Initiation by Nightmare: Cosmic Horror and Chapel Perilous
When the first of my sleep paralysis attacks occurred in the early 1990s, I had no idea that it was the onset of a period that I would later come to recognize or characterize as a spontaneous shamanic-type initiation via nightmare. I didn’t know that it would shatter the psychological, spiritual, ontological, metaphysical, and interpersonal assumptions that had undergirded my worldview and daily experience for so long that I had forgotten they were assumptions instead of givens. Terence McKenna, among others, has argued that, in accordance with the same principle that keeps a fish oblivious to the existence of water, the perturbation of consciousness is necessary for us even to become aware of the reality of consciousness as such. For me this was confirmed with lasting impact by the experience of waking up from a profoundly deep sleep to encounter a darkly luminous, vaguely man-shaped outline of a being that stood over me at the foot of the bed, and that shone with sizzling rays of shadow, and that represented a thunderous and sui generis — intended solely for me — black hole of a negative singularity, a presence whose entire reason for being was to draw me in and annihilate my essence. In the manner of dreams and daemons, the experience was as much cognitive and emotional as it was perceptual. There was no separation between these usually discrete categories. Nor was there a separation between the categories of self and other, between “me” and the assaulting presence. Horror was literally all there was, all that existed, all that was real — not as a reaction to an experience but as an organic and inevitable symmetry of being. I was not horrified. The experience was purely and simply horror.
When this proved to be not an isolated episode but an ongoing crisis spanning a period of months and years, and when the psychic effects began to leak into the daylight world and contaminate daily life with a distinct and inescapable background static of creeping nightmarishness, I knew something dire had happened. I had crossed some sort of threshold, and the most likely vocabulary for thinking and talking about it was the vocabulary of cosmic horror, which had been inculcated in me by years of obsessively reading Lovecraft, Lovecraft criticism, and the works of a whole host of associated authors. As explained previously, one of the results of this confluence was my horror novelette “Teeth.”
There was, however, another vocabulary I could have used, and it would have complemented the cosmic horrific one in mutually illuminating fashion. It was the vocabulary of consciousness change and high paranormal weirdness encoded in the idea of Chapel Perilous as explicated by Robert Anton Wilson. But this didn’t occur to me until much later.
* * *
At the time these things happened, I had been enraptured for a number of years by Wilson’s books, vibe, and guerilla ontological charm. Illuminatus!, the Schrödinger’s Cat trilogy, The Illuminati Papers, the Historical Illuminatus Chronicles, Prometheus Rising, The New Inquisition, Quantum Psychology, Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati, and several more of his books were canonical texts for me. So I was very well acquainted with his concept of Chapel Perilous, which was a central theme, and perhaps the central theme, not just in his writing but in his life. And yet I somehow didn’t draw the obvious connection between it and my spiraling existential-spiritual crisis.
In the prologue to Cosmic Trigger (published in 1977), titled “Thinking about the Unthinkable,” Wilson, whose name had already become associated with the idea of global occult conspiracies because of his co-authorship of the Illuminatus! trilogy — which he and Robert Shea wrote with epic satirical intent — announced that “I no longer disbelieve in the Illuminati, but I don’t believe in them yet either.” He then explained exactly what he meant by this weird statement, and in the process offered a definition or description of a particular state of mind and soul that has made the term Chapel Perilous, which he invoked to refer to this state, a regular part of the lexicon of spiritual seekers ever since:
In researching occult conspiracies, one eventually faces a crossroad of mythic proportions (called Chapel Perilous in the trade). You come out the other side either stone paranoid or an agnostic; there is no third way. I came out agnostic.
Chapel Perilous, like the mysterious entity called “I,” cannot be located in the space-time continuum; it is weightless, odorless, tasteless and undetectable by ordinary instruments. Indeed, like the Ego, it is even possible to deny that it is there. And yet, even more like the Ego, once you are inside it, there doesn’t seem to be any way to ever get out again, until you suddenly discover that it has been brought into existence by thought and does not exist outside thought. Everything you fear is waiting with slavering jaws in Chapel Perilous, but if you are armed with the wand of intuition, the cup of sympathy, the sword of reason, and the pentacle of valor, you will find there (the legends say) the Medicine of Metals, the Elixir of Life, the Philosopher’s Stone, True Wisdom and Perfect Happiness.
That’s what the legends always say, and the language of myth is poetically precise. For instance, if you go into that realm without the sword of reason, you will lose your mind, but at the same time, if you take only the sword of reason without the cup of sympathy, you will lose your heart. Even more remarkably, if you approach without the wand of intuition, you can stand at the door for decades never realizing you have arrived. You might think you are just waiting for a bus, or wandering from room to room looking for your cigarettes, watching a TV show, or reading a cryptic and ambiguous book. Chapel Perilous is tricky that way. 
