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Cycles, Storks and Satanists: A Talk with TheoFantastique

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See http://www.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19720619,00.html

Time Magazine, June 19, 1972. Used with permission.

OK, so the blog has suffered while I tended to our second daughter Anna, a conference anthology for Oxford UP (due in September) and my dissertation (due in a week or two). I apologize. To supplicate, I post this (written) interview I have done with John at TheoFantastique – a great blog on occulture and popular culture. The article we discuss is this horror from The Telegraph, March 30, 2011. Here, the “surge” in Satanism online and the resultant accessibility of Satanism is linked to increased demand for exorcism. It is good we have the Catholic Church to help us with classical products in a time of need. This is the final draft; if you want the pretty version, do visit TheoFantastique. Lots of zombies too.

TheoFantastique: Jesper, thank you for making some time to discuss your research as it relates to current events in popular culture. Recently an article in The Telegraph in the UK reported on an alleged rise in Satanism, and according to the Roman Catholic Church, a corresponding need for more exorcists as a response to alleged increases in possession. There is a lot to unpack here, but let’s look at the various elements of significance here. To begin, what type of research have you done on Satanism, can you define Satanism in terms of your research, and has there indeed been any kind of rise in Satanism as the article reports?

Jesper Aagaard Petersen: My research focuses on modern religious Satanism, a heterogeneous assortment of individuals, groups and networks using Satan and other mythological beings as a short-hand for their work on the Left-Hand path. This manifestation of Satanism is recent, only gaining ground and formalization during the occult revival of the 1960s; the most well-known exemplar is of course Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan. Even so, there are many other interpretations alongside LaVey’s – some are atheist and materialist just like the Church, others are explicitly theist, although it often takes a Gnostic or esoteric form rather than a direct mimesis of Christian stereotypes. And there are positions in between. I tend to distinguish ‘rational’ and ‘esoteric’ Satanism as fully developed, autonomous and organized types of religious Satanism. These types should in turn be separated from ‘reactive’ Satanism, which is the (often deeply meaningful, yet fragmented) Satanism of the pact, the teenage bedroom and the black metal concert, and from various demonological discourses on the satanic throughout history.

My studies are primarily based on texts, websites and message boards, but I have complemented these sources with both ethnographic, sociological, and media work. What I do is study the discourses and practices of religious groups through the resources and strategies they bring into the struggle to actually define Satanism. As such, I see contemporary Satanism as a satanic milieu of people, organizations, ideas, practices, and channels for communication. This satanic milieu is both separate from and in dialogue with modern occulture and the wider cultural narratives on the satanic. It is distinct, because modern religious Satanism is about the self and not some diabolical ‘other’. The mythological beings used in this identity work have been disembedded from their original context and ‘de-otherized’ (to use J. Laycock’s term). Satan and Satanism are no longer solely defined within a Christian context. As such, ‘Satanist’ has followed the same trajectory as ‘witch’, ‘vampire’, ‘pagan, and ‘queer’, to name a few. Rather than positions of (dangerous) inversion, they are now hybrid roles, used within both cultural narratives of the other and as identities for the self. On the other hand, we should acknowledge some dialogue as well. First of all, dark occulture and cultural narratives do work as pathways to and from the satanic milieu, as Satanists engage with both subcultural and mainstream representations and take what they resonate with. Conversely, real Satanists are not totally below the mainstream radar, even if the media representations are sketchy at best and work more along the lines of freak show exhibits. Although I can say with confidence that theories of slippery slopes are mistaken, these relations thus make popular culture one important socialization ‘stage’ for modern Satanists.

