Devil's Wine Box: Missouri's tie to The Possession

Devil's Wine Box: Missouri's tie to <i>The Possession</i>
Diyah Pera
Matisyahu and Natasha Calis battle the dybbuk in The Possession.

As the director of a medical museum in Kirksville, Jason Haxton manages the macabre on a daily basis. His collection includes the brutally primitive tools of early brain surgery, a bloody-looking dissected human nervous system and even a wallet sewn from human skin.

But these artifacts seem quaint compared to the heavy, ominous black case sitting upright in the back seat of Haxton's four-door pickup. Nested inside the military-grade shipping locker is an acacia-wood ark lined with gold leaf. Inside of that lies what dozens of people believe is the cause of strange maladies and terrible misfortune — a small, antique wine box now known as the "dybbuk box."

Haxton is reticent to show it. He doesn't want weirdos trekking to northeast Missouri to demand a viewing. (Haxton says occult fans have already tracked him down at his museum assuming the box is part of the collection; it is not.) Above all, Haxton doesn't want to disturb it.

The &ldquo;real&rdquo; dybbuk box &mdash; shown here inside its protective ark &mdash; is kept in a secret location somewhere in northeast Missouri.
The “real” dybbuk box — shown here inside its protective ark — is kept in a secret location somewhere in northeast Missouri.
Jason Haxton at the Laughlin family plot in Kirksville, where Harry Laughlin is buried.
Jessica Lussenhop
Jason Haxton at the Laughlin family plot in Kirksville, where Harry Laughlin is buried.

"I do treat it with respect," he said hesitantly by phone a few days earlier. "Which is why it's not out there like a traveling snake-oil show."

But for all his precautions, Haxton has at times acted with the abandon of a spiritual thrill seeker. Why else, after so many warnings from its previous owners, would he take willing possession of the box and keep it for nine years?

"I'm a historian. I'm a researcher," he says. "I don't go around measuring ghost wavelengths and cold spots."

Haxton does not come across as a morbid guy. He's an excitable and eager host with a goofy smile, dressed in khakis, an ID badge clipped to the pocket of his yellow button-down.

With the dybbuk box nestled in the cab, the beige truck bounces along the highway to Haxton's home in the tiny nearby town of Greentop. The museum director's house is a tall, skinny brick mansion on the edge of a cemetery.

In the driveway Haxton opens the back seat and heaves the black locker onto a hand-truck. The corners of the sky are growing dark with an approaching storm as he hauls the box indoors.

In the Haxtons' living room, his son, 21-year-old Ross, shows where the box used to be kept and how, as a boy, he would see strange apparitions undulate from the corner of his eye or dance across the wall slowly enough that he thought he could reach out and touch them.

"We live in a historic home near a cemetery," Haxton reminds him. "We know four people have died in this home."

Ross shakes his head and looks down at the black case.

"None of this happened until we got the box," he insists. "This home is normal. That box is not."

Walk into a hardware store in Israel and ask for "dybbuk," and the clerk will hand over a tube of glue. In Jewish mythology, the word is also used to describe a homeless spirit looking for a body to "cling," "cleave" or "adhere" to.

According to Rabbi Gershon Winkler, the author of a book called, simply, Dybbuk, Jewish folklore is filled with tales of possessions, though there have only been a handful of famous Jewish exorcisms in history.

"Just like any other ancient aboriginal tradition, we do have this relationship with what is glibly referred to as the 'spirit world,'" he says. "Anyone who is dabbling in it needs to be incredibly prepared spiritually so they do not get hurt or open doors to things to come into this reality that don't belong here."

Dybbuk tales often center around someone who is spiritually bereft, leaving him an empty vessel open to a wandering spirit with unfinished business. The 1920s Yiddish play The Dybbuk tells a kind of Romeo and Juliet version of the story about a young man who dies after using dark arts and the Jewish mysticism kabbalah and whose ghost inhabits the body of the woman he wanted to marry. In 2009 researchers at the University of Manchester discovered a scrap of parchment that documented an eighteenth-century exorcism to remove the dybbuk of a dead husband from his widow.

The dybbuk box in Kirksville, however, has deviated quite a bit from ancient folklore. Not only did its mischief play out on eBay, its story caught the eye of Hollywood. This weekend The Possession, a $17.5 million film produced by cult horror-movie legend Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Drag Me to Hell), and starring Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, opens in theaters all over the country.

The film is a highly fictionalized version of the story, though the cast and crew say they saw the dybbuk's work on-set. Director Ole Bornedal told one interviewer that light bulbs spontaneously shattered above their heads during takes. A huge storage warehouse where the movie's sets and props were kept in Vancouver burned to the ground. Haxton offered the box to Raimi and his team for inspiration, but no one involved with the film would agree to take it.

"We were like, 'Hell, no,'" recalls screenwriter Juliet Snowden. "'We don't want to see it. Don't send us a picture of it.'"

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