Disenchantment and Re-enchantment on eBay

By Joseph P. Laycock

ebay-logo-USE1On August 30, eBay officially discontinued the sale of “metaphysical” goods and services on its online market.  Spells and divination services have been available on eBay since the site’s inception in 1995.  Before Thursday, eBay shoppers could select from more than 40,000 spell listings and 15,000 offers of tarot card readings.  The new policy has put an entire class of online magicians, fortune-tellers and potion-brewers out of business.  Some claim to be sincere practitioners while others have admitted to being frauds.  Many have sought to relocate their shop to Craigslist and other parts of the online marketplace.

The sale of spells has been discontinued on eBay but it is still possible to see auctions for spells that have not yet expired.  Most of the services offered by magicians are disappointingly banal.  Almost all are variations on four goals: acquiring lovers, revenge against enemies, and material prosperity, and weight loss.  A few still raised eyebrows.  For only $5.99 a witch will change the color of your eyes.  A spell to be transformed into a vampire or werewolf is only $15.87.  An alleged Voodoo houngan will perform a “Haitian Voodoo Penis Enlargement Spell” for $9.87.

The reason for the ban had nothing to do with promoting reason or religious objections to fortune telling and sorcery.  It was simply that selling magic produced too many complaints for customer service when spells did not perform as promised.  Such problems are a natural consequence of combining the magical and the miraculous with the banalities of the free market.  Perhaps magic was never meant to be readily available online.  Whatever satisfaction is gained by paying for a spell would no doubt be enhanced if one had to do some searching.  Traditionally, magicians and cunning folk were hard to find.  Clients might have to travel to crossroads or other dubious locations to meet with them.  Their charisma was due, in part, to the fact that no else had their abilities.  The creation of a market where consumers choose from thousands of magicians destroys that charisma.  It is little wonder consumers want their money back.  To hawk magic online is to kill it.

Or perhaps not.  By a strange coincidence, the day after eBay enacted their ban on metaphysical goods, Sam Raimi’s The Possession was released in theaters raking in $17.7 million dollars.  The film is based on an urban legend that arose from an eBay transaction conducted in 2001.  That year, an antique dealer from Portland, Oregon, named Kevin Mannis posted an auction for an unusual wine cabinet he had bought at an estate sale.  The original auction came with a lengthy back story that is either a well-researched hoax or one of the strangest stories ever told. Mannis was selling the box cheaply because it was cursed.

According to Mannis, the box had previously belonged to a Polish Jew who was the only member of her family to escape the concentration camps.  The box was never opened and her children were told that it contained “a dybbuk.”  She asked to be buried with it but this went against Orthodox funeral rites.  And so after her death the box was sold.  Mannis, as well as the box’s subsequent owners, discovered that a dybbuk is an entity from Yiddish folklore.  The dybbuk or “cleaving spirit” is a restless soul of the dead that either possesses or becomes attached to the living, altering their personality.

Inside the box, Mannis found a collection of ritual paraphernalia including two locks of hair.  The family did not want any of the box’s contents returned.  Mannis gave the box to his mother who soon suffered a stroke.  He also experienced poltergeist activities, demonic odors, menacing apparitions, and recurring nightmares.

The box found its way to a student in Missouri who also experienced misfortune and unsettling coincidences.  He too sold it on eBay where it fetched $280.  The current owner is Jason Haxton, a museum curator.  Haxton created a book and a website on the dybbuk box.  After consulting with rabbis, an ark was constructed out of acacia wood and plated with gold in order to seal the box’s supernatural abilities.  It is rumored that Raimi did not want the original dybbuk box on his set and that an exact replica was constructed.  Amish craftsmen were recruited and, upon creating the replica, explained that they never wanted to be in the presence of the box again.  Mannis’ old wine cabinet is now permanent feature of America’s supernatural landscape.

Ebay is a curious case study in the processes of disenchantment and re-enchantment.  It seems that just as one source of wonder becomes cheapened and dull, a new one arises from an unexpected quarter.  Although it is possible to assemble a marketplace of magicians, each competing to give us the lowest price on fortune, love, and revenge, consumers remain unsatisfied.  The invisible hand of the online market is still not the magical genie we had hoped for.  And yet out of this marketplace comes something like the dybbuk box, instilling Americans with sentiments that Rudolf Otto might describe as fear and awe.  Haxton describes feeling more spiritual since becoming the box’s guardian.  Perhaps such feelings are the only service that the supernatural can reliably provide.  If so, those seeking miracles online should be careful what they wish for.

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Filed Under: American ReligionCulture & ArtFeaturedJoe LaycockMarket PlacePop Culture

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