Regarding the rise of Satanism, that depends on how you define it. The article you mention calls it a “surge” and a “revival”. It is true that the 1990s and early 2000s saw an increase of interest in Satanism alongside Witchcraft, Neopaganism, and other religious currents with roots in esotericism and occultism. This has to do with the general re-enchantment of the West in the past 50 years (an enchantment that never really went away, actually, but that is another story), which has developed in dialogue with popular media. It is also true that Satanism is more visible and more accessible because of the Internet, and that it flourishes on the de-regulated arenas the Internet provides. On the other hand, membership figures are hard to come by, and should be seen in relation to degrees of affiliation – a majority of witches or Satanists are tourists or dabblers, and only a small minority affiliate with a group and/or develop a long-term engagement. It is likely that more people are attracted to Satanism than before, and they are more visible today, but actual members still amount to thousands and not millions. In any case, where I differ from the article’s conclusion is in the effect of mediated religion on susceptible youth. Watching a movie, accessing a website or participating in a discussion forum does not automatically make you a Satanist, and it certainly does not make you possessed.

TheoFantastique: Is there any reason to make a connection between Satanism in its various forms and the occult and the phenomenon of possession?

Jesper: Well, the simple answer is no. The article in The Telegraph caught my eye, as it fits the recurrent dialectic between real satanic groups on the one hand and anti-satanic discourse on the other, a dialectic covered by for example Phil Jenkins in Mystics and Messiahs (2000). Satanism as a religious option is definitely more visible and has been so since the 1960s witchcraft revival, in no small part because of LaVey’s Satanic Bible and the high media profile of the Church, as well as the meteoric rise of the Internet. On the other hand, the satanic panic and ritual abuse cases of the 1980s and early 1990s did much to reposition anti-satanic discourses of evil as the default interpretation of Satanism. Even though the religious (mainly evangelical and to a lesser degree catholic) basis of the moral panic has been exposed, and the secular madness of the media, law enforcement, judicial, education, and social care systems has been criticized extensively, conspiracy and scapegoating remains as a cultural resource. Satanism remains associated with evil in popular discourse and culture.

That is why I have a problem with the phrase “rise in Satanism” and “occult” in the article. The connotations become conspiratorial and not statistical. The word occult has a specific meaning within Religious Studies tied to the etymology of the word, as hidden. But in popular parlance and Catholic research it has a sinister ring to it. The article posits an causal connection between ease of access and demand for exorcists, but I think a lot of elements are missing from that equation. We have to ask who is searching online and who is in need of an exorcist? Are they even connected? Who makes the connections? There has been a re-enchantment of sorts, and it could of course be interpreted as the work of a cabal of Devil-worshipers influenced by demons. But there is absolutely no reason to see a rise in Satanism, Witchcraft, holistic spirituality and whatnot as anything sinister. Here, modern religious Satanism and the theological discourses on the satanic are two entirely different animals. On the other hand, a higher visibility of things dubbed “occult” and explicitly diabolical might stimulate a higher rate of possession experiences in evangelical and Catholic communities. Certainly the interpretation of possession is connected to cultural resources at hand. And by extension, possession narratives are in fact reported in movies, talk-shows and so on outside these milieus. But then we have moved our attention to very different arenas of religiosity which is not directly associated with the people I study, namely Christian communities and the ‘secularized’ paranormal demonologies of horror movies (The Entity (1981) or Paranormal Activity (2009), for example).

TheoFantastique: I too have noted the continued presence of the devil, possession, and spirit entities in various horror films and television programs. This relates to what has been labeled as popular occulture. Why do you think the devilish in popular occulture is so prevalent, and how might this not be a factor in reports of the need for exorcism?

Jesper: The Devil and his minions certainly sell. They are protean figures that can be molded to fit your narrative needs. And all narratives need bad guys, so why not use the Devil as has been done in popular culture for hundreds of years? Various elements of Christianity are topoi we all recognize (or at least most of us): The savior, the corrupted, the alluring, the end and so on. In addition, social anxieties and the speed of change needs a narrative interpretation. But this is cyclical. The 1960s explosion spawned not only the somewhat eccentric satanic witch of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), but also the unabashedly evil Antichrist of The Omen (1976) and the home invasion of The Exorcist (1973). And then came Michelle Remembers (1980), Multiple Personality Disorders and the MacMartin Preschool. Although thoroughly dismissed, these “real” stories never really went away, they just went back to the milieus from which they emerged, and, crucially, into popular culture as fictional tropes. They also underwent secularization: Aside from explicitly religious demonic fantasies, they continued as spiritual or paranormal narratives. For some two decades, anti-satanism has slumbered, while we have witnessed a resurgence of occultural themes in popular culture and as religious currents. This fin-de-siecle reenchantment is now met with The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), The Last Rite (2010), and The Rite (2011), to name a few recent movies. Hopefully we will stop before the next stage.

