Jewish Horror Films: The Possession (2012)

If you do a Google search for "Jewish horror film," 2012's "The Possession" is the first and most common search result. It is also the only explicitly Jewish film produced by Sam Raimi, who, like fellow horror directors J. J. Abrams, Larry Cohen, David Cronenberg, William Friedkin, Stanley Kubrick, John Landis, Eli Roth, Rod Serling, and Stanley Kubrick, is Jewish. And like the others, his Jewishness sometimes seems to inform his filmmaking, but is almost never explicit.

There really aren't that many Jewish horror movies, for some reason, despite the number of Jewish directors who make this sort of film, and a number of Jewish actors who regularly appear in horror movies, including Peter Lorre from the classic era of horror films and more contemporary performers like Eva Green, Daniel Radcliffe, and the recently deceased Anton Yelchin, all of whom staked out iconic roles in films of the uncanny.

I'm not quite sure why this is. Jews not only have a vivid folk heritage to draw from that is just teeming with demons, monsters, and curses, but also a sizable body of supernatural and occult literature. But for whatever reason this hasn't often translated to the screen.

I suspect the main reason "The Possession" wound up having Jewish content because it claims to be based on a true story, and that true story was inextricably Jewish. In fact, the story is closer to an online trend called creepypasta, which are urban legends, of a sort, that make the rounds through the internet, often without any attribution. This isn't that, exactly, but it's a closely related trend that I will call "haunted eBay." In this instance, an object on the online auction site eBay is promoted as being haunted, which gooses its value considerably, although most also include a "this is for entertainment only" notice, perhaps fearing legal action when it turns out the burned doll they sold is just a burned doll and not a spirit of the angry departed.

In this case, the haunted object in question was a wine casket. According to the original listing of the item, it was bought at an estate sale in Portland in 2001 and had been the possession of a concentration camp survivor. The family claimed the woman called the casket a "dibbuk box" and behaved superstitiously toward it. Opening it, the casket contained a few strange, seemingly totemic items, such as a wine cup and a sculpture inscribed in Hebrew.

At once, terrible things started happening: A break-in at the seller's store, the seller's mother suffering a stroke, etc. The item sold, and then resold, a series of sellers who all claimed to have had traumatic experiences upon owning the box, although I suspect this is actually an example of what I'll call "haunted object flipping," where an eBay reseller hopes to make more money off the sale of a supposedly haunted object by adding to the story.

And I love this story. I don't care whether the box was actually haunted or not. I love that there is a strange market for objects made special by urban legends, and that this has been supercharged by the web. I don't know what the movie version of that story might have been, but I would have enjoyed watching it.

This is not that story. "The Possession" instead follows the barest outline of the original story on the oringal eBay posting, with a child buying a Hebrew-carved box from and infirm old woman (possibly Polish, possibly Jewish, possibly a Holocaust survive, although all three are hinted at rather than made explicit, and, even then, barely hinted at.) The girl opens the box and all sorts of terrible things happen. And since this is called a dibbuk box, the film's screenwriters (Juliet Snowden and Stiles White) borrow a little bit from the Jewish story of the dybbuk, which is a ghost or malevolent demon that possesses people. So the little girl is possessed.

As every other critic has pointed out, a lot of this is cribbed from "The Exorcist," and not necessarily well. Even so, the film has its pleasures. Even though the dybbuk box is Jewish, the family at the center of the story is not, including the father. He's played by the gruffly handsome Jeffrey Dean Morgan, an actor I have always liked, and he limns his role with a crinkly-faced concern for his daughter. He also does something I approve of: He immediately believes something supernatural is afoot. I do not like movies where characters insist on behaving like skeptics, because, in my experience, the average human will immediately blame any door that blows closed on a ghost. We're not just inclined to believe supernatural experiences, we actively seek them out.

