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Little box of horrors

In the new horror movie ”The Possession,” a girl buys a wooden box and is taken over by a malevolent spirit. The really scary thing? It’s based on a true story. EW investigates. Carefully.

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On Sunday, Oct. 10, 2004, Jason Haxton placed a wooden cabinet with a Hebrew prayer carved on its back in the cellar of a rental property he owned in northern Missouri and performed a Wiccan ceremony to contain an evil spirit he feared might dwell inside it. Haxton isn’t Jewish (he was raised Methodist). Nor is he a regular practitioner of pagan rituals.

However, a dramatic decline in his health since he’d acquired the wine-bottle storage cabinet eight months earlier had forced him to reconsider his beliefs — or lack of them — and turn to a remedy he would once have regarded as lunatic. ”I thought I was on a fast track to getting incapacitated,” says Haxton, the director of the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine in Kirksville, Mo. For the final part of the ritual, Haxton returned to his own home next door and took a purifying bath in sea salt and basil. While rinsing off, he felt ill and coughed up a huge mass of slime. ”It was literally two handfuls of this crud,” he says. ”I’m 54, and nothing like that has ever happened to me. To this day it freaks me out.”

On Aug. 31, Lionsgate will release The Possession, a film produced by Sam Raimi (director of The Evil Dead and Spider-Man) that’s loosely based on the terrifying experiences endured by Haxton and the previous owners of the wine cabinet, which has become known in some circles as the Dibbuk Box. A ”dibbuk,” according to Dr. Jeremy Dauber, an associate professor of Yiddish language, literature, and culture at Columbia University, is the Jewish term for a restless spirit that finds refuge in a living creature. Dauber says the idea of possession has long been a part of Jewish lore, just as it has with Christianity.

For almost a decade, the 12½” by 7½” by 16¼” box has fascinated paranormalists and paranormal debunkers alike. Now it’s about to reach the masses in cinematic form, with Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick starring as the parents of a young girl (Natasha Calis) who acquires the box. Raimi, who was raised in a conservative Jewish home, says he had a ”natural curiosity” about the subject. ”You don’t hear about dibbuks when you go to synagogue,” he explains. ”I know the demonic lore of The Exorcist. But what does my faith believe about demonic possession?” The other thing was, ”it scared me something horrible,” he says. ”The stories chilled me to the bone.” They certainly gave Morgan pause for thought. ”In the research I did, I started getting creeped out,” the actor says. ”My girlfriend was like, ‘Let’s just make sure that we don’t actually go near the real Dibbuk Box.”’

The alleged paranormal powers of the Dibbuk Box first became public knowledge in June 2003, when Kevin Mannis, the owner of a furniture-refinishing business in Portland, Ore., put the item up for sale on eBay along with its original contents, which included two locks of hair, a small granite statue gilded with the word ”shalom” in Hebrew lettering, and a cast-iron candlestick holder. (Dauber says that according to Jewish tradition, ”lighting candles is an important part of the exorcism process.”) Mannis had bought the box a couple of years earlier at the estate sale of a Jewish woman, a concentration-camp survivor named Havela who had died at the age of 103. In his lengthy seller’s note, Mannis recalled being told by Havela’s granddaughter that after escaping from the camp, she had wound up in Spain, where she purchased the cabinet. When Havela immigrated to the U.S., she brought the item and always claimed it contained a ”dibbuk.” Mannis, suddenly aware that he had bought a family heirloom, offered to let Havela’s granddaughter keep what she called the ”Dibbuk Box.” She adamantly declined, telling him, ”You bought it! You made a deal! We don’t want it!”

Mannis took the box to his store and left it in the basement workshop, where he planned to refinish the item before giving it to his mother as a birthday gift. He went to run some errands but returned when his sales assistant called and began screaming that someone was in the basement breaking glass and swearing. Mannis found no one in the basement but discovered that every lightbulb had been broken — and that the area smelled of cat urine. ”Then,” Mannis wrote in his seller’s note, ”things got worse.”