Of course things are more complicated than this. Yet, we have to see reenchantment, the mainstreaming of occulture and the conservative reaction as parts of a whole. In a sense, the periodic resurgence of exorcism and other re-enchantment reminds me that we are not that far removed from Hellenistic times. They too ascribed everything to demonic influence, in part because of the changes they experienced. Nevertheless, to argue that movies or the Internet makes demon-possessed victims in need of exorcism is the worst kind of hypodermic needle-argument on the effect of popular culture. We appropriate culture according to need, context and previous experiences. Of course, the Catholic Church has the Devil and his demons pushing the needle, so all constructivist and reception theory arguments are in vain.

TheoFantastique: What kind of conclusions do you draw as a scholar about the kind of sensationalistic and inaccurate reporting in The Telegraph article, as well as that produced by the Catholic Church about this phenomenon?

Jesper: First of all, that causality is still a misunderstood phenomenon. A simultaneous decline in storks and child births does not prove that children are brought by long-legged birds. But such “explanations” are easy to sell. Further, it proves that popular accounts of academic research on Satanism and other occultural phenomena are sorely needed. While I have little confidence in the “seriousness and scientific rigour” of the Vatican conference, it obviously has a stronger network in which to promote its views. I might scoff at this article (I did yell at the computer screen when I read it), but it is read by a far wider constituency than any article I have ever written (all of them combined too).

Ultimately, these things move in cycles. In the famous 1972 Time magazine article “The Occult Revival: A Substitute Faith”, many of the same issues are reported. They even comment that the UK is experiencing such a boom in witchcraft and occultism that the Anglicans and Catholics have convened to suggest the appointment of exorcists in each diocese. Sounds oddly familiar in 2011. It is all about social mobilization and the reframing of perceived social problems. The Catholic Church is at odds with a dominant subjectivist trend in modern culture. At times, it tries to accommodate it. At other times, it rejects it and reframes it a social and moral decay. The availability and visibility of Satanism online is an easy target. When connected to the unrelated rise in exorcism movies and popular interest in spirits, demons, and – well, old-school fire and brimstone – a false causality is formed.

TheoFantastique: Jesper, thank you for your time and thoughts on this.

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Written by Jesper

April 8, 2011 at 01:22

Contact: Random ramblings

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Last Thursday, I spent an afternoon with around 20 students watching the movie Contact (R. Zemeckis, 1997). I have tried to supplement my course teaching in popular religion(s) with informal lecture-and-a-screening of various movies seen in the light of Religious Studies: The Wicker Man, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (pure methodology), What the Bl**p Do We Know and latest Meggido: Omega Code 2 (as Yuletide fun). One danger I have tried to avoid is reducing the movie to pure exemplar, as a lot of “Religion and ‘X'”-studies do. As an object of analysis, we need to respect the structural and aesthetic aspects of the material studied and not just dissect the content. Nevertheless, most of my lectures have been inspired by important relations between popular culture and religious creativity with the movie as interface.

In the case of Contact, the implications of the SETI programme (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) are told through the eyes of one woman, Ellie Arroway. But what is scientific fiction for about an hour turns into science fiction when aliens finally make contact through a radio signal (with prime numbers, an audiovisual of Hitler and blueprints for a transportation machine). Ellie, against all odds, gets the ticket for the wormhole device and travels around the galaxy for 18 hours before returning home. Here, she is considered a nut, as the device seemed to fail from an Earth-bound perspective. Thus she travels from the position of scientific skeptic to revelatory gnostic.

As Slavoj Zizek remarks in his critique of Avatar (http://www.information.dk/zizek (in Danish)), mainstream Hollywood has a predilection for translating thematic conflicts into embodied ones, often in the form of romantic love between a man and a woman (little homo- or xenosexuality as of 2010). This is an effective strategy, but also a dumbing-down of the thematic subtext. When watching the movie, it is obvious that the philosophical conflict between religion and science is personified in open-shirt Palmer Joss (M. McConaughey) vs. buttoned-up Ellie Arroway (J. Foster).

