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!
Preface to The Power of Ritual
by Robbie Davis-Floyd
The Power of Ritual has grown out of my thirty years of research on ritual and technology in American childbirth, and in particular, out of a workshop I have often presented on “The Power of Ritual” to diverse groups around the country. Audiences for this workshop have included priests, psychotherapists, physicists, female professionals, social scientists, health care practitioners (nurses, midwives, physicians, childbirth educators), men’s movement participants and workshop leaders, business managers, New Agers, university students, drug and alcohol addicts, members (or former members) of cults, and aerospace engineers. During the course of these workshops, I have often noted a high level of confusion among people who are designing and performing rituals on a regular basis as a part of, for example, religious or spiritual retreats, psychotherapy intensives, men’s movement weekends-in-the-woods (popular in recent past decades), and self-help seminars. They tell me that they “intuit” what ritual is all about, but their sense of it is vague, unformed. They come to my workshops to find out what they themselves are actually up to! I am always delighted when such people show up in my audiences, as one of the major reasons why I started teaching these workshops was my concern about the uncritical use of ritual that has characterized the explosion of interest in the new spirituality, alternative healing, and self-help movements, to name only a few. Ritual is an extraordinarily powerful socializing tool that can be just as easily manipulated for ill as used for good. The naiveté of many contemporary ritual practitioners has worried me for a long time, and these workshops—and now this book—serve as my way of combating that naiveté. I often receive letters of thanks from such practitioners for “raising their consciousness” about precisely how ritual works, about its very real benefits, and about its equally real dangers. This information enables them to be more conscious and more responsible about the way they use the rituals they create.
My interest in ritual developed both from personal experience and from my anthropological studies of American childbirth, midwifery, and obstetrics. My childhood in Casper, Wyoming was punctuated with ritual events, many of which focused around the local rodeos that happened during the summers, and the seasonal celebrations of Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. But my deepest ritual imprinting came from growing up in the Presbyterian Church. Although I moved away from that religion in later years, the hymns we sang in church every Sunday, the vivid memory of the light streaming through the stained glass window showing Jesus’ ascension, the feeling of peace and completion that would descend over me as the minister raised his arms to give the final blessing—all these still resonate in my being and provide me with a sense of stability. In particular the words of the Doxology, which I must have sung at least 500 times during my childhood churchgoing years, still give me the goose bumps I used to get as I rose as one with the whole congregation, to sing joyously:
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost
As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be
World without end, Amen, Amen
As I typed those words just now, singing as my fingers moved over the computer keys, that same uplifting feeling surged inside of me, goose bumps popped out on my arms once again, and I was right back in memory inside that beautiful church staring at the light shining through that stained glass window. Such is the power of ritual to affect our emotions, even decades after the fact.
But now as I reread the words of the Doxology, my critical faculties come into play: that song, which purports to be so timeless and so universal, does not encompass certain facts that I accept as reality. Things are not as they were in the beginning—in fact, change is the one constant of both human and universal experience. Our world is not “without end” —one day, billions of years from now, the Earth will be swallowed up in flames when its sun turns into a red giant. And there are no females and no “female principle” in that song, only a father, a son, and an androgynous spirit which is the closest the Presbyterianism of my youth could get to acknowledging that males are not the only gender. So I can’t even find myself in its words—they do not charter my existence, like a good myth should. As an experiment, I sing the song once more and note that in spite of my intellectual objections, the goosebumps and uplifting sensation return. As we shall see throughout this book, rituals primarily affect our emotions—through triggering a powerful emotional response, ritual can get people to believe or at least resonate deeply with ideologies that they might intellectually reject.
In my early years as an anthropology student during the 1970s, I studied shamanism and ritual healing in Mexico, and worked for a time with two Mexican shamans, one traditional and one thoroughly cosmopolitan. Those experiences, which involved both anthropological observation and personal participation in rituals of various sorts, taught me a great deal about ritual’s flexibility as I saw it stretch to encompass the contrasting realities of the pre- and postmodern worlds. I watched with amazement as the people participating in the rituals that the traditional shaman had been performing for decades suddenly began to include American New Agers seeking connection with the earth and with traditional cultures—in Don Lucio, the traditional shaman I worked with, I guess these seekers found at least a facsimile of Castaneda’s Don Juan. And I was equally fascinated by the postmodern shaman, Edgardo Vasquez Gomez. A wealthy upper class Mexican gentleman, he had studied traditional shamanic techniques all over Mexico, and was eclectically combining them with a European esoteric spiritual system based on the works of Gurdjieff, which invited individuals to “wake up” to a greater awareness of everyday life. His use of ritual to stimulate this kind of awareness in his followers was masterful; watching him manipulate people’s states of consciousness was a lesson to me in the intentional use of ritual to achieve instrumental (practical) ends. (Both Don Lucio and Edgardo are now deceased.)