While the film was produced by Raimi, whose named was featured prominently in the promotional materials, the actual director was Danish filmmaker Ole Bornedal, and he brings a sort of stately formality to the film, making it almost a Danish modernist version of a horror movie: If this was an end chair, it would be sleek, elegant, and primarily functional. It hard not to wish Raimi were the director, as the movie could have used his signature hysteria. Nonetheless, the movie literalises the dybbuk's possession in an entertaining way: The possessed girl actually has a tiny monster living in her that occasionally makes efforts to emerge, most startlingly in a scene in which she examines the inside of her mouth with a flashlight and see two fingers dart up from the back of her throat.

The film also presumes that, because dybbuks are Jewish spirits, it will take a Jew to get rid of it, and so they bring in beatboxer and reggae singer Matisyahu as a sort of punky Hasidic exorcist. There's an entire scene set in Borough Park (presumably subbed in by a Vancouver neighborhood, as the movie was filmed there, and looks it) filled with be-shtreimeled Hasids sitting around a dimly lit, empty room, muttering darkly and unhelpfully about Jewish folklore. There is a rebbe in the center of this room, speaking Yiddish with the grim determination of somebody turning down a bank loan. The Hasids all leap back in terror when they see the wine casket, which is contrary to my reading of historical Hasids, who would have leaped toward the thing, stretching out wine glasses and crying out it was time to makh a tikkun.

I would have liked more of this sort of thing, but it is not forthcoming. Instead, we are left with the non-Jewish family in the basement of a hospital, with Matisyahu circling them with a tallis over his head, shouting Deuteronomy 6:5 in Hebrew, if I caught the Hebrew right, which is mostly directions for wearing tefillin and I did not know it could be used to exercise a ghost. Spoiler: After a few hiccups, the prayer works, and the dybbuk crawls back into his box, looking like an exceptionally crabby baby.

The film has a typically ambivalent coda, which I shall not spoil, but I was left hoping that there would be something else: After all, a non-Jewish family has just discovered they live in a Jewish universe, or at least the supernatural world is Jewish. What do you do with that knowledge?

I feel like you would have to become Jewish, wouldn't you? I mean, if tefillin prayers will send demon babies into wine caskets, there must be something to Judaism, mustn't there?

Maybe that's why there are not so many Jewish horror movies. Because for the audience to enjoy them, to suspend their disbelief, they must watch a movie set in a Jewish universe, where Jewish mystical and theological conceptions work, and are correct, and that's asking a lot of a mostly non-Jewish audience. Horror films are usually set in a world with no overarching theology, are set in a Christian world, or, in the case of folk horror movies, are set in a world in which ancient paganism is in conflict with Christianity.

This is not that. This is a story where gentiles are characters in a Jewish world, and, if there is one thing the past few years have shown, the majority is very rarely comfortable being relegated to being supporting players in any story. They can't see someone with a sign that says "black lives matter" without screaming "all lives matter," they can't see a women's only space without demanding to know why men are excluded, they can't stand to hear themselves described as cisgender, because how dare transgender people come up with a word to describe people who are not trans.

It's hard to tell a story set in the world of a minority, even when you make gentiles the main characters, as in this film. See what happens when filmmakers try to market films about the black experience to white audience members, and what happens when filmmakers cast women in lead roles in films typically dominated by men. It seems to me that it happens with horror films, even if the directors are Jewish, even if the actors are Jewish.

I'm going a little off topic here, but I wonder if this might also explain another phenomenon: That of the Jewish character who is instead presented as being Italian, as happened with half of the cast of Seinfeld and the entirety of Everybody Loves Raymond. Perhaps the fear is that audiences can stand Jews up to a point,  especially in comic roles, but don't want to have to inhabit a Jewish universe to do so. I just did a series of articles on films set in Jewish summer camps, and in almost every case the Jewishness of the film was subsumed almost to the point of invisibility.

I don't know. Maybe it's strange to want a movie in which Jewish victims are torn to pieces by Jewish monsters. I don't think so, though. I have done some film work in my life, including playing a chinless zombie in a movie shot in Waco and a zombie with an intact chin for an internet commercial shot in Los Angeles, and it's a lot of fun. Horror movies are fun, period.

Maybe Jews should get to have that sort of fun once in a while.