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In Hollywood’s ‘The Possession,’ the dybbuk is back

Matisyahu as Tzadok and Natasha Calis as Em in a scene from "The Possession." (Diyah Para)

Matisyahu as Tzadok and Natasha Calis as Em in a scene from “The Possession.” (Diyah Para)

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Thought your daughter’s odd behavior was just another preteen phase?

There may be an alternate explanation: The dybbuk is back.

The malevolent spirit from 16th-century Jewish mysticism and folklore reappears in “The Possession,” a Hollywood film featuring Matisyahu and Kyra Sedgwick that opens Friday.

In keeping with the times, the spirit has migrated from the Eastern European shtetl of S. Ansky’s iconic play “The Dybbuk” to contemporary American suburbia and the home of Clyde Brenek, a high school basketball coach conflicted about the divorce from his wife and the father of two daughters.

Clyde takes the girls — Hannah, 15, and Em, 11 — to a yard sale, where Em is oddly attracted to a small box inscribed with Hebrew letters and persuades her father to buy it. At home, overcome with curiosity, Em is in her room when she pries open the box and finds a bird’s skeleton, a lock of hair, strange carvings and an ancient-looking ring.

Predictably, terrible things begin to happen. Em stabs her dad’s hand with a fork and giant moths invade her bedroom. Her father disposes of the box in a distant dumpster, but she sallies forth in her nightgown across a dark deserted street to retrieve it.

The increasingly desperate father seeks medical advice; an MRI reveals strange apparitions within the girl’s body. A psychiatrist is ineffective. Finally, a professor recalls the dybbuk story and advises Clyde to travel to Brooklyn and appeal to an old Chasidic rabbi.

Clyde’s pleadings are rejected by the rabbi, but the rabbi’s son, played by the reggae and alternative rock musician Matisyahu, takes pity and agrees to try an exorcism.

In a stormy session, Em is freed of the dybbuk — the dislocated spirit of an odious sinner who dies before repenting and now seeks refuge from avenging angels. It then infests her father until it is finally forced to beat a protoplasmic retreat back into the box. Though seemingly defeated, the dybbuk eventually extracts its revenge.

There is no gain in saying that the PG-13 movie is quite frightening, even to the mature skeptical mind. That said, it also is fairly safe to wager that “The Possession” will not win any Oscars, though young Canadian actress Natasha Calis, as the possessed girl, is convincingly frightening.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the sorely tried father turns in a solid performance, while Sedgwick is stuck in the role of his shrill, angry ex-wife, Stephanie. Matisyahu as the exorcist makes an impressive screen debut.

Horrormeister Sam Raimi is the co-producer, with Danish director Ole Bornedal at the helm of the film. The Lionsgate/Ghosthouse production is based on a 2004 Los Angeles Times article by Leslie Gornstein titled “A jinx in the box?” which gives it a conceivable claim to veracity.

Gornstein’s article tracked a mysterious box — inscribed with the words from the Shema prayer — allegedly brought to America by an aged Holocaust survivor. It passed through the hands of various calamity-prone owners until it was auctioned off on eBay. The high bidder was Jason Haxton, a medical museum curator who investigated the story over many years and turned it into a book, “The Dibbuk Box.” 

Haxton’s story is rooted in the actual world, with people sending emails and buying and selling on eBay, but in the end he leaves it to the reader to decide whether the story is a hoax.

Bornedal now owns the box and has it buried in his backyard.

“I’m not superstitious,” he tells JTA, saying that for a few weeks he has worn the ring found inside the box.

Still, he acknowledges twinges of concern while flying, aware that the ring was along for the journey in his suitcase.

Bornedal speculates that the dybbuk’s possession of Em was largely an allegory on her inner fears at a time when her parents were going through a bitter divorce. While shooting the movie, he says he concentrated on the production rather than worry about the dybbuk’s alleged powers.

He maintained this attitude, he says, even when all the neon light fixtures exploded one day on the set in Vancouver, Canada, and when a fire destroyed all the props used in the movie shortly after the film wrapped.

His new film attests to the continuing fascination with the spiritual possession theme, especially in movies that reenact the viewer’s dreamlike fears while he is safe in his seat, says Edna Nahshon, a professor of Hebrew at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York who specializes on the Jewish theater.

In our time, she says, the dybbuk theme is still alive in the Chasidic world and is connected historically to kabbalistic teaching on the transmigration of souls. Nahshon adds that the dybbuk theme is found in various forms in almost every culture and religion.

In Jewish tradition, the dybbuk is almost invariably male, usually possessing a female soul and body. This scenario gives the possessed woman a “voice” to say what is normally repressed, including sexual desire, Nahshon says. But in “The Possession,” the gender identities are murkier. The dybbuk, however, is female, Bornedal says.

What is clear is that the dybbuk remains with us in theatrical performances and books. 

Just before the opening of “The Possessed,” a Los Angeles theater concluded the stage run of “The Exorcist” with a different approach than the famed 1974 movie, but also based on William Peter Blatty’s novel.

The dybbuk theme also showed up in the 2009 movie “A Serious Man” by Joel and Ethan Coen. The film opened with a visit by a presumed dybbuk in an Eastern European shtetl, while its central character is a man beset by slights and setbacks that neither he nor the wise rabbis he consults can explain.

As for the grandfather of the cinematic genre, the 1937 Polish Yiddish film “Der Dibbuk,” it has been restored by the National Center for Jewish Film and continues to enjoy considerable popularity.

In recent years, the restored “Dibbuk” has screened worldwide in venues ranging from the Austrian Film Archive to an outdoor screening at the Hollywood Bowl, said Lisa Rivo, the film center’s associate director.

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