Spirit world

Finally, the truth behind the ‘haunted’ Dybbuk Box can be revealed

The ‘cursed’ cabinet inspired a Hollywood film and spooked Post Malone. Now the man who first sold it on eBay in 2003 is coming clean.

The Dybbuk Box on display at the Haunted Museum in Las Vegas
© Las Vegas Review-Journal, Inc. 2018, used with permission

Back in 2001, Kevin Mannis was out visiting yard sales, looking for supplies for his furniture-restoration business, a hole-in-the-wall shop located at the base of the Burnside Bridge in Portland, Oregon.

The story goes that he purchased an old wine cabinet from the granddaughter of a recently deceased Holocaust survivor named Havela, who escaped Nazi-occupied Poland. Havela’s parents, brothers, sister, husband, two sons, and daughter were all killed. She, with other survivors, fled to Spain and lived there until the end of the war. When Havela, who lived to 103, immigrated to the U.S., the wine cabinet was only one of three items she brought with her.

As Mannis paid for the cabinet, Havela’s granddaughter said, “I see you bought the Dybbuk Box.” Mannis wasn’t familiar with the term. The granddaughter told him her grandmother always kept it shut and out of reach because there was a dybbuk — in Jewish folklore, an evil, restless spirit that possesses the living — inside it. The seller purportedly told Mannis it was never to be opened, and if it was, bad things would happen. He did not heed her warning.

Mannis outside his Portland, Oregon, shop, June 2004Jason Haxton

Mannis, who was in his mid-thirties at the time, took the box back to his shop with plans to restore it and give it to his mother for her birthday. After opening the cabinet, he found a series of strange objects inside: two U.S. wheat pennies dating to 1925 and 1928, two locks of hair, a dried rosebud, a four-legged candlestick, a golden wine cup, and a granite sculpture inscribed with the Hebrew word shalom. The Shema, a prayer considered to be one of the most important in Judaism, was carved on the back of the cabinet.

Mannis gave the box to his mother, Ida, on Halloween. In a 2012 interview on the TV series Paranormal Witness, Ida describes feeling a cold breeze from the box as she opened its doors, then experiencing “pure evil” coming out. She says she immediately had a stroke.

Over the course of two years, a number of other mysterious events befell Mannis and those around him. His sister got creeped out by the cabinet because the doors kept opening on their own; his brother and his sister-in-law complained of odd smells coming from the box, like cat urine and jasmine. Mannis and his siblings suffered from the same recurring nightmares of an old woman with sunken eyes. And most disturbingly, he says, the brother of a store employee died by suicide shortly after visiting the shop and knocking the cabinet off the shelf. A couple years later, the worker himself also took his own life.

Mannis at one point tried to give the box to his then-girlfriend, but after keeping it for a time, she forced him to take it back. Then he began seeing what he later described as “shadow things” in his peripheral vision.

Listing it on eBay in 2003, Mannis — who has a background in writing, advertising, and entertainment — wrote a very long and detailed product description, in which he dubs the item a “dibbuk box.” Mannis’ eBay listing details how he got it, the strange things that happened to him and his family afterward, and why he wants to get rid of it. Toward the end of the description, he writes, “Help me.”

Since then, the Dybbuk Box has captured the popular imagination, becoming the stuff of internet legend — and commerce. You can buy dybbuk boxes of all shapes and sizes on Etsy, eBay, and a website specifically dedicated to them, The Dybbuk Box Store. You can even watch people open dybbuk boxes on YouTube.

In 2011, a subsequent owner of Mannis’ box, Jason Haxton, released a book about the box. The director of the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine in Kirksville, Missouri, Haxton has studied American antiques and ancient artifacts for decades and was fascinated by the mysterious wine cabinet. In his book, he details what befell him — everything from bleeding eyes to random choking attacks to, yes, recurring dreams of a creepy old woman — in the first few months after buying the box.

In 2012, the most prominent of three movies about the Dybbuk Box — The Possession, produced by filmmaker Sam Raimi — was released. Both Mannis and Haxton were production consultants on the film.

