Witches and Vampires, Jewish Legends and Historical Narrative by Tzafrir Barzilay

June 4, 2012 at 7:17 pm, by

As I watched Tim Burton’s latest movie, Dark Shadows, I found myself somewhat confused. While the plot seemed very familiar, a classic story of vampires and witches, the timeline and the history of the characters were not completely clear.

The film tells the story of Barnabas Collins, played by the wonderful Johnny Depp, an eighteenth century noble who is cursed by an evil witch and becomes a vampire. After his parents and wife are killed by witchcraft, he is locked in a coffin and buried, until he is accidentally released in 1972. Barnabas discovers that the evil witch, Angelique (Eva Green), is still alive and well, and that she still terrorizes his living relatives and has destroyed the family business. At the same time, a young woman who looks exactly like Barnabas’ late wife arrives at the Collins’ estate. Naturally, Barnabas falls in love with her, and fights Angelique, who vows to never allow him to be at peace.


One can see how Barnabas and Angelique might still hate and fight each other after two hundred years. After all, as a vampire and a witch, they are both immortal. But how could Barnabas’ late wife come back from the dead? Moreover, it seems that their surroundings have not changed very much. The family business, the town, and even the angry mob are quite similar. What can this mean?

The simple explanation is that Burton is referring to his own source of inspiration, a soap opera called Dark Shadows, aired in the late 1960’s. The film allegedly takes place in 1972, as a continuation of the series. The characters in the movie emerge again in history, in the same way that the original series Dark Shadows reappeared through Burton’s film. However, the movie may point to a more general message about history, namely that the same characters and events are destined to repeat themselves in every generation.

In the movie, Burton creates archetypal characters, events and places that appear over and over again in the course of history:  The conniving femme fatale  – the seductress witch who falls in love with Barnabas and wishes to possess him moves throughout time reappearing over and over again as different prominent women in the town. The character of Josette, Barnabas’ true love, is mirrored and repeated in the form of Victoria, the young woman who takes on her image – innocent, beautiful and beloved. The beautiful estate is restored once more to its glory, the town once again fleetingly belonging to the Collinses, only to turn on them once again. While each element of the story is not necessarily identical and characters may come and go, they hold a specific role, and this role must repeat itself. There must be a beloved and there must be a witch. Thus the story is destined to repeat itself over and over.

Interestingly, this perception of history is quite similar to classic Jewish views. For example, when the Jerusalem Talmud discusses the Bar-Kokhba rebellion against the Romans, the editors often mix in stories about earlier rebellions. (JT, Ta’anit, 24) Legends describing the first Jewish-Roman war and the destruction of the First Temple are represented as a single narrative explaining the defeat of Bar-Kokhba. For the editors of the Talmud, there was no significant difference between the Romans and the Babylonians, or between the First Temple and the second one. These people, places and events played a specific role in Jewish history, which tended to repeat itself. One can see the same idea in the thirteenth century poem of Ma’oz Tzur – every verse describes a different enemy of the Jewish people, which was finally defeated by divine intervention. The enemies may have different faces, but they have the same goal, to destroy the Jewish people, and they meet the same end, death by miracle.

And so, while stories about witches and vampires may seem very far from Jewish legends and poems, they can be quite similar in the way they describe time, history and destiny.


Tzafrir Barzilay is an Israeli PhD student of Medieval Jewish and Christian History at Columbia University. He currently resides in New York with his wife.

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2 Comments So Far

  1. Interesting points to be sure BUT is the film worth watching or is it wait-untill-it-is-on-cable fodder? Remember … that’s a big part of why we read reviews.

    Spencer Gill, June 5, 2012 at 12:49 am #
  2. Hey Spencer,
    Well, I was not trying to write a review per-se, but you should definitely watch the movie. Its simply great fun.

    Tzafrir Barzilay, June 6, 2012 at 9:16 am #
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