Jewish Heritage in Horror: An Interview with Nicholas Kaufmann
Nicholas Kaufmann is the author of seven novels, including the bestsellers 100 Fathoms Below (with Steven L. Kent) and The Hungry Earth. His work has been nominated for the Bram Stoker Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, the Thriller Award, and the Dragon Award. His short fiction has appeared in Cemetery Dance, Black Static, Nightmare Magazine, Interzone, and others. In addition to his own original work, he has written for such properties as Zombies vs. Robots, The Rocketeer, and Warhammer. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
What inspired you to start writing?
I was always a creative child, preferring imaginative play and drawing my own comic books to more structured play like sports or board games. I was also an avid reader, burying my nose in science-fiction and fantasy novels that were much more adult than I was at the time. My parents never checked to make sure the content was age-appropriate, I think they were just happy I was reading instead of staring at the TV (which, to be fair, I did my share of as well). I was drawn to things of a fantastical nature, as well as scary things like dinosaurs and movie monsters. I was the definition of a Monster Kid. Godzilla movies, Sinbad movies…they all lit up my imagination. I taught myself to type on my father’s electric typewriter by transcribing stories from horror comics like Creepy and Eerie. It was only a matter of time before I started writing my own stories featuring monsters, dinosaurs, and even aliens.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
To me as a kid, the horror genre was all about the monsters. I was too young to have any concept of things like character development, arcs, good acting, or good prose. All I cared about was the scary stuff. I remember my parents taking my brother and me to see The Car in 1977. It’s a pretty crappy movie, but I was eight years old and thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen! As I grew older and my tastes became more sophisticated, what continued to draw me to the genre was the sheer amount of imagination it holds. At its best, horror can be an enormously creative genre. Often, there’s also a heightened sense of emotion that can really hook the reader (or viewer) and carry them through the story.
Do you make a conscious effort to include Jewish characters and themes in your writing and if so, what do you want to portray?
I can only give you the incredibly unsatisfying answer of sometimes. Only a handful of the stories I’ve written have called upon or been in conversation with my Jewish heritage. One of my earliest stories, “The Jew of Prague,” is about a lapsed Jewish thief who goes to Prague right after the Velvet Revolution to steal something out of a grave in the Old Jewish Cemetery and discovers his Jewish heritage is more alive than he thought. Another story, “Under the Skin,” takes place at a Passover Seder and draws much of its horror from the Ten Plagues of Egypt, which is something I revisit in the story “Coriander for the Hidden,” about the angel assigned the dreadful task of killing all the firstborn sons of Egypt. But these really are just a handful of my published stories. I have many others that don’t touch upon my heritage at all. That’s something I’m hoping to change in the near future. I have several novel ideas percolating that draw more heavily from being Jewish.
What has writing taught you about how to express your Jewishness or the experiences you’ve had as someone who is Jewish?
I think it has helped me not to be shy about my Jewishness. I’ve really enjoyed the times I’ve brought Jewish custom and tradition into my work, and I hope my readers enjoy it, too. So far, no one has said anything negative about it, but as a Jew, it’s hard not to feel like you’re on the outside looking in, waiting for the next shoe to drop. Right now, it’s an especially difficult time to be Jewish, with skyrocketing instances of antisemitic acts and hate crimes across the world. I think horror is a very inclusive genre, though, and I’m glad for it. I’ve never felt unwelcome because of my Jewishness, and I think that’s made me feel safe enough to include it more and more in my work.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years and do you think there’s more that can be done to educate readers and authors on Jewish culture?
Oh yes, I’ve seen a lot of changes, many of them just since the 1990s! Horror has become much more culturally inclusive and casts a much wider net than the European Gothic and small-town Americana the genre used to adhere to so rigidly. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still some glaring issues. I mean, if you think about almost every vampire movie and novel that’s come out of Western civilization, what is the iconography that shows up most often? The crucifix. It’s presented as the only thing that will hold a vampire at bay, or even hurt them if it touches them. Not the Jewish star (even though Richard Benjamin tried unsuccessfully to use one in Love at First Bite), not the Islamic crescent and star, not a statue of the Buddha or Vishnu – just the crucifix. The implication is that only Christian iconography is holy enough to harm the undead, because Christianity is the one true religion. As a kid, I didn’t really notice that. I just thought it was cool when Peter Cushing made a cross out of candleholders to keep Christopher Lee away. As an adult, it’s much more obvious to me whenever I see it. It’s even in modern horror movies like The Conjuring, which at its heart is all about the power of Catholicism over evil and the idea that you can pray the bad things away, presumably as long as you’re praying in the right religion. If the overall concept is that faith keeps evil away, there ought to be a wider variety of faiths represented, in my opinion. So maybe that’s what we need, more vampire stories with Jewish heroes!
Following up, how do you think that process will continue to evolve through the years?
We’re on an upward trajectory of inclusion and I think that will continue. As more new authors come up from all sorts of backgrounds, and more acquiring editors come up from all sorts of backgrounds, and more filmmakers come up from all sorts of backgrounds, the result will be an even bigger tent for horror. I’m lucky enough to have seen a lot of the glass ceilings break in the genre, and while there’s certainly more glass to shatter, it’s heartening to see it happen.
