Sam Raimi’s latest horror flick draws on ‘true’ tale, Jewish exorcism

Back in 2004, the horror-flicks mogul Sam Raimi was riveted by a Los Angeles Times article headlined “A Jinx in a Box?” which recounted the strange history of a wine cabinet brought to this country by a Polish concentration camp survivor. The box contained “allegedly, one ‘dibbuk,’ a kind of spirit popular in Yiddish folklore,” the article said — as well locks of hair, a rock, a dried rosebud, a goblet and coins.

Intrigued, Raimi — who grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in Detroit — perused a Web site devoted to the so-called “Dibbuk Box,” where, he learned, the Holocaust survivor had warned her family never to open it. That warning was disregarded by the furniture dealer who bought the box at the survivor’s estate sale in Portland, Ore., in 2001, and, so the story goes, five minutes after the dealer gave it to his mother as a gift, she suffered a paralyzing stroke, and that wasn’t all — light bulbs inexplicably imploded, the dealer and others began having nightmares about a “gruesome, demonic-looking hag” and were seeing shadowy beings in their peripheral vision. Desperate to be rid of the box, the dealer sold it on eBay, whereupon subsequent owners also reported the onset of mysterious illnesses, as well as petrifying paranormal events.

The story possessed Raimi (director of “Drag Me to Hell,” as well as the “Spider-Man” and “Evil Dead” franchises), compelling him to produce his first Jewish horror film, “The Possession,” starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick (“The Closer”) and opening Aug. 31. “I was just mesmerized because of the rarity of Jewish-themed supernatural stories,” Raimi, 52, said during an interview while on a break from editing his upcoming film, “Oz, The Great and Powerful.” “Wanting to know what my faith might have in the dark shadows of its closets was fascinating to me, because I’d always had to see movies based in other religious faiths, like long-dead ancient Egyptian religions or Catholicism [as in] ‘The Exorcist.’ I discovered that my own culture had its own ghosts and demons, and the Jewish element also made it very original, which I think horror films have to be to be effective.”

“The Possession” — the latest riff on the subgenre of a girl defiled by a demon — revolves around a non-Jewish family whose 10-year-old daughter, Em (Natasha Calis), buys a wooden box inscribed with Hebrew warnings at an estate sale. The child immediately becomes obsessed with the box, carrying it around everywhere, as a feathery malevolent voice echoes through the house, lamps explode, the girl’s behavior grows increasingly agitated, and a claw-like hand emerges from her throat. Her divorced parents eventually turn to a Chasidic community in Brooklyn to arrange an exorcism, which is ultimately performed by the Jewish reggae star Matisyahu, in his first film role.

Raimi co-wrote and directed 2009’s “Drag Me to Hell,” inspired by his mother’s childhood threat to him that should he misbehave, “our Aunt Minnie would put the evil eye on us,” he said. To write “The Possession,” he called on screenwriters Stiles White and Juliet Snowden, who had previously collaborated on “Boogeyman” (2005) for Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures. 

White and Snowden, who are not Jewish, immersed themselves in research to create the Jewish horror in the film, drawing on the seven years they lived in a Chasidic neighborhood in Hancock Park, watching the 1937 Yiddish film, “The Dibbuk” as well as YouTube videos of Jewish exorcisms, and reading works on Jewish folklore by authors such as Howard Schwartz. In a book about angels and demons, they learned of the Jewish entity, Abizou, the “taker of children,” who became the sinister spirit in the movie. “What is common in many possession stories is that knowing the demon’s name is crucial in order to ultimately vanquish it, so that became an important part of our mystery,” White said.

It was the film’s director, Ole Bornedal (“Nightwatch”), who created some of the most disturbing images in the film, including swarming moths and the child gorging on raw meat while simultaneously sobbing and moaning. “The insects reminded me of dark angels flying through the air,” Bornedal said. “And it was important to show that the little girl was tormented by her own condition, hating herself for becoming a monster.”

Matisyahu plays Tzadok (“righteous” in Hebrew), who defies his Chasidic community to perform an exorcism on the girl; the role resonated with the musician, who recently drew media buzz when he shaved off his beard and left his Chasidic enclave in Brooklyn, drawing criticism from some religious circles.

“The Possession” not only gave him the chance to fulfill his youthful ambitions of becoming an actor, but also to portray a character who is “juggling the different worlds and having to make decisions that might go against the community, which felt very real to me,” Matisyahu said from his new home near Pico-Robertson, where he now davens alone but considers Judaism still a “big part” of his spirituality.

While other religious characters in the film refuse to assist the tormented family, Tzadok “sees the humanity in these people, and it’s irrelevant to him whether or not they come from his circle,” Matisyahu said. “I was worried at first about how observant Jews were going to be depicted in the film, but my character was able to get outside his box and help, which was the redeeming factor for me.”

Matisyahu also just released a new album, “Spark Seeker,” which draws on the kabbalistic tradition, but he said he doesn’t believe in demons in the literal sense. 

The filmmakers, meanwhile, have been generating their own share of supernatural lore. Bornedal said that when he scouted the location that eventually housed the exorcism set, “we walked into this old insane asylum without electricity, and suddenly these huge neon light fixtures shattered.” After production wrapped, the Vancouver warehouse containing all the film’s props — including the dibbuk box — reportedly burned to the ground. 

And Raimi said the filmmakers were frightened when the current owners of the real dibbuk box brought it to Los Angeles. “I didn’t want to get anywhere near it, because I am still a superstitious fellow,” he said.

“The Possession” opens on Aug. 31. Matisyahu will perform a concert at the Hollywood Palladium on Sept. 18.

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