In an Entertainment Weekly article published around the time of the movie’s release, director Ole Bornedal claims that “really weird things” happened during production. He describes standing underneath an unlit neon light that randomly exploded and says that five days after shooting wrapped, all of the props from the film were destroyed in a mysterious fire.

Over the past five years, dybbuk fever has hit an all-time high thanks to one man: famed ghost hunter Zak Bagans, the host of the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures show and its slew of spin-offs. In 2016, Haxton sold the box to Bagans for a sum neither party is willing to reveal. That year, Bagans featured both Mannis and Haxton on an episode of Ghost Adventures: Deadly Possessions (also known as Ghost Adventures: Artifacts) in which he brings the box to his Haunted Museum in Las Vegas. Today it’s one of the museum’s highlights, touted as “The World’s Most Haunted Object.”

Last year, the now 44-year-old Bagans opened the box on an episode of Ghost Adventures: Quarantine. He supposedly heard it say “Kevin,” referencing Mannis, and “evil,” then heard a child’s voice. The show captured on camera what Bagans and his crew claimed was a figure that manifested inside the box. The highlight of the episode, however — at least from the media’s standpoint — was security camera footage of Bagans and his friend, the musician Post Malone, touching the closed Dybbuk Box prior to Bagans opening it.

Okay, so technically, Malone didn’t touch the box — Bagans had his hand on it while Malone was touching his shoulder. But the bad vibes supposedly transferred to the musician. In the ensuing months, his private plane was forced to make an emergency landing, his San Fernando Valley home was broken into, and he was involved in a car accident — incidents he would later talk about on Seth Meyers’ late night show.

Of course, over the years, there have been plenty of skeptics. Various reports — including this 2004 Los Angeles Times story and this 2012 Riverfront Times piece — have cast doubt on the legend of the Dybbuk Box. In a 2019 column, Skeptical Inquirer magazine writer Kenny Biddle dismisses the haunted wine cabinet as a hoax. As proof, Biddle posts a screenshot of a Facebook post from Mannis dated Oct. 24, 2015:

I am the original creator of the story of The Dibbuk Box which appeared as one of my Ebay posts back in 2003. The idea that dibbuk boxes have some kind of history prior to my story, and the idea that a dibbuk box could contain anything other than a dibbuk, along with any deviation to the type of contents I created to be found inside of a dibbuk box is laughable at best. How about this- if you or anyone else can find any reference to a Dibbut [sic] Box anywhere in history prior to my Ebay post, I’ll pay you $100,000.00 and tattoo your name on my forehead.

I’d personally never heard of the Dybbuk Box until February, when I interviewed a paranormal investigator for a podcast I’m creating. I was immediately obsessed. I poked around on social media and eventually went to the one place I figured I could get answers: Reddit. I asked users in various paranormal subreddits about it. Though I got a few responses, this reply from a user named Mannistar stood out:

There were only 10 authentic and original Dybbuk Boxes created ever. The term Dybbuk Box was never used [or] known prior to 2001. I was the original owner. You may contact me and ask any questions you might have. Answers about Dybbuk Boxes, my experience with them, or anything related from anyone else are probably a bunch of crap.

Was this Kevin Mannis himself? I quickly replied but didn’t hear back. So I found Mannis on Facebook and messaged him, asking him if he would be willing to speak with me. A few hours later, he agreed to a phone call.

Jewish mysticism

When I get Mannis on the line a few days later, he quickly tells me that there’s no such thing as a dybbuk box in Jewish folklore and explains to me the origin and meaning of the Hebrew word dybbuk, which essentially is a spirit that cleaves onto the soul of another living being. “It’s kind of an oxymoron,” he says, speaking from his current home in Paris, Tennessee. “Dybbuks don’t live in boxes. So a dybbuk box, by definition, doesn’t make any sense.”

This confuses me. Is there or isn’t there a Dybbuk Box? “So the whole thing was made up?” I ask. “The whole backstory of it coming from a Holocaust survivor?”

