In the subgenre of ‘exorcinema,’ The Possession (2012) probably sits well behind The Exorcist (1973) in the minds of horror fans. The recent film utilizes a Jewish folkloric creature, the dybbuk, while perpetuating the centuries-long convention of making the possessed character a woman or girl. Despite it coming from a gendered boilerplate concept, The Possession diverts the energy of a classic exorcist hero to a minor, unconventional, but pious character, played by rapper Matisyahu. The Possession suggests a new angle into the traditional demon possession genre by turning toward an outsider with insider knowledge.
Starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick, The Possession is a typical demon possessing a child story. Recently divorced and with all the associated baggage, Clyde (Morgan) and Stephanie (Sedgewick) realize their youngest daughter, Em (Natasha Calis), pried open a strange old box to release and then be possessed by a demon. Eventually, a skeptical Clyde learns a demon from Jewish myth, a dybbuk, possesses his daughter. There are no Catholic priests or Latin recitations of the Roman Rite to come. Instead, Clyde must turn to the Orthodox Jewish community and an unconventional would-be exorcist, Tzadok (Matisyahu.) The dybbuk was first put on film in The Dybbuk (1937,) an adaptation of S. Ansky’s 1920s stage play, and again in the prologue to the Coen brothers, A Serious Man (2009.) A Serious Man’s dybbuk scene captures the folkloric tradition of a malevolent soul in original Yiddish and possesses a distinct ominousness.
Originating in 16th-century Kabbalist literature, the dybbuk is the soul of a human who sinned so egregiously or heinously they are stuck in the form of limbo. The disembodied dybbuk, from the Hebrew root word, dābaq, or to cling or adhere, wanders the world, stuck between life and death. According to Dr. Justin Sledge’s in his Esoterica lecture Possession in Judaism: Kabbalah, Dybbuk & Ibbur, the dybbuk becomes “vengeful and hostile, despite the fact it craves to be reunited with a body,” something which Em suffers through in the movie. The Possession, however, conflates the violent dybbuk with a ‘shedim,’ or demon, named Abizu who, in the pseudograph Testament of Solomon, declares, “I have no work other than the destruction of children.” So, while the demon is more child-destroying ‘shedim’ than sinning soul ‘dybbuk,’ The Possession’s filmmakers continue the turn to Jewish mysticism by pursuing an Orthodox outsider, non-professional, to drive evil out and not a priest or rabbi.
Like many other films, The Possession maintains the tradition of an evil possessing a woman or girl, overlapping with historical possession stories, such as the Devils of Loudon, and Jewish exorcism narratives like the “Great Event of Safed.” In Feminist Dybbuks: Spirit Possession Motif in Post-Second Wave Jewish Women’s Fiction, Agnieszka Legutko writes that most possession stories are authored by men about possessed women while narratively centering on the male dybbuk and exorcist. Subverting this consistently gendered thread, Legutko notes, are women writers like Ruth Knafo Setton’s The Road to Fez and Ellen Galford’s The Dyke and the Dybbuk, who focus on the possessed, rather than the possessor. Women authors, Legutko writes, “place the emphasis on the possessed person and not only on the dybbuk, while the exorcist—the significant focus of the male narratives—is relegated to a secondary role.” So we must ask how, if at all, The Possession upset that convention while acknowledging it maintains the pattern. Amid a very Hollywood possession story, we see what a slight tug to the thread can produce. Rather than a central learned exorcist, The Possession elevates an informal and reluctant secondary character to heroic status.
Founded in the 18th century, Hasidism embraced a charismatic and ecstatic version of Judaism. Known for their following of a rebbe, or elder, conservative dress, and tight-knit communities, the Hasidim maintain vibrant enclaves in New York City’s Williamsburg and Crown Heights neighborhoods. Through a visual shorthand of distinctive clothing and bustling street life of Borough Park, The Possession’s filmmakers orient the viewer in a lifestyle many will not know, allowing us to understand the outwardly traditional character of Tzadok as an outsider within his community.
Tzadok is introduced as his Brooklyn neighborhood empties at the start of Shabbat. An unseen siren, evoking the Shofar ram’s horn, alerts the faithful that until sundown Saturday, work must stop; machines and devices are to lay unused. Except one figure sits listening to an iPod, singing aloud to Bob Marley’s Rastaman Chant, stirring with a “Sorry, I kind of get lost when I am listening,” as Clyde and the box appear. Our first glimpse of this character signals his deviation from the religious social status quo within the neighborhood. Tzadok’s outsider status is reinforced as his father, the community’s rebbe, listens to and denies Clyde’s plea. Tzadok continually loops the perimeter of his father’s literal inner circle. Obviously, out of the rebbe’s sphere of piety and disengaged from his father’s traditionalism, Tzadok is the only individual willing to help. Through his outsider status with insider knowledge, Tzadok’s volunteering to help ripples with religious conviction and a whiff of rebellion. Pursuing Clyde into an alley, Tzadok declares not only will he act as an exorcist, but he must help because of “pikkuah nefesh,” the imperative of saving a life takes precedence over Sabbath rules of non-work. At this critical moment, Tzadok’s religious social capital, his insider knowledge, and piousness are more beneficial to Clyde than in council to the rebbe or his community. Dominated by gendered possession characters and moribund Christian themes, exorcinema remains a formulaic but moneymaking genre. Even with its traditional ‘possessed girl’ narrative, The Possession suggests how an earnest portrayal of a different faith, combined with a protagonist-as-an-outsider, can invigorate a story. Perhaps, as creators with diverse experiences and identities slowly penetrate buck-chasing Hollywood, the possession genre will undergo a liberating exorcism.