The Occultist in Popular Culture
Over the past decade the portrayal of the occultist in popular culture has become increasing fashionable. With the popularity of television shows like Supernatural, the Harry Potter series of books and movies, and blockbuster movies like The Conjuring, consumers of mass culture have developed a fantastical image of what an occultist is and does. On the one hand, this image tells us that people who are into the supernatural, the occult, or metaphysics are out of touch with society or socially inept, generally weird and even psychologically unbalanced. On the other hand, these portrayals also encompass people who have fantastical lives full of daring, even scary adventures, and quite possibly possess supernatural powers of their own. This truth that gets lost in the drama or humor of popular images of occultists is that despite these characterizations, the guiding principle behind the occultist’s practice is spiritual progression.
By definition, the occult is esoteric, meaning hidden from view, secret, and specialized for certain people to learn and understand. As such, it is not surprising that popular culture portrayals would be loose in their interpretations of what it means to be an occultist. A common practice for an occultist is “magic”, or what many people would refer to as white magic. While most people who study the supernatural would define what magic is differently, an accepted definition is the use of rituals, language, symbols, and actions which exert power over natural and supernatural elements for the overall purpose of spiritual growth. Many of these practices look familiar such as meditation or somewhat less familiar like certain energetic healing practices or ritualized versions of prayer.
In the popular television show Supernatural we meet Sam and Dean Winchester, brothers who travel the United States hunting down and killing monsters and demons, negotiating and partnering with angels, and saving the masses from death and destruction from a variety of paranormal phenomena. These are hip, rock music loving guys who are good looking, witty, intelligent, and sometimes heroic. They are also tragic characters who sacrifice romantic satisfaction and family life to be the saviors of an unwitting populace.
From Left to Right: Dean and Sam Winchester
Although it often looks hopeless, Sam and Dean always seem to pull through achieving outrageous victories in a constant battle between good and evil. To help them in their quest, they are equipped with a super cool 1967 Chevy Impala filled with an arsenal of monster-fighting gear and a sidekick angel. They often work with others who are on the same path called “hunters” with whom they share their knowledge and experience. Make no mistake, these brothers pull off the impossible having even returned from death multiple times.
In reality, occultists are active in pursuing good and subduing evil within themselves and society, but a fancy car and guns that shoot bullets made of salt aren’t required. Instead, the occultist’s work is done through the pursuit of spiritual knowledge; studying either alone or in groups, and fighting the ego and its unhealthy tendencies toward such things as chemical addictions and unchecked anger. Additionally, there are rituals and ceremonies to heal the land after a violent event as well as energetic healing rites that can be performed on people to heal physical and emotional pain.
In a completely different context, spiritually-minded people are often seen as weirdos on the fringe of society gathered together in strange communes weaving flowers through their hair and meditating all day. In “How to be Ultra Spiritual”, JP Sears shines a light on a lot of hypocritical behavior within this community, but in a hilarious way. JP Sears is a well-known Life Coach who uses a lot of spiritual approaches when working with his clientele. When Sears created a Youtube series that parodied what it means to be spiritual, people loved it. Whether or not viewers identified themselves as spiritual wasn’t an issue, because almost everyone had at least met someone who conformed to the caricatures Sears created from stereotypical New Age behavior.
Courtesy of Youtube.com: How to be Ultra Spiritual (funny) – with JP Sears
This set of videos served as a wake-up call for those who are striving for some form of enlightenment, to take an objective view and question their actions and sometimes pretentious attitudes. Certainly there are people in the metaphysical community who fit the “Ultra Spiritual” labels laid out in this series, which makes on-lookers sometimes dismiss their spiritually-minded peers, but there are many others who ardently struggle with meditation, self-reflection and other day-to-day metaphysical practices, all of which take on a more internal stance rather than a search for recognition from others. Parodies such as the one done by Sears are valuable as they serve to illustrate to the spiritual person ways in which they may have fallen into stereotypical external behaviors in favor of actually doing the work.
Next, we have the movie The Conjuring in which we meet a real-life pair of exorcists, Ed and Lorraine Warren, and document a true story from their past. This duo creates a completely different image of occultists from Supernatural or a Youtube parody as they really did live a unique, even bizarre, lifestyle. This married couple are devout Catholics (Ed passed away in 2006), who devoted their lives to educating people on removing and combating demons and ghosts. Lorraine is a powerful clairvoyant who would help Ed in the rites and practices of exorcisms and energetic clearings; the Warrens were even tapped to teach and lecture at universities and church gatherings in the sixties and seventies.
The 2013 film The Conjuring highlights just one of the Warren’s documented experiences, an example of one of the worst cases of demonic possession they ever witnessed. Ed and Lorraine also worked with the Lutz family from the famous story, The Amityville Horror which has been adapted into several movies over recent decades.
The Amithyville Horror House and Lorraine Warren
The Warrens are definitely unique in the world of occultists due to their tendency to be quite outspoken regarding their work. They are also normal, everyday sort of people outside of their work and public image. They had a typical family life raising their daughter Judy. In addition, they had many friends and were popular members of their community.