Wikipedia has a brief article on Chapel Perilous that defines the term in its psychological use as “an occult term referring to a psychological state in which an individual cannot be certain if they have been aided or hindered by some force outside the realm of the natural world, or if what appeared to be supernatural interference was a product of their own imagination.” 
More explanation comes in Maybe Logic, the 2003 documentary film about Wilson’s life and thought, as seen in this illuminating clip:
At about the 1:39 mark, Wilson explains that
Chapel Perilous is a stage in the magickal quest in which your maps turn out to be totally inadequate for the territory, and you’re completely lost. And at that point you get an ally who helps you find your way back to something you can understand. And then after that for the rest of your life you’ve got this question: Was that ally a supernatural helper, or was it just part of my own mind trying to save me from going totally bonkers with this stuff? And the people I know who’ve had that kind of experience, very few of them have come to an absolutely certain conclusion about that.
At another point in the film he shares some of the personal background to his discovery of the ontologically and epistemologically indeterminate nature of encounters with what seem like supernatural and/or paranormal intelligences and entities:
Around 1973 I became convinced for a while that I was receiving messages from outer space. But then a psychic reader told me I was actually channeling an ancient Chinese philosopher, and another psychic reader told me I was channeling a medieval Irish bard. And at that time I started reading neurology, and I decided it was just my right brain talking to my left brain. And then I went to Ireland and found out it was actually a six-foot-tall white rabbit. They call it the Pooka, and the Irish know all about it.
Again, in Cosmic Trigger Wilson wrote that when you enter this state, when you cross the threshold into Chapel Perilous and find that although all kinds of bizarre and seemingly impossible things are undeniably happening, you’re completely unable to decide whether they’re objectively real or purely imaginary, “You come out the other side either stone paranoid or an agnostic; there is no third way.”
In a sense, though, nobody ever really leaves Chapel Perilous. The memory of it becomes a living and present part of your everyday experience. When Wilson says that he personally came out as an agnostic, he’s saying he came out with a permanently altered understanding and sense of things. Most people who call themselves agnostics are really just rationalists, hedonists, scientific materialists, philosophically tone-deaf Philistines, and/or intellectually lazy. Their so-called agnosticism is purely a cerebral phenomenon, sometimes sincere, sometimes merely facile, and in either case it doesn’t reach to their cores. Wilson’s agnosticism, by contrast, was existential.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my seeming experiences of supernatural/demonic assault represented a kind of epistemological shakedown that was calibrated to result in exactly this same realization of ontological, metaphysical, and cosmological indeterminacy. And it wasn’t until I really started to realize and own this fact some years later, thanks to a wide-focus course of reading and study combined with various online and in-person conversations and interactions, that I discovered there was an existing spiritual and philosophical counterculture — much of it directly associated with the newly minted neo-shamanism movement, as vibrating in deep concord with the reborn psychedelic movement — whose members already knew all about this type of thing. I just happened to be the last one to find out.
* * *
The term “Chapel Perilous” comes from Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which contains an episode in which Sir Lancelot visits said chapel and successfully resists the seduction attempts of a sorceress named Hellawes. Although Malory’s story is apparently the first time that Chapel Perilous, or the Perilous Chapel, is explicitly so-named, this type of setting — a mysterious chapel where a hero undergoes a trial or temptation while on a sacred quest — was already a staple of the Grail legends by the time Malory wrote and compiled his now-classic collection of Arthurian romance tales in the late 15th century.
In 1922 T. S. Eliot incorporated Chapel Perilous into the apocalyptic-cosmic wasteland of The Waste Land and, in the poem’s accompanying notes, explicitly referred the reader to another book for explanation and commentary on his central use of the grail motif. “Not only the title,” he wrote, “but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book on the Grail legend: From Ritual to Romance.”
Published in 1920, From Ritual to Romance is a landmark work of anthropological and mythological scholarship in which Ms. Weston, an independent scholar and folklorist specializing in medieval Arthurian texts, ostensibly uncovers links between the various components of the grail legends and the myths, beliefs, and rituals of the ancient, pre-Christian mystery cults in Europe. She focuses especially on the tale of the Fisher King, which in its primal/archetypal form involves a king whose kingdom becomes desolate when he himself falls gravely ill or becomes impotent, and so he sends out a brave knight — Perceval in some versions, Gawain in others, or sometime somebody else — to find the Holy Grail, which will restore all to health. At the far end of the quest, the knight stumbles into the nightmarish Chapel Perilous (which, as noted above, is not always named such, and occasionally is not a chapel at all but a Perilous Cemetery), where he undergoes a severe trial and eventually emerges to bring home the grail.
