The Haunted Dybbuk Box
Every once in a while, there's a small, local ghost story that's not very good, or that even has an obvious commercial origin, and that has no business becoming popular — but it does. The famous "dybbuk box" (also spelled dibbuk) is one such story. It went from a screenwriter's pen on an eBay auction page, all the way onto the Hollywood big screen, with 2012's The Possession starring Kyra Sedgwick and directed by Sam Raimi. It is the story of a small antique wooden box designed to hold a few bottles of wine, to which was attached a horror story going all the way back to the Holocaust. Whoever owned the box, it was said, experienced terrible disturbances for as long as the box was in their home. Why? Because, according to the story, the wine box was inhabited by a "dybbuk", said to be a tormented spirit come back from the dead.
The whole idea of the box being inhabited by a dybbuk (דיבבוק) is nonsensical, according to what a dybbuk is supposed to be. The Encyclopedia Mythica describes it as "a disembodied spirit possessing a living body that belongs to another soul" and usually talks from that person's mouth. An important 1914 Yiddish play The Dybbuk was about the spirit of a dead man who possessed the living body of the woman he had loved, and had to be exorcised. The word comes from the Hebrew verb "to cling", so a dybbuk is specifically a soul who clings to another. Nowhere in the folkloric literature is there precedent for a dybbuk inhabiting a box or other inanimate object.
But of course, we're talking definitions of folkloric terms, fictional by their very definition; so there's no reason why this particular dybbuk can't inhabit a wooden box if it wants to. And besides, the fact that folklore exists for a possessing spirit tells us nothing about whether or not factual events did indeed harass the owners of this box. The folklore is irrelevant to the question of whether or not this wine box did indeed cause the frightening disturbances attributed to it. So let's see what the box's claimed history is.
One thing to keep in mind is that, if you've heard this story before, you've probably heard that the box was owned by a whole series of people, each of whom had lots of terrifying experiences, and they then got rid of it to someone else. In fact, the lone skeptical quote associated with this story is from Chris French, who said of these many owners:
But then when we look at its actual history, the number of people whose hands it is documented to have gone through becomes astonishingly small, two or three at most; and each of whom went to great pains to tell the ghost story in a dramatic way. Let's have a look.
The dybbuk box first appeared in 2003 as an eBay auction by Kevin Mannis, who owned a used furniture shop in Portland, Oregon. But it was not listed as a piece of furniture; it was listed as a mysterious haunted item. Mannis wrote on his eBay page an elaborate horror story. It's much too long to give here, so I'll summarize. His story goes — and I want to emphasize that this is all just a story attached to an item listed for sale — is that he bought it at a yard sale a few years previously, and the family told him that Grandma had brought it back from Poland while escaping the Holocaust, and that she told them never to open it. But they were quite anxious that he should take it away, as if they were glad to get rid of it. He took it back to his furniture shop, where it frightened away an employee: the light bulbs had all shattered, and there was an inexplicable odor of cat urine. Mannis offered no explanation of why either he or the employee attributed these events to the presence of the box, but no matter. He opened it and found that it contained the following items:
He then cleaned it up and gave it to his mother as a gift, and then she immediately suffered a stroke, and was able to write him a note saying "Hate gift." The implication was that his mother attributed the stroke to the gift. So he gave it to his sister, who returned it with the complaint that its doors wouldn't stay shut; he gave it to his brother, who returned it saying it smelled like cat urine. His girlfriend didn't want it either, so he finally decided to sell it in the shop he'd bought it for. It was found returned a few days later at the door with a note saying "This has a bad darkness."
Mannis' tale went on to say that he took it home, only to have a nightmare about an ugly Old Hag, and when he told his family about it, his brother, sister, and girlfriend all reported the same dream. His story concluded with the following appeal:
The item sold for $140 in June, 2003 to a buyer whose eBay name was "spasmolytic". It was not the explosive viral success that you might have thought it was. But note that Kevin Mannis never mentioned the dybbuk; that was introduced by the buyer, spasmolytic, who turned out to be a Missouri student named Iosif Nietzke. Nietzke turned around and re-listed it on eBay himself eight months later, saying that he'd blogged about his experiences after buying the box (I've no reason to doubt this, although I was unable to find any such blog). Nietzke, in his eBay listing, wrote of problems like insomnia or illness among his college roommates, though was careful to add they were "likely coincidental". There were occasional strong odors, and he kept needing car repairs — though he did not offer an explanation for why he mentioned his car repairs in a listing about the dybbuk box; one might suspect that he was hoping it would be inferred as evidence the box was haunted, and therefore more desirable on eBay. He concluded his listing not too differently from Mannis:
If it were me, a crappy old wine box that I didn't want would have been in the dumpster faster than you could blink, but Nietzke managed to sell it for $280 in February 2004, exactly doubling his money. The buyer this time was Jason Haxton, the museum director at the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine at A. T. Still University in Missouri. Interestingly, Haxton and Nietzke lived in the same town: Kirksville, Missouri. Haxton says he heard about the online auction from one of his students, who happened to be one of Nietzke's plagued roommates. Even more interestingly, Haxton, whose eBay name at the time he bought it was "agetron", today says that owning the dybbuk box reversed his aging. I'm not sure what that means, but it may give some insight into his expectations of buying items associated with the supernatural.
Haxton's ownership of the dybbuk box has been the predominant one, as he's had it ever since 2004. He's probably the best known owner, and wrote the seminal book on it, the 2011 book The Dibbuk Box, and maintains the principal website, www.dibbukbox.com. It was a 2013 live YouTube appearance in which he announced the anti-aging effects he believes the box conferred upon him, and it was in the book that he describes how the box afflicted him physically, with problems such as hives, welts, and coughing up blood. He does not offer any convincing explanation of why any of these health effects would be attributable to the box instead of to the causes that produce these effects in other people.
Unfortunately for Kevin Mannis and Jason Haxton, co-writing credits for The Possession ended up going not to them, but to freelance entertainment writer Leslie Gornstein who wrote up the tale in a short article for the Los Angeles Times in 2004. Haxton and Mannis did both receive film credit for "production consultant"; probably not what they were hoping for, but better than nothing. A few years later in 2007, Mannis did successfully produce a pair of short films, The Miracle and The Pretty Pitchy Pine Tree; nice, but not exactly Hollywood blockbusters. Haxton still works at the museum, and the book still sells reasonably well.
When Gornstein wrote her article, she tried repeatedly to contact Iosif Nietzke, but had no success. It's an unusual name, and the Internet has basically no record of such a person outside of references to the dybbuk box canon. Wherever or whoever this neighbor of Jason Haxton's is, he's only the third person known to have had this old wine box in his possession; and with the evident disappearance of his apocryphal blog, all that remains is the story on his eBay page. In fact the eBay stories, coupled with Haxton's claims in his book, add up to a grand total of three people who ever had the box, all of whom wrote about it for money, and none of whom ever produced a shred of evidence that it had any unusual properties. For me, the dybbuk box is one of the weaker ghost stories out there; so long as you consider only what's known to have happened, and take the fictionalized, dramatized, unevidenced retellings with the grain of salt they deserve.
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