Demons, Dybbuks, and Other Psychic Maladies

February 22, 2021
Sharon Packer, MD

High (and low) points in the history of mind sciences can be explored through folklore.

There is always something to celebrate, even in the worst of times. In December 2020, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first staged production of S. Ansky’s play, “The Dybbuk.” Originally written around 1914, and adapted from Eastern-European Jewish folklore, “The Dybbuk” made history in Yiddish theater. The story sheds light on the histories of the mind sciences and neurosciences, which were on fast-forward in the early decades of the 20th century, as Ansky was perfecting his play.

“The Dybbuk” has lived on in many other incarnations since its stage premiere, appearing in film, opera, ballet, and even puppetry.1 In the United States, George Gershwin was commissioned to adapt “The Dybbuk” for the Metropolitan Opera, but could not secure rights, (so he created his equally immortal “Porgy & Bess” instead).2 Ansky based his play on folktales about miracle-working rebbes. Apart from its entertainment value, it highlights the vast differences between folkloric versus scientific (or pseudo-scientific) explanations for behavior changes and it can aid our understanding of non-science-based attitudes toward neuropsychiatry to this day.

A Clinging Spirit

Let me explain the story behind “The Dybbuk,” which was originally entitled “Between Two Worlds.” The play was created by a man who himself lived between 2 worlds, if not more. Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport, better known by his pen name S. Ansky, was born into a pious but impoverished Jewish family in Russia’s Pale of Settlement, but he was born with a wandering soul that sent him in search of worldly experiences. He left his insular home in the shtetl after receiving a limited religious education, but he became self-taught enough to work as a tutor. At one point, he became infatuated with the socialist movements that were sweeping Russia, and he went to work among coal and salt miners, who epitomized his downtrodden Russian compatriots. He shared his revolutionary writings with his co-workers and published extensively—but did not live to see the 1920 staging of his immortal play.

Before his death in 1920, Ansky lived even more lives. He was expelled from Russia for his revolutionary activities and moved to Paris, where he attended literary salons that were far afield from his insular upbringing. Although he had previously published political polemics and revolutionary poems, the fiction for which he is most remembered took off in earnest after a philanthropist subsidized an ethnographic expedition. Ansky collected folktales, songs, and artifacts from simple and often superstitious small-town shtetl Jews, whose way of life was in danger of extinction as modernity crept into Russia. While traveling about the poverty-ridden Pale, where Jews were confined, he came upon the story of the Dybbuk.

The story begins when 2 shtetl-dwelling friends meet as their wives are awaiting childbirth. The men vow that their unborn son and daughter will marry one another someday. They disregard a mysterious stranger’s ominous—yet eerily accurate—warnings against vows made for the unborn. Indeed, the wife of the first man dies while giving birth to a daughter, Leah, while the other man drowns in a storm just as his wife gives birth to a son, Chanon. The children grow up, neither knowing of their fathers’ promises and neither knowing of the other. In the interim, the surviving father grows wealthy, and seeks a more prosperous husband for his daughter, in spite of his long-forgotten vow. The surviving son of the deceased man returns to town as a penniless yeshiva scholar. His religious and scholarly pursuits are respectable enough to earn him an invitation to the wealthy man’s table, yet his financial limitations cannot satisfy the young woman’s father. 

As fate would have it, young Leah and the destitute yeshiva scholar Chanon meet, and they feel an instantaneous attraction for one another, as if their shared destiny had been decreed by an unshakable unearthly force. Despite Leah’s father’s objections, Chanon still hopes to marry Leah, even though Leah’s father already announced her betrothal to a more prosperous potential mate.

Hoping to offset these nuptial plans, the crushed Chanon immerses himself in the study of forbidden mystical Kabbalistic texts, which are off-limits to unmarried men under 40, lest they suffer psychosis, or even suicide, as happened to unprepared Kaballah students many centuries earlier. The sages’ warnings about the risk of Kaballah study prove true, and Chanon dies (possibly by suicide) after his Kabbalistic rites fail to thwart Leah’s prearranged marriage.

The wedding between Leah and the rich man’s son almost proceeds as planned—until Leah is inhabited by a disembodied dybbuk, or the clinging spirit, of her deceased lover Chanon. Possessed by Chanon’s wandering soul, which cannot enter paradise, Leah suddenly speaks in a deep, gruff voice as she stands at the chuppah, or marriage canopy.

