The Dybbuks Made Me Do It

A Short History of Jewish Demons in Cinema


By Hannah Brown

Published August 29, 2012, issue of August 31, 2012.
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If there had been stand-up comedy in the shtetl, “The dybbuk made me do it!” could very well have been a popular catchphrase. The myth of an innocent person turning to evil because a demon has taken possession of his or her body is common to all cultures, but it has deep roots in Jewish legend.

Hollywood has found stories of demonic possession especially enticing: “The Exorcist” series, “Paranormal Activity” and “True Blood” represent just a few examples. And now there’s “The Possession,” produced by Sam Raimi (“The Evil Dead,” “Drag Me to Hell”) and starring Kyra Sedgwick (“The Closer”) and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (“The Accidental Husband”).

Based on a 2004 Los Angeles Times article about a box purchased on eBay that brought bad luck to its owners, the film concerns a 9-year-old girl who buys a mysterious, ornate box in a yard sale and pries it open, whereupon a demon takes over her body. Her parents seek help from a mystical, street-smart rabbi’s son named Tzadok (“the righteous one” in Hebrew). He is played by Hasidic rap and reggae star Matisyahu in his first major movie role, which was filmed before he shaved his facial hair. The box turns out to have been owned and abandoned by a Jew who was fleeing the Nazis and somehow infected it with a demon that takes over the body of whoever opens it.

The Jewish riff on demonic themes would seem to be an original spin on a familiar story, but “The Possession” hardly represents the first time that a dybbuk has shown up on screen. Paddy Chayefsky used the dybbuk theme in his 1959 play, “The Tenth Man,” in which a young girl at a Long Island synagogue is possessed by the spirit of a woman wronged years earlier by a man in the minyan; the play was filmed for German television in 1965. The Coen brothers opened their 2009 film, “A Serious Man,” with a Yiddish prologue about a dybbuk that served as a metaphor for the moral dilemma faced by the beleaguered protagonist. And the dybbuk plot was certainly familiar to Yiddish theater- and movie-goers who saw S. Ansky’s play “The Dybbuk,” which was made into a movie in Poland in 1937. Ansky wrote his play between 1912 and 1917, after he took a journey through Eastern Europe to research local folklore and was inspired by tales of possession and exorcism.


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