By Don Jolly
T. Peter Park is a retired librarian with a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Virginia. He has white hair and a round, red face. His eyes are perpetually-squinted half-moons, crowded by his smile. His shirtfront pocket is always overflowing with pens, in a dizzying array of colors, brands and points. He’s constantly writing.
“All my life, I’ve been kind of a bit omnivorous in my reading and research,” he told me when we met last January in a Madison Avenue bookstore. “I’ve always liked what most people would call reputable scholarly history and philosophy, but at the same time, ever since my early teens, I’ve liked reading about haunted houses and ghosts and ESP and UFOs and abductions and the Loch Ness Monster and sea serpents and Bigfoot and other ‘hairy hominids’ and so forth.”
It was a cold night, and the snow from a few days before had solidified into a slippery mess of ice-polyps, collected in the places where direct sunlight never fell. The shop, one cozy room lit by antique fixtures, was filling up with people who, like Peter and I, were waiting to hear Mitch Horowitz, editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin, Penguin Book’s metaphysical literature imprint, deliver a chapter from his book, One Simple Idea, a history of “positive thinking” in American culture, from the Reform minister Norman Vincent Peale to contemporary twelve-step programs.
Horowitz’s previous work, Occult America, released in 2009, had been a major hit with Park and his circle. It claimed to chart a hidden path through American history — leading readers into a world of spiritualist seances, hypnotic healings and ritual magic, stretching back further than the founding of the Republic. Since its publication, Horowitz has been known to lead the occasional walking tour of New York’s own occult landmarks, pointing out statues of Pagan gods, Egyptian obelisks and places where various fringe religionists once lived. Last fall, I met a woman who’d been on one of Horowitz’s tours. It changed her whole perspective, she said. The tour let her see how much energy there was in the city — magical energy — coursing below the streets. It was that energy that kept her here, that energy which was attracting others. An occult revival in New York, she told me, was underway.
Park, with his paranormal tastes, is undoubtedly a part of the movement. “I’ve always had a kind of omnivorous magpie-like curiosity about that sort of stuff,” he continued. “An old friend from the University of Virginia jocularly calls it ‘pig-hanging weird piss.’” Park laughed, closing his eyes completely. “I’ve always been a pig-hanging weird piss devotee!” he said.
Since we first met last fall, I’ve received at least an e-mail a day from T. Peter Park. Sometimes they’re long essays, sometimes forwarded links, sometimes tidbits pulled from out-of-the-way corners of the Internet. No matter the format, his messages are concerned with “the occult and esoteric as a problem in sociology.” His interest, like Horowitz’s, is in the liminal and the hidden – the idea that there is a secret order to the world which only select individuals have both the ability and inclination to understand. Park’s messages, which often begin with the salutation “Friends! Forteans! Thinkers!,” are aimed at this elect demographic.
His work began years ago, when Park started contributing to a few listserves that catalogue paranormal happenings in the style of Charles Fort, a pioneering American writer during the late 1920s and early 30s.
“I used to be the list-owner and co-founder of a now-defunct list called Mythfolk,” he said. “It still sort of exists, but has been taken over by pornography marketeers.” Park continues to contribute to another, still-extant, list called Forteana, and many items in his personal mailings are “carbon copies” of his contributions there. When Park writes something he’s particularly proud of, he forwards it to a circle of friends and colleagues — including myself, Mitch Horowitz and “the whole Observatory crew,” a body of other occult practitioners and researchers loosely affiliated with The Observatory, a Brooklyn art and performance space which hosts lectures on ritual magic, spiritualism and other esoteric topics.
Recent messages have included an expansive discussion of the science fiction writer C.M. Kornbluth’s 1956 satire of positive thinking, “The Cosmic Charge Account,” a personal reflection on Scientology in the late 1970s, and a conjectural genealogy of the Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson, whose ancestors, Park argues, likely practiced a “variegated, easy-going and eclectic ‘folk religion,’” complete with practical magic.
