Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, February 1, 2013

For sale: one wine cabinet. Comes with an evil spirit.

Coming on the heels of yesterday's post about a study that showed that once our brains are primed to notice paranormal occurrences, we will, and in fact, will proceed to notice more and more as time goes on -- today we have the story of the haunted wine cabinet.

This one is courtesy of a friend, who asked me if I'd ever heard of the "Dybbuk Box," and said she had a co-worker who found the story terrifying.  I told her I hadn't.  But anything that scares someone is bound to be interesting to me, so I looked into it, and lo and behold, it has its own Wikipedia page and a website devoted to the legend.

The basic story goes something like this.

In 2003, a writer named Kevin Mannis bought a wooden wine cabinet at an estate sale.  The box had belonged to a Holocaust survivor named Havela, and Mannis found out from Havela's granddaughter that the box was a family heirloom.  At that point Mannis offered to sell, or even give, the box back to the family, feeling that given the family's history they should probably have it.  The granddaughter didn't want it; she said, in fact, that no one ever used it, because a dybbuk lived inside it.  "Actually," she told Mannis, "I don't advise you to open it."

*cue scary music*

A dybbuk is, according to Jewish folklore, the disembodied spirit of a dead person -- usually not a nice dead person, but someone who made people miserable while (s)he was alive and whom you can well imagine wanting to continue to do the same after kicking the bucket.  The difference is that the dybbuk, now that it is freed from its mortal body, can latch on to another one (the Jewish answer to demonic possession) or -- as in this case -- attach itself to an object.

So, of course, Mannis did exactly what you would do, if you were the stupid character in a horror movie who is the bold one and (not coincidentally) the first one to die: he opened the box.  And inside, he found an odd collection of items.  There were two pennies from the 1920s, a lock of blond hair bound with cord, a lock of dark hair bound with cord, a small statue engraved with the Hebrew word "shalom," a small wine goblet made of solid gold, one dried rose bud, and a candle holder with legs shaped like octopus tentacles.

Pretty atmospheric stuff, isn't it?  Suggestive.  And suggesting something is apparently exactly what it did.  Mannis proceeded to have a series of horrific nightmares of a terrifying old hag, and started getting terrible headaches.  The box, obviously, was to blame.  He realized that he had to somehow get rid of it, that the story of its being haunted was real and was clearly responsible for his experiences.  So he thought, "Here I have this box which is infested with a horrifying spirit of the damned, and which is making me miserable.  Hmm, what should I do with it?"  And he found the perfect solution.

He gave it to his mother as a birthday present.

And mom proceeded immediately to have a stroke.

After that, Mannis had second thoughts.  So he sold it on eBay.  Once you've given True Evil to your mother, and nearly killed her in the process, the next step is to sell it to an unwitting victim for profit, right?   The box was bought by Iosef Neitzke, a student at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, who reported that the box smelled either like "cat urine or jasmine flowers" (which is kind of an odd pairing), and that after he bought the box the light bulbs in his house started to burn out, and he started losing his hair.  So he sold it to Jason Haxton, who had been following Neitzke's experiences on a blog, and when Neitzke wrote that he had enough of cat piss, dead light bulbs, and hair loss, and was ready to get rid of the box, Haxton jumped at it.

Haxton proceeded to start coughing up blood, developed "head-to-toe welts," and had strange dreams.  So he thought that it was time to get the experts involved.  He got a hold of a couple of rabbis, who successfully locked the dybbuk back in the box, and then he hid the box in a secret location.

And no, he won't tell anyone where it is.

It's an interesting story; and significant, I think, that the first person who brought the box to light was a writer.  I'm speaking purely from personal experience, here, but fiction writers are pretty good at making weird shit up.  (See the sidebar for examples.)  And, as we saw yesterday, once you're looking for strange occurrences, you will find them -- or take perfectly normal things (like hair loss and bad dreams) and attribute them to the paranormal explanation you had already decided was true.  As far as the welts -- hives are known to be a common psychosomatic symptom, triggered not only by allergens but by emotional stress.  As skeptic Chris French of Goldsmiths College said of the dybbuk box, "(all of 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."

Still, that hasn't stopped the woo-woo crowd from capitalizing on the whole thing.  The dybbuk box story has been featured on Paranormal Witness, Mysterious Universe, and Paranormal State, and was the basis of the movie The Possession...

... which, of course, used the tag line "Based on a true story."

Interesting, given my fascination with weird claims, and all of the coverage it's gotten, that the whole thing was completely new to me.  So I give my friend some props for throwing it my way.  It's a fun story, even if I don't buy the supernatural explanation, which you pretty much knew I wouldn't in any case.  And like French, I'd love to own the box, not that that's likely.  I think I would be pretty resistant to its ill effects.  I'm firmly in possession of all of my hair, am not prone to welts, and given the fact that I own two aging cats there's already enough of a pervasive cat-piss smell in my den that it probably wouldn't make much difference if I stored it there.  And I'm already prone to insomnia and bad dreams.

Of course, there's the whole coughing-up-blood thing.  That would kind of suck, and I am sort of susceptible to bronchitis, especially in the winter.  So maybe I'm better off without it, after all.


  1. So, on a per-word basis, how much do you think Mannis made on that story?

  2. Looks like Kevin Mannis really tried to pass dybbuk on this one.