As a Jewish fan of horror movies, most of the representation I see of my religion in the genre is behind the camera. William Friedkin (The Exorcist), John Landis (An American Werewolf in London), Eli Roth (Hostel) and Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity) are among the Jewish directors familiar to genre fans. But in terms of content, Catholicism usually has dominion over religion in horror movies, from classics like The Exorcist to the recent Netflix hype-machine Verónica. Judaism doesn’t have the same concept of Evil that is so prominent in Catholically-themed horror movies. Jewish folklore has its dybbuks and golems, but what haunts Jewish stories most largely is the spectre of the Holocaust. I would like to see more Jewish horror movies, and I would like to see more Jewish stories that are not about the Holocaust. But as I watched Jeremy Dyson and Adam Nyman’s 2018 film Ghost Stories, it seemed to me that protagonist Phillip Goodman is not a Jewish character just for flavor, but because the film, when viewed through a Jewish lens, is ultimately about survivor’s guilt.
MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD
Ghost Stories opens with voiceover narration: “It was my father’s religious beliefs that destroyed our family.” Cut to home video footage of Phillip Goodman’s Bar Mitzvah, 23rd June, 1979. Phillip’s older sister is dressed in black, her hair spiky. She rolls her eyes irreverently, and dances wildly. Her father disapproves. He is disgusted. Cut to footage of the sister with a brown-skinned boyfriend, ostensibly not Jewish. Cut to her father finding out, tearing his clothes to signify she is dead to him; a glance in the mirror of Phillip holding the camera.
After the home video footage, Ghost Stories introduces present-day Phillip (Andy Nyman). He’s a professional skeptic, but less Dana Scully and more Well Actually. His life’s work has been debunking the supernatural. He exposes a fraudulent psychic in the middle of a stage show. He sees only exploitation, and without regard for what it brings the bereaved audience members to believe in the possibility of communicating with lost love ones. The exposure of this fraud seems cruel at worst and awkward at best, not the triumph Goodman imagines it to be.
In his office, Goodman speaks to the camera about his role model, Charles Cameron, a debunker of the supernatural who went missing years ago. Goodman tries to counter his father’s rigid Faith with his own rigid Truth. But truth and faith are both valued in Judaism. It is by writing “emet,” truth, on the forehead of the Golem of Prague that the Maharal brings the clay giant to life (and erasing the first letter to form the word “mavet,” “death,” returns the Golem to clay). Truth is a principle of Jewish lore and of Jewish liturgy. Goodman is mistaken to think that truth is the antidote to faith.
The movie continues with Goodman receiving a note from the missing Cameron, asking to meet. In a far-flung trailer park, Goodman finds an elderly, ailing and spiteful individual. Cameron denounces Goodman’s work as well as his own past work. He hands Goodman three case files — encounters with the supernatural that he has never been able to explain — and implores Goodman to find the answers.
From here, it seems like Ghost Stories will follow an anthological formula as Goodman visits these three men to hear and investigate their stories. There is Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), who was a night watchman at a warehouse that was once a home for wayward youth when he encountered the ghost of a young girl. There is Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther), a paranoid and skittish young man who one night ran into an infernal goatman-like creature in the woods. And there is Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman), who saw the ghost of his wife the night she died in childbirth. Goodman has some eerie experiences as he talks to these men and follows up on their stories. The stories are left unresolved and Goodman returns to Cameron’s trailer, furious, saying any half-intelligent person could come up with explanations for all these events.
Many ghost movies have an original sin (Catholicism creeping in again?) — the thing done to the ghost while it was a person, the reason they are angry and malevolent. Think Sadako being thrown down the well. There is often a moment when this history is revealed, a turning point from whence the protagonist can seek justice so the wronged spirit can finally rest. Mike Priddle taunts Goodman into remembering his original sin.
A young Goodman is walking home when he is stopped by two bullies who call him antisemitic slurs and make him hold glass bottles for them to throw stones at. They are poised to throw a rock at the glass bottle Goodman is holding in front of his face when they are interrupted by a new victim, someone lower on the teenage food-chain than Goodman, a developmentally disabled young man named Desi Callahan, and whom the bullies call Kojak. They have a prank to play on Callahan, a game, they tell him. The bullies say they have written 10 numbers along the wall of a large culvert. The game is for Callahan to go into the culvert and read off all 10 numbers. Goodman begins to protest, but he’s silenced. He has been made to play this game before. There is no 10th number. As Callahan goes farther and farther into the tunnel, he becomes afraid and the tunnel narrows to claustrophobic diameters. Callahan begins to seize. The bullies hear him struggle and they run. Goodman also runs. Callahan dies in the tunnel.
