Seventeen: The Unborn, Trauma, and Jewish Horror Movies

Judaism was one of my early research obsessions. I can’t recall what set me down that path– perhaps it was my resonate appreciation for Fiddler on the Roof or maybe I was just shook about reading The Diary of Anne Frank. Whatever it was, I decided that I had mad respect for Judaism, its culture of tradition (traditionnnn!), and its survival. I checked out all the library books I could find on the subject and made careful notes. I even got my mom’s help with the copy machine and created my own little reference guide to Jewish history, religious stuff, and–most importantly– a guide to Jewish holidays. I observed them in my own way for probably a year. I also decided my dollhouse family was Jewish, and I painstakingly made accessories to go with each holiday and practice as I understood them. I have clear memories of trying to get the dollhouse boy’s yamulke just right for his bar mitzvah. Sometimes I thought about conversion, but my very religious mother would reassure me that it was OK to stay in the Christian lane because all Jewish people were like family to us since our faith was based in theirs. I thought that was nice (still do), and gradually I accepted that partaking in both Christmas and my own weird version of Hanukkah might be a bit excessive.

If all that sounds overly precious and like I was playing a tourist in a culture that I did not understand (particularly in regards to its oppression) without even personally knowing anyone of the faith, you are correct. It was exactly like that.

The Unborn (2009) is a bit like that, too. Despite the fact that writer/director David S. Goyer is Jewish, his movie’s hook– the largely un-mined cinematic exploration of Jewish folklore and horror– is handled thoughtlessly.

What could possibly announce Jewish Horror more effectively than Odette Annable’s booty?

Note: This post is part of an ongoing project, the goal of which is to watch and contemplate every movie in which actor Gary Oldman has appeared (there are many, the man likes to work). Posts tend to contain reviews but are not excluded to that sort of framework– just like Gary when he’s choosing film roles, I’m wildly unpredictable!

As with all parts of this project, the following will probably contain spoilers!

  • The Unborn’s ranking on the Oldometer: 2/10
  • Gary Oldman character quality: Gary plays Rabbi Sendak, the holy man that the heroine calls on to exorcise her pesky dybbuk. It’s a thankless role, but Sendak does supply what little information the movie offers re: how Judaism views and treats the demonic. The idea of a Jewish exorcist is cool, and Oldman breathes life into the movie for the 3 or 4 scenes he is in, but Sendak is sadly a side character who lacks much development (aside from the sensibilities that Oldman naturally brings to the table), which is one of the many poor filmmaking decisions here.
  • Does Gary die in this one? No, but Idris Elba does, which is unfortunate.

I stared at this picture for the LONGEST time wondering why I couldn’t remember this girl wearing such an extravagant hat. It is just a person behind her. I am strangely disappointed.

Many of the influential films of the horror genre have been helmed by Jewish directors: The Shining (Kubrick), Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski), The Omen (Donner), and, perhaps surprisingly, The Exorcist (Friedkin). Some critics have suggested that the success of these filmmakers have had at conceptualizing terror is in part to their cultural background; that Stanley Kubrick’s retelling of Stephen King’s novel has more to do with the Holocaust, for example, or that surely Polanski’s survival of the Holocaust must have bequeathed him with an instinct for what being thisclose to Satan’s baby feels like. Still, there’s a curious dearth of horror films that deal directly with terror in a Jewish context or setting.

Weird, right? Given that scary movies reliably mirror the trends of societal fears from period to period (fascism, breakdown of the nuclear family, atomic warfare, terrorism, environmental destruction, hyper-consumerism, you name it), it’s odd that we haven’t seen much in the way of movie monsters or categorically Jewish victims/survivors/final girls from the most persecuted community of all time. Except that we have, because Holocaust movies exist.

