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A jinx in a box?

Maybe mischievous spirits do haunt this Jewish scroll cabinet, or maybe it's just another Web-spawned legend run wild.

July 25, 2004|Leslie Gornstein | Special to The Times

"When I got back to the shop, I went to investigate," Mannis says from his Oregon home. "I remember heading toward the back and walking into what I can only describe as a wall of scent. It smelled like jasmine flowers. You could take one more step and not smell a thing, and take a step backward and be surrounded by it again."

Later, he says, when he gave the box to his mother as a gift, she suffered a stroke that temporarily left her unable to speak. She penned the tersely scrawled admonishment "hate gift" and Mannis has not discussed the object with her since, he says. The FBI then raided Mannis' shop, he says, hauling out loads of electronic equipment. He got his stuff back but says he never got an explanation for the raid. Add to his list of woes that he lost his shop lease and was a victim of identity theft.

"All of this stuff has an explanation that doesn't necessarily point to this box," Mannis muses. "But when you take everything together, it becomes such a weird coincidence."

The 'curse' changes hands

BY June 2003, Mannis had had enough and posted the box on EBay. The high bidder was Nietzke, who, for $140, got the box, contents and -- presumably -- its ectoplasmic squatter. (Repeated attempts to reach Nietzke have been unsuccessful.)

Nietzke's alleged experiences, which are also posted on EBay -- included strange odors in his house, a bug infestation, malfunctioning electronic devices and "sort of like large, vertical, dark blurs in my peripheral vision."

Haxton, the college museum director who collects religious paraphernalia, says by phone that he first heard about the box last year through a student employee at his museum -- who is also Nietzke's roommate.

When Nietzke posted the box for sale, Haxton went for it. The day after it arrived in his office, Haxton says, "I woke up with my right eye looking like it had been poked." Other afflictions arrived, including fatigue, a metallic taste in his mouth and constant nasal congestion and a cough. Around the house, Haxton says he occasionally smells the signature odors of cat urine and flowers.

Haxton has been aided by Rebecca Edery, an Orthodox Jewish bookkeeper who lives in Brooklyn and whose father studied cabala. It was Edery who helped uncover the purpose of the box. "The two doors on the outside open up just like the Holy Closet," or Aron HaKodesh, a receptacle for Torah scrolls, Edery says. "And I saw round, metal hoops on the inside of the doors that would hold scrolls. This particular size is used when going to comfort the family of the deceased."

Edery says she is convinced the box was sacred and had been intentionally stuffed with some sort of spirit. "This was done deliberately, for a specific purpose." She believes that to put an end to the misfortunes, the box needs a formal Jewish burial involving a 10-man minyan, or prayer group.

For his part, Haxton says he wants to follow the box back to its origins. Then, he says, he might create a replica and bury the original. "To me this is a historical puzzle," he says. "It came from somewhere. It was made for a reason. What is it and why is it?"

Room for doubt on either side

Researchers and religious scholars say that, sure, the box contains items that could have served as fetishes or tokens to a family, Jewish or otherwise. Pennies and locks of hair fall under the common fetish territory, says Bill Ellis, a fetish researcher and American studies professor at Penn State University.

"It was not uncommon for people to hunt through their change and, when they found the birth date of a child, to put that aside as a life token of the child," Ellis says. "You also have two locks of hair. That is a very common tradition, especially for preserving a keepsake of a dead family member. These things would incorporate a memory or some part of a life spirit."

But the tale also contains a parade of red flags that point to a possible hoax.

For one thing, Schochet points out that most dybbuk tales have the ghost coming back to convey some sort of message, but "there is nothing to explain why this particular box is inhabited."

Elliott Oring, an anthropology professor and folklore specialist at Cal State L.A., also has his doubts. "Go through [the story and] you will see areas that seem to require suspending critical functions. There is too much piling on of incidents.... Why wasn't it simply disposed of?"

So if there's no proof a dybbuk exists, why is the box so fascinating?

"We embrace such stories because they tap into our own fears and prejudices," says Allan S. Mott, author of "Urban Legends: Strange Stories Behind Modern Myths."

"The dybbuk story taps into our belief that out in the world there is a supernatural evil that will attack anyone regardless of how good they are. They allow people to make some sense of a chaotic world."

The story also benefits from the credibility lent to it by a mainstream site such as EBay, says Jan Harold Brunvand, author of the coming "Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid: The Book of Scary Urban Legends."

But Brunvand sees a difference in the tale. "The length and detail of the story is unlike most urban legends," he says, "as is the supernatural angle and the first-person narrative. So I would not classify it as a 'normal' urban legend."

Perhaps that leaves open a small window of credibility. After all, who doesn't like a good ghost story?

"Of course, we realize we could most probably be dealing here with a very elaborate hoax," notes the Rev. Jim Willis, an Arizona minister and author of "The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints and Seers." "I have to say that because I do have my academic reputation to uphold." But, he adds, "if you leave it at that, it takes all the fun away."

As his words trail away, a huge picture in his office falls from the wall and crashes to the floor.

"This is weird," Willis says. "Have I just become a part of an urban legend?"

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