“No, no, I’m not saying that,” he replies. He explains the term Dybbuk Box came from the Holocaust survivor, who somehow imbued the wine cabinet with supernatural powers, and that her granddaughter used the term when he bought it from her in 2001. As he’s telling me this, he starts stumbling over his words and then quickly changes the subject.

Mannis in a still from a The Possession featuretteLionsgate Films UK

I ask Mannis, now 56, if he’s Jewish, to which he replies yes. I reveal to him that I’m Jewish as well. We talk about our shared Eastern European heritage, Kabbalah (an ancient form of Jewish mysticism), and Jewish folklore like the golem. We chat for about an hour and a half, all told.

I let Mannis go, and we agree to talk again. Just over an hour later he sends me a Facebook message telling me how great it was to talk to me and offers any assistance I need with the story. He encourages me to ask him difficult questions, to back him into a corner, and even tells me not to be afraid to call him on bullshit if I think there’s something he’s not telling me. It’s as if he’s prodding me to get the truth out of him.

The rivalry

Haxton, 63, was actually the second owner of the box after Mannis. Iosif Neitzke — often referred to as Joseph — bought it from Mannis on eBay for $140. Neitzke, a Missouri college student who was roommates with a coworker of Haxton’s, in February 2004 sold it to Haxton, again via eBay, for $280.

In Neitzke’s eBay post, he detailed strange things that happened to him while in possession of the box: everything from car troubles to strange smells to hair loss. Neitzke kept an online blog detailing some of these events, but that’s since been deleted, and he’s now practically a ghost online. I found an email address for him, but my message bounced back.

Though both Mannis and Haxton received money from their work on The Possession, Haxton seems to have benefitted the most from the Dybbuk Box, financially and publicity-wise. He’s considered the expert on the subject, partly because he had it the longest out of all its owners, partly because he wrote the book, and partly because he’s made himself so available for media appearances. “Jason was very Johnny-on-the-spot to make money off of it,” Mannis says.

Haxton, whom I’ve spoken to on the phone and emailed with quite a bit, has some criticism of his own for Mannis. “I think Kevin was shocked because though he might’ve come up with the idea and the concept, he would have never gotten the book written,” Haxton says. “He never finishes anything. He would have never gotten the movie done. I got red carpet treatment and everything. I was with the stars, and he was the background noise. And it probably pissed him off. But that’s the way it is.” Mannis, for his part, denies that the fame surrounding Haxton’s book and public appearances ever bothered him.

The Possession producer Sam Raimi greets Haxton at the film’s Hollywood premiere, Aug. 30, 2012.Jason Haxton

Some of the rivalry between the men can be explained by the end of Haxton’s book, in which he calls Mannis out, accusing him of making the whole thing up. Despite this assertion, Haxton believes the Dybbuk Box’s powers are real. His theory? Mannis himself cursed it using Kabbalah.

“Did the con man get conned by God?” Haxton says. “That’s seriously my take on it: Someone screwed around thinking it was funny and that they were in control. It’s like playing with fire. It was funny until it wasn’t.

“Regardless of whether he made it or not, it really doesn’t even matter,” he continues. “It had to start somewhere. But something is there, and it’s bigger than Kevin.”

Horror story

The next time I talk to Mannis, I take him up on his advice: I call him on his bullshit.

And that’s when he tells me everything he wrote in his 2003 eBay listing is a work of fiction.

“I am a creative writer,” he says. “The Dybbuk Box is a story that I created. And the Dybbuk Box story has done exactly what I intended it to do when I posted it 20 years ago.”

“Which is what?” I ask him.

“Which is to become an interactive horror story in real-time,” he says.

Though Mannis did buy the wine cabinet at a yard sale, it was from an attorney, not the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor. “The carving in the back of it is my carving,” he says. “The stone that was in the box is something that is a signature creation of mine also. Make no mistake, I conceived of the Dybbuk Box — the name, the term, the idea — and wrote this creative story around it to post on eBay.”