Her behavior is outlandish and inexplicable—until a specially qualified rabbi is called in to consult. After explaining the circumstances, the rabbi exorcises the dybbuk, from the young woman’s body. Even though the rabbi successfully extracts Chanon’s dybbuk, Leah is so enervated by the ordeal that she faints and falls dead. Upon her death, Chanon’s spirit reunites with Leah’s, and the lovers are together in the hereafter, in true Russian Romantic era style. Leah’s father, who failed to honor his vow to his friend, is now bereft of his daughter. Inconsolable, he agrees to the penance prescribed by the rabbi-exorcist and shares half his wealth with less fortunate individuals. 

This play premiered in 1920, when important developments in psychiatry, psychoanalysis, experimental psychology, and neuropsychiatry were percolating. At the turn of the century, Sigmund Freud, MD, had promised to override superstition, and to supplant popular supernatural theories with his scientific study of dreams, and much more.3 Psychodynamic explanations for Leah’s bizarre behavior seemed world’s away from the occultist exegesis of “The Dybbuk.

Scary Science

In fact, there are real parallels between Freud and the play, especially when one compares Freud’s theories to other psychological theories of the day. Freud’s star was rising as Ansky was perfecting his story, even if his star does not shine so brightly today. In 1918, Freud participated in a different kind of drama: he testified at the trial of Julius Wagner-Jauregg, MD, held after the Great War. Freud’s testimony impressed the audience because he acknowledged the suffering of shell-shocked soldiers and did not dismiss their physical or psychological disabilities, even if a demonstrable medical cause could not be found for their deafness, paralysis, or muteness.

Freud was calling the Kaufmannization techniques employed by the illustrious psychiatrist Wagner-Jauregg and several other military psychiatrists into question. The Austrian doctors stood accused of torturing suffering soldiers by subjecting them to painful electric shocks (not electroconvulsive therapy), to goad them into foregoing their allegedly “feigned” symptoms and returning to the front.

Although Wagner-Jauregg was not the only psychiatrist who stood trial, his name was attached to the highly publicized trial because of his renown (he went on to win a Nobel Prize in 1927). Inviting Freud to function as an expert witness, in turn, allowed the one-time neurologist turned psychoanalyst to showcase his new talking cure and the abreaction that occurred when distressed patients verbalized their conflicts and apparently purged the psychological equivalent of clinging spirits that were responsible for hysterical symptoms that had no demonstrable biological basis.

There are clear-cut parallels between Freud’s newfound talking cure and the expulsion of the dybbuk (or demons, as the case may be), and the disinhibited vocalizations made by the dybbuk, even though the supernatural explanations of thefolk healer were worlds away from Freud’s psychological explanations. Although the credibility of many Freudian case reports has been challenged, as have his claims of cures, Freud alleged that he could relieve (mostly female) patients of their hysterical symptoms through free associations. Curiously, like Freud’s hysterical patients, dybbuk possession most commonly afflicted women, who did not have a legitimate “voice” to express themselves during daily life.4 

Yet even those “innovative” ideas were not so novel. A millennium before Freud formulated his theories, tales of demons and dybbuk-like creatures abounded, both in Jewish lore and in the Gospel stories, which were composed in the first century CE, when the Second Temple still stood in Jerusalem. The dramatic New Testament story of the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac, also known as Legion, inspired many artistic depictions over the centuries, including an iconic scene in The Exorcist where the demon is expelled from Linda Blair’s mouth.

Another influential mind science researcher of the same era—the behaviorist John B Watson, PhD—also lost stature over the decades, perhaps even more than Freud, albeit for different reasons. Watson’s conclusions about behavioral conditioning have not been disproven and were published in book form in 1920, in the same year as the premier of “The Dybbuk.” Yet the methodology that Watson used to test his theories is totally unacceptable, if not downright horrifying, today.

To demonstrate the far-reaching effects of behavioral conditioning, Watson used a human child subject, “Little Albert.” Besides the fact that the toddler could not provide informed consent as we know it today, the boy suffered permanent psychological damage (and by some reports, was already neurologically compromised). His fear response, which was originally conditioned to a white mouse, generalized to other white furry objects, including Santa Claus’ beard. Albert reportedly remained a fearful child in the aftermath of superficially successful psychological experiments, even though he had no conscious awareness of the source of his distress because behavioral conditioning bypasses higher cognitive processes and produces reflexive reactions.

