One of the first movies we could qualify as being exorcism cinema was not concerned with the Catholic approach to possession and exorcism. Instead, it showed us this conflict from an older religious perspective, Judaism. In 1937, a Polish movie called Der Dibuk or The Dybbuk was released as one of the first movies filmed entirely in Yiddish. Luckily, we still have access to a copy of it. Based on a 1914 play of the same name, a woman becomes possessed by a dybbuk, which tends to not be demonic so much as a displaced spirit of a deceased person.
Almost a century after the release of the play, another movie would utilize the idea of dybbuks to provide for a take on exorcism from this Judaic angle. In 2012, The Possession became another in the series of exorcism cinema that attempt to create a sense of realism to heighten the horror of the situation. On the DVD for this movie, a documentary accompanies the film to provide viewers with the real story of dybbuks and the vessels designed to hold them, dybbuk boxes. The film itself starts with “the following is based on a true story” so as to anchor the viewers into the real world. A real world that just happens to feature a non-Jewish family being tormented by a dybbuk and then turning to a fundamentalist sect of Judaism to perform the exorcism.
While we still have to view The Dybbuk, it was actually our viewing of The Possession that started our thinking on this project. Here, the concerned father, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, steps in for the priest seeking to rekindle his faith. Instead of a priest being concerned for the soul of a young girl, we have a father being concerned with the life of his young daughter, to whom he is estranged due to divorce. The idea of possession being linked to sexuality is toned down in this movie, because of the problematic incestuous overtones it would take, but the idea of possession being linked to feminine agency remains strong. While there is no overt attempt by the possessed girl to be sexually active, the struggle with transitioning from a girl into a woman is clearly on metaphorical display, and with that the importance of a woman gaining her power, her agency.
What follows, then, are my thoughts on a rather well-constructed entry into this horror subgenre.
We start by seeing the older woman who is being tormented by the dybbuk box – she is hearing voices, pulls out a large clump of her hair, then takes a hammer as if to destroy it. The box speaks in a masculinish voice, speaking a foreign language — Yiddish perhaps? — and causes her body to contort into unnatural positions. Not necessarily possessing her but definitely controlling her body and causing her to severely hurt herself.
A broken household, like in The Exorcist, where the parents are divorced. But here we focus on the relationship between the father and his daughters. It is the father who shows the concern for what his daughter is going through – if “what she is going through” i.e. possession is a metaphor for sexual awakening, then the idea is that the father is both trying to protect his little, innocent girl as well as safely guide her into this new phase of her life.
Clyde, the father, as less concerned about “bacteria” as the mother’s new boyfriend, even makes fun of the boyfriend’s love of opera. Thus father is positioned as more masculine, and as more aligning with patriarchal notions of masculinity.
Youngest daughter Em is the one who will become possessed – she is the one who still holds out hope of her parents getting back together, which is an innocent way of looking at divorce. She is also a vegetarian, indicating her innocence by not wanting to consume meat.
When Em sees the box at the garage sale, while wearing the old fashioned hat and long sleeved gloves, she is drawn to it. The hat and gloves perhaps represent a time when women were less likely to be independent, more likely to go along with patriarchy. And the box represents something outside of this normalization – a box with a mystery, a secret, a power, that makes it abject and lying outside of patriarchy’s control – a power for her to embrace.
The dybbuk box has no seams, and Clyde infers this means whoever made it did not want it opened or wanted it to be hard to open. Part of the man keeping power from the woman. Clyde silences Em’s whining with a sharp finger-snap when he gets an important call about his job – indicating his form of discipline, his power, also his inattention to his child.
Em begins to hear whispery voices in the night, and figures out all by herself how to open the box. The indication is that the box was only meant for Em to open, as this was first time we see it open in the movie. It is meant to be her source of power – or her source of degradation, abjection, downfall. She puts on the ring she finds in the box, foothold for possession to begin. Making a commitment to the box…
Older daughter Hannah freaks out because of a moth, which Em had seen in box. Both girls are upset Clyde killed it, especially Em, the animal lover. But could be she is also upset because of the moth’s connection to the box. Em says next day she feels funny, that she doesn’t feel like her – shown in shadow, pale, and with little sympathy from older sister.
Indication from the ex-wife that Clyde cares more about his basketball team, which implies he cares more about boys than his own girls. Perhaps the whole idea is that the Father has to learn how to deal with his girls, and by extension modern women. He thinks his older daughter is perfect, says so, when she gets dental work done. He is learning how to communicate with them without controlling their lives.
Clyde is tall, big, deep voice – implying he is strong, able to take care of things, to protect, such as when they come home to find a raccoon in the kitchen, although no raccoon is ever seen.
The box is calling out Em’s name in the night. She looks into the mirror in box, which shows her face disfigured when her father comes in. Em acts weird at breakfast in how she is eating. Clyde notices, and when he tells Em to slow down she slams the fork in his hand. Em is acting out, gaining independence like any teenager would, asserting independence from her father.
