Fascinating: last week, right on the heels of Harold Ramis’s death, Esquire published “An Oral History of Ghostbusters” (originally published in Premiere Magazine), in which various cast and crew members recount the making, reception, and enduring cultural impact of everybody’s favorite ghost-chasing movie. And it leads with a statement from Dan Aykroyd about the way the film arose out of his serious reading, and also his personal and familial history, in the field of real paranormal and psychical research:
In about 1981, I read an article on quantum physics and parapsychology in The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research. And it was like, bang — that’s it. It was also a combination of my family’s history — my great-grandfather was an Edwardian spiritualist, and my mother claims she saw an apparition of my great-great-grandparents while nursing me and watching films like the Bowery Boys’ Ghost Chasers and Bob Hope’s The Ghost Breakers. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to update the ghost movies from the ’40s?”
FULL STORY: “An Oral History of Ghostbusters“
The fact that Aykroyd is personally interested in such matters is not, of course, news. In addition to having prominently associated himself with UFO research, he openly self-identifies as a Spiritualist. And as it turns out, all the way back in 2003 he told Private Clubs magazine about the inspiring influence of these things on Ghostbusters:
PRIVATE CLUBS: Was your enthusiasm for the paranormal the spark for Ghostbusters or did Ghostbusters spark your enthusiasm?
DAN AYKROYD: My great-grandfather was an Edwardian spiritualist who belonged to the British Society for Psychical Research, and he got the entire family thinking along these lines back three generations ago. My grandfather had séances in the farmhouse. My father read everything he could on trance mediumship, where the medium will go into a trance and become another person, speak in another voice. They did a lot of that. So this stuff was lying around the house, and it was natural for me to have an interest in it.
In light of all this, I can’t help but wonder about the possibility that, if the paranormal really is America’s new religion, then the epic impact of Ghostbusters, which landed like a mile-wide asteroid in the middle of popular culture in 1984, may be implicated in such a development, given the movie’s creative and philosophical grounding in serious “real-world” issues of this sort. Maybe I, along with everybody else in America, was unwittingly imbibing a huge dose of authentic paranormal/supernatural and daemonic/shamanic psychic energy as we sat laughing our lungs out in darkened movie theaters 30 years ago while four wise-ass bozos paraded across the screen battling an invading horde of other-dimensional ghosts and demons.
Image via Wikipedia, Fair Use
Stefany Anna Goldberg recently offered some interesting reflections on the reality and nature of America’s enduring obsession with the idea and sense of an impending apocalypse. She rightly points out that, culturally speaking, the roots of this tendency extend all the way down to a positively genetic level:
America is a nation rooted in Apocalypse. The very foundation of the nation is tied to the End Times. Apocalypse is in America’s DNA. When the Puritans stepped out into the bitter wilds of New England they brought with them the forecast of annihilation. These exiles came to America not to delight in religious freedom but to ring in the last of days.
. . . In the mid-19th century, William Miller’s obscure Millennialist movement became a national campaign. His prophecy that Christ would return to Earth around 1843 or 1844 came to be known as the Great Disappointment. Some of Miller’s followers went to live with the Shakers (who didn’t need to wait for the new Millennium as they believed it had already come) and the rest formed an entirely new religion and called themselves Adventists. David Berg told us the End would come in 1973 and Pat Robertson guaranteed that 1982 would bring “a judgment on the world”. Reverend Bill Maupin from Tuscon, Arizona preached of a rapture that would happen on June 28, 1981. 50 Arizonians gathered at Maupin’s house to be “spirited aloft like helium balloons.”
There is one thing that unites all of these Apocalyptic Americans. They do not see America as a place to create a new civilization. They see America as a place to settle into a wilderness of the soul.
FULL STORY: “Apocalypse Now“
In another recent reflection on the same subject, religion scholar Ira Chernus describes the psychic toll this apocalyptic obsession may be taking on us, especially in its brand new historical-cultural guise, which, hailing from the dawn of the nuclear age in the mid-twentieth century, looks not to an impending clearing away of corruption that will be followed by a new and purified way of life (as in the traditional mythic/religious view) but to the end of all possible futures via the total extinction of life on earth:
Wherever we Americans look, the threat of apocalypse stares back at us. Two clouds of genuine doom still darken our world: nuclear extermination and environmental extinction. If they got the urgent action they deserve, they would be at the top of our political priority list.
