***Some Spoilers for The Golem (2018)***

Editor’s Note: I’m so excited and honored to announce that Stories For Ghosts has a new contributing writer, Andreana Binder! She’s a talented and whip-smart Houston writer who loves dissecting horror films and books, particularly when it comes to Stephen King and American Horror Story. I can’t wait to see what she has in store for us. First up: Andreana’s review of The Golem.

As an audience, demons derived from Christian/Catholic belief, like in The Nun (2018) or The Conjuring series, are pretty common. Also fairly common are the demons with loose origins, like in Annabelle Creation (2017), and Insidious (2010). Most of the time, we’re dealing with demons from some version of Hell – and while it’s not uninteresting, it’s been done before.

That goes double for all the movies that include the Christian/Catholic Devil – again, the devil isn’t uninteresting, we’ve just seen him a lot. The presence of Christian/Catholic demons in religious horror films perpetuates itself, and while I always hope to see the demon story told differently, sometimes it falls flat. It’s kind of like Frankenstein or Dracula movies – same character, mostly the same strengths, weaknesses, and challenges – where we as an audience are counting on something “different” to occur. Because the story’s been told before, we may rely on other factors like the dialogue, direction, special effects, or cinematography to give us a fresh experience or an exhilarating ride.

Thus, lately, as far as demons go, I’ve been sitting back like, “Meh. Demons.” We don’t get too many movies about Haitian demons, or entities like Pap Legba (seen recently in American Horror Story: Coven.)

I haven’t seen any golems lately. So rarely are we presented with a story rooted in Jewish folklore that gives us a demon to wrestle with. And because I feel like I get heavy doses of demons from other belief systems, The Golem (2018), rooted in Jewish folklore and mysticism, was pretty refreshing.

the golem

First, what is a golem?

A golem is a demon from Jewish mysticism that you can conjure out of clay or mud to protect you and your loved ones. Protection could mean intimidation, but most of the time, war or attack is on the brink, with murder being the only recourse.

A golem’s purpose seems pretty straight forward. If you need an assistant or bodyguard with God-like strength, you can raise a golem from prayer, fire, and shaping their body from mud or clay. You must also place a magic word, such as the name of God, onto the being’s forehead, or inscribe it onto a piece of paper and place it into the golem’s mouth or chest.

Golem lore dating back to the 12th century provides more evidence in the belief that even though this demon is controllable, there are limits. A golem has the ability to mentally and emotionally sync with that of its conjurer. However, as lore and old narratives suggest, there is always the presence of free will and want within the demon – so there is still a risk that they will kill on demand as well as when they want to. That’s why most people think it’s a bad idea to conjure one in the first place.

This risk and corresponding warnings are usually ignored by the conjurer, given the desperation of the situation, or the conjurer’s own arrogance – perfect material for a horror movie.

Destroying the golem is tricky for a couple of reasons: 1) the conjurer must be able to release their obsession with control and power to allow themselves to destroy their creation, and 2) the name of God must be removed from their mouth or chest. Doing so disintegrates the golem, who then becomes ashes (thought as symbolic in Judaism as returning to earth – from which we all come and return to. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” etc.).

What we see in this movie is more than a witch who has a difficult time destroying her creation. Because the demon manifests as a child, and the conjurer is a female, we see a difficult choice, not entirely of ego, but of needing to choose between what’s “right” and disintegrating a child.

the golem

What’s the movie about?

In 1673 Lithuania, outsiders suffering from a plague attack a close-knit Jewish community. The leader of the outsiders, believing the Jew people to be magical, threatens to destroy the Jewish village if they do not heal his dying daughter. At this point, no one in this village has any supernatural ability – they are just peaceful people now afraid for their lives.

Without weapons and without interest in harming anyone, the village rabbi prays for God’s help in healing the outsider’s child. Meanwhile, Hanna (the daughter-in-law of the village rabbi) has been secretly reading the Kabbalah (which is against Jewish law at this time in history) and discovers a spell that can conjure a demon that could protect her village from attack.

Despite the warnings, Hanna conjures a demon. Expecting the golem to be a giant, she is surprised by what she sees as a human little boy her own son’s age. It’s in bonding with the demon boy that we see the best part of the story unfold.

