You might imagine that the past hundred years of Jewish history have been sufficiently horrendous to preclude the possibility of a Jewish horror film. And you might be right. But that has hardly deterred people from trying to make one. This week we have The Possession, produced by horror-meister Sam Raimi and based on a “true story”—or perhaps an Internet bobe-mayse—about a ceremonial “wine cabinet” that contains a dybbuk. (The mordent slasher flick Kalevet [Rabies] was touted as Israel’s first horror film when it was released in late 2010, a few months before the straight-t0-DVD Hate’s Haunted Slay Ride, billed by its distributor as “the world’s first Jewish horror film” complete with a Torah-wielding rabbi battling supernatural evil.)
A dybbuk, in Jewish folklore, is a wandering soul, usually male and not so much evil as confused, that takes up residence in the body of young woman. S. An-Sky collected numerous accounts of this phenomenon in his pre-World War I ethnographic expedition through the Russian Pale; these formed the basis for his poetic drama The Dybbuk, which was first performed in Yiddish in 1920. The Possession, or at least the movie’s back story, conjures up a more modern dybbuk, associated with the Holocaust and publicized online: A 103-year-old grandmother leaves behind the mysterious “Dybbuk box” she brought with her from Nazi-occupied Poland. Purchased at an estate sale, the box seems to inflict extravagant bad luck on an Oregon antiques dealer who, describing the object as a “wine cabinet,” puts it on eBay, complete with a lurid caveat emptor. The object is bought for $140 by a Missouri college student who also suffers a series of mysterious misfortunes; he sells the box, for twice what he paid, to the curio-collecting curator of the Truman State University Museum. The curator writes a book—his bad luck is that, thanks to a piece in the Los Angeles Times, the story of the Dybbuk Box had already been acquired for the movies (along with the antiques dealer, he is credited as a “production consultant” on the film).
Brought to the screen by an experienced Danish genre director, Ole Bornedale, The Possession is more than competent, drawing heavily on The Exorcist and taking a bit from Poltergeist. In the opening scene, some ominous minor-chord piano doodling prompts an elderly lady, alone in her suburban house somewhere north of New York City, to take a hammer to the family heirloom parked on her mantelpiece, which is evidently driving her crazy. The attack boomerangs in spectacular fashion: The haunted box is put out in a yard sale; there it is spotted and coveted by a young girl in need of comfort as she suffers the trauma of her parents’ divorce. The sadness within her and the spooky stuff inside the box—a ring, a tooth, a hank of hair, and a disembodied voice whispering in a secret language—more or less prompt her increasingly literal-minded possession.
That the girl’s family isn’t Jewish is underscored by her father’s most un-tribal name: Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Nor are they, in any identifiable way, religious. Still, having learned from a professor pal that the box is inscribed with the Hebrew word “dybbuk,” Clyde undertakes an Internet search and, discovering an exorcist named Tzadok, drives down to Borough Park for The Possession’s spookiest scene. The streets are shadowed by the El and filled with Hasidim. Suddenly, all vanish into their shuln except for the mysterious Tzadok, played by one-time Hasidic reggae trip-hopper Matisyahu.
Tzadok takes Clyde into the shul to consult his father, the Rebbe, who, speaking in Yiddish, informs him that the resolution of the girl’s possession “must be left to the will of G-d.” That advice does not sit well with Clyde. “The will of God!?” he explodes, pulling off the protective yarmulke he’d been given to wear. “If this was your child, would you leave it to the will of God???” He storms out, but the rebellious dybbuk-buster Tzadok is still willing to help him: The big exorcism scene—held in a hospital physical therapy room—is both attention-grabbing and risible. Hard not to chuckle when, beleaguered by Tzadok’s chanting, the dybbuk screams at him to “shut up.” It’s as if, in a flashback to an earlier sort of fantasy film, the dybbuk had been spooked by the Jew.
In The Possession, Matisyahu’s game performance does offer a measure of authenticity—less in Jewish than in film-historical terms. The representation of traditional Jews as exotic, uncanny others puts The Possession in the tradition of early German horror films like The Golem (1920), in which Rabbi Loew of Prague creates an ur-Frankenstein’s monster, and Nosferatu (1922), in which a vampire emigrates from deepest Carpathia to Bremen, Germany. Of course, the vampire in Nosferatu isn’t explicitly Jewish, he’s more like an anti-Semitic nightmare—a lascivious, blood-sucking extravagantly hook-nosed Eastern foreigner who arrives in Germany with a plague of rats.
Indeed, 18 years later, the Nazis would characterize their anti-Semitic propaganda as something akin to horror films. In 1940, Fritz Hippler promoted his loathsome Der Ewige Jude, largely filmed in occupied Poland, as “an absolute symphony of horror and disgust,” including an “absolutely truthful” documentary of Jewish ritual slaughter “so awful” as to be inappropriate viewing for Aryan women and children. (Among other “Jewish performances,” the movie included a clip of Peter Lorre—a Jewish refugee—playing the child-murderer in Fritz Lang’s M.)
A few Jewish films produced at Universal (the Hollywood studio most identified with the horror genre) by Central European Jewish émigrés did attempt to answer the Nazi Jewish horror genre. Most notable among these was The Black Cat (1934), Edgar G. Ulmer’s supremely perverse vehicle for Universal’s top stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, released some 15 months after Hitler came to power in Germany. Taking only its title from Edgar Allen Poe, Ulmer’s movie marooned a naïve pair of American honeymooners in Europe’s heart of darkness, where they became unwitting pawns in the death struggle between a hysterical Hungarian psychiatrist (Lugosi) and a proto-Nazi, Satan-worshipping Austrian architect (Karloff) who has built his steel-and-glass deco castle on the site of World War I’s bloodiest battlefield. Despite trafficking in incest, necrophilia, human sacrifice, and sadism—not to mention a black mass with a stylized crooked cross—The Black Cat somehow got past the Production Code to become Universal’s highest-grossing release of 1934. (Then, in a career move without Hollywood precedent, Ulmer relocated to New York to make Yiddish and Ukrainian “ethnic” movies on budgets that sometimes failed to break five figures.)