The Unborn: Exorcism, the Holocaust, and Twins

Comic book fans will undoubtedly recognize the name David S. Goyer. For better or worse, he has become synonymous with Warner Brothers’ cinematic adaptations of their DC  Comics titles. Although he gained notoriety as the writer for a Marvel cinematic adaptation, Blade (1998), his most successful writing gigs have been with Christopher Nolan on the latest Batman and Superman films. He is also the writer for the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice film, which Warner Brothers hopes will be the launching point for their own cinematic universe (a DCCU) in the style of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe). He has also created the TV adaptation of Constantine for NBC, although that series may not be long for this world.

Love him or not, Goyer is a big power player in the realm of superhero adaptations, and that makes him a big power player in Hollywood as long as such adaptations continue to generate loads of revenue.

Now, Goyer directed the immensely flawed Blade: Trinity (2004), and does not have many directing credits to his name. He does, however, have one credit that means he has become part of our exorcism cinema project. Goyer wrote and directed the 2009 feature film The Unborn, featuring Gary Oldman as Rabbi Sendak, who is enlisted by distraught young woman Casey Beldon (Odette Annable) to exorcise the demon she believes wants to use her body to enter the world.

I would not consider this a good film by any stretch of the imagination, as it is given more to jump scares and long periods of exposition over atmosphere and tension. And it is hard to believe Oldman as a rabbi (most likely he worked in this film given his previous work with Goyer on the Batman trilogy as Commissioner Gordon). At the same time, the movie focuses on the young woman’s experience of becoming possessed, and it is her conviction from this experience that prompts the exorcism to occur, as she convinces the skeptical rabbi and a priest (played by Idris Elba, for a DCCU and MCU crossover) to help her. Thus, as with The Last Exorcism Part 2, the movie focuses on a young woman’s struggles with demonic possession and her pleas to have an exorcism to save her. However, unlike that film, The Unborn does not appear to have a subversive ending.

What follows are our observations on the film as we watched it. As always, there be spoilers from here on out, so proceed with caution.

We are introduced to Casey — who likes to jog in the winter — perhaps as a teenager? She sees a child while jogging, but then the child disappears — so perhaps never there?

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While babysitting, Casey talks with her friend, and admits she feels the loss of her mother but does not feel her anywhere, which leads Casey to not believe in an afterlife.

We learn that her mother had the dual eye color thing Casey now exhibits. (Note: this condition is called heterochromia iridum, and David Bowie has it; one of the reasons he rules.) Her mother was adopted, so Casey has no knowledge of her grandparents identities on that side. This could be important — a whole lineage angle.

The mirror in the bathroom keeps rattling, like a knocking. Casy opens it and the boy from the jogging path — Jumby, I think? — is there, reaching out to her. Makes me think about The Last Exorcism Part 2, how the mirror was used to reflect Nell’s identity. Here the mirror is being used to show Casey the truth about her self, that she has this other entity inside of her. It is the idea of a mirror being able to show us who we truly are — which includes perhaps that which possesses us.

The baby she was babysitting has died. The baby’s slightly older brother may be a problem. This kid does not look favorably at Casey.

Casey apparently has foreign DNA in her — a way for the possession to begin. We learn that she was actually a twin, which she never knew — her brother died still in utero, apparently because of her umbilical cord getting wrapped around her brother’s neck. A brother her parents were apparently going to call Jumby… Why would you name your kid Jumby? What kind of evil parent are you!?! Even as a nickname, that is messed up.

So Casey is being haunted by her dead twin brother.

Oh, and apparently we are throwing in a Holocaust survivor…

Casey and her friend go to see the Holocaust survivor, who doesn’t like mirrors and somehow this woman can sense that Casey is a twin, since she also had a twin brother. The woman also has a Jewish symbol she strokes in her hand. And she freaks out when Casey shows her a picture of the boy in the mirror — from  a picture her mother was taking of herself when she was pregnant with Casey and Jumby.

Casey and her boyfriend, I think, watches an 8mm film that was with her mother’s things. Some old building, the hospital where her mother died, showing where she hung herself. So, yeah, her mother apparently went insane not too long after Casey’s birth and Jumby’s death, and they had to place her in a sanitarium. The film goes rather found footage at this point, with a lot of first person perspective camera footage showing a creepy place.

