicted evil from the creator. There is no sense that Pazuzu has in anyway been sent by God, even if theologically a viewer would understand that in some abstract way the Lord still has sovereignty over the demon—as the exorcism itself proves. But horror that fully rejects even the hint of any Zoroastrian dualities, where Satan is in some sense returned to his classical role as dark handmaiden to the Lord, is a fantastic literature fully reconciled to the totalizing logic of monotheism.
Seen from this angle, Jewishness actually defines much of literary modernism and postmodernism; the particulars of this mode of “monotheistic horror” marking texts we might not otherwise think of as belonging to the horror genre. Any fiction that presents the malevolence experienced in reality as integral to the unity of that very same reality is monotheistic horror. In this way, I’d argue that Franz Kafka is one of the greatest horror writers of the 20th century, with a dark perspective that rivals that of H.P. Lovecraft. The latter thought the world meaningless, but Kafka never fell into that error. The result is paradoxically a horror all the more disturbing for what it implies about evil’s derivation.
Kafka is that most Jewish of authors, a committed metaphysical monotheist (even when he’s an atheist) whose perspective is such that he has no need for Lovecraft’s elder gods; God is frightening enough. His so-called “cosmicism” saw reality as fundamentally meaningless—as cold, mechanistic, and indifferent.
For Kafka the deep wisdom of reality is even darker than Lovecraft’s nihilism, for his horror is based on the type of irony that can only be born from the most radical of monotheisms. The author could tell his friend Max Brod that here is “Plenty of hope—for God—no end of hope—only not for us,” a succinct summation of the major themes of Jewish horror, where what is fully externalized is a theodicy that recognizes evil exists in the world while also acknowledging that God must be its author.
Monotheistic horror plumbs the depths of the Shema’s darkest conclusions, where the ultimate origin of terror must be reconciled with the fundamental truth of “the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” In monotheistic horror, regardless of whether a book or movie has superficial markers of Jewishness or not, where it leads is to that gnawing wisdom of the prophet, who writes in Isaiah 45:7 “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.”
The ur-text of Jewish horror, and what I would argue is perhaps the most terrifying story every told, is the biblical Book of Job. Few narratives can match Job in the sheer awful implications of what’s been recounted, of the upstanding man of Uz who “was perfect and upright, and one that feared God,” but who nevertheless was struck down by the Lord with a deluge of afflictions. So many details of Job’s story, often associated with the fatalism of Greek tragedy to which it bears some similarity, have a gothic sensibility. There is Satan who talks of “roving about in the earth and … walking about in it,” and of Job cursing himself by asking, “Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb?” Then there is the pyrotechnic impressiveness of God himself, who “answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?”
The climactic scene in Job, where God confronts this simple man whom He has afflicted, is the last time in the Tanakh in which God actually speaks to man directly. The deity doesn’t explain to Job why he has been stricken with pestilence, why his loved ones have died, why he has been abandoned. For Job, the task is simply to have faith in the Lord, regardless of whether or not he understands what has happened. But we understand why God has afflicted Job. That is the narrative brilliance of the book, for even if its central character must be ignorant of the details concerning his misfortune, the reader is not. And that reason of course is that God has challenged Job because Satan told him to.
Satan is of course Ha Shaitan, the Adversary, before he was anything else. Yet in Job he skulks around heaven like one of God’s intimates, a tempter challenging God to a wager at the expense of pious Job. As critic Jack Miles observes in his great book God: A Biography, it appears as if the “deity has within him a submerged demon, a serpent, a chaos monster, a dragon goddess of destruction” for the “Lord is susceptible to the suggestions of a celestial being hostile to human beings.” Monotheistic horror should not be interpreted as the logical culmination of monotheism itself, rather it should be seen as the dark undercurrent, the nagging anxiety, of what it means if there is only one Lord but we’re uncertain as to if He is always benevolent, for as Miles observes “all of God’s actions could actually have been the devil’s.” There is the upsetting ambiguity of monotheistic horror—not that God’s actions are the devil’s, but that they could be.
No doubt skeptics can point toward the conclusion of Job as evidence that it’s not a horror story; after all, Job is given newer and better possessions, a newer and better family. But if anything, the cynical callousness of God’s treating Job to interchangeable loved ones only highlights that which is so disquieting about the narrative. Even more disturbing are Job’s “miserable comforters,” his friends who abandon him in the face of his travails.
Such then is one of the most potent lessons of Jewish horror fiction: that there is a permeable membrane between civilization and anarchy, where those who claim to protect us one day can cast us aside the next. The “friends” of Job are among the most callous of monsters in the book. What makes Jewish horror so frightening is its entirely accurate understanding that all evil ultimately must have its origin not in devils, but in the two most frightening things in our sublime universe: God and his creations.
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Ed Simon is a senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books and an adjunct assistant professor of English and Media Studies at Bentley University. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books in 2018. His Twitter feed is @WithEdSimon.
Ed Simon is a senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books and an adjunct assistant professor of English and Media Studies at Bentley University. He is the author of America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion. His Twitter feed is @WithEdSimon.