The opened Dybbuk Box. It’s housed in an acacia-wood ark lined with gold leaf, which Haxton built.Jason Haxton

I verified this with two of his friends, Curt Morris and Matthew “Shaggy” Christensen, who worked with Mannis at a bar called Club Underground in Beaverton, Oregon, at the time he was concocting his story. The hair in the Dybbuk Box? “That’s my hair, yeah,” Christensen confesses.

“Kevin is one of the most brilliant people that I’ve ever met,” Morris tells me over the phone. “The specific box was Kevin at a low point needing some money. And in his brilliant mind came up with an incredible story that he knew would sell. And it became the phenomenon that it is now.”

Mannis says it wasn’t money issues that motivated him, but relationship problems with his girlfriend and a host of other bad-luck events. He says he channeled all of that negative energy into his tall tale. “At the time I created the Dybbuk Box, it was during Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement,” he writes in a Facebook message to me. “I created the box whilst praying and asking for forgiveness for all of the sins that I had committed that I knew about, and, perhaps even more important, the sins I had committed that I didn’t know about.”

Not everything about Mannis’ story was fake, however. “I did give her the box on Halloween,” he tells me, referring to his mother, who has since passed. “She did have that stroke.”

“But what about that interview she did on Paranormal Witness?” I ask him.

“It was an outstanding bit of motherly support and an Oscar-winning performance,” Mannis replies. He tells me that while she was doing that interview, she was still recovering from her stroke, and if you listen closely, you can hear it in her speech. “I didn’t talk to her or coach her or commiserate with her before she did her interview.” (He later tells me that the suicides of the shop worker and his brother were real, although I have not been able to independently verify those events.)

“The only way to regain control and to have viable assets was to keep writing the story.”

And the possibility of Haxton and Mannis being in on the hoax together?

“I don’t know Jason, except through the sale and the research and everything that has to do with the box after I sold it,” Mannis tells me. “There was certainly no collusion at any time between him and I.”

Mannis admits he added new elements to the Dybbuk Box story over the years to help evolve it, keep it relevant and interesting. As Haxton did more press and the popularity of the story grew, Mannis says, “The only way to regain control and to have viable assets was to keep writing the story.”

On Ghost Adventures: Quarantine, Mannis told another part of his ongoing ghost story. He had given Bagans a second, smaller dybbuk box, and on the show, said there were a total of 10 boxes that were hidden around the globe. Mannis explained that Havela, along with a few other Jewish women, including someone named Sophie, summoned an evil spirit to help the Jews fight against the Nazis during the Holocaust. But they couldn’t control it.

That same spirit, Havela believed, caused some of the 20th century’s greatest disasters, including the Korean War. Knowing what they had done was wrong, Havela eventually captured the dybbuk and separated it into 10 dybbuk boxes. If those boxes are ever brought together, evil will be unleashed the likes of which the world has never seen. Bagans now had two of them, while Mannis had six. The last two, Mannis claimed, were yet to be found.

Bagans has been accused in the past of dramatizing, even fabricating, paranormal events on his shows. Mannis says that while shooting Ghost Adventures: Deadly Possessions, he wasn’t given clear instructions as to what to expect. After getting mic’d up, Mannis says, he was told to go take a look at the Dybbuk Box. “I’m waiting, and I’m waiting,” he recalls. “And frankly, I thought maybe they’ve got some kind of a technical issue. It’d probably been 20 to 25 minutes, and I’m saying, ‘Hey guys, what are we doing? Are we shooting or what?’”

Mannis had to be back in Portland in a couple of days to do a spoken-word performance featuring some children’s poems he wrote. One of those poems is called “The Shadow Man.”

He decided to run his lines in a British accent, he says. “I forgot that I was wired for sound.” It was, of course, included in the episode. After it aired, Mannis says, he received emails from people telling him about their own “shadow man” experiences. “The shadow man has taken on its own life,” he says, “kind of like the Dybbuk Box.”