Casey goes out with her boyfriend and other young college students (? I have no idea how old these people are — they are just young) to a bar, partying, and she has more auditory and visual hallucinations. She sees Jumby in the crowd.

She runs to the toilet, and then … lots to do with insects, crustaceans, all coming out of the walls and plumbing in the club toilet — and she sees her mother coming out at her. Ah, those are Jerusalem crickets. Symbolism!

Apparently her friend knows a lot about superstitions — wonder if that is why she is African American. Has something her grandmother told her as a way to keep away evil spirits. Could be falling back on the “magical black” trope with this friend.

Casey has an out of body experience — she sees herself lying in bed, with Jumby alongside her, and Jumby starts tearing into her abdomen, going for her uterus probably. Definitely playing on pregnancy horrors.

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So the Holocaust survivor calls, reveals that she is Casey’s grandmother, and the boy in the picture is her twin brother who died in Auschwitz. So that is the boy Casey has been seeing — not really Jumby then. And apparently she and her brother were experimented on by the Nazis, in a mixture of science and occultism. The brother had died, but came back to life with something else inhabiting his body: a dybbuk, an evil spirit, who came through the open door. (So now we have a connection to The Possession.)

And exposition time: a dybbuk is caught between Earth and Heaven, endlessly wandering the world looking for a way back into the world. Some people are doorways — especially a twin, who is like a mirror — and mirrors have always been doorways to other worlds. According to the grandmother, the dybbuk tried to take hold of the unborn child, but now it is focused on Casey. It has been circling Casey ever since she was born, but it takes time to make its way through the other side. It inhabits the lower lifeforms first because they are most helpless, thus explaining the presence of the insects — but it wants the twin. Discussed the Jewish Sefer Mar’ot ha-Zove’ot, The Book of Mirrors, a tome connected to the Jewish esoteric beliefs of the Kabbalah.

So bringing in Jewish mysticism with the Kabbalah (and doing more of the mysticism angle than happened with The Possession). Casey goes to visit Rabbi Sendak to ask for an exorcism because of the dybbuk, and Rabbi Sendak says there is no such thing as dybbuks and possession, that it is all just old superstition and mental illnesses. She gives him the Sefer Mar’ot ha-Zove’ot she received, asks him to translate, but he will not. So not necessarily getting a priest who has lost faith, just one who doesn’t believe in the mysticism angle.

Grandmother gave her the Jewish symbol, which is the Hand of Miriam, or Hamsa, and tells her things to do to protect herself at home. Really wondering where Casey’s dad is during all of this. Her grandmother says there is no way to understand the dybbuk, that it is an outsider, no longer human, not of this universe. It cannot be killed, just driven away.

So what we get is the process towards possession, as Casey starts to see things that are not there.
Why does that little boy, the one she babysat, have a connection to Jumby? Something about not wanting the friend to help Casey.

Again, eye color as a sign of possession. Physical changes progressing as a way to express corruption of the soul.

The whole Nazi experimentation angle was unnecessary. She could have just been experiencing the possession because of being a twin. The adopted mother, the Holocaust surviving grandmother, just makes the story unnecessary complicated and convoluted, and over explains what is happening. Far too much reliance on exposition rather than allowing Casey to discover these things on her own.

We do have a rather agentic women, though, especially when combined with her grandmother and her friend who apparently know some magical tricks. Casey is the one who believes something is happening and she does what she can to fix things, even when the men around her do not believe — hell, she has an absent father.

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And now the dybbuk must be going after the grandmother, as she sees some weird things at the nursing home. Spider-walking monster as a callback to The Exorcist. And then the dybbuk attacks her. So Casey loses that help.

And the cop just lets Casey go through the police lines…I am assuming she told them it was her grandmother…

So Casey’s mother lost the battle trying to stop the dybbuk and killed herself. Apparently a dybbuk will try to isolate Casey from those around her to get her. That actually reminds me of The Amityville Horror, when the ghost did everything it could to prevent people outside the family from helping.

This dybbuk is acting very differently from the one in The Possession. What is the true story of dybbuks? Is there a true story, a specific legend others are drawing on? We really need to watch the Polish film Der Dibuk (1937); because that movie was filmed in Yiddish, perhaps it is the closest cinematic representation of this belief of possession.

