Blog Archives

Teeming Links – May 1, 2015

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Don’t say you weren’t warned: artificial telepathy might turn out to be a nightmare. “Will the next generation of telepathy machines make us closer, or are there unforeseen dangers in the melding of minds?” (Aeon)

What is the future of loneliness in the age of the Internet?  “As we moved our lives online, the internet promised an end to isolation. But can we find real intimacy amid shifting identities and permanent surveillance?” (The Guardian)

An Even More Dismal Science: “For the past 25 years, a debate has raged among some of the world’s leading economists. At issue has been whether the nature of the business cycle underwent a fundamental change after the end of the ’30 glorious years’ that followed World War II, when the economy was characterized by rapid growth, full employment, and a bias toward moderate inflation. . . . Today, a degree of consensus has emerged. There is no longer much point in questioning whether the glory days are over.” (Project Syndicate)

Astrobiology research scientist Lewis Dartnell considers a pertinent question: Could we recreate industrial-technological civilization without fossil fuels? (Aeon)

Weird realism: John Gray on the moral universe of H. P. Lovecraft: “The weird realism that runs through Lovecraft’s writings undermines any belief system — religious or humanist — in which the human mind is the centre of the universe.” (New Statesman)

George Lucas rips Hollywood and laments the digital dumbing of Internet culture: “George Lucas offered a bleak assessment of the current state of the film business during a panel discussion with Robert Redford at the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday, saying that the movies are ‘more and more circus without any substance behind it’ . . . . The man who took bigscreen fantasies to bold new worlds said he never could have predicted the smallness of popular entertainment options on platforms such as YouTube. ‘I would never guess people would watch cats do stupid things all day long,’ said Lucas.” (Variety)

Arch-skeptic Michael Shermer writes about an anomalous event that shook his skepticism to the core: “[T]he eerie conjunction of these deeply evocative events gave [my wife Jennifer] the distinct feeling that her grandfather was there and that the music was his gift of approval. I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my skepticism to its core as well. I savored the experience more than the explanation. The emotional interpretations of such anomalous events grant them significance regardless of their causal account. And if we are to take seriously the scientific credo to keep an open mind and remain agnostic when the evidence is indecisive or the riddle unsolved, we should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious.” (Scientific American)

The Return of the Exorcists: “With papal recognition of an international group of exorcists comes a renewed interest in their ministry and role in the pastoral work of the Church.” (The Catholic World Report)

Case Study: The Horror Genre: “Unlike the western or gangster film, where there are a few fairly hard and fast rules in terms of the environment that the action might take place in, or indeed the nature of the characters that are ranged against one another, the horror genre can encompass an extraordinarily wide range of environments, characters, threats and subtexts. This is perhaps one of the major reasons that the horror film has remained popular — or has been able to reinvent itself when its popularity seemed to be on the wane. But what exactly does the horror genre consist of?” (Routledge, from the companion website for the textbook AS Media Studies: The Essential Introduction)

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Teeming Links – July 11, 2014

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Apologies for the dearth of posts during the week leading up to now. I have reached crunch time on both the mummy encyclopedia and the paranormal encyclopedia, and, in combination with the fact that just this week I started a new day job at a new (to me) college, my time will be limited in the near future. That said, weekly Teeming Links will continue appearing every Friday. I also have a number of great features lined up for publication, including a very long interview with psychedelic research pioneer James Fadiman (finished and currently in the editing and formatting stage) and the third installment of Dominik Irtenkauf’s “Sounds of Apocalypse” series.

 

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Niall Ferguson wonders whether the powers that be will transform the supposed “libertarian utopia” of the Internet into a totalitarian dystopia worthy of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: “[T]he suspicion cannot be dismissed that, despite all the hype of the Information Age and all the brouhaha about Messrs. Snowden and Assange, the old hierarchies and new networks are in the process of reaching a quiet accommodation with one another, much as thrones and telephones did a century ago.”

Writer and former Omni editor-in-chief Keith Ferrell describes what he has learned from an experiment in living like an 11th-century farmer, or rather, like a post-apocalyptic survivor: “Our modern era’s dependence upon technology and, especially, chemical and motorised technology, has divorced most of us from soil and seeds and fundamental skills. . . . Planning and long-practised rhythms were at the core of the 11th-century farmer’s life; improvisation, much of it desperate, would be the heart of the post-apocalyptic farmer’s existence.”

In a world where the dominating goals of tech development are mobilility and sociality, Nicholas Carr wonders what kinds of alternative technologies and devices we might have if the guiding values were to be stationary and solitary. (Personally, I can think of one such technology, though not an electronic one: the paper book.)

Speaking of which, Andrew Erdmann uses the vehicle of Hal Ashby’s classic 1979 film Being There to reflect on our collective descent into aliteracy and electronically induced infantile idiocy: “I consider myself fortunate that I experienced reading and thinking before the Internet, and the written word before PowerPoint. I like to think that these experiences afford me some self-defense despite my own use of the Blackberry and other technologies.”

Roberto Bolaño says books are the only homeland for the true writer.

Javier Marías says the only real reason to write a novel is because this “allows the novelist to spend much of his time in a fictional world, which is really the only or at least the most bearable place to be.”

The Vatican has formally recognized the International Association of Exorcists and approved their statutes.

In response to the above, Chris French, the prominent skeptic and specialist in the psychology of paranormal beliefs and psychological states, argues in The Guardian that possession is better understood in psychological rather than supernatural terms. (Chris, btw, is writing the entry on anomalistic psychology for my paranormal encyclopedia.)

BBC journalist David Robson offers a firsthand, participatory account of how scientists are using hypnosis to simulate possession and understand why some people believe they’re inhabited by paranormal beings.

Over at Boing Boing, Don Jolly profiles Shannon Taggart, photographer of séances, spirits, and ectoplasm: “Taggart is not a ‘believer,’ in the traditional sense, nor does she seem to debunk her subject. Rather, she presents a world where belief and unbelief are radically mediated by technology — and raises the possibility that in the age of omnipresent electronic image what is ‘true’ may be a much harder debate than the skeptics suppose.” (Shannon, btw, is writing the entries on thoughtography and Kirlian photography for my paranormal encyclopedia.)

Philosopher Bernardo Kastrup absolutely nails, in his typically lucid fashion, the reason why scientific materialism is baloney:

It’s a philosophical and not a logical interpretation of science. Science itself is just a study of the patterns and the regularities that we can observe in reality. It doesn’t carry with it an interpretation. . . . Scientific materialism is when you load the scientific observations of the regularities of nature with an ontological interpretation and you say, “What you’re observing here is matter outside of mind that has an existence that would still go on even if nobody were looking at it.” That is already an interpretation. It’s not really pure science anymore, and the essence of scientific materialism is [the idea] that the real world is outside of mind, it’s independent of mind, and particular arrangements of elements in that real world, namely, subatomic particles, generate mind, generate subjective experience. Now of course the only carrier of reality anyone can know is subjective experience. So materialism is a kind of projection, an abstraction and then a projection onto the world of something that is fundamentally beyond knowledge.

Awesomeness alert: Guillermo del Toro hints — nay, states — that there is still life in his At the Mountains of Madness dream project.

Journalist and novelist Joseph L. Flatley offers an engaging exploration of the real-life occult influence of Lovecraft’s fictional Necronomicon (with much info about, e.g., the origin of the Simonomicon and the theories of Donald Tyson).

 

“Fire Head” image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Teeming Links – July 4, 2014

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If current world events have you wondering — or especially if they don’t have you wondering — about the possibility of a bona fide new world war, please bear this in mind: a hundred years ago World War One was impossible — until it was inevitable.

So, is anybody really surprised that Facebook was (is?) running a scientific experiment to manipulate users’ emotions? “We’re really, really sorry,” says their second in command.  Time magazine points out one reason to be worried beyond just the obvious ones: private sector and tech companies are increasingly funding what was once independent social science research.

Nick Hanauer, himself a certified member of America’s ruling  “one percent,” warns his fellow plutocrats that the pitchforks are coming for all of them: “No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.”

In The Washington Post, political commentator  Dana Milbanks reflects on the current disastrous reign of boomers in American politics.

If this were a joke, it would be a bad one — but it’s not a joke at all: Massachusetts SWAT teams claim they’re private corporations, immune from open records laws.

We’re told that “predictive policing” isn’t — really isn’t! — dystopian SF come to life. But then we read something like this: Predicting crime, LAPD-style.

Canary in the coal mine for the American southwest: Las Vegas is seriously running out water.

Then there’s my own home state of Texas, which is also running out of water due to greed, drought, and rampant overdevelopment.

Guardian journalist Rory Carroll investigates the psychic toll of unrelenting failure in Silicon Valley’s frantic culture of tech startups.

Mark Edmundson (author of, among many other things, the classic 1997 essay “On the uses of a liberal education: As lite entertainment for bored college students”) warns that while attentive absorption in some worthy work or subject is the essence of happiness and fulfillment, we live in a culture afflicted with ADHD and devoted to absorption’s evil twin, electronic mesmerization.

BBC journalist Nicholas Barber delves into the mysterious fascination of exorcisms.

Psychologist Charles Fernyhough emphasizes the normalcy of hearing voices (with a reference to the Society for Psychical Research): “The sooner we come to appreciate that voice-hearing is something that happens to people, rather than merely a symptom of a diseased brain, the sooner we will close in on a genuinely humane and enlightened understanding of the experience.”

Religion scholar Timothy Beal (author of the wonderful Religion and Its Monsters) examines the relationship between our spiritual impulse and our enduring fascination with the monsters of supernatural horror: “The import of the spiritual mainstream is holistic and ‘cosmic,’ speaking to our desire for grounding and orientation within a meaningfully integrated and interconnected whole. The monsters of contemporary horror, on the other hand, often remind us of the more chaotic, disorienting, and ungrounding dimensions of religion, envisioning an everyday life that is not without fear and trembling. ”

David Duchovny muses on future possibilities for The X-Files: “It’s not done until one of us dies.”

 

“Fire Head” image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Teeming Links – June 6, 2014

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MUST READ: Tom Englehardt’s hypothetical commencement address to the class of 2014 about the Big Brotherness of the world into which (and in which) they’re graduating: “That bright and shiny world of online wonders has — as no one could have failed to notice by now — also managed to drop the most oppressive powers of the state and the corporation directly into your lap, or rather your laptop, iPad, and smartphone. You — yes, I mean you with that smartphone in your pocket or purse — are a walking Stasi file.”

But remember, they’re not “Generation Y,” they’re Generation Omega, and they didn’t create the current disaster; they’re just inheriting it: “Stories about Millennials’ character flaws aren’t just wrong; they’re cover for the real perpetrators of crimes against the future. . . . The world we’ve inherited is rotten, and it’s getting rottener. We are living in the twilight of a world order on the brink of economic, ecological and ethical collapse. We are the last generation who will live in this version of the world.”

The Anxieties of Big Data: “Already, the lived reality of big data is suffused with a kind of surveillant anxiety — the fear that all the data we are shedding every day is too revealing of our intimate selves but may also misrepresent us.”

Lewis Lapham observes that the word “revolution” is everywhere in America now but seems to apply only to new techno-gadgets, since America’s spirit of rebellion has been swallowed by a culture of bread and digital circuses: “Who has time to think or care about political change when it’s more than enough trouble to save oneself from drowning in the flood of technological change? All is not lost, however, for the magic word that stormed the Bastille and marched on the tsar’s winter palace; let it give up its career as a noun, and as an adjective it can look forward to no end of on-camera promotional appearances with an up-and-coming surgical procedure, breakfast cereal, or video game.”

And speaking of revolutionary, check out these mindblowing new jobs of the digi-media-fied future!!! “Our venture-funded vertical-driven content prosumer phablet platisher is rapidly growing and we need to add some Ninja Rockstar Content Associates A.S.A.P. See below for a list of open positions!” (My personal favorite from the list: Neologizer: “Reimaginatorialize the verbalsphere! If you are a slang-slinger who is equahome in brandegy and advertorial, a total expert in brandtech and techvertoribrand, and a first-class synergymnast, then this will be your rockupation!”)

The Exorcists Next Door: On the Christian “deliverance” ministry of two North Texas suburbanites. “Pastors and Christian mental-health professionals from all over the country quietly refer clients they just can’t help to the Pollards, after trying everything. In the 15 years or so since the Pollards started their ministry, there has been no shortage of tortured souls.”

The Entity: The True Accounts of Doris Bither: A nicely balanced consideration of the details and different possible interpretations surrounding the most famous modern-day case of paranormal assault.

The Unlimited Mind of Dr. John C. Lilly: “[H]e is perhaps most famous for his experiments with psychoactive drugs and the isolation tank, which he invented at the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland in 1954. . . . He is capturing the imagination of a new generation of internet savvy alternatives and conscious hipsters — a younger crowd who are enthusiastically embracing the work and do-it-yourself ethic of eccentric 20th century notables such as Nikola Tesla, Buckminster Fuller, Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson, Phillip K. Dick, Alan Watts, Ram Dass and Terrence McKenna.”

 

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Teeming Links – May 23, 2014

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Decline of religious belief means we need more exorcists, say Catholics: “The decline of religious belief in the West and the growth of secularism has ‘opened the window’ to black magic, Satanism and belief in the occult, the organisers of a conference on exorcism have said. The six-day meeting in Rome aims to train about 200 Roman Catholic priests from more than 30 countries in how to cast out evil from people who believe themselves to be in thrall to the Devil.”

Is there a ghost or monster? Is the weather always awful? Is the heroine a virginal saint prone to fainting? Is the villain a murderous tyrant with scary eyes? Are all non-white, non-middle class, non-Protestants portrayed as thoroughly frightening? Chances are you’re reading a Gothic novel.

The Return of Godzilla: “The first time Godzilla appeared, in 1954, Japan was still deep in the trauma of nuclear destruction. Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fresh and terrible memories. US nuclear tests in the Pacific had just rained more death down on Japanese fishermen. And here came the monster. Godzilla. The great force of nature from the deep. Swimming ashore. Stomping through Tokyo. Raising radioactive hell. Godzilla came back again and again. In movies and more. Now, maybe Fukushima’s nuclear disaster has roused the beast. It’s back.”

When you first heard the Snowden revelations about the NSA, did you just kind of shrug and feel like the whole thing merely confirmed what you already knew? This may be no accident: funded by the wealthy and powerful elite, Hollywood has acclimated us to the idea of a surveillance society.

Google Glass and related technologies will create the perfect Orwellian dystopia for workers: “In an office where everyone wears Glass, the very idea of workplace organizing will be utterly unimaginable, as every employee will be turned into an unwilling (perhaps even unwitting) informant for his or her superiors.”

Speaking of dystopias, James Howard Kunstler recently observed that it’s a true sign of the times when, in a society where our digital devices have basically become prosthetic extensions of our hands, it’s impossible to get anybody on the phone anymore.

Also speaking of dystopias, researchers are teaming with the U.S. Navy to develop robots that can make moral decisions. Meanwhile, scientists have no idea how to define human morality.

Net neutrality? Get real. It’s far too late to save the Internet: “The open Internet of legend is already winnowed to the last chaff. . . . To fear a ‘pay to play’ Internet because it will be less hospitable to competition and innovation is not just to board a ship that’s already sailed, but to prepay your cruise vacation down the river Styx.”

And anyway, as far as the Internet goes, it’s totally broken, including, especially, when it comes to security: “It’s hard to explain to regular people how much technology barely works, how much the infrastructure of our lives is held together by the IT equivalent of baling wire. Computers, and computing, are broken. . . . [A]ll computers are reliably this bad: the ones in
hospitals and governments and banks, the ones in your phone, the ones that control light switches and smart meters and air traffic control systems. Industrial computers that maintain infrastructure and manufacturing are even worse. I don’t know all the details, but those who do are the most alcoholic and nihilistic people in computer security.”

Despite Wikipedia’s skeptical disinformation campaign against all paranormal matters, remote viewing is not pseudoscience, says Russell Targ, the field’s most prominent pioneer. What’s more, he easily eviscerates the Wikiskeptics with a revolutionary tool called evidence: “Jessica Utts is a statistics Professor at the University of California, Irvine, and is president of the American Statistical Association. In writing for her part of a 1995 evaluation of our work for the CIA, she wrote: ‘Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well established’ . . . . [I]t should be clear that hundreds of people were involved in a 23 year, multi-million dollar operational program at SRI, the CIA, DIA and two dozen intelligence officers at the army base at Ft. Meade. Regardless of the personal opinion of a Wikipedia editor, it is not logically coherent to trivialize this whole remote viewing undertaking as some kind of ‘pseudoscience.’ Besides me, there is a parade of Ph.D. physicists, psychologists, and heads of government agencies who think our work was valuable, though puzzling.”

And finally: “Mesmerists, Mediums, and Mind-readers” (pdf) — Psychologist and stage magician Peter Lamont provides a brief and thoroughly absorbing “history of extraordinary psychological feats, and their relevance for our concept of psychology and science.”

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Of demons and supernatural wonders in the age of secular materialism

There’s an absolutely fascinating conversation taking place over at the Website for the noted interreligious Christian journal First Things about the ontological status of demons and other supernatural beings and their place within contemporary Christianity and secular-scientific society at large. Starting from an article about this very subject, the comments section has evolved into a rich dialogue about supernaturalism, religion, materialism, and the signs and wonders that many inhabitants of modern technological societies have seen and experienced when living and interacting with more traditional and primitive peoples.

Here are a couple of chunks from the seed article itself, which opens with the recent and sensational reports of Pope Francis apparently performing an ad hoc exorcism:

On Pentecost Sunday all hell broke loose in Rome. Following Mass that day, the unpredictable Pope Francis laid hands on a demon-possessed man from Mexico and prayed for him. The YouTube video of this encounter was flashed around the world, and the story caught fire: Is Pope Francis an exorcist? The Holy Father’s Vatican handlers were quick to deny such. The pope simply offered a prayer of deliverance for the distraught man, it was said. Exorcism in the Catholic Church is a sacramental, a sacred act producing a spiritual effect, which must be done according to the officially prescribed Rite of Exorcism. And yet what the pope did on Pentecost Sunday in St. Peter’s Square was more than a simple prayer for someone to get better. It looked for all the world like a real act of spiritual warfare.

. . . The downplaying of the miraculous, the supernatural, and a fortiori the demonic has long been a staple in mainline Protestant culture and takes its toll among some progressive Catholics and evangelicals as well. Perhaps this is why Pope Francis devoted the second chapter of his book, Heaven and Earth, to “The Devil” and warned against the ultra-modernist idea “that everything can be traced to a purely human plan.”

. . . It is worth noting that Pope Francis came from the global South to the heart of Europe to confront demons, whereas [the more skeptical and secular-minded] Bishop [Katharine Jefferts] Schori [presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church] traveled from North America to Venezuela to cast the demons from the [biblical] text — without the benefit of an exorcism. There is some irony in this: a prominent representative of the rarified, Enlightenment-based religion of the North peddling a domesticated version of the Gospel in the global South. As we know, the Christianity thriving there is increasingly Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Pope Franciscan-Catholic. Like the robust faith of the New Testament, this kind of affective Christianity embraces the charismatic, the visionary, and the apocalyptic. These are all held in deep suspicion by those who still find spiritual warmth in the dying embers of rationalist religion. As Kenya’s Musimbi Kanyoro wrote, “Those cultures which are far removed from biblical culture risk reading the Bible as fiction.”

— Timothy George, “A Tale of Two Demons,” First Things, June 3, 2013

For context, here’s more information about the Pope Francis incident:

According to TV2000, a Catholic television channel, the act was carried out in St Peter’s Square after Mass on Sunday. Smiling broadly, the Pope initially shook the man’s hand, but the South American pontiff’s expression changed dramatically after a priest from the Legionaries of Christ, a conservative order, leaned in close and spoke a few words to him. With a more serious expression on his face, Francis placed both hands on the man’s head for 15 seconds. The pilgrim, said to be a 43-year old married man from Mexico called Angelo, then convulsed briefly and emitted a long sigh. His body went limp and his mouth dropped open.

“Exorcists who have seen the footage have no doubt — this was a prayer for liberation from Evil, an actual exorcism,” said TV2000, which is owned by the Italian Bishops Conference.

. . . The Vatican downplayed the incident, although it used ambiguous language that did not deny altogether that Francis had tried to rid the man of evil. “The Holy Father did not intend to carry out any exorcism,” said Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman. “Instead, as he often does for sick and suffering people, he simply intended to pray for a person who was presented to him.”

Leading exorcists insisted that the Pope had indeed taken on the forces of evil. “The Pope is also the Bishop of Rome, and like any bishop he is also an exorcist,” Father Gabriele Amorth, the Catholic Church’s best known exorcist and the head of the International Association of Exorcists, told La Repubblica newspaper. “It was a real exorcism,” he said. “If the Vatican has denied this, it shows that they understand nothing”, said Father Amorth who claimed that the Mexican was “possessed by four demons”.

. . . There was now, more than ever, a need for exorcists to combat people possessed by “sorcerers” and “Satanists”, Father Amorth said. “We live in an age in which God has been forgotten. And wherever God is not present, the Devil reigns.” He acknowledged that many people, even Catholics, regarded exorcism as mumbo-jumbo but insisted they were mistaken. “Those who don’t believe should read the Gospels. Jesus continually performed exorcisms. “Today, unfortunately, bishops appoint too few exorcists. We need many more. I hope that Rome will send out directives to bishops around the world calling on them to appoint more exorcists.”

— Nick Squires, “Pope Francis ‘Performs First Exorcism,’ The Telegraph, May 21, 2013

FYI, anybody who has a general interest in these things combined with at least a mild scholarly bent is strongly encouraged to pay attention to Paranthropology, editor Jack Hunter’s marvelous “free on-line journal devoted to the promotion of social-scientific approaches to the study of paranormal experiences, beliefs and phenomena in all of their varied guises.” The material published in the journal, including my own piece in last October’s issue, “In Search of Higher Intelligence,” about the interlinked experiences of Aleister Crowley, Timothy Leary, and Robert Anton Wilson with inspiration and communication from daemonic muses, focuses regularly on the question of anomalies, the paranormal, the supernatural, and their ontological status and cultural standing.

Recommended Reading 25

We have quite a varied assortment of reading this week, including: an article about a brilliant reclamation of an abandoned Wal-Mart building for a wonderful counter-purpose; an analysis of Burning Man’s sociocultural-mythological function; a report on widespread distrust of the United States around the world; a fascinating interview with a psychologist on the nature and reality of synchronicity; news about the launch, in Poland, of the world’s first magazine devoted entirely to the real-world study and practice of exorcism; an engrossing essay by Jonathan Franzen about solitude, literature, and the inner life in today’s frenetically extraverted culture; a report on a visionary art community and project in Santa Cruz; reflections from poet Robert Creeley on the value of LSD to creativity; and an excerpt from Gary Lachman’s new biography of Madame Blavatsky.
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New documentary follows Vatican-approved exorcist

This new documentary titled The Exorcist in the 21st Century, is slated to be released this month. Judging by the trailer, it looks to be truly interesting:

The film’s website shows that it’s from the Swedish production company Gammaglimt AS. They offer this description:

The Exorcist in the 21st Century takes the viewer into the unknown and sinister world of exorcism in the Catholic Church.  We meet one of the few exorcists in Europe, the Vatican approved José Antonio Fortea. He travels around the world on a mission to enlighten the masses about demonic possession. Constanza, a Colombian woman, is desperately looking for Fr. Forteas help. She claims to have been possessed by demons for nearly 15 years and she goes through a ritual of exorcism before she sees the Spanish exorcist as a last hope for spiritual liberation. The film follows both their journeys and gives a unique insight into one of the world most secret and mystical rites — the catholic ritual of exorcism.

You’ll recall that last year I wrote a bit about the surge of real-life interest in exorcisms that has become a kind of cultural phenomenon lately (see “The Devil Went Down to Texas“). This documentary appears to be right in line with that trend.

William Peter Blatty on rewriting ‘The Exorcist’ for its 40th anniversary

This month, the second annual installment of The Dark Mirror, the horror film festival that I created in Waco, Texas, will culminate with a screening of The Exorcist. (See the article I published about it just two days ago at the festival’s blog: “‘The Exorcist’ and the modern Western zeitgeist.”) So it’s entirely appropriate that 2011 happens to be the 40th anniversary of the publication of the novel itself.

The Huffington Post has just published an interview with Blatty in which he takes a look back at the whole phenomenon and explains his motivations for making some changes for a new edition. “In an exclusive interview with The Huffington Post conducted via email,” the site tells us, “we asked Mr Blatty about 40-year-old rewrites, why ‘The Exorcist’ became so popular, and what truly makes him feel scared.”  One of the signal moments in the interview comes early on when Blatty reveals that the version of the novel published in 1971 was in fact a first draft, and that when he reread it for the first time only 12 years ago, he was appalled at its stylistic clumsiness.

Here’s an excerpt that shows him musing on the reasons for The Exorcist‘s enduring cultural power and popularity. He also takes the opportunity to set the record straight regarding the book’s famous (notorious) basis in a real-life incident. What’s more, he talks a bit of theology.

Why do you think the story of “The Exorcist,” in its many forms, has resonated so much for so many people?

I can only guess based on what has been written by others. Obviously, of course, a popular novel has to be a page-turning read. Second, everyone likes a good scare, so long as we know we’re not really threatened. And third — and most importantly, I think — because this novel is an affirmation that there is a final justice in the universe; that man is something more than a neuron net; that there is a high degree of probability — let’s not beat around the bush — that there is an intelligence, a creator whom C.S. Lewis famously alluded to as “the love that made the worlds.”

But I suspect that there might have been a somewhat less luminous basis for the power of “The Exorcist”’s argument for faith, which was the widespread and apparently rampant perception that the novel was based on a true story, the so-called “1949 case” of demonic possession of a young boy in Cottage City, Maryland. That perception was – and is – totally false. While writing the novel, the only facts that I had at hand were the classic symptoms of possession that had somehow remained an identical constant in every culture and in every part of the world going back to ancient Egyptian times.

The 1949 case was the novel’s inspiration, the jump-starting electrical jolt being the last line of my first letter from the exorcist in that case, the Jesuit priest Fr. William Bowdern. After informing me that he was bound by the boy’s family to total confidentiality, he ended: “I can tell you this. The case I was involved in was the real thing. I had no doubt about it then and I have no doubt about it now.” The words charged me with the confidence to write about possession with the heat of conviction.

Full story at The Huffington Post: “‘The Exorcist’ Author William Peter Blatty on Revisiting His Most Famous Work

Also of great interest, here’s a “Note from the Author” that accompanies the official press release for the 40th anniversary edition. In it, Blatty explains something about the actual process and locale that were involved in the writing of the novel:

In January 1968, I rented a cabin in Lake Tahoe to start writing a novel about demonic possession that I’d been thinking about for many years. I‘d been driven to it, actually: I was a writer of comic novels and farcical screenplays such as A Shot in the Dark with almost all of my income derived from films; but because the season for “funny” had abruptly turned dry and no studio would hire me for anything non-comedic, I had reached James Thurber’s stage of desperation when, as he wrote in a “Preface to His Life,” comedy writers sometimes take to “calling their home from their office, or their office from their home, asking for themselves, and then hanging up in hard-breathing relief upon being told they “weren’t in.’” My breaking point came, I suppose, when at the Van Nuys, California, unemployment office I spotted my movie agent in a line three down from mine. And so the cabin in Tahoe where I was destined to become the caretaker in Stephen King’s terrifying The Shining, typing my version of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” hour after hour, day after day, for over six weeks as I kept changing the date in my opening paragraph from “April 1” to April something else, because each time I would read the page aloud, the rhythm of the lines seemed to change, a maddening cycle of emptiness and insecurity –- magnified, I suppose, by the fact that I had no clear plot for the novel in mind — that continued until I at last gave up the cabin and hoped for better luck back “home,” a clapboard raccoon-surrounded guest house in the hills of Encino owned by a former Hungarian opera star who had purchased the property from the luminous film actress, Angela Lansbury, and where I finally overcame the block by realizing that I was starting the novel in the wrong place, namely the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., as opposed to northern Iraq. Almost a year later I completed a first draft of the novel. At the request of my editors at Harper and Row, I did make two quick changes: cleaning up Chris MacNeil’s potty mouth, and making the ending “less obvious.” But because of a dire financial circumstance, I had not another day to devote to the manuscript, so that when I received a life-saving offer to adapt Calder Willingham’s novel Providence Island for the screen for Paul Newman’s film company, I instantly accepted and left my novel to find its fate. For most of these past forty years I have rued not having done a thorough second draft and careful polish of the dialogue and prose. But now, like an answer to a prayer, this fortieth anniversary of the novel has given me not only the opportunity to do another draft, but to do it at a time in my life — I will be 84 this coming January — when it might not be totally unreasonable to hope that my abilities, such as they are, have at least somewhat improved, and for all of this I say, Deo gratias!

— From “The Exorcist – The Version You Have Never Read,” Dread Central, Sept. 23, 2011

Personally, as a writer about the intersection of religion, psychology, and spirituality with horror and the paranormal, I’ve long been fascinated and gratified by the fact that what is arguably the best-known horror novel, and what is undoubtedly the single most iconic horror movie — a movie that launched the era of the modern “blockbuster” and thus changed the history of cinema — tells a story that explicitly mingles horror with religion for the purpose of finding or eliciting an experience or intimation of transcendence for a jaded secular society. What’s most significant about the literary-cinematic phenomenon that is The Exorcist is the fact that, in our modern technological society, this story of spiritual horror and redemption still remains, after 40 years, a phenomenon.

William Peter Blatty circa the 1980s

The Devil Went Down to Texas: A supposed surge in “diabolical cults” and demonic possession in the Lone Star State (and across America)

I still feel like a new Texan even though next month will mark three years since I moved here from my home state of Missouri. But given my personal and authorial focus on religion and horror, maybe I’ll begin to feel more fully at home now that serious talk of demonic possession and official Roman Catholic-sponsored exorcisms has started erupting out of the San Angelo area. It’s a city and a region that I’ve visited many times. In fact, my family and I almost settled there. But nothing led me to expect that it would become a mini-Ground Zero for talk about a nationwide epidemic of supernatural evil.

I first caught wind of the whole thing last month, when the CBS television affiliate in Odessa ran a story with the eye-catching title “West Texas Exorcisms” and a dateline of San Angelo, June 21:

You’ve seen exorcisms in movies and read about possessions in books, but Bishop Michael Pfeifer of the San Angelo Diocese says demon influence is very real and spiritual warfare is happening right here in west Texas. . . . In the past year Pfeifer says he has seen more demonic possessions in the area. “There are possessions I’ve had to work on, which were very frightening, I can’t really talk about it,” he explained. “There are diabolical cults in West Texas most people don’t know about, its secretive and underground, but exists.” He says these frightening cases pushed him to call for the help of Father/exorcist Dennis McManus, from the Archdiocese of New York to speak to hundreds from across west Texas and local priests.

After that, a little digging easily turned up more info, including article from the Midland Reporter-Telegram titled “Exorcism seminar draws in crowd of hundreds.” Note the repeated emphasis by Bishop Pfeifer on a “demonic influence in West Texas”:

A conference on evil and the unknown compelled hundreds to gather at a weekday presentation offered by the Catholic Diocese of San Angelo. About 700 individuals from all over West Texas traveled to San Angelo Monday for a seminar on exorcism and diabolical influence. “It’s one of the best presentations we’ve ever had,” said Bishop Michael Pfeifer with the Catholic Diocese of San Angelo. “It’s something very, very unique. The people were enthralled, and they had so many questions to ask”. . . . The seminar was led by the Rev. Dennis McManus, whose appointed ministry with the Archdiocese of New York is exorcism. Priests, deacons and lay people attended the free and public presentation Monday; the seminar then was extended for clergy throughout Tuesday and Wednesday morning. . . . “It’s a very frightening and difficult experience,” Pfeifer said. Though he said he has participated in exorcisms in West Texas, he would not disclose the number of cases or details about the experiences. Ritual prayers and sacraments such as holy water are used, he said. Pfeifer said he believes there is demonic influence in West Texas manifested through cults and Satan worship, but more so through secular things in the world that can be used for good, such as the Internet.

San Angelo’s Standard-Times carried an especially informative report: “‘I cast you out’: Exorcism expert elucidates demonic possession.” I found the following parts particularly striking:

McManus warned of fascinations with the occult that can hook someone with special, supernatural knowledge — Ouija boards included. He also said groups may slowly and subtly drag people into covens, which McManus called groups of usually 12 affluent and powerful people dedicated to a single demon in exchange for power and influence. He told of one priest in California who kept up with covens and said they were becoming more numerous than all of the missions, parishes and some other Catholic ministries combined. The same is true of the city where he is based out of, McManus said. “People say, ‘That’s the movies.’ No, that’s New York,” McManus said.

Pfeifer said movies, however, are one reason his diocese had chosen to invite McManus. He said he has seen more demonic activity in recent years, that there are diabolic cults throughout West Texas and that the issue of demonic possession has been in the mainstream media more often, as he recently saw in “The Rite”. . . .

Another attendee was struck by McManus’ encouragement of having strong, active families to keep youth away from the fascinations of the occult. “The first thing is to help our children,” William Tarn said. He said he wanted to return regular prayer to schools. . . .

Pfeifer said he may assign a few priests to the ministry of exorcism. Only a bishop can make that assignment, Pfeifer said. “It was a tremendous teaching experience for our priests,” Pfeifer said. “Our priests were thrilled with the information he [sic] received, about how to deal with a creature from another world.” Pfeifer said priests from around the diocese came and were taught the specifics of exorcisms. Demon possessions are very rare, although they do happen, Pfeifer said. He said he couldn’t give the number of exorcisms that have happened in his diocese because of confidentiality.

If anybody actually needed more evidence for the profound, inextricable linkage in today’s society between mass entertainment and “real life,” then this surely fits the bill. Pfeifer isn’t the first or the only Catholic priest who has linked the resurgence of exorcism as a popular topic in Hollywood to a real-world resurgence of interest in it, and even to the actual practice of it and the reported increase in cases of demonic possession. It seems we’re now living inside a Hollywood version of America and planet earth.

I also find it fascinating to observe how the possession-and-exorcism phenomenon has come to serve as a kind of fulcrum or focal point for the epic, shocking, collective reversal in modern-day attitudes toward religion that’s taken place over the past 40 years. As I discuss in my “Angel and Demon’ essay (published in Icons of Horror and the Supernatural and then in my Dark Awakenings), in the early 1970s The Exorcist splashed down into a culture where secular attitudes were warring with supernatural or religious ones, even inside the Roman Catholic church. Many priests were embarrassed by Pope Paul VI’s frank affirmation of the reality of supernatural evil in a 1972 speech, because their attitudes were more in tune with the secularist, demythologized tenor of the time than with what they viewed as the mythological belief system of pre-Enlightenment Christianity. By contrast, in the last decade and two we’ve seen an increasing number of reports about the revival of exorcism as a mainstream practice within the Church. For just two recent and prominent examples, see The Telegraph, March 30, 2011: “Surge in Satanism Sparks Rise in Demand for Exorcists, Says Catholic Church,” and The New York Times, November 12, 2010: “For Catholics, Interest in Exorcism is Revived.”

In a less exalted but no less revealing vein, Bishop Pfeifer of the San Angelo Diocese is now making headlines again because of his entirely supernaturalistic call for a collective, public, ecumenical prayer for rain: “Church congregations, prayer groups and individuals in West Texas have been praying for rain now for months. With the need for rain reaching critical levels, Bishop of San Angelo Michael Pfeifer, OMI, believes a larger, more public and inclusive demonstration of prayer is in order. . . . ‘We will gather together as a community, regardless of your religious affiliation or your social standing,’ he said. ‘The whole community needs rain. Jesus said whatever you ask our Heavenly Father in my name will be granted. We take Jesus at his Word. We will go out and ask God to send the rains.'” (The prayer gathering was held last Saturday.)

For people like me who are veritably consumed by an interest in supernaturalism, religion, and horror — both individually and collectively — this certainly is an interesting time to be alive.

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Photo credit: “The Last Exorcism” by Walt Jabsco, under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)