A popular tale tells of a haunted Jewish wine box that brought ill fortune upon its owners… apparently.
Every once in a while, there’s a small, local ghost story that’s not very good, or that even has an obvious commercial origin, and that has no business becoming popular — but it does. The famous “dybbuk box” (also spelled dibbuk) is one such story. It went from a screenwriter’s pen on an eBay auction page, all the way onto the Hollywood big screen, with 2012’s The Possession starring Kyra Sedgwick and directed by Sam Raimi. It is the story of a small antique wooden box designed to hold a few bottles of wine, to which was attached a horror story going all the way back to the Holocaust. Whoever owned the box, it was said, experienced terrible disturbances for as long as the box was in their home. Why? Because, according to the story, the wine box was inhabited by a “dybbuk”, said to be a tormented spirit come back from the dead.
The whole idea of the box being inhabited by a dybbuk (דיבבוק) is nonsensical, according to what a dybbuk is supposed to be. The Encyclopedia Mythica describes it as “a disembodied spirit possessing a living body that belongs to another soul” and usually talks from that person’s mouth. An important 1914 Yiddish play The Dybbuk was about the spirit of a dead man who possessed the living body of the woman he had loved, and had to be exorcised. The word comes from the Hebrew verb “to cling”, so a dybbuk is specifically a soul who clings to another. Nowhere in the folkloric literature is there precedent for a dybbuk inhabiting a box or other inanimate object.
But of course, we’re talking definitions of folkloric terms, fictional by their very definition; so there’s no reason why this particular dybbuk can’t inhabit a wooden box if it wants to. And besides, the fact that folklore exists for a possessing spirit tells us nothing about whether or not factual events did indeed harass the owners of this box. The folklore is irrelevant to the question of whether or not this wine box did indeed cause the frightening disturbances attributed to it. So let’s see what the box’s claimed history is.
One thing to keep in mind is that, if you’ve heard this story before, you’ve probably heard that the box was owned by a whole series of people, each of whom had lots of terrifying experiences, and they then got rid of it to someone else. In fact, the lone skeptical quote associated with this story is from Chris French, who said of these many owners:
“[They 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.”
But then when we look at its actual history, the number of people whose hands it is documented to have gone through becomes astonishingly small, two or three at most; and each of whom went to great pains to tell the ghost story in a dramatic way. Let’s have a look.
The dybbuk box first appeared in 2003 as an eBay auction by Kevin Mannis, who owned a used furniture shop in Portland, Oregon. But it was not listed as a piece of furniture; it was listed as a mysterious haunted item. Mannis wrote on his eBay page an elaborate horror story.
Paranormal legends about paintings have always existed. Some think that a picture falling off the wall represents a bad omen for the person depicted or photographed in it. Others feel watched by some portraits whose eyes seem to follow onlookers as they move through a room. And still others claim that paintings can come alive; people in it can move, smile, close their eyes, or even leave the picture. And, of course, tales of “cursed” paintings abound.
Certainly great writers, from Oscar Wilde with The Picture of Dorian Gray to Stephen King with Rose Madder, have been able to tell extraordinary stories of scary and unsettling paintings. However, many believe that “haunted” paintings can exist in real life. Coming from a family that has always dealt with paintings—my grandfather is a painter, my father was an art collector, and together with their wives they have run a shop selling paintings for over fifty years—it is easy to understand why this is a subject that particularly fascinates me.
In February 2000, a supposedly cursed painting was auctioned on eBay. It was titled The Hands Resist Him and was painted in 1972 by California artist Bill Stoneham. It depicted a young boy and a female doll standing in front of a glass paneled door against which many hands are pressed. The owners claimed that the characters in it came alive, sometimes leaving the painting and entering the room in which it was being displayed. It was sold for $1,025 to Perception Gallery in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which, when contacted some time later, stated that they had not noticed anything strange since buying the painting.
Luckily for Stoneham, the rumor caused by the story made the painting so popular that it was depicted in a short movie by A.D. Calvo (Sitter), as the CD cover art for Carnival Divine’s self-titled album, and was featured in the PC video game “Scratches.” Today, prints of it—and of its sequel, Resistance at the Threshold—are sold in different sizes.
In November 2005, the Italian TV show Voyager showed a painting owned by self-proclaimed psychic Gustavo Rol from Turin. It depicted a noble lady, Teresa Rovere, wearing nineteenth century garments and a somber frown. However, when the painting was seen through the viewfinder of a camera the mouth seemed to curl upward, forming a smile. Nothing could be seen with the naked eye and the film recorded through the camera did not show anything unusual. On the show, it was claimed that this was an unexplainable phenomenon, maybe an after-life paranormal experiment of the late Rol. In reality, it was a simple optical effect due to the round shape of the viewfinder, the lens of which tends to narrow and make rounder anything seen through it: thus, the coronet on Teresa’s hair seems to bend downward just like the mouth appears to bend upward, creating the illusion of a smile that in reality is not there.
