On Sunday, Oct. 10, 2004, Jason Haxton placed a wooden cabinet with a Hebrew prayer carved on its back in the cellar of a rental property he owned in northern Missouri and performed a Wiccan ceremony to contain an evil spirit he feared might dwell inside it. Haxton isn’t Jewish (he was raised Methodist). Nor is he a regular practitioner of pagan rituals.
However, a dramatic decline in his health since he’d acquired the wine-bottle storage cabinet eight months earlier had forced him to reconsider his beliefs — or lack of them — and turn to a remedy he would once have regarded as lunatic. ”I thought I was on a fast track to getting incapacitated,” says Haxton, the director of the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine in Kirksville, Mo., which is devoted to the history of alternative medicine. For the final part of the ritual, Haxton returned to his own home next door and took a purifying bath in sea salt and basil. While rinsing off, he felt ill and coughed up a huge mass of slime. ”It was literally two handfuls of this crud,” he says. ”I’m 54, and nothing like that has ever happened to me. To this day it freaks me out.”
On Aug. 31, Lionsgate will release The Possession, a film produced by Sam Raimi (director of The Evil Dead and Spider-Man) that’s loosely based on the terrifying experiences endured by Haxton and the previous owners of the wine cabinet, which has become known in some circles as the Dibbuk Box. A ”dibbuk,” according to Dr. Jeremy Dauber, an associate professor of Yiddish language, literature, and culture at Columbia University, is the Jewish term for a restless spirit that finds refuge in a living creature. Dauber says the idea of possession has long been a part of Jewish lore, just as it has with Christianity.
For almost a decade, the 12 1/2” by 7 1/2” by 16 1/4” box has fascinated paranormalists and paranormal debunkers alike. Now it’s about to reach the masses in cinematic form, with Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick starring as the parents of a young girl (Natasha Calis) who acquires the box. Raimi, who was raised in a conservative Jewish home, says he had a ”natural curiosity” about the subject. ”You don’t hear about dibbuks when you go to synagogue,” he explains. ”I know the demonic lore of The Exorcist. But what does my faith believe about demonic possession?” The other thing was, ”it scared me something horrible,” he says. ”The stories chilled me to the bone.” They certainly gave Morgan pause for thought. ”In the research I did, I started getting creeped out,” the actor says. ”My girlfriend was like, ‘Let’s just make sure that we don’t actually go near the real Dibbuk Box.’ ”
The alleged paranormal powers of the Dibbuk Box first became public knowledge in June 2003, when Kevin Mannis, the owner of a furniture-refinishing business in Portland, Ore., put the item up for sale on eBay along with its original contents, which included two locks of hair, a small granite statue gilded with the word ”shalom” in Hebrew lettering, and a cast-iron candlestick holder. (Dauber says that according to Jewish tradition, ”lighting candles is an important part of the exorcism process.”) Mannis had bought the box a couple of years earlier at the estate sale of a Jewish woman, a concentration-camp survivor named Havela who had died at the age of 103. In his lengthy seller’s note, Mannis recalled being told by Havela’s granddaughter that after escaping from the camp, she had wound up in Spain, where she purchased the cabinet. When Havela immigrated to the U.S., she brought the item and always claimed it contained a ”dibbuk.” Mannis, suddenly aware that he had bought a family heirloom, offered to let Havela’s granddaughter keep what she called the ”Dibbuk Box.” She adamantly declined, telling him, ”You bought it! You made a deal! We don’t want it!”