Count Backwards from Ten: Peter Bebergal’s Top 10 Occult in Media
When I was 15, I went to my older brother’s house. He was getting ready for his pal’s birthday – this guy called Vas. Vas was a industrial goth with long black hair down his back. He was obsessed with Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, Echo & The Bunnymen, and The Cure. He was the first real alternative guy I’d met. He’d always wore black, always had a cool band shirt on, and played guitar in industrial bands; he was easily the coolest guy I knew. He once told me to ditch that cheesy Batman comic I was reading and go buy The Killing Joke by Alan Moore.
When my brother was done getting ready he started wrapping his gifts; since it was for Vas it had to be radical, so he bought him a copy of The Satanic Bible by Anton LaVey and a bootleg video of an hour-long interview with Charles Manson from prison.
I picked up the book screaming, “Fuck, where’d you buy this bible???” He smiled and said, “You’re not going to believe me, but you know that Mom & Pop newsagent on the corner near your school? In that pile of airport novels there are a bunch of copies of this.”
The next day before school I went to the newsagent and flipped through the stack of trashy romance novels and John Grisham titles and found a copy of The Satanic Bible.
That morning we had a mass in school and as we recited prayers, I casually reached into my pocket, pulled out my Satanic Bible, and started reading passages aloud amidst the chorus of the hymns, waiting for my friends to notice what I was singing from. Within a week, at least three of my friends had bought copies.
A month later, Vas took me to the guitar store to help pick out my first electric guitar, and he loaned me the Charles Manson video.
I watched, and I didn’t really engage with it. I was getting bored of his endless rants and not really knowing or understanding the murders or his cultural significance; but then something happened. Near the end of the interview, Manson begins screaming and says he’s coming for the suburban family, the squares who don’t see what’s really happening, and then he stares directly down the camera, raises his hands, and says, “I’M COMING FOR YOU!”
I’ll never forget that look. I reached so quickly for the remote and turned off the video and ran downstairs to my family in the living room. And yet Manson always stayed with me. I buy every book on Manson I can find, and I still watch every documentary on cults, satanism, witch craft and serial killers.
And so now, to help us out, here’s Peter Bebergal on his Top 10 Occult and Magic in Music, Movies, and Literature.
Peter is the author of the new book Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll, an epic cultural and historical odyssey that unearths the full influence of occult traditions on rock and roll from the Beatles to Black Sabbath and shows how the marriage between mysticism and music changed our world.
Art and culture are littered with occult symbols, references, influences, themes, and polemics. Often they are a way for an artist or musician to position themselves on the fringe and Avant Garde. The occult is considered heterodox, a means of pushing against the normative and the mainstream, of the individual taking their spiritual destiny into their own hands. For the artist, there is much fodder in the arcane and the esoteric to represent their own path towards their own purpose and will. Or the will of the gods. It is a challenge to bring together a list that encompasses all the wondrous attempts to capture the ineffable quality of the occult and magic. Some art and music wears the influence on their sleeves, others shroud it with deeply symbolic language. Recently I have been interested in the stranger and darker examples, where spirits are invoked in secret groves and even believers are awestruck at the full revelation of their work.
Here, then, is a list of my current favorites, those I return to again and again to be amazed, frightened, or simply hypnotized by how these ideas and symbols so perfectly key into our weird selves.
10. A Field in England, directed by Ben Wheatley (Film)
This challenging and moving film exposes that for all the cosmic yearning and seeking, magic is still a human experience. Here, an alchemist turns another man into a walking divining rod as he searches for hidden treasure against the backdrop of the English Civil War. Hallucinatory and brutal, the film ends with one the most perfectly realized magical battle on film.
9. Phantasmaphile (website)
This is a bit of cheat, but there is just an enormous amount of esoteric and occult art these days, as well as a surge of interest in earlier examples, that there is two or three examples that would cover the whole range; from the late Paul Laffolye to Jesse Bransford to Shannon Taggart. There is no better place to explore what is both current and classic than the website Phantasmaphile. Lovingly curated by Pam Grossman, author of the recent What is a Witch (Tin Can Forest), there is no better place to swim deep in the waters of occult art.