And now it is going after Rabbi Sendak, with a messed up dog.

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And now the dybbuk is going after her friend.

It always attacks with an indication of losing power. Such a common ghost trope.

Dybbuk possessed the boy to kill the friend, and then it possessed the friend. Lot of possessing going on. But the friend is dead, right?

Okay, so now Casey has lost her female help, and she has only the male help to turn to, such as her boyfriend, who now believes her. And I am guessing the rabbi believes now, too. So the dybbuk is now strong enough to enter anyone, even the dead. But the key here is that the power of the sisterhood has been taken away, unlike in The Last Exorcism Part 2 or The Conjuring. Now we have returned to the traditional exorcism narrative, where men have to save the day.

And Rabbi Sendak comes around — saying he doesn’t believe so much, but that Casey believes, so that should make the exorcism work. But they go to the Catholic priest for the actual exorcism, probably because he believes more than Rabbi Sendak. So the Catholic exorcism gets to supersede the Judaic exorcism because there is enough similarity in the rites and since apparently this creature precedes all religions, represents the type of evil force all religions speak of.

A bureaucratic approach to exorcism? My understanding is that a Catholic priest has to get approval from their local diocese in order to do an exorcism. Only that does not appear to happen, they just set things up. And to make this even more unorthodox, they are going to the old hospital where her mother died, because it was a place where she experienced a lot of pain.

I want to know what research Goyer did on how exorcisms are conducted. Because this rite is like none depicted elsewhere in exorcism cinema. Rabbi Sendak explains there needs to be ten people at the exorcism because of the symbolism of 10 — and then they name a specific psalm to be read as a symbol of protection — and then he blows on a specific horn to harm the dybbuk. They are, for some reason, recording the exorcism, and the priest says have ecclesiastical authority who are praying for them, and that everyone is there of their own free will.

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Wow, explaining how the exorcism will work step by step.

At least two out of the ten people present are women. Where they all came from, <shrug>.

Casey is strapped to a gurney and gagged during the ritual while the ten people circle her and read the holy orders, psalms, and so forth. Rabbi Sendak has the lead, reading from the Sefer Mar’ot ha-Zove’ot Casey gave him to translate.

As they go, the environment reacts, as does Casey; she writhes in pain, hallucinates — so we do get some of her subjective experience of being in the ceremony, of what exorcism is like. That makes this representation of possession/exorcism rather rare.

When the dybbuk attacks the ritual, the women are the only ones the film shows as falling — and one is killed. But that is after a man is knocked back into the wall.

The violence of the attacks almost is like the film is saying that it is a male part of her that is being unleashed.

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The dybbuk manages to possess the priest after having knocked out Rabbi Sendak. The priest attacks boyfriend, takes him away, when the boyfriend is trying to save Casey from the dybbuk. Casey does attack the priest to try to stop him. She is not a damsel in distress completely — although it is her boyfriend who stops the priest and is then possessed.

Casey’s eyes are completely transformed now. But the dybbuk is not in her…so, why?

Boyfriend attacks her, bug comes out of his throat, and she attacks him with the hamsa. Rabbi Sendak appears. Casey joins Rabbi Sendak to complete the exorcism on the boyfriend. They manage to cast the dybbuk out of him, but he falls to his death. So it is like she has been punished even though she tried to stand up for herself. That male part of her led to the death of the man she loved: she literally/figuratively pushed him away because of this part of her.

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Ah, the real reason the dybbuk was coming after her! She’s pregnant with twins! That was the real reason the dybbuk was coming after her now: it didn’t necessarily want to possess her, it wanted to possess one of her unborn children. So she represents a threat to mankind because of her sexuality leading to this pregnancy that could unleash this evil unto the world. How totally traditional exorcism narrative of this film!

And, the end.

An issue is that this movie did not say it was based on a true story nor was it a found footage format. It did try to explain a lot about the dybbuk and how the exorcism would work, so that could be seen as a way it was being realistic. If I ever get the chance to sit down with Goyer, then I will need to ask him about these attempts to make the film’s portrayal of possession and exorcism seem realistic — and where he got the ideas for the portrayals in the first place.

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