Ripple effect

Though Mannis claims to be an avid student of Kabbalah and Judaism in general, he denies Haxton’s allegation that he put any kind of curse or spell on the wine cabinet before selling it.

In fact, Mannis recalls talking to Haxton over the phone and telling him the box was fake. “I said, ‘Listen, man, this is a ghost story, okay?’ I told Joseph” — the initial eBay buyer — “that. I’m sorry if he didn’t tell you.’ His response to me was, ‘Kevin, you don’t have to pretend with us.’”

This isn’t to say Mannis doesn’t believe some of the strange things that have happened to him and other people who’ve come into contact with his Dybbuk Box. He says that though he doesn’t necessarily link it to the box, Haxton, Bagans, and he have all had sewer-related problems while in possession of the wine cabinet. Mannis claims that while doing radio interviews with Haxton over the years, the stations experienced technical difficulties. And mishaps have also befallen listeners.

“When we’ve done radio interviews, people would call up and say, ‘Hey, my computer just burst into flames when I brought a picture of the box up,” he says. “A woman called up during a show one time saying that her truck had caught on fire when she brought an image up.”

People don’t hold back when they’re online. They say very nasty things.”

On the other hand, Mannis says he’s had people accuse him of being a grifter and a scammer. “People don’t hold back when they’re online,” he says. “They say very nasty things.”

Even when I reveal to Haxton that Mannis has confessed to making the whole thing up, Haxton maintains that everything that’s happened to him because of the box is true. And ultimately, he says, it’s been more of a blessing than a curse. “I always call it a wish box,” says Haxton. “Whoever created the Dybbuk Box gave it a power to do something. The creation of the Dybbuk Box and its story created a ripple effect in people’s lives.” Referring to Mannis, he adds, “The sum of the Dybbuk Box is greater than he ever imagined.”

And what, I wanted to know, would the current owner of the box make of Mannis’ admission? On Tuesday, I emailed Bagans — who initially declined to be interviewed for this piece via a Haunted Museum representative — to inform him of Mannis’ confession. This set off a flurry of communication between the two men that I later became privy to.

Mannis messages me via Facebook to say he’d just gotten a call from Bagans. “Not good,” he writes. “Not happy. And you won’t believe the shit happening now around me. Seriously, like I’m getting bombarded with the curse.” Then he lists the events that have happened to him in the last week, including his car breaking down, his girlfriend leaving him, her mother dying, and two of his friends passing away.

“I’m not going to go into the rest of the stuff that has occurred over the last 7 days,” he adds, “but it is striking, to say the least, and it keeps on coming.” Despite all this, in a subsequent message he still refers to the original Dybbuk Box story he wrote as “fictional.”

Zak Bagans (left middle) and his Ghost Adventures costars, 2010Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Later, I hear from Bagans via email. “Since owning the Dybbuk Box, there have been countless documented experiences people have had with it,” Bagans writes. “Not just from myself, but my museum staff, my fellow crew members, visitors, and most notably, Post Malone.” He also claims that multiple guests have been severely affected in the Dybbuk Box room in his museum, some of them escorted out on a stretcher by EMT personnel.

“I don’t believe this to be the full truth,” he writes in response to what Mannis told me about making the story up. He cites some of the things that have befallen Mannis in the past week, which Mannis has also shared with him.

“I think there is so much more to the Dybbuk Box and, regardless of its origins, it is very much cursed and evil,” Bagans continues. “I’m not surprised that more controversy and conflict keep arising from it. The Dybbuk Box has always raised questions and intrigue. And this adds to its narrative.”

For those who always doubted Mannis’ story, this article is their confirmation. For those who believe in the Dybbuk Box, Mannis’ admission won’t have much effect on them at all. “The Dybbuk Box has been the focus of books, a major motion picture, and TV shows,” Bagans writes in the conclusion of his email. “There is more to this powerful, cursed item. Its story is still being told.”

And with that, Mannis’ interactive horror story begins a new chapter.