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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.