The horror: films inspired by nightmarish Jewish folklore

Jewish mythology is filled with wholesome and benevolent characters as well as malicious creatures that have inspired numerous depictions by Jewish and non-Jewish authors and filmmakers alike
Amir Bogan|
Many ancient cultures have mythologies filled with heroes and monsters, which have become Hollywood blockbusters. However, the Jewish lore, despite its vast richness with characters such as Samael, Azazel, and Lilith, has yet to receive the attention it deserves.
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מתוך "הקורבן"
מתוך "הקורבן"
From 'The Offering'
(Photo: Playnet)
A new Israeli series called "The Malevolent Bride" now attempts to revive interest in Jewish mythology among the country's audiences with a supernatural thriller. The show features an ultra-Orthodox psychiatrist and secular physicist teaming up to take down a demon that is lurking in one of Jerusalem's most religious neighborhoods.
The trend of adapting Jewish mythology into movies began in 1915 with German film director Paul Wegener, who revisited the Jewish tale of the Golem. This mythical beast originated in Prague during the 16th century and was said to have been created from clay and sorcery by Jewish rabbis in order to protect local Jews from persecution.
Wegener would produce two more films about the Golem. One sequel depicts a woman falling in love with the clay automaton in 1917, while the other depicts its creation in 1920 as a prequel.
Czech director Martin Frič created his own version of the Golem legend. In the original story, the Golem was created from a large clay figure. However, in the 1951 film "The Emperor and the Golem," Emperor Rudolf II seeks to find the remains of the clay man and bring them back to life.
For over sixty years, the tale of the Golem was forgotten until Doron and Yoav Paz revisited it in the 2018 horror thriller "The Golem."
Likewise, the 2015 Israeli film "Jeruzalem," an English-language post-apocalyptic movie, tells the story of a group of American tourists who discover, upon arriving in Jerusalem, that a portal to hell has been opened, unleashing demonic creatures described in Jewish kabbalistic texts and sttiring chaos in the city.
"Like all children who grew up in Israel, we learned about the holidays and stories from the Torah in kindergarten. And somehow, even the cheerful songs and coloring books couldn't hide the dark and creepy side that lurks in them," the Paz brothers told Ynet.
"We've always been drawn to stories that have a dark side - it's a wonderful way to challenge characters and bring drama to their maximum in the minimal amount of time. At some point, we realized that we don't have to resort to European or Christian myths - there are so many Jewish ones as well. That’s how we made ‘Jeruzalem’ and 'The Golem.’
But there are so many more creatures, monsters, demons, and spirits that trace their origins back to Jewish sources. Dozens of stories are hiding between the pages and just waiting for someone to bring them to the silver screen."

India's Dybbuk craze

The Eastern Europe Jewish myth of the dybbuk, a malevolent spirit that possesses a person's body to commit evil acts and crimes, has had a long history of theatrical and cinematic interpretations.
The first theatrical show premiered in Israel in 1922, after author and poet Hayim Nahman Bialik translated the script into Hebrew. In 1937, a movie called "The Dybbuk" was released in theaters in Poland, with characters even speaking Yiddish. An Israeli film with the same name was released in 1968.
The original tale also inspired William Friedkin, the celebrated American director who was born to Ukrainian Jewish parents that fled to the U.S. following pogroms in their country. Friedkin directed the horror classic "The Exorcist" in 1973.
Other films also touched on the subject - 1997 saw the release of Israeli film "Forbidden Love", while in Poland, filmmaker Marcin Wrona directed "Demon" starring Israeli actor Itay Tiran alongside a local cast in 2015.
Hollywood has also had its share in the dybbuk trend with the 2012 movie "The Possession," directed by Danish filmmaker Ole Bornedal, in which a girl finds a mysterious box containing an evil spirit that takes over her.
In 2014, Danish filmmaker Gabriel Bier Gislason also made his own version of the dybbuk story in his horror thriller "Attachment," which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. The movie combines Jewish tradition with a lesbian love story.
Surprisingly, the dybbuk tale has grown popular in India as well. Director Johnny Gaddaar directed the 2017 thriller "Ezra," which revolves around a box inscribed with the Hebrew words "Abraham Ezra" in memory of a Jewish man who was attacked by a young woman with whom he had a secret affair.
In an act of revenge, his father Jacob uses the Kabbalah to preserve his son's soul inside a dybbuk box, which later possesses the protagonist who happens to stumble upon it. The Bollywood hit has since been remade in an updated version called "Dybbuk" four years later.
The plots of the dybbuk and the Golem, as well as black magic, are developments of Jewish folklore that go far back in time. But Jewish mythology has even more ancient and no less mysterious roots, some of which featured monstrous imaginary characters.
In the case of W.D. Hogan his 2011 television movie "Behemoth," brings to life a colossal monster mentioned in ancient Hebrew texts that has been slumbering for millions of years, and whose awakening could lead to the end of humanity.
Darren Aronofsky attempted to present the story of Noah in his 2014 film aptly named after the biblical hero. In order to enhance the drama and fantastic impact, stone giants were also depicted in the movie, which are based on the Nephilim mentioned in the Book of Genesis as unholy offspring of angels and human women.
When it comes to Jewish mythology, the most popular figure in American cinema is Lilith, a lustful demoness according to one version, and the first wife of Adam according to another. In the 2017 movie “But Deliver Us From Evil” by Joshua Coates, she seeks revenge against humanity for the injustice that befallen her after the first man banished her from the Garden of Eden.
The demoness has been featured in various low-budget horror films such as 2018’s "Lilith”, in which she preys on men who fall into her trap, or another film of the same name released the following year, in which she’s summoned by a woman seeking revenge against those who have wronged on her.
Other horrors are brought to the screen in Ryan Guiterman’s rotoscope animation in the thriller "Canvas", in which an evil demon known as "the Painter" confesses to being the offspring of "God" and the Jewish devil "Hillel ben Shahar", a character that inspired the mythological character of Lucifer, both of whom rejected him due to his desire to create life.
"When I started writing 'Canvas', I had difficulty creating a mythological demon character that would be both complex and provocative," Guiterman told Ynet.
"Although I tried to come up with an original fantasy, the different characteristics didn't blend well together. Only when I delved deeper and read the legends and ancient texts from the Kabbalah, was I able to create a unique and scary demon in the spirit of tradition."
Though many may think that the recent rise in Judaism-based horror movies may be an indication of the rise of antisemitism in the U.S., local producers say the opposite is true, and such movies are made to present pride in their Jewish heritage.
Those include Raphael Margules and J.D. Lifshitz a duo of producers from the Orthodox Jewish community in New York, who released 2019’s film "The Vigil", in which a Jewish man who turned secular, is forced to face a Jewish demon named Mazzik (harmful) while keeping watch over a dead body.
Joining the long list of films is UK-born director Oliver Park’s newest horror film “The Offering”, released in 2022.
The plot revolves around a Jewish man who left his ultra-Orthodox religious family in Brooklyn in order to marry a Christian woman, who becomes pregnant with his child. The two arrive back at his family home where his father runs a morgue.
The film’s horror cliches eventually lead to the detriment of the Christian woman, as if mocking her for daring to attempt to enter the Jewish world that’s unfitting for her, even when it seemed like it had accepted her at first.
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