What makes this film stand out is not only the story of origin but the taut thread of symbolism we see throughout. The film presents us with a retelling of an ancient myth that includes an unlikely conjurer, and the unfolding of destruction at the hands of a child – not a man made of clay.

What Else Makes It Cool?

the golem
  • The Depiction of the Golem

In Jewish myth, the golem is depicted as gigantic – a physical manifestation of protection. The 1920 silent horror movie Der Golem retells the 16th century myth about a golem conjured by a rabbi in Prague to protect against an anti-Semitic attack. In lore, only a man can summon this demon, and only a man well-versed in the laws of light and dark Jewish mysticism. In Der Golem, the monster character is stoic, broad, and towering – a man whose flesh is stone-like; one who moves his body like an inanimate object might, with little expression. (You can stream this version on Amazon Prime. It includes awesomely bad voiceovers and captions at the bottom of the screen, intended to help interpret the silent movie. Kinda fun if you like that.)

the golem

Anyway, The Golem (2018) isn’t a remake of Der Golem by virtue of the golem’s new depiction as a human-looking child, similar to that of the central protag’s deceased child. This retelling offers us two layers of complexity: 1) the demon rises as a child with human flesh, and 2) the child demon reminds the central protagonist (Hanna) of her deceased child. The little boy introduces symbolism and creates a more complex layer of consequence and action that the story couldn’t explore if the golem were not a child who looks and behaves as a quiet, gentle child. Only it’s not a child – it’s a demon with the name of God in its mouth, as Hanna soon finds.

Within this fictional universe, the film doesn’t just present Hanna’s relationship with her creation. As a result of manifesting a little boy, we see Hanna’s character develop as a woman who avoids her grief. The manifestation of a child demon is part of Hanna’s suppressed grief that we begin to experience with her. As we discover how integrated she is with the golem, we also see her character develop. The film presents a theme of coming to terms with grief, especially in the end scene. Additionally, this depiction of a golem presents a problematic proposition to the film’s characters (and the audience) that they may need to destroy a child.

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  • Homicidal Children are Terrifying

Symbolically, children represent innocence, goodness, and purity. Adults, across species, are charged with protecting and nurturing them. To imagine needing to defend yourself against a child, who could quickly and ferociously slay you, is a fantasy that is perverse and disturbing. I mean, in what case would it ever happen that you had to choose between your own life and that of the child who’s chasing after you to murder you?

The first time this type of conflict shook me was many years ago when I watched the last scenes of Pet Sematary (1989). Louis (the father/central protagonist) realizes it was a mistake to bury his toddler, Gage, in the Indian burial ground because the resurrected child is clearly not his beloved child – he is conniving, evil, and murderous. Gage’s sweet depiction through most of the movie taps into our sentimental side – we were set up to believe in his natural innocence. But after we see what Gage is like after he’s resurrected, our emotions switch from comfortable to uncomfortable. Our collective anxiety climbs as we watch for Louis’s disturbingly complicated decision to choose between his own life and death.

The Golem gives to similar anxiety as we watch Hanna connect with the demon and realize her own suppressed grief. Initially, she pursues the task of conjuring to save her village. But as the story unfolds, we see a difficult choice she has to make after she starts to see herself as the demon’s mother.

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  • There’s a Female Protagonist – Go girl!

Generally speaking, female witches or conjurers are not unusual in the grand scheme of horror movies. Most of the time “witch” refers to a female magical source. But very rarely do we learn about the rules the witches use – unless these witches are part of voodoo, Satanic worship, or maybe a reaction to Christian backlash.

Part of what makes the female central character in The Golem interesting is the taboo that surrounds her relationship to her religion and her status in the community. It’s true that in ancient Jewish tradition, women weren’t allowed to study religious texts like the Kabbalah. In older versions of this story, including the silent film Der Golem, the conjurer is male.

This context further supports Hanna’s fearless nature, who against law and warning, not only studies Kabbalah but also figures out how to manifest a demon from the dark side. Hanna’s character turns against the “law” to say, “I’m capable, and you can’t stop me.” The Golem gives viewers just enough information to understand how taboo Hanna’s character is in this story.

