Let’s just cut to the chase, shall we?
No, no. Just you wait a minute before you close this window in your browser! I’m not trying to insult or cast judgment upon you (far from it!). I’m just laying out an incontrovertible fact here: That if you’re reading these lines right now, it means you have a deep interest for unconventional things; things that tend to lie far outside ‘normal’ conventions. I think it’s fair to say you’ve been this way most of your life –even since you were a child, am I wrong?
And that, my dear reader, makes you a ‘weirdo’ in the eyes of society. But hey, it takes one to know one!
Herein lies one of the oft neglected aspects of the paranormal: It is the outsider –the outcast— the one who is naturally drawn to these mysteries, like a moth to the flame. Oh sure, ‘normies’ can also get hooked on this shit too, but they usually join the weirdo club through a different route (maybe they had an unexpected brush with the things that bump in the night, and sought to find an exploration for it). It’s hard to say which comes first –the Fortean chicken or the Outsider egg– but one thing is for sure, which is that reading about Crowley, Mckenna or Strieber doesn’t win you a seat at the cool kids’ table in the cafeteria.
But what happens when that which used to lie outside of society becomes embraced by the mainstream, and alien abductions or Enochian magic turn into the favorite conversation topic of the cheerleader team? Does the ‘esoteric’ cease to exist when it becomes ‘exoteric’ and vice-versa?
These sort of considerations have been brewing in my head ever since I started noticing some peculiar developments in modern culture, during the last few years: All of the sudden, ritual magic and witchcraft became very popular with the younger demographics. It’s not just the fact that Millennials are very much into Astrology and love to make memes about Mercury retrogrades, but also the fact that a significant percentage of young adults in the United States and other industrialized nations are foregoing traditional religions; yet instead of becoming agnostic or atheistic –like traditional enemies of religion would have hoped– they are turning their eyes to more ‘experimental’ spiritual practices (less praying / more spelling). They call themselves ‘witches’, and not because they are roleplaying –most of them probably dumped all their Harry Potter books by now…
Let’s take for example one of the newest children’s cartoons in The Disney Channel: The Owl House, created by Dana Terrace. The show follows the story of Luz Noceda, a young girl who finds it hard to fit in the daily life of your typical teenage student, due to her obsession with fantasy novels, magic, and slithering critters; but all that changes when she is suddenly transported into the demonic realm of The Boiling Isles –literally the giant bones of a Titan corpse– from which every myth that ever existed in the human world originated (Ideaspace anyone?). There Luz becomes the witch apprentice of Eda, the Owl lady, who lives with an adorkable demon called King, which kinda looks like a blend between Cubone and a black cat.
The fact that the main character is a Latinx teen made me fear The Owl House would try to cash in on both ethnic diversity and the trending popularity of magic —“Dora the Necromancer”?— but after watching the first two episodes I found myself genuinely laughing at its comedy, and enjoying the world created by Dana and her art director Ricky Cometa. The visual style adopted by this animated show also makes it clear Terrace is not joking when she describes her brainchild as “Hieronymus Bosch for kids” —she also mentions surrealist painter Remedios Varo as a big inspiration. In short, this is the sort of show *I* would probably be watching if I were 12 years old in 2020.
“Big deal,” you might be thinking. “Who cares about an American children’s TV program dealing with demons and witchcraft, since many Japanese animes have used the same topics before?” Only it is kind of a big deal, since this show was greenlit —and confirmed for a second season!– by Disney, ‘the’ biggest entertainment company in the known universe; whose brand has been synonymous with wholesome, ‘family’ entertainment (read: safe) since our parents were still wearing short pants and playing with Mickey Mouse yo-yos. Hayao Miyazaki also never had to worry about triggering the ire of The Christian Broadcasting Network, just like The Owl House did! Of course, those same Bible-thumpers probably forget Walt Disney’s studio showed Satan himself in their cutting-edge film Fantasia, 80 years ago –and that movie is also not devoid the occasional mention of sorcery, either.
The point I’m trying to make here, dear Coppertops, is that if one wants to take a glimpse of what future trends will look like, a good place to start is with the entertainment content meant for the younger generations. And the higher impact to the future usually comes on those rare occasions when the mainstream lets the door ajar, just enough so the outsider influences can ooze in: Gene Roddenberry only managed to produce three seasons of the original Star Trek series in the 1960’s, yet it was enough to inspire a legion of astronauts and engineers to “boldly go where no Man has gone before.” And in this day and age in which one would be hard-pressed not to find a Star Wars reference in every instance of our lives, it’s easy to forget what a huge gamble the XXth Century Fox moguls took when they said ‘Yes’ to a young director who had very little to show for, and was pitching this craaazy idea about wizards in space…
I’m old enough to remember how Hollywood movies used to depict nerds as the comedy-relief sidekicks —like Data in the 1985 film The Goonies— who would only manage to help the leading character on the rare occasions when their crazy inventions wouldn’t backfire; but the nerds were never the hero, and they certainly were never meant to get the girl in the end –unless they paid for it, like Patrick Dempsey in Can’t Buy Me Love (believe it, my young female readers, Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd used to be the geek nobody wanted to fuck!) . Two Revenge of the Nerds later we got superhero T-shirts being worn by kids without fear of being punched in the face during recess, the MCU as the largest money-making machine devised by human civilization, The Big Bang Theory *and* also a real-life Tony Stark who has this little fantasy of living one day on Mars (while light-polluting our night skies in the process)
So in light of all this, and getting back to the issue of the rising popularity of magic and the occult among young Millennials, what would occur to society if esoteric topics continued to seep into the mainstream? What happens when we switch role models from Iron Man to Doctor Strange?
I asked Michael M. Hughes, author and practicing magician who was responsible for the ‘magical resistance’ political movement –which makes fundamental Christians lose sleep at night just as much as a cartoon show about witches living in owl houses– about his opinion regarding these current cultural developments, and here’s what he had to say:
I see witchcraft and occultism cycling through culture, but the current renaissance seems different because it is so tightly enmeshed with social and political activism, particularly among young people. There is definitely more than a little “witchiness” as trendy fashion statement, but I’ve been impressed by the sincerity and intelligence of most modern witches I’ve met.
If this witchy and occult renaissance sticks, I suspect we’ll see more of it becoming part of mainstream culture. But I don’t think it will ever become fully mainstream—the witch and the occultist are inherently transgressive, liminal, and a threat to cultural norms. I suspect they will always remain marginal, though they will grow as a social and political force.
According to Michael, there’s something within the paranormal and the esoteric which could never be fully embraced by regular society, because it is too destabilizing and threatening to institutional structure. Yet that doesn’t mean we couldn’t see the rise of a new level of acceptance for those tempestuous forces lurking at the margins of culture, the same way our ancestors used to live. For thousands of years the shaman played a pivotal and revered role in the life of the community –but they *always* kept their hut at the outskirts of the village.
A world in which everybody wants to be a wizard would probably be no better than a world in which everybody wants to be a technocratic tycoon. And a true shaman, like David Bowie, knows that when everybody is imitating you then it’s time to find new ways to keep transgressing the status quo. Nowadays it’s hard not to feel like everything is quickly spiraling out of control –perhaps one of the backlashes of having superheroes as cultural role models, is that breaking news begin to read like a badly-scripted comics book (KAPOW!)– but whatever the future holds and how much it is reshaped by its continuous cycle of acceptance and rejection of outsiders, just remember Eda the Owl Lady’s advice: “Us weirdos have to stick together.”