Category Archives: Paranormal

When mental illness is really demonic possession, according to a psychiatrist

The following two paragraphs are excerpted from what’s basically your everyday, run-of-the-mill article about the reality of demonic possession as distinct from mental illness. Written by a board-certified psychiatrist and professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College. For The Washington Post.

Move along. Nothing to see here.

For the past two-and-a-half decades and over several hundred consultations, I’ve helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths to filter episodes of mental illness – which represent the overwhelming majority of cases — from, literally, the devil’s work. It’s an unlikely role for an academic physician, but I don’t see these two aspects of my career in conflict. The same habits that shape what I do as a professor and psychiatrist — open-mindedness, respect for evidence and compassion for suffering people — led me to aid in the work of discerning attacks by what I believe are evil spirits and, just as critically, differentiating these extremely rare events from medical conditions.

Is it possible to be a sophisticated psychiatrist and believe that evil spirits are, however seldom, assailing humans? Most of my scientific colleagues and friends say no, because of their frequent contact with patients who are deluded about demons, their general skepticism of the supernatural, and their commitment to employ only standard, peer-reviewed treatments that do not potentially mislead (a definite risk) or harm vulnerable patients. But careful observation of the evidence presented to me in my career has led me to believe that certain extremely uncommon cases can be explained no other way.

FULL TEXT: As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession.

(For more on the relationship — and distinction — between possession and mental illness, check your local library or any online bookseller for my Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics: The Paranormal from Alchemy to Zombies, which contains separate entries on possession and exorcism. Also see relevant entries in editor Joe Laycock’s excellent Spirit Possession around the World: Possession, Communion, and Demon Expulsion across Cultures.)

 

Reviews of ‘Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics’

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Today I was pleased to spot a new and positive assessment of my paranormal encyclopedia from a reviewer for the American Library Association’s Reference and User Services Association (RUSA):

Producing a reference book about the paranormal presents a unique challenge. Various aspects of the phenomenon — under the rubric of “the supernatural” — have been and remain common to virtually all religions. Furthermore, as this work’s “Introduction” notes, “the idea of the paranormal is ubiquitous and inescapable in American culture” and “is entrenched” (xix) throughout most of the rest of the world. Yet the actual existence of the paranormal is in very serious doubt, and authorities in most mainstream disciplines reject it as pseudoscience. As the “Introduction” suggests, however, a new paradigm that sidesteps this “skeptic/believer dichotomy” (xxiii) seems to be emerging.

To tackle this slippery topic, editor and college English instructor Matt Cardin has assembled 121 alphabetically arranged entries by 57 contributors, most of whom work in academia. Subjects range from individuals (Edgar Cayce, Carl Jung, and so on) to important institutions such as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Rhine Research Center and from paranormal “powers” such as telepathy to treatments of the paranormal in the arts and the media. Most entries run from two to four pages, are objective in approach, and are clearly written without being simplistic. . . .

Given its currency and its thoughtful, even-handed approach to the field, Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics is highly recommended for undergraduate and larger public library reference collections.

More: Full review

This stands in nice contrast to the decidedly lukewarm review that appeared late last year in Magonia, where the upshot was: “All in all a good try that is greatly hampered by lack of a clear editorial direction and appreciation of what and who are important in the field.” (I was comforted by the fact that the reviewer misspelled my name.)

If you want to read the book and judge for yourself, consult your local public, college, or high school library, or get it straight from the publisher or from Amazon or anywhere else.

Do you believe in the paranormal?

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Christopher Columbus fills the New World natives with fear and awe by predicting a lunar eclipse in 1504.

Over at Thomas Ligotti Online, someone has created a discussion thread that asks whether people believe in the paranormal. This has spawned an interesting conversation. It has also prodded me to reflect on the very terms of the question, as it my wont.

If we’re talking about belief in the paranormal, then what are the standards for normal relative to which we judge anything in theory or reality to be “para” that? If we’re talking about belief in the supernatural (which is just the older name for what was rebranded as paranormal a century or so ago), then what are the standards for natural relative to which we judge anything to be “super” that?

Once we’ve isolated and identified those standards, then it’s necessary to inquire about their source. Where do our standards for “normal” and “natural” come from? Are these standards defensible? What philosophical assumptions do they embody and proceed from? Are those assumptions themselves defensible? Our entire current framework for talking and thinking about these things flows from the great revolution in consciousness that was the birth and cultural triumph of material science in the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries. Certain types of knowledge and experience were isolated from the totality of experience making up the human sensorium (both inner and outer), and were elevated and lionized as being exclusively accurate and allowable, while other types of knowledge and experience were disallowed and disavowed. What was — and is — the warrant for that? And in what forms might those disallowed and disavowed aspects of the totality of human experience return to confront us from time to time?