Perhaps my deepest engagements with ritual came during my participation, in later years, with a New Age healing group that evolved, over time, into a cult. I got involved in part because I wanted to do an anthropological study of that group. I watched and participated and took notes as their at-first tenuous belief system crystallized into an intensely tight and cohesive worldview. For the first two years, I didn’t believe a word of it—it was just a story, albeit a fascinating one, and my anthropological detachment remained intact. But the ritual process, as we will demonstrate in this book, can be overwhelming. Embarrassing as it is to admit, against my will I eventually got fully converted to that worldview. The moment of conversion was a devastating experience (described ... Read More »
In the early hours of Saturday morning, ignoring the blare of children's television, I muzzily and reflexively poked at the Twitter icon on the battered screen of my knackered phone. Down I scrolled through the dozens and dozens of updates I'd missed during my five or so hours of child-interrupted sleep until I came upon one by comic artist Jamie Smart. It read
Oh my god. There was a fifth housemate in The Young Ones and she was terrifying.
Huh? I blinked, took a big swig of my bitter, luke-warm, instant coffee, and clicked the link Jamie had posted.
On Business Insider Australia I read the headline REVEALED: There really was a creepy fifth housemate lurking in cult British TV show The Young Ones. The article had been posted that very morning (18th June, 2016). What the...?
For those of you who don't already know, The Young Ones was a seminal, anarchic comedy series that ran on the BBC for two series between 1982 and 1984. Much like Monty Python, but in the era of VHS, The Young Ones became a show that many of us who were born in the 1970s ended up watching again and again and again. Business Insider news editor Peter Farquhar had, it turns out, quite recently watched a video on YouTube entitled The Young Ones ~ The 5th Roommate, which had been posted back in July 2012. This video had been inspired by a 1999 posting on The Easter Egg Archive website, which took its cue from a page last updated the previous year on a now defunct site called The British Comedy Library (still, thankfully, available via The Internet Archive's wonderful WayBack Machine). The strange person at the back of the house is the title of the page. It contains a few quotes from viewers who have emailed in to the site about something they've spotted re-watching the original 1982 series of the BBC comedy show The Young Ones. Things like
Has anyone else noticed the strange person who appears to share the flat with the guys. If you look carefully in the first five episodes you can see a mysterious person with long black hair who appears sitting against walls in the background of quite a few scenes.
And yes, the 2012 YouTube video shows it: a fifth housemate appearing at least once in every episode of the entire first series. She never moves, she never speaks, you never see her face, and her presence is never acknowledged by any of the other characters, but she's there.
This, apparently, blew Peter Farquhar's mind so much that he ended up contacting some of the people involved with the series including one of the writers, Ben Elton. Elton's prompt and short response was he had no idea what he was on about. A few days later however, Farquhar received a response from another member of the Young Ones team - Geoff Posner, who was one of the three directors on the series.
In his reply Posner said that he and fellow director Paul Jackson
thought it would be funny to have some ghostly figure in the background of some scenes that was never explained or talked about. Hair all over the face so you shouldn't be able to decipher the gender, either. The fact that we forgot to do it consistently shows what a bunch of amateurs we were in them days.
In his article Farquhar goes on to write
So maybe the fifth housemate idea wasn’t such a big deal to the cast and crew back then. Often what artists think of their own work is only half of the story. The other is what impact it has on the audience and its legacy and in this regard, “The Young Ones” still stands up incredibly well 34 years after it first aired. The appearance of the running “fifth housemate” gag is a great example.
Posner's short email explanation was, happily, enough to allay Farquhar's worries, and general sense of unease about the mysterious fifth housemate. Not mine though. No, not mine. Because you see, to me, Posner's explanation doesn't quite make sense. The fifth housemate - or the ghost as we should probably more accurately call her - isn't ... Read More »