Okay, and then the moths come out of the box and start to fly all over the bathroom and Em’s room – hundreds of them while Em sits on the bed looking into the box. Relationship to the evil and the occult? Death’s head figure moth? Moth on corpse’s mouths? Is there a Judaic idea behind moths?
The ex-wife makes fun of Clyde, emasculating him, so he decides to keep his shoes on, to reassert himself. And then immediately they recall better times, times with sex and flirting – helping to show him in this sexy, in control light. Apparently reasserting himself was a good idea.
The movie plays of on the stereotype of a father being so caught up in his work that he misses his daughter’s big performance, and when he tries to apologize she won’t talk to him, and Em acts as intermediary, seemingly more concerned about her box, saying she is the only one allowed to touch it. Em asserting her control, her power, her independence by being possessive. So of course Clyde goes to look at the box, which is open, and sees the weird things in it. He wonders what the hell it is. He is looking into his child, into her life and path, and wondering what is going on.
Cut to Em looking at herself in the mirror, and the ring discoloring her hand, and then the gagging as the fingers crawl up her throat, which she can only see by looking in the mirror – she seems scared, is crying, because she does not know what is in her own body, how she does not have control over her own body. Pretty much a metaphor for puberty right there. Notice that she is also dressed all in white during the sequence, and she shows no sign of physical puberty – she is at the cusp, still looking like a child with a child’s innocent way of thinking.
Em takes the box to school in a bag and a boy takes it, looks at it. She freaks out and attacks the boy, with her voice sounding very deep while yelling at the boy. The ex-wife blames Clyde for being oblivious to his daughters, more focused on his career, which is why Em is acting out in school. Of course, real reason Em is acting out is possession – which would almost seem to vindicate Clyde’s neglect of his daughters.
The teacher tries to open the box – her eyes start bleeding, wind in the room, door shuts on her, and she is thrown about the room with great force until being ejected via the window. African woman who was killed for her curiosity. Em does not seem concerned about her teacher’s death, and only want her box back from the classroom.
Clyde is concerned about Em talking to the box. Em says she does not talk to the box but to her friend that lives in the box – a woman, Em says very forcefully to correct her father’s gender assumption. Em says the woman says Em is special, which she likes. Clyde tries to affirm that Em is special, but Em ignores his, says “she’s still hungry”, as if that is not her real voice but an older woman’s voice.
Clyde, apparently very concerned, throws out the box. Em crying, shivering, wants her box but he says we are done with the box. Fight – Em says she hates him, doesn’t love him, that the ex-wife doesn’t love him, that he thinks he knows everything but doesn’t. Chides Clyde that the boyfriend does things for ex-wife that Clyde never could – implying sexually, which emasculates Clyde — and then she frames her father for hitting her. The father losing control over his little girl.
Em finds the box in the garbage, and it opens itself, and the moths encircle her to talk to her in the foreign language, an older woman’s voice, we don’t see a person. Again, speaking Yiddish. She starts crying, says her dad doesn’t like her anymore. Apparently she can understand the woman despite the language. Says no just before the moths fly into her, making the possession complete – happening before Clyde can see it. Similar to The Conjuring, with possession occurring via the mouth. Both by witches, too?
The ex-wife gets a restraining order to prevent Clyde from seeing his daughters because of bruises on Em’s face. Again the idea is that the father is unstable, angry, incompetent, and yet he is the only one who believes something odd is going on – he is the right one. So we are meant to feel sorry that his ex-wife is doing this to him, and we are meant to feel he is being wronged.
Em goes to the boyfriend with a tooth from the box. Em’s eye going crazy and a hand crawling up her face. But boyfriend sees none of this. She just wants him to leave, does not like him.
Clyde brings the box to a professor who apparently knows something about possessions, as indicated on his notes in the lecture hall: self-possession through transformation. He knows Hebrew, has Hebrew inscriptions, guesses at the age, knows it is a dybbuk box, word for dislocated spirit. Good thing Dr. Exposition was in driving distance. According to him, Hasidic sects of Judaism believe in various spirits, both benevolent and evil, like demons. The dybbuk box was made with the belief that evil can be contained, to trap a demon. Professor jokes with him, saying he is carrying around a curse, calls him a very brave man. He says the box made by someone with conviction, warning to not open the box. Clyde later researches possessions online, and researches Jewish exorcism practices.
Clyde waits for his ex-wife to drive away – we can hear crows cawing, always crows – and brings a copy of Torah to see Em. He thinks he can do the exorcism. Trying to reassert his control, his power, in his daughter’s life. Em turns to stare at him. Pages of the book are blown by the wind. Em cries, and the book flies out of his hands into desktop. He asks “Who are you? What do you want with my little girl?” Em seen crying a lot, by just having a couple tears streaming down her face. Is that the real Em inside, reacting to being possessed? Her agency is tears, because there is not much else she can do, as a girl or a woman? Tears are a woman’s power, after all. The ex-wife bursts in, forces Clyde out – but he knows, he is correct, he is right, he is vindicated.
