Jonathan Barkan and Ariel Fisher are what one could call a Jewish horror movie power couple.
Many couples have a meet-cute. Jonathan Barkan and Ariel Fisher’s was a literal horror story.
The Ann Arbor residents met by chance in 2018, when they were writers and horror film aficionados visiting an all-night shoot on the set of Rabid, a remake of the 1977 body-horror film by cult-favorite Jewish Canadian director David Cronenberg. The movie is about a young woman who turns into a bloodsucking monster.
Unbeknownst to Barkan, Fisher was mourning the recent loss of her aunt Claudia, who co-founded the Danforth Jewish Circle, a progressive Jewish group in Toronto. The funeral was the following morning, and the overnight shooting schedule wore on her. But surrounded by strangers, she didn’t speak about it for most of the night.
Barkan, noticing something was wrong, worked to create a friendly atmosphere on set. He played games between takes to pass the time and peppered Fisher with jokes over the shoot’s long hours.
“Ariel realized that I wasn’t exactly a creep. She still didn’t know what word to use exactly, but it wasn’t ‘creep,’” Barkan recalls. “Then, when it came out that I was Jewish as well, immediately we were able to speak the same language in a way that others weren’t.”
As a bonus, both lovebirds have blurry background cameos in the finished film.
Barkan and Fisher are what one could call a Jewish horror movie power couple. Barkan works in producing, acquisition and distribution for independent horror films. He has overseen titles including Shifter, about a time-travel experiment gone awry, and Blood Vessel, about a boat infested with Nazi vampires. Previously, he was an editor and critic at horror websites Dread Central and Bloody Disgusting.
Fisher is a freelance horror writer and editor for a range of outlets, including the influential Fangoria magazine, and runs The Bite, a weekly newsletter published by the horror streaming service Shudder. The couple split their time between Ann Arbor and Ontario.
Within the devoted, tight-knit community of horror fans, Barkan and Fisher are revered for their open-hearted enthusiasm for the genre, as well as a deep well of knowledge about its many grisly odds and ends. They’re as conversant in Nightmare on Elm Street sequels as they are in brutal New French Extremity films.
The two got engaged in October 2019. They’d initially planned for a long engagement and a wedding that would celebrate both their shared Jewish identity and, fittingly, their love of horror. (They had an engagement photo shoot at Storm Crow, a Toronto bar with different themed rooms modeled after Twin Peaks, H.P. Lovecraft and other creepy classics.)
But just days after they returned to Fisher’s hometown of Toronto from a trip to Israel, the COVID-19 crisis escalated into a global pandemic.
Given the circumstances, it seemed best to make things official on paper and worry about a fuller celebration later. So, the couple found a magistrate in Cornwall, Ontario, held a small secular ceremony with a few close relatives, and blasted a mix of rock and metal on the drive home to a dinner of sushi and champagne.
“It wound up being kind of perfect,” Fisher mused with a smile.
Children of the Damned
Over a distanced interview with the couple and their dog, Dante, in Ann Arbor’s Gallup Park, they recounted their earliest ties to the genre. For both Barkan and Fisher, these date back well into childhood.
Fisher’s maternal grandfather lost much of his family to the Holocaust but managed to flee from present-day Belarus to Western Europe and later Argentina before settling in Ontario in the 1970s. The trauma left him distant from his faith, shaping the more secularized Jewish identity that was passed on in her family going forward.
Fisher recalled listening to the films her older brother was allowed to watch in the other room of her family home in Thornhill, a Toronto suburb. She could overhear screaming and crunching during films like Jaws and Carrie; those noises alone during her single-digit years were enough to reel her in.
“I have vivid memories of being in my childhood home in Thornhill and doing a puzzle with my mom in the dining room,” Fisher said. “My dad and my brother were watching Jaws, and I have vivid memories of doing this puzzle with my mom but hearing Quint getting eaten in the other room.”
Later, Jaws acquired a ritualistic significance.
“I started watching it so much in my early teens that I would watch it to go to sleep,” she said. “It’s like my comfort movie. Somehow the screams of people being eaten by a giant great white shark lull me to sleep like a lullaby.”
Viewing the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist one night at a friend’s house, at the tender age of 13, had the opposite effect. Fisher was traumatized, by one scene most of all: Regan (Linda Blair), the preteen girl possessed by the devil, contorts into a gruesome spider-walk and darts backward down a staircase.
“I proceeded to not be able to sleep for a day and a half, and not be able to look at my stairs for months,” she remembers. “Few things have scared me that much since. So, from then on, everything else was a cakewalk.”
Barkan, likewise, took to horror from a young age while growing up in an Orthodox household. His parents had each emigrated from the former Soviet Union, met and married in Israel, and then moved to Ann Arbor for his father’s endocrinology residency. It was there that they had and raised Barkan and his older sister.