How do you feel the Jewish community has been represented thus far in the genre and what hopes do you have for representation in the genre going forward?
There hasn’t been a whole lot of Jewish representation in the genre. In his recent book Jews Don’t Count, UK comedian and commentator David Baddiel puts forth the idea that Jews are an “invisible minority,” and I agree with that. Famously, in 2019 Britain’s Labour Party released a campaign video in which they mentioned a long list of minorities and marginalized groups, ending with the promise that a Labour government would value them all. Only one minority was missing. “If you wear a hijab, turban, cross,” the video says, but there’s no mention of a yarmulke. The word Jewish is never uttered once, nor even implied. Were Jews left out on purpose? Some might say so. Others might chalk it up to this idea of being “invisible minorities.” Part of the reason for this invisibility is that unless someone is wearing a yarmulke or traditional Orthodox garb, you can’t really tell if they’re Jewish. Many Jews can pass as not-Jewish quite easily. Another reason is the antisemitic trope that Jews are rich and powerful, and therefore do not need or deserve the consideration given to other minorities or marginalized groups. This invisibility has been very much at work in the horror genre. Outside of the recent film The Vigil, Jewish characters are rarely the heroes. There might be a funny friend who is coded as Jewish, usually through physical stereotypes and a Larry David-esque sense of humor, and Jewish culture occasionally gets mined for monsters like the dybbuk or the golem, but that’s as close as we usually come to representation. I certainly hope for more and better representation moving forward, and I hope to add to it myself.
Do you think there is a difference between Jewish horror and horror that is Jewish or are they one in the same? For example, the realism of the Holocaust is horrifying and the otherness that comes with it compared to the folkloric horror of dybbuks, possession and other creatures?
Jewish horror doesn’t come from folklore anymore. Jewish horror comes from seeing thousands of Americans – young Americans, the ones we thought would be better than the generations that came before – marching in Charlottesville while chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” Jewish horror is the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh because the gunman believed Jews were helping illegal immigrants enter the country as invaders to kill white people. It’s watching an insurrection happen at the U.S. Capitol live on TV and spotting “Camp Auschwitz” and “6MWE” sweatshirts in the crowd. It’s seeing a gunman take hostages at a synagogue in Colleyville because he believed Jews were powerful enough to release an imprisoned terrorist with a single phone call. We don’t need to be scared of spirits. There are plenty of flesh and blood human beings to worry about.
Who are some of your favorite Jewish characters in horror?
Again, there aren’t that many to choose from. One that springs to mind is David Kessler in An American Werewolf in London. He’s an outsider in London, not just as an American but as a Jew. We know he’s Jewish because one of the nurses discovers he is circumcised (although not everyone who is circumcised is Jewish, in movies it’s shorthand), and because when he’s having nightmares in the aftermath of the werewolf attack, his fears take the form of wolf-faced killers in Nazi army uniforms. The circumcision is a sign of his Judaism; the Nazi nightmare is a sign of his Jewishness. I’d also like to mention Stanley Uris in Stephen King’s IT. He’s openly Jewish (and is even shown having a bar mitzvah in the recent movie adaptation!) and an integral part of the Losers Club. It’s only too bad it’s the one Jewish kid who’s too afraid to return to Derry as an adult and chooses suicide instead.
Who are some Jewish horror authors you recommend our audience check out?
One of my favorite Jewish horror authors is Veronica Schanoes. She would probably argue that she’s a fantasy author, but her work is dark enough that I think of it as horror. She’s got a great collection out called Burning Girls and Other Stories, and she writes a lot about Jewish characters and culture. Another is Daniel Braum. His stuff is a little more dreamlike, but he uses a lot of horror elements and imagery in his work. Richard Dansky’s work is pretty great, too. He writes very personal, very emotional horror. And if I could move away from authors for a second, I’m always pleased to note that my favorite filmmaker, David Cronenberg, is also Jewish!
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
Read, read, read. Read great books. Read shitty books. There’s much to be learned from both. Don’t just read horror, because there are things you can learn from books in other genres, too. Read books with smooth, gorgeous prose so you can better understand the power and beauty of words. Read books with characters you grow to love so you can better understand how important it is for readers to identify with and empathize with your own characters. Read twisty thrillers so you can better understand pace, suspense, payoff, and keeping your readers on their toes. Just keep reading.
And to the Jewish writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
Don’t be afraid to draw from your own experiences and traditions in your work. It’ll add a strong feeling of authenticity to whatever you’re writing, because it’s something only you can bring to it. I know it sometimes feels safer as a Jew to hide inside assimilation—after all, many of us have been doing it for centuries—but I think things have changed enough now that openly Jewish characters and overtly Jewish situations and settings will no longer result in rejections from publishers for not having enough of a universal appeal. Heck, go crazy! Have all your characters eat pickled herring, celebrate Hanukkah, and get guilt from their mothers for not calling enough! Actually, that last one is probably universal…