As planned, Mannis gave his mother the box as a birthday present. Five minutes after he handed her the item, she suffered a stroke and was taken to a hospital by ambulance. Having lost the ability to speak, Mannis’ mother could communicate only by pointing to letters of the alphabet. When Mannis visited her the next day, he asked her how she was feeling. She started to cry. ”N-O G-I-F-T,” she spelled out. ”H-A-T-E G-I-F-T.” (She eventually recovered her speech.) Mannis found himself plagued by a dream in which he was physically beaten by a demonic-looking hag. Sometimes, he wrote in the note, he awoke covered in bruises and welts. Mannis, who is Jewish, did not connect these unfortunate events to the box. ”I didn’t think in terms of ghosts or demons,” says Mannis, 47. ”The last thing I thought was that these things had anything to do with the wine cabinet. That to me is like saying ‘I’ve got a haunted turkey baster.”’

Mannis gave the box to his sister, who returned it, he says, after complaining that the cabinet’s doors kept on opening of their own accord. Next he gave the item to his brother, who also swiftly gave it back after his wife said it smelled of cat urine. Finally, he sold it to a middle-aged couple. Three days later he found the box sitting outside his store with a note that read, ”This has a bad darkness.” One evening, Mannis hosted a family dinner, and his relatives stayed the night. The next day his visitors all reported having had the same nightmare, about an abusive hag. ”I went, ‘What the heck? What’s the common denominator here?”’ says Mannis. ”And the common denominator turned out to be the box.”

In the week after the dinner, Mannis started to see ”shadow things” in his peripheral vision. Once, while trying to research the box on the Internet, he fell asleep and again dreamed of the hag. Upon waking, he had the feeling that someone was breathing on his neck and glimpsed one of the shadow things loping away down the hallway. Enough was enough. Concerned that if he destroyed the box, whatever entity it contained might stay with him, Mannis decided to sell it. ”I have been told that there are people who shop on eBay who understand these kinds of things,” Mannis wrote in his post. ”If you are one of the people, please, please, please buy this cabinet and do whatever it is that you do with a thing like this. Help me.” He eventually sold the box for $140, to a student who lived in Haxton’s hometown.

On June 17, 2003, a young colleague of Haxton’s at the museum announced that over the weekend his roommate had ”bought a haunted box” and showed the curator Mannis’ seller’s note. Haxton was intrigued, and was soon able to buy the box himself when the student resold it on eBay several months later. In his note, the student said he had trouble sleeping, saw large vertical blurs in his peripheral vision, and had started to lose his hair. On Feb. 9, 2004, Haxton successfully bid $280 for it.

Although Haxton was interested in the stories surrounding the box, he actually bought it for a magician friend named Michael Callahan, who planned to incorporate it into his act. After the wine cabinet was delivered to Haxton’s museum, the pair inspected it and its contents while wearing gloves. Haxton also ran a black light over it in a futile attempt to locate any kind of residue that might explain the smell of cat urine that Mannis mentioned. But when Haxton removed his gloves, he says, the box felt warm, and the wood seemed to shift beneath his fingers, as if it had a pulse. Suddenly, while his palms were still on the box, he felt a pain erupt in his side and migrate into his stomach, where it bothered him for hours. That night, Haxton dreamed of faces disfigured by wounds. Each face would finally morph into that of a white-haired hag who watched him with hollow eyes.

In the days after the box arrived at the museum, various staff members began to suffer misfortunes of their own — including the death of one’s grandparent — and expressed concern about having it on the property. Haxton repacked it, placed it in the covered bed of his pickup, and drove home. Upon returning to the vehicle the next day, he says, he was assaulted with the smell of cat urine. He kept trying to deliver the box to his friend, but the magician put him off, citing inconvenient timing or illness. Eventually, Haxton put it in a closet in an unused room in his house, which he shared with his wife and two children. Soon the Haxtons started experiencing an array of inexplicable phenomena. The house grew cold and stayed that way no matter how high they jacked up the heat. One day Haxton and his son watched a shadow expand and drift across the floor even though the room was brightly lit. But what really scared Haxton was his health. He developed vision problems and found it difficult to swallow. He also periodically broke out in head-to-toe welts that would suddenly vanish and reappear. ”I’ve never been ill,” he says. ”That’s when I became really frightened.”

In June 2004, Haxton visited Portland for work and, after finding Mannis’ unlisted number on the county tax rolls, arranged a meeting. Mannis, who had done his best to forget about the box, was astounded to learn that his original eBay listing had now received 140,000 hits. The pair embarked on a Dibbuk Box tour of the city, including the store whose basement lights had been smashed. Mannis tried, but failed, to locate the house where he’d bought the artifact. Not long after Haxton’s return to Missouri, Mannis contacted him to say he had found the house and visited with an elderly woman named Sophie, Havela’s cousin. Sophie recalled her own childhood in ’30s Poland and how Havela had attempted to capture a spirit to help the Jews fight against the Nazis but instead had allowed a malevolent entity to enter the world. According to Sophie, Havela had been unable to contain the spirit, and Sophie claimed that many of the disasters of the second half of the 20th century were the work of this entity. Sophie also told Mannis that Havela had ultimately succeeded in imprisoning the spirit in the box — which was now residing in Haxton’s spare room.

