Wednesday, January 26, 2011

INTERVIEW: Father Gary Thomas, inspiration for THE RITE

I was honored to speak last weekend on the phone with Father Gary Thomas, the subject of Matt Baglio’s book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist (Doubleday Religion), which is the inspiration for Mikael Hafstrom’s film THE RITE, opening in theatres January 28, 2011. Father Thomas also served a consultant for the film.

Peg Aloi: How long have you been a practicing exorcist?

Father Gary Thomas: I’m pastor of a parish, but also an exorcist who serves this diocese, and I’ve been eligible to perform exorcisms for just over four years.

PA: How do feel about the film version of THE RITE? (Interviewer’s note: I had not seen the film at the time of this interview)

FGT: I went down to L. A. to see it last Tuesday and Anthony Hopkins and I sat down and watched it together, just the two of us. He’s very comfortable to be around, very down to earth. I was also on the set with Anthony in Budapest; they were being very anal about wanting it to be accurate.

I think it’s a very well done movie; it’s really a movie about faith. They really took some license with some things but there’s nothing I am ashamed of or appalled by or that I found incredulous beyond possibility. I mean, there's no special effects, no green pea soup, no spinning, no levitation.

PA: So do you think it’s scary?

FGT: This is not a horror film, although there are scenes that, if you see the trailers, they don’t really match the movie as a whole and they make it seem more like horror. I’ve even been telling some of my parishioners that there are scenes that are somewhat startling. But there is nothing to that movie that I could consider to be horror or gore. There is scene where Rosario, the character who is possessed, spits up nails. In my experience I have never actually seen that, and the priest I trained with had never seen that, but another priest in Rome told me himself that he had seen that more than once.

PA: How long was your exorcist training in Rome?

FGT: I spent about eight months total in Rome, but not all of it was involved in training. When the bishop sent me to Rome on my sabbatical, the exorcism angle was not the primary reason I went, but providentially there was a course in exorcism going on at the time, so he said, “While you're there, you should take that.” I was there for an extended period of time, and so after the course it was clear I needed to apprentice to somebody.

PA: So do you feel there is a growing need for this skill in the United States? Has our increasingly secular society made our citizens more vulnerable to demonic possession?

FGT: There certainly is a need for skilled exorcists. In order for me to function effectively, however, I had to get that special instruction. This is not the kind of training we get in the seminary, this in an incredible specialty. You have to know what you’re looking for, you have to know the language of deliverance, and you need to know something about Satan. You don’t need to be an expert, or have to have a degree in demonology to do this, but you do need to know what you're doing, because when someone comes to you, you’ve got to know how to recognize their symptoms.

Actually, I just finished talking with someone five minutes ago who thinks they are dealing with a case of possession, but I told them it seems more likely to be related to drug use.

But to go back to your question, I would say yes, there’s definitely more of a need today, because there is more and more involvement in paganism and idolatry. You don’t need the Internet to get involved in satanic things, although certainly the Internet does lead people into dabbling.

PA: (I did have to bite my tongue to avoid talking about Christine O’Donnell here, after that "dabbling" comment.) When you talk about paganism, how would you specifically define this?

FGT:I’m talking about the occult, the new age, and satanic stuff. I’m taking about being involved in things that are not of God; these idols are of self or something that is not of God. It’s all in the same category, as far as I’m concerned.

PA: Does that include Judaism and Islam?

FGT: No, because those are of God; those are monotheistic religions.

PA: So, in your view, polytheistic traditions are unacceptable, or evil? Does that include Native American spirituality, which is polytheistic?

FGT: It depends on your vantage point when you're asking the question. I would say that anything that is outside the realm of the Supreme Being is polytheistic. But that term is not necessarily pejorative. Native Americans have their own religious culture, it doesn’t make them bad, but quite honestly, it’s opening them up to a spirit realm that could be very dangerous.

PA: I wonder if you also make a distinction between what you consider occultism and the modern earth-based spiritual traditions, such as Wicca or neo-paganism. And I should tell you that in addition to being a film critic and a media scholar, I am also a former Catholic, and I’m now what you’d call a neo-pagan, or a witch.

FGT: The occult is not the same thing as the satanic. So people who are involved in Satan worship are not the same thing as those are involved in Wicca, but we (priests, presumably--PA) would say Satanists are Satanists. I don’t even consider pagans in the same ways as I would consider those involved in the new age, but I think it’s fair to say the occult can be a doorway to the satanic.

PA: Would you say the vast majority of satanic involvement is teenagers dabbling, who eventually get bored and move on?

