Horror movies based on barely true stories are a dime a dozen. There’s the Conjuring movies, based on the mostly fabricated cases of Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Amityville Horror, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. But few of those movies have ever had a history as interesting or complicated as that of the supernatural demon movie The Possession, a movie about a supposedly real box haunted by a dybbuk, a demon-like spirit from Jewish mythology.
The movie, produced by horror legend Sam Raimi, follows a man named Clyde. Recently divorced, Clyde is struggling to find common ground with his two daughters. In a bid to make his younger daughter happy while she stays at his new house, which is basically in the middle of nowhere, he buys her an old-looking box at a yard sale. The box, we know from the movie’s prologue, is haunted in some way, with a spirit that speaks to its owner. Eventually we learn that the box is haunted by a dybbuk that wants to possess the young girl, and the movie devolves into another rote exorcism movie in the third act.
Before that, though, The Possession is pretty good. It’s fast-paced and creepy, with hosts of massive insects that seem to spawn from the box, a few great sequences with an invasive hand that seems to belong to the demon, and some really tremendous-looking effects work. On top of that, it’s interesting to see the trappings of an exorcism movie removed from the specific iconography of the Catholic Church, even if the Jewish elements feel a little tacked-on rather than integral to the story. Even still, it’s a worthy addition to the possession genre. But none of that is the best part of the movie.
The best part of The Possession isn’t the movie itself, but the “real” events that inspired it.
See, the dybbuk box from the movie is actually real. Sort of.
The movie’s box is based on one that was sold on eBay in 2003, along with a haunting story about the ills the box — or its demonic occupant — supposedly caused. The box changed hands, cursing each owner, until it ended up at a museum in Las Vegas, where pop star Post Malone was supposedly cursed by it too.
There’s just one problem. The original eBay seller posted an update: The box was a complete and total fake. In 2019, a post in The Skeptical Inquirer put forward a convincing case that the box’s story wasn’t real. Two years later, the original seller, an artist named Kevin Mannis, explained in an interview with Input Magazine that it was, in fact, entirely fictional. But he said everything that’s happened with the box is exactly what he hoped for.
“I am a creative writer,” Mannis said to Input. “The Dybbuk Box is a story that I created. And the Dybbuk Box story has done exactly what I intended it to do when I posted it 20 years ago. [...] Which is to become an interactive horror story in real-time.”
That opens up a fun thought experiment about the box. Was the dybbuk that haunted the box and inspired the movie real? No, definitely not. Was the box cursed? Absolutely.
A curse is often thought of in a pretty limited way. The Britannica dictionary says a curse is “magical words that are said to cause trouble or bad luck for someone or the condition that results when such words are said.”
But the baseball fan (and horror fiend who grew up online) in me would like to remind you that curses can be more real and practical than that too. And more importantly, believing in something fake is sometimes a way to make it real.
A tragic and horrifying example exists in the internet world of creepypasta. The story of Slender Man was an internet phenomenon that started in 2009, with a fictional online story of a supernatural figure with elongated limbs that wears a suit and compels children to wander into the forest and kill their friends in his name. Sadly, in 2014, two girls did exactly that but in real life, saying that Slender Man was the reason they tried to murder another girl. Thus, Slender Man went from fictional to real, in the worst way possible: not as a physical, long-limbed creature, but as a presence that could inspire real-life tragedy.
On the lighter side, follow baseball and its players long enough and you’re sure to hear about curses and superstitions. Sometimes they’re team-wide, like the Red Sox Curse of the Bambino or the Cubs’ near-century-long curse by goat. Other times they’re more individual, like a star player suddenly unable to perform basic baseball duties. Those aren’t necessarily supernatural forces preventing players from making easy throws or hitting pitches, but if you tell yourself you can’t hit without doing something for long enough, it might eventually end up being true. It’s a curse, one way or the other. And by fabricating a story about the box’s past, Mannis cursed it in a different way.
The fake-cursed object that people bought off of eBay, passed around, and eventually inspired The Possession may not have a dybbuk inside, but it really is cursed. If everyone who gets it chalks their bad luck up to it, and things get better when it’s gone, it’s a curse — whether there’s a demon inside it or not.
Sadly, The Possession isn’t really about any of that. It’s still pretty good: a well-made and unique exorcism movie that never lets itself get bogged down in too much exposition or explanation. Even still, the movie isn’t half as interesting as the story behind it. Maybe one day it will get a remake that lives up to its “based on a true story” title card even more, and the fake box from eBay can latch its curse onto the real world for a little bit longer.