Back in Missouri, Haxton’s health was declining. His hives bedeviled him, and when he coughed he tasted blood. Finally, on the advice of one of the email correspondents he had acquired, he decided to perform a Wiccan cleansing ceremony. Which is why, on that Sunday in the fall, he was in a cramped cellar invoking the help of the goddess Hecate, whispering, ”You will be contained” to an innocuous-looking mahogany container.

Haxton says his symptoms soon improved, even more so after he placed the box in a container he’d made of acacia wood and gold leaf — the same materials used to construct the Ark of the Covenant, according to the Bible. In time, when Haxton opened the protective container, he started to smell a beguiling odor, ”this truly heady, addictive scent,” he says, as if the box had decided it was ”the best way to get out.”

Or maybe it’s just a stinky box. Professor Christopher C. French, who runs the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at University of London’s Goldsmiths College (devoted to finding psychological and physical explanations for supposedly inexplicable paranormal phenomena), says he believes that the owners were ”already primed to be looking out for bad stuff. If you believe you have been cursed, then inevitably you explain the bad stuff that happens in terms of what you perceive to be the cause. Put it like this: I would be happy to own this object.”

Raimi’s production company, Ghost House, announced plans in October 2004 to make a film about the Dibbuk Box based on a Los Angeles Times article chronicling Mannis’ eBay listing and Haxton’s troubles. (The pair are production consultants on the film.) Over the next five years, various writers tried to crack the script — including Stephen Susco (The Grudge) and the film’s credited scribes, husband-and-wife team Stiles White and Juliet Snowden (Knowing). Haxton offered to send the Dibbuk Box to Los Angeles. Raimi was enthusiastic, but no one volunteered to be its caretaker. Why didn’t Raimi step forward? ”I didn’t want anything to do with it,” he says with a laugh. ”I’m scared of the thing.”

The Possession was shot in Vancouver in early 2011. ”Some really weird things happened,” says the director, Ole Bornedal (Nightwatch). ”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.” Come again? ”This storage house in Vancouver burned down to the ground, and the fire department does not know the cause. I’m not a superstitious man, and I would like to say, ‘Yeah, it’s just a coincidence.’ It’s so difficult.”

In the film, Morgan’s character buys his daughter the box at a yard sale, unaware that its previous owner, an older woman, had fallen ill while trying to destroy it with a hammer. The girl begins behaving strangely. Eventually, he becomes convinced that his child is possessed and seeks help from a young Hasid, played by the singer Matisyahu. While this is clearly a fictionalized version of the story, Haxton says he got déjà vu when he saw the trailer, particularly a shot of fingers emerging from the girl’s throat. ”Though hands did not come out of me, there was this strange goop,” he says. Mannis, however, says his reaction was: ”’Wow, that is a scary movie! Where is the movie about the Dibbuk Box?’ I think what happened to us was a little bit scarier. What happened to us was scarier than hell.”

Today, Haxton’s research continues. His book The Dibbuk Box, which he published last year, quotes several people who cast doubt on Mannis’ account and question the existence of the family from whom he claims to have purchased the box. Mannis argues that the family wants its anonymity and that even if everything he wrote in his seller’s note was a lie, you still ”have to explain the experiences of the other people who have had it or who have been around it.” (Haxton says that he has since spoken to people who back up elements of Mannis’ story and intends to revise the e-book version accordingly.) Haxton doesn’t know what to make of what happened to him after buying the Dibbuk Box except that there is ”something” that cannot be explained away by an overactive imagination. He now stores it in an undisclosed location. ”I don’t know what to do with it, but I don’t dare let it out of my control, either,” he says. ”Sometimes I feel like Gollum. You know: ‘My precious!”’

As for the long-term future of the artifact, Haxton has told his family that he wants it to be buried with him when he dies ”and be done with it.” However, he says, ”my son is like, ‘I don’t know that I can do that,”’ says Haxton. ”So that’s a little bit worrisome.”