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The Dybbuk Stops Here

August 30, 2012 By:
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That's the spirit: Tzadok (Matisyahu) and Em (Natasha Calis) fight off a dybbuk in 'The Possession.'

Who knew that exorcisms were an ecu­me­ical affair? It turns out that Jews can be possessed by spirits just as easily as the faithful of other religions — a concept that audience members of The Possession, opening in area movie theaters this weekend, will soon discover.

Based on the true story of a wine cabinet-turned dybbuk box and the serial misfortunes that befell each successive person to purchase it after the box’s original owner died (and, against her wishes, was buried without it), The Possession is the first movie to explore the concept of the dybbuk since the 1937 all-Yiddish film, The Dybbuk. But, whereas The Dybbuk centered on a romantic version of possession, The Possession fully embraces the scarily supernatural aspects. 

“The dybbuk is a spirit that possesses someone,” explains Itzik Gottesman, a New York-based professor of Jewish folklore. “In most cultures around the world, people who are possessed by spirits are acknowledged to have superior powers, but in Judaism, the spirits are a bad thing and need to be exorcised. The spirit is wandering, allowed no rest for the great sin he or she has committed and can only find rest in the body of another person.”

In The Possession, that body belongs to Em (Natasha Calis), the youngest daughter of Clyde and Stephanie Brenek (Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick). Em finds the dybbuk box at a yard sale and convinces her father to buy it for her. Once she figures out how to open it, things take a turn for the horrifying, as the dybbuk begins to exert more and more control over her.

Husband-and-wife screenwriters Stiles White and Juliet Snowden, who also wrote the 2009 film Knowing, and are writing/ directing next year’s Ouija, knew as soon as they read about the original dybbuk box that it would make for a great movie. 

“As screenwriters of horror films, you’re always checking the news for weird things. Your friends are always emailing you weird links and saying, ‘Wouldn’t this make a great horror film?’ ” White says. “Usually, they’re wrong. But, ironically, that’s how this came up. In 2004, there was an article in the Los Angeles Times called ‘Jinx in a Box’ ” that went into great detail about the history of the box, which became such an Internet sensation that it warranted its own website, www. dibbukbox. com. 

White says that additional research by the pair showed “there are rituals and protocols to follow when you’re performing a dybbuk exorcism, and we incorporated all of those real elements into the story.”

To  achieve the highest level of veri­similitude, they brought in a rabbi in Vancouver, Canada, where the movie was filmed, as technical adviser. “He would read every draft of the script to make sure we were being accurate to customs and practices,” recalls White.

And if they needed the input of someone else with intimate knowledge of Chasidic life and rituals, they were able to turn to the actor portraying Tzadok, the exorcist brought in to try to expel Em’s dybbuk — Matisyahu, the reggae/hip-hop star, in his first movie role.

“When Stiles and I were writing the script, we wanted to break away from the stereotype of the mentor being the older man in his 70s,” Snowden recalls. “So when we were writing it, we decided to make it a younger-generation Chasidic character, caught between two worlds. When we were talking to the producers, we said that we really saw this character as a Matisyahu type. A couple weeks passed, and we asked them, ‘Did you cast the Tzadok role?” And they said, ‘Yeah, we got Matisyahu!’ ”

So will truth be scarier than fiction? There is little doubt that the concept of the dybbuk would have faded into obscurity centuries ago if it didn’t carry a cautionary relevance. As Gottesman, who got his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and is associate editor of the Yiddish Forward, explains, after the first tales of dybbuks appeared in print in Europe in the early part of the 17th century, “they spread quite quickly. They’re not just legends. There were people who maintain spirits possessed them. They went to the rabbi to exorcise the spirit out of them. Whether or not there was a spirit in them — that’s hard to believe, but the fact that people came to rabbis to be exorcised is true.” And there are reports of dybbuks and exorcisms to this day, as a quick search of YouTube will show.

With its premise and production team, it seems a safe bet that The Possession will be one of the most popular horror films of the year. As Snowden says, “We love the idea that the innocent act of buying something at a yard sale can turn your world upside down.” At the very least, she adds, “this will be the scariest episode of Antiques Roadshow ever.” 

The Possession opens Aug. 31 at area theaters.

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