February 17, 2019

Where Are All the Jewish Horror Movies?

“Across the Levant, and into the modern-day countries of Iraq and Iran, archaeologists have discovered hundreds of ceramic objects that they refer to as “demon bowls.” Also known as “incantation bowls,” these handheld, shallow, earthenware pots are decorated with an elaborate, delicate Aramaic script circling around their rims, oftentimes with an illustration of a demon at their center. During the height of the Sassanian Empire, incantation bowls were used by Christians, Zoroastrians, and primarily Jews as a means of protective magic against infernal powers.

Demon bowls were operated by being buried upside down in the ground, often near a cemetery, so that any malicious demon would be trapped within their net of Aramaic letters. Viewing pictures of the strange, amateurish-looking yet eerie objects, reminds me of the scene early in William Friedkin’s 1973 adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist when Father Merrin, the film’s titular character, encounters a fearsome, reptilian statue of the Babylonian deity Pazuzu while on an archaeological dig in Iraq. Bowl illustrations appear oddly childlike in their execution, yet that contributes to an overall uncanny sense, a feeling of unease, as if these bowls express some secret we’d be better to remain ignorant of.

The demon bowls are a type of Jewish magic that wouldn’t look out of place in the new horror film The Golem, from directors Doron and Yoav Paz. Halfway through that film we see their main character, a 17th-century Lithuanian Jewish woman named Hanna, as she prepares the creation of a golem, that infamous artificial man of clay endowed with life through Kabbalistic magic. Spread out before her in the flickering light of her wood-timbered home are the theurgic tools of the magician; we see Hanna performing gematria on Hebrew texts, and examining occult symbols; there are diagrams of anatomy and drawings of the clay man. In such a Faustian scene one could easily imagine a stray demon bowl sitting somewhere on the table next to Hanna’s grimoires.

Hanna’s golem exists as a means of protection, in this case against the gentile nobleman whose daughter is afflicted by the plague, and who blames the Jews for her ailment. And, as with those older versions of the story, the creator of the golem discovers that creation is a dangerous act when performed by humans rather than by God. The directors of The Golem, who are Israeli brothers, have explored the horror genre before, in their 2015 film JeruZalem, which portrays a supernatural demon infestation in the Holy City. The Paz brothers revel in their influences, a conscious embrace of allusion that will be enjoyable for any serious horror cinephile.”

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