“I really take it very seriously,” he said. “It sometimes takes me several days, sometimes several weeks, to work on my essays. Generally I start them longhand, on legal pads, and then I type them up in my computer and edit them for a while. Then I broadcast them!”
“And you get responses?” I asked.
A shot of joy ran across his face. “I do!” he replied.
“There’s been a magical revival happening in New York City for two to three years,” Damon Stang, the “shop witch” for Catland Books in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, told the New York Times last year. “I think it’s a nostalgia that people have for a sense of enchantment with the world.”
There is some material evidence that a new interest in magic and esoteric subjects is growing. Catland itself, an active center for pagan rites and magical ceremonies, opened last February. The Times article, which appeared ten months after opening, is an indication of that interest, although it was albeit a local-color piece called “Friday Night Rites” in which the shop was erroneously located in Williamsburg. More substantially, NYU hosted its first annual Occult Humanities Conference in October — a gathering of researchers, practitioners and artists from all over the world who engaged in work with the occult and esoteric. The Observatory, Park’s home base, has been offering well-attended lectures on magical topics since 2009, including a few by Mitch Horowitz.
I attended the NYU conference, just down the street from The Revealer’s office. It was there that I met Park, and others like him — including the conference’s organizers, Jesse Bransford, an artist, and Pam Grossman, a blogger and co-founder of The Observatory. Nearly everyone I talked to was invested in the idea that the “occult” was experiencing a kind of revival, globally and locally.
In the academic study of religion, “the occult” is neither settled as a term nor a community. At its most basic level, it indicates a kind of hiddenness — a concealed truth. In popular usage, this usually means pagan nature worship, witchcraft, spirit communication, magic and other fringe religious ideas. The scholar Catherine Albanese, in her magisterial A Republic of Mind and Spirit, investigated many American practitioners of these forms as “metaphysicals,” a particular variety of religious actor for whom the power of the mind and the existence of a concealed “energy” within the body and the world, are essential. It’s a useful term, but hardly ever applied outside of the academy. The people I met at the conference preferred the words “occult” and “esoteric” to describe their interests, often using them interchangeably. How can a revival be studied when it is unclear what, exactly, is being revived?
Maybe the answer can be found within “the occult” itself — in that fractured aesthetic of hidden powers and magical potentials — that variable doctrine of “energy.” At the conference, and in the months that followed, I sat down with both Grossman and Bransford, to ask them about their views on the matter and about the ways in which their occult pursuits might interface with my own study of religion. We never settled the revival question. Bransford and Grossman did, however, give me a better idea of what such a movement might look like.
The wind was up, spinning leaves between the legs of the passing crowd, on the night I attended the opening gala of the NYU Occult Humanities Conference.
Several galleries and a classroom on the first floor of a richly antiquated building off of St. Mark’s had been reserved for the event. The largest room where the opening party was to take place had already filled with attendees and curious art students by the time I arrived. Grimoires, medieval books of spells, jockeyed for space on the cloth-draped vendors’ tables with collections of correspondence by the infamous twentieth-century magician Aleister Crowley. Wine and cheese were against the far wall. Art was everywhere, and the crowd was moving slowly from piece to piece.
Symbols drawn from Western divination blazed in red, black and yellow from Elijah Burgher’s man-sized canvases. Spiritualists and voodoo practitioners, their faces lost in a reverie of trance, stared out of blown-up portraits by the photographer Shannon Taggart. Jesse Bransford’s work was delicately traced, spreading grids and curves and color in mathematical array, resembling the spirit alphabet revealed by angels in the 1580s to John Dee, the renaissance magician and philosopher.
“The arts and humanities are acutely interested in subjects related to the occult tradition,” read the program’s introduction. “Roughly defined, the occult tradition represents a series of culturally syncretic beliefs with related and overlapping visual histories.” These beliefs occur in almost every culture and era, continues the program. “Universal occult concerns often include some kind of magic; a longing to connect with an immaterial or trans-personal realm and a striving for inner knowledge.” The goal of the conference was to explore these themes through “research, scholarship and artistic practice.” The goal of opening night was to get everybody pleasantly drunk while Meredith Yayanos played the theremin.
