By Danny Anderson
Horror films are shapeshifters by nature. They emerge into the world at a given time and place and contort themselves to embody the anxieties, fears, and hopes of their moment.
For those interested in religion, horror has been, justifiably so, a primary cinematic genre to explore. No other kind of film takes religion as seriously as horror does; many films directly imply a Christian metaphysics, and many of those that do not (the largely-materialist slashers, for example) often embody a form of conservative Christian morality where sinners are punished for their sins.
It is an interesting question (though one too big for the scope of this essay) as to why Western horror’s religious imagination is so dominated by the Christian religion. Though they exist, there are scarce examples of Islamic or Jewish horror films. However, there is a recent example of a Jewish horror film that I’d like to give some attention to.
2019’s The Vigil, Keith Thomas’s excellent film about a Mazzik, a demon from Jewish folklore, was finally released in the United States in February 2021 and marks a significant contribution to religious horror. Tense, atmospheric, and emotionally moving, the film joins the ranks of recent movies like The Babadook, Get Out, and Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep, psychological horror films that explore trauma and redemption.
What I want to focus on here, however, is how The Vigil takes the shape of certain powerful religious anxieties in contemporary America.
The plot of The Vigil is tightly focused. Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis), a Jewish man in the process of exiting his Orthodox Jewish community, finds himself short on money, so he agrees to serve as a paid Shomer for the recently deceased Mr. Litvak (Ronald Cohen) at the behest of Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig). Yakov agrees to sit vigil overnight with Litvak’s body in accordance with Jewish custom. Yakov, living with the traumatic guilt of watching his little brother die in an act of antisemitic violence, learns that Litvak also suffered from severe guilt throughout his life after his own traumatic experience as a Holocaust survivor who was forced by guards to execute a fellow Jewish prisoner. As the vigil progresses, Yakov learns that a Mazzik had attached itself to Litvak and fed on his guilt throughout his life, and now that backwards-facing demon is seeking to devour Yakov in like manner.
Religious Community and Religious Trauma
I was initially drawn to The Vigil out of a gratitude for its uniquely Jewish contribution to horror. And make no mistake, the film pays exquisite attention to its Jewish details. The filmmakers and actors have taken great care to represent Judaism beautifully and respectfully on screen, which is a blessing in itself. But the specific focus on Judaism should not alienate viewers of other (or even no) faiths. Though it explores a particularly Jewish world, there are universal questions being asked. Very quickly in my viewing, it dawned on me how the film’s meditations on faith and religious communities also profoundly speak to the anxieties of Christian communities in America right now.
Call it what you will: Evangelicalism, White Evangelicalism, Conservative Christianity, or Fundamentalism (I personally find such semantic debates of limited use — mainly academic graduate programs and Twitter). For much of the past two decades, Christian communities loosely classified under those headings have been grappling with the consequences of authoritarian and abusive cultural practices that are sometimes indiscernible from the theology of those communities. Since 2016, the election of Donald Trump, and the widespread (and solidifying) support of Trump by vast majorities of those white Evangelicals, the decades of tension have accelerated into seismic fractures. Scores of young Evangelicals and Millennials who grew up in the church have vacated those spaces, often under the banner of “Exvangelical.” There are exploding numbers of people from these communities claiming freedom from their institutional abuse.
This movement finds parallels in The Vigil’s opening scene. Yakov and several friends sit around a dining room table and their conversation soon reveals this to be a kind of support group for Jews who have left ultra-Orthodox religious communities in Brooklyn, New York. It is clear that these are men and women who have sacrificed much for their freedom as their choices have cut them off from all the life they have known. Yet their identity as Jews is still important to them. Yakov’s support group have simply made the decision to pursue a Jewish life outside the authoritarian bonds of their former religious community.
One of the reasons I was so drawn to Yakov as a character is the bravery of his religious decision. And I think his example is a powerful one to consider, Evangelical and Exvangelical alike.
Faith in the Balance
I have a strange relationship with my faith community (since this is about a horror film, maybe we’ll call it uncanny). I’m from a low-church Protestant denomination that shares many features and theological beliefs with what we may call “Evangelicals,” but I’m old enough to have missed out on seminal Evangelical moments like Kissing Dating Goodbye. So much of what has been codified as “Evangelical” in terms of culture was kind of alien to me. But the theologies of sin and punishment are part of my spiritual DNA and, like many Exvangelicals, I still grapple with the consequences of those belief systems.
Yet I am not an Exvangelical either. For no significant time in my life have I ever left “The Church.” I’ve always been comfortably uncomfortable at the margins of my faith community, baffled by both the residual Evangelical hegemony and its Exvangelical rebels. It’s lonely in here.