Representational of said existence ^

Germany is considered by many to be the birthplace of movie horror (this is relevant, I promise). In the 20s it cranked out creepy tales, and German Expressionism became popular (high five to my weird man Fritz Lang and his inanimate monkey friend)– and an enormous influence on future films internationally. Then the Third Reich came along and the German film industry was all but destroyed, etc. Post-war, the once illustrious horror genre did not return (it still hasn’t) for a number of reasons, but if I had to guess, I’d say that chief among them was that, for Deutschland, the monsters were now too real. I assume it’s like that for Jewish filmmakers. Why play around with metaphorical beasties or delve into religious folklore when your own recent and ancient history contains a running list of persecution, death, and horrors beyond the pale? Why bother with werewolves when you have nazis (WHEN YOU STILL HAVE NAZIS)?? Spielberg made Schindler’s List, we’ve got Life is Beautiful and Son of Saul, that’s enough scary shit.

Still, there’s so much potential in the folklore that continues to escape Hollywood’s focus, and as we all know, all religions house troves of nightmarish, movie-worthy stuff. That’s just how it works. It’s kinda weird, then, that Catholicism gets dibs on (arguably) the scariest movie of all time. Where is the Jewish Exorcist?

Here he is!

The Unborn could have been that, but it’s way more interested in competing with the generic, jump-scare-riddled teen horror of the 00’s (not a strong subgenre to begin with) to make anything of real, deep-seated terror. It tells the tale of Casey, a young college student who starts to experience Weird Things, like dogs wearing masks, a CGI ghost kid, her dead mom, and swarms of potato bugs showing up at inopportune times (hallucinations? is she cray? what do our movie tropes tell us?). She babysits a real-life kid, who looks an awful lot like Dewey from Malcolm in the Middle and thus cannot be taken seriously, and this little dude does a bunch of weird stuff that doesn’t matter but more importantly he “forebodingly” warns her that “JUMBY WANTS TO BE BORN.”

Since I don’t think you should see this movie (and I’ve had to sit through it twice), I shall now tell you the highlights. Jumby, turns out, is the inexplicably stupid name of Casey’s once-upon-a-time twin who died in utero. Here’s where it gets Jewish: Casey meets up with her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor whom she’s apparently never had a conversation with. Grandma explains that: 1) twins run in the family 2) Grandma and her own twin were concentration camp prisoners as children, and while there, they were experimented on by Josef Mengele (an exceptionally evil real-life nazi) 3) Grandma’s twin was killed during this process, only to be revived as a demon boy– possessed by a dybbuk (a demon from Jewish folklore) 4) Grandma killed the dybbuk-boy, which pissed off the evil spirit, and it has been seeking revenge on the family ever since. 5) Dybbuks love twins (??). Grandma supposes that Casey’s fetal twin was a dybbuk (or a failed attempt at dybbuk possession).

When you just want to get up in the club but the kid from Malcolm in the Middle is harshing your buzz

That’s all potentially powerful stuff– secular Jewish girl gaining awareness of her family’s harrowing past, something that haunts her very DNA. How does one defeat the externally-afflicted, historically rooted evil that victimizes the family tree? There’s also reason to inquire– though the movie never does– as to whether or not Grandma was the more “possessed” of the twins. Was she driven mad by inhuman abuses and prompted to distrust and murder her own brother? The Unborn doesn’t give weight to any of this, and the backstory is imparted in a rushed, superficial manner, with zero cultural style and little reverence for the suffering of Auschwitz victims.

So, Dybbuk’s powers are wildly inconsistent. Dybbuk kills Grandma (why didn’t it do that before?) and Casey’s gal-pal. Casey is worried that she will soon be possessed, so she finds an ancient dybbuk book (again, odd– if Dybbuk can kill people, why would Dybbuk allow research up in here?). She takes it to Rabbi Gary Oldman so he can tell her what’s what.

Here’s some Rabbi Gary flipping through the dybbuk text and making whimsical faces that suggest he does not buy into any of this:

Max von Sydow never had to put up with this crap.

Rabbi Gary is a very down-to-earth holy man. Even though Casey is terrrrribble at explaining ANYTHING except that she’s worried about dybbuk possession, Rabbi Gary patiently agrees to translate the Hebrew script (like he doesn’t have his own Temple business to deal with), and informs Casey (and us) that belief in dybbuks is only folkloric and not canon to Judaism. He’s also dubious about exorcism, a rite he is unqualified to perform (also Casey is not actually possessed yet, which is weird). But after Casey leaves, Rabbi is visited by a demon dog with an upside-down face, so Gary ends up kind of convinced that something dybbuky is afoot. He also gets the demonic apparition to go away by yelling at it to go away, which I guess Casey never thought of trying.

Have you tried NOT being possessed?

In the only press of Oldman’s that I could track down regarding The Unborn, he says he was drawn to this character because everyone knows the exorcist guy, but no one has met the Jewish version. I would interject that Oldman probably accepted the part as a favor to Goyer, who also helped pen the Dark Knight Trilogy, but Gary has a point. More wasted potential– Goyer should have straight up taken a cue from Friedkin’s The Exorcist and made Rabbi Sendak (Gary) a parallel focus of the film. Thanks to the movies and subsequent interest in them, we all have some idea of how Catholic exorcists process, investigate, and follow through on demon-banishing requests. How does that work for Rabbis? If possession is generally dismissed as folklore, how does a Jewish religious leader handle that challenge to the structure of his faith? What’s the criteria for penciling in an old-fashioned exorcism? Is it a scary rite to perform given the lack of contemporary precedent? IS there really a lack of contemporary precedent?

When you exercise your rite to the wind machine

To this, Goyer shrugs, but the exorcism that Rabbi Gary eventually performs starts out pretty interesting (though again, depicted with little flair or reverence). Casey is restrained on a gurney, Rabbi blows the shofar, some Psalms are read (which is at least in part an accurate practice, according to the internet). It all ends up going a bit awry in terms of events and bad CGI, and Dybbuk kills more people, including a Christian minister played by Idris Elba (5-minute inclusion of both character and actor a mystery, but then no one ever seems to know what to do with Elba’s considerable talent and hotness). Finally, Dybbuk possesses Casey’s vanilla boyfriend (not previously mentioned by me because he’s useless), and Rabbi Gary drives out Dybbuk with some more dope Psalms, but it’s too late– boyfriend dead.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall yell alot and see if that helps

What follows is a tacked-on epilogue in which we are informed that Casey is pregnant (thanks to dead boyfriend) with twins. Possibly… dybbuk twins. One could argue that the movie is making a case here for the un-erasable nature of Jewish trauma– even though Casey has acknowledged it, it doesn’t matter, her offspring will have to battle darkness too. Torture is inseparable from their family. Or not, whatever. Maybe The Unborn is the evil twin of Demon, a much better (Polish) film, also about the rarely-featured dybbuk and far-reaching historical trauma (available now on Amazon Prime fyi), but I hope mainstream cinema hasn’t dismissed the intrigue around the subject based on this film’s failure.

As a non-Jew, obviously I must respect that there is a reason why the community has avoided possible exploitation of collective trauma via the cheap thrills of scary movies. Maybe we already have plenty of Jewish horror in the form of the abundantly frightening Holocaust films, but there is something to be said for the therapeutic power of metaphorical monsters– horror movies have long worked as a method of expressing and processing societal fears and suffering. I hope The Unborn doesn’t wind up representing this very small subgenre when the possibility for a more potent, ahem, exorcism exists. On the other hand, maybe the film’s failure is unintentional commentary on the fact that sometimes… exorcisms just don’t work out. In an informative briefing on this subject, Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis dryly remarks: “Interestingly, Jewish exorcisms are occasionally reported to have failed. Apparently, reports of misadventures are virtually non-existent in Catholic tradition. Jews, as always, are highly self-critical.”

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