They meet in the Puerto-Rican jungle and have sex, but things go sour due to circumstances (Ellie’s boss David Drumlin (T. Skerritt) is pulling the plug on the project) and Ellie’s lack of emotional maturity (a rather masculine trait, see below). 4 years later, they luckily meet again, get involved (more emotionally than physically this time), grow apart (ideological differences and emotions get in the way) but end up together as she learns what it’s like to be spiritual (that is, not believed by skeptics… but having powerful experiences anyway). A recurrent thematic symbol is the plastic compass that changes hands a few times, as they challenge each others “moral orientation” throughout the film. This is analogy on the run, and surely an evocative way of describing the intellectual and emotional battles between “religion” and “science” in western history; whether it reflects reality is another matter.

Anyway, he has an MA in Divinity “but dropped out of seminary to do some secular humanitarian work”, which is nice. He is a cool Christian then, open, talkative and later special advisor to the President. He is a writer and social critic rather than preacher, a perfect contrast to the evil Christian fundamentalist with long blonde hair (J. Busey) who ends up blowing the first Machine to bits. On the other hand, Ellie’s tough personal history (mother lost at childbirth, father when she was nine) has made her ambitious, driven and rather focused on the sky (she misses mom and dad), as well as a firm advocate of atheism, Occam’s Razor and skepticism. Hence she is lacking in both emotional and “spiritual” connection to other people; she is curious and knowledgeable, but obviously has problems with public speaking and intimate relations, although she ends up talking to children on “their level” at the end, when she is spiritually (and romantically) “awakened” (luckily, the producers pass on the idea of introducing a baby as coincidentia oppositorum).

As such, the lonely atheist and the worldly “faitheist” meet, first in the flesh (which fails), later in a shared belief in numinous experiences (which is apparently a much more solid ground for romantic involvement). Palmer Joss had his experience early in life (or at least before the movie begins), as he tells us in bed. He interprets it through a de-mythologized Christian frame and acts it out through social engagement. Ellie’s experience is shown in the movie as a visit to the stars, where she reconnects to her childish yearnings and direct understanding of beauty as well as her father (see below). She interprets it through a scientific frame, but it is unsuccessful in coping with the power of emotions, as the scientific and political reactions show (science is a collective and easily politicized endeavour). She ends up acting the experience through an intimate relationship (that is only suggested) and a professional embracing of teaching. Curiosity is filled with spiritual meaning.

Before discussing this thematic resolution in more detail, let’s extend the “character cloud” surrounding the happy couple of Palmer and Ellie. Palmer represents Good Religion or Faith, exhibits good masculine traits, and has a moral trajectory from belief to reason during the long movie. In contrast, Ellie represents Good Science or Reason, is androgynous (but female when the right male is around), and has a moral trajectory from reason to belief. “Behind” Palmer are three male figures with ambiguous relations to the androgynous femininity of Ellie. First off her absent dad, in some sense responsible for her curiosity but also her lack of faith and her amputated femininity. Nevertheless he is all good. A bit closer to the action we find the polar opposites of David Drumlin, a bad (but good) father figure and politicized scientist (bad bad!!), and S. R. Hadden, a good (but bad) father figure and trickster figure. He too is a politicized scientist (a rich engineer involved in subversive activities), but he has cancer, which is a get-out-of-jail-free card in Hollywood; his money and influence, while bad, is good when used to facilitate Ellie’s quest and to combat the establishment – we don’t believe the hoax angle played in the end. Similarly Drumlin’s negativity is absolved through his sacrifice and his reflexivity; although his pragmatism regarding faith and scientific worth is destructive (that is what the world is like), he silently acknowledges Ellie’s idealism before meeting his doom: The world is what we make of it. In essence, the two represent bad science that can be transformed.