For these reasons and others, I was moved by Yakov’s tenuous relationship with his former community. Though he has chosen to leave his community, there remains a thin connection that he does not sever.
For example, when Yakov finds Reb Shulem waiting for him outside his support group meeting, he does not ignore his former spiritual leader. Instead, he addresses him with an awkwardness appropriate to the state of the strained relationship. When informed of Reb Shulem’s dilemma (Litvak’s Shomer has backed out at the last minute), Yakov rejects the offer until his asking price is met; in short, he claims some power back in the relationship.
In the end, he chooses to help his former community, but on his own terms. It is a delicate balance, and Yakov will straddle that line the rest of the film.
Guilt and Antisemitism
I must pause briefly to explain a difficulty in writing this essay. Being particularly moved by the religious struggle portrayed in The Vigil, I have attempted to translate its meaning for a Christian reader (or readers of any faith who grapple with the complexities of maintaining faith in flawed communities), but the film is a Jewish work of art through and through, and this fact must be acknowledged.
The demon from Jewish folklore at the center of the film, the Mazzik, is notable for its twisted head, which always looks backwards. This is symbolic of its power over the person it afflicts; it traps them forever in a moment of profound guilt from their past. For Litvak, it was the horrible deed he was forced to perform as a Jew in a concentration camp. For Yakov, it is helplessly watching as his younger brother dies during an act of anti-semitic street violence he is unable to stop.
Therefore, the narrative and emotional power of the film lies in its focus on the Jewish experience with antisemitism throughout history. While I think that the film provides rich material for thinking people of all faiths to examine their own relationships with their religious communities, it is vital to recognize the fact that this is a story about the Jewish experience, first and foremost.
A Part of, and Apart From
Guilt, however, is a feature of many faith communities. Fear and guilt are not the exclusive domain of the Mazzik. Authoritarians like Mark Driscoll employ them to keep the flock in line all the time.
The trick, for those of us wrestling with the emotional baggage of our faith communities, is what to do with the faith those institutions carried down to us. Religious institutions carry tension-filled spirituality through time and space. Over time, like anything taking corporeal form, institutions decay and calcify, and may betray the values they are attempting to house. But the question is, how much of the blame is to be placed on the faith itself and how much on the infinitely corruptible institutions that contain it? Furthermore, how can one be disentangled from the other? And how might one reject guilt in the wake of leaving those institutions (metaphorically or physically)?
At the film’s climax, Yakov finally confronts the demon holding sway over Litvak even after death. In a moving and dramatic scene, Yakov sets aside his doubts and animosity towards his Orthodox past. He passionately reads the scriptures and releases Litvak from its hold. In the act of doing so, he frees himself from its grip as well.
In this climax, Yakov relies on a version of the faith that lies within himself, not one dictated upon him from the leadership of his Orthodox community. This is moving and profound and marks a significant growth in spiritual maturity. The Mazzik is overcome by a sincere engagement with a purer faith unburdened by the cultural baggage of an institution.
Yet with this liberation comes perhaps the most difficult-to-accept conclusion for those who break free of their religious communities; Yakov, with a new confidence in himself and his faith, does not entirely break ties with his old Reb Shulem.
When the rabbi returns in the morning to collect Litvak’s body, he invites Yakov to morning prayer, which Yakov declines. But this time, Yakov speaks with his former leader man to man, with confidence, but also with a renewed respect. He says, “I know you mean well. I know this. Another time,” then walks out into the morning.
The moment is almost paradoxical. The harrowing struggle out of an oppressive Orthodoxy to a sincere individual faith doesn’t empower Yakov to make a final break from his old institution. Instead, he uses his new confidence to begin healing the fractured relationship and even leaves the door open to a reconciliation down the line.
It is a baffling and difficult moment for those of us who struggle with our faith communities. Yakov has chosen a life between two lives. A foot inside and a foot outside Orthodoxy.
The film ends with Yakov walking out into the morning, exhausted but renewed. He texts a woman from his support group and they agree to meet for coffee. Several steps behind him, into a fuzzy background a shadow emerges from the house and seems to begin following him. The Mazzik may never fully leave him alone, but Yakov is really not alone anymore. He maintains cordial ties to his old community and ventures forward into his new one. His faith empowered through his struggle.
Danny Anderson teaches English at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA. He received his Ph.D. in English from Case Western Reserve University. He teaches a range of Rhetoric, Literature, and Film classes at the Mount, including classes on the Jewish American Novel, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Franz Kafka, the Literature of Pittsburgh, and the Classic Horror Film. He also produces and hosts the Sectarian Review Podcast, which investigates art, pop culture, politics, and religion.