Before the music started, I mingled with the crowd. It was a packed room, but ultimately, a small one. There were maybe a hundred people wending between the various exhibits. I wondered how universal the occult could really be, given that the attendees were predominately white, young and almost exclusively dressed in black.
Pam Grossman is a significant figure in the New York occult circle. Her esoteric art blog, Phansmaphile, is one of the most popular of its type and she serves as associate editor of the Abraxas International Journal of Esoteric Studies, a publication which exists to document and advance what its press releases call “an increasing esoteric sensibility” in art and culture. The Observatory, the Brooklyn performance and lecture space which Grossman co-founded in 2009, along with seven other artists and bloggers, serves as an important hub for those in the New York area with an interest in the occult. It’s where Peter Park recruits for his mailing list.
I spoke with Grossman between sessions on the first full day of the conference, sharing adjacent seats in a temporarily abandoned lecture hall. Grossman a small woman with pale skin and dark hair that falls past her shoulders, speaks directly and affably, but with a certain practiced quality. She makes a good ambassador, and has been asked to play one on occasion, writing on esoteric topics for mainstream publications such as the Huffington Post. Within the world of the occult, Grossman’s resume is even more impressive. “I’ve been interested in esoteric subjects since before I even knew what the word esoteric meant,” she said. “Since childhood, I loved anything having to do with mythology, anything having to do with magic and fairy tales. As I got older, I got deeper into the material.”
Eventually, this pursuit led Grossman into what she calls a “magical” or “imaginal” frame of mind. For her, everything is significant. There are no coincidences. “I do believe that there is some kind of a spirit you tap into that transcends whatever this material space is,” she said. “It’s allowed me to live life,or try to live life, with an almost mythical lens, to really follow signposts and synchronicities and symbols, what I often call the trail of cosmic breadcrumbs.”
“Do you think of that as a religious idea?” I asked, attempting to gauge her opinion of the term
Grossman paused. I could tell she was formulating a way to render her objections without giving offense. “Religion,” she began, slowly, “while I think it has its merits, buckets out content, first of all.” She meant that it provided its truth in discrete, and controlled, chunks. “Second, it highly encourages a mediator between you and the divine. You need a priest or a rabbi or what have you.” Not so with the esoteric, she said. “While there are certainly teachers you can study this material with,” she said, “I think one of the reasons people are gravitating toward it so much today is because you don’t really need a mediator.”
The necessity of this self-direction attracts certain personalities to the study, Grossman believed. “Most people here, I imagine, love to read,” she continued. “[The esoteric] really encourages that kind of bibliomania. And if you’re someone who loves to read, you’re also someone who is comfortable being an autodidact, comfortable seeking out knowledge externally and also within yourself. And [you trust] the patterns that that weaves, as opposed to relying on someone else to tell you what wisdom is or what divinity is.” She sounded more like a protestant than a magician. Her calls for direct study of text and a personal relationship with the truth of the divine seemed, to me, definitely rooted in the thinking of Luther – with his criticisms of the Roman Church as dogmatic, hierarchical and ultimately obfuscating expanded onto religion as a whole. There were some key differences, however. Luther argued for direct engagement with one book. Grossman, for her part, emphasizes engagement with books in general.
Naturally, this lead me to wonder what kind of texts she finds significant. “Is there anything different about an esoteric text, as opposed to a non-esoteric one?” I asked. Grossman shook her head. “For me, it’s not just text,” she said. “I suppose we’re using that word broadly because [the esoteric] is very image-based as well.” She began thinking out loud, mulling over the issue. “I’m kind of forming my thoughts as I’m talking,” she laughed. “But I do think that what’s powerful about the written word is that it allows for the exchange of knowledge, right? I would argue that the Internet is just that, times a million.”