“Behind” Ellie are three androgynous figures that extend on Ellie’s complicated thematic role. First of all is the Alien-as-daddy, as the alien Vegan uses this image to ease first contact. Mirroring the father in the masculine triad, the alien’s superior moral, spiritual and scientific knowledge is the enzyme initiating Ellie’s resolution, and it is thus all good. Closer to Ellie are another polarity (although not as pronounced as Drumlin – Hadden), namely Ellie-as-child, which represents hope and pure curiosity, versus the blind SETI researcher Kent Clark (COME ON!), who has sublime hearing but a bad case of despair. They represent good science that is still embryonic.

Regarding the thematic resolution, what does religion and science aka Palmer and Ellie agree upon? Ellie travels 26 light-years to be told that intimacy and personal relations are all that makes life bearable; it is the meaning of life. This “spiritual” message stands in glaring contrast to the engineering feats necessary to build a wormhole production device, but is nicely underscored by the beauty of the universe. The message seems to be that micro-and macrouniverse is connected in the eyes and heart of the beholder, technology notwithstanding. Luckily science is reserved a small place in the meaning of it all, as mathematics, physics and chemistry are shown to be the galactic lingua franca alongside emotions. You just have to use it truthfully, which takes us to Palmer Joss.

Several times in the movie he equates religion and science as a “search for truth” (beginning and end, good script writing there. This phrase is thematically tied up with the sentence “if we’re alone, it is an awful waste of space” in the beginning, middle and end and the aforementioned compass). The normative criterion for religion and science then becomes a philosophical goal that balances neatly between uppercase Truth and lowercase truth (both are something universal and spiritual, but intellectual Truth is tempered by emotional and intimate truth), and both science and religion are apocalyptic in the sense that they are paths to revelation of this truth. Only then, in the embodiment of truth, can religion and science truly meet.

One could argue that this is an amputation of both religion and science. Religion becomes something cognitive (although also embodied and felt), a watered-down Protestant “faith”-based morality – private truth, not practice or politics (remember Talal Asad’s critique of Clifford Geertz’ definition of religion). In fact, the only acceptable religion in the movie is this privatized “spirituality”; religious practice in the movie is either silly (as Ellie’s drive to Cape Canaveral illustrates – the road is filled with idiots chanting and singing), dangerous (the fundamentalist becomes a terrorist) or ideological (which is suspect; Drumlin’s fake religion is a case in point). Palmer Joss, our guide to better living and the representative of acceptable religion, has precisely dropped out of seminary (he “couldn’t handle the celibacy thing”) to do “secular humanitarian work”; he writes books, gives interviews and helps the President, that is he is doing politics without being political. He is humanitarian (something moral and spiritual), not religious.

Ellie (and by extension science) has meaning, truth, longing and seeking in common with this religiosity, but she has too much reason and ambition to see this truth. Luckily she meets an alien that can show her the right balance – space-dad resembles dead earth-dad and alive earth-lover that is also dad (“father” Joss; he even says the same thing as dead dad did). Science is amputated from both its methodological framework and the context of justification (the imagined community of scientists writing articles etc.) to be nothing but philosophy aided by giant machines.

In this way, the initial contrast between religion and science understood as narrow-minded fanaticism (bad and thoroughly male as in the blonde fundamentalist or the bad father figure of David Drumlin) vs. empirical curiosity (good and androgynous as Ellie is masculine but also female (girlish) as contrast to male religion) is mediated by a very cool Christian. Both religion and science becomes bad when seen from the middle position of “faith” or spiritual belief – religion is dogma and science is politics. Faith is experiential and mediates male and female (while cementing the gender roles; Ellie is weak in the end and is protected by Palmer, a fine contrast to her very masculine attitude to one-night stands in the beginning of the film) as well as experience and belief. In the end, Ellie is alone in the desert contemplating truth, in a sense having assimilated Palmer to reach completion. A harmonic conclusion to science and religion indeed!

Perhaps there is enough for an article anyway?! I’ll stop here and return later with more reflections on the ultimate father figure of Carl Sagan, the SETI project as spiritual revelation, the movie as an appropriation of New Age mythology and the various resolutions of science and religion found outside movie narratives.

Written by Jesper

March 6, 2010 at 23:29