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The fall of the house of Herzl: Israel as a horror flick

Horror films are often centered around a house: a safe haven. But they are also a place of danger and sometimes a monster in and of themselves. To Israelis, the Jewish state can play all three roles.  

An Israeli poster for “The Grudge 2,” which conveys with mysterious accuracy Minister Naftali Bennet’s horror at the idea of two states. (Courtesy of Ghost House Pictures)

Last week my girlfriend Ruthie came up with a scary idea: “Why don’t we start watching classic horror films together?” she asked.

This would of course be a perfect remedy for a couple suffering from a decline in intimacy: a lack of clinging to one another. I assure you that we have no need for that. We simply love cinema. Ruthie asked online for suggestions, and soon we headed on our roller coaster of chills. The first film we watched was Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” the second: Italian cult classic “Supriria.”

Through all the screams and slashing scenes, I found myself thinking a lot about politics. Here’s the true curse of living in this haunted land: we can’t get politics out of our heads even when the zombies break into the house and reach directly to the throat of the pretty blonde. Why would we? We are made to believe that we live in this house. Ehud Barak called Israel “a villa in the jungle,” aka, an outpost of humanity besieged by wild beasts. Horror cinema is all about stirring anxieties, and this exactly what our politicians do for a living. Israeli society is suffering en-masse from a state of PTSD, a state which our leaders preserve rather than heal, keeping us dependant on their promise of military protection. Last week I heard Netanyahu say on the radio: “The Palestinians don’t only want the West Bank, they want Jaffa, Ashdod and Haifa.” His tone was taken straight out of the radio and television broadcasts in “Night of the Living Dead.”

American horror cinema is indeed borne of political anxieties. The plot of “Night of the Living Dead” incorporates many of the fears experienced by Cold War American society: the fear of nuclear holocaust, the fear of “red” society, in which individuals lose their identity, even the uncertainty of where racial politics are headed, in the age of Martin Luther King Jr. The murderous aliens of B movies produced in the 50s and 60s were always allusions to very terrestrial beings, or at least semi-human ones, such as Brezhnev.

In Israel, we can easily relate to these films’ state of incessant panic. Which strikes me most in the current binge is the influence their use of architecture has on me. In many horror films, a house plays an important role. First it appears as a safe haven, an outpost of normality, where threatened characters may seek refuge from strange forces. Later the house turns out to be the perfect hiding place also for the monsters, or even a monster in and of itself.

This ambiguous sense of home, can play strongly on the emotions of both left- and right-wing Israelis. In the right-wing narrative, particularly that of the paranoid Netanyahu variety, Israel is precisely that house. We escaped to it from the zombie apocalypse/Frankenstein’s monster/Mengele’s needles, and are now trying to collect ourselves. Meanwhile, a combination of ever-persistent zombies are still trying to penetrate the house (Arab nations, Iran, Palestinian refugees abroad). The backyard is swarming with them (West Bank and Gaza Palestinians) while inside, evil hides in the closets (Palestinian citizens of Israel, Jewish leftists, likely-to-be-antisemitic tourists).

Meanwhile, left-wing Israelis experience home as a haunted house. In the final scenes of “Poltergeist,” skeletons begin to emerge from the soil of the Freeling family’s front yard, recalling the images taken in the recently discovered 1948 mass grave in Jaffa. The father of the family (Craig T. Nelson) grabs his neighbor who developed the property over a graveyard, a choice which caused restlessness among the dead and punished the living with extremely cinematic paranormal activity. “You son of a bitch!” he yells, “you moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn’t ya? You left the bodies and you only moved the headstones! Why? Why?”

I feel about as bitter toward the people who changed the street names around our cities and kept hidden the secrets of the Naqba.

Dario Argento’s “Supriria” hits this spot in particular. The story takes place at a dance school in Germany, which is in fact run by a coven of witches. How familiar. Here, the glory of the Israel Philharmonic orchestra, of our high tech industry, of pinkwashing and greenwashing, covers for a dark reality. The music plays so loudly at the rehersal room that very few of us notice the calls for help coming from the basement. As I watched the heroine of “Supriria” venture into the school’s hidden chambers, I thought of my own first cautious peeks beyond what  I was “supposed” to know. I thought of my first visit to the refugee camp that is situated not 1,000 feet from the house in which I grew up. It took me 30 years to realize it’s there.