But they have a hard time holding our attention, crowded out as they are by a host of new perils also labeled “apocalyptic”: mounting federal debt, the government’s plan to take away our guns, corporate control of the Internet, the Comcast-Time Warner mergerocalypse, Beijing’s pollution airpocalypse, the American snowpocalypse, not to speak of earthquakes and plagues. The list of topics, thrown at us with abandon from the political right, left, and center, just keeps growing.
Then there’s the world of arts and entertainment where selling the apocalypse turns out to be a rewarding enterprise.
. . . Why does American culture use the A-word so promiscuously? Perhaps we’ve been living so long under a cloud of doom that every danger now readily takes on the same lethal hue.
Psychiatrist Robert Lifton predicted such a state years ago when he suggested that the nuclear age had put us all in the grips of what he called “psychic numbing” or “death in life” . . . . Lifton’s research showed that the link between death and life had become, as he put it, a “broken connection.”
As a result, he speculated, our minds stop trying to find the vitalizing images necessary for any healthy life. Every effort to form new mental images only conjures up more fear that the chain of life itself is coming to a dead end. Ultimately, we are left with nothing but “apathy, withdrawal, depression, despair.”
If that’s the deepest psychic lens through which we see the world, however unconsciously, it’s easy to understand why anything and everything can look like more evidence that The End is at hand. No wonder we have a generation of American youth and young adults who take a world filled with apocalyptic images for granted.
. . . [S]uch a single-minded focus on danger and doom subtly reinforces the message of our era of apocalypses everywhere: abandon all hope, ye who live here and now.
FULL STORY: “Apocalypses Everywhere“
For those of you who, like me, live right in the midst of this circumstance both psychologically and geographically, I suggest bearing the above observations in mind as you surf the waves of apocalyptic sentiment that continue to cascade across America — including the ones here at this blog.
Image courtesy of manostphoto / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
This absorbing video condenses the message presented by philosopher Alain de Botton in his new book The News: A User’s Manual, whose basic thesis and purpose is described by the publisher as follows:
We are never really taught how to make sense of the torrent of news we face every day . . . but this has a huge impact on our sense of what matters and of how we should lead our lives. In his dazzling new book, de Botton takes twenty-five archetypal news stories — including an airplane crash, a murder, a celebrity interview and a political scandal — and submits them to unusually intense analysis with a view to helping us navigate our news-soaked age.
Here are the points made in the above video (and thus in de Botton’s bok), as distilled by me: Read the rest of this entry
During my undergraduate days, I learned from one of my communication professors that the Coca-Cola company ran into an unexpected complication during their initial incursions into Chinese markets when the very name of the product caused mass confusion. Apparently, the syllables “ko-ka-ko-la” are nonsensical in Mandarin, where they can be taken to mean, roughly, “bite the wax tadpole.” (It was just a few years P.I. — Pre-Internet — when I first learned this factoid. Today, there’s a well-sourced Snopes article about it.) In the same vein, this professor passed along the info, which I’ve since seen verified elsewhere, that the Jolly Green Giant brand had trouble in Saudi Arabia because its name lost all of that endearing jolliness when translated into Arabic, and came out meaning something closer to “Intimidating Green Ogre.”
This was all brought to mind yesterday by a passage in an article at Pacific Standard that had me literally laughing out loud even as it I was relishing the delicious irony that’s evident in the fact that the world of corporate marketing and advertising, which long ago sold its soul to the demons of emotional propaganda, has found itself repeatedly stymied by the inherently idiomatic and connotative nature of the very language it seeks to exploit and manipulate for emotional-economic ends.
There’s also something intrinsically diverting about the news that the Pepsi company inadvertently aligned itself with Taiwanese shamanism:
For all of the research they put into expansion abroad, even with concessions to the local markets, not all American exports are guaranteed hits. Wendy’s closed all of its Japanese outposts in 2009, but returned two years later with a new local partner and a wasabi avocado burger. In 2011, Panda Express announced, all jokes aside, that it was expanding into China, but hasn’t said much about it since then. In his book Brand Failures, Matthew Haig gathered examples of bad luck ruining a corporation’s best-laid plans for global domination: how Vicks’ expansion was stymied because its name sounds like “fuck” in German; how Coors’ old slogan “turn it loose” fell flat in Spain because it translated as “you will suffer from diarrhea”; and how Pepsi promised more than its elixir could deliver when it burst into Taiwan with the slogan, “Come alive with the Pepsi generation,” which translated locally as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.”
Image by greefus groinks (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, edited for use here
I would be interested to hear how many Teeming Brain readers find aspects of their own beliefs and experiences described by this extremely interesting article at Pacific Standard, and/or how many of you have observed the trend it identifies playing out in the lives of people you know. That trend, by the way, is “a fundamental shift in how we approach the paranormal,” as both science and traditional Judeo-Christian religiosity fail to fulfill deep human longings, resulting in the rise and increasing prevalence in America (and elsewhere) of a paranormal-themed religious syncretism that amounts to “a new religious worldview.”
[E]verywhere you look in the United States today, the supernatural is more culturally important, more acceptable, and just. . . more than it’s ever been before. Paranormal-themed media of all types have surged, in fiction obviously, but also in non-fiction too, where the past few years have brought us everything from The Most Terrifying Places in America to Psychic Tia to The Monster Project. Then there are the Bigfoot hunts, the ghost hunting tool reviews, the UFO spotting iPhone apps — we can’t get enough of this stuff.
This should come as no surprise. Despite our reputation as a science-minded superpower, America has always had a predilection for the unseen. It has ebbed and flowed with us for as long as this nation has existed, in the form of the 18th-century pilgrim mystics, the domesticated poltergeists that knocked on command in the 19th, and even in the academically inclined parapsychologists of the 20th. Whether you believe in these ideas or not is almost immaterial: the paranormal is an inescapable ingredient in the American identity that has shaped and been shaped by our society for centuries.
Perhaps that makes it all the more meaningful that today’s supernatural surge is not just another cycle of the same old thing, but a fundamental shift in how we approach the paranormal. It’s democratic, laden with jargon, and endlessly customizable — in short, it’s the DIY American techno-religion of the 21st century.
. . . [According to Tok Thompson, a folklorist at the University of Southern California,] “Even though it’s done great things for the iPads, I don’t think science has done very well at answering the big questions like, What happens when I die? In fact, science has absolutely nothing to say about that right now, and people want to know.”
. . . “A certain kind of American is no long going to the Bible for his or her worldview, they’re going to science,” says Jeffrey Kripal, a religion scholar at Rice University who has studied the interaction between pop culture and the paranormal. But, he adds, “they’re then linking that science up with these various spiritual currents, which have been in America for at least a century and a half, and they’re basically building a new religious worldview.”
Full article: “The Church of the Paranormal“
Image courtesy of hyena reality / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I was reminded of these words recently when I read an interview with Andre Dubus III, published last October at The Atlantic, and saw him describing an approach to writing that, as noted by his interviewer, sounds positively shamanistic. Dubus starts from a piece of advice given by novelist Richard Bausch, which he (Dubus) claims as a kind of presiding mantra for his own writing: “Do not think, dream.” (This comes, by the way, from the anthology Letters to a Fiction Writer — another book that has long occupied an important place in my own authorial life, and that I heartily recommend.) He then shares some profound insights drawn from his own practice of writing in this mode:
We’re all born with an imagination. Everybody gets one. And I really believe — this is just from years of daily writing — that good fiction comes from the same place as our dreams. I think the desire to step into someone else’s dream world, is a universal impulse that’s shared by us all. That’s what fiction is.
. . . . [D]uring my very early writing, certainly before I’d published, I began to learn characters will come alive if you back the fuck off. It was exciting, and even a little terrifying. If you allow them to do what they’re going to do, think and feel what they’re going to think and feel, things start to happen on their own. It’s a beautiful and exciting alchemy. And all these years later, that’s the thrill I write to get: to feel things start to happen on their own.
. . . It’s very difficult to achieve this dream state, and it requires a lot of courage. And I don’t think it’s going to happen unless you can cultivate two qualities in yourself, which William Stafford, the poet, taught me when he said “The poet must put himself in a state of receptivity before writing.” Stafford said you know you’re being receptive when a) you’re willing to accept anything that comes, no matter what it is, and b) you’re willing to fail. But Americans are very impatient with failure. I think one of the many reasons people don’t end up living their authentic lives is because they’re afraid of failing — they don’t take chances. And I understand it. This is very risky, terrifying territory writing this way. But it’s the only way I can do it. Frankly, I just feel so alive when I write that way.