A “big blow” came for the family when Barkan was just 5. His sister was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor, leading to two years of long hours in hospitals. Oddly, it was this experience he credits with leading to his love of horror.
There was “lots of chemotherapy, radiation, surgeries, procedures,” he said. “We would go and visit her, and she would have tubes going in her nose and through shunts and everything. So, I grew up going to the hospital far more frequently than most other children and, as a result, hospitals went from being a scary or uncomfortable place to something that was just very natural.”
Working to stay out of the way in hours-long visits, Barkan would spend time in the ward’s game room for younger patients, who often had visible physical disabilities.
“It was a very surreal experience because the walls had a painting of a sun and a rainbow and happy clouds and trees,” he said. “It’s meant to be very bright and sunny and wonderful — meanwhile, all the children playing over there had tubes in them and are in wheelchairs. Some of them were missing limbs.”
To cope, Barkan took to the genre that grappled best with what he saw — or couldn’t see — around him: disease and death. Goosebumps was an early gateway. His parents thought he was too young for proper horror movies, but they couldn’t keep him away for long.
“I very quickly turned to horror, not because of these people that I was constantly surrounded by, but rather because there was some unknown, monstrous villain in my sister’s head that was attacking her and was causing horrible damage,” he said. “Not only could I put a face to the horrors that I was going through; it also contextualized them.”
As time passed, Barkan drifted away from the religious aspects of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing. His parents signed him up for Jewish summer camps and extra hours every week with the family’s rabbi; these efforts proved fruitless. But his love of horror “never left.”
Barkan graduated from the University of Michigan and expected to go into the recording industry. At the Bloody Disgusting website, he started writing about the intersection of music and horror, and interviewed figures like film director and heavy-metal musician Rob Zombie.
“I just kind of fell into it,” he said. “I pushed, and I worked, and I kept my head down, and I simply kept saying, ‘What can I do to help?’ That was always the question every day, every week, every month.”
Fisher likewise had a “natural gravitation” to the horror genre, which others around her observed quickly and pushed her to follow through on. At McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, her guidance counselor encouraged her to write for the school paper.
“I’d say, ‘Oh, they don’t want to hear from me,’” Fisher said. “And she’s like: ‘Ariel, that’s dumb. Go write.’”
From there, Fisher wrote a piece on horror remakes for a campus art magazine and the rest, per her description, “just kind of happened.” A decade later, her portfolio’s only continued to grow.
Let The Right One In
As a Jewish woman working in horror, Fisher finds that few in her community share that same identity. She said several of her peers have described her as their “first Jew.”
Over the years, she’s been met online with responses ranging from discrimination and harassment to antisemitism. She’s trying to change the conversation by developing a Jewish horror-centric podcast with another Jewish woman in the community.
“Being a woman in this world is hard. It’s not welcoming, it’s highly judgmental, deeply competitive and laced with a lot of really problematic engagement,” Fisher said. “I spent a lot of time when I was first starting out wrestling with the other men in the industry.”
Fisher also identifies as pansexual and says that, combined with her Judaism, has given her “fear of rejection, fear of oppression, that fear of violence.”
“I’ve always struggled because I hid it from myself, let alone anybody else, for most of my life. As a lot of people [of] our generation did,” she said.
Barkan, whose extended family still lives in Israel, proudly notes he is Jewish in his Twitter bio and is willing to confront antisemitism directly online.
Both often find themselves wondering if their Jewish identity has informed their approach to horror. “The general white public never has to think, ‘Does my German heritage, or does my Norwegian heritage, have to be a part of this discussion?’” Barkan said.
Yet they feel at home.
“It’s the people in the horror community that you can go to and laugh about how your search histories are [terms like] ‘best decapitations in movies’,” said Barkan.
And in addition to the other editors, writers, critics and filmmakers in the horror space, they also have a strong working relationship with each other.
“We constantly ask each other for feedback,” said Fisher. “I love having him be an extra set of eyes on something I’m working on.”
Horror film is changing, as the genre embraces new forms of social critique through works like Get Out and the remake of The Invisible Man.
There are more visibly Jewish horror films now, too, including The Vigil, about a dybbuk (evil spirit) that haunts an Orthodox man who has agreed to serve as a shomer (vigil keeper) over the corpse of a relative.
The film, which has large amounts of Yiddish dialogue and invokes themes of the Holocaust, left an impact on Fisher when she saw it.
“I was not prepared” she said. “I was uncontrollably sobbing by the end of it, because you have this kind of Exorcist-ish representation — except it’s us.”
The pandemic, too, is creating shifts in the genre. With production on so many movies stalled and most audiences avoiding theaters, Barkan hopes some might turn online to find different sorts of films with smaller budgets.
Besides which, the couple note, the world is living through a horror movie right now — and Jews have survived one horror after another.
“We’re just less shocked by certain things,” said Fisher. “I think things are less horrific when you’ve seen things that are truly horrific.”