In both “Poltergeist” and “Supriria,” the house in question ends up falling apart, a tribute, perhaps, to Edgar Allen Poe, and his Fall of the House of Usher. In the story, a terrible, unacknowledged crime causes the house to crumble. This is of course the greatest fear of the Israeli Left: that our home and the haunting are one; that the skeletons in our closets will eventually cause this land to fall into greater, inevitable violence; that we can no longer cleanse our environment, not even with the help of Max von Sidow.

Actually, I think that my own worst fear for Israel has already come true, or at least comes true from time to time. This fear is beautifully reflected in the first horror film Ruthie and I watched together, already before we were even a couple. It is Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of B-classic, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

I refer to this movie whenever Israel launches a Gaza onslaught, or some other offensive. In such times, the press quickly lines up with the government and so does the street. “Everyone starts saying the same things,” I moan, “they lose any form of empathy. Even when children die by the hundreds, they argue that it’s justified. People who spoke against agression a week ago are repeating press releases of the IDF Spokesperson. It’s just like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’!”

No, I don’t think they are “pods” from outer space, who take on human form and replace the Israelis. I don’t think we need pods from outer space. We can be scary enough when we so choose.

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    1. rsgengland

      From this article, I gather that the writer is not to happy with Israel.

      Reply to Comment
      • Joel

        Anyone who took the time to read this tripe needs to have their head examined.

        Reply to Comment
        • Carl

          Just ignore the comments section Joel: even when you wrote some of it.

          Me, I content myself with eating brains: for to ease the pain of being dead. Figuratively speaking mind.

          Reply to Comment
          • Carl

            Actually, I should add that I’m left wing, and I eat brains.

            Gaze on my metaphors right-wingers and despair. You’ve about thirty minutes before you’ll feel an unstoppable urge to head to Bil’in and protest.

            You can’t find your children because they’re already there.

            In kaftans.

            Reply to Comment
          • Joel

            Mea culpa. I actually like eating tripe, including brains.

            I should have more accurately characterized Yuval’s article as ‘self indulgent bullshit’.

            Reply to Comment
    2. David Silberstein

      Another interesting aspect of this would be “Zombie dehumanisation”. The reaosn hollywood embraced this sub-genre and never let go is that it allows them to display people-like creatures (but not actual people) being mutilated and disfigured, not to mention in dying in large numbers (e.g. their life is very cheap), without making the viewer too shocked or horrified. I can’t help but see an analogy between this narrative and the mainstream Israeli view of Palestinians.

      Reply to Comment
      • Haifawi

        The dehumanization cuts both ways though. Plenty of people on both sides lack sympathy when someone is killed. That’s why I feel it is so important as a Jewish Israeli to take other Jewish Israelis to socialize with Palestinians (preferably in Area A) in order to humanize everybody.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Aaron Gross

      Wait a minute, the Palestinians don’t want Jaffa, Ashdod, and Haifa? Then why do they keep telling us that they do? It just makes us paranoid!

      If they don’t want those cities then they should stop lying and start telling the truth: “We have no desire to return to or control Jaffa, Ashdod, or Haifa. We accept the permanent existence of a sovereign Jewish state inside of Palestine.”

      If that’s what they believe, then why don’t they just say so? Instead, if you look at all those surveys cited by Dahlia Scheindlin on this site, the Palestinians keep lying and saying that they want all of Palestine. It gives us a paranoid delusion that they actually mean what they say.

      Reply to Comment
      • Another possible interpretation is that RoR is wanted, but isn’t something to get terrified about.

        Reply to Comment
        • Aaron Gross

          So your alternate interpretation is that what Netanyahu said was factually accurate, it was his tone of voice that was the only problem?

          And not just right of return to Jaffa and Haifa – right of sovereignty. Not something to get terrified about, but definitely something to keep in mind.

          Reply to Comment
        • Aaron Gross

          I actually thought this article was going to be a take on World War Z.

          My prediction: The day after its Israel premiere, an article at +972 claiming that the zombies swarming over the walls of Jerusalem symbolize Palestinians. Remember, you read it here first.

          Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          Given that there in the whole white world there is no non-oppressed minority living under Arab majority, there is something to be a bit terrified about.

          Reply to Comment
    4. Joel

      Who is Yuval? He’s a Jew who’s clueless that he lacks the Jewish sense of humor.

      Reply to Comment