Jewish children are taught about the Holocaust from a young age. For my generation, the grandchildren of survivors, it’s a knowledge we’ve had our whole lives. When we’re children, we’re taught about the Holocaust in terms we can grasp. We’re taught about the Righteous Gentiles, the non-Jews, like Oskar Schindler, who put their own lives on the line to save Jewish people. And we’re taught about the bystanders, the Germans who did nothing. We learn from that young age that doing nothing to help someone who is being persecuted is almost as bad as those carrying out the persecution. Judaism does not have the same concept of Evil as Catholicism — no hell, no Devil — but in the post-Holocaust Jewish mind, evil is, as Edmund Burke is often quoted, good men doing nothing. Goodman doing nothing.
Priddle excoriates Goodman for his inaction, and Goodman tries to justify it. He didn’t know Callahan was asthmatic. He was being bullied, too. What could he have done? He could have told someone, says Priddle. But what does Goodman’s sin have to do with the case studies? Callahan, a figure in a green hooded windbreaker, has shown up a couple of times during Goodman’s investigations, out of the corner of his eye or at the edge of a photo. But it isn’t Callahan that’s haunting Matthews, Rifkind and Priddle. So, this climactic exposition is not to right a wrong and let a spirit rest. In his career, Goodman believes ferreting out the truth is a form of justice, but there is no justice to be had for Callahan. Priddle just wants Goodman to remember, to confront what he has done. Callahan does appear then, monstrous, green-skinned under his hood. He’s not a ghost but a psychopomp, shuttling Goodman between life and death.
The ending, which I will not lay out here so as not to be a Philip Goodman myself and reveal how the magic works, manages to be satisfying without giving any real answers. One thing viewers learn is that at some point Goodman tried to kill himself by carbon monoxide poisoning in his locked car — a literal gas chamber. But why did Goodman attempt suicide? “It was my father’s religious beliefs that destroyed my family.” Is this really true? Goodman was a bystander to his sister being disowned, watching through his video camera, just as he was a bystander to Callahan’s death. Priddle accused Goodman of trying to prove there is no afterlife so he could escape the consequences of his choices. Was he haunted by guilt? Or maybe he found himself in his 50s with no family of his own (a wound Cameron salted back in trailer home), and a life’s work of crushing people’s spirits in the name of justice.
The three case studies that make up the bulk of the film all involve parent-child relationships. Matthews had a daughter hospitalized with locked-in syndrome that he did not visit until he had his encounter with the ghostly child that embraced him and called him “Papa.” Rifkind had a strenuous relationship with his parents. Priddle lost his wife as he became a father. Perhaps Goodman’s mind created horrors around family ties because of his own relationship with his father. Earlier in the film, while investigating the first case, Goodman speaks to Matthews’ priest, who excoriates Goodman’s judgments of Matthews’ family and not turning an eye to his own family. After speaking with the priest, Goodman visits his own father, now suffering from dementia.
During their conversation, the priest says he is unable to speak directly about Matthews due to confidentiality, but he will speak about him indirectly. Ghost Stories is an indirect film. Priddle wanted Goodman to look directly at what he’d done, but the audience is never able to look directly at what happened to Goodman. Goodman’s father is of an age that he would likely have been a child during the Holocaust. There’s no indication in the film that he is a survivor, but anecdotally, Jews, and others, of that generation did not speak to their children about the war. My own grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and when my mother was growing up, it was simply not talked about. My mother’s generation, and Goodman’s generation, were affected by a family trauma they did not have the opportunity to face head-on.
Ghost Stories is a horror film, and the scariest moments are those of anticipation. If Matthews goes wandering alone at night in a place where children were once mistreated, due to the genre, the audience knows that something’s going to happen. Viewers know the lights aren’t going out just because of a blown fuse. But the scariest part isn’t when Matthews sees the ghost, it’s the suspense leading up to that moment. Finally facing the ghost actually releases the tension. And so, it is only by facing a trauma like the Holocaust that future generations can begin to relieve its effects.
Rachel Hock (@RachelCraves) is a writer and theater producer in Boston.