Demons, dybbuks & pop


(Image courtesy of Reuters & Lionsgate)


In 1973, “The Exorcist” burst (hurled) onto the screen becoming both critically acclaimed (earned 10 Academy Award nominations) and commercially successful (becoming one of the highest grossing films of all time.) It was the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture.


Along with awards, it also channeled forth a mega-influence on pop culture, spurring both sequels and prequels and spawning others in the same genre from “The Omen” and its family of follow-ups to Spielberg’s “Poltergeist.” It is today an occult classic.


Last week, saw it’s latest offspring, “The Possession” top the box office and keep that position through this weekend, clearly tapping into a renewed interest in the supernatural, though this time with a whiff of Judaism and a mystical dybbuk replacing The Exorcist’s demon and a rabbi filling in for a priest.


For those not savvy to the ways of the dybbuk, according to Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis whose book, “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism”, it is the “clinging of an evil spirit” a ghost or disturbed and transmigrated soul that possesses the body of a living person.


Interestingly, and according the prologue, the film is inspired by an actual event written up in the Los Angeles Times in 2004 with the headline, “A Jinx in a Box”, that caught the eye of Sam Raimi, the producer on the film and who is best known for his Spiderman movies with Tobey Maguire.


According to recent L.A. Times piece, the article told the story of a Missouri college student who listed a...

“haunted Jewish white cabinet box” on eBay. He had purchased the item at a yard sale but insisted that it had brought him nothing but bad luck, including hair loss. The box contained two locks of hair, one granite slab, a dried rosebud, a goblet, two wheat pennies, one candlestick and, supposedly, a malevolent possessing Jewish spirit called a dybbuk.”


In the movie we come upon a couple Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Stephanie Brenek (Kyra Sedgwick) who are going through a strenuous divorce, shuffling their two daughters back and forth on weekends. Serving as a metaphor for all of this familial tsuris, is the dybbuk box picked up from a yard sale by their youngest daughter Emily, who then quickly becomes obsessed with it. Once she opens it, the dybbuk that was held in it, is let out and enters her body, eventually taking it over and all sorts of creepiness ensues.


Culturally, unlike “The Exorcist”, this film is not initiating a trend as much as latching onto, um, inhabiting one. Previewing every trailer prior, there was a slew of fall flix with one form of paranormal, evil entity occupying the screen after another.


So what’s going on? And why now? Is Hollywood just getting ready for Halloween season, or is there something else at play?


After all, the notion of a dybbuk is something out of the sixteenth century and only popularized with S. Ansky’s play first staged in 1920.


Or is “The Possession” simply lending the requisite Jewish mystical color to an endlessly monetizing palette of more movie theater magic?


According to Rabbi Gershon Winkler, author of several books on the subject of Jewish mysticism including “Magic of the Ordinary” and “Dybbuk”, he reports, how in the 21st Century, there is still such a strong interest in the occult and the supernatural. “In the United States alone there are more than 1500 established cults. Witchcraft covens are proliferating as are motion pictures about demonic possessions, exorcisms, and other occult phenomena.”


He concludes, “Disillusioned by the state of world affairs and by his own failure to find meaning in life, our technologically complex society has placed new dimensions of stress upon the individual which never before existed. …Trapped the human creature opts for the achievement of powers outside the realm of the natural world.”


If so, it’s more than a little ironic that we would search for solace to our hyper-techno-complex society in, of all places—a multiplex.


What''s your take?

Abe Novick is a writer and communications consultant and can be reached at