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SYFY WIRE Keith Thomas

With 'The Vigil,' Keith Thomas wanted to make a truly Jewish horror movie

By Alyse Wax
Dave Davis in The Vigil

There aren't many Jewish horror films out there. Other than a handful of films and TV episodes about golems (a mud or clay creature that follows instructions written on paper and slipped into the creature's mouth), there isn't much in the horror genre that takes place in the Jewish religion.

Director Keith Thomas hopes to change that with his first feature film, The Vigil. The story follows Yacov (Dave Davis), a young man suffering from PTSD who has recently pulled back from his Hasidic roots. In need of some quick cash, he agrees to be a shomer, someone who sits with a corpse and says prayers in order to comfort the deceased's soul. The previous shomer quit suddenly and with no explanation. Yacov quickly discovers why the previous shomer left — and now he must survive the night.

SYFY WIRE spoke with Thomas about what inspired The Vigil, how he found the demon for his film, and why Christianity has all the fun demons.

The Vigil film poster

What inspired The Vigil?

It came from two places. One, I was a big horror fan. I had been wanting to make a horror film. When it came time to make my first film, I needed to find an angle that both felt fresh and was something I hadn't seen before, and at the same time was something personal. So that led me to Judaism. I felt like I hadn't seen a truly Jewish horror film before. Then there was this idea of the shomer, the watchman, someone who watches the body.

I thought, "Wow, how is it that no one has made a shomer horror movie before?" When I had that setup, then it became time to figure out [the plot]. You could make a shomer horror film that is really crass, or you can make one that is really rooted in the culture, has much more to do with the psychology of someone in this situation.

Have you ever sat as a shomer?

No, I haven't. The folks I know have all done it for friends and family. It really only exists in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community, where there are these paid shomers. I'd seen some interviews with folks who had done that before. I thought, "That's an interesting angle," because there's no personal connection to the body, it's just "I need to make some money."

We've certainly seen in movies and I think the public is aware of dybbuks, like a dybbuk box, but I wanted to find something else that we hadn't seen before. The entity in this film is real, it comes from rabbinic literature. This was a thing that people were scared of and used to make special protections [against]: bowls they would bury while they were building a house. I thought, "Let's explore this ancient Jewish tradition that really no one has ever heard of."

Yeah. I was raised Jewish and I had never heard of the Mazzik, the spirit you focus on.

The trick with it was that in the rabbinical literature, the Mazzik — which means "destroyer" in Hebrew — is really only referred to as something that is inside abandoned houses. So you would avoid certain houses‚ just like haunted houses, I suppose. You'd avoid going into them because there could be a Mazzik. But there was no description of what it looked like, or anything about it, so I had to make that up.

Did you have to do a lot of research on Mazziks or was it stuff you were familiar with?

I had come across mention of the Mazzik, and that was all I knew. I was lucky enough that there was a rabbi that I ran into at an event. I mentioned to him that I was working on this film, and he said that he happened to study demonology. Which is so strange because Jews typically don't believe in demons. There's not this huge supernatural angle, particularly with the more liberal side of Judaism, which is the majority in the U.S. He laid out this whole evolution and understanding of demonology in the rabbinic, Talmudic literature. It was fascinating.

Some of it is in the movie. It felt different enough and interesting enough that it really informed how we created the Mazzik and what its intentions are, since Jews don't believe in the devil and hell the same way [as Christians]. It wouldn't exist in a Jewish world. I had to do a lot of research to figure that out, come up with something that felt authentic.

Why do you think there aren't many Jewish horror films?

My guess is that it has a lot to do with the community at large and not much belief in superstitions. It was a great opportunity because we can make a truly Jewish horror film. My producers always wanted to go for the Jewish horror film.

Do you think this is the end-all, be-all Jewish horror film?

I hope it would open up a bit of a genre where more people could come in and make something around Jewish mythology. I feel like it's going to be hard to make another Hasidic horror film after The Vigil. It feels like it has staked its claim in that world.

However, I have an idea for another Jewish horror film about Lilith. There have been a number of movies about Lilith or succubi. They always end up going for the soft-core seductress thing. When I was researching the Mazzik, I kept coming across the Lilithene, which is plural, as though there are many of them. They aren't Adam's first wife; they are these other demons that collect babies. I thought that was cool.

Christianity has such a huge showing in the horror genre. Why do you think that it is such a major factor in horror?

I think a lot of it has to do with concepts of the afterlife and the battle between the forces of good and evil. It manifests itself really well in horror films. I think the Christian conception of a heaven and a hell really lends itself to this sort of horror storytelling. People are fascinated by life after death and the existence of a soul. We are very concerned with what happens after we die and what that will be like. These movies sort of answer that.

I think that, even though they are meant to scare people, they are reassuring in a lot of ways because these films suggest that the soul is everlasting, and there is a heaven and a hell, and that's kind of comforting in a way. You get to watch bad people be punished by the evil afterlife that comes for them. The Jewish conception of an afterlife is not similar to that. Christianity is a perfect theological setup.

Right. Because in The Vigil, Yacov isn't a bad person, he's just having some problems.

Right! You could read it lots of ways, but in the Jewish conception of demons or something that is antagonizing, because God is omnipotent and everywhere, any sort of demon would be part of God. So the idea is less about punishment and more about testing.

For Yacov, it is less about something coming to take his soul, and more about him having to face his own fears and him having to deal with stuff he hasn't dealt with properly. A Jewish demon wouldn't want to drag you to hell so much as help you get to heaven. It may be through some very tough love — scaring you straight, in a way. If you are smart about it and you wrestle with your own failings or your faith, you can find your way out. They will, in some way, help you. They are just making you make that decision faster than you would have. It's subtle in the film, but it's an interesting angle that I don't think a lot of people are aware of.

Were you at all worried that this film wouldn't be as accessible to those not of the Jewish faith?

When I met with my producers and we started our initial discussions, I told them, "This is a horror film first. It happens to be told through a Jewish lens, but I really want it to be universal. I want it to feel like The Exorcist did to me when I was a kid." I didn't understand any of the Catholic rites or the Latin; I didn't know what they were doing necessarily, but I got it. I wanted that same sort of thing.

All cultures have had trauma and had to deal with guilt and their own personal demons. I thought if we hit those universal themes and get into traditional scares then it will appeal broadly. At the same time, if you happen to be Jewish, or are familiar with this community, you could see subtler stuff that will resonate. The idea was always to be as inclusive as possible, even though it's told through this very specific lens.

The Vigil opens in select theaters and digital platforms on Feb. 26.