My own long-developing view is that reality as a whole is far more varied and strange than anyone, working within any paradigm or worldview whether old or new, has ever been able to conceive or is intrinsically capable of conceiving. We effectively create the paranormal / supernatural when we create a sacred canopy (to borrow Peter Berger’s famous metaphor) of cosmic meaning for ourselves both individually and collectively, to serve as an orienting framework for our experience of existence. Whenever rents in the canopy’s fabric are made by encounters with aspects of reality that we have not incorporated into this collective cosmos, we’re confronted by things for which we have no name and no context. We cannot readily handle them, process them, integrate them within our framework of meaning. These literal anomalies (things for which we have no name or category) inherently appear threatening, horrifying, and often fascinating all at once. Then we start to have conversations and arguments about what they might mean or whether they even really exist.

Obviously, by definition, such an anomalous occurrence might well be something as relatively mundane as a cross-cultural encounter. The arrival of Columbus in the New World was a paranormal event for the people who already lived there. A paranormal event doesn’t have to mean seeing a ghost, suffering a paranormal abduction, experiencing spirit possession, witnessing a feat of levitation, encountering the Mothman, experiencing supernatural healing (or wounding), receiving knowledge telepathically, or anything else of the classically paranormal sort. But it may well mean such things. My own more-than-suspicion is that the likes of Robert Anton Wilson, Charles Fort, and John Keel were right about the basic nature of things and our fundamental relationship to it all qua our combined biological, psychological, spiritual, and ontological status as human beings. There are more things in heaven and earth, as it were.

(It appears that the full introduction to my paranormal encyclopedia is readable through Google Books preview. The last part of it, where I summarize a new paradigm regarding the paranormal that has emerged out of religious studies, anthropology, and related fields in the past few years, pretty much states my own position in more detail and different terms than what I’ve written here.)

RELATED READING:

Image:  L’éclipse de lune de Christophe Colomb. by Camille Flammarion (Astronomie Populaire 1879, p231 fig. 86) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Stephen King on the thing under the bed

There have been moments of insight in Stephen King’s work that legitimately qualify as sublime. This widely quoted passage from his foreword to Night Shift is one of them:

At night, when I go to bed I am at pains to be sure that my legs are under the blankets after the lights go out. I’m not a child anymore but . . . I don’t like to sleep with one leg sticking out. Because if a cool hand ever reached out from under the bed and grasped my ankle, I might scream. Yes, I might scream to wake the dead. That sort of thing doesn’t happen, of course, and we all know that. In the stories that follow you will encounter all manner of night creatures: vampires, demon lovers, a thing that lives in the closet, all sorts of other terrors. None of them are real. The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real. I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.

King surely intended this as a witty illustration of the irrational or non-rational fears embedded in human psychology that account for our fascination with and responsiveness to supernatural horror stories. But I think it can also be taken as referring to much more. For those who are inclined toward meditation, inner work, and exploring the boundaries of the real — including, pointedly, those episodes and encounters of a Fortean or daimonic nature during which the nominally unreal becomes real, and also vice versa — I’m inclined to think those last two sentences could serve as a superb Zen koan.

What is real, anyhow? Erik Davis on visionary experiences and the high weirdness of the seventies counterculture

Last night I digitally stumbled across this:

High Weirdness: Visionary Experience in the Seventies Counterculture

It’s Erik Davis’s senior thesis, written as he was pursuing his Ph.D. in religious studies at Rice University, and submitted just last fall. You’ll recall that I mentioned Erik’s study of this same high weirdness last year (and that he and I, and also Maja D’Aoust, had a good conversation about daemonic creativity and related matters a few years ago). Now here’s this, the scholarly fruit of his several years of research and writing, and it promises to be a fantastic — in several senses — read.

For me, at least, it’s also laden with mild synchronistic significance. I’m presently teaching an introduction to world religions course using Comparing Religions by Jeffrey J. Kripal as the main textbook, so I’m spending a lot of time immersed in Jeff’s thoughtworld, and also helping undergraduate college students to understand it. In the past two weeks I have had a couple of email communications with Jeff in connection with the crucial networking assistance that he provided in the early stages of Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics as I was attempting to locate suitable contributors for the book. And then just last night as I was staring at my laptop screen and realizing with pleasure that I had accidentally found Erik’s thesis on the UFOs, synchronicities, psychedelic visions, alien voices, and other crazy anomalistic weirdnesses that characterized the seventies counterculture, I scanned down the cover page and had another surprise when I saw Jeffrey J. Kripal listed as a member of his thesis committee. It’s not a synchronicity in the same league as, say, Jung’s seminal encounter with the scarabaeid beetle, but it was enough to give me a start and a chuckle.
Read the rest of this entry

The numinous, subversive power of art in an artificial age: Talking with J. F. Martel

 

Reclaiming_Art_in_the_Age_of_Artifice-by_J_F_Martel

Now live: my interview with Canadian filmmaker J. F. Martel, author of the just-published — and thoroughly wonderful — Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice, which should be of interest to all Teeming Brainers since it comes with glowing blurb recommendations from the likes of Daniel Pinchbeck, Patrick Harpur, Erik Davis, and yours truly.

Here’s a taste of J. F.’s and my conversation:

MATT CARDIN: How would you describe Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice to the uninitiated, to someone who comes to it cold and has no idea what it’s about?

J. F. MARTEL: The book is an attempt to defend art against the onslaught of the cultural industries, which today seek to reduce art to a mindless form of entertainment or, at best, a communication tool. In Reclaiming Art I argue that great works of art constitute an expressive response to the radical mystery of existence. They are therefore inherently strange, troubling, and impossible to reduce to a single meaning or message. Much of contemporary culture is organized in such a way as to push this kind of art to the margins while celebrating works that reaffirm prevailing ideologies. In contrast, real works of art are machines for destroying ideologies, first and foremost the ideologies in which they were created.

MC: What exactly do you mean? How do real works of art serve this subversive function?

JFM: A great art work, be it a movie, a novel, a film, or a dance piece, presents the entire world aesthetically — meaning, as a play of forces that have no inherent moral value. Even the personal convictions of the author, however implicit they may be in the work itself, are given over to the aesthetic. By becoming part of an aesthetic universe, they relinquish the claims to truth that they may hold in the author’s mind in the everyday. This, I think, is how a Christian author like Dostoyevsky can write such agnostic novels, and how an atheistic author like Thomas Ligotti can create fictional worlds imbued with a sense of the sacred, however dark or malignant. Nietzsche said that the world can only be justified aesthetically, that is, beyond the good-and-evil binary trap of ideological thinking. The reason for this is that when we tune in to the aesthetic frequency, we see that the forces that make up the world exceed our “human, all too human” conceptualizations.

FULL INTERVIEW: “Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice

Monsters, marvels, lore, and legend: Jill Tracy on the persistence of mystery

Jill Tracy’s Diabolical Streak has been a favorite album of mine for the past decade — see the video above for one of the many reasons why — and in this 2009 interview for Tor.com, the always-mesmerizing Ms. Tracy explains some of the philosophical-aesthetic worldview that informs her lush world of musical darkness:

We all want to believe in magic. It keeps hope alive. Sometimes I feel that magic and the suspension of disbelief is the only thing that matters. I think that’s why my music resonates with people on such a deep level.

I was given the book The Mysterious World when I was a child and when I first opened it, there was a picture of spontaneous human combustion. I had never heard of such a thing in my life. There’s that wonderful old photograph of Dr. John Irving Bentley who suddenly burst into flame. There’s a bit of his leg, with his foot still in a slipper, his walker, and cinders everywhere. And I’d read about toads and frogs and blood raining from the sky. Or Count Saint Germain, who was recorded to have lived for hundreds of years. He said his secret to immortality was to eat oatmeal and wear velvet encrusted with gemstones. To this day, no one knows exactly who he was, where he came from and if indeed he was immortal.

Unfortunately, these days of internet and technology have murdered “the legend.” That breaks my heart. Monsters, marvels, lore, and legend — these are the things that make us feel most alive. The most wonderful questions of all are the ones for which there are no answers. One of my favorite quotes is, “In the end, it is the mystery that prevails, never the explanation.” Sadly, the world has gotten to a point where everybody’s demanding an explanation. But after the info, they’re still bored and unfulfilled.

I think it’s my purpose to perpetuate the long-lost magic, allow people to slip into the cracks, to pry up the floorboards and search deeply. Believe. Imagine. It’s so important to hold on to that childlike sense of marvel.

More: “I’ll hold your hand while they drag the river: An Interview with Jill Tracy

In line with these sentiments, also see Ms. Tracy’s appearance as an interviewee in a recent, and excellent, in-depth article about Ouija boards and other spirit-communication devices, where she offers some perceptive observations about Victorian Spiritualism:

Jill Tracy — a San Francisco singer and composer who, with violinist Paul Mercer, performs a touring improvisational-music show called “The Musical Séance” — says that Victorians were more open about loss of life and honoring the dead than we are now. At The Musical Séance, she and Mercer will spontaneously compose pieces based on sentimental objects the audience brings in — from antlers and dentures to haunted paintings and cremated cats to swords and a lock of hair from a drowned boy — not to call in spirits so much as memorialize the audience’s loved ones.

Tracy says even as a parlor pastime, Victorians had a sweet, romantic side to them. “A séance brought people together,” she says. “It enabled them to face their fears because it was being pitched to them as a form of group amusement, instead of a frightening experience where one sits in their house alone and tries to talk to a spirit. A séance was also sensually charged, the true definition of arousing the senses. Men and women would sit in the dark in close contact, often holding hands or touching, and they would have no idea what was going to happen. For Victorians, it was almost an acceptable moment of abandon.”

More: “Ghosts in the Machines: The Devices and Daring Mediums That Spoke for the Dead

‘Woodhouse’ – A short film about the numinous longing for monsters

Woodhouse

The Woodhouse Nature Reserve, South East London. It’s a sprawling hectare of knotted ivy and mossy tree stumps. And while its edges are speckled with rusting tins and damp takeaway boxes, its interior is verdant, untouched. There, beyond the padlocked gates some thing, some creature is living.

This thoroughly riveting short film by writer/director Fred Rowson won Film London’s Best of Boroughs Jury Award and was made with support from Film London, Blink Productions, and the Kevin Spacey Foundation. The writing, acting, directing, cinematography, visual design, musical score, and everything else are quite lush and beautiful. And the concept is quite striking.

Annalee Newitz at io9 describes Woodhouse as “a beautiful, sad short film about a little girl who sees a monster in a London park. But it’s also about why we long to find monsters — and the forces that crush our desires. . . . Rowson offers us a skeptic’s view of cryptozoology, but also mourns the loss of imagination that skepticism brings.”

Greg at The Daily Grail describes it as “A Monster Film That Examines the Interplay between Belief and Skepticism” and says it “shows how marginalised the people studying these topics are by others, from family to media outlets — or at the very least, how modern society tends to suppress non-conforming ideas, imagination and adventure.”

I agree with both descriptions/assessments. But in slight contradistinction to Ms. Newitz’s overall take, I also add that Woodhouse touches the numinous and sublime at multiple points by offering a bit of Fortean, John Keelian, and even Chapel Perilous-type tension between natural and supernatural/preternatural/paranormal takes on life and reality, and by hinting, especially in its final scene and shot (which work in tandem with all that comes before), that the “answer” to this conundrum is both a riddle that defines our deepest selves and, perhaps, an objective reality that can rise up to confront and haunt us.

(If you can’t play the hi-res Vimeo version above, try the slightly lower-res but still nice-looking YouTube version.)

High weirdness: Philip K. Dick, Robert Anton Wilson, and Chapel Perilous

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Here’s Erik Davis, in a recent interview conducted by Jeremy Johnson, briefly discussing the similarities between the respective realms of high weirdness exemplified by Philip K. Dick’s VALIS and Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger. Erik and Jeremy also make some interesting observations about the way the reading of these types of texts can often kick off explosions of bizarre synchronicities and psychic transformations, and thus serve as a kind of involuntary practice of bibliomancy. It’s an effect that I have experienced myself many times, and that I suspect you may have as well, if you find yourself drawn to books like these.

ERIK DAVIS: VALIS is a masterpiece whose power partly lies in its ability to disorient and enchant the reader. I suspect that for readers today it continues to resonate, as our world in many ways has simply become more PhilDickean. I am reminded of Robert Anton Wilson’s idea of “Chapel Perilous”. Wilson had somewhat similar experiences in 1974 — cosmic conspiracies, syncronicities, blasts of insight — and he suggested that there was a stage of the path, a kind of dark night of the soul, where the seeker can’t tell what’s paranoia and what’s reality. There is a surfeit of meaning — after all, there is definitely something like too many synchronicities. Valis is Dick’s Chapel Perilous, and he brings readers along for the ride. Some of them never quite get off. But Chapel Perilous is a place to pass through, not to call home.

. . . JEREMY JOHNSON: Professor Richard Doyle, who recently held a class on Synchcast for P.K.D., warned his students that reading Dick’s novels could induce what he calls an “involutionary” affect — meaning one’s life might start getting taken up by synchronicities and uncanny moments. I know you’ve mentioned in some previous presentations that you have experienced these moments (we might call them P.K.D. moments) where the book seems to become a divinizing tool for bibliomancy.

What do you think is happening here, if anything? And secondly: isn’t it interesting that this phenomenon seems to occur regardless of the perceived value of the text? It seems to happen as readily to a pulp scifi novel as the Bible.

ERIK DAVIS: The specific “occult” practice of bibliomancy is key to PKD. The first time I gave a talk on him, which was my first public lecture back in 1990 or something, I realized I hadn’t prepared an adequate definition of “Gnosticism.” With five minutes to go, people already sitting down, I panicked, and opened the book randomly and my eyes fell precisely on Dick’s pithy definition: “This is Gnosticism. In Gnosticism, man belongs with God against the world and the creator of the world (both of which are crazy, whether they realize it or not).” These sorts of gestures are also made by the characters in many Dick novels, a number of which feature oracular books that are opened to any page, or accessed with other random processes, like the I Ching in The Man in the High Castle. Researchers and scholars know these synchronicities well, however you might think about them, and Dick was very interested in seeding those sorts of connections in his novels. Reading, drawing connections, in a sense is invoking these kinds of uncanny links. For Dick, writing itself is alive.

MORE: “Erik Davis on VALIS, P.K.D., and High Weirdness” 

(For more on Chapel Perilous itself, see here.)

 

Image courtesy of Dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The bias of scientific materialism and the reality of paranormal experience

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In my recent post about Jeff Kripal’s article “Visions of the Impossible,” I mentioned that biologist and hardcore skeptical materialist Jerry Coyne published a scathing response to Jeff’s argument soon after it appeared. For those who would like to keep up with the conversation, here’s the heart of Coyne’s response (which, in its full version, shows him offering several direct responses to several long passages that he quotes from Jeff’s piece):

For some reason the Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly publication that details doings (and available jobs) in American academia, has shown a penchant for bashing science and promoting anti-materialist views. . . . I’m not sure why that is, but I suspect it has something to do with supporting the humanities against the dreaded incursion of science — the bogus disease of “scientism.”

That’s certainly the case with a big new article in the Chronicle, “Visions of the impossible: how ‘fantastic’ stories unlock the nature of consciousness,” by Jeffrey J. Kripal, a professor of religious studies at Rice University in Texas. Given his position, it’s not surprising that Kripal’s piece is an argument about Why There is Something Out There Beyond Science. And although the piece is long, I can summarize its thesis in two sentences (these are my words, not Kripal’s):

“People have had weird experiences, like dreaming in great detail about something happening before it actually does; and because these events can’t be explained by science, the most likely explanation is that they are messages from some non-material realm beyond our ken. If you combine that with science’s complete failure to understand consciousness, we must conclude that naturalism is not sufficient to understand the universe, and that our brains are receiving some sort of ‘transhuman signals.'”

That sounds bizarre, especially for a distinguished periodical, but anti-naturalism seems to be replacing postmodernism as the latest way to bash science in academia.

. . . But our brain is not anything like a radio. The information processed in that organ comes not from a transhuman ether replete with other people’s thoughts, but from signals sent from one neuron to another, ultimately deriving from the effect of our physical environment on our senses. If you cut your optic nerves, you go blind; if you cut the auditory nerves, you become deaf. Without such sensory inputs, whose mechanisms we understand well, we simply don’t get information from the spooky channels promoted by Kripal.

When science manages to find reliable evidence for that kind of clairvoyance, I’ll begin to pay attention. Until then, the idea of our brain as a supernatural radio seems like a kind of twentieth-century alchemy—the resort of those whose will to believe outstrips their respect for the facts.

Full article: “Science Is Being Bashed by Academic Who Should Know Better

(An aside: Is it just me, or in his second paragraph above does Coyne effectively insult and dismiss the entire field of religious studies and all of the people who work in it?)

Jeff responded five days later in a second piece for the Chronicle, where he met Coyne’s criticisms head-on with words like these: Read the rest of this entry