J-Horror

J-Horror better move over.  There’s a new kid on the block.

For many years those of us strange fans of horror have used “J-Horror” as shorthand for Japanese Horror.  With two highly successful films (eventually series) of the mid-nineties (Ju-On and Ringu) the Japanese contribution stormed back into American consciousness.  Those of us who grew up on Godzilla knew that J-Horror had been around for decades already, but these new movies were distinctly creepy.  So much so that English-language versions were remade for both original films (The Grudge and The Ring, respectively—rather like Let the Right One In and Let Me In).  So far, so good.  So why does J-Horror need to move over?

At least three separate friends have pointed me to another emerging J-Horror trend: Jewish horror movies.  These used to be rare.  With cases of early antisemitic themes in horror, and the real life horror of the Holocaust, this is certainly understandable.  “Christian” producers or directors delving into Jewish themes would seem to be in bad taste.  Still, some notable Jewish-themed horror has begun to emerge.  (I addressed one such film in my recent Horror Homeroom piece.)  The Possession (discussed in both of my most recent books) centers around the need for a Jewish exorcist in the case of a dybbuk problem.  For more information, you know where to look!  It seemed to me that the dybbuk box contents were reminiscent of the Holocaust, but that may not have been intentional.

I recently wrote a post about The Golem.  This is a recent Israeli movie that builds on the traditional Jewish monster.  Although set before the Holocaust, the fact that there’s a pogrom in the film shows that the concept is not far off.  The movie that people have recently been pointing me toward is The Vigil.  I’ve not had an opportunity to see it yet, but the press it’s received suggests it too will be another classic based on lived experience in Judaism.  I’m not sure if Jewish horror will eventually rival the numbers of Japanese horror films, but the offerings thus far have been noteworthy.  Horror often addresses the problem of human suffering.  With all the oppressions in “white” society, it’s no wonder that, along with Black horror, Jewish horror is beginning to garner attention.  Although it’s clearly not to everyone’s taste, horror is often a genre with a conscience.  It becomes a screen on which we can see our worst behaviors projected.  And if we’re wise, we’ll take steps to make such suffering become merely an unfortunate memory.


Religions and Horrors

My latest piece on The Golem has just appeared on Horror Homeroom.  It’s free—check it out.  In it I briefly discuss Jewish horror.  I mainly write about Christian horror because that’s my immediate context.  That’s not to say other religions don’t participate in the genre too.  While I worked for Routledge I acquired the book Buddhism Goes to the Movies, by Ronald Green.  Like the title suggests, it’s about movies focused on, or made by, Buddhists.  What sold me on the project was the chapter on horror films.  Much of what’s being called “J-Horror,” or Japanese Horror these days, occurs in a Buddhist or Shinto contexts.  I’m not expert enough in these traditions, however, to spot them with the detail that I do in my own native religion. 

All religious traditions have certain commonalities.  As I’ve frequently discussed on this blog, sex and death are two of them.  Given the powerful ideas that religion trades in, it seems natural that it would appear frequently in the horror genre.  It’s just that modern viewers tend to be somewhat divorced from religion and can’t see it.  Religion is that way—it fills the cracks.  How often do we pay attention to the caulking or grout?  We tend to focus on the tile or woodwork instead.  Religion holds thought systems together, including those of the horror genre.  I just discussed no-go subjects yesterday, but even science shows religion in some of the cracks.  Learning to see it involves learning to shift your focus.

I blogged about The Golem just after I watched it, back in December.  The golem is an original Jewish monster, and Judaism is both a culture and a religion.  It’s difficult to tease them apart sometimes.  The same can be said of many traditions outside Christianity.  In fact, many cultures had no word for religion—the idea of a separate realm of life where you try to please the gods because what you do otherwise is inherently sinful.  (There’s probably a reason that capitalism grew in a Christian context.)  That means that horror particularly welcomes Christianity.  Many of the bases of fear are premised on a religion that, as culturally bound as it is, has always claimed that joining it is a choice.  If you can choose you can choose wrongly.  This is fertile ground for horror, especially when the consequences are eternal.   My Horror Homeroom piece takes a different approach than this, but religion and horror nevertheless find themselves together, often in the same room.


Time for Golem

I don’t claim to understand how the film industry works.  My two books on horror and religion deal with interpreting the movies, not their native cinematic environment.  I say this because I limited my treatments in them to films with a theatrical release.  Mainly this was so that readers would have had easy access to them.  Some films, of course, never go to theaters and it seems that happened, in the United States, to the Israeli movie The Golem.  I saw a trailer for it last year and patiently waited for it to arrive.  I recently found it on an online streaming service and finally had a chance to watch it.  Golems, as original Jewish monsters, have shown up in a variety of popular media including The X-Files and Sleepy Hollow.  Film treatments have been rare, and this one makes for a fascinating monster movie.

What makes the golem so compelling is that it is an explicitly religious monster.  To create a golem (according to the film) the maker must use Kabbalah, Jewish mystical texts, to learn how to bring it to life.  Hanna (Hani Furstenberg), the female protagonist, is the only one in her seventeenth-century village willing to try.  The real hook, for me, is that the golem she creates is a little boy.  The role must’ve been fun to play.  Golems cannot speak, so there are no lines to learn.  Kirill Cernyakov nails the part with an ability to portray emotionless menace.  The problem with a golem, you see, is that it goes on rampages, killing even those it’s conjured to protect.  Since the movie is intended to be a retelling of the classic story (involving the golem of Prague), it doesn’t have too many surprises.  It is, however, a thoughtful movie.

Write-ups on it call it “the Jewish Frankenstein,” but scholars who research Frankenstein often go the other way, seeing Frankenstein’s monster as a form of golem.  The basic idea is taking something inert and bringing it to life.  Afterward the creator is unable to control it.  It’s too bad that The Golem didn’t get a wide theatrical release.  I’ve seen far worse horror films that did.  Perhaps the focus on religion was too blatant?  One of the points I make in Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible is that religion and horror belong together.  Some Jewish viewers will undoubtedly spot inaccuracies (even this goy did) but the movie isn’t a religious text.  It is an appropriate rebuff to Trumpian “politics” and even features a plague.  It is a movie for our time.