The Possession, Drawing on Jewish Sources, is Hollywood’s Kabbalistic Version of The Exorcist (VIDEO)
By Atara Arbesfeld and Ezriel Gelbfish
A Dybbuk is a mystical spirit that possesses the body of a living person according to Jewish folklore, and is part of a fascinating tradition of the Jewish occult that has been explored in Yiddish film and theater since S. Ansky’s play dating back to 1914. Now, the Dybbuk has found Hollywood expression in “The Possession,” a new film based on a true story that is a part Exorcist-inspired horror film and part family allegory, according to its filmmakers.
“The Possession,” which was filmed last year at a mental institution in Coquitlam, British Columbia, revolves around a child who has the misfortune of being taken over by a Dybbuk. Produced by Sam Raimi of the “Spiderman” trilogy and directed by Danish filmmaker Ole Bornedal, the movie stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Clyde and “The Closer’s” Kyra Sedgwick as Stephanie, playing the divorced parents of daughters Hannah and Em, the latter of which becomes obsessed with an antique wooden box she purchases at a yard sale. As Em’s behavior becomes increasingly strange, her parents believe that she has been haunted by an evil spirit. They later discover that the box was said to contain a dybbuk, compelling them to pursue various avenues to exorcise the spirit, from brain scans to consultations with rabbis. Reggae star Matisyahu stars in the film as Tzadok, a reluctant Chassidic hero who helps them.
The husband and wife screenwriting team for the movie, Juliet Snowden and Stiles White, spoke with The Algemeiner about the inspiration for the film which began with a 2004 LA Times article about an enchanted Dybbuk box.
“When we read the article from the LA Times (written in 2004 and optioned as a film by Raimi that same year), of the true story of the dybbuk box from Poland in WWII, and we decided to write the movie, we immediately thought the mentor of the movie would be a Chassid living in a Chassidic neighborhood.”
For assistance on researching the topic, White and Snowden turned to an Orthodox Jewish friend from New York. No strangers to Orthodox Judaism themselves, the couple lived for seven years in Hancock Park, home to a large community of Chassidic Jews. The Chassidic mentor character they were looking for, however, was expected to be apart from their usual portrayals, and the Jewish reggae star proved to be a perfect fit.
“The role of Zadok the Chassidic man (portrayed by Matisyahu) who help the family was different,” said the screenwriters. “All of these horror movies have a mentor type of character who helps out the main characters in some way. and in the heritage of these kinds of movies it’s many times an older person, older and wiser. We wanted to play against that archetype a little bit. It would be interesting if the elder type characters were reluctant and afraid to help and the younger guy instead would do it.
“We kept referencing this character as a Matisyahu type of guy, he was the image of what the character was like, you know he listens to hip hop, he probably wears sneakers, we had a young guy in mind. We were about three weeks away from filming, and news came trickling down about which actors were playing which parts…And they said we got Matisyahu! This whole time we were using him as a visual in our eyes, and you never think you will get that person. But it really was him.”
In explaining why he accepted the role, Matistyahu told The Algemeiner that while he liked the script, he did have to audition for the role, “when they offered me an audition I read the script, I liked the script,” he said, “I really liked the themes and I thought it was well written and it seemed like a good role for me being that I had a certain sense of the authenticity of the Jewish element to it.”
White and Snowden say they also researched previous works on the Dybbuk before creating their own adaptation. “We went into the various belief and legends about the dybbuk spirit. One of the most interesting things to us was the translation of the Hebrew, that it ‘attaches’ or ‘cleaves.’ That was an interesting perspective- a malevolent force that attaches to its host. And the various beliefs in dybbuks throughout Jewish culture we explored as well.”
“We definitely looked at the play and the 1937 film (directed by Michal Waszynski),” explained Snowden and White. “We wanted to see context, to see what other interpretations have been done. But our movie is a pretty new take on the dybbuk, we didn’t borrow from the original play. It was just in the tradition of a malevolent spirit that takes someone over. We looked at everything that had been done about dybbuks, because we wanted context and the cultural history that had come before us. We just said let’s do a movie about this kind of spirit.”
“The Jewish aspect of it, is kind of what makes it scary, it gives it sort of a kind of ancient..mystical arm, but darker undertones,” said Matisyahu “which is kind of one of the things that makes this film unique.”
The screenwriters also explained the film’s allegory to divorce. “We’re at the point of our lives that some of our friends are getting divorced, so that was our jumping off point for the story,” they said. “What a real divorce does to everybody, and then we added the supernatural element to it. We always write in the same way, starting with characters with a real life. So the supernatural and divorce are intertwined, a metaphor. Everything we did was always the metaphor of it. The father walking around with the box was really walking around with the divorce in his hand. The daughter was possessed because ultimately the children are the victims of a divorce. This is what you do as a write. We don’t just write horror movies we write these dramas that are really intense.”
So do the screenwriters believe in dybbuks? Though they deny being afraid, the nevertheless won’t go near the box that inspired the story. “We got an email from the current owner of the dybbuk box and he said he’d let us have the box while we wrote. and we both said no way at the same time instantly! I think if we were totally not superstitious we would have taken the box with us. But what’s the point of taking a chance? And what we’ve heard is that its currently buried five feet underground. Do I want to dig that up?
“But I think also we’re very interested in stories where people believe they live in a haunted house, or that they saw a UFO, or in our case, bought something at a yard sale and have weird things happen to them,” they continued. “We are fascinated by real life people who believe in something happening to them. That sense of belief is worth investigation. Ultimately the question is not if it is really happening or not. As long as someone in the middle of it believes that, it’s gonna be very compelling and fascinating to believe.”
The Dybbuk Box
The mysterious box that inspired the film had originally belonging to a Polish Holocaust survivor who fled to Spain, where she acquired the box before arriving in the US. Her granddaughter told Oregon-based antiques collector Kevin Mannis, who discovered the box in 2000, that the box had been kept in her grandmother’s sewing room and was never opened because a dybbuk was said to live inside it. He offered to give the box back to her, but she became upset and refused to take it.
Upon opening the box, Mannis found that it revealed two 1920s pennies, a lock of blonde hair and a lock of dark hari each tied separately with a cord, a small statue engraved with the Hebrew word “Shalom”, a golden wine goblet, one dried rose bud, and a single candle holder with four octopus-shaped legs.
The box’s current owner, museum curator Jason Haxton, bought the antique for $280 in 2004. This caused a buzz on the Internet and Haxton was hounded with emails providing theories about the box, prompting him to create a special website dedicated to the box.
The film trailer can be viewed below.