Category Archives: Paranormal
During my senior year of high school, I was introduced to the writings of Richard Bach. I started, appropriately enough, with his first book, that ultra-mega-bestseller from the 1970s, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I read it in my high school’s modern literature class, taught by Mrs. Ellis, who included it on a list of books from which students could choose. She conducted the class in an independent reading mode, where we could each choose our books individually, spend time in class reading them, and then write reports and deliver presentations. It ended up being one of my favorite classes in all of high school, not least because Mrs. Ellis accepted suggestions for books not included on her provided list, which is how I came to read The Vampire Lestat and Stephen King’s It while sitting in first hour.
But back to Bach. I thoroughly enjoyed Jonathan Livingston Seagull and grokked it at a deep level (although I didn’t know the term “grok” at that point in my life). I then chose to read his Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah on my own time. It was a pure joy, and I still love it all these years later, even though I’m not really aligned with its central New Thought-inflected philosophy (although I do find value in some aspects of that). Something about Bach’s truly engaging and elegant way of presenting spiritual philosophy through the vehicle of a winsome semi-fiction, the way he combined his real-life experiences with an obviously fantastic story of how he ran into a bona fide messiah (now retired, having decided to quit the job when nobody would understand him) while making a private living flying an old biplane around the American Midwest and giving three-dollar rides, really enraptured me. I think it also added impetus to my then-developing penchant for books that deal with philosophical and spiritual ideas; shortly after finishing it, I started on Alan Watts, Robert Anton Wilson (including his nonfiction, although the boundaries are nebulous for him), and Nietzsche. Bach was also a featured author in the creativity class taught by Dr. Betty Scott that I took at the University of Missouri, which I talk about in my post “Shadow Visitors: Sleep Paralysis and Discarnate ‘Dark Ones.'”
Years later, when I was a hardcore reader of Wilson’s books, I learned from his The Illuminati Papers that Bach had been one of the experimental subjects in Russell Targ’s and Hal Puthoff’s remote viewing research at the Stanford Research Institute. At the time, I was only just learning about that whole wing of paranormal history, and its connection with Bach blew my mind. It was some time later that I discovered this info wasn’t exactly a secret, as Bach had written the foreword to Targ and Puthoff’s semi-classic 1977 book Mind-Reach: Scientists Look at Psychic Abilities (which also featured a foreword by Margaret Mead [!]).
Which brings me to this: A few days ago I stumbled across the following eight-minute clip from Jeffrey Mishlove’s Thinking Allowed in which Bach talks about his experiences at SRI. This discovery was thoroughly accidental, and it resurrected all those old feelings of affection for Bach’s books. This was helped by the fact that in the clip, he presents what seems to me one of the most candid and enjoyable accounts of what went on at SRI during those heady years. He starts by talking about the relationship between fiction, reality, and the ideas that seem to guide one’s life because they feel native when one first encounters them. The part about remote viewing starts at 2:33 and features Bach’s detailed account of one successful experiment that blew his mind.
I look back now on the last twenty years of my life and say, “Now, Richard, what have you been doing?” What I’ve been discovering is the power of the imagination and how ideas translate into what we call the real world around us. . . . [Russell Targ] said, “Richard, next time you’re on the west coast, stop by [SRI], please.” I did, and I walked into this room, and they shut the door behind me, and they closed the blinds. I said, “What’s going on here?” He said, “A fellow experimenter, Hal Puthoff, is somewhere in the Bay Area. You have no idea where. Now just relax, Richard, and tell us where he is. Describe what he’s looking at this minute.” “Well, what do I do, Russell? Do I open my eyes? Do I close my eyes? What am I supposed to do?” “Anything. If you want to leave your eyes open, that’s fine.” So I closed my eyes. I opened them again and said, “Russell, I’m making it up.” He said, “That’s right. You’re making it up. Tell us what you make up.”
Recently, I was interviewed for the excellent Weird Studies podcast. The episode, titled “On Speculative Fiction, with Matt Cardin,” dropped yesterday. You can listen to it with the player above or by clicking through to the site itself. Here’s the episode description:
Neil Gaiman wrote, If literature is the world, then fantasy and horror are twin cities, divided by a river of black water. Flame Tree Publishing underwrites this claim with their recent publication, The Astounding Illustrated History of Fantasy and Horror. The book is a veritable gazetteer of these two cities in the heartland of the imaginal world. Writer and scholar Matt Cardin, founding editor of the marvellous Teeming Brain, wrote a chapter for the book focusing on the books and films of the Sixties and Seventies. In this episode, he joins JF and Phil to discuss the kinship of horror and fantasy, the modern ghettoization of mythopoeic art, the prophetic reach of speculative fiction, and the cauldron of cultural transformation that was the Sixties and Seventies.
Be advised that Teeming Brain readers will likely find Weird Studies to be an essential addition to their listening schedule. It was launched in 2018 by hosts J. F. Martel and Phil Ford. J. F. is an author, screenwriter, and film & TV director from Ottawa, Canada. In 2015 I interviewed him here in connection with his truly wonderful book, Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice. Phil is an associate professor of musicology at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music whose books include Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture and a currently in-development project on music and occult styles of thought. The tagline of Weird Studies is “A filmmaker and a professor talk art and philosophy at the limits of the thinkable.” A browse through past episodes uncovers a rich feast.
An interview with Gary Lachman on occult politics, nihilism, and the dangerous potentials of the imagination
Just published here at The Teeming Brain: my interview with Gary Lachman on his new book Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump. As many Teeming Brain readers are already aware, Gary is a noted writer on occultism and esotericism who contributed to my paranormal encyclopedia a few years ago. In this new interview, he expands on the themes of his latest book, in which he examines the role of New Thought, meme magic, Chaos Magick, and other occult and esoteric movements in shaping current geopolitical affairs, involving everything and everyone from Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to the rise of the Alt-Right and the advent of a “post-truth/alternative fact” world.
Here’s an excerpt:
MATT CARDIN: What’s your basic argument in Dark Star Rising?
GARY LACHMAN: Dark Star Rising is about the strange “occult politics” that seem to be a part of both Trump’s presidency and that of his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. As I say in the book, I first became aware of this when I read a post on Harvey Bishop’s New Thought blog. Bishop was commenting on the speech Richard Spencer, founder of the alt-right, gave at the meeting of the National Policy Institute in Washington, following Trump’s election. Spencer greeted the crowd, hailing Trump’s victory, and saying that they — he and his comrades — had made it happen. They had “dreamed” Trump into office, had “willed” him into the White House. Bishop noted that turning dreams into reality, making your wishes come true, is a central aim of New Thought, mental science, and other teachings that emphasize the power of the mind to affect reality directly. Trump, we know, has been a lifelong devotee of “positive thinking;” Norman Vincent Peale, who popularized the “power of positive of thinking,” was a mentor. But now it seemed that people in Trump’s fan base were practitioners, too.
With this, I began to follow a trail which led around the world and involved things like “meme magic” (using the internet as a way of affecting reality), gurus, demagogues, and how some rather radical ideas about a new world order — or disorder — are informing some of the most powerful people on the planet.
Read the full interview.
A few year ago I had two articles published in editor Joe Laycock’s Spirit Possession around the World: Possession, Communion, and Demon Expulsion across Cultures (ABC-CLIO, 2015). One of these was a survey of possession and exorcism in the history of literature. The other was an article about the daimon.
When I submitted the latter of these, Joe got back to me with a request for significant revisions, the better to make the article fit harmoniously with the rest of the encyclopedia’s contents, and the better to make it align with his editorial vision of its place in the book.
As a result, the version that is now published in the encyclopedia is thoroughly different from what I originally wrote. The original version has never been published. And since I own the copyright on that version, I’m free to share it here with Teeming Brain readers. As those of you who have been here for awhile will immediately recognize, this is entirely appropriate, since the article lands right in the middle of several of this blog’s foundational interests, themes, and concerns.
Possession, Exorcism, and the Daimon
The word “daimon” has several possible meanings, but in relation to possession and exorcism it refers to a particular type of autonomous or autonomous-feeling force in the psyche that influences or, in some cases, dominates a person’s thoughts, actions, and feelings. It comes from ancient Greece and the ancient Hellenistic world, where it generally referred to a particular class of deity or spirit being, and where its basic meaning evolved over time to refer as much or more to an inner psychic or subjective force as to an objectively conceived entity. The concept of the daimon is one of the key components in the origin and evolution of the related concepts of the demon and demonic possession. Its adjectival form, daimonic, has been widely used in modern-day depth psychology to refer to a particular aspect of the psyche that lies outside a person’s conscious, voluntary control, and that is especially associated with creativity, anger, and other surging states of mind and emotion that can effectively swamp the conscious ego and result in violent outbursts of creation and destruction.
Among the ancient Greeks, the concept of the daimon led a dual existence as it progressed along two distinct but related strands. On the one hand, daimons were conceived in typically animistic terms as spirits that inhabited or haunted certain places, affected the weather and other natural occurrences, and so on. Some were associated with the spirits of the dead. On the other hand, a spiritualized or psychologized view placed the daimons in a position of deep intertwinement with human subjectivity. Essentially, the Greeks regarded daimons as objectively real presences that made themselves known through their influence upon and within the human psyche. The objective, animistic beliefs about them were thus matched and accompanied by a more subtle and psychologically oriented view that framed them as inner influences upon human thoughts and emotions, and even as the keepers and emblems of individual character and destiny. This second view gradually became dominant over time. Read the rest of this entry
“Matt Cardin on Horror and Spirituality, Thomas Ligotti, and Alan Watts” – An interview for the This Is Horror podcast
I was recently interviewed by the good folks at This Is Horror for their popular podcast. Here’s the result, published today as the first of two parts.
The conversation with TIH mastermind Michael David Wilson and co-host Bob Pastorella turned out to be extremely wide-ranging. We talked about my Horror Literature through History encyclopedia plus many more things, including my childhood preoccupation with fantasy and science fiction that eventually shaded over into horror; my own horror fiction; the reality or unreality of God, the supernatural, and the paranormal; the work and philosophy of Robert Anton Wilson; my self-identification as a Zen Christian; the transformation of the world into a digital dystopia; the works of Thomas Ligotti and Jon Padgett; the books and spiritual philosophy of Alan Watts; my creativity ebook A Course in Demonic Creativity; and Patrick Harpur’s Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld. Michael describes it this way: “It’s the first of our two-part conversation with Matt Cardin on the This Is Horror Podcast. We chat about philosophy, existentialism, spirituality, our perception of reality … we even talk a little bit about horror fiction.” Click the image to visit the site and access the podcast.
Recently Daryl Bem defended his famous research into precognition in a letter to The Chronicle of Higher Education. More recently, as in this week, Salon published a major piece about Bem and his research that delves deeply into its implications for the whole of contemporary science — especially psychology and the other social sciences (or “social sciences”), but also the wider of world of science in general — and shows how Bem’s research, and the reactions to it, have highlighted, underscored, and called out some very serious problems:
Bem’s 10-year investigation, his nine experiments, his thousand subjects—all of it would have to be taken seriously. He’d shown, with more rigor than anyone ever had before, that it might be possible to see into the future. Bem knew his research would not convince the die-hard skeptics. But he also knew it couldn’t be ignored.
When the study went public, about six months later, some of Bem’s colleagues guessed it was a hoax. Other scholars, those who believed in ESP — theirs is a small but fervent field of study — saw his paper as validation of their work and a chance for mainstream credibility.
But for most observers, at least the mainstream ones, the paper posed a very difficult dilemma. It was both methodologically sound and logically insane. Daryl Bem had seemed to prove that time can flow in two directions — that ESP is real. If you bought into those results, you’d be admitting that much of what you understood about the universe was wrong. If you rejected them, you’d be admitting something almost as momentous: that the standard methods of psychology cannot be trusted, and that much of what gets published in the field — and thus, much of what we think we understand about the mind — could be total bunk.
If one had to choose a single moment that set off the “replication crisis” in psychology — an event that nudged the discipline into its present and anarchic state, where even textbook findings have been cast in doubt — this might be it: the publication, in early 2011, of Daryl Bem’s experiments on second sight.
The replication crisis as it’s understood today may yet prove to be a passing worry or else a mild problem calling for a soft corrective. It might also grow and spread in years to come, flaring from the social sciences into other disciplines, burning trails of cinder through medicine, neuroscience, and chemistry. It’s hard to see into the future. But here’s one thing we can say about the past: The final research project of Bem’s career landed like an ember in the underbrush and set his field ablaze. . . .
When Bem started investigating ESP, he realized the details of his research methods would be scrutinized with far more care than they had been before. In the years since his work was published, those higher standards have increasingly applied to a broad range of research, not just studies of the paranormal. “I get more credit for having started the revolution in questioning mainstream psychological methods than I deserve,” Bem told me. “I was in the right place at the right time. The groundwork was already pre-prepared, and I just made it all startlingly clear.”
Looking back, however, his research offered something more than a vivid illustration of problems in the field of psychology. It opened up a platform for discussion. Bem hadn’t simply published a set of inconceivable findings; he’d done so in a way that explicitly invited introspection. In his paper proving ESP is real, Bem used the word replication 33 times. Even as he made the claim for precognition, he pleaded for its review.
“Credit to Daryl Bem himself,” [University of California-Berkeley business school professor] Leif Nelson told me. “He’s such a smart, interesting man. . . . In that paper, he actively encouraged replication in a way that no one ever does. He said, ‘This is an extraordinary claim, so we need to be open with our procedures.’ . . . It was a prompt for skepticism and action.”
Bem meant to satisfy the skeptics, but in the end he did the opposite: He energized their doubts and helped incite a dawning revolution. Yet again, one of the world’s leading social psychologists had made a lasting contribution and influenced his peers. “I’m sort of proud of that,” Bem conceded at the end of our conversation. “But I’d rather they started to believe in psi as well. I’d rather they remember my work for the ideas.”
Note that the article also contains, in its middle section, a fascinating personal profile and mini-biography of Bem himself, including a recounting of his life-long interest in mentalism, which began in his teen years and persisted into his career in academia:
As a young professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Bem liked to close out each semester by performing as a mentalist. After putting on his show, he’d tell his students that he didn’t really have ESP. In class, he also stressed how easily people can be fooled into believing they’ve witnessed paranormal phenomena.
Interesting: Last month The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by Tom Bartlett, their senior science editor, titled “Spoiled Science.” It’s about the way Cornell University’s renowned Food and Brand Lab has taken a credibility hit in the wake of revelations about multiple statistical anomalies that have been discovered in papers co-authored by its director, Brian Wansink, who is also a celebrity scholar due to appearance on the likes of 60 Minutes and Rachael Ray. The heart of the article’s import is laid out in this paragraph:
The slow-motion credibility crisis in social science has taken the shine off a slew of once-brilliant reputations and thrown years of research into doubt. It’s also led to an undercurrent of anxiety among scientists who fear that their labs and their publication records might come under attack from a feisty cadre of freelance critics. The specifics of these skirmishes can seem technical at times, with talk of p-values and sample sizes, but they go straight to the heart of how new knowledge is created and disseminated, and whether some of what we call science really deserves that label.
In the middle of the piece, Bartlett sudden mentions Daryl Bem’s famous precognition research from a few years ago, and subjects it to a brief but withering moment of scorn:
This isn’t the first time Cornell has had to cope with a blow to its research reputation. In 2011, Daryl Bem, an emeritus professor of psychology, published a paper in which he showed, or seemed to show, that subjects could anticipate pornographic images before they appeared on a computer screen. If true, Bem’s finding would upend what we understand about the nature of time and causation. It would be a big deal. That paper, “Feeling the Future,” was widely ridiculed and failed to replicate, though Bem himself has stood by his results.
Yesterday Bem responded with a letter to the Chronicle titled “In Defense of Research on Precognition,” in which he sets the record straight. He begins by pointing out that his paper was published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which has a rejection rate of 80 percent, and where the paper was approved by four referees and two editors before publication.
He then points out that Barlett’s claim about the experiment’s failure to replicate is patently false: “In 2015, three colleagues and I published a follow-up meta-analysis of 90 such experiments conducted by 33 laboratories in 14 countries. The results strongly support my original findings. In particular, the independent replications are robust and highly significant statistically.”
Finally, he shares this salient fact:
Bartlett further asserts that this research was widely ridiculed and constituted a blow to Cornell’s research reputation. But it was Cornell’s own public-affairs office that was proactively instrumental in setting up interviews with the press and other media following the publication of the original article. New Scientist, Discover, Wired, New York Magazine, and Cornell’s own in-house publications all described the research findings seriously and without ridicule.
Me, I’m just fascinated to see mentions of such matters cropping up repeatedly in a place like The Chronicle of Higher Education, whose publication of essays by Jeffrey Kripal on the paranormal I discussed at some length a few years ago. (And of course I’d be lying if I denied that I simply enjoyed reading Bem’s refutation of Bartlett’s belittling.)
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.
(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.)
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.
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.)
- This I Believe: An uber-agnostic on religion, psychology, consciousness, the paranormal, and the meaning of life
- The bias of scientific materialism and the reality of paranormal experience
- Liminality, Synchronicity, and the Walls of Everyday Reality