Being Vigilant

While keeping to a budget, I’ve been tying to sample some new movies as therapy.  Interestingly, Hulu has had three on my long-time “to see” list, including The Vigil.  I heard about this one as soon as it came out.  Religion and horror have been a recent area of fascination, so how could I not?  A horror film partly in Yiddish is a novelty for me, and the haunting, endlessly haunting holocaust is never far from the surface.  Jacov, a young man with psychological issues caused by the death of his much younger brother, has left Orthodox Judaism.  He’s hard up for money, however, and agrees to sit as a shomer, a watcher who keeps vigil with a corpse of a person who has no family to do it, for pay.  The rabbi informs him the shomer he hired left because he was afraid, but since Jacov has done this before, he’s sure he can handle it.

Sitting in a creepy Brooklyn house with a corpse is made even more difficult by the widow’s Alzheimer’s disease and Jacov’s seeing things.  Unsettling events take place.  The problem is revealed to be a mazzik, a kind of Jewish demon.  As I explore in Nightmares with the Bible, and Holy Horror, the Jewish idea of demons took quite a different track from the Greek-inspired Christian concept.  Jesus was Jewish, but living in a Roman context.  What we in the west understand as demons is largely based on The Exorcist.  In Judaism demons weren’t the same obsession they were for Christians.  The dybbuk tends to be the soul of an evil person that can’t rest after death.  A mazzik is more a demon sent to harm, as a form of divine punishment.

The Vigil presents Jacov in that pincer of having left a religion only to find himself needing it in a time of crisis.  His Orthodox upbringing hasn’t prepared him for the world of having to interact with women, or even gentiles (as wicked as they can be).  The mazzik has haunted the man who’s just died—a holocaust survivor—and is now looking for another broken person.  Ever since the death of his brother, Jacov has been broken.  The film make effective use of several horror tropes, and is quite claustrophobic in the small house.  Even though set in New York City, isolation is the real threat.  More than that, the movie eloquently articulates how religion and horror rely on one another.  And how they might learn from each other.

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