Dybbuks, shedim, and old neighbors who want to know what you’ve been doing since they last saw you: these are the great horrors of Jewish life. It’s nothing new to use the genre of horror to explore Jewish themes — the past decade or so has seen Possession, The Unborn, and Jeruzalem, while films like The Golem and The Dybbuk have been around since the early 20th century — but Jewish horror movies are rare enough that their mere existence often begs recognition. 2021 sees the release of two Jewish horror films, The Vigil and (hot take) Shiva Baby.
A more straightforward horror film, The Vigil spends the night with Yakov (Dave Davis), a young man who recently left the fold of Hasidism (ultra-Orthodox Judaism). He returns to that world when he’s hired by a rabbi (Menashe’s Menashe Lustig, introduced like Robert Mitchum’s menacing preacher of The Night of the Hunter) to be a shomer (guard who watches over a corpse before it is buried), and encounters a force of spiritual malice inspired by real Jewish lore. He spends a night facing terrors, losing his sense of reality, and reckoning with guilt from his past.
Shiva Baby isn’t billed as a horror, but it sure plays like one. From the first plucks of Ariel Marx’s pizzicato score through the blood-curdling close-up images of old Jews eating fish in slow-motion, the film amps up the emotional tension and threatens to burst at any moment. Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is back in her hometown for a shiva (gathering of mourning), surrounded by nosy former neighbors in what director Emma Seligman calls “a symphony of all her deepest insecurities.” Struggling with her path in life, Danielle finds power in getting herself a sugar daddy (Danny Deferrari). But things fall apart when he shows up at the very same shiva with his wife and baby, of whose existence Danielle was unaware.
The great horror Jews must often reckon with in movies is that of the Holocaust (remember that we suffered), and occasionally of other historical threats to our very existence. But there’s more to being afraid and Jewish than the existential threat of genocide. Since the Exodus, the Jewish identity has been defined by a fear of not living up to the expectations set for us, especially when rebellion and doubt can be met with a harsh response. It is traditionally considered virtuous to fear sin. And it’s hard not to feel something like dread at the annual reading of our liturgy, “Who shall live and who shall die?”
These fears get passed down from generation to generation as we’re forced to explain to friends, loved ones, neighbors, and all those people we don’t care about: What is it that we’re doing in life? What is your purpose for existence? In Shiva Baby, Danielle is asked about the three key areas of life: school, dating, and whether she has an eating disorder. There’s an underlying terror in knowing that the moment you turn your back, people you hardly know might judge your life choices — all while ostensibly comforting the bereaved for the loss of their loved ones.
Under Seligman’s direction and through Sennott’s acting, these fears transcend discomfort. With tight framing, overlapping audio, loud noises, a neverending sense of nervousness and disorientation, and that score that just keeps plucking, prodding, pushing, Shiva Baby becomes a horror of banalities. And it’s all rooted in the authentic Jewish experience of being embarrassed by parents who want to find you dates, interviews, or something else they can just help with. Of being belittled because you’re young and “why don’t you just” listen, behave, etc.? Of feeling trapped because every time you try to leave, it takes at least half an hour for everybody to say goodbye to the right people, or be ready to get in the same car, or find their phone, or finish the new conversation they got caught up in that’s preventing them from helping you escape.
The horrors of Judaism extend beyond the realm of man. Aggadic teachings in the Talmud (a broad category that tends to encompass all but the strictly legal) abound with places and practices to avoid when trying to stay safe from mazikim (harmful spirits). Judaic texts offer a wellspring of rituals and stories that make for interesting opportunities to find horror. The Vigil takes inspiration from almost the same bit of demon lore as the fascinating prologue to the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man: What happens to a Jewish corpse that is left unattended, even momentarily?
As a mazik toys with the mind of Yakov, the protagonist of The Vigil, the film delivers some truly unsettling moments. There is the cliché horror of unexpected blood, insects, and sudden noise, but there’s also the unsettling amount of crunches and cracks coming from all sorts of bodies. Yakov’s psychiatrist (a bit role played by Fred Melamed, always wonderful, who also co-stars in Shiva Baby and A Serious Man) calls to check in, but Yakov has to put him on hold to answer another call. He answers and it’s the same psychiatrist, talking as if he’s only just gotten the chance to call — reality has fractured.
The most Jewish moment in The Vigil, a movie that includes Hasidim, Holocaust flashbacks, and a man dressed in tefillin fighting off an ancient demon? It’s when Yakov, after facing terror after terror, first notices that the dead body he was supposed to be watching has vanished, as if it walked off on its own. He laughs. And he says, “Of course.” Because if you’re Jewish and you’re already suffering, you aren’t surprised when Hashem tosses you one more trouble, just for fun. That’s life!
It’s not a chiddush (novelty) to say that authentic, lived-in representation is a value. The Jewish experience — the one that’s more than just klezmer music and random menorahs in the set dressing — isn’t seen very often, and even less in the form of genre storytelling. But especially when it comes to horror, there’s plenty of Jewishness to choose from, from the personal to the purely elemental. Though The Vigil and Shiva Baby are not the first Jewish horror movies, they’re the most recent reminders of what Judaism has to offer to horror stories and genre storytelling. Keith Thomas, director of The Vigil, said in an interview that he’s interested in making more Jewish horror. Nu, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing.