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

Aug 30, 2012 at 4:00 am
Matisyahu and Natasha Calis battle the dybbuk in The Possession.
Matisyahu and Natasha Calis battle the dybbuk in The Possession. Diyah Pera

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.

"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.'"

"It is interesting," adds Stiles White, Snowden's husband and writing partner. "You may not think you're a superstitious person, but as soon as someone offers you the actual realize your level of superstition."

Before flying off to the movie's premiere in Hollywood on August 28, Haxton agrees to make a special exception and open the dybbuk box once more for Riverfront Times.

Though he figures he knows almost everything there is to know about the mysterious container in his possession — he published his findings in a book called The Dibbuk Box that came out from Truman State University Press last year — having contact with it can still feel like tempting fate. (Haxton chose to spell the word "dibbuk" to keep consistent with how it appeared in its original eBay auction; the more common spelling is "dybbuk.")

His son Ross regards the opening of the dybbuk box with a mix of excitement and trepidation.

"It's always an event to open the box," he says. "It doesn't like to be moved."

When Kevin Mannis sat down at his computer in Portland, Oregon, in June 2003 to write an eBay auction description, what came out read more like a distress call.

"All of the events that I am about to set forth in this listing," he wrote, "are accurate and may be verified by the winning bidder with the copies of hospital records and sworn affidavits."

Mannis, an antiques dealer and real estate broker, was then two years into ownership of a strange wine box he now believes was to blame for the loss of his business, his mother's failing health and his loosening grip on reality.

"Either I have some kind of weird haunted box," he recalls thinking, "Or I'm going crazy, and either way it's like I'm going crazy."

Searching for new and interesting items for his shop, Mannis says that in 2001 he attended an estate sale and bid on a pallet of items stacked in the lawn. It wasn't until he began loading the material that he discovered a small, slightly worn cabinet, with two doors, metal grape-bunch embellishments on either door face and a small drawer. Thinking the item might have been put there by mistake, he approached a young woman in charge of the sale.

"I see you got the dybbuk box," she said as Mannis approached.

Mannis says the young woman told him the item was a wine box, and belonged to her 103-year-old grandmother, Havela, who had just died. An immigrant from Poland, Havela was sent to the Nazi concentration camps along with her entire family — parents, siblings, a husband and three children — and emerged the sole survivor. She'd fled to Spain, where she bought the wine box, and eventually made her way to the United States with little else in her possession. But it wasn't a treasured keepsake — Havela warned her family never to open the box and spit through her fingers after she spoke of it. When Mannis offered to give the box back, the woman panicked.

"'No, no, you made a deal,'" he recalls her saying as she hurried away. "'Take it and get it out of here.'"

Ten minutes after dropping the box off at his shop in downtown Portland, Mannis says his store manager called in hysterics. Someone, she screamed, was ripping apart the basement and cursing. Mannis returned and found his manager cowering on the office floor. She pushed past him, never to return to work again.

In the basement Mannis says he found all the light bulbs smashed, heavy tools thrown from one end of the room to the other and the thick smell of cat urine hanging in the air. What he didn't find, however, was any intruder.

Two weeks later Mannis says he opened the box. The doors swung open simultaneously when he opened the drawer, and inside was a small gold wine goblet, a candleholder with decorative octopus legs, a dried rosebud, two U.S. wheat pennies minted in 1925 and 1928, a piece of stone with Hebrew characters for "shalom" engraved in it and two locks of hair — one jet black, the other frizzy and reddish. Setting the items aside, he gave the box a coat of polish then presented it to his mother when she visited the shop to take him to lunch on Halloween.

Within minutes of handing it over, Mannis says his mother suddenly began acting strangely.

"I said, 'Mom, you OK?' and she didn't respond," he recalls. "I could see her eyes were welling up with tears. She was just stonelike, and I realized she was having a stroke."

As his mother was being loaded into an ambulance, Mannis claims a team of law-enforcement agents raided his shop and began confiscating merchandise. Agents from the FBI, he says, told him he wasn't under arrest and that he could go to the hospital with his mother. Robbed of her ability to speak, Mannis says his mother tapped the words "NO GIFT" and "HATE GIFT" out on an alphabet card from her hospital bed.