I think that the decision to make the leading character female when retelling this myth is smart and interesting for a few reasons. Most of all, a female protagonist is relevant to our time and thus more meaningful to us as an audience. A female protagonist that is unafraid to do what women aren’t allowed to do is the kind of woman many of us aspire to become.

As an audience, we live in a time where more women push into “boys only” spaces, be it by embarking on careers and specializations or tackling the hierarchy of upper management. More women are becoming (and excelling as) Directors, CEO’s, technical experts, athletes, and adventurers. Universally, women of our time are less and less afraid to compete against men. You can see this fearlessness across education, sports, careers, and pop culture. How many girls do you think Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman inspired since that movie was released? You just saw Cardi B win a Grammy for Best Rap album of the year (the first female solo act to win this category in history).

And of course, without a mother figure in this story, we can’t receive the sickening complexity that occurs when the conjurer is forced to decide between child and mass destruction.

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  • Sympathy with Evil

Have you ever looked into the face of evil and, for a moment, felt a flash of sympathy?

It’s a sweet, complicated, high-stakes sort of viewing experiencing when you care about the characters who live and die in that fictional universe – including some of the monsters. That’s the complicated feeling we receive from Hanna, who seems to feel like she can control the golem.

When he isn’t murdering people, the golem seems pretty gentle and sweet. We know the way Hanna looks at him and the way we see his delicate face. He seems gentle. But then he starts growling. His eyes turn black. Then he rips out someone’s still-beating heart.

He may look sweet and gentle. He might mostly mind Hanna’s directions, thoughts, and feelings ( played out in well-constructed scenes to show you how integrated they are post-conjure). Unfortunately (and that’s why everyone kinda hated on the conjuring idea), you can’t really tell a golem, “Hey, just kill the bad guys, ok?” Doesn’t work like that.

The film’s eeriest moments are between the boy and Hanna – the closeness she starts to feel, how he seeks approval, how they bond, and how integrated they are. We can’t help but fell those dark yet sweet moments with Hanna.

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  • A Very Strong Theme That Isn’t About Demons at All

The little boy/demon becomes an opportunity for Hanna to face her grief. From her viewpoint, the demon becomes as much a necessity for protecting her village as it does being reunited with the ghost of her child. And Hanna isn’t the only parent in the story that experiences grief.

In this way, The Golem continues the trend in recent horror of exploring grief, as with The Babadook (2014), another horror movie about grief that was hella scarier than this one. In The Babadook, the monster terrifies the child with images in a storybook, and in time, targets the mother as well. But in The Golem, there is great value in NOT depicting the golem as terrifying (at least through much of the movie). The depiction is purposeful. If we are terrified by what we see and by the story of the demon within it, we cannot feel the same push-and-pull Hanna feels when she sympathizes with and becomes attached to the golem. The Babadook doesn’t take advantage of a mother’s grief the same way that a little boy/golem can. For this internal conflict to happen, the film must confront us with a delicate face that seems confused after ripping out a heart, as if to ask, “What? Isn’t that what you wanted me to do?”

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Warning: The Golem Is Not That Scary

If you’re looking for a movie that scares the hell out of you, makes you swat at your shower curtain, or forces you to leave the lights on before bedtime, The Golem isn’t that movie.

Yes, it’s eerie. Tearing beating hearts out of chests gets bloody. But The Golem puts less emphasis on gore and suspenseful moments and more on the story itself – the conjuring, the historical horror, and the parent-child relationship.

This is not the type of scary movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat with quick glimpses of evil shadows, with graphic gore/violence throughout. It’s just not that kind of movie. The pace of the horror unfolds slowly (and intentionally). Even the sex scenes are purposeful. We see a natural progression, unfolding, and development of the central protagonist, her relationship to her husband, her village, and the evil she unleashes. But that intentionality sacrifices scares.

If you appreciate folklore, mysticism, strong female character, and complicated relationships with demons, you’ll enjoy The Golem. Deep within the story is the theme of grief, which creates a depth, meaning, and consequence which greatly impact the conclusion. The death of a village is not the only thing at stake here, as we see through Hanna and her husband’s perception of the child demon. Additionally, the film’s balance between an old, non-Christian demon story and an updated interpretation of that lore creates a strong, fresh story. By the end, we understand that man or woman, holy or unholy, to be careful what you wish for.