Ms. Weston’s accompanying commentaries on and analyses of these matters are darkly evocative. She devotes her energies to developing the idea that the ancient roots of the grail legend in general and the Chapel Perilous experience in particular reside in older stories of a dreadful initiation involving a plunge into the otherworld, with possibly dire consequences extending into the physical realm:
[T]his is the story of an initiation (or perhaps it would be more correct to say the test of fitness for an initiation) carried out on the astral plane, and reacting with fatal results upon the physical … [T]he Mystery ritual comprised a double initiation, the Lower, into the mysteries of generation, i.e., of physical Life; the higher, into the Spiritual Divine Life, where man is made one with God … [T]he test for the primary initiation, that into the sources of physical life, would probably consist in a contact with the horrors of physical death, and that the tradition of the Perilous Chapel, which survives in the Grail romances in confused and contaminated form, was a reminiscence of the test for this lower initiation.
At one point she chides some of her fellow scholars for focusing exclusively on the supposed Celtic roots of the tradition in question, and argues that it has a far deeper and wider pedigree, both historically and spiritually, than many were accustomed to imagining:
Visits to the Otherworld are not always derivations from Celtic Fairy-lore. Unless I am mistaken the root of this theme is far more deeply imbedded than in the shifting sands of Folk and Fairy tale. I believe it to be essentially a Mystery tradition; the Otherworld is not a myth, but a reality, and in all ages there have been souls who have been willing to brave the great adventure, and to risk all for the chance of bringing back with them some assurance of the future life. Naturally these ventures passed into tradition with the men who risked them. The early races of men became semi-mythic, their beliefs, their experiences, receded into a land of mist, where their figures assumed fantastic outlines, and the record of their deeds departed more and more widely from historic accuracy.
The poets and dreamers wove their magic webs, and a world apart from the world of actual experience came to life. But it was not all myth, nor all fantasy; there was a basis of truth and reality at the foundation of the mystic growth, and a true criticism will not rest content with wandering in these enchanted lands, and holding all it meets with for the outcome of human imagination … The Grail romances repose eventually, not upon a poet’s imagination, but upon the ruins of an august and ancient ritual, a ritual which once claimed to be the accredited guardian of the deepest secrets of Life. Driven from its high estate by the relentless force of religious evolution — for after all Adonis, Attis, and their congeners, were but the ‘half-gods’ who must needs yield place when ‘the Gods’ themselves arrive — it yet lingered on; openly, in Folk practice, in Fast and Feast, whereby the well-being of the land might be assured; secretly, in cave or mountain-fastness, or island isolation, where those who craved for a more sensible (not necessarily sensuous) contact with the unseen Spiritual forces of Life than the orthodox development of Christianity afforded, might, and did, find satisfaction. 
The entire grail legend, then, at least according to this analysis, can be read as an encoded story about a sometimes dreadful initiation into otherworldly realties with implications extending into the physical, and Chapel Perilous is the primary symbolic site of this defining trial and transition.
But — and this is crucial — is Chapel Perilous necessarily somewhere that you go, or can it perhaps be something that comes to you? In Daimonic Reality, Patrick Harpur writes provocatively about various types of initiation into daimonic / liminal / otherworldly realities, including not just the customary (but shattering) death-and-rebirth experiences of shamans but the spontaneous initiatory power of dreaming that is open to everyone. Then he suddenly moves on to consider a separate type of initiation, one that is qualitatively separate from the rest, and that he illustrates by referring to the life and work of John Keel, author of The Mothman Prophecies and many others. Harpur’s words, and what they point to, are arresting:
I am led to consider another form of initiation. it is difficult to describe — indeed it may not be appropriate to call it initiation at all since it does not apparently involve the death and rebirth experience of the shaman’s subterranean and celestial journeys. But it does involve a change, sometimes dramatic, in the recipient, usually in the form of an expanded awareness of the Otherworld and a greater degree of wisdom in encountering it.
Unlike the Shaman’s experience of the Otherworld as a daimonic realm entered during altered states of consciousness, this different kind of initiation happens the other way around: the Otherworld enters this world. Our everyday reality becomes heightened, full of extraordinary synchronicities, significances, and paranormal events. People who investigate the daimonic are particularly prone to these — although they can happen to anyone who is engaged on a search for some sort of knowledge or truth (every scholar, for instance, knows how the very book he requires can fall off a library shelf at his feet!). 
He finishes with a capstone statement that resounds and resonates all the way back to the Grail legends with their dreadful daimonic initiatory setting of Chapel Perilous: “In other words, it is a goal-oriented kind of initiation and, as such, might be called a quest.”
This is riveting. This is revolutionary. However, based on my own experience, and also on that of a handful of friends and acquaintances, as well as on the testimony of cosmic horror fiction with its vibrant and venerable trope of unexpected and unpleasant liftings and rendings of reality’s veil (see Blackwood’s “The Willows” and “The Wendigo,” Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Music of Erich Zann,” Ligotti’s “The Sect of the Idiot” and “Nethescurial,” Klein’s “The Events at Poroth Farm” and “Black Man with a Horn”) — based on all of this, I have to wonder whether the very type of initiation Harpur describes, in which the Otherworld breaks into this one, might happen not because someone has sought it out but simply because it wants to happen: spontaneously, unexpectedly, inevitably, and unavoidably.
I have to wonder whether it might take place not as the result of a quest, not because you have been pursuing it, but because it has been pursuing you.
* * *
As preserved in the above recording, Terence McKenna, in talking about the psychedelic undermining and transmutation of a person’s experience of reality (as was his lifelong wont and mission), once gave a really able exposition of Chapel Perilous:
Robert Anton Wilson … coined the term Chapel Perilous. This is when something happens in your life and it all begins to fit together and make sense, too much sense. Because it’s coming from the exterior and it seems to either mean that you’re losing your mind or you are somehow the central focus of a universal conspiracy that is leading you toward some unimaginable breakthrough. Along the way to the mystery lie the realms of loving everybody, moving fields of geometric color, past lives, you name it. But these are just milestones on the way. When you finally get to “the thing,” the way you will know that you’ve arrived is that you will be struck dumb with wonder. That you will say, “My God, this is impossible. This is inherently impossible. This is what impossible was invented to talk about. This cannot be!” Then we’re in the ballpark. Then we’re in the presence of the true coincidentia oppositorum.
In July 2012 it was revealed, via a public reading of a portion of Dennis McKenna’s forthcoming memoir The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss: My Life with Terence McKenna, that Dennis’s brother Terence suffered a horrific experience during a psychedelic mushroom trip in 1988 or 1989 that proved so traumatic it put him off taking psychedelics, except for tiny doses on infrequent occasions, for the rest of his life. This came as a bombshell in the sizable community that pays attention to such things, since Terence was known for advocating “heroic” doses of psychedelics for many years after that in his books and talks, and since Dennis claimed in the book excerpt that many of the things Terence continued to espouse in his later years, including most of his wildest speculations about 2012, Timewave Zero, the alien intelligences of the psychedelic hyperrealm, and the future spontaneous organization of organic intelligence through the global Internet — in other words, the things for which he was most popular — were just show business, just philosophical performance art that paid the bills. The excerpt was read aloud by Bruce Damer to an audience at the Esalen Institute, at an event organized by Damer and Lorenzo Hagerty (host and creator of the Psychedelic Salon podcast) and titled “A Deep Dive into the Mind of Terence McKenna.” It also went out as a Psychedelic Salon episode. But then, rather shockingly, it was pulled from the podcast’s Website, and Lorenzo put up a note explaining that “At the request of Dennis McKenna and the McKenna family this podcast will remain off-line indefinitely. They have also requested that the comments be held back. . . Unfortunately, some of the material from his upcoming book was from an early draft and will not be included in the published edition of the book.”
Here’s how Dennis McKenna, in that now-lost excerpt from The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss — which at least one astute individual has preserved in partial transcript form — described his brother’s horrific and life-changing ordeal:
Terence’s pivotal, existential crisis came abruptly, some time in ’88 or ’89. Everything that happened after that event was fallout. I don’t know exactly when it happened, and I don’t know exactly what happened; I am piecing it together from what Kat [his wife at the time] has told me, and she has volunteered few details, and I am reluctant to probe.
It happened when they were living for a time on the big island, and it was a mushroom trip they shared that was absolutely terrifying for Terence. It was terrifying because, for some reason, the mushroom turned on him. The gentle, wise, humorous mushroom spirit that he had come to know and trust as an ally and teacher ripped back the facade to reveal an abyss of utter existential despair. Terence kept saying, so Kat told me, that it was “a lack of all meaning, a lack of all meaning.” And this induced panic in Terence, and probably, I speculate, a feeling he was going mad. He couldn’t deal with it. Kat’s efforts to reassure him were fruitless. After that experience, he never again took mushrooms, and he took other psychedelics, such as DMT and ayahuasca, only on rare occasions and with great reluctance.
Whatever the specific content of the psychedelic experience might have been that triggered the cognitive collapse of Terence’s worldview and precipitated his existential crisis, what was most remarkable was that he did not see it coming. He did not see it coming.
— From Dennis McKenna, The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss: My Life with Terence McKenna, now excised
I find this to be extraordinarily riveting, not just because it’s a revelatory look at a previously unknown side of Terence McKenna, whose life and wisdom have become extremely important to me in recent years, but because it dovetails with a kind of galling perfection with what I described in my story “Teeth” as the all-encompassing psychological/spiritual effect on the narrator when he is forcibly initiated into an experience of cosmic supernatural horror. Several days after the inciting event, which occurs when the narrator looks at a mandala and sees it open onto a hellish abyss of devouring teeth, he becomes aware of a catastrophic change in his psyche:
How had I come to this in so short a time? Less than two weeks earlier, I had been leading a fairly contented life with a bright future in academia. I had taken pleasure in my work and my modest social life, including the occasional romance. I had possessed a shining intellectual and emotional intensity that brought praise from my professors. And yet all of that had been overturned and undermined in shockingly short order. When I tried now to consider my future, I saw nothing but an endless black tunnel lined with
painful and meaningless experiences. The future was a dark, empty road winding through a blasted landscape toward the shell of a dead city. The journey was a nightmare and the destination a hell. My former goals and pleasures littered my psyche like the dry corpses of dead loved ones, and I wanted nothing more than to sink into oblivion, whether sleep or death did not matter.
Was all of this really true? Was my life, was existence itself, truly what I now perceived it to be: nothing more than a short interlude in an otherwise unbroken continuum of horror, a sometimes distracting but ultimately vain dream that was destined to end with a terrible awakening to the abiding reality of chaos, of madness, of nightmare, of . . .
That this essentially describes my own real-world internal state when I wrote the words — a state that had evolved inexorably out of those soul-draining nocturnal, supernatural(-seeming) assaults — and that today, some seventeen years after I wrote that story, it has been revealed that Terence McKenna, figurehead of the newly mature and hopeful psychedelic renaissance, and an increasingly important figure in my own intellectual pantheon, may have had a life-changing encounter with just such a soul-sucking vacuum of total, horrific meaninglessness while communing with his beloved plant teacher — that all of this is true not only startles me but reinforces a suspicion that has grown on me over time, even as I’ve lived my way out of that mental-emotional-philosophical hellhole:
We’re all playing with fire, those of us who actively perturb consciousness, and also those of us who have such perturbations forced upon us by powers outside our ken and control. In the words of the weekly closing narration to a classic horror television series, the nightmare aspect of daimonic reality, the aspect that the great writers of cosmic horror fiction have accessed and illustrated in their work, “is always there, waiting for us to enter, waiting to enter us.” This is not mere poetic speech, nor is it mere aesthetic or intellectual entertainment for those drawn to the dark side of fiction, film, philosophy, and spirituality. This is deadly truth.
Wilson spoke of Chapel Perilous in terms of the perceived arrival of a spiritual ally that helps one through a crisis. But there’s another corridor of the chapel where the ally’s aspect is decidedly darker, and where it’s damned difficult to see and understand him, her, or it as an ally at all. The fact that the classic ally in the Western esoteric and occult traditions is one’s daemon, one’s genius, one’s Holy Guardian Angel, makes this darker aspect of the experience all the more disturbing, for what does it mean when your own “higher self,” the daemon or daimon who, according to the ancient Western understanding, represents the divine template and design for your life — and which in a modern-day context we can metaphorize as the “unconscious mind,” especially in a Jungian sense — what does it mean when this, the most intimate and personal-to-you of all possible psychological/spiritual realities, appears in the form of a demonic, assaulting presence?
 Robert Anton Wilson, Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati (Tempe, AZ: New Falcon Publications,  1991), 6-7.
 “Chapel perilous,” Wikipedia, accessed August 13, 2011.
 Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance (1920), http://www.fullbooks.com/From-Ritual-to-Romance1.html.
 Patrick Harpur, Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld (Enumclaw, WA: Pine Winds Press, 1994), 242-3.
 Matt Cardin, Dark Awakenings (Poplar Bluff, MO: Mythos Books, 2010), 20.
- “Espectro Humeante” by Hersson Piratoba under Creative Commons
- Galahad – Public domain, from “The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights” by James Knowles
Posted on August 13, 2012, in Liminalities and tagged daemonic creativity, h. p. lovecraft, holy grail, patrick harpur, psychedelics, religion and horror, Robert Anton Wilson, Sleep Paralysis, terence mckenna. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.