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.  

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