So he goes to a Hasidic sect area of NYC to find help. He finds a traditional Rebbe (Rabbi) and shows them the dybbuk box, which they all recoil from. Clyde is wearing yarmulke, showing his respect for the Rebbe, but also adorning himself with the religious symbol that we do not see in many of the other exorcism movies – Clyde is not Jewish, and yet respects the Hasidics’ faith – we did not see Chris in The Exorcist doing this. In other exorcism movies, the people seeking help for their possessed loved one shared the beliefs of those doing the exorcism.
Rebbe says the dybbuk looks for an innocent, a pure soul, searching for a proper host. The person hears voices, experience visions, deception of the spirit to protect host and drive others away. Dybbuk attaches to the host, two becoming one, as the dybbuk feeds and takes until nothing left of host – it only wants life. Clyde sobs a little upon learning it is taking his daughter’s life – but not really emotionally weak – immediately asks how to save his daughter. They need to drive the dybbuk back into box by knowing its name. Exorcism is claimed to be too big of a risk – Clyde crying more now, begging, sounding distressed about his little girl – asking for help, almost like Chris did, only not nearly so hysterical about it. He is upset to hear this has to be left to the Will of God, takes of his yarmulke when the Hasidics say that – he has lost his respect. The young Hasidic agrees to help, says required to help when human life in danger.
The ex-wife hears odd noises at night, crying – finds Em eating raw meat and crying about it. When found, Em growls, moves like an animal, lashes out at her mother – hoarsely cries out “Em’s not here” – possessed voice sounding like a combination of Em and the old woman voices. She gets a demonic visage through the distortion of a bottle on the kitchen counter. Then we get levitation just before Em jumps into her arms, cradling a piece of glass, asks, “Who am I?” Kind of question every girl asks when she is going through puberty – who am I, what am I, what will I be, etc.
The boyfriend suggests a therapist. So then Em gets rid of him. I won’t spoil that fun scene.
The mirror is in the box so that spirit will always have took at itself, knowing it turned away from God – mirror as torment for evil spirit, knowing thyself and seeing the sin within one’s true nature. The young Hasidic finds its name behind mirror: Abyzou, taker of children.
Em is getting an MRI done. The MRI shows a foreign body in Em after electricity surges – something moving within the MRI – a creature inside the scan, with its head on her lung and her hand up Em’s throat – it turns to look at them, screams at them. So it took medicine, modern science, to convince the ex-wife and the older daughter, whereas Clyde just had gut instinct that something was wrong, knew his daughter well enough to know something very wrong was happening. That it was something that modern science could not help with. Somehow he just believes in the supernatural explanation before even trying to get a scientific explanation. More aligned with the patriarchy of religion because he is a masculine man?
The second attempt at the exorcism is in Em’s hospital room. Necessity to put something of their hearts in the box as a way to bind the dybbuk in the box – they have to sacrifice something of themselves to save their loved one. Oil represents light, water represents darkness. Clyde offers himself to the demon, to take him, just like Damien did in The Exorcist. Em attacks the young Hasidic, her eyes rolled white. Em runs out, Clyde chases, down long white hallway into red lit room and dark room of morgue. Em light in red glow of Exit sign, crying/laughing, light becomes more red as he walks closer to her – she seems to be beckoning, seeking solace, and yet definitely evil as gets into demonic voice. Clyde does not show any sign of being scared, only concerned. The strong paternal type.
Em attacks Clyde , seen only in shadows, as he again calls for demon to take him. Now we find Em in a white room, and Clyde hugs her as the ring comes off on its own. But the young Hasidic knows it is not right, wonders where dybbuk is. He starts to call its name, and Clyde goes limp. Eyes go crazy, starts gagging, is drawn backwards. The young Hasidic goes to shield Em as he continues the exorcism.
An arm comes out of Clyde’s mouth, claps on his face, as moths fly around – then it comes out and crawls into the open dybbuk box. So here we actually have a demon shown, which is not something that occurred in the other exorcism films. This is the only time a demon is shown with a physical form, one that matches the image seen in the MRI – small, thin, scrawny, pale, gooey, neither male nor female, with large eyes and a gaping mouth, and only a few strings of hair.
Apparently the parents reconcile at the end? The ex-wife had been shown to be not terribly pleased to be with the boyfriend, whom Clyde had implied as not being masculine, and the boyfriend is never heard from again after driving off without his teeth. Clyde implies he is staying with his family, that they are not going anywhere, that everything is perfect. So not only is the family returned to a normal that existed at the beginning of the film, prior to the possession, it has apparently returned to the good ole days of being a solid family prior to the divorce, to a time that is pre-filmic. So a little possession, a little struggle with their daughter’s puberty, goes a long way to restoring patriarchal notions of the nuclear family, reinstating the father to his rightful place within the family. Apparently having the father-daughter relationship be the central relationship served as narrative device to allow for this legitimization of patriarchy.