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The Haunting (True?) Story Behind 'The Possession'

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Aug 28, 2012 | 5:33am EDT

Jeffrey Dean Morgan in 'The Possession'Meet the Dibbuk box. It's not your typical box. For one thing, it's not really a box. It's more of a wine cabinet. Also, it's haunted by a demon called a dibbuk, which, according to Jewish folklore, is a malevolent spirit of a dead soul that possesses multiple bodies to achieve oft-malicious goals. So, again, it's not really a box.

It's also a movie star, featured at the center of the upcoming horror film The Possession, which hits theaters on August 31. Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick play the parents of a little girl who falls victim to the spirit after picking up the "box" at the world's worst yard sale. Now, possessed little girls are one thing — we've seen them everywhere from The Exorcist to Little Miss Sunshine — but the nifty (or perhaps terrifying) thing about The Possession is that this little Dibbuk box is actually accompanied by a horrifying story of ambiguous truth.

As does every object-related tale of terror, the story begins on eBay. In the not-too-distant past, a furniture store owner put a small wooden cabinet up for auction.

According to the box's website, the auction listing included the story of how the seller, Kevin Mannis, obtained the dibbuk box. Mannis purchased the box in September 2001 in a Portland estate sale of a Polish Holocaust survivor, who immigrated to America by way of Spain (where she picked up the box). At the estate sale, the woman's granddaughter, upon noticing that Mannis had picked up the so-called "dibbuk box," explained how her grandmother insisted that the box never be opened.

Mannis brought the cabinet back to his small furniture store, where he stowed it in the basement and left, leaving a young sales clerk in charge. About a half hour later, the saleswoman called:

She was absolutely hysterical and screaming that someone was in my workshop breaking glass and swearing. Furthermore, the intruder had locked the iron security gates and the emergency exit and she couldn't get out. As I told her to call the police, my cell phone battery went dead. I hit speeds of 100 mph getting back to the shop. When I arrived, I found the gates locked. I went inside and found my employee on the floor in a corner of my office sobbing hysterically. I ran to the basement and went downstairs. At the bottom of the stairs, I was hit by an overpowering unmistakable odor of cat urine (there had never been any animals kept or found in my shop). The lights didn't work. As I investigated, I found that the reason the lights didn't work also explained the sounds of glass breaking. All of the light bulbs in the basement were broken. All nine incandescent bulbs had been broken in their sockets, and 10 four-foot fluorescent tubes were lying shattered on the floor. I did not find an intruder, however. I should also add that there was only one entrance to the basement. It would have been impossible for anyone to leave without meeting me head-on. I went back up to speak with my salesperson, but she had left.

She never returned to work (after having been with me for two years). She refuses to discuss the incident to this day. I never thought of relating the events of that day to anything having to do with the cabinet.

Not thinking about the box, Mannis decided to give the cabinet to his mother for her birthday:

On October 31, 2001, my mother came to my shop. We were going to have lunch together, but before we were going to leave, I gave her the wine cabinet. She seemed to like it. While she examined it, I went to make a phone call. I hadn't been out of sight more than 5 minutes when one of my employees came running into my office saying that something was wrong with my mom. When I went back to see what the matter was, I found my mom sitting in a chair beside the cabinet. Her face had no expression, but tears were streaming down her cheeks. No matter how I tried to get her to respond, she would not. She could not. It turns out that my mother had suffered a stroke.

The Dibbuk BoxLater, Mannis gave the box to his sister, brother and girlfriend, all three of whom returned it to him. He sold it to an older couple, who gave it back days later. Reluctantly, he took the box home, only to realize that he began having a recurring nightmare involving "the most gruesome, demonic-looking Hag that I have ever seen." A month later, Mannis' sister and brother came over and described their same dream, down to every detail. Suddenly, they all realized the shared link: the box.

Since deciding that the blame was on the box, Mannis claimed to see "shadow things" at random; smoke alarms going off with no fire; burnt out lightbulbs; his hair falling out; the stench of cat urine lurking in the air. It led to him listing the box on eBay, where it was purchased by bidder "agetron," who then sold it again. The box shifted ownership through a number of other transactions before it eventually reached Iosif Nietzke, a college student from Minnesota… who also put it back up for auction.

An L.A. Times article describes the lot: "Inside were two locks of hair, one granite slab, one dried rosebud, one goblet, two wheat pennies, one candlestick and, allegedly, one "dibbuk," a kind of spirit with origins in Yiddish folklore. According to the report, Nietzke's listing described the antique as a "'haunted Jewish wine cabinet box' that had plagued several owners with rotten luck and a spate of bizarre paranormal stunts."

The cabinet then went to a museum curator named Jason Haxton, who went on to write a book chronicling his experience with the box and develop the cabinet's "official" website. In 2004, Haxton was approached by a lawyer representing horror movie legend Sam Raimi, who wanted to produce a film version about the dibbuk box. Haxton, who is still the box's current owner, allegedly offered to give the box to Raimi and his team, but they turned him down. "They were too afraid of having the actual box," Haxton told a reporter in August. "Nobody wanted to house it."

Stan Wertlieb, one of the film's producers, corroborated the claim: "At our first Dibbuk Box production meeting, Sam Raimi said it would be best to have the actual box in our possession while we worked on the movie. The question was raised about who would be the caretaker for the box while it was here. In a room of ten, nobody would volunteer, each using a different excuse to avoid exposure to the box's curse." Ole Bornedal, the director of The Possession, told Entertainment Weekly: "Some really weird things happened. I've never stood underneath a neon light before that wasn't lit, that all of a sudden exploded. The worst thing was, five days after we wrapped the movie, all the props burned. This storage house in Vancouver burned down to the ground, and the fire department does not know the cause."Truth? Fiction? Either way, the nature of the twisted tale is utterly fascinating, whether or not you believe that dibbuks go bump in the night.The Possession opens in theaters on August 31.

Follow Marc on Twitter @MarcSnetiker

[Photo Credit: Lionsgate]

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