Saturday, August 11, 2012

"Based" "on" "a" "True" "Story"

There are two ways to make a Jewish supernatural horror film. One, Jewish vampires and werewolves (American Werewolf in London, Fearless Vampire Killers). Or two, take supernatural elements from Jewish folklore and spin a story around them (the Dybbuk, the Golem). Option one presents a wider range of story elements, but presents the challenge of harmonizing supernatural cosmologies. Is a Jewish vampire repelled by a cross and holy water? Does the presence of Jews in a horror film necessarily destroy the illusions of a fantasy universe? 

Option two is more rare, I think, because most people, Jews and non-Jews, are unfamiliar with the world of the Jewish supernatural. The most developed body of Jewish supernatural lore comes from Eastern Europe and its Yiddish culture. And as with the Yiddish language, American Jews really haven't the slightest interest in Eastern European folk religion (and its spirit world). Which is too bad, because the potential for a really good, really creepy, really Jewish horror movie is there.*

Alas, there is a new 'dybbuk' movie coming out soon. And while I long to see a great Dybbuk for the 21st century, I'm fairly confident this ain't it. At the end of August, Lionsgate will release The Possession, a new film featuring a dybbuk in a box and a really creepy little girl possessed by said dybbuk. Oh, it's got Matisyahu's beard (z"l) attached to the character of Tsadok, a Kabalist exorcist. If you ask me (and, really, you should've) a brilliant move would've been to hire an actual Hasid (or recently ex-) to play the role of Tsadok. I'm thinking someone like Luzer Twersky. He's a young actor who comes from that part of the world (Hasidic Brooklyn) where they actually believe in this stuff. (Not fakelore like a dybbuk haunted winebox, but you know what I mean.) Ah well. Movies. You expect intelligent verisimilitude and you get Renee Zellweger in a shpitzl.

You can see the trailer for The Possession online. They're pushing the 'Based on a True Story' angle pretty hard. It's true that the movie bears a relationship to a real, purportedly dybbuk haunted, winebox, though that relationship is more commercial than familial. 

Back in 2004 the press picked up on the story of a haunted winebox that had somehow ended up on Ebay. The current owner of the box, Jason Haxton, just released his own book, describing his journey to discover the truth about the box. You can read my review of Haxton's 'Dibbuk Box' at the Forward. From what I see in the trailer, and what I've read about the movie, The Possession bears scant resemblance to the book, aside from both having dibbuks and boxes. And don't even get me started on what relation the book may have to 'reality.' In February I noted that the book had the uncanny authority of a Wonderbread bagel.

At least from the trailer, it looks like the producers were less interested in drawing on Jewish lore, and more content to recycle familiar horror movie tropes. The trailer itself is a callback to The Exorcist and its prototype 'little girl possessed by middle eastern entity' images of terror: little girl undergoing medical scanning, little girl suffering bodily possession, etc. The actress in The Possession even looks a bit like Linda Blair.

Watch the first minute and a half of the trailer and you'll know everything you need to know about the movie, aside from its lack of imagination. The requisite bearded university expert (it's beard vs. beard up in here) examines our mysterious object of evil, saying: "It says 'dybbuk'... Hebrew word for demon." 

Bahah. OK. Except no. "Dybbuk" contains the loshn koydesh root 'd-v-k' which means to cleave. The word dybbuk comes to us from the phrase ruakh medabek or 'spirit who cleaves'. We find Jewish folklore about dybbukim and possession arising in pre-Enlightenment Eastern Europe. Dybbukim were a kind of failed gilgul, or reincarnation of a soul. A dybbuk was believed to be the soul of a sinner fleeing his (always his) spiritual punishment. He would take refuge in a woman's body (always a woman) until driven out by the local mekubel or his non-union Ukrainian equivalent. The point being that dybbukim were not supernatural entities per se, they were discarnate souls just looking out for themselves. They had no larger agenda of evil. Not to put too fine point on it, but goyish and Jewish possession are totally different animals. Or animus. And The Possession seems to miss this distinction entirely.

As for demons, Yiddish does contain plenty of supernatural beings to be scared of. The most obvious 'demon' therein is a shed, a servant of Ashmodai found, for one, in IB Singer's short story 'The Last Demon' or, in Yiddish, Mayse Tishevits. (And, if you can read the Yiddish, it is infinitely better than the watered down, de-Judaised English translation. Ahem.)

But maybe these are the academic niggles of a humorless Yiddishist. After all, the real question is, will The Possession give me tingles in my scary place? Who knows, maybe Matisyahu will surprise us with his riveting screen presence and glatt Hasidish gravitas. And maybe we'll see a new twist on the quiescent evil lurking in small girls. 

Indeed, it is possible to shamelessly recycle horror tropes, sprinkle brazenly with homages to classic movies, and indulge in just the kind of fakelore which usually leaves me clutching at my pearls, and still end up with something that's fresh, fun and, most important, scary. I'm thinking of the recent Hammer studios reboot Wake Wood. I won't give too much away, but Wake Wood's protagonists are a young married couple who move into an isolated Irish village whose residents turn out to practice the kind of tweedy, Celt-ish earth magic found only in certain mid-century English horror films. Deliciously scary hi-jinks ensue.

In Jason Haxton's 'The Dibbuk Box,' a trail of mid- to large size catastrophes seem to follow the box around, pinging everyone with the bad luck to enter its orbit. The spookiest thing that happened to me was someone (presumably a publicist) arriving at my blog by googling 'dibbuk box' while I was reading it.  I'm still holding out hope that The Possession can conjure up a scare or two better than that.


  1. Interesting blog,
    Thank you , very interesting
    my mother spoke Jiddish i don`t
    you are invited to read
    it has an English translation knob

  2. I found it fascinating to read about Dybbukim, Yiddish and Eastern European folk religion. I am hungry to find out more as somehow, I am sure, those spirit worlds are already known to me... I was just wondering what it was, having some nebulous (yet significant) connection to Baba Yaga, her chicken legged hut, my sister's art work and my mother's Austrian peasant chicken soups.

    Ahh! Reading your blog is soothing my poor old haggard soul.

    I am no etymologist, nor linguist, but living in west Wales amongst a Welsh speaking population (P Celtic from the same branch as Cornish and Breton, as distinct from Q Celtic, which includes Manx, Irish and Scottish Gaelic), I could not help but get excited by the similarity between Dybbukim and Bwci Bo (sort of pronounced 'bookey boo'), the Welsh word for goblin, or hobgoblin. Perhaps not quite as naughty as a Dybbuk but you know, cousins?

    I am stretching things too far now but I so want to link Bwci to Dybbuk to Duppy. Goblin to Demon to Bad Ghost. Welsh to Yiddish to north west African. Oh my, surely the root for all this lies in world shamanism and super ancient tongues?

    Anyway, I am no doubt rambling incoherently but just wanted to say how much I am enjoying your work and how glad I am to have stumbled here, I shall stay a while and drink.


  3. I hope you don't mind this link but I am swallowed by synchronicity, thus compelled to share... This is my first Pinterest, which was an attempt to visualise my inner world. I made it a few weeks back and it seems to be not only informing my internet finds but instructing my life. ?!

  4. Hi Papillon Noir,
    I love cross-cultural synchronicities. I'm particularly interested in Celtic fairy lore. In a time of global communication, why shouldn't our fairies and goblins be interconnected? I'm reading a book about Djinn in Cairo right now and they also have interesting resonances with dybbukim.

    And thanks for sharing your Pinterest. Beautiful stuff!