“When we all got started on [the Internet], we all assumed we were going to have avatars and we were going to pretend to be other people and it would be very veiled and very hidden,” she said. “In fact, the Internet has allowed us to be, for better or for worse, who we are and what we’re actually like.” For Grossman, the Internet works to reveal its users’ interiors, even certain things — like an interest in the esoteric — which might be harder to admit in polite, physical society. Digital spaces are excellent places for the construction of occult communities. “The beauty of the Internet is also that it allows you to ‘find the others,’” she continued, quoting Timothy Leary, the guru of 1960s acid culture. “We can find those people from the nether regions and bring them together in physical space.”
She looked around the room. Two attendees, white men in dark coats, were having an animated discussion by the fire escape. There was a murmur of conversation from the hall. “It’s been really heartening to me, even in the couple of hours since we’ve started, to hear the conversations and the cross-pollinations and links between people,” Grossman smiled. “And who knows what relationships are forming, what projects they’re going to do together? I mean, I love that.” I began to feel the conference might be the physical tip of largely digital iceberg. Again, I was reminded of Luther — and the centrality of the printing press to the reformation. Maybe an occult revival, in Grossman’s conception, required another leap-forward in information technology.
“I love that the Internet largely brought all these people together,” she said. “But that it comes full circle in the material world, person to person.”
A few weeks after the conference, on Armistice Day, I sat down with Jesse Bransford at a sandwich shop with a glass front in the East Village. It was the lunch rush, and the place was crammed with students. He ate while we talked.
Bransford is tall and pale, with long, straight blonde hair. His eyes looked thoughtfully out from behind thick glasses. He works for NYU, where he has been Undergraduate Director of the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development since 2005. He’s been displaying at galleries, locally and internationally, since 1997. About ten years ago, he started a series of pieces on the theme of the seven visible planets. That’s what brought him to his current conception of the occult.
“I had gone through about three bodies of work up to that point,” he said. “I was trying to figure out what to do next. Until then, he told me, he’d been very “lighthearted in my approach.” He described doing a series of drawings based on his reading of the rock band Blue Oyster Cult through some of the twentieth century’s foremost intellectual voices, including Francis Yates, a historian whose pioneering work on Renaissance magic and the Rosicrucians helped legitimize the Academy’s study of “the esoteric.” It was “real hi-low mash-up type stuff,” Bransford said. He soon abandoned Blue Oyster Cult, but not Francis Yates.
Her 1966 book, The Art of Memory, was especially key for Bransford. “It talks about creative intention and an ordering of the perceived universe, which bridged through this thing she called magic,” he said. His idea of this ordering wasn’t too far off from Grossman’s imaginal lens — a way to view the world as a series of significant symbols rather than dumb coincidences. “I realized pretty early on that these kinds of correspondences exist pan-culturally,” he continued. “I was like, ‘You know what I bet? That this set of phenomena are universal.’ And they of course, were.” He set out to explore this universal magic artistically. The planets were a natural subject. “Every cultural perspective you can look at has an attitude towards the seven visible planets,” he said.
Beginning with the sun, and taking around a year to produced and display each work, Bransford began his decade-long project. “As I kept working, things just started getting weird,” he said. “In every lecture I give about this, I talk about Robert Anton Wilson’s idea of ‘chapel perilous,’ which is the idea that if you’re courting a belief system or working within a belief system, at a certain point, that belief system will manifest itself in such a way that it’s reality becomes undeniable. And at that point, you’re either in or out.” Wilson, a writer and philosopher with an interest in conspiracies and the occult, first coined “chapel perilous” in his 1977 novel Cosmic Trigger. He used it to indicate an experience of the divine so powerful that the only two possible responses were agnosticism or paranoia. For Bransford, his encounter with “chapel perilous” occurred in 2005. He was working on Mars:
I was in Cologne, finishing up – preparing the exhibition. I was working late and a step-up transformer for an electrical conversion exploded, like right in the middle of where I was working. I got creeped out big time. It was late. It was after midnight. This thing exploded. The whole room filled with ozone. I was like, ‘That’s pretty telltale,’ – like in the reading that I’ve done, that’s a pretty telltale sign that something’s entered the space, right? So things like that kept happening. It kept amplifying and about half way through the project, I sort of made a decision to start really pushing things to see what happened. I went to Peru and worked with a shaman down there. From that point forward, it was: ‘magic is real and I have to deal with that now.’ There were telepathic experiences. There were – you just sort of fill in the blanks in terms of the strange tales, kind of like a romantic notion of seeing the other side. All that stuff.
For Bransford, experience was a key component of his occult conception. Various texts he had been engaged with until that time served only as a prelude to his fateful encounter in Cologne. Even before reading Yates, Bransford had been interested in books of medieval and renaissance magic, particularly a book by the Renaissance magician Cornelius Aggripa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy. “Originally [I had] a sort of very analytical, almost anthropological take on the material. But now that I’ve started working with [it], I realize that I was only doing half of the job. It really comes alive when you actually work with it.” Work, in this case, meant the production of “talismanic” art, capable of effecting supernatural change. Until Bransford began experiencing such things directly, works like Aggripa’s were just flat, dead wood.
I repeated a question I’d asked Grossman. “Do you consider that religious?”
He thought. “One of the big mistakes that I think the mainstream press has made,” he said, “is that they call [the occult] religion-lite or spiritualism-lite or belief-lite or whatever. I think that’s a cheap shot. It ignores the fundamental distinction that this material tries to make.” The distinction being, in Bransford’s view, that occult productions aren’t afraid to openly incorporate, alter and recombine material from a wide range of texts, communities and practices. The occult, he said, is “the stuff that’s amalgamating and is very upfront about that amalgamation.” Of course, he acknowledged, all religious traditions are combinative in some capacity. The difference, for Bransford, is that the occult places the act of creative bricolage at its center.
“My take on it is, [occultists] aren’t necessarily interested in a truth or a singular truth,” he said. “I think they’re interested in a consensus-based or consensual, metaphorical set of constructs that become truth-like.” He viewed his community as being a place of infinite individual systems of reading, practice and belief — combined and coalesced only by their commitment to individual agency.
One of the problems with being a scholar of religion is that your definition of the term comes colored by decades of debate and theory that are alien to most of its practitioners and adherents. Bransford and Grossman see “religion” as something to react against, a monolithic and disempowering system of control. Park, who approaches his messages with some version of the scholarly distance I share, thinks more broadly and is more forgiving. I think he’d probably agree with me that “the occult” is a specialized form of religious thinking, almost a set of aesthetic conventions within Albanese’s idea of the American metaphysical.
What stood out in my conversations with Bransford and Grossman was their mutual interest in affirming the religious agency of the individual. The communities they imagined and helped to create, were necessarily heterogenous places where clashing claims to truth were held side-by-side, allowing Bransford’s “truth-like” metaphorical constructs to emerge. The scholar Courtney Bender, in her 2010 study of a Cambridge “spiritual” community, The New Metaphysicals, documents such a group. As Bender notes, even calling them a “group” is a stretch. Although her subjects share a geographical location and commitment to respecting each other’s individual beliefs and practices, they share practically nothing else.
An occult revival, in New York or anywhere, would likely encounters similar problems with cohesion. Or, in keeping with the idea of an individuated truth, perhaps it’s best to say that New York’s “occult revival” is ongoing for those who find it necessary to go on.
Since I began working on this piece I’ve received eight messages from T. Peter Park — three of them about Hopi mysticism. It’s a lonely kind of revival.
Don Jolly is a Texan visual artist, writer, and academic. He is currently pursuing his master’s degree in religion at NYU, with a focus on esotericism, fringe movements, and the occult. His comic strip, The Weird Observer, runs weekly in the Ampersand Review. He is also a staff writer for Obscure Sound, where he reviews pop records. Don lives alone with the Great Fear, in New York City.
Jolly will be presenting at The Observatory on February 21st on one of his primary research interests, the Church of Scientology. More information on his “illustrated lecture” can be found here. Doors at eight, admission eight dollars.