In both Watson’s experiments, and in Ansky’s story, innocent children suffer for the sins of their fathers—or their father figures, as in Watson’s case, in true Old Testament fashion. Yet the past experiences that haunt Leah and Chanon are unrelated to their own memories and are solely the result of their fathers' forsaken vows, which existed, at best, as buried memories from the distant past. Perhaps a die-hard Jungian could claim that Jung’s hypothetical inheritable “racial unconscious” transmitted the father’s repressed memories to his ill-fated progeny. However, that highly contested Jungian concept is one of the many reasons why Jungian ideas carry more cache among occultists and folklorists than among neuroscientists and most contemporary psychiatrists. Still, it is curious that Ansky wrote “The Dybbuk” soon after Jung published his controversial theories of the unconscious. While we have no reason to believe that Ansky was directly influenced by Jungian ideas—and we have every reason to believe that Ansky based his ideas about “The Dybbuk” on Eastern European Jewish folklore encountered during his ethnographic expedition—we can see how these recurring mythological motifs given credibility to concepts expressed in the 1909 writings of psychoanalyst Otto Rank5 and, later, in Jung’s Man and his Symbols.6

Science and Superstition Today

So, what is left? So much of yesterday’s science becomes tomorrow’s superstition, and the scientific scruples of one generation may be repugnant to later generations, as seen in the Wagner-Jauregg trials and in Watson’s Little Albert experiments. Yet “The Dybbuk” story endures and provides testimony to the natural inclinations of the human imagination, unbridled by science or psychology. And, as atavistic as the play’s premise sounds to psychiatrists, we cannot forget that 42% of Americans believe that “people on this earth are sometimes possessed by the Devil,” as per a 2005 Gallop poll quoted in a 2014 JAMA article about exorcism.7 Apparently, it is not accidental that dybbuk-like tales resurface for new generations.

Take “The Exorcist,” for example. “The Dybbuk” does not enjoy the name recognition of “The Exorcist” although the play and movie share superficial similarities. Both invoke the paranormal and play upon psychiatric themes. “The Exorcist,” William Friedkin’s 1973 film, based on William Peter Blatty’s best-selling 1971 novel by the same name, is among the most recognized films of all time. “The Dybbuk,” on the other hand, is among the most recognized Yiddish stage productions of all time, which attracted much smaller audiences than American movies. 

In “The Dybbuk” the rabbi functions as an exorcist of sorts and was modeled after a real life rebbe who was reputed to possess such powers. He successfully expels occupying spirits that induce behavior changes in living individuals. He is a folk healer, and could conceivably be called a “baal shem,” but neither he nor his followers compare the rabbi-exorcist to a medical doctor, much less to a psychiatrist. Medical anthropologists rightfully draw parallels between shamans and Jewish “baali shem” (plural of baal shem), who employed prayers, invocations, magic words, amulets, and unidentified herbals native to the area. (The famed Baal Shem Tov who started the Chasidism movement within Judaism was just 1 of many such baali shem who worked as herbal and spiritual healers.)

There are significant points of departure between “The Exorcist” and “The Dybbuk.” Most obviously, “The Exorcist”revolves around Roman Catholic rites, whereas “The Dybbuk” is undeniably Jewish, even though its author originally wrote his story in Russian before translating it into Yiddish. Equally importantly, the priest-psychiatrist in “The Exorcist”is pivotal to the plot. “The Exorcist” includes a comprehensive and impressively accurate neuropsychiatric work-up for the troubled Regan, who was suspected of having a seizure disorder or even attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (which was then called minimal brain dysfunction). “The Dybbuk” does not feature any psychiatrist at all and does not attempt a psychiatric (much less a neurological) differential diagnosis. It does not even hint at the existence of psychiatrists, even though psychiatry was gaining greater recognition (and notoriety) in Central Europe when Ansky’s play premiered and even though the 1920 release of the enduring German Expressionist masterpiece about a charlatan psychiatrist, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, testifies to the growing significance of psychiatry in the West.8

The story of “The Dybbuk” and the purging of clinging spirits will undoubtedly remain a tale, told in some form or another, that lives on both in fiction and science. 

Dr Packer is assistant clinical professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Icahn School of Medicine at Mt Sinai, New York, NY.

References

1. Ansky S. Roskies DG, ed. The Dybbuk and Other Writings. Yale University Press; 2002.

2. Pollack H. George Gershwin: His Life and Work. University of California Press; 2007.

3. Packer S. Dreams in Myth, Medicine & Movies. Greenwood-Praeger; 2002.

4. Elior R. Dybbuks and Jewish Women in Social History, Mysticism and Folklore. Urim Publications; 2014.

5. Rank O. The Myth of the Birth of the Hero: A Psychological Exploration of Myth. 1909.

6. Jung CG. Man and his Symbols. Random House; 1964.

7. Harris J. Exorcism: the miracles of St. Ignatius of Loyola: Peter Paul Rubens. JAMA Psychiatry. 2014;71(8):866-867.

8. Packer S. Cinema's Sinister Psychiatrists: From Caligari to Hannibal. McFarland; 2012.