From Left to Right: Ed and Lorraine Warren
Outside of Lorraine’s psychic abilities, Ed and Lorraine never purported to have or work with any special powers. They worked closely with clergy from the Catholic Church and applied techniques used by the Vatican for centuries. Their tools were more typical items such as holy water, crucifixes, bibles and rosaries. Nevertheless, there is no doubt the Warrens delved into areas outside of the influence of the Catholic Church to learn some of the rites and incantations they employed, even if that meant that they obtained this information from books or more obscure and secretive societies. Also, the Warrens often used technology available to them at the time such as sound recording devices, EMF meters, and video and still-image cameras to document events while working. While they may have been documenting supernatural phenomena, there was nothing supernatural about their equipment.
Ed and Lorraine Warren, and their body of work, are valuable assets to the occult community. They did not water down their work, or what it meant, in order to gain approval from the masses. They knew that they were providing a valuable service to some of the most vulnerable in society, and had no shame or fear of using their tools and talents to this end. They did all of this within well-known and accepted faith, Roman Catholicism, proving that both worlds can work together. Furthermore, they worked through their own difficult emotional times in order to further their own spiritual progression as well as that of their family. The Warrens are an example of the occultist as a productive and upstanding member of society without losing their humility and spiritual compass.
All too often, the sensationalism that accompanies popular cultural representations of the occult feed a perception that any endeavor in this area is akin to Satan worship. This is addressed in Much Ado About Harry: Harry Potter and the Creation of a Moral Panic, by Danielle M. Soulliere. This paper supports the idea that people who are interested in metaphysics, magic, and the occult are often viewed as being nothing more than Satan worshippers who are intent upon the destruction of our society, starting with the children. Because of a lack of knowledge surrounding these concepts, fear seeps in and old ideas reemerge telling people that any foray into the occult leads to moral corruption and a rejection of God and religion.
This could not be any further from the truth, but when a moral panic ensues, there is little that can be done to bridge the gap between those who are panicked and the ones attempting to shed light on the real life and belief system of a metaphysician. There is a dichotomy here that needs to be addressed – If we say that there is darkness and evil in the world, then there necessarily must be a group of people with the education, tools, and willingness to combat it within themselves and humanity as a whole. When other people fall into fear and judgment regarding this work, it hinders the job at hand for those who are carrying it out.
Many people find popular culture portrayals of occultist fascinating and/or entertaining, but this is typically the case when anything appears to be secretive or forbidden. What is more important is what none of these characterizations adequately address, that is the spiritual journey of the occultist. This is the prime goal which a student of metaphysics and the occult is motivated to pursue. Sometimes this can look like a strange and archaic group ritual, but much more often it is simply a mundane session of meditation. However, the simpler and day-to-day aspects of any spiritual practice are rarely of interest for mass media because they are difficult to express, constantly changing, and do not inspire the shock and surprise that a demon hunter does.
Furthermore, all of these popular culture examples serve the larger purpose of spiritual progression by highlighting forms of “service” that working in these arenas of spirituality provide. This type of service can be to others through healing practices, education and brotherhood, or most importantly, turning the healing inward and focusing on individual purpose and progression.
Drama and humor can be cathartic, allowing for a much needed release of psychological, physical, and spiritual energy. Therefore, these popular culture representations of spirituality and the occult serve a valid purpose as long as viewers can keep perspective and remember that reality, and what we do with it, is much more important.
Finally, there have been two learning moments from this term that stick out for me as I defined my identity as an occultist. First, in the activity in which we were to list our identities for our groups to view and comment on, I realized that the identities that matter most to me are the ones that also “push the envelope” and bring up some apprehension or shame for me. I came to see that how popular culture portrayed my identity as an occultist had helped shape these feelings. By accepting the role that these characterizations have toward creating a common understanding and viewing them from a perspective of educational entertainment I become less concerned with how stereotypes might be perpetuated and more appreciative of the accuracy in others. It opens up important conversations.
My second learning moment came during the reading of, “The Urgency of Visual Media in our Post 9/11 World”. What was so striking to me was how much imagery can affect our thoughts and how subtly manipulating it can be. Since popular culture is so heavily visual, the images presented can have an almost instant ability to turn an image into something positive or negative. As in the example of the pentagram, a common occult symbol, many feelings are evoked when it is seen. This drives home the message that it is an extraordinary responsibility in media to use this, and other symbols, in an accurate manner as they have tremendous impact on viewers’ thoughts and feelings.
The Conjuring. Dir. James Wan. Perf. Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga. Warner Brothers, 2013. Film.
Sears, JP. “How to be Ultra Spiritual”. Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 5 Oct. 2014.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kDso5ElFRg
Soulliere, Danielle M. “Much ado about Harry: Harry Potter and the creation of a moral panic.” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 22.1 (2010): 1-37.
Supernatural. Prod: Eric Kripke. CWTV. 2005-Present. Television.