FGT: I can’t really give en educated guess. I'd say for some it certainly could be the case. I think honestly there are more teenagers who have an undeveloped understanding of God and faith in life than have a developed one, so I would be more inclined to say it’s more likely than not there are more teens involved in it, yes. There’s a website I saw recently called Teens for Satan (actually I found two: the Yahoo group Teens4Satan and an e-group on, strangely enough, the angelfire domain Kids and Teens for Satan); and one of the teens in my parish was on it. His mom discovered this and practically had apoplexy right there.

PA: Do you think there are more kids interested in Satanism now than in previous years?

FGT: I think from my vantage point it would be hard to give a response, based on a very limited experience of having conversations with kids about this. But I’d say more than involvement there is definitely a greater curiosity now than ever before. I don’t necessarily think a higher percentage of kids want to be actual Satanists, though. It would be improper for me to come out with high-level absolutes.

PA: Are you familiar with the Church of Satan, which was founded in San Francisco in 1966? I know at one time it was a tax-exempt religious organization, but I’m not sure now. Would you say those Satanists are involved in something dangerous?

FGT: I think the fact that they’re a legal entity makes a difference. The Church of Satan is a different reality from the world of satanic cults, which are illegal and criminal. Also, satanic cults are very secretive.

PA: Do you believe there are a lot of satanic cults out there?

FGT: There are probably more than we think. In fact, I pray over a woman right now who is a satanic cult survivor.

PA: I need to ask this. Speaking as someone who has done extensive research on the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare in the 1990s: Do you think it’s possible your parishioner’s experiences are false, or that she may be lying, or delusional? Because despite many, many horrific accusations of abuse and murder and various other atrocities by satanic cults over the years, most of them by alleged “survivors” who claim to be former cult members, the FBI, after years of investigation, never found a single shred of evidence to suggest there is or ever has been an underground network of satanic cults in the United States.

FGT: I don’t believe that she’s lying. She had been seeing a priest in our diocese for a while and her memories started to surface, and that’s how we learned of her involvement in the cult. But if even half of what she’s saying is true, and I have not found any reason to doubt it, in her system, if anyone exposes the group, they’ll be killed. There is a whole culture in terms of what these people tell their members.

PA: I guess that’s my point: I would tend to think very little of what she’s saying is true. I’m personally very skeptical of the existence of satanic cults of the type you’re describing. I do have a videotape I'd like to send you though, it's from episodes of Geraldo and Oprah when they were exploring Satanic Ritual Abuse on their shows, and watching it is very eye-opening to say the least.

FGT: I'd really appreciate that, thank you.

PA: So, to continue along these lines, isn't is possible these people claiming to have been in satanic cults are misrepresenting the truth, or at least confused about what they experienced?

FGT: I’ve learned a lot of what I know about it this from this woman, and there isn't that much written about it. People who have escaped these groups and who have come forward are in fear of their lives. Most of these people are also dealing with multiple personality disorder (MPD). That is a terrible cross to live with, and trying to find a therapist who deals with MPD is very difficult, so they come to us for help. There is plenty of opportunity to get involved in such groups. I’m also praying over a second woman who is involved with a Santeria group, which is a form of satanic witchcraft.

PA: I always thought Santeria combined Catholicism and Voodoo. It’s based on a belief in the saints and the powers the Catholic saints have to heal and help people in their lives. That’s why the botanicas sell all those seven-day candles with pictures of saints on them.

FGT: Santeria does involve Satan. And it’s as dangerous for some people as any other form of Satanism. I’m in the process of connecting with a woman who is a clinical psychologist, to discuss it with her. The woman I pray for who is in the Santeria group, she is a person who triggers every time I meet with her, and there have been several episodes related to her Santeria involvement. So I am more inclined to think this may be satanic than an MPD thing, but I am not a clinician. My team does have clinical psychologists, and they are Catholics who believe in possession. This way we are open, but we’re skeptical. In my role as an exorcist, I have to be skeptical. We never assume when people walk in the door that they automatically have what they say they have. I learned that in Rome, the exorcist is the ultimate skeptic. I assume everything they're telling me is true, but my role is to get to the root cause of the problem.

PA: So in other words, their experiences may be hallucinations or delusions, and the cause may not necessarily be demonic possession, even if they claim it is?

FGT: The vast majority of people who come to me for help with possession are experiencing mental health problems and not actual possession. I have performed exorcisms on five people in the past five years, out of maybe a hundred cases of potential possession. When we talk about people who are possessed, that is very rare. Possession means someone whose body has been taken over by a demon. I also use the term “demonic attachment.” This happens when a person is not fully possessed but there is an attachment to the demon. They can function, they can work, shop, take a vacation, etc. But when a person is fully possessed they can’t function in the world. And then there is what is called “integration” and that is where they have accepted the demon’s possession of them.

