Mazziks, mezuzahs and mourning: Keith Thomas on the vigil and Jewish horror | Interviews

You didn’t go straight to filmmaking after graduating from college and your background has included premedicine, rabbinical school, and clinical research. Can you tell me a little more?

The key word is “convoluted”. I always have to start by saying that all children dream of becoming a filmmaker. But going to college, I didn’t see how this could happen for me. I wasn’t going to USC, and even if I was, how many graduates from that school actually make movies? I studied academic cinema at university, but not cinema, then I entered pre-med. After that, I went to rabbinical school, where I obtained a master’s degree in education. Then I realized I should have gone to medical school, so I shifted gears again and went into clinical research.

The whole time I felt this angel or demon on my shoulder. I have always been motivated and there was a career desire to become a doctor. But there was also a creative dynamic, which often felt like a subterfuge, derailing my career side. I was preparing to apply to medical school. I had met all the prerequisites and was ready to take the MCAT. And then I wrote a book. [laughs] And it got attention, so I quit.

It was a back and forth, and the creative demon won out. At this point, I was in my 40s. Honestly, it was only then that I had the confidence to know there was something I could do. If I had gone to film school, I think my films would have sucked. I was not ready. It’s almost like studying Jewish mysticism or Kabbalah. They say you have to be over 40 and have a family before you can even try. To try to make films, I had to know who I was enough to do it. And with this story, I was just lucky no one else had done it yet. Other horror movies have dealt with dybbuks, but it’s still non-Jews who find the box of dybbuk and get cursed. No one in the Jewish community had done that and had become fully Jewish. Once I found that angle, it was like preparing for it all my life.

Before facing the mazzik, Yakov puts on head-and-arm tefillin. I have seen heroes of horror films grab a crucifix or affix a chainsaw to their arm before facing the big bad, but I have never seen a tefillin used in this context.

He was from that place close to “Evil Dead II”, with Ash putting that chainsaw on his arm. It’s a classic archetypal scene to face the thing that scares you, and everyone loves this arming drumbeat moment. From there I asked, “Well, what is this? What is the Jewish version of the priest’s crucifix? And I realized that I had never seen someone in a movie put on tefillin, just usually. I asked some rabbis if it was kosher, if you could put on tefillin and face a demon in the hallway, and they were like, “Of course, 100% that would help!”

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