8. Wicker Man (film)
Not a very original choice, and I realize this is on so many lists, but there is really is something special about the way this film offers no supernatural hijinks, but manages to get under your skin with a sense of otherworldly dread. The moment when Sergeant Howie sees the wicker man for the first time is one of the great moments in horror film history, a deeply authentic response to the horror of his terrible fate.
7. “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood (short story)
Surpassing any of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories for its ability to conjure a sense of what is called the mysterium tremendum, the terror and awe of the ineffable and unknowable. Here, nature becomes a cosmic threat when two men traveling along the Danube find themselves stranded. One of the finest “weird” tales.
6. Tie: Purson and Blood Ceremony (bands)
Two female-fronted stoner/prog rock band take of the mantle of Coven with mellotron and flute. Purson takes a slightly more psychedelic approach, but this is not an LSD wonderland. Instead, the acid reveals “smoldering skies/are full of signs” and “echoes of voodoo chants/ring round the weathercocks old rusty head.” Blood Ceremony is a rock and roll initiation into a stoned pagan cult, where “our children leave to hear their song/rituals to which they now belong.” Jolly good fun that will get under your skin and open your third eye.
5. The Curse of the Demon (film)
Loosely based on the short story Casting the Runes by M.R. James, this terrific film from 1957 tells the story of a man investigating mysterious deaths who gets on the wrong side of a black magician. The ending has been criticized as not sharing the tone with the rest of the movie, but I think it works marvelously as the fear of the otherworldly is made manifest and our antagonist conjures something even he cannot control. Watch it with the lights out, late at night.
4. True Detective, Season 1 (television show)
I’m sure everyone reading this has watched it, so we may as well just agree at how pitch perfect Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are as they confront a hidden world where dark agendas seem to have cosmic weight. Influenced by the fiction of Thomas Ligotti, whose nihilistic vision of the world informs the character of Rust Cohle, the series goes one step further. There can be hope in the darkest places. Let’s all just go watch it again right now.
3. David Bowie, Station to Station (album)
Rock’s greatest magician takes his magic too far and is almost destroyed by it. The tale he survives to tell, of the Thin White Duke crawling his way up the sephirotic tree fueled by spiritual hunger and cocaine remains one of the best albums of all time and a dark peek into Bowie’s spiritual bottom. Bowie would ultimately learn that will without devotion is the mage’s greatest folly. But when he can conjure demons that sound this good, it’s hard to fault him. Bowie will be missed, but we are blessed to have albums like this where art and the spiritual quest are so beautifully, sometimes uncomfortably exposed.
2. “The White People” by Arthur Machen (short story)
Another masterpiece of the weird, Machen (a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn-turned-Christian mystic) is also the author of the better known “The Great God Pan,” but this story chills a bit deeper. A young girl recounts her initiation into a mysterious cult where she learns their secrets. It’s a story worth returning to, if only when you want to feel a bit dizzy as few stories can do. I’ll leave you with this: “Then they all rose up and danced, and secret things were brought out of some hiding place, and they played extraordinary games, and danced round and round and round in the moonlight, and sometimes people would suddenly disappear and never be heard of afterwards, and nobody knew what had happened to them.”
1. Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age (Album)
Broadcast and the Social Groups essential example of hauntology, the ghostly imaginings of the sadly deceased Trish Keenan, is a radionic masterpiece. Ghost haunt the edges of technology and pop culture artifacts. The whole album functions as living EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena). There are secrets, quiet confessions, and gothic troubles on the edges. But the whole thing is so modern, it feels as if you are listening to an ancient radio station from the future. Never mind The Conjuring or Blair Witch. This is the stuff of real ghosts, the spirits that live in the deepest parts of our electronic lives.
Peter also suggests you go into your local bookstore and incant the title as loudly as possible until you are escorted out with the book in hand.