Of Folklore and Fatherhood: THE UNBORN and Cinematic Reflection

At the conclusion of 2008 television ads promoted upcoming movies for the new year, and THE UNBORN caught my eye. At that time I was impressed by the trailers, which can be dangerous in that many times studios do a great job of making the trailers better than the actual films they promote. Even so, several aspects of THE UNBORN held promise for me, from the ghost story and possession elements, to the presence and potential gravitas of veteran fantasy actor Gary Oldman, and the visual influences of Japanese horror. To a great extent the film lived up to my anticipation as an average horror film, opening last weekend and ranking third in box office receipts.

Gary Oldman and Odette Yustman
Gary Oldman and Odette Yustman

Two additional elements of THE UNBORN held special appeal for me and are worthy of further reflection. First, although the film touches on the issues of possession and exorcism, common elements from any number of horror films since the 1970s, it does so by way of different source material. In the United States, most past possession and demonological films such as THE EXORCIST and THE OMEN, to more recent efforts such as THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, have tended to find their narrative grounding for the supernatural in the Christian tradition with its concepts of God, Satan, and possession. THE UNBORN breaks new ground in basing its narrative in Jewish folklore and mysticism. The movie’s heroine, Casey Beldon (played by Odette Yustman), comes to discover that her nightmares and ghostly visitations are the result of a dybbuk, defined by the Encyclopedia Britanica online as “a disembodied human spirit that, because of former sins, wanders restlessly until it finds a haven in the body of a living person.” In order to learn more about how to combat this supernatural creature Casey consults a volume of Jewish mysticism from the Kabbalah. Given that the text is written in Hebrew, she visits Rabbi Sendak, a skeptical clergyman who is eventually forced by his own supernatural experiences to come to grips with the reality of the situation facing her.
Not only does THE UNBORN break new ground in basing its supernatural premise upon Jewish rather than Christian mythology, but it also joins these common religious traditions together in the effort to destroy the focus of evil. In this process, Rabbi Sendak assembles an exorcism team which includes a Christian minister. Although the form of the exorcism has a distinctly Jewish flavor, the narrative of the film states through the Christian minister that the dybbuk predate human religion, and that there are common elements in exorcisms across religions and cultures, and it is these elements to which the dybbuk respond. Although some may find horror films which touch on possession and exorcism tiresome given the frequently trodden ground for these ideas, the infusion of new folklore and mythology as the foundation for the supernatural, as well as the cooperative efforts of religious traditions with a common historical heritage, were refreshing aspects of THE UNBORN’s narrative. I can only hope that Hollywood horror will be inspired through this effort to mine the depths of cultural and religious mythology (as has been done with breathtaking artistry and storytelling by Guillermo del Toro in PAN’S LABYRINTH and HELLBOY II) for additional source material for future cinematic treatments.
The second aspect of the film worth noting is the presence of the evil child. This feature surfaces in both the dybbuk which embodies in the form of a dead child from the past, as well as the influence the dybbuk has on a human child who is used to send words of warning and as the instrument of the dybbuk’s murderous wrath. Once again the viewer might complain that the presence of evil children is a well trodden if not tired convention in horror. But its depiction in the UNBORN indicates that angst over issues related to children, from motherhood, to the unborn, and the hopeful innocence of children, remain significant issues that trouble us in the late modern period, and for which horror provides a means of expressing these concerns.
We live in a time which truncates, and at time obliterates, the innocence of childhood. Children today have an awareness of and grapple with ideas and challenges that previous generations did not encounter until later in life. We are rightly concerned about the likelihood that growing up too fast will taint children that represent the future of our society. And what of those children who wrestle with circumstances that deprive them of the allegedly clean slate that most children benefit from? As the father of a son who fought with and eventually lost the battle with the personal “demons” of depression and bipolar, I am sympathetic to our culture’s continued interest in the horror figure of the evil child that enables us to wrestle with our conceptions of children, parenthood, and the societies in which they are raised. Perhaps we continue to find them so intriguing and frightening (as evidenced vividly in films like PET SEMATARY) because they remind us of our sacred responsibilities in child rearing and protection, and the all too common failures we experience in that process.
As I left the theater last weekend after watching THE UNBORN I did so with a feeling of mild satisfaction. The film was an average horror story: I did not waste my ticket price, but then again, I will not rush to add the film to my DVD collection. Even so, it incorporates interesting story elements indicative of the multifaceted and complex nature of horror and the fantastic that is so intriguing to reflect upon.

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