MORE . . .
- Haunted painting: The Hands Resist Him (infocult.typepad.com)
- Haunted paintings, creepy dolls, and the uncanny valley (randomsays.com)
To some observers, it looked like an ordinary grilled cheese sandwich. But to the Miami woman who put it up for sale on eBay, and to some people who viewed it, there was an image of the Virgin Mary seared on this seemingly run-of-the-mill snack.
The psychological phenomenon that causes some people to see or hear a vague or random image or sound as something significant is known as pareidolia (par-i-DOH-lee-a).
The word is derived from the Greek words para, meaning something faulty, wrong, instead of, and the noun eidōlon, meaning image, form or shape. Pareidolia is a type of apophenia, which is a more generalized term for seeing patterns in random data.
Some common examples are seeing a likeness of Jesus in the clouds or an image of a man on the surface of the moon.
Famous examples of pareidolia
A prime example of pareidolia and its connection to religious images is the Shroud of Turin, a cloth bearing the image of a man — which some believe to be Jesus — who appears to have suffered trauma consistent with crucifixion. The negative image was first observed in 1898, on the reverse photographic plate of amateur photographer Secondo Pia, who was allowed to photograph it while it was being exhibited in the Turin Cathedral.
Some visitors to St. Mary’s in Rathkaele, Ireland, say a tree stump outside of the church bears a silhouette of the Virgin Mary.
Damage to the Pedra da Gávea, an enormous rock outside Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, created an impression that many interpret as a human face.
Many people thought images taken in 1976 by the Viking 1 mission showed a face on Mars that could have been the remnants of an ancient civilization. [Gallery: Mars Illusion Photos: The ‘Face on Mars’ and Other Martian Tricks]
In September 1969, conspiracy theorists claimed some Beatles records contained clues to Paul McCartney’s supposed death. Many heard the words “Paul is dead,” when the song “Strawberry Fields Forever” was played backwards, a process known as backmasking. This is a common urban legend often repeated to this day.
In 1977, the appearance of Jesus Christ on a flour tortilla set the international standard for miracle sightings. It happened in the small town of Lake Arthur, New Mexico, 40 minutes south of Roswell.
Diane Duyser of Miami sold a 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich, which she said bore the image of Jesus, for $28,000 on eBay in 2004.
In 2004, Steve Cragg, youth director at Memorial Drive United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, discovered a Cheeto that looked like Jesus.
Donna Lee of Toledo, Ohio, saw an image of Jesus on a pierogi she was preparing on Palm Sunday in 2005.
In 2007 in Singapore, a callus on a tree resembled a monkey, leading believers to pay homage to the “Monkey god.”
A cinnamon bun bearing a likeness of Mother Teresa was first discovered at the Bongo Java Café in Belmont, Tenn. It was on display for about 10 years, until it was stolen on Christmas day in 2007.
In 2012, many people made a pilgrimage to a tree at 60th Street and Bergenline Avenue in West New York, N.J., to see a scar on the tree that some believed looked like the image of the Our Lady of Guadalupe depiction of the Virgin Mary.
Why pareidolia happens
There are a number of theories as to the cause of this phenomenon. Experts say pareidolia provides a psychological determination for many delusions that involve the senses. They believe pareidolia could be behind numerous sightings of UFOs, Elvis and the Loch Ness Monster and the hearing of disturbing messages on records when they are played backwards.
Pareidolia often has religious overtones. A study in Finland found that people who are religious or believe strongly in the supernatural are more likely to see faces in lifeless objects and landscapes.
Carl Sagan, the American cosmologist and author, made the case that pareidolia was a survival tool. In his 1995 book, “The Demon-Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark,” he argued that this ability to recognize faces from a distance or in poor visibility was an important survival technique. While this instinct enables humans to instantly judge whether an oncoming person is a friend or foe, Sagan noted that it could result in some misinterpretation of random images or patterns of light and shade as being faces.
Leonardo da Vinci wrote about pareidolia as an artistic device.
MORE . . .
- What makes us see Jesus in a taco, or a human face on Mars? (io9.com)
- Apophenia, pareidolia and simulacra (brightonparanormal.org.uk)
- I Suffer from Pareidolia (chris.pirillo.com)
- Innoculated Against Illusion: Skeptics and Face-Pareidolia (randi.org)
- Why We See Jesus’ Face in Toast (livescience.com)