21.3.17

ONLY HUMAN

Roger Scruton. On Human Nature. Princeton University Press, 2016

Roger Scruton’s latest book is three lectures that were given at Princeton University in 2013. To these he’s added a fourth chapter. The titles of all four are; 1, 'Humankind'; 2, 'Human Relations'; 3, 'The Moral Life' and 4, 'Sacred Obligations'. Headings that intimate vast areas for exploration. Yet Scruton is not out to explain human nature or pin it down (impossible!) but delineate ideas that have shaped our consciousness to make us fully human with all our inherent strengths and vulnerabilities.

It’s a remarkably short book of only 143 pages. And a great deal of philosophy, psychology and aesthetic discourse has been ingested. Scruton’s thoughts on human nature obviously contain the sure thread of himself; throughout he reasons as a moral agent who’ll distil his knowledge. In no way is On Human Nature a self-help book. But Scruton’s spiritual concern for the 'I' of personality does veer towards the medicinal. It’s as if the author where watching over your shoulder as you read his arguments turn into a personal diagnosis. I don’t find this to be over paternalistic or moralistic. Yet it often produces a didactic tone.

In the chapter entitled 'The Moral Life', Scruton refers to Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments that talks of “the impartial spectator” as the true judge of our moral selves. Scruton’s view of action “observed with a disinterested eye” causes him to pronounce “If, as I suggest, morality is rooted in the practice of accountability between self-conscious agents, this is exactly what we should expect. The impartial other sets the standard that we all must meet.”

That final sentence bothered me, for it describes Scruton’s conservatism: sounding like an author writing a prescriptive book about the moral standards he thinks are right for us to follow. The next heading within the chapter is Moral Arithmetic. Scruton is critical of philosophers like Peter Singer and Derek Parfitt, and though he is at pains never to be reductive, On Human Nature, strives towards a formulation as to what it is to lead the ‘best’ life and what adds up to a ‘best’ life.

The book has further ‘strict’ headings such as Rights, Demands and Duties, Sacred Obligations and Desire and Pollution. If you accept Scruton’s conservative notion of freedom and human nature then the volatile self can only be calmed through the redemptive power of great literature and music. We finally learn that his ‘bibles’ for achieving this are Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov and Wagner’s Parsifal.

As with other Roger Scruton writings, aesthetics prove to be the balm for the difficulties encountered in our efforts to be individualistic.

On Human Nature is an important work, yet I felt Scruton wasn’t saying anything essentially new. It’s more a summing up of his previous ideas rather than pushing his work towards new conclusions. A less involving and rewarding book than his previous The Soul of the World, for his usual elegant academicism here feels both dry and constricted. It’s a bit of a cul-de-sac for Scruton. Where can he go from here? – Alan Price.

17.3.17

LIFE BEFORE LIFE

Erlendur Haraldsson and James G Matlock. I Saw A Light and Came Here: Children’s Experiences and Reincarnation. White Crow Books, 2016.

To start on a positive note, this is a well-produced, well written book, with references and index and the authors are genuine scholars who have devoted much study to their subject, all of which makes a pleasant change from much of the self-published stuff on the market these days.

Both authors are - disciples is not too strong a word - of the late Ian Stevenson, himself the author of many books on alleged reincarnation memories, which means that they are perhaps not the most critical reviewers of the evidence.

The book is divided into two parts, in the first part Haraldsson assesses some of the evidence he has personally obtained, principally through studies of families among the Druze of Lebanon, and in Sri Lanka. Looking at this material, there is a major problem in many of the cases, in that the stories are related through hearsay, as families recall events that happened or are said to have happened before the investigators come on the scene. This is not helped by the fact that many of the stories are being narrated through interpreters. In the second half of the book, James Matlock seeks to place the stories in a wider perspective, but again most of the evidence is hearsay.

The authors claim that children who have past life memories have certain features in common in contrast to 'normal' children; they argue a lot, they brag and boast, are perfectionists, have obsessions, have phobias, are more stressed, show mood swings, experience nightmares, don’t eat well, too obsessed with neatness, day dream, talk too much, get lost in thought, are secretive, have temper tantrums, are self-conscious and easily embarrassed, are more schoolwork orientated, were more likely to disassociation etc. This list is so long that it could well encompass most children. It is interesting to note that similar lists in the west have been used as “evidence” for sexual abuse or even alien abduction.

