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SYFY WIRE Features

Revisiting The Possession: The Real-Life Story Behind Jeffrey Dean Morgan's 2012 Jewish Horror Film

Otherwise known as the movie where Negan dons a yarmulke and battles a dybbuk.

By Josh Weiss
Tzadok (Matisyahu) shields Em (Natasha Calls) with his body in The Possession (2012)

Before he was bashing in heads with a barbed wire-wrapped baseball bat on The Walking Dead, Jeffrey Dean Morgan was confronting a malicious entity ripped straight from Jewish folklore and superstition in 2012's The Possession (now streaming on Peacock).

Come on — where else are you going to see Negan wearing a yarmulke and invoking the name of "Hashem"? That just doesn't happen every day. And with the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, having taken place this past weekend, it's the perfect time to revisit the oft-forgotten flick that dares to offer a novel spin on religious horror.

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Loosely based on Leslie Gornstein's 2004 investigative article for The Los Angeles Times — "A jinx in a box?" — the film centers around Clyde Brenek (Morgan), a recently-divorced father and basketball coach, whose young daughter (Natasha Calis) becomes the unwitting vessel for a malevolent spirit, known as a dybbuk, housed within a strange wooden box she picks up at a yard sale. 

Leslie Gornstein on the Los Angeles Times article that led to The Possession

"The version of the Dybbuk Box you see in the film isn’t very close to what I wrote about, but that’s no bother to me," Gornstein tells SYFY WIRE over email. "That’s the creative process. Anyone interested in the real story can dig it up easily enough, and the movie is a lot of fun."

In the film, strange occurrences — and even deaths — begin to pile up around the girl, so Clyde seeks out the help of Brooklyn's Hasidic community in performing a Jewish exorcism. The only person willing to perform the dangerous ritual, however, is Tzadok Shapir (a rare acting turn from musical artist Matisyahu), the son of a renowned Borough Park rabbi.

Gornstein says she was inspired to write the L.A. Times feature after a friend messaged her the link to an eBay listing for a supposedly "haunted Jewish wine cabinet box" that was gaining a great deal of traction on the e-commerce website.

"I’m a former business writer, and — I can’t recall the bidding numbers now — but I remember focusing on those figures and thinking, 'What’s the story with those bids? Who bid on that and why? Where did this thing end up?'" she explains.

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The urban legend surrounding the box began with Kevin Mannis, an Oregon-based antiques collector who claimed that the evil package (containing such curious items as a pair of U.S. Wheat Pennies, two locks of hair bound with string, and a granite stone carved with the Hebrew word "Shalom") had been purchased in Spain by a Polish Holocaust survivor. He bought it from the woman's granddaughter, but decided to sell it after a stretch of bad luck. Indeed, anyone who came into possession (no pun intended) of the item, Gornstein soon learned, began to experience strange incidents — ranging from sudden hair loss and inexplicable aromas around the house to abrupt strokes and FBI raids.

By the time she dived down the dybbuk rabbit hole, the box had been purchased for $280 by Jason Haxton, a Missouri-based museum curator and 46-year-old father of two. "I mulled the idea of flying out to Jason Haxton’s place to see the box and even stick my head inside," Gornstein recalls. "My mother called me and asked me to please not do that, so I changed my plan."

Em (Natasha Calis) stands in front of a box at a gas station lot in The Possession (2012).

Probably for the best since Haxton suffered a number of mysterious health issues — swollen eye, fatigue, nasal congestion, cough, metallic taste in the mouth — shortly after the box arrived at his office. Don't worry, though. He's still very much alive and serving as director of the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine at A.T. Still University.

However, he did donate the object to Zak Bagans in 2016 for the ghost hunter's haunted collection in Las Vegas. Bagans later opened the box during the COVID-19 lockdown of 2020 for a televised special and alleged that he saw the dislocated spirit "crouching down towards the wall behind the box." Post Malone also got up close and personal with the box — something he later regretted after a string of eerie misfortunes, including a near-fatal plane crash. 

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It seems as though you had to be in close proximity to the box to trigger the curse of the purported dybbuk within. "I can’t recall anything special happening to me during the course of my reporting or in the years after," Gornstein assures us. In fact, you could argue her luck only got better when the L.A. Times piece was adapted into a major Hollywood feature produced by genre maven Sam Raimi.

"Some of my friends are in the film business — sound engineers, actors, directors," she continues. "I love hearing them talk about their creative process, so it was really exciting to be at least tangentially involved with such a project myself. I didn’t actually have any hand in writing the script, though some websites erroneously credit me as a script-writer on the project [the screenplay was actually written by the husband/wife duo of Juliet Snowden and Stiles White]."

But it wouldn't have been a true supernatural project without a few bizarre accidents behind-the-scenes of production. For example, director Ole Bornedal (Nightwatch) recounted to Entertainment Weekly how all of the props were destroyed in a mysterious warehouse fire less than a week after filming had wrapped.

Em (Natasha Calis) is distressed in a white dress in The Possession (2012).

Were all of these creepy happenings caused by the box or was it all just a big hoax? Mannis confessed to making up the whole story in 2021, stating that the goal was to create "an interactive horror story in real-time." And that's exactly what happened. Hoax or no, he'd succeeded in establishing a modern boogeyman-style myth rooted in centuries of tradition seldom recognized in pop culture, especially when it comes to horror.

In turn, the loose film adaptation of "A jinx in a box?" presented mainstream audiences with a novel monster beyond the religious villains of The Exorcist and its many imitators. Paired with recent titles like David S. Goyer's The Unborn, the Paz Brothers' The Golem (also on Peacock), Keith Thomas's The Vigil, and Oliver Parks' The Offering, The Possession represents what the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies calls "a new wave of Jewish horror."

"I’ve always seen Fruma Sara as a dybbuk," Gornstein concludes, referring to the apparition of Lazar Wolf's late wife, famously described by Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. "But I would love to see more Jewish folklore make its way into horror cinema. It’s such a rich source of storytelling. There’s a classic shtetl play, The Dybbuk [c. 1916], which has been adapted for screen and radio a few times, but I’d love to see it given a big-budget treatment."

The Possession is now streaming on Peacock.

Originally published Sep 20, 2023.