DEMON And The History Of The Dybbuk, Zombie Warhol and MORE!
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The Bite #91
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DEMON And The History Of The Dybbuk, Zombie Warhol and MORE!

January 07, 2020

In this Issue:


By Lindsay Traves*

An endless stream of ghosts, demons, and monsters have been lifted from the realm of religion and adapted into on-screen terrors. Though these are often taken from Christianity, there are ruthless baddies that have been lifted from Judaism. The most common of the Jewish spooks is an old one known as the dybbuk.

Deriving its name from Yiddish, a Central and Eastern European Jewish language, the dybbuk is a demon that has made its way into films like A Serious ManThe Unborn, and The Possession. One of its most true-to-lore portrayals, however, was in 2015’s Polish horror movie, Demon.

So what is a dybbuk? It differs most from the familiar Christian demons in that it is not a cohort of Satan. Rather, a dybbuk is a soul separated from the body of a formerly living person, left behind after death, seeking to possess a living person to carry out their unfinished business.

Not mentioned in any Talmudic (Jewish Rabbinical) texts, the dybbuk was a common belief of medieval Jews, and its name showed up in literature the 17th Century from Eastern European Jewish vernacular. It comes from the phrase “dybbuk me-ru’ah ra’ah”, meaning “the cleavage of an evil spirit”. “To cleave”, from texts of Kabbalah, refers to the act of a spirit latching onto a body, the action for which this demon earned its moniker.

The dybbuk was a popular scapegoat for certain illnesses, especially in the 16th and 17th Centuries where those suffering from mental illness were taken to Rabbis for an exorcism of the foreign spirit.

Demon is one of the truer adaptations of the dated lore, wherein a man is possessed by the soul of a dead woman on his wedding day. Reminiscent of The Dybbuk, a play by Jewish writer S. Ansky which popularized the legend, Demon is about love, marriage, and disapproving fathers. In the play, the bride is possessed by her would-be groom after her father reneged on the marriage agreement. In Demon, on the day of his wedding, a groom is possessed by the soul of a would-be bride buried outside his rural home, previously owned by his own bride’s disapproving father.

The film also serves as an allegory for Polish and Jewish post-war relations, wherein the Jewish Piotr marries his non-Jewish bride and soon after becomes the vessel for the spirit of a dead Jewish woman here to carry out unfinished business. This depiction closely mirrors 17th Century dybbuk beliefs, depicting a doctor convinced that Piotr is mentally ill and a priest assuming he’s possessed by a demon. But it’s a Jewish teacher, one of the only Jews remaining in the town after the war, who recognizes the work of a dybbuk.

Though not as commonly explored or accurately depicted as their Christian counterparts, there are a host of Sheydim, or Jewish demons, screaming to be brought to life on the silver screen. We can only hope they’ll be treated as respectfully as the dybbuk in Demon.

*Lindsay Traves is a Toronto-based writer. After submitting her Bachelor’s thesis, “The Metaphysics of Schwarzenegger Movies”, she decided to focus on writing about her passions; sci-fi, horror, sports, and comic books. You can find her writing on Daily DeadStarTrek.comNightmarish Conjurings, and Bloody Disgusting and can follow her work on Twitter @smashtraves.


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