The authors suggest that these might be symptoms of post-traumatic stress, which might be the case, but one does not have invoke past lives to account for this, when we recall that both Lebanon and Sri Lanka have been conflict zones, with civil wars, terrorism and ethno-religious tensions.

Some of the children from Sri Lanka come from religious minorities but express a desire to become Buddhist monks. Again this perhaps less surprising when he realised that the majority Buddhist community, often spurred on by Buddhist monks, have shown a less than tolerant attitude towards minorities and there has been often a policy of viewing Sri Lanka as a Buddhist state, this being one of the fuels of the decades long civil war with the Hindu/Tamil minority. It is therefore not all that surprising that children might want to fit into the beliefs and practices of the majority, dominant, culture.


In a more general sense I suspect that the authors underestimate the extent to which people, including children, are not isolated islands, but exist in a sea of communication ranging from local gossip to world news. Dramatic events make news and I suspect children take in much more than parents and other adults think they do.

I am not sure that even if children do remember past lives it would prove reincarnation. It would make a kind of biological sense that animals might have better survival chances if they could somehow have access to the experiences of other members of their species, but of course that does not explain how such a mechanism might work.

Proposing a surviving 'psychic factor' raises even more questions, for it to acquire, store and transmit information from and to the physical world, to say nothing of interacting with it to the extent of producing birth marks that mirror the previous persons injuries, then this psychic factor must be itself physical and have common interactions with the rest of the physical world. How did such psychic factors evolve in the first place and what has them; monkeys, lemurs, cats, gerbils, goldfish, cockroaches, nematode worms, bacteria.

Despite the authors’ best efforts; it is unlikely that this book will convince anyone who does not have a prior belief in reincarnation. -- Peter Rogerson


14.3.17

TAROT IN BLACK AND WHITE

Emily E. Auger. Cartomancy and Tarot in Film, 1940-2010. Intellect (University of Chicago Press), 2016.

Rex Van Ryn, Steve Dooley (designers) and Andrew Lechter (author) The English Magic Tarot. Tarot deck and booklet (paperback, 150pp.) Red Wheel-Weiser, 2016.

Diana Heyne. Tarot by Design Workbook. Weiser Books, Paperback, 2017.

You might wonder why a sceptical pelicanist like your editor is even bothering to review books on such a subject as the tarot. Am I falling into what Carl Sagan called “silent assent about mysticism and superstition” and thereby strengthening the “demon-haunted world”? My fascination with the tarot arose though my interest in the history and design of playing cards in general, and the way in which the tarot has been used as a canvas for artists and designers. I have also been intrigued by meeting a number of people who, although in all other respects seem to be highly sceptical, find value in the use of these cards.

I think the value of the cards is not in any mystical powers they may have per se, but in the way that their deeply complex and symbolic imagery allows the sympathetic 'reader' to be open to ideas, insights and apparently links that a more 'logical' approach might miss; which was certainly how Jung approached the matter, seeing tarot as a sort of 'mental alchemy'.


Having said that one must accept that a great deal of what has been written about the cards, particularity their history, is nonsense. They do not have a history dating back to ancient Egypt; they were not introduced to Europe as a form of divination by Gypsies; they do not actually have any intrinsic occult power. Tarot was, and still is in much of Europe, simply a card game with an extra 'suit' in the form of the trumps. It is the numbers on these extra cards which are important, not the images, which do not need to have any special meanings. I have seen tarot decks in which the trump cards depict pop-stars, wild flowers, historic buildings, steam-trains and even pornographic etchings!

No pornography in the books reviewed here though!

Emily Auger's account of the use of tarot cards and tarot imagery in films is nothing if not detailed. It begins with a brief, but detailed history of the tarot and the trump cards, pointing out that the earliest evidence of them being used for divinatory purposes was not until the late eighteenth century; carrying on to outline the contribution to tarot lore by people like Eliphas Levi, Alistair Crowley and members of the Golden Dawn. In the twentieth century the occult side of the tarot gained greater popularity in Britain and the USA, countries where the actual card-game was virtually unknown. Influential in this were Manley Palmer Hall, a Hollywood screen-writer, and Paul Foster Case who promoted a correspondence course on the cards.

The main part of the book is a listing and narrative account of the appearance of the tarot as a plot device, and tarot cartomancers as characters in films. A chapter analyses the manner in which individual tarot trump cards are used in films, citing the appearance of the cards in tarot readings depicted in films and the meanings attributed to them, and how they define the characters and signal the development of the film. Not surprisingly, the card which seems to be featured in the greatest number of films is 13, the Death card, although it is interesting how many different interpretations are put on it by the card reader.

Half of this substantial volume consists of appendices which form a comprehensive filmography of what must be every appearance of the tarot in a commercially released film between 1940 and 2010. The first is an alphabetical listing of films, with a brief description of the relevant scene or scenes, outlining the significance in plot and character terms.

Other appendices give a statistical analysis of the use of the tarot in the films, and a chronological listing of the relevant films, as well as listings of directors and actors involved. There is an extensive bibliography and index. This is, I think, primarily a book for the cineaste and film student, and although there is little in it historically which will be new to tarot practitioners or collectors it gives an insight into one of the ways tarot, and the lore surrounding it, has entered popular culture, and influenced the way the topic is perceived in broader society and culture.

Perhaps more relevant for the traditional practitioner or collector is the English Magic Tarot, a deck and small paperback book which describes and interprets the designs. This is a collaboration between artists and designers Rex Van Ryn and Steve Dooley, and author Andy Letcher. The designs are based on allegorical figures from the Tudors to the Restoration, a period which includes some of the major characters in English magic, including John Dee, of this parish.

Dee’s depiction here is far from the white-haired elderly sage we are familiar with from the Ashmolean portrait. In this image a young, dark-haired Dee, surrounded by mystical symbols and writing, leaps through a portal perhaps into an alternative world. Another of the historical figure depicted is Sir Isaac Newton whose work was a marriage of alchemy and science. He is depicted as Trump 17, The Star, using his prism to split light from a star.

The accompanying booklet describes the designs, and gives clues to the way a reader might interpret them. The designs are complex and rich in mystical imagery, and repay careful examination. It is an interesting challenge to work out who some of the un-named characters in the Minor Arcana are meant to represent (I think the four of coins is Sir Christopher Wren). There are a variety of inscriptions on many of the cards, in Latin, the Runic and Ogham alphabets and John Dee’s Enochian, and other scripts I do not recognise. There are also drawings of books with strange titles. In the accompanying paperback, it explains that these are all in some way linked into a sort of treasure hunt – not however one that leads to a golden hare hidden somewhere in the English landscape! This is a deck which will appeal on several levels to tarot practitioners and collectors.

Unfortunately that cannot be said for the final item in this collection. Adult colouring books have become a big seller over the past few years and supposedly promote calmness and ‘mindfulness’, although as a general time-killer I prefer codeword puzzles. Now despite my slightly flippant attitude I can see that a tarot colouring book, like one produced on Celtic knot-work a year or so back, might actually be quite worthwhile in allowing you to examine the details of complex designs and help understand the manner in which they are constructed as you colour them in. A well-design tarot colouring book could encourage careful contemplation of the figures. Certainly the colouring in the English Magic Tarot, which was the work of Steve Dooley, adds to the depth of the designs.

However Diana Heyne’s designs are just not suitable for colouring. They are roughly drawn outlines based on an approximation of the Rider-Waite tarot, with far too much white space and far too little detail to allow any degree of interest. This is a pity, as with a carefully designed series of images, this could have been a worthwhile production. As it is you just get the impression of the publishers jumping on a bandwagon, which is perhaps already slowing down. – John Rimmer



9.3.17

SILENCING SAGAN?

Donald L. Zygutis. The Sagan Conspiracy: NASA's Untold Plot to Suppress the People's Scientist's Theory of Ancient Aliens. New Page Books, 2017.

Donald Zygutis claims to be "the world's foremost authority on Carl Sagan's ET beliefs, particularly his work on ancient alienism". He asserts that NASA tried to keep this secret, apparently because they were in favour of trying to detect signals from distant planets using radio telescopes, and they were sure that interstellar space flight was impossible.

One of the main problems with this book is that the reader is never sure that the ideas and beliefs of scientists mentioned are true, or are merely guesswork by the author. This means that we are left unsure of the tensions between those who believe that interstellar travel is not a practical possibility, and disapproved of Sagan's interest in attempting to find evidence of visits by aliens. Zygutis asserts that Sagan believed that we have received such visit, but most people interested in such matters would no doubt agree that he was merely interested in it as a possibility. In fact, Zygutis assures us that Sagan had no time for UFO reports, dismissing them as unreliable.

This is presumably meant to assure us that Sagan was no crank and that his speculations about space aliens should be taken seriously. There are other scientists who take the possibility of technically advanced aliens sriously but they do not claim to have evidence that they have visited Earth. It seems to be assumed that, if they exist, they are too remote from us for their activities to be detected.

Zygutis complains that scientists refused to take Sagan's consideration of the possibility of visits by aliens in the distant past seriously and that clues could be found in ancient writings. We are given, of course, the example of the rise of the Sumerian civilisation and the writings of the Greek historian Berosus on the history and culture of ancient Babylonia, including the legend of Oannes, a mysterious creature who instructed the people in a wide range of subjects during the day and spent the nights in the sea, as he was amphibious.

The implication here, of course, is that Oannes had come from some distant planet. When I first read about this character some years ago I was rather amused by thinking of Oannes and the other occupants of his interstellar spacecraft sloshing around in water and wondering how they avoided short-circuiting the gadgets that one might expect to find in a spacecraft.

Zygutis repeatedly states that Sagan has produced scientific work showing that aliens have visited Earth and interacted with people, and that he believes that they really exist. However, if you actually read what he has written you will realise that Sagan was rather cautious and presents his findings as possibilities. In his mentions of some ancient writings he obviously realised that it was a good idea not to interpret them too literally.

The practice of reaching sensational conclusions by ignoring the interpretations of ancient writings by scholars who engage in serious study of them is one of the techniques used by the writers of sensationalist books about ancient astronauts. This causes most serious writers to ignore them, if only to avoid being tarred by the same brush.

Zygutis does make some good points about professional sceptics who sneer at everything that they don't believe or is not to their taste, but too many of his comments about their beliefs and motives are based on speculation or misinterpretations of their published opinions.

His complaint that Sagan's speculations, using statistical methods, concerning the possibility of space travelling aliens in the galaxy (usually known as the 'Stanford Paper') received few comments by other scientists is not really valid, as there is not much to add to it, as his arguments are based on possibilities rather than established facts. I found the Zygutis's style of writing rather confusing and repetitious, and a much shorter version would have been more suitable. -- John Harney

6.3.17

JUST PLANTING A THOUGHT

DAVID SIVIER

Robert Sheckley was an American SF writer, who published a series of novels and short stories from the 1950s to the early '90s. These were similar to the Douglas Adams' later Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in that they spoof standard science-fiction cliches and conventions, often from a philosophical viewpoint, subtly satirising the emerging consumer society of the 1960s. His characters are often the hapless victims of incompetent bureaucracies and corporations. The hero of his 1968 book, Dimension of Miracles, is Thomas Carmody, the winner of a galactic sweepstake run by intelligent aliens. However, due to a mix-up, the aliens have given the prize to the wrong man, and they are also unable to return him to Earth. Carmody thus begins a bizarre journey across the cosmos trying to find his way home, accompanied by the Prize, which is intelligent and can take whichever form fits the current situation, while pursued by a monster, called into existence by his winning the lottery, which specialises in eating Carmodys. Along the way he meets the man who made the Earth, and debates religion and God's relationship with His creations with the god of a barren planet. [1]

Options [2] is also about the problems of another unfortunate space traveller, Tom Mishkin. In trying to get home after a malfunction in his spacecraft leaves him stranded on Harmonia II awaiting a replacement part. This ends in failure. Despite going through a series of bizarre, and frequently nonsensical, encounters crossing the planet in order to contact Earth to procure the part, the company on Earth is unable to acquire one for him, leaving him marooned there. Again, the book features incidents very similar to those in Hitchhiker. For example, in trying to find a way out of the malfunction, Mishkin finds out that the control panel has a personality, which the machine feels makes him unable to perform his job properly [3]. This brings to mind Arthur Dent's first meeting with Marvin, the Paranoid Android, and the spaceship's doors aboard the Heart of Gold in Hitchhiker. These also have personalities, while the perpetually miserable Marvin is a 'personality prototype'. Or the existentially challenged elevator Marvin also encounters in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. [4]

Options isn't a UFO book, but it does have one small passage which is relevant to some of the imagery in the abduction experience. This is where an Earth ship encounters a hostile enemy vessel from Far Arcturus under their bloodthirsty commander, Thanatos Superbum. The Earthmen's peaceful greetings and offers of friendship are spurned by Superbum, who offers them the choice of being:
"annihilated at once by the inconceivable force of our deadly ray guns, after which our space fleet will destroy your space fleet, after which we will conquer Earth and implant special radio circuits in the brains of all humans thus rendering them our slaves and subject to various fates worse than death". [5]
Alien implants are very much a standard part of the Abduction narrative. Way back in Magonia 58, Mark Pilkington discussed them along with real research by the American intelligence agencies in mind control, including the use of electronic implants, in such notorious projects as Artichoke, Bluebird, Pandora, Mkdelta, Mksearch and MkUltra. [6]

The theme of evil aliens using implants to control their slaves also appeared in the comic strip 'Metamorphosis Odyssey' by Jim Starlin, in the American adult anthology comic, Epic Illustrated. This told the story of a quest by the alien magician, Aknaton from the planet of Osiris, to find the three spiritually advanced beings and their protector, who would be able to blow the Infinity Horn and so end the imminent conquest and enslavement of the Galaxy by the evil Zygoteans. The Zygoteans are a warlike race spreading through the Galaxy by conquering and enslaving other civilisations. Their victims are electronically controlled through brain implants. After the Zygoteans have exhausted their victims' planets and resources, the former slaves are then freed and abandoned to starve to death as their conquers fly on to invade and despoil the next world. The strip was strongly influenced by the emerging radical politics of the time and the growing environmental movement. The Zygoteans embody aggressive, exploitative capitalism, which has also resulted in the exploitation and massacre of their own lower classes, and its threat to the ecology and wildlife of the Galaxy.

There no doubt have been other treatments of the same them elsewhere in science-fiction, and given the paranoia of the 1970s, it may well be that the motif of implanted mind control devices would have entered the abduction narrative as it was formed, without its appearance in science-fiction. But science-fiction has been a very strong influence on the UFO mythology, ever since Ray Palmer backed Kenneth Arnold. Mind control by aliens via technological implants are very much another example of a science-fictional literary topic being taken over into ufology.


1. Robert Sheckley, Dimensons of Miracles. New York ACE Books, 1968.
2. Robert Sheckley, Options. London, Pan Books, 1977
3. Robert Sheckley. Options, pp.16-17.
4. Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (London, Pan Books, 1980) pp.39-42
5. Robert Sheckley, Options, p.77.
6. Mark Pilkington. 'What's on Your Mind' Magonia 58, January-February, pp.3-5

28.2.17

DRIFTING IN THE WIND

Ben Kessler. Rivers of Wind: Reflections on Nature and Language. ICRL Press, 2016.

Ben Kessler has written eighteen essays exploring the etymological roots of language and how it impacts on his view of the natural world. That view, according to the book’s blurb, is mostly from “a little hollow in the Blue Ridge Mountains of central Virginia” where Kessler lives. Kessler’s observations are never narrowly parochial: for he extrapolates his thoughts from the local neighbourhood to the global terrain.

He sees the power of words (The English language) to be dying from Imperialist and capitalist intervention and the planet to be suffering death throes from a blight of over-consumption, environmental degradation and our contribution to global warning. Kessler is deeply concerned, caring and passionate about us saving the planet. Unfortunately he throws too many ‘urgent’ questions at the reader with little or no attempt at providing answers on how to carry out the saving.

That’s not necessary a criticism of Rivers of Wind (Many experts are arguing about right solutions, and you have to be aware of competing governments with their own environmental agendas). No, my concern is that Kessler gives us an overloaded list of questions that are no substitute for tough analysis. These questions quickly become cries, then a critical prodding and finally howls of protest. Rivers of Wind is a much too generalised declamation of discontent neatly interspersed with loving descriptions of rabbits, eagles, black birds, flies, the stars etc.

This isn’t helped by Kessler’s rhetorical style. Without ever becoming a polemic or worse, a rant, it does weaken the power of writing that’s both interesting and factually engaging and yet so overwrought to the point of being maddeningly ‘poetic’. I really wish he’d been more of a Thoreau and dispassionate environmentalist than some het up Walt Whitman bombastically wondering how much grass will be destroyed by our crazy exploitation of everything!

However amidst his high flown energy, three of Kessler’s essays are remarkable. Apoptosis is most suggestive on the process of insect metamorphoses, with some sharp ideas about our remembrance of things.
If the mechanism for the retention of all memories across metamorphosis cannot be pinned to a physical structure in the animal’s body, would that imply a non-physical medium for at least some sorts of memory?
'Last Season’s Fruit' describes the site of the ‘diseased’ Chernobyl disaster and provocatively, yet powerfully, links it with the experience of urban areas of ‘healthy’ cities.
Viewed from the point of view of a morel fungus, or a centipede, or a beech tree, urban areas constitute a threatening expanse of dead space, requiring aggressive medical intervention. As the ten-kilometre zones of uninhabitability surrounding Chernobyl reactor is to human beings, so are the thousand–kilometre zones of Los Angeles or Kiev to a wolf or a fern.
And 'Martha’s Heart' is a fascinating piece on the pathologist R.W.Schufeldt who in 1914 extracted the heart from the last passenger pigeon.

Near the end of Rivers of Wind Kessler attempts some new mythmaking of his own. The results are clunky.
And so it came to pass, in the dark days of the strangers, that there arose among the people those who chafed beneath the yoke. Within their hearts they felt not the hollowness of the Only True Way, but an aching richness that seemed to emanate from the ruined forests and blasted hills.
That’s to be found in the essay called 'Tall Stories'. I agree with Kessler about employing myths and reinvigorating language to give us alternative options to daily dystopian news-stories speculating on our future. But bad prose is no substitute for authentic inspiration. A book then for the ecologist, poet, scientist and maybe general reader. But not quite.

Tread carefully round Kessler’s hollow in the Blue Ridge Mountains and you will be occasionally rewarded. Though I really wish I could have brought in the sheaves from a more intelligible harvest of ideas and descriptive states. -- Alan Price



Ben has replied to this book in the Comments, below. click to read.

24.2.17

WHEN SATAN WENT POP

Kier-La Janisse and Paul Corupe (Eds.) Satanic Panic; Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s. Fab Press, 2016.

In the early 1990s Magonia published a series of articles about the then-current 'Satanic abuse' panic, which involved unproven allegations of mass child abduction, abuse and sacrifice which were being promoted by a number of agencies, and receiving widespread press attention. We compared these stories to the narratives of individuals who had made claims of similar kinds of abuse, allegedly through been abducted by aliens, or as part of historical Satanic and witchcraft activities. [See links below]

The Satanic Abuse stories did not come from out of nowhere, and this book examines the wider popular cultural background in which they developed, particularly through mass-media and popular culture.

The book Michelle Remembers is often cited as the earlier example of a Satanic child abuse narrative. Published in 1980, this book relates the story of Michelle Smith who claimed to have been inducted into a Satanic conspiracy by her mother. Her account retails most of the elements which came to define the later development of the panic: women being kept as “breeders” to produce children for sacrifice, and the existence of an international conspiracy of Satanists involving senior figures in politics, business and the church. Even such outrageous claims as that she had horns and a tail surgically fitted to her body.

The most significant part of Smith's story is the way in which it was revealed; after hypnotic sessions with the therapist Lawrence Padzer - whom she subsequently married – and it was this, amongst other elements, which cause writers in Magonia to see it in relation to the alien abduction scare which developed in the 1980s.

Smith’s narrative began to fall apart not long after publication, as members of her family came forward to denounce her story, and careful examination of her claims showed many of them to be physically impossible. However at the same time the book was gaining enormous publicity, becoming a best seller and earning the Smith/Padzer couple over $300,000, with national publicity tours and appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show and other prime-time TV programmes.

Although it is sometimes claimed that Michelle Remembers was the source of the entire 1980s-1990s Satanism scare, the contributors to this collection show that it goes much further back and deeper in popular culture than that.

One of the earlier sources of the vivid imagery that surrounded the Satanic panic were the series of exploitation films and lurid paperbacks that cashed in on the success of films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist in the 1970s. Alison Nastasi reviews a series of paperback pot-boilers by Russ Martin. These books, published originally by an offshoot of Playboy magazine, are written from the female perspective of the heroine/victim, explicitly characterising her as the medium through which Satan is introduced into the world of conventional American suburban life. This is also a feature of Michelle Remembers, where the figures who initially trap and abuse Michelle are depicted as female.

Nastasi sees the theme of these books as being “at once an admission of male anxiety over female agency and a cautionary tale about the liberated woman, Martin forces readers into the uncomfortable space between identification and revulsion”.

Running parallel with fears about the activities of Satanists and ‘devil-worshippers’ was concern that young people were being lured into Satanism and ‘The Occult’ through a range of apparently innocent activities, most particularly games and music. These were largely led by right-wing Christian groups and activists, like the campaigning group BADD (Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons) set up in 1983 by Patricia Pulling. BADD alleged, with little evidence that gaming was responsible for a number of teenage suicides, and in the UK the Daily Express (who’d have guessed it) proclaimed “Cult fantasy games on sale in Britain could drive players to murder and suicide”

In the pre-home computer era the main source of this anxiety was role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. One anti-D&D campaigner, Gary North, a prominent figure in the right-wing evangelical movement in the 1970s and 80s denounced them as “the most effective, most magnificently packaged, most thoroughly researched introduction to the occult in man’s recorded history … this is NO game”.

Inevitably, as the claims continued, games designers began to exploit the controversy, deliberately introducing more extreme elements into their games, a process which was echoed in the growth of Black Metal and Death Metal bands reflecting and amplifying the panic that surrounded them, some even putting genuine ‘back-masked’ messages into their discs. Although as Magonia’s Roger Sandell remarked at the time, if back-masking was an effective form of instilling unconscious commands, surely the most popular message would be “buy our next album”!

But even apparently innocent comic books were also involved in Satanism, with the specifically do-gooder character of He-Man being recruited into the evil conspiracy, along with other cartoons and their spin-off toy characters. Books like Turmoil in the Toybox and Saturday Morning Mind Control warned of the sinister satanic images and themes that parents should look out for in cartoons ranging from the Care Bare to the Ninja Turtles: “demons, spirits, familiars, pentagrams, goats’-heads, occult practices, seeing into the future, levitation, mind control, divination, communication with the dead, witchcraft, amulets, wands, staffs, magical powers or books of spells”. A special prize if you found them all in the same cartoon, I suppose.

Kevin Ferguson looks at the Satanic films of the 1980s, and how they updated the threat of occult conspiracy, through the introduction of new technology, which to many people was as much a danger to their way of life as Satanism itself. He analyses two films, Evilspeak, and 976-EVIL where bullied and marginalises adolescent boys are drawn into a Satanic web through computers and premium-rate phone lines, and using the powers they gain to wreak vengeance on their tormentors, before plunging into the abyss themselves.

Leslie Hatton recalls a notorious murder case from Long Island, which unleashed a heady brew of sex, murder, drugs, Satanism, and sensationalist reporting; and Alison Lang reviews the notorious Geraldo TV special in 1988 which perhaps did more to promote the theme of Satanic ritual abuse and sacrifice than any other source, and through interviewing some of the people involved in it provides a text-book example of how to produce a sensationalist TV show, whilst at the same time publicly humiliating the people taking part in it.

Other themes covered include Heavy Metal and Black Metal music, which provoked a counter-action by the creation of White Metal and Christian Punk. These attempted to use the musical language of Metal and Punk to express an ostensibly Christian message, but soon themselves fell prey to the Satan-hunters.

Although most of the topics in this book, and the writers, are American, one specifically British chapter, by David Flint looks at the SRA in Britain, tracing a cultural background in the ‘Video Nasties’ panic of the early 90s, and examining the way in which the artist/musician Genesis P-Orridge became a lightning-rod for the Satan-hunters. This chapter contains a remarkable photograph of Mary Whitehouse with protesting nuns outside a cinema, presumably showing some film which incurred their displeasure, looking remarkably like the ‘Down With This Sort of Thing’ episode of Father Ted! The extensive selection of illustrations as a whole in this volume is worthy of note, especially a particularly lurid colour section of 1970s images.

As most of these contributors present arguments which are strongly critical of the claims of the Satanic panic promoters, it is interesting to see one piece, by Adrian Mack presenting a rather revisionist account of the notorious Macmartin Daycare Center affair, and suggesting that the dismissal of the allegations against the defendants may have been flawed. He also presents a sceptical view of False Memory Syndrome and is very critical of some of the people who have written about this condition. Although this seems out of joint with the rest of the book, I think it is important that a dissenting voice is presented.

Although most of this book presents a specifically American perspective, especially in the treatment of media and pop-cultural involvement in the whole Satanic episode, and some of the references may be lost on readers this side of the Atlantic, most of what it describes is equally relevant to the British experience, and will be of interest not only to those interested in the development of this particular episode, but to those with an interest in the broader social history of moral panics. – John Rimmer






18.2.17

PARANORMAL POINTERS

David Groome and Ron Roberts (editors). Parapsychology: The Science of Unusual Experiences. 2nd Edition, Routledge, 2016.

Let’s get one thing out of the way at the start, this book is mis-titled, parapsychology as such takes up only one chapter, so a more accurate title might be 'Critical Essays on the Paranormal' or 'The Psychology of the Paranormal'

The one chapter on academic parapsychology, by Caroline Watt deals with two topics; possible similarities between 'ESP' and subliminal perception and the debates over the Ganzfeld experiments.

In an essay on mediumship and survival, Chris Roe examines the role of cold reading and the Barnum effect on the production of allegedly paranormal information and the difficulties of separating out any genuinely paranormally gained information from these. People often grossly underestimate what information can be gleaned by appearance, clothing, age, posture, slight movements etc.

Perhaps a related topic is that of possession and exorcism, which is discussed by Chris French, who explores not just the roles of neurological disorders such as epilepsy and Tourette’s syndrome in leading to beliefs in possession, but perhaps more important social factors, which provide scripts for people to act out roles. At the conclusion of this chapter he warns of the harms that belief in possession and rituals of exorcism can cause, not least child abuse, though there is no discussion of the recent rise in beliefs in child witches and resultant massive abuse.

Chris French then discusses alien abductions, and notes, while there are other factors, the crucial roles of sleep paralysis experiences and hypnotic confabulation in the generation of such stories. The question as to whether fantasy proneness is a significant factor remains moot, not least because definitions of what constitutes fantasy made differ with different world views.

Chris Roe then discusses near death experiences and notes that similar experiences are reported both by minorities of people who have come clinically close to death and those who have just had a close shave as in accidents. He notes the problems in defining death and knowing exactly what physiological processes mediate subjective experience.

Chris French further discusses reincarnation claims, concentrating on his own studies among the Druze of Lebanon. Reincarnation is central to the Druze world view and they believe that people are reincarnated at the moment of death. French notes however that few of the past live stories he encountered fitted this pattern, a fact which is explained away by invoking forgotten intermediate lives as babies who died young. He remains unconvinced by the evidence and points out that the more dramatic cases reported by Stevenson are ones from years before allowing much time for contamination and false memory.

There are chapters on dreams by Ron Roberts, astrology by David Groome, religion, belief and science by Michael Eysenck, psychic fraud by Richard Wiseman, science and experience by Ron Roberts and cognition and belief by David Groome and Robin Law. An interesting outlier paper is on conspiracy theories by Robert Brotherton and Chris French, which looks at the psychological, social and cognitive factors behind such beliefs. Given the wide coverage it is surprising that there are no chapters on ghosts and hauntings and poltergeists.

This book is clearly aimed at a readership of undergraduate students of psychology rather than the lay reader, though the latter should find parts of this enlightening and interesting. It takes a clear but not aggressively sceptical position. Students should find of it of value but this book cannot function as stand-alone textbook on parapsychology. – Peter Rogerson.


MAGONIA RECOMMENDS