‘Hotel Transylvania 2’ Perfectly Captures Jewish Assimilation

To my surprise, this 2015 animated Adam Sandler film gets at the heart of the American Jewish story.

“You let your daughter marry a human and have a human kid? Why don’t you just put a stake through my heart?” great-grandpa Vlad (voiced by a very recognizable, very Jewish Mel Brooks) says to his son Dracula (Adam Sandler) in the final act of 2016’s animated children’s comedy Hotel Transylvania 2.

“We don’t hate humans anymore,” says Drac, “and they don’t hate us.”

“You’re a fool,” Vlad spits back.

It’s a heavy exchange for a movie mostly concerned with sight gags, action scenes, and strobe-lit dance parties to Fifth Harmony songs. The moment passes, and soon the movie is coming to a close, with humans and vampires dancing joyfully together to one of the aforementioned bops. Still, we can’t un-hear Vlad’s ominous words.

For you real adults who probably read books or something, the Hotel Transylvania series is about vampires who run a hotel for monsters. In the first installment, Dracula’s daughter Mavis falls in love with a human, and Drac, who has feared and hated humans since they murdered his wife a century ago, has to learn to accept this human into his family. (It’s okay, the vampires won’t eat him — they drink a vegan blood substitute.) In the second, Mavis and her husband have a half-human, half-vampire child. Hijinks and identity politics ensue.

The movie, written by two famously Jewish men, Adam Sandler and Robert Smigel, and directed by fellow Jew Genndy Tartakovsky, explores how four generations of vampires relate to the dangers of assimilation. You know, kids movie stuff.

mavis dennis and dracula
Mavis, Dennis, and Dracula (L to R) via YouTube

The new child, Dennis (or Dennisovich, his “vampire name”) is culturally totally human. His favorite things are Batman, cake, and sharing.

Dennis’s mother Mavis, meanwhile, has only ever known the monster life. Now married to a human, Mavis is starting to feel stifled by her old-fashioned Transylvanian life. She’s excited to go out into the human world and try fun things like Slurpees and BMX biking. Soon, however, she realizes that the humans are treating her like an outsider. (“Mike was afraid he’d get disemboweled and eaten,” her human mother-in-law says, laughing, “but I told him he was just being silly.”) Mavis is finally developing an awareness of what it means to be a monster in a world of humans.

“Maybe if Dennis grows up away from Transylvania,” she tells her husband, “he won’t be so freaky. Like me.”

If this is all starting to sound like an allegory for the assimilated Jewish American experience, that’s because it just might be.

Before we get to Drac and the deeply uncomfortable ways he relates to his vampirism, let’s take a step back. These vampires are Jewy: the hotel’s outdated entertainers and fitness offerings seem straight out of the Catskills, Drac learned all the vampire traditions at his vampire sleepaway camp, and Mavis loves her mother’s old “monster ball soup” recipe. However, they’re far from the first Hebraic Transylvanians. There’s a long history of vampires as stand-ins for Jews, and it’s… not great.

Jews have been depicted as vampire-like creatures as far back as the Middle Ages, and the blood libel — the idea that Jews bake the blood of murdered Christian children into matzah — dates back to 1144. More recently, the German word blutsauger (blood-sucker) was a popular antisemitic slur in the late 18- and early 1900s and was employed by everyone from Hitler to Churchill. Even Dracula, as Bram Stoker originally wrote him, is considered by many to be an antisemitic caricature created out of fear of Jews’ other-ness.

Too Academic; Didn’t Read: Depictions of vampires have been used against Jews for like a thousand years.

If the worst part of these depictions is that they make Christians even more afraid of Jews, the best part is that they make Christians even more afraid of Jews. At least, that’s how Hotel Transylvania 2‘s Dracula sees it. Adam Sandler’s parents taught him, “When you hear an anti-Semitic thing, the move is to punch somebody.” Dracula takes a similar approach. In the first movie, we learn that he’s tried to keep Mavis far away from humans for her whole life to protect her. In this movie, on the other hand, he takes Dennis right out into the human world and tries to teach him how to scare the humans.

It’s a tough scene to watch — Drac tries to get all the monsters to scare humans, but they don’t want to terrorize anyone. (“Listen,” says Wayne Werewolf, “I’m not gonna set monsters back again just to make your grandkid like vampires.”) The monsters’ eventual feeble attempts at being scary fail miserably.

Dracula is deeply afraid of humans — after all, he watched them take away the love of his life. If Dennis can scare the humans, Drac seems to believe, Dennis will have power. He’ll be safe. But this fails — if there’s power in vampirism, it’s not in its monstrousness.

mel brooks as vlad
Mel Brooks as Vlad via YouTube

Where Drac at least reckons with the human world, Vlad totally ignores it. He lives with a bunch of bats in a faraway cave. When he sees that there are humans in his family, his first instinct is to attack. Moments later, however, Dennis’s life is endangered by one of Vlad’s monster bat companions, and Vlad protects Dennis. He’s decided that family is more important than whether someone’s a human or a vampire.

Vlad’s instant 180 is to be expected, given Hotel Transylvania 2‘s target audience. It would be a weird story for the 6-year-olds if Vlad remained too deeply traumatized by centuries of human cruelty to know how to love the human side of his family. That wouldn’t be very fun, and it wouldn’t sell toys. It might, however, be a more honest story.

The film’s writers Sandler and Smigel have worked throughout their careers with the tension of being Jews in a world of non-Jews. Smigel has often played with audiences’ fear of the other, casting himself as antisemitic stereotypes, creating characters that toy with audiences’ discomfort around Orthodox Judaism, and relishing parents’ unease when he gets their children to sing along to “If You’re Jewish and You Know It.” One of the most memorable SNL sketches Smigel wrote, at least for the show’s secular Jewish fans, was a sketch called “Christmastime for the Jews” (called “The Assimilated Jew’s Christmas” in its earliest iterations): “Well it happens every year on Christmas Eve / All the happy Christian people take their leave / Yeah, the streets are deserted, and that’s big news: / It’s Christmastime for the Jews.”

While Smigel has focused on facing antisemitism head-on, Sandler, contrary to his parents’ teaching, took a less confrontational approach.“[Sandler] grew up in New Hampshire, where he had to deal with antisemitism,” Smigel explained, according to Arie Kaplan’s afore-linked article. “Now he likes being a strong role model for Jewish kids.” Sure enough, from giving Jews our own (deeply imperfect) animated holiday special to creating a (deeply imperfect) comedy about Middle Eastern politics, Sandler’s been repping Jews for decades.

Contrary to all the stereotypes about Jews in comedy, Sandler and Smigel bonded over being among the few Jews in the room at SNL. No wonder then that they were drawn to the themes of outsider-dom and anxiety in the Hotel Transylvania series. Their vampires are simply grappling with the questions and fears that Sandler and Smigel have always grappled with, though it’s unclear whether anyone — vampire or comedy writer — has come out safely on the other side.

Today, in the real world, the bloodsucking accusations are back. As if the recent increase in antisemitic attacks weren’t enough, now we have the astronomical rise of QAnon to worry about. The blood libel has returned, and the danger to Jews today, assimilated or otherwise, is very real.

So sure, Hotel Transylvania 2 ends with a fun party where the humans and vampires all get along, and no one kills anyone. But with Vlad’s warning lingering in the air — if you think you’re safe here, “you’re a foolHotel Transylvania 2 might be the scariest Halloween movie of all.

Header image from Hotel Transylvania 2

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