. . . I really wrestle with religious faith, but I don’t wrestle with this. I used to think I had no religious faith of any kind. I’ve been a father of three for years, and I never prayed until I became a father for the first time at the age of 33. I don’t believe in God, but I believe in something: Something’s out there. And the main reason I believe that something’s out there—something mysterious and invisible but real—largely has come from my daily practice of writing. There’s a great line from an ancient anonymous Chinese poet: We poets knock upon the silence for an answering music. The way I write, the way I encourage people I work with to try to write is exactly this: Trust your imagination. Free fall into it. See where it brings you to.
. . . I do not ever think about career when I’m in my writing cave. I do not. I try not to think; I dream. It’s my mantra. I just get in there and try to be these people. It’s not so I can write a book and get paid and have another book tour — though those are good problems to have. It’s because I feel an almost sacred obligation to these spirits who came before: to sit with them and write their tale.
(Incidentally, the quote from William Stafford, coming on the heels of the line from Bausch, makes me wonder if Dubus has somehow been sneaking into my house and snatching books off my shelf.)
Full story: “The Case for Writing a Story Before Knowing How It Ends“
Image by Wes Washington (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Greetings, Teeming friends. After a break of — what has it been now? four months? — I’ve recently been tracking certain subtle indicators, auguries, and ripplings in the cosmic aether that indicate it’s time to rouse The Teeming Brain from its long winter’s nap. While I’m at it, I would like to broadcast a special thanks to those of you who have continued sending your voluntary monthly donations to the cause during the downtime. This has been a great help with the Web-hosting fees, which went up considerably last summer when I took steps to improve the site’s speed and loadability.
Interestingly, a steady stream of Web traffic has continued to converge here even in the absence of new posts — one of the benefits, I think, of developing a vast and varied collection of content like the one that we have here in our library of articles, essays, columns, and links spanning the past eight years.
I have now managed to dig part of the way — a very, very small part of the way, mind you — out from under the mountain of accumulated projects and responsibilities that necessitated the hiatus. The mummy encyclopedia that I was editing for ABC-CLIO is basically finished and turned in to the publisher, with a rich assemblage of articles by more than 40 top-notch scholars from half a dozen different countries around the world. I have now moved on to the paranormal encyclopedia project for the same publisher, and am thrilled to have secured the participation of many top writers and scholars in the field whose names and works will be very familiar to Teeming Brain readers, since you’ve seen them quoted and cited here many times. I’m also slated to contribute two articles to an encyclopedia about spiritual possession and exorcism. Then there’s the matter of my forthcoming omnibus collection of supernatural horror fiction from Hippocampus Press, To Rouse Leviathan, which awaits my final touches. Work is also basically complete on Born to Fear, the forthcoming book of collected interviews with Thomas Ligotti that I edited for Subterranean Press. I’ll give further details on all of these projects in the near future. Then there’s the ongoing fact of my day job as a college writing instructor. So, yes, my time is still largely spoken for at any given moment.
That said, the publication of new Teeming Brain content will resume within the next few days — a fact that will be aided and facilitated not a little by my decision several months ago to permanently delete my Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts, which has liberated large amounts of time, energy, attention, and soul (something that I may also say more about in the future).
Thank you again to everybody who has ridden out the long break. There has been no lack of activity during the past few months in the various spheres that we’ve devoted ourselves to tracking, investigating, analyzing, and commenting on here, so I look forward to resuming the conversation and receiving your input.
Last week I was led to quote one of Bradbury’s famous bits of life advice — of which there are many — to one of those students. It was his line about leaping off cliffs and then building your wings on the way down. Afterward, I got curious about the provenance of this quote, and this led me on an Internet search for its source or sources. Eventually I was led to an excellent 23-year-old interview with Bradbury in South Carolina’s Spartanburg Herald-Journal, obtained by them from the New York Times news service, and presently readable thanks to Google’s news archive.
The title is “Learning is solitary pursuit for Bradbury.” The journalist is Luaine Lee. The date is October 17, 1990. And the interview shows Bradbury offering some really lovely articulations of ideas, insights, and anecdotes (many of them familiar but all of them neverendingly fascinating) from his personal mythic journey. Read the rest of this entry