People who come to me, who think there is a diabolical attachment of some kind that is affecting them, they realize they have crossed a line and they want to get out of this relationship. But the majority of people who think there is a demon inside them actually are suffering from psychosis or hallucinations or other things that happen that they can’t figure out. It may be bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, or depression, where either the people they are seeing have not helped them, or when they mention the word “demon” they’re told to seek help elsewhere or the people treating them just write them off as delusional. Most therapists are atheists or agnostics. That is why people I have on my team have to be practicing Catholics, not just because I want to have them all vote the same way, I want them to be able to look at this with the lens of faith, and accept the possibility that Satan does exist. These people on my team believe Satan does exist. I assure you, however, that doesn’t mean Satan lives under every bush and tree. We’re very cautious; we have to be. The forward in The Rite of Exorcism says that the exorcist must use the greatest caution at all times, and that means being skeptical as well.

PA: Would you say the problem of demonic possession has increased because of our culture’s increasing secularization? Or is there truly an increase of evil in the world?

FGT: I think it’s more a problem of inviting the spirit world into their lives in ways that they’re not prepared for. I think people who are worshippers of the earth, well, I don't look at those folks as being involved in the occult necessarily. I use the word “pagan” as a category; I don’t use it as a judgment of somebody else. Although I do think when you get into the new age and alternative spiritualities and anything that is not concerned with the one Supreme Being, you run a risk. I would not say people who are into Wicca are going to become possessed, but to those people I would say, you are opening doors to realms you may not know much about.

PA: I would agree with that. There is an underlying assumption in the neo-pagan community that people should be mentally and emotionally stable before entering formal spiritual training; in other words, undergo therapy if it’s needed

FGT: Often where people can get hurt is if they have other difficult things that have happened in their lives. This is my opinion based on experience. With people who have a history of sexual abuse, the bar goes up. Those are deep soul wounds, and they affect everything in a person’s life. Demons are always looking for people who have no relationships or broken relationships: they want to attach themselves to people with a history of sexual abuse. I’d say eight out of ten people who come to see me with concerns of demonic attachment have been sexually abused, usually by a parent, sibling or family member. This doesn’t mean that anyone who has been sexually abused is going to have issues of demonic attachment, but the risk is greater. Pornography is another doorway to this risk, as are addictions to drugs and alcohol, especially heavy use. And again, if you get involved in alternative spiritualities, I think the risk goes up. That’s my opinion, based on people who have come to me.

PA: It’s intriguing to me that the issue of sexual abuse is such a risk factor, especially given the Church’s recent years dealing with clergy who have abused their parishioners.

FGT: Where there has been sexual abuse, no matter who the perpetrator, this leaves deep wounds. That is why the Holy Father came out so strongly on this issue, but it was too late. I think, had John Paul II not been so sick for so long, the Vatican would have acted far differently than it did. It took way too long. We’ve had around six priests who were accused in our parish over the years, and they were all removed. One guy has been dead for twenty-nine years, and he had molested two dozen kids. At one point, we had a town hall meeting and asked the parishioners to write letters to the bishop. If they had removed Bernard Law expediently, I don’t think the reaction from the American clergy would have been anywhere near as volatile as it was. Of course you know about a lot of this, being in Boston during that time.

PA: People talked about little else for quite a while.

FGT: I called a meeting of the biggest movers and shakers in my parish, and had them come to my house. I felt like I was on the sidelines watching Rome burn, and I asked them, what can we do? These were people who were one step away from Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. We came up with a whole bunch of recommendations which we unfortunately never acted on because we were told the bishops were going to meet in Dallas and their reaction was going to be very severe.

Obviously, they needed to take a severe stand, since at that point it had been going on for six months, this awareness of the vast cover-up. The abuse was bad but it was the discovery that some bishops had hidden or shipped people around from parish to parish that was the worst. The vision of the 1990s was that pedophiles could be put in therapy and be healed, and obviously we now have knowledge we didn't have then, and we know this doesn't work. There were some bishops who were told by therapists it was okay to put these priests back to work, and they didn't stop what they were doing and that led to the cover-ups and some bishops' lies. I think people realized priests are no different from anyone else, we're all flawed human beings, but when something like this happens you have to act. I wrote letters to one powerful bishop I had met in Rome. I sent him three very obnoxious letters and received three form letters in return. In the letters I basically said, “You threw us all under the bus; if you guys had any balls you would have gone to Bernard Law and said ‘You either resign or we will denounce you.’ What you did was cowardly." In the Vatican, there are all these little bosses everywhere, and there is no one who will tell anyone, "You can’t do that."

I was very candid with my parish and my bishops, which is the only way to be when you feel powerless and as if there's nothing you can do. I stood up before them and said “Bernard Law should go to jail” and they all applