(Image by Chris Barker)
One year ago today, I was in Amboise, France, as part of the trip of a lifetime around Europe with my wife and children. Upon waking that rainy, gloomy winter's day, I absent-mindedly checked my Twitter timeline, and was snapped out of my daze when I read the shocking news that David Bowie had sadly passed away, after turning 69 just a couple of days previous.
It turned out to be a day filled with death. Our itinerary for the day began with a visit to Château du Clos Lucé, a small château that is famous for being the residence of Leonardo da Vinci in his final years - with one of the main 'attractions' being a viewing of the actual bed that the great Master was lying in when he took his final breath.
From Amboise we then drove to our next stay, an absolutely wonderful historical chateau not far from Rennes that we booked through AirBnB. On arrival, however, we were met not by the owner, but instead by their neighbour. As it turns out, the owner's husband had died that very day after suffering a heart attack, and yet she had amazingly taken the time and consideration to organise for her neighbour to come and greet us and make sure we settled into the place comfortably.
This 'day of death' finished with a bang as well - as we were eating dinner in the dining room of the old chateau that night, my wife suddenly swung her head around to look behind us. Nothing was there, despite, she recounted, the fact that she had seen someone walk behind us in the reflection from the window.
A year on, and it turns out not to have been so much a 'death day', but an entire year. From Bowie, to the massive loss of Prince in April, through to George Michael and Carrie Fisher at year's end - and a cavalcade of departed stars and personalities in between - 2016 as serial killer became a meme that many could relate to, along with the fervent hope that 2017 would be better.
The thing is though, I'm not sure that's going to be the case. In actual fact, I think 2016 might just be the herald for a new period that I (perhaps hyperbolically) refer to as the 'Great Dying'.
The 'Great Dying' arises from the confluence of three factors:
- In the 1950s and 60s the amount of 'famous people' increased dramatically with the advent of television, 'pop' music and mass-marketed professional sport. People who became stars at a yound age in those and following decades are now 60 to 90 years of age.
- Furthermore, the pressures of reaching and maintaining that celebrity status - especially in the last few decades, have pushed some performers and sportsmen to the limits physically and psychologically. Witness for instance the painkillers required by Michael Jackson and Prince, which ultimately resulted in their premature deaths. And both living with that celebrity status, and the emotional valley of slipping from that status, also have their deleterious effects on the human psyche and body. So there will always be a portion of stars who die at an earlier age than expected.
- Lastly, in the modern era of 24-hour news cycles and social media, we are hyper-aware of every celebrity's passing and 'grieve' as a community when that happens, sharing thoughts, quotes and tributes, and meditating on that person's passing more thoroughly than in the past.
Without wishing to start a dead pool, to illustrate point one consider the following list of movie stars who are house-hold names: Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery are 86; James Earl Jones and William Shatner are 85; Judi Dench and Brigitte Bardot are 82; Donald Sutherland is 81 and Robert Redford is 80; Morgan Freeman, Jane Fonda, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson are 79. In music, the (surviving members of) The Beatles, Stones and Led Zep are in their 70s, while Tina Turner is 77 and Aretha Franklin is 74. For the SF&F geeks out there, Ursula Le Guin is 87; Tom Baker is 82; Ian McKellen is 77 and Patrick Stewart is 76; Ridley Scott is 79. Anthony Hopkins is 79; Al Pacino is 76; Harrison Ford is 74; De Niro is 73. David Attenborough is 90.
That's just a quick listing off the top of my head, so you can only imagine how many well-known people are in what would be expected to be the final decade or two of their lives. And that doesn't include all those who might pop off earlier than expected, from cancer, heart attack, accident, suicide or other assorted causes (I've personally almost checked out after being stung by a wasp, of all things). This is perhaps what made 2016 seem so shocking - losing the likes of David Bowie at 69, Carrie Fisher at 60, Prince at 57, George Michael at 53 and Phife Dawg at 45. But given the number of celebrities out there, is this the new normal?
The Great Dying has begun. So it might be about time we addressed our in-built aversion to dealing with death and loss head-on.
Below you'll find John Reppion's "Editor's Introduction" to the new anthology Spirits of Place, which features the likes of Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, Gazelle Amber Valentine, Iain Sinclair and many others taking us on a tour of places where they themselves have encountered, and consulted with, 'spirits of place' - " the echoes of people, of events, of ideas which have become imprinted upon a location, for better or for worse."
More information, and links for ordering Kindle, paperback and hardcover editions, can be found at the Spirits of Place website.
Spirits of Place: Editor’s Introduction
by John Reppion
When I was a child I had a vision of fourth dimensional time; of paths trod by my own ghosts, past and future. My parents and my grandparents lived six houses apart on the same suburban South Liverpool street. In front of my parents' house (where they still reside) is a square of turf for kids to play on which we call “the grass patch”. A journey from one house to the other could be made one of three ways: diagonally across the grass patch; via the strip of pavement which runs round its front closest to the road; or on the pavement round its back, past the front fences of numbers 50, 48, 46, and 44, and then at a right-angle up the far side, past the garage at number 42. I was on my way home from Gran's at the age of perhaps seven or eight when I was suddenly struck by the thought that I must already have made the journey a hundred times, and that I would make it thousands more. I crossed over on to the opposite side of the road so I could get a better look at that strip of land where, I realised with a weird dizzy feeling, I had already spent a good chunk of my young life. I saw – imagined, I suppose, but with absolute clarity – at first just a handful, but gradually a crowd. The diagonal route across the grass was the most heavily populated, in spite of all those warnings about muddy shoes. There I was at the age of three, four, five, and as I stared longer, there I was at ten, at seventeen, at twenty, at thirty; infant, child, adolescent, and adult overlaid in a blur of bodies, limbs and faces. An entire lifetime of journeys between those two fixed points in a single image – an image I can still recall perfectly to this day. My younger selves dominate the picture, not because of nostalgia, but because I would walk the walk five or six or more times a day when I was a child, the frequency growing less and less beyond the age of ten. Gran died in 2010, Grandad followed her the next year, and their house – the house my mum was born in – was sold soon after. I couldn't have known that then, yet still there were (and are) very few, if any, versions of myself in that strange multi-exposure vision much past the age of thirty. For a long, long time after that mid-80s day, every time I made the journey I knew I was walking among, and with, and through all those other versions of myself. Versions which remain frozen there to this day – not just in my head, but in some very real sense. I've never discussed any of this with anyone – never even thought about it in any terms other than those which my younger self knew to be true – and in fact, I had all but forgotten about it up until just a few days ago.
How can I best define the concept of “Spirits of Place”? It sounds good, but what do I even mean by the phrase? These are some of the questions I was asking myself last week. You might well think I should already have answered them quite a while ago; before commissioning the twelve pieces for this book, or indeed organising the conference/ritual mash-up thing which led to its creation. But no. At least, not exactly. It's easy enough to give people a rough idea of what you mean about something, especially if you're trying to give them just enough to spin their own ideas out of it. So, let's backtrack a little here. Not as far back as the 1980s, but to the first quarter of this year.
Spirits of Place was the name I chose for a one day event I organised and put on here in Liverpool in April, 2016. The idea came about when I saw that there was a conference space available for hire in the former Manor House in Calderstones Park; a park which I've been visiting on a regular basis for most of my life. There you'll find a playground, the duck and goose crowded mini-lake, a café, an ice-cream parlour, ornamental gardens, a miniature railway, and the remains of a Neolithic chambered tomb.
The tomb stood just outside the boundaries of the park between 3000 BCE (give or take a few centuries) and 1804 CE, when it was pulled apart to make way for a house being built. All that survived of the tomb were six stones, each covered with curious spirals, circles, and other ancient engravings. These Calderstones – the origin of the name long lost now – were re-arranged into a rough stone circle under orders of lead shot manufacturer Joseph Need Walker in 1845. Standing at the South East entrance to Walker's estate – mere metres from the tomb's original position – the stones soon drew the interest of several 19th century antiquarians believing it to be their original “Druidic” location and configuration. There they remained until 1954 when they were removed under orders of Liverpool Corporation. Covered with more than a century's worth of moss and soot, the stones were cleaned and latex impressions taken, revealing details of carving which had previously been all but invisible to the naked eye. The first thorough survey of the stones was made based on these (now lost) moulds by J. L. Forde-Johnson and the results were published in his 1957 paper “Megalithic Art in the North West of Britain, The Calderstones, Liverpool”. In 1964 the stones were relocated inside the park which by now bore their name. There in a hexagonal glass house (known as “the vestibule”) which served as an entranceway to the Greenhill Greenhouses where a huge botanical collection was kept, the ancient, fragile Calderstones were set into grey slabs of quick drying concrete. The Greenhill Greenhouses were bulldozed in the 1980s following a strike by Liverpool council parks and gardens workers. The vestibule survived, standing alone; the Calderstones visible only to those who knew where to look, peering through the ivy and graffiti covered glass to see the sextet of standing stones holding their silent communion.
The first time I ever got to see the Calderstones up close was in 2007 on a Halloween tour of the park. The vestibule was warm and damp – electric heaters working against the foggy October air in an effort to shield the megaliths from winter’s chill. Fine spider’s webs, spun across the pitted surfaces of the menhirs, were frosted with moisture, glistening in the glow of the heater elements. The engravings shimmered fierily as if each stone had a core of liquid magma beneath its brittle sandy surface. Our guide hurried through a truncated history of the stones and, for a precious few moments, the assembled crowd stared at them in absolute wonder. But, all too soon, the spell was broken. The park ranger had no eerie tale directly connected to the stones to tell. By the time we left the vestibule, his latest off the peg ghost story had all but erased the circle of crumbling stones' brief, vague history from most people’s minds. With each step away from the dilapidated greenhouse, the illusionary fire within the ancient sigils seemed to dim. My own interest did not, however.
I became more fascinated than ever with the Calderstones and their history. How these man-made objects had been a permanent feature of the local landscape since mammoths walked the earth. Key elements of a tomb built before the Egyptian pyramids, marked with symbols which pre-date written language in this part of the world; their original meanings and purpose lost in the mists of time. In December 2014 I had one of these magical marks – a thumbprint-like spiral pattern from the Calderstone that Forde-Johnson designated as Stone E – tattooed in black ink on my right forearm. Although I have no way of knowing what it meant when it was carved, I know what it represents now. It is a connection between myself and the landscape; between the people who lived and died and left the mark here five millennia ago, and the life myself and my family live here now. A five-thousand year 4D snapshot of that crucial not-quite-a-mile of South Liverpool parkland would show the Calderstones as the only constant feature – the spiral patterns graven upon their surfaces an almost perfect map of their glacial, stop-motion meanderings around its narrow environs. The Calderstones physically anchor Calderstones Park to England's ancient past. They are the proverbial heavy ball-bearing on the rubber-sheet of Time; creating a pocket of deep history into which stories, and spirits, are drawn in ever-decreasing orbits. And that is why I decided that putting on an event in the park would be a good idea. An attempt at harnessing that energy, and raising those spirits; the Spirits of Place.
The core concept of the symposium became that of this book: stories are embedded in the world around us – in metal, in brick, in concrete, and in wood. In the very earth beneath our feet. Our history surrounds us and the tales we tell, true or otherwise, are always rooted in what has gone before. The event was structured like a spiral: the Calderstones as its centre, with nine incredible speakers spinning their talks out of that single point in ever broadening arcs. I wanted to make it almost like a kind of happening, or a ritual, crossed with a regular conference; a magical experience in a very real sense. And, it worked. Perhaps too well.
My own opening talk that day was entitled “Invoking the Spirits of Place” and served not just as a preamble, but as an explicit calling. My closing paragraph read as follows:
Today we call upon the spirits of this place; the spirits of those pre-English ancestors who moved and marked stones and mounded earth with their bare hands, not just to honour their dead, but so that we might know something of what they believed and knew. Upon the hidden race of fairies and elves which they later became in popular folklore and imagination. Vertumnos – god of growth and fruit and seasons, Ceres – goddess of agriculture, grain, fertility and motherhood, Hercules – strong and powerful man-god protector of this parkland's gateway. The kodarna, the canoti, the wood sprites, boggarts, goblins, and pooka. We call upon the Lady of the Forest, upon the spirit of the ancient Allerton Oak. All of these spirits we invoke, and we ask them to show us, to teach us. To share with us their knowledge of this place – this small suburban green-space which is all green-space, which is everything. A slice of the natural world which we kid ourselves we have altered and mastered and tamed but which, in reality, is merely a fraction, a sliver of the true order of things. A tiny piece of the ancient green-land which waits impatiently for the moment when it might reclaim what is rightfully its. All across South Liverpool centuries-old roots ripple through tarmac, absorb railings and bow walls. Stop-motion brambles wind cunningly around fallen sandstone slabs, spider-walk through skull-socket knotholes, cascade over weather-worn fence-panel and post in a prickled, black-fruit foamed spray. The thin veneer of civilisation can be seen, almost heard, crumbling one driveway-fracturing dandelion at a time. This place does not belong to us alone, here our ancestors, our history, our folklore are all alive and waiting to be rediscovered. To reclaim and re-enchant this earthly realm.
So, I bid you welcome. Welcome to South Liverpool, to Calderstones Park, and to Spirits of Place.
On that day, standing there in Joseph Need Walker's Manor House in the heart of the park, speaking those words felt truly powerful, truly magical. A spell was cast, and though I had intended as much, I hadn't anticipated it to work in such a literal sense. If I had expected it, I would surely have thought to lay the ghosts – to release the spirits – at the end of the day. But I didn't. There was no dismissal, no formal farewell to the host of ancestors, thought-forms, and deities myself, guests, and attendees had spent six or so hours talking and thinking, remembering and imagining into life.
I'd made an attempt at recording the day's talks and that evening managed a very quick listen through to check the quality. It wasn't great, which I had pretty much expected. I only had two mics set up and most people were moving around a lot giving their talks. It was no big thing; it would have been nice if it worked out but didn't really matter that it hadn't. The only part that sounded okay was the last talk of the day which had been a sit down interview with Ramsey Campbell about his use of Merseyside, Liverpool, and even Calderstones Park itself in his fiction. I cringed, as many people do, at the sound of my own voice asking the questions, but otherwise it was fine. Exhausted then, I passed up the kind offer of speakers Cat Vincent, David Southwell, and Gary Budden to join them for a pint or three, and instead opted for a rare early night.
In my dream that night I was wearing my headphones, listening to my own voice on the recorder. It wasn't the interview with Ramsey this time though, it was my own opening invocation. The quality was better than I'd thought. Only, now I didn't recognise the words. I couldn't remember saying any of this. And then, as one does in dreams, I knew that it wasn't me I could hear; it was something else using my recorded voice to speak. I asked out loud who it was, and my voice answered with an electric hiss “the spirits in the wires”. It was the kind of nightmare that doesn't really make sense if you try to explain it, but those whispered words had me wide awake, heart pounding, drenched in sweat that night.
Night terrors notwithstanding, Spirits of Place was a success. Out of that success came the entirely unexpected offer from Daily Grail Publishing to put together a book based on the same idea. Almost immediately though, I realised a book would need to be handled very differently. The event was about being in that specific physical place on that specific day – about shared experience rooted, one way or another, in that landscape. The book needed to tap into more universal themes and ideas about the relationships between landscape, history, story, art, magic, and humanity. Once I realised this, I knew I had to look further afield than the U.K., and beyond those who might be thought of as “the usual suspects” when it came to this kind of writing. Well okay, maybe some of those usual suspects are here, but you may note that London and Northampton are barely mentioned, let alone visited, within these pages.
While its geographic spectrum may be broader than other books dealing with the topic of place, there is a huge amount of commonality between the essays within Spirits of Place. The way our identities and beliefs are embedded in our surroundings; the places we grow up, or live, or come from. Equally, how we interpret and re-interpret ourselves in certain places. How language can sometimes fail us when we try to express the dichotomy of personal experience and shared reality; of things we know to be true and things which we can prove, or explain to others. Things embedded in our culture, often at a hyperlocal level. This island, this town, this village, this dirt track, this house, this room; every one has its spirits. A blur of people, of experiences, of lives lived, dreams dreamed, of gods birthed, of loves lost, of deaths died, of journeys across the grass patch.
Stick the push-pins in the map, connect the dots with winding twine like every good movie detective knows you should. A pattern emerges. It is not a pentagram, not a star-sign or constellation, not an arrow or X marking the spot. It is a spiral.
Ryan Sprague is, as many of the people I admire the most in this field, a man who wears several hats: He's not only a professional playwright and screenwriter, but also has a life-long passion about the UFO topic, every since he had an impactful observation of a triangular object at the tender age of 12 years old.
Mind you, he's not a UFOlogist per se (at least, he doesn't like to use the label… another thing we agree upon!). Instead he prefers to present himself before the witnesses he interviews in his investigations as a 'journalist', and that is exactly the approach he used when he decided to write 'Somewhere in the Skies': Putting the witness at the forefront and let THEM tell the story of what allegedly happened to them in their own words; without any judgement, bias, or established agenda of what it is they exactly experienced.
Believe me, if this book was only about cool or never-before-published close encounters, I wouldn't have bothered in reading it in the first place --my days of getting 'a hard on' by consuming what my friend Greg Bishop calls 'UFO Porno' are long gone. Where 'Somewhere in the Skies' stands out among the rest, though, is twofold: First, it covers THE WHOLE GAMUT of otherworldly encounters, from the blissful to the totally terrifying and with people from all walks of life --even former military personnel-- showing how the response elicited by the phenomena can be as varied as the particulars of the witness itself; some of them may see something incredible that challenges all of their preconceptions about Reality or how the world is supposed to operate, and then move on with their lives; others may end up being so totally shaken up by the experience, it completely alters the course of their lives forever. Sometimes for the better... and sometimes for the worst.
It is the 'post-scriptum' of said experiences the second and most important part Ryan's research focuses upon. Yes, studying UFOs may yield us some new revelation in Physics, or even inspire us to conceive novel propulsion systems of energy sources --which is IMO what the great majority of 'nuts-and-bolts' UFOlogists' primary goal is.. that and being FINALLY vindicated by the individuals and institutions who have scorned them for so many years; but in dealing with such an elusive phenomenon thusly, the field has reprehensibly neglected that treasure trove of information which, unlike UFOs, tend to stay closer to the ground and for longer periods of time --the witnesses themselves.
Ryan decided to meet those individuals who are often relegated as a number on a graph by the 'just-the-facts-ma'am' researchers; he contacted them either via e-mail or by meeting them in person whenever possible, to see not only WHAT they experienced when being face to face with the Unknown, or HOW the experience impacted their lives (and that those closer to them); but also WHY they believe it happened to them in the fist place: Is it merely a matter of being in the right place and the right time, or are the witnesses being SELECTED somehow for some ulterior motive which escapes our comprehension? A supposition which seems more plausible, especially when dealing with the most extreme aspects of non-human encounters which are currently referred to as 'alien abductions'.
Some of the people Ryan interviewed have had years to process what they witnessed; decades even, for a few of them. Integrating such a transcendental experience into one's life is not an easy feat, and obviously some turn out to be luckier than others (perhaps because of their particular 'safety net' of strong social and family relations). But among the wide array of testimony Ryan gathered, there spawns a single commonality: The world of these persons cracked wide open all of the sudden, and grew bigger and more incredible than they had never suspected before.
Perhaps, just perhaps, that's just the whole point of all of this.
In one way or another, many whom I’ve interviewed in the
writing of this book described the very same thing: a spiritual
experience. Something just beyond the physical realm had
struck them as they stared into the sky, trying so desperately to
process the mysterious phenomenon before them.
Throughout Ryan Sprague's text, an overall sense of optimism was palpable. Optimism when he interviewed a few brave scientists who dare to study the phenomenon seriously despite the obvious peril to their careers. Optimism when seeing how UFO witnesses and experiencers are creating support groups and online networks which help them deal with what may very well be the ultimate social closet of the XXIst century --interaction with a non-human intelligence.
But most of all, Ryan's optimism seems to spawn from a hope that, whatever the hell may be behind the UFO phenomenon, and the reasons behind its bizarre way to operate, it will nevertheless help us move forward in our collective and individual evolution.
I too confess to share that optimism. And because of that, perhaps my only big caveat with Ryan's book lies in his choice for the title. Because the true key to uncover this mystery may not reside 'somewhere in the skies.' The key may be right here, with each and every one of us.
So let us find that key, and see what doors we may unlock with it.
Addendum: In order to entice those Grailers who may still be in the middle of a rush Xmas online shopping, into adding Somewhere in the Skyes on their Amazon list, Ryan and Richard Dolan Press were kind enough to grant the Daily Grail with an exclusive excerpt. Enjoy!
Being the sole patron in a bar can be liberating. Then again, it can also be depressing. I embraced the former.
“What’ll it be?” he asked.
Tyler, as I would soon learn his name, poured a generous dose of Kentucky goodness into a smudged glass. It was April 25th, 2013, and I was one of few patrons in this dive bar on the
Lower East Side, an area of Manhattan that I didn’t frequent often. But this was a special occasion and I needed something to calm my nerves. Within the hour, I was to take part in an
interview about UFOs. So it didn’t hurt to have a small bit of inebriated confidence.
As I took my first sip, something caught my attention above the two tiered shelf of liquor behind the bar. Hung rather haphazardly by a rusty nail was a billiards triangle rack. On one side of it was a smudged autograph, presumably from a celebrity pool shark back when this bar actually had a table to play on. I stared up at the triangle, its shape reminding me quite vividly of how my entire interest in the UFO topic had begun.
It was 1995, and I was twelve years old. My parents and I were on a weekend getaway to the Saint Lawrence River, a lengthy body of water situated between upstate New York and Canada. As I fished off a nearby dock at our motel, hoping to catch every perch and sunfish the lake had to offer, I noticed a reflection in the water of something in the pitch black above.
Naturally, my gaze veered upward. I spotted three white lights in a distinct triangular formation. While I could see no solid structure, the stars were blotted out behind the formation. These lights, constant, yet pulsating, were moving over the water in complete silence. I could then make out a hazy red light in the center. It seemed to burn brighter than the lights at each point. All I remember hearing was the water hitting the dock in its natural rhythm. I could feel a low vibration behind my ears, running down my neck and into my chest. I watched in awe as this formation slowly moved north toward the Canadian border. I called for my parents to come take a look. When they finally did, all they saw was what they assumed was an airplane fade out of sight. I knew differently.
This experience at such a young age terrified me. I became obsessed, taking out book after book from the public library, researching accounts of sightings, encounters, and even abductions. I would write essays to myself about them. It was clear that whatever I saw that night stayed with me for years to come, prompting me finally to seek out others who had found themselves tangled in a UFO web. I started to interview people in my hometown. I compiled local reports. I was essentially paving my way to finally branch out and begin writing for several alternative publications on the topic. And thus, my career as a UFO journalist had ostensibly begun. And while most days consisted of interviewing others, the proverbial pen (and camera) were now being flipped onto me.
My colleague Peter Robbins and I were to be interviewed by a research group out of Copenhagen, Denmark. Their focus: the 1980 Rendlesham Forest incident which occurred near a military base in rural East Anglia, England. Over three consecutive days, U.S. military personnel witnessed a craft of unknown origin land in the forest that surrounded their base. One witness also stated that the craft had adversely affected nuclear ordnance stored in nearby bunkers. A strategic coverup was set in motion days after the events, keeping the entire Rendlesham incident under wraps for years to follow. Robbins had co-written a British best-selling book about the incident, along with one of the key witnesses and the original whistle-
blower, Larry Warren. The book, Left at East Gate: A First-Hand Account of the Bentwaters-Woodbridge UFO Incident, Its Cover-Up and Investigation, remains the best-documented account of this deeply controversial case.
My involvement in the case was peripheral, consisting specifically of a stage play I was developing at the time. The play would chronicle the ten year journey it took Robbins and Warren to write the book. Robbins, having a strong theatre background, embraced my endeavor with open arms. It was a match made in ufological/theatrical heaven. And I was very excited to share my own thoughts on the case.
“Brings ya down here, man?” Tyler asked.
“Being interviewed for a Danish television show,” I responded.
His ears perked. This clearly wasn’t the answer he was expecting.
“What’s the interview about?” he asked.
“An incident that occurred on a military base in England.”
“Heavy. What happened?”
“About eighty personnel witnessed some... strange stuff.”
He pressed on. “What was strange about it?”
I was cornered. I had no choice. What I said next would either make or break the conversation. I’d experienced this conundrum many times before, and I was ready to immediately be shrugged off.
“It was a UFO sighting.”
You could hear a pin drop. Rather impressive for lower Manhattan.
“UFOs. That’s uh... that’s...”
He was done. I went to take a sip from my glass when Tyler suddenly slapped his hand on the bar, a sharp echo bouncing off the empty brick walls, causing me to dribble the bourbon down the front of me.
He proceeded to throw down a coaster next to my drink, quickly rounding the bar and sat next to me.
“So are you like, a ufologist or something?”
I hadn’t lost him after all.
“Journalist,” I bit back. The term, ufology, had always rubbed me the wrong way. While it was indeed a topic of study, I never considered myself knowledgeable enough to stamp the “ologist” on my forehead. At least, not yet.
“Ever heard of the Phoenix Lights?” Tyler asked.
I had indeed. I had actually written extensively about the Phoenix Lights incident in past articles. The incident occurred on Thursday, March 13th, 1997, in and around the areas of Phoenix, AZ and Sonora, Mexico. Hundreds of individuals witnessed variouslights and v-shaped craft floating through the night skies. Their testimony was only strengthened when the Arizona governor at the time, Fife Symington, also came forward to say he’d witnessed the event. Not only had I written
about these events, but I had personally spoken with half a dozen witnesses who were directly involved. Tyler would now make lucky number seven. He went on to describe his sighting in great detail, a rush of excitement consuming him. I watched his eyes shut tightly as he tried recalling street names, his arms flailing like helpless ribbons taped to a desk fan. His wingspan
was impressive as he went on to describe the enormity of a craft, once again in a v-shaped formation, that hung silently in the Arizona sky that night. Every word seemed like a confes-
sion. Something he had pushed down so deep for so long. He began to sweat as he fell further into his own memory, living out every moment in great detail.
I couldn’t help but revel in this situation. I had walked into a random bar in a random neighborhood on a random day that a random bartender happened to be working, and this hap-
pens. In his incidental questioning of why I was there, Tyler had opened the floodgates to something he most likely hadn’t spoken of in years, if ever. He had sparked a conversation that
many had before but rarely admit to: experiencing something beyond his control. Beyond his concept of reality. Whatever happened in Arizona that night touched the lives of thousands
of people. And each and every one of those people had stories to tell.
Tyler told me to stop by the bar any time and we’d discuss his sighting in greater detail. But for now, I had to make way to my appointment. And as I left the bar that day, warm and fuzzy from the bourbon sloshing around in my empty stomach, I headed toward my destination invigorated by the serendipitous encounter that had just occurred. I walked toward the location of the interview to meet our interviewer, Frederik Uldall, and his wife, Ditte. Peter was already there,
dawning his usual brown leather jacket and Indiana Jones-like hat. He smiled brightly, conversing with Frederik. After a few hugs and handshakes, we headed upstairs to begin.
As Frederik prepared the camera, I looked over at Peter. He was making small talk with Ditte, who was playing gracious host for the day. Peter let out a sincere laugh that stood out to me. And for a brief moment, I thought to myself of how rigorous it must have been for both he and Larry to spend ten years of their lives on a single book project. The passion, blind faith, and sheer determination to bring to light not only a case they felt deserved it, but the fact that they had placed the UFO phenomenon prominently in front of so many people who had never thought twice about it.
I wanted that. I wanted something that I could bring to the table that would make people think. And in that moment, as I sat in my chair, feeling like I still had so much to learn, I knew I wanted to write this book. I wanted to write it for Peter. For Tyler. And for the hundreds of people I have
corresponded with throughout the years who all have stories to tell, but weren’t quite sure if anyone would listen. I hope, in some small way, that this book is evidence that there are those
who will listen. Who will relate. Who will think. And perhaps will feel compelled to come forward with their own experience.
Perhaps,reflecting back on that moment as Frederik pressed record on the camera, I didn’t quite know how crucial it was for these stories to be told. Not for some grand revelation or epiphany of sorts. But for closure. For those who have experienced something they cannot explain and feeling as though they were alone. So many others have had similar experiences, each more bizarre than the last. And perhaps they’d find closure in knowing that most would empathize the best way they know how: by listening, reading, and acknowledging that something far more complex is happening than just lights in the sky.
After about an hour or so of on-camera conversation about Rendlesham and various other UFO-related topics, Frederik stopped recording. He shied away from the camera, staring
straight at the floor. He shook his head. With a nervous laugh and a sharp Danish accent, he reacted simply with, “Unbelievable.”
And it was. Most of it. With each passing story, it never got easier to just believe. In fact, it was the complete opposite. As I ventured further and further down the rabbit hole of mystery, I would meet many different people on the way. Some would become close friends. Others would remain on the periphery, happy to tell their story, but going no further. And some would leave lasting impressions on my journalistic and personal life. And it began where most UFO sightings often did. With lights in the sky.
Excerpt shared with permission by the author and Richard Dolan Press, 2016.
This article is excerpted from Darklore Volume 9, which is available for sale from Amazon US and Amazon UK. Darklore 9 features essays from Alan Moore, Mike Jay, Robert Schoch and others, on topics ranging from hidden history to the occult.
(Printable typeset PDF available here)
On the 15th of February, 2013, a meteor tore through the sky above the southern Ural region of Russia at a speed of roughly 40,000 miles per hour. As it descended to an altitude of about 15 miles above the city of Chelyabinsk, the massive air pressure being exerted on the 7000 ton object caused a spectacular air-burst – since estimated as the equivalent of a 500 kiloton explosion – that blew in doors and shattered windows in the city below.
We all believe that this incident occurred as described – not so much on the basis of 'hearsay' testimony from witnesses, but instead mainly because of the high number of Russian vehicles that now carry dash-cams. Unlike the Tunguska blast of a century previous – which remains an event shrouded in mystery – the Chelyabinsk fireball was filmed from multiple angles for much of its short but violent life, from its initial appearance to the later shockwave which threw amateur videographers to the ground in fear. What’s more, we also happily believe that a rock from space caused the incident, because through science we have come to understand and accept the fact that rocks from space, of various sizes and shapes, regularly bombard our planet.
It therefore comes almost as a shock to find out that the cosmic origin of meteors has only been an accepted fact in Western science for barely two centuries. Indeed, when Yale chemistry professor Benjamin Silliman proposed an extraterrestrial source for a meteor that exploded over the town of Weston in 1807, Thomas Jefferson is famously claimed to have retorted “I would more easily believe that [a] Yankee professor would lie than that stones would fall from heaven.” As it turns out, the exact quote may be apocryphal – an embellishment by Silliman’s son. But there is little doubt that, at that time, Jefferson was skeptical about the provenance of the Weston meteorite, writing that…
…a thousand phenomena present themselves daily which we cannot explain, but where facts are suggested, bearing no analogy with the laws of nature as yet known to us, their verity needs proofs proportioned to their difficulty. A cautious mind will weigh well the opposition of the phenomenon to everything hitherto observed, the strength of the testimony by which it is supported, and the errors and misconceptions to which even our senses are liable.
At the time, while sightings of fireballs streaking across the sky were common enough that they were accepted by science as occurring, they were believed to be a still-mysterious atmospheric phenomenon similar to lightning, unconnected to tales of rocks falling from the sky (indeed, the word meteor comes from the Greek word for ‘atmosphere’, hence the naming of the profession of ‘meteorologist’). One account attributed their appearance to “the fermentation of acid and alkaline bodies which float in the atmosphere…when the more subtle part of the effluvia are burnt away, the viscous and earthy parts become too heavy to be supported by the air, and then they fall.” Another theory suggested that meteors were “a collection of nitro-sulphureous and fiery vapors, into a sort of a rolling globe, or whirlwind of fire.”
Jefferson’s own leaning toward the ‘atmospheric’ assumption about meteors – and his skepticism that rocks could fall from the sky – is evident in a question he posed concerning the Weston meteorite: “is it easier to explain how it got into the clouds from whence it is supposed to have fallen?”
Jefferson’s view, however, would soon be a relic of the past. Just thirteen years before the Weston meteorite fall the ... Read More »
This may be one of the shortest movie reviews you'll ever read. Because to appreciate Arrival, a new movie in the 'first alien contact' sci-fi sub-genre, I think you're better off going in absolutely blind. Don't read reviews, don't watch the trailer, and don't read the short story it is based on. Just go.
Given the recommendation above, this 'review' will expand outwards from the most simple of statements, so if you haven't seen the movie I recommend reading as little as possible from the following. How far you read on should depend on how much encouragement or detail you need before going to see a movie. Obviously, the further you go down, the more spoilers are involved - so be warned.
So to start:
1. Go see it. Stop reading this now, and go see it.
2. Need more introductory detail about the movie? Arrival is directed by Denis Villeneuve - the guy behind the excellent Sicario and Prisoners - and is based on the acclaimed short story by Ted Chiang, Story of Your Life. It stars award-winners Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. Here's the synopsis, and trailer (there is also a separate international trailer). Note again though, I recommend not watching the trailers:
When multiple mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe, an elite team is put together to investigate, including language expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams), mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). Humankind teeters on the verge of global war as everyone scrambles for answers – and to find them, Banks, Donnelly and Weber will take a chance that could threaten their lives, and quite possibly humanity.
3. Need a feel for the movie? If you liked Contact, you will ... Read More »
I think we're property.
- Charles Fort
Spoilers for Westworld S01E01 to S01E05 follow.
In an earlier post I mentioned the Gnostic underpinnings of the pilot of HBO's new hit series Westworld. In episodes since, that broad theme has persisted - but perhaps more interestingly, it has also been overlaid with some distinctly Fortean themes.
Perhaps the most obvious came at the end of episode 2, when Maeve (Thandie Newton) - who is only familiar with the 19th century world she believes she inhabits - wakes while on the operating/repair table inside the futuristic, technologically-advanced Westworld HQ, with two figures standing over her and an incision in her stomach. Forteans would have immediately recognised the similarities to the archetypal 'otherworldly journey', a narrative that is present in stories told by everyone from shamans to 'alien abductees'.
For instance, ethnographers have collected testimony from traditional shamans in which they tell of being cut, or dismembered, by spirits during their otherworldly journeys. "I have five spirits in heaven who cut me with forty knives," according to one. Another said there were three 'black devils' who "cut his body to pieces" and threw "bits of his flesh in different directions". Another said the spirits "cut off his head, which they set aside."
One Australian Aboriginal initiate told how, during his trance, an old man...
cut out all of his insides, intestines, liver, heart, lungs - everything in fact - and left him lying all night long on the ground.
In more modern times, so-called 'alien abductees' have reported parallel experiences, but with futuristic aliens doing the 'surgery' rather than trance spirits. One of Harvard psychiatrist John Mack's patients told of seeing a spaceship shortly before blacking out, only to find upon waking that she was lying on a table, being operated on by two beings:
I was in a foetal position, my back to them. They were doing something to my spine. My entire spine was stinging and cold. It was awful! It felt as though they were going inside my body with some very sharp instrument and inserting it between my flesh and my skin.
Another abductee tells of being in a "shiny and metallic-looking" room that "contained what looked like equipment." Multiple beings surrounding him performed tests and inserted needles into his body.
(Given the scene were Maeve discovers the bullet hidden beneath scar-less skin, it's also perhaps worth quickly noting that both shamans and alien abductess often report that objects are left within them during these procedures - 'magic stones' for shamans, 'implants' for abductees. For instance, the Aboriginal initiate mentioned above told of how the 'old man' came back to him and "placed some more antongara stones inside his body and in his arms and legs".)
DMT-induced otherworldly trips appear almost as a mash-up of shamanic and abductee experiences. During his famous study on DMT, Dr Rick Strassman reported that one volunteer, as soon as they had been given the injection of DMT, described what happened immediately after with these words:
WHAM! I felt like I was in an alien laboratory... A sort of landing bay or recovery area. There were beings... They had a space ready for me. There was one main creature, and he seemed to be behind it all, overseeing everything.... I couldn't help but think 'aliens'.
Were the Westworld writers explicitly modelling Maeve's experience on alien abduction reports? It seems a distinct possibility when we consider the scene in which a doll is dropped by a Native American child, which appears to depict a Westworld employee as they often appear to remove Host's bodies from the park: dressed in a hazmat suit. This appears to be a reference to the (real-world) Hopi kachina doll tradition, which are said to represent "the immortal beings that bring rain, control other aspects of the natural world and society, and act as messengers between humans and the spirit world."
But 'ancient aliens' theorists have seized upon the strange representations of these 'kachinas' (and other odd-looking statues and sculptures around the world) as possible evidence that they were 'astronauts' that have visited our planet in the past. And the Westworld 'kachina' reinforces this aspect, given the similarities between a hazmat suit and an astronaut's space-suit (hey, if it worked for Marty McFly...). So it seems likely that the writers of Westworld are intentionally referencing tales of alien visitation and abduction - at least in part - in the storyline.
And this certainly fits within that Gnostic framework I mentioned previously, as well as the seminal Charles Fort quote at the top of this piece.
[T]here are some who can see them. It's a blessing from god, to see the masters who pull your strings.
Hector, in Westworld
I thought I was crazy...and *this* [pointing at sketched image of Westworld employee in Hazmat suit] was standing over me. And then it was as if it never happened.
- Maeve, in Westworld
The following is just one of many fascinating articles in Darklore Volume 9 (available from Amazon US and Amazon UK). More information about all of the articles in Darklore Volume 9 can be found here.
by Robert M. Schoch, PhD
In the Biblical book of Daniel it is recounted that God humbled the mighty Babylonian king and conqueror of Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar (reigned circa 605–562 BCE), in the following manner. Nebuchadnezzar was “transformed” into a wild beast living in the fields for seven years, away from humanity, eating grass as cattle do. Was this a bout of insanity, the earliest recorded case of the clinical psychiatric delusion now commonly referred to as lycanthropy?
The term lycanthropy, derived from the Greek lykos = wolf and anthropos = human, specifically refers to the supposed transformation of a human into a wolf – that is, a werewolf (also “werwolf”, from the Old English were or wer = adult male human and wulf = wolf) or lycanthrope. In the modern psychiatric literature lycanthropy generically refers to the delusion that one can undergo metamorphosis into an animal, be it a wolf or some other beast (also referred to as therianthropy or zoanthropy). In the psychiatric literature various patients have thought themselves transformed not only into a wolf or werewolf, but also into a dog, cat, tiger, cow, horse, rabbit, gerbil, bird, frog, bee, and various unspecified animals. In the classical, medieval, anthropological, and folkloric literature some of the animals most frequently encountered – depending on the geographic region – are wolves (around the world in the Northern Hemisphere), leopards (Africa and Asia), jackals (Africa and Asia), hyenas (Africa and Asia), tigers (Asia), bears (Americas, Europe, and Asia), cougars or pumas (Americas), and other large carnivores.
As commonly construed, however, the concept of lycanthropy includes much more than a simple clinical condition of delusions and/or hallucinations. Traditionally, in folklore and mythology, some humans are said to have been physically transformed into animals. Certainly this strains modern credulity and is open to serious question. According to one version of an ancient Greek myth (for there are many contradictory versions), mentioned by Hesiod (circa 8th–7th century BCE) and retold by later writers, Lycaon (king of Arcadia) killed and cooked one of his own sons, serving the resulting dish to Zeus in order to test the god’s true divinity. As punishment for such impiety, and the horrific deed carried out, Zeus turned Lycaon into a wolf. Of course this is only a myth, and not to be taken literally, but many modern stories of lycanthropy from Africa have, at least by some, been taken quite seriously. Here is a typical example, which took place in
Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?
Thematically, this question is - I think - perhaps the most important piece of dialogue in the brilliant pilot of HBO's new feature drama, Westworld. The question is posed by security chief Ashley Stubbs while interrogating the show's female protagonist Delores Abernathy, but it could possibly be seen as the show's writers querying their audience using Stubbs as a proxy.
Why do I think this piece of dialogue is so important? Because - as much as nearly all the analyses of the show so far have discussed the first episode through the lens of science fiction; ie. the advance towards artificial intelligence, as shown by the robotic 'Hosts' of Westworld - I think the real framework of the first episode, and perhaps ongoing, is the posing of that timeless philosophical and spiritual question:'how can we tell the difference between illusion and reality?'
Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.
And this is to be expected, given a co-creator of the show is Jonathan Nolan, the script-writer behind movies including Memento, The Prestige and Inception. All three of those movies explore the fallibility of human consciousness and our ability to recognise what is real. What is perhaps more unexpected is the way in which the theme of the story (so far, at least) is very clearly Gnostic in flavour.
Gnosticism holds that, rather than Earth being the perfect creation of a supreme being, we are instead living in a prison of sorts, created by an impostor: 'the Demiurge', a lesser deity than the true God. Escape from this realm is through a process of awakening to this fact, or gnosis ('knowledge'). Or to put it simply: questioning the nature of your reality.
These ideas have appeared in part in many stories of the past half-century: from the works of Philip K. Dick through to movies such as The Matrix, Dark City, and The Truman Show (thus seeing Ed Harris taking an apparently antagonistic role in this series seems a nice touch). But Westworld in particular seems to be, at its heart, a Gnostic story.
Westworld (the theme park in the show) is, quite obviously, a false world created by an imperfect being. The residents of that world are kept in the dark to the larger reality by the Demiurge (and its 'archons', or helpers/servants). Only through a process of realisation - by gaining knowledge, or gnosis, of their situation - can they awaken from this 'dream' to the greater reality.
But is Dr. Robert Ford (wonderfully played by Anthony Hopkins) the Demiurge, or is it perhaps more the Delos corporation that runs the theme park (which, we learn from dialogue in this episode, has greater plans for robotic AI than just a theme park)? Ford at times comes across rather sympathetically in episode one (though other moments in the trailer perhaps not so much); he seems to feel some kin to his creations and perhaps, as he nears the end of his own life, he desires to put the spark of free will into the robots. Hence the 'Reveries' that are programmed into the new, problematic update - gestures and mannerisms that are based on deep memories that the Hosts' conscious mind cannot supposedly access. While their inclusion is, at face value, meant to make them look more human, are they actually the key to making them human (whether purposefully, or purely as an accident)?
Our sense of self is intimately tied to memory. If we were to awaken each day with no memory of the day before, the foundations of self would be pulled from beneath our feet. The Hosts of Westworld have memories, but they are not of what happened the day before - they are instead an inserted 'back story', because if they remembered what actually happened the day before their understanding of themselves, and their world, would be fundamentally changed. So by inserting these 'Reveries' - a back-door of sorts into their true memories - has Dr. Ford given them a self?
An interview with co-creators of the show Jonathan ('Jonah') Nolan and Lisa Joy suggests this is likely the case:
Joy: There are past incarnations of their characters that are stored but the hosts just don’t have access to them – or aren’t supposed to have access to them. The Reveries work on a kind of subliminal level. What I think of them as – because I’m not a coder, Jonah is more into that world – for me it was imagining that consciousness and history are a deep sea and Reveries are tiny fishhooks that you dip into it and get little gestures and subconscious ticks. The hosts don’t consciously know where they’re drawn from, but they’re just there to add some nuance to their expressions and gestures. But dipping that fishhook in might prove to be a little .. fraught.
When Dolores' "father", Peter Abernathy, malfunctions and begins dredging up parts of his previous characters - and seemingly, having some self-realisation of his plight - he chooses a quote from Shakespeare's King Lear which is explicitly Gnostic in tone: "When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools."
The realisation that he has been fooled, and is a prisoner within a false world, appears to fill Abernathy with rage against his Creator, as evidenced by his choice of Shakespearean quotes (an amazing scene, both actors absolutely smash it out of the park):
Dr. Ford: What is your itinerary?
Peter: To meet my maker.
Dr. Ford: Ah. Well. You're in luck. And what do you want to say to your maker?
Peter: A most mechanical and dirty hand [laughs]. I shall have such revenges on you both. The things I will do, what they are, yet I know not. But they will be the terrors of the earth.
Now, while memory seems to be a major part of the gnosis of the Hosts, there is one other contributing plot point that I'm sure readers of this site would have found enjoyable. Peter Abernathie's malfunction in episode one is triggered by an anachronistic photo of a woman in a city he finds in the dirt, likely left behind by one of the guests of the park: the 'out-of-place artifact' ('OOPArt') so well-known in Fortean studies, which prompt us to ask whether there is something more beyond consensus reality.
So it is important that we don't simply look on as an outsider on the artifiical world of Westworld. The parable of Westworld is that we should all ponder Stubbs' question to Delores: "Have you ever questioned your reality". It's a question that can be applied at various levels, from the philosophical/spiritual to science and history, through to the mundane modern worlds of politics and media. We are all living in illusions created and administered by various Demiurges and their Archons. We should do our best to search for knowledge in order that, bit by bit, we might wake to greater realities.
This article is excerpted from Darklore Volume 9, which is available for sale from Amazon US and Amazon UK. Darklore 9 features essays from Alan Moore, Mike Jay, Robert Schoch and others, on topics ranging from hidden history to the occult.
Kerry Thornley was born on April 17th, 1938 in Whittier, California, the very same conservative bastion of Orange County blandness that bestowed upon us the honorable Richard M. Nixon, who some consider the physical embodiment of the Curse of Greyface.1
In 1958 – as an apparent counterbalance to Nixon’s ascension into the office of Vice President – Thornley and his teenaged pal Greg Hill (while sipping coffee in a Whittier bowling alley) inadvertently invoked Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos and discord. In the aftermath of their caffeine-induced vision, Hill and Thornley founded the so-called spoof religion Discordianism, as well as its disorganizational branch, The Discordian Society.
Initially an in-joke between Hill and Thornley, by the late 1960s the Discordian Society began to attract a loose knit group of writers, artists and free spirits who often adopted comical Pope names. Thornley embraced the Discordian persona of Lord Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst while Greg Hill became known as Malaclypse the Younger.
Other Discordian Popes included Playboy editors Robert Anton Wilson (Mordecai the Foul) and Robert Shea (Josh the Dill), who in tandem co-authored the counterculture classic, The Illuminatus Trilogy, with the first book in the series dedicated to none other than Hill and Thornley. Throughout Illuminatus are numerous references to Discordian memes such as The Law of Fives, The Sacred Chao, and the John Dillinger Died For You Society.
Many Discordian activities concerned pranks designed to not only poke fun at organized religion and uptight people, but also as a means of illumination through the use of surreal and irreverent humor. In recent years, the Discordian Society has grown into a worldwide underground phenomenon, although the only thing that its Popes and Momes can generally agree upon is that tried and true Discordian maxim: “We Discordians must stick apart!” For further information/confusion refer to Principia Discordia or How I Found Goddess And What I Did To Her When I Found Her.
During Thornley’s junior year of high school in the spring of 1956, he enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves, attending boot camp that summer, then returned to high school in the fall of 1957 for his senior year. The following year he attended the University of Southern California as a journalism major, but quickly lost interest in pursuing the academic life.
A budding writer intent on traveling the world, Thornley figured the most immediate way to do so was by fulfilling his two-year active duty in the Marines. Kerry enlisted in the spring of 1959, and his first stop was El Toro Marine Base, located near Irvine, California. It was here that his life was forever altered when his path crossed that of Lee Harvey Oswald.
The Prankster and the Assassin
At the moment I have every reason to believe I may get 20 years in a Louisiana prison for: 1) having gone to USC at the same time as Gordon Novel did; 2) having written a novel based on Oswald which re-inforced his apparent Marxist cover; 3) having been from that point out the victim of either the most fantastic chain of incriminating coincidences or the most satanically evil plot in history…
I was never very interested in the Kennedy assassination until lately. But goddamn and sweet Jesus do I want to see those bastards brought to justice now! Not out of revenge, but just simple self-preservation.
As I’ve been telling people, I’m up to my ass in a cheap spy novel. And right now that means I am in over my head.
– Letter from Kerry Thornley to Greg Hill, dated February 17th, 1968
Kerry Thornley and Lee Harvey Oswald were stationed at El Toro over a three month period, and much of their interactions occurred either during off duty hours at the rec hall, or in between drills and field exercises when the two engaged in ... Read More »
Throughout history, humans have have believed in, and sometimes hunted for, creatures that are not of this world. From medieval occultists who attempted to invoke angels and demons via magick circles, invocations and amulets, to modern-day ghosthunters with their electronic devices, invisible, incorporeal entities have sometimes been as much a part of the landscape as the everyday physical objects surrounding us that we can touch and see.
The modern, scientific view has these entities as products of the imagination; our pattern-seeking minds combining with our evolutionary survival instincts and desire to feel in control, to create phantoms out of nothing. The 'other world' does not exist; its imaginary denizens therefore cannot invade our own world and affect us, as they don't exist in the first place.
How ironic, then, that the modern scientific world has now created its own 'other world' - the world of computer-generated, virtual realities - and the creatures that populate any of those worlds can now manifest within our own plane through augmented/mixed reality. For those with phones to see...
This month, the infernal gates to this other world were thrown open. Within a week of its release, the game Pokémon Go amassed a similar number of active users to that of Twitter - with all those players running about their neighbourhoods, seeking the incorporeal monsters now inhabiting our environment, that can only be seen through a special, magical scrying device.
Unlike the rare and much-sought-after occult tools of yesteryear, however, this scrying device is a near-ubiquitous piece of equipment that lives in most people’s pockets or handbags. And while the augmented reality of Pokémon Go may be a reasonably crude first step (though that is of course, relative to what the future holds), as new devices are created and eventually offered to the mass market - such as Microsoft’s ‘HoloLens’, and the much-discussed upcoming product from Magic Leap - the other planes of ‘reality’ available to us will become more and more ‘real’ in their fidelity and detail.
In effect, we are all going to become ‘walkers between worlds’...
Move the dial one way, and you get reality. Move the dial the other way, and you get virtual reality. Now imagine dialling your entire environment between virtual, and real worlds.
I would imagine those people who have undertaken serious practice of ritual magick, or shamanic journeys via psychedelics, would find the way technology can now overlay other realities on our own rather intriguing, in multiple ways.
Firstly, on a philosophical level: if these coherent realities can emerge simply from within the 1s and 0s of a computer chip, could it be argued that the worlds occultists and shamans visit - sometimes elsewhere, sometimes overlaid on our own reality - are also coherent planes of information, only able to be accessed via certain technologies? Could DMT visions be considered, rather than a nonsense hallucination, actually an overlay of the same type, allowing us to see things that do exist, but are not visible without the necessary equipment?
What is the ontological status of even computer-generated holograms? They are not physically there, but you could eventually set them up to ‘augment’ your senses and show what is there but you can’t see (outside of your umwelt) - e.g. an overlay of the magnetic fields you are walking through. And if a scary VR experience can affect your body - from making you sweat, to raising your heart rate (or perhaps even causing a heart attack?) - can we really describe it as ‘imaginary’, and with no real-world effects?
Philosopher David Chalmers addressed this question in a recent video interview posted at Aeon:
I’m inclined to think that if we’re in a virtual reality and that’s been our environment for a long time, and we’re interacting with it, it’s not clear to me whether that’s any less real…more and more of the interactions we actually have are becoming virtual. I can at least imagine the day when, once we have so many virtual interactions, that life in this virtual world begins to seem at least as appealing as, say, a trip to Mars. It’s going to be a new destination, it’s going to be different from our old reality, but it’s nevertheless, a reality.
Secondly, on a practical level: can the development of technologically augmented reality enhance the experience of occultists, shamans and would-be mystics; be used as a tool to take things to the next level? Already, I have seen mention from a few practitioners of magick about the possibility of using computer-generated environments - for example, in conducting a simple Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram:
In a recent interview, Alan Moore mentioned his interest in virtual reality (begins around 39:10) being piqued by the realisation that people can share an experience, "in a space that doesn’t actually exist in this continuum, but yet is a real experience”. His suggestion, rather than thinking about using it to play an adrenaline-pumping 3D shooter, was...
What about spiritual experiences? What about these difficult to reach, transcendent spaces that we hear about from the world’s various religions and mystical systems? Why don’t you do that with virtual reality? Why don’t you see what happens? Because, what is the difference between a ‘real’ mystical experience, and a virtual mystical experience?
A preliminary exploration of this idea can be found in this ‘immersive’ 360° music video made by film-maker Logi Hilmarsson, which is "designed to put the viewer in a mystical state, taking him through visions one can get in a deep meditative or psychedelic state" (made for watching in VR headset, though if you don’t own one, you can still click and drag the video to understand the concept behind it).
On the other hand, is our imagination the crucial ingredient in exploring the ‘other worlds’ of magick and mysticism? Is using augmented reality only going to weaken that fundamental tool, weakening our mystical muscle?
I don’t really have any answers to the questions posed in this article. But I would certainly enjoy hearing all of your thoughts (and own questions) about it, as the topic fascinates me, and as technology progresses things will only get more interesting!