The raid never resulted in charges, but it did tank the shop. (Portland FBI would not comment on whether any such raid took place.) All Mannis got back, initially, was the dybbuk box.

After attempting to give the box to his brother, sister and girlfriend, all three returned it with various gripes, saying it smelled or the doors flew open on their own. Mannis says he sold it to a young couple then found it back on the shop doorstep with a note: "This has a bad darkness."

Finally, Mannis took it home himself. That's when he began experiencing nightly dreams of a horrifying witch. After each of his siblings and his girlfriend described identical nightmares when they'd housed the box, Mannis says he decided he had to get rid of it.

"I am afraid (and I do mean afraid) that if I destroy the cabinet, whatever it is that seems to have come with the cabinet may just stay here with me," he wrote toward the end of the 2003 online listing. "I have been told that there are people who shop on EBAY that understand these kinds of things and specifically look for these kinds of items. If you are one of these people, please, please buy this cabinet and do whatever you do with a thing like this. Help me."

The auction drew a fair amount of online interest, and before long a student from the small college town of Kirksville bought it for $140. Mannis says he spoke by telephone to the kid and tried to warn him about the risks but that the boy wasn't interested in the occult; he claimed it was a gift for his parents.

"The day, literally the day I ship it," says Mannis, "there was a palpable difference in the environment in my house. It was like coming up out of water...absolutely amazing."

Meanwhile, the trouble in Missouri was just about to begin.

Michael Callahan was at his former job at the A.T. Still University admissions department in Kirksville when he got an excited instant message from Jason Haxton from Haxton's office a floor below in the medical museum.

"Should I get this thing?" Callahan recalls Haxton typing. "It's only going for 200 bucks."

Callahan bemusedly read the unusual item description on eBay from a seller also right in Kirksville. The auction included Mannis' original posting and, as a postscript, a log of everything that had happened to its current owner in the last six months:

Sunday, 31 August 2003: Over the last week some interesting, though possibly coincidental, items of note have come up. Firstly, I share a house with six other people; we have been taking turns sleeping with the box in each of our rooms.

Two people are now complaining of burning eyes, one is listless and depleted of energy, and another became spontaneously sick. [In retrospect I would say it was allergies.]

A few days after these ongoing annoyances started, the air outside our house was filled with small bugs for several hours (a Friday). [Weird summer stuff?]

Last night (Saturday) we discovered that the box, now located in the back corner of the house, had come mostly open, though it had been shut and it seems unlikely that anyone could or would have touched it.

Wednesday, 10 September 2003: Though it seems impossible to prove that the box is a direct cause of misfortune, we have definitely seen a tidal wave of "bad luck."

Strange odors now permeate the house, the dumpster out back overflows with trash and decay, one roommate suddenly got bronchitis, and I broke a finger.

Several mice have died in the engine of one car, and more electronic devices seem to be dying everyday: xbox, toaster, t.v., and watches.

The poster — a young man in his mid-twenties identified only as "Joseph" in Haxton's book — ended by saying he was seeing dark blurs out of the corner of his eye and that about half his hair fell out in the past four days.

"For personal reasons I very strongly do not want this box anymore. I hope there's someone on eBay that will take this thing off of my hands," he concluded.

Haxton actually knew about Joseph and the box through an intern at the museum, one of Joseph's six housemates. The boys lived next to Truman State University in a worn-down apartment building nicknamed the "Pirate House" for the skull-and-crossbones flag flying from the roof. (Attempts to reach the roommates were unsuccessful. RFT received a chilly response after phoning the Kirksville parents of the boy believed to be Joseph: "He does not want to speak to you. He does not live here.")

Haxton mentioned the box to Callahan, whose real passion was a side career as a magician who sometimes used ghost stories in his act.

"I probably did encourage him to get it. It was an amazing story," recalls Callahan.

Haxton won the box for $280, and Callahan was there the day it arrived.

"The creepiest thing about it was just seeing that hair and those coins," he recalls. "Those are artifacts that are real links to real people."

According to Haxton, the trouble began for him as soon as he touched the box with his bare hands. In his book Haxton writes that a searing stomach pain overwhelmed him, and that evening he was haunted by dreams of a horrible old woman with sunken eyes. His health soon deteriorated. He began experiencing choking attacks, sudden rising welts and hives, a strange acrid taste in his mouth and what an optometrist called a "spontaneous eye event" that left large dry patches on his eyeballs, giving him a wild, bloodshot look.

Haxton says he's tested the surface of the wood for any substance that might explain the effects, like ammonia or other toxins once used as wood polish, but tests came back negative.

The first time Haxton brought it home, he and his son, Ross, began noticing pockets of strange aromas in the house — cat pee, sometimes, or jasmine. The heat in the house conked out. Menacing shadows loomed in the corners.

"It's done enough for me that I believe it's supernatural," Ross recalls of these early days with the dybbuk. "The box is special."

There is still a dent in Haxton's in-laws' kitchen table where a dome-shaped light fixture suddenly dropped from the ceiling, smashing the plates and cups laid out for lunch.

"It had a loose screw," says Joan, Haxton's mother-in-law, winking.

Haxton rolls his eyes.


All agree, however, that they were discussing the dybbuk box when it happened.

"I don't believe in this stuff. I do believe in miracles, but I don't believe in a bunch of this hokom-pokum," says Joan. "And then we started in on that boat thing — why they wouldn't let those Jews in."

Haxton's description of the supposed original owner of the box, the Holocaust survivor Havela, reminded his mother-in-law of a story she'd heard when she was a girl about a ship called the S.S. St. Louis full of Jewish refugees who were denied asylum in the United States soon after the Night of Broken Glass in 1938. The ship was forced to return to Europe, where many of its passengers died in the concentration camps.

On a whim, Haxton looked into the matter further and came across a "special report" to Congress penned by Harry Hamilton Laughlin in the run-up to World War II.

"Offer no exceptional admission for Jewish refugees from Germany," Laughlin wrote. "Look upon the incoming immigrants not essentially as in offering asylum...[but as] sons-in-law to marry [our] own daughters."

Jewish refugees, he went on, were not suitable "breeding stock."

The Laughlins were well known to Haxton as a successful family of doctors and geneticists from Missouri whose former land is today part of the Truman State University Farm in Kirksville. But he was unaware of how one of the Laughlin brothers, Harry, had applied the family trade.

In the early 1900s Laughlin befriended the famed genetics researcher Charles Davenport, considered the father of the twentieth-century eugenics movement that the Nazis would later apply to the Jewish genocide. By 1910 Laughlin and Davenport were so close that Davenport asked Laughlin to join the Eugenics Record Office, a research institution funded by Andrew Carnegie, as a superintendent in New York State. Laughlin's greatest contribution was his "Model Eugenical Sterilization Law," which helped individual states pass constitutionally sound laws to forcibly sterilize the mentally ill, disabled and other "socially inadequate classes" such as "orphans, ne'er-do-wells, the homeless."

So influential was Laughlin in Germany that in 1936 the Nazi dean of the University of Heidelberg offered him an honorary degree, praising his papers that helped them craft the infamous Nuremberg Laws that sought to cure "hereditary sickness" through sterilization of Gypsies and Jews.

"To me this honor will be doubly valued because it will come from a nation which for many centuries nurtured the human seed-stock which later founded my own country," Laughlin wrote back in acceptance.

But as the atrocities in Germany worsened, eugenics quickly fell out of favor. Seen increasingly as a tool of fascism, Laughlin's work was discredited, and the Carnegie Institution pulled all financial support. He returned to Kirksville soon after and moved into a tall white mansion, which still stands today on the Truman campus.

Laughlin died in 1943, disgraced and friendless.

Standing on the lawn of Laughlin's mansion, Haxton says he thinks this is the key. The "Pirate House," where Joseph previously kept the box, is visible from the Laughlin mansion when the leaves drop from the trees in fall.

"If the dybbuk box had something to tell, it was about this Harry Laughlin, who, you know, set these laws in motion, caught the attention of Hitler," Haxton says. "At some point you keep saying, 'OK, it's just a coincidence, it's just a coincidence.' But at some point people start saying, 'There's too much to not say something isn't there.'"

Around the same time he began his research on Laughlin, Hollywood came knocking. The Los Angeles Times wrote an article on Haxton and the popularity of Joseph's eBay listing — the page had garnered 140,000 hits long after the auction was over — and the story ran in the same section of the newspaper as a piece on Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2. In short order, Raimi snapped up the rights to the story and announced plans to make a movie based on the dybbuk box in October 2004. Various screenwriters, including the author of The Grudge, took a crack at the story. One version centered around the exploits of an academic trying to crack the case of the box, but ultimately the authors of The Possession decided to pivot off of Kevin Mannis' story of buying the box at an estate sale. They created a fictional family whose daughter opens the box — containing coins, locks of hair, a stone tablet — and is possessed by the demon inside. Matisyahu, the Jewish rapper, plays the exorcist rabbi.

"We just love the idea that a mysterious antique box becomes the central device of horror in this story," says screenwriter Stiles White. "There's so much more of this story that could be told in future movies."

Haxton says initially he'd been so consumed with trying to contain the dybbuk that he brushed off Raimi's production company. He performed various Wiccan rituals and finally, under advisement from a paranormal research group, had the gold-leaf acacia ark built to house the dybbuk box. Haxton says rabbis he consulted also suggested he add religious artifacts to counter the malevolent energy — some Torah scrolls, a 500-year-old book of kabbalah writings. Eventually, Haxton's health improved, the smells and apparitions disappeared, and life returned to normal. Today he considers the box a kind of "case closed" situation.

"This thing has been really put away," he says. "I think it took on a life of its own, and so I respect the story that I discovered."

There are, however, a few loose ends.

One of the most vocal nonbelievers is Michael Callahan, the magician, who models himself after Penn & Teller as a skeptic and an atheist. He considers Haxton's retelling of their acquisition of the dybbuk box exaggerated and says he never had trouble with the box even when it spent a week in his home.

"Absolutely nothing ever happened. We never saw, smelled, heard, had anything negative — if anything our lives have been surprisingly good," he says. "If he gets to have his opinion and say it's all real, I get to have my opinion and say it's a scam."

In his book Haxton also reveals some sizable holes in Kevin Mannis' story. Haxton traveled to Oregon to meet Mannis, and after driving around Portland with him looking for the estate sale house, Mannis claimed he couldn't find it. He also resisted providing Haxton a surname for Havela, saying the family didn't want anything to do with the story. When Mannis finally relented, he offered the name "Jewiski." Haxton found no record of anyone with that name in the area, nor any record of a 103-year-old woman dying in the area in 2001.

Haxton was able to track down some of Mannis' siblings who told him there was never any shared or recurring nightmare about an old hag.

And perhaps most glaring of all is Haxton's discovery of a bar in Beaverton called Club Underground. Several of the employees at the bar recall Mannis — a onetime security guard, promotions manager and jack-of-all-trades for the club — bragging about coming up with a fantastic idea for a short story about a haunted Jewish wine box.

"This is what my impression is," says John Wegman, the former owner of the Underground. "He had this box, and he was trying to sell things on eBay, and he put this box together and made up a story to go with it on eBay to see how many bites he got. And he got tons of people wanting it."

Wegman says at his wedding Mannis presented him with a chunk of stone with Hebrew writing on it, very similar to the one in the dybbuk box, that Mannis said he made himself.

Matt "Shaggy" Christensen, a kitchen manager and former bartender for the Underground, says he's pretty sure one of the locks of hair inside the box is his. He says one night he came into work badly needing a haircut and shaved off his long hair in a back room. As a joke, he says he put some of the hair into the bartender's tip jar. Mannis, says Christensen, fished some of it out to add to the box's folklore.

"He took it and really ran with it. I told him to buy me a beer that night and we'd call it even. I guess I should've asked for little bit more," says Christensen. "Kevin is a very intelligent person."

There are also monetary and publicity incentives to keep the myth going. Both Kevin Mannis and Jason Haxton were paid for the rights to their stories by the producers of The Possession, and will appear on a History Channel special and an episode of Syfy's Paranormal Witness.

"I know Kevin," chuckles Wegman. "He's trying to make it sound really exciting and trying to publicize the story."

