Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, The Exorcist. What do these classic horror films have to do with Judaism?
Dr. Amy Kalmanofsky, that’s what. An associate professor of Bible at The Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Kalmanofsky is breaking barriers in biblical study, by looking at the stories of the Bible and comparing them to some of the archetypal horror movies, examining how they both terrify their viewers and readers in similar ways. Dr. Kalmanofsky takes a critical look at the “monsters” that appear in both the Bible and the movies, asking new questions that don’t have easy answers. Her students are taken on a unique intellectual ride in her popular courses on biblical literature, religion, and feminist interpretation of the Bible.
When did you first see a connection between biblical stories and horror films?
I first noticed a connection between horror movies and religion when I was an undergrad at Wesleyan University, and friends and I had a horror-movie marathon. I was by struck by the prominent role religion played in these movies. Then, as my interest in religion grew, I noticed the prominence of horror in religious texts.
What happened next?
Well, a lot. I knew that I wanted to become a rabbi and work toward a PhD. I earned an MHL and rabbinic ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and then came to JTS for my PhD. I also got married and had four children.
Wow. So how did you get back to your love of horror movies?
I never lost my interest in the relationship between religion and horror. When it was time for me to work on my doctoral dissertation, I wanted a topic that would keep me intellectually and emotionally engaged. Even now, I’m still mesmerized. I am currently completing my book based on my dissertation Terror All Around: The Rhetoric of Horror in the Book of Jeremiah.
Why do you think the Bible is filled with so much horror?
That’s a fascinating question which I continue to explore with my students. Fear and faith have always been intertwined. I think this tells us something about religious experience and human nature. I believe that today, especially today, we need to understand fear’s place in religious experience and how religions incorporate a rhetoric of fear. My interest is in the Hebrew Bible. I want to understand better how this sacred text uses a rhetoric of horror. Are there monsters in the Bible? I believe there are. Can a text terrify and still be sacred? I believe it can. It’s my task to discover monsters in the Bible—to look for the horror in the holy—and to consider what makes the scary sacred.