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.


Strange Worlds

The Bible can lead you astray sometimes. Don’t worry, it’s unintentional, I’m sure. It has less to do with the Bible itself than with the way it was compiled. Any book written over centuries by different people is bound to show some inconsistencies. Unfortunately some of those inconsistencies are about things people really want to know. What happens when you die, for instance. Pretty important to get that one straight. The Bible has shifting views about that, and those views led to ideas such as Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and reincarnation. Wait, what? Reincarnation? Isn’t that an eastern religion thing? That’s what I always thought. Then I read the provocative Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism by J. H. Chajes. This started for me, as things often do, with a scary movie.

Some time back I watched The Possession. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it regards a Jewish exorcism—based on a true story, it says, but aren’t they all? Now demons exist in the Hebrew Bible, but the monster in this movie wasn’t exactly a demon. It was a dybbuk. Sharing the Gentile liability, I wasn’t aware of what a dybbuk was. A religion professor in the movie tried to explain it, but I had to read a book. Between Worlds seemed the best place to start. What a fascinating book this is! Anyone who’s interested in the history of exorcism, whether Christian or Jewish (and perhaps even Muslim) will find abundant information here. Jewish exorcism? Much of it depends on how one understands the concept of “soul.” It also depends on who’s doing the possessing. A dybbuk is a displaced human soul from someone deceased. If it can’t get into Gehinnom (which Jesus mentions a time or two) it reincarnates into an available body, often sharing it with the resident soul.

From there things only get more unusual. For those of us who know about exorcism from the movie (you know the one I mean) or even from Chick tracts, the idea that a human soul (which can be good or bad, depending) can possess someone is unexpected. The fact that reincarnation developed from the same Bible that gave us Heaven and Hell is equally surprising. I suspect it’s because the Good Book doesn’t give a clear picture of what comes hereafter. The Hebrew Bible has Sheol, and the New Testament adds Heaven, Gehenna, Hell, and the underpinnings of Purgatory—a buyer’s market for the afterlife. With that being the case I suppose it’s to be expected that some spirits prefer to move from house to house. To learn what’s available Chajes is an excellent choice.


Possessed by Work

Now that I’m safely ensconced back in the daily work routine, I spend some time thinking of the scary movies I had time to watch during my “free time.” Well, I actually thought about them then, too, but I had so many other thoughts to write about that I kept putting it off. That, and the fact that some of the movies were about demonic possession and the juxtaposition of holidays and demons just didn’t seem to fit, kept me from expounding. Why watch such movies at all? It’s a fair question. I tend to think of it as part of a larger thought experiment—wondering what such movies might tell us about being human.

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A few weeks back I wrote about The Exorcism of Emily Rose, based on the true tragic story of a young woman who died after a prolonged exorcism. After that I watched The Last Exorcism, The Rite, and The Possession. (I’m such a cheerful guy, as you can see, and this may be why I inhabit an isolated cubicle at work.) This array of movies, held together by the common chord of the reality of demonic possession, also brought together the standard sociological division of Protestant, Catholic, and Jew. The Last Exorcism is a Protestant-based treatment of what is generally considered to be a Catholic subject. That connection is affirmed in The Rite. The Possession, however, gives us a Jewish demon and a rare representation of a Jewish exorcism (acted by Matisyahu, no less!). What emerges from watching all of these films together is that demons are an inter-denominational problem, even in a scientific world. Carl Sagan wrote about the demon-haunted world, and it continues to exist, it seems.

But these are movies we’re talking about. Not reality. Nevertheless, The Rite and The Possession are also said to be based on true stories. We do live in a mysterious world. Evolution has developed reasoning as a practical way of dealing with life in a complex ecosystem. It is a survival mechanism. So is emotion. We sometimes forget that both thought and feeling are necessary for survival in our corner of the universe. Neither one is an end in itself. We can’t quite figure out how these two features of the human brain work together. There are, in other words, some dark corners left in our psyches. I suspect that’s why I find such movies so interesting. They’re not my favorites, but they do serve to remind us of just how little we know. And that’s a scary thought, given how we’ve learned to possess this planet.