Asked about these discrepancies, Mannis sticks to his original story. He claims he actually did find Havela's family again after Haxton left, though he still declines to identify them. He says he is somewhat estranged from his younger siblings, in part over the dybbuk box and the media hoopla it stirred up, and that may be the reason they've refuted his story. He also denies that his own grandmother — a Jewish immigrant who lived to be 105 — served as the inspiration for a character named Havela or that he added any of the artifacts to the dybbuk box.

As for the recollection of the staff at the Underground, Mannis largely sidesteps the question.

"I have no explanation for that whatsoever," he says. "Even if I was a really good writer, it doesn't speak to the hundreds of people who've emailed Jason and myself about their experience with the box. It doesn't speak to any of the experiences that Jason had or Joseph had.

"Where do you go from there? I write a great story, and all these things happen to people who are entirely unconnected? It doesn't make any sense."

Despite his own debunking results, Haxton refuses to draw any hard conclusions about Mannis or the box. Since the completion of his book, Haxton says Mannis' brother took back his denial about the dreams and then stopped communicating. Haxton says he's also now spoken to the store manager who was present during the destruction of Mannis' shop in Portland. RFT's attempts to reach both the manager and the other Mannis siblings were unsuccessful.

As he and his son prepare to open the dybbuk box for the first time in months, a skeptic in the family pipes up for the first time — Haxton's eighteen-year-old daughter.

"I don't have anything to do with it," she deadpans. "It just buys me things."

(Haxton later says that in addition to sponsoring three Vietnamese orphans with the money from the movie, he bought his daughter a Prius, her "dybbuk car." He believes the film has the potential to carve out a place in mythological history: "One of those legendary things — the Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot and the dybbuk box — that'll be forever a mystery.")

Haxton and Ross gingerly unbuckle the black case's butterfly clasps and lift the lid, revealing the polished acacia wood of the ark. Together they lift the heavy piece and place it in the center of a cleared dining-room table.

"You want us to open it now?" Haxton asks.

The top of the ark folds back first, revealing the glow of the gold-leaf lining. The door of the ark swings open to reveal the much darker, scuffed wood of the dybbuk box and the dull metal of the grape-bunch decorations. Haxton pulls out the drawer, and the two doors open slowly with a soft clunking sound.

Space inside the box is scarce nowadays with the addition of the religious items intended to keep the dybbuk complacent. But the original items are all there — the cup, the stone, the rosebud, the candleholder. Haxton opens up a small plastic bag and pulls out the locks of hair, laying them gingerly on the ancient kabbalah prayer book.

Everyone sticks their heads into the dybbuk box and inhales. The smell is woody, earthy and slightly sweet.

"If I opened it up and it smelled like urine, I'd be probably worried," says Haxton. "I think it's truly trying to work with you. 'Put me out, I'm an air freshener, I've learned my lesson, don't lock me up,' you know, kind of thing. Like a genie in a bottle."

For a few moments, father and son regard the box and circle it warily. Aside from a loud moaning of the wind picking up outside with the approaching rainstorm, nothing happens. While Ross suggests they leave it out longer to see if anything happens, Haxton is eager to pack it up.

"I'm certainly on edge just a little bit," he confesses.

Back in the pickup truck, the box safely back in its black coffin and en route for safekeeping in a secret location, Haxton says he wants people to make up their own minds about the box. He's a normal person, he insists, to whom some extraordinary things have happened.

"We're more average than most," he says. "I hope, consistently, that proved to you this is no setup."

He does express a touch of irritation with Kevin Mannis. In their deal with Lionsgate, both retain the right to produce a documentary on the dybbuk box and will conceivably work together on it in the future. But Haxton doesn't like Mannis' somewhat un-academic approach when he's interviewed about the box — repeating to reporters that it contains a dybbuk and a "kessem," which Haxton says is a totally incorrect term for a spirit or magical object.

"I don't understand Kevin, but you know, in many ways he's brilliant and bright about a lot of things. He shouldn't be clueless about some of these things," he says, turning the truck back down toward Kirksville as rain begins to patter on the windshield. "Anybody who'd want to perpetuate a hoax wouldn't want to look like a fool."

Haxton says that even if it started as a joke or hoax or an amalgamation of truth and fiction, there is something undeniably special about the box now.

"There's some secret to the dybbuk box that Kevin has," Haxton concludes. "I don't think it'll ever be told."