Within the many faces of trauma there lies a reflection of ourselves. Coming from the darkness to disturb our sleep with nightmares or insomnia. Inciting unwanted thoughts, feelings of shame, guilt, and depression. These are the horrors of everyday living that all will eventually face. And this is the subtext of the 2021 movie The Vigil.
The human struggle with grief is a terrifying journey that continues to manifest in the horror genre. It leaves little if any space between the audience and characters on screen. You don’t just see their pain; you are reminded of your own. Proving time and again that the most frightening thing isn’t a supernatural creature from beyond. It is the manifestation of your repressed memories.
The Vigil Explained: It Wants Your Pain
In the movie The Vigil Yakov has had a crisis of faith and leaves his Orthodox Jewish community. He adjusts to a secular life by joining a support group of others like him. Young adults feeling isolated outside of their religious traditions. The group leader encourages them to embrace their grief from the transition, but not let it hold them back in life. Yakov is indifferent to this advice, struggling with meaningful social connections and keeping his bills paid.
After the meeting, he is approached by a member of his former community, Reb Shulem. Shulem is desperate for a shomer, a hired guard for the Jewish ritual of shemira. During which, the remains of the recently deceased are protected until sunrise. Yakov is reluctant to return to the world he abandoned and negotiates a higher price for his services.
Shulem agrees to pay and is delighted, briefly mentioning his previous shomer became afraid and fled. He describes the departed as they walk to the home where the shemira will take place. Rubin Litvak, a holocaust survivor that became isolated and estranged from his family over the years. Still residing in the house is the widow, Mrs. Litvak. Frail and suffering from terrible dementia.
The Litvak home is dark and silent with fabric draped over mirrors. The remains of Rubin Litvak are laid out in the parlor, covered with an embroidered shroud. Yakov quickly settles into his vigil but it’s not long before he begins to hear strange noises through the house. Lights flicker and shadows shift along the walls.
Yakov is gripped with fear as he experiences visions of his brother’s tragic death. Trying to calm himself, he takes an anxiety pill with water and chokes on a black foulness. Widow Litvak suddenly appears, informing him it is not darkness but memories. Her husband’s bitter memories that followed him through life at the hands of a “Mazzik”. Disregarding these late-night ramblings of an old woman, Yakov ushers her back to bed.
The terrifying hallucinations continue and lead Yakov into the study of the late Rubin Litvak. There he discovers endless notes and texts regarding this Mazzik. A parasitic demon that seeks broken people and feeds off their pain. Appearing in old family photos, it is a literal dark cloud hovering over Mr. Litvak. The only means to exorcise it is to burn its true face on the first night it appears. Witnessing Rubin’s body twitching under its shroud, Yakov recites prayers. But it is uncertain if he is offering comfort to the decedent’s soul or to the Mazzik, reaching the end of a lifelong possession. Widow Litvak appears again to present Yakov with her late husband’s tefillin to aid in defeating the demon. Now seeking its next host, the Mazzik reveals the unerring face of Yakov’s personal grief and sorrow. His own.
Dybbuks Are a Crisis. Mazziks Are a Fact of Life.
The Mazzik, or Mazzikim/Mazzikin, is an ancient Mesopotamian spirit. Their name can be a generic term for a demon or interchangeable with other entities, like Dybbuks and Shedim. Multiple translations may also refer to them as “the injurer”, “the destroyer” or “those who lay ambushes”. In the Talmud, the Mazzik are said to have been born on the eve of the Sabbath of creation. Without a soul and without form, they do not have a will or connection to a higher power. Invisible and ever-present, they prefer uninhabited wild places, deep shadows, and ruin. Certain types of bad luck are associated with Mazziks, including widows and bereavements of children.
In the movie The Vigil, the Mazzik is described as having its head turned backwards, hiding its true face. This is similar to the fortune tellers in Dante’s Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. Cursed to forever look behind them and into the past, while in hell. According to The Encyclopedia of Spirits by Judika Illes, Mazziks are sometimes summoned to reveal the future. Only cooperating if they deem the questioner worthy. Keith Thomas, The Vigil’s writer/director, wanted to portray the Mazzik as a parasitic abomination. He dates the spirits to be as old as anti-Semitism itself… plaguing Jewish communities to feed off endless generational trauma.
Thomas’ debut is a fresh entry in horror cinema regarding Jewish demonology. The Mazzik entity now stands among films like 1937’s The Dybbuk and 2018’s Lilith, starring Felissa Rose. But the true horror of movie The Vigil has less to do with the vehicle as it does the journey.
It is a supernatural manifestation of our own demons, stemming from loss and guilt. These grief monsters are more prevalent in modern horror than ever before. Ari Aster’s Hereditary revealed our vulnerability and feelings of insignificance while in mourning. A family haunted by the ripples of abuse and resentment until the bitter end. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook is a personification of repressed grief. A single mother’s internal hell rages beyond control and takes shape as an otherworldly being. Consuming her life and relationship with her son. Ted Geoghegen’s We Are Still Here features an unresolved bargaining phase of mourning. Bereaved parents willing to do anything for their deceased son. Including feeding the souls of an entire town to a monster in the basement.
Our Grief is as Individual as Our Lives
The movie The Vigil is a grim reminder than none are immune to grief and loss. The pain we carry through life can make us a target for evil in the darkest hour.
Many seek comfort in their faith and perhaps Reb Shulem was hoping an encounter with a grief demon would call Yakov back to his community. But time doesn’t always heal all wounds. It really never gets any easier. We are simply forced to learn to live with it. Much like most lore surrounding the Mazzik assumes a coexistence. The best defense is maintaining a peaceful relationship with your own personal demons.
Last Updated on December 13, 2021.