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David Cronenberg: Jewish King of the Venereal

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While one famous Canadian Jew has been in the news recently, another has been overlooked: David Cronenberg.

His first feature, Shivers, opened 45 years ago this October, soon making him the nascent new horror’s ‘Baron of Blood’ and ‘King of the Venereal’. It also established many of the Jewish themes and characteristics that would become staple elements of all his films to greater or lesser degrees. 

The film’s modern-day setting of a plush tower block representing a cross-section of urbanised society has its roots in the urban ghettos of Jewish New York. 

Shivers also both mimics and parallels that same year’s publication of JG Ballard’s High Rise, similarly set in a tower block where primal and feral urges break through a hermetically sealed sub-society. 

Starliner Tower, where Shivers’ parasites take control.

Where Cronenberg’s film mainly differs is in the use of a parasitical organism, spread from resident to resident, which releases them from buttoned down conformity to express sexual, gastronomic and murderous urges on one another. 

Parasitism has long been associated with Jews going back to Christian times, often used in antisemitic terms to both marginalise and prejudice anti-Jewish feeling.  But in Cronenberg’s hands the parasitical worm of Shivers is actually perceived as a positive and liberating force, freeing a mid-seventies culture from urban corporate obsessions like homes and cars and reconnecting them with the kind of sexual and sensual drives that only a decade before were being touted as ‘the future’ by the flower power generation tuning out to hippy rock and black soul. 

The parasite invades a host.

The parasite is created inadvertently by the first of many ‘mad scientists’ that litter his films like some conference of Einstein and Freud wannabees. 

Cronenberg’s desire to depict infections, insects and parasites in general as a ‘positive’ and energising force would reach a culmination in films like The FlyNaked Lunch and Existenz. But in Shivers he first establishes that, like those antisemites who cast all Jews as parasitical leeches and harbingers of infection, he is on the side of the disease. 

When the film climaxes in an orgy-like celebration of unfettered sexual release and desire in that most Cronenbergian of womb-substitutes, a swimming pool, the viewer is instead left elated. 

Shiverscinematic orgy.

The parasite as a liberating socio-sexual force offers, for Cronenberg, the ultimate riposte to antisemitic conceptions of Jews as exploiters, usurers and even slave traders. As those same residents drive from the tower block to spread their new-flesh order of sexual freedom, Cronenberg is not only cocking a snook at conservative moral guardians but also saying that the Jew as parasite can be better depicted as an enabling force for both psychosexual and spiritual liberation. 

Surely, that most Jewish of psychologists, Sigmund Freud, would have approved of such a bloodless and medicinal-free revolution. 

Cronenberg’s later ascendance saw him leave the bargain basement thrills of RabidThe Brood and Scanners to become some kind of high-brow auteur with Naked LunchM. Butterfly and Crash.

Yet, despite this, Cronenberg is often forgotten as being amongst the forefront of filmmakers forging the ‘new horror’ started in the late 1960s.  Other Jewish directors like Roman Polanski, William Friedkin and Richard Donner would bring a post-Holocaust subtext to such urban and suburban banal settings as the ones in Rosemary’s BabyThe Exorcist and The Omen

Rather than Gothic castles and folkloric figures such as Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Mummy, here the horrors came from recent memories of the Holocaust and the Evil that Men do.

Much as the Vietnam War would haunt the late 1970s and 1980s directors of The Deer HunterPlatoon and Full Metal Jacket, so did the Holocaust find thematic release in Satanic rituals (the Nazis and Adolf Hitler had long been established for their interest in the occult), possession and the return of the Anti-Christ.

Cronenberg’s own brand of venereal horror was often overlooked despite sharing many of these films’ traits such as the metaphor of Jewish categorisation and quarantining in Rabid and the hunt for vagrant Jewish-like telepaths in Scanners.

But largely their low budgets and limited distribution system (much of Cronenberg’s early output relied on the Canadian ‘tax shelter’ scheme) deprived full appreciation until the emergence of home video where the likes of Videodrome would yield great rewards.

The Jewish Cronenberg is often something at odds with the views and beliefs of the man himself. Yet, with his oeuvre now all but mothballed since the release of Maps to the Stars and his sole novel, Consumed, both in 2014, never has there been a more apposite time to explore the rich and detailed subtext of Cronenberg’s films as the products of a Jewish filmmaker.

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Sean Alexander is a PhD Candidate at Bangor University, exploring Jewishness and Judaism in the films of David Cronenberg.
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