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The dA-Zed guide to the occult

From Crowley to Kenneth Anger, enter the witching hour with our paranormal handbook

In the lead-up to Halloween, Dazed Digital is running a Dark Arts season inspired by our November Dark Arts issue. Among other things, we've walked the path of darkness via the Hollywood Walk of Death and talked to Don Mancini, the creator of Chucky. Check our Dark Arts section for a journey to hell and back. 

No doubt, there be some weird occult shit that persists in our postmodern, rationalist world. From the voodoo to sex magick and, er, Jay-Z, our 26-letter guide to the occult proves that modern mysticism is alive and kicking. If you're still not a believer, just crack open a Dan Brown novel (though eBay has banned the sales of ”spells and hexes” since 2012), flip the TV on to the ever-popular American Horror Story series, or purchase some human bones online. Just keep the lights on.


No one seems particularly worried about the Antichrist anymore, much less his imminent face-off with Jesus at the End of Days. In modern times, he’s apparently been too busy screeching “Anarchy in the UK” via Johnny Rotten and making cameos in American Dad! and Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar to be too much trouble. However, he still manages to hit a horrified nerve with incubus (a.k.a. demon-rape) tales like Rosemary’s Baby, and countless other cinematic variations like The Omen and Demon Seed


Take your pick, from the good old King James version (still used for divination) to newbies like the Blood Sorcery Bible. But Anton LaVey’s best-selling The Satanic Bible (1969) is still considered the authoritative text on the core beliefs of Satanism. Its Book of Satan challenges the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, and promotes hedonism. Needless to add, The Satanic Bible has been condemned as insanely dangerous, and successfully censored/banned from schools, public libraries, and even prisons.


Once denounced by popular press as "the wickedest man in the world", a BBC poll in 2002 redeemed Aleister Crowley as the seventy-third greatest Briton of all time. But who was he, really? As a self-proclaimed prophet of a new age, Crowley was also openly bisexual, an avid mountaineer, and believed in taking shitloads of recreational drugs (especially heroin). He claimed to have been contacted by a supernatural entity named Aiwass, who provided him with The Book of the Law, a sacred text that served as the basis for the religion of Thelema. Nutter or mystic, Crowley remains a highly influential figure over western esotericism and counterculture today. embed-10


Maybe a lifetime of youth, wealth, and the power to attract groupies really is worth eternal damnation. So it's no real surprise that, excluding Faust, the most notorious devil deal-makers have been musicians. The long list includes everyone from violin virtuoso Paganini to Robert Johnson, who claimed to have met Satan at a crossroads and signed over his soul to play a masterful blues on his guitar. Bob Dylan, in a 60 Minutes interview, claimed to have made a bargain with "the chief commander... of this world and the world we can't see" in order to gain success. Aw, Bob, was it really worth it?


The power of Christ compels you!” If you don’t live under a rock, you’ve seen The Exorcist, or its descendents The Amityville Horror and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. All three horror flicks are based on "true stories" – in particular, The Exorcist is based on one of three exorcisms sanctioned by the Catholic Church in the U.S. in 1949. Jesuit priests Fr. William S. Bowdren, Fr. Raymond Bishop ,and Fr. Walter Halloran attempted to cast demon spirits out of Robbie Mannheim after doctors were unable to explain disturbing events associated with the teen. Still don’t believe in possession? Mother Theresa herself underwent an exorcism late in life under the direction of the Archbishop of Calcutta, Henry D'Souza.  After extreme sleep agitations, the saint feared that she "might be under the attack of the evil one".


In an elitist, all-boys era of the early 20th century, Dion Fortune – British occultist, psychologist, and authoress of the supernatural – had a profound influence on reviving awareness of the Divine Feminine and the return of the Goddess in popular culture. Her best-known works include The Cosmic Doctrine, a summation of her basic teachings on mysticism, and Psychic Self-Defense, a manual on how to protect oneself from psychic attacks. Fortune’s seminal The Mystical Qabalah, first published in 1935, is still regarded as one of the best books on magic ever written. After all, why should Crowley’s crew have all the fun?


Giving Dumbledore a run for his money, Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, 68, was teaching spells to aspiring wizards long before JK Rowling even dreamed up Harry Potter. Dedicating his life to studying the Dark Arts – even doing the shopping in his wizard costume and wand, Oberon rose to fame in the 80s as an eccentric who claimed to have created the world’s first unicorn. In 2011, his Grey School of Wizardry in California is the first wizard school to be officially recognized as an academic establishment. Like Hogwarts, the Grey School teaches 16 departments, including Alchemy, Beastmastery, Horse-whispering, wand-making, and spell casting. 


Before you roll your eyes at the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, just remember that W.B. Yeats, Allan Bennett (who introduced Buddhism to the West), and Aleister Crowley were all devoted members. Hugely influential as a British magical order, the Golden Dawn focused on spiritual development through invoking the gods, but also taught astrology, tarot divination, geomancy (dice tossing), scrying (crystal ball peeping), astral travel, and alchemy. Many present-day ritualistic practices – such as within Wicca and – were inspired by the Golden Dawn. Founded by the fair-minded William Woodman, Willaim Westcott, and Samuel Mathers, women were admitted on an equal basis with men. 


Despite lack of evidence that the original Bavarian Illuminati survived its suppression in 1785, conspiracy theorists like Myron Fagan propose that world events are controlled and manipulated by such a secret society today. Fagan devoted his latter years to proving that the Illuminati orchestrated Waterloo, the French Revolution, JFK’s assassination, and a communist plot to hasten the New World Order through infiltration of the Hollywood film industry. The plot lives on in alleged Illuminati princesses like Lady Gaga and Beyonce. 


Rock'n'roll was once called the Devil’s music; now it's rap. Though we may not completely understand their origins, occult rap apparently uses the pentagram, the eye in the pyramid, and astrological signs that possess a certain magnetic resonance. Rapper Jay-Z isn’t the only one purportedly flashing the Mark of the Beast; Rihanna and Kanye West are allegedly fans. 


One of the most influential independent filmmakers in cinema history, Kenneth Anger’s underground experimental work melds surrealism with homoeroticsm and the occult. Working exclusively in short films, Anger has produced almost forty works since 1937 most notably, the "Magick Lantern Cycle", which cemented his reputation. With a little help from his countercultural friends like Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull and Jimmy Page, Anger’s Cycle included Thelemite-themed jewels like Scorpio Rising (1964), Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969), and Lucifer Rising (1981). No less controversial himself, Anger was also one of America's first openly gay filmmakers, who dared to render gay culture commercially visible before homosexuality was legalised in the US.


Elevating cosmic horror of the unknown to a whole new mythos, everyone from Edgar Allen Poe to role-playing games owes H.P. Lovecraft a nod of gratitude. More than mere gore and shock, his weird fiction incorporated supernatural, pre-human, and extraterrestrial elements. Who hasn’t suspected reality to be a thin shell veiling something so alien and abstract, that just a thin rift would drive you insane? Contemporary Hollywood examples with Lovecraftian themes include the popular Cabin in the Woods (by the same creator as ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), in which five young people must be sacrificed in order to placate 'The Ancient Ones' so that they will not rise, and dominate the earth again.


Accused of faking the Apollo moon landings, masking a Jewish front for world domination, and being led by humanoid reptiles, freemasonry has undeniably unfortunate ties to right-wing groups like the Klu Klux Klan. Some even claim that the September 11 attacks were astrological in nature, as part of a hidden war between Masonry (as descendants of the Knights Templar) and Islam. Thanks to Dan Brown, it's a popular belief that in founding the US, Freemasons interwove hidden symbols and numerology into the dollar bill, Washington D.C. architecture, and corporate logos. 


Nazism and its connection to the occult should really surprise no one, especially if you consider Hitler’s regime the embodiment of 20th century evil. While Nazi engineers were busy building bell-shaped UFOs, some Catholic Church members believed that Hitler was possessed by the devil. Father Gabriele Amorth, an exorcist of the Vatican, is convinced that all Nazis were possessed by supernatural forces. There are even religious documents that state that Pope Pius II tried to perform an exorcism on Hitler at a distance, but failed. 


Ordo Templi Orientis is an international religious fraternity founded at the beginning of the 20th century, whose best-known member was English occultist Aleister Crowley (he got everywhere). Originally intended to be modelled after Masonic Templar secret societies, under the leadership of Crowley, O.T.O. was re-organized around the Law of Thelema as its central religious principle. Its Law expressed as "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” and "Love is the law, love under will” – was codified in 1904 with Crowley’s The Book of the Law. We’re not completely sure what those key mantras mean, but they do sound vaguely creepy.


Famous contemporary psychics include Miss Cleo, John Edward, and Sylvia Browne. In particular, psychic detectives like Browne have assisted police in solving kidnapping and murder cases, or locating a corpse using their alleged paranormal psychic abilities, which include postcognition (the paranormal perception of the past), psychometry (information psychically gained from objects), telepathy, dowsing, and remote viewing. In murder cases, psychic detectives often claim to communicate with the spirits of the murder victims. Naturally, police departments generally state that they do not use psychics in investigations.


Sometimes associated with Kabalah, Madonna’s newfound religion. This magical precursor to the Golden Dawn and neo-paganism differs from its Jewish counterpart by combining different, often seemingly contradictory beliefs. Arising alongside and uniting with the Christian Cabalistic involvement during the Renaissance, occult Quabalah morphed into Esoteric Christian, non-Christian, and even anti-Christian beliefs across its different schools in the modern era. Its melting pot of practices also draws on astrology, alchemy, neoplatonism, gnosticism, heremeticism, rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, tantra and Tarot symbolism. 


We have Hubbard to thank for founding Scientology. In an OTT homage, the Church of Spiritual Technology (CST), a Scientology sister organization, engraved Hubbard's entire corpus of Scientology and Dianetics texts on steel tablets, then buried them in a vault – or ”alien space cathedral and spaceship launching pad” – under a mountain in the New Mexican desert, on top of which the CST's logo has been bulldozed on such a gigantic scale that it is visible from space. This is in keeping with Hubbard’s order to preserve his teachings until his eventual reincarnation. Tom Cruise, don’t hold your breath.


Whether via online ouija boards or old-school trance and channeling, séances continue to be a part of the religious services of Spiritist and Espiritismo churches in Latin America today. Growing insanely popular with the founding of mid-19th century Spiritualism, the best-known séances were those of Mary Todd Lincoln in the White House, while grieving the loss of her son. President Lincoln attended.


The divinatory meanings of Tarot cards commonly used today derive mostly from cartomancers Jean-Baptiste Alliette and Marie-Anne Adelaide Lenormand. Some mediums believe they are guided by a spiritual force, while others believe the cards help them tap into a collective unconscious. The meaning of the cards is closely associated with a belief in their occult, divine, and mystical properties: beliefs constructed in the 18th century by prominent Protestant clerics and Freemasons. Game of cards, anyone?


Its easy to scoff at the rather dated Unsolved Mysteries TV series, but what can you say when Peru's air force reopens the office responsible for investigating UFOs due to "increased sightings of anomalous aerial phenomena"? Even more perturbing, a cleaning crew and realtor recently stumbled upon an occult altar in a small house for sale in a Colorado suburb. Animal skulls, chains, bones from a goat and possibly other animals, a skull mask with a black hood, candles and a machete were among the items found in the backyard shed. Investigators aren't considering the home as a crime scene, since human bones – oddly enough – can be purchased online. Speaking of occult murder mysteries:


The real-life Marie Laveau started out as a humble hairdresser before becoming Voodoo Queen of Louisiana, the later basis for Angela Bassett's character in American Horror Story: Coven. Escorted by a snake named Zombi, her particular brew of occult magic mixed Roman Catholic mysticism and African spirits, with a dash of Freemasonry. Its rumored that her feared powers of divination were based on trickery with the help of her clients’ servants. Regardless, she knew how to put on one hell of a creepy show. Her tomb continues to attract visitors who draw “XXX” on its side, in the hopes that Laveau's spirit will grant them a wish. Remember that when you plan your next holiday to New Orleans.

W is for Witches

Before the hype of Blair Witch Project, the belief in witchcraft had already led to large-scale witch-hunts, especially in Protestant Europe. The last executions of people convicted as witches in Europe took place in the 18th century. In the UK, witchcraft ceased to be an act punishable by law with the Witchcraft Act of 1735. Contemporary witch-hunts have been reported from Sub-Saharan, India and Papua New Guinea. If you find Wicca – a contemporary form of neopaganism – too mild, official legislation against witchcraft can still be found in Saudi Arabia and Cameroon. 


Though various types of sex magick have been doubtlessly used in religious, ritualistic, and spiritual pursuits for ages, the earliest known western teachings came from 19th century American occultist Paschal Beverly Randolph. One practice uses the energy of orgasm with visualization of a desired result. A premise of sex magick is the concept that sexual energy is a potent force that can be harnessed to transcend one's normally perceived reality. Carl Kellner, the founder of O.T.O, claimed to have learned the techniques of sex magick from three adepts in this art. Of course when Aleister Crowley became head of the Order, he wrote extensively on the topic in The Book of Lies – which includes techniques on extended mutual oral sex while intoxicated on hashish. Yes.


Mix the occult, an OCD Japanese artist, and New York in the swinging 60s, and what do you get? Yayoi Kusama’s staged happenings, like “The Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at the MOMA,” and “Homosexual Wedding at the Church of Self-obliteration”. Check out tripped-out “Kusama’s Self-Obliteration” (1967) directed by Fluxus-associated video artist Jud Yalkut, with music improvised by Citizens for Interplanetary Activity. “If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago,”  Yayoi once said.

Although sociologist Theodor Adorno called it the ”opium of the people,” a BBC survey in 2009 found that 22% of Britons still believe in astrology or horoscopes. They weren’t alone. Louis De Wohl worked as an astrologer for the British intelligence agency M15, after it was claimed that Hitler used astrology to time his actions. And after John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, even Nancy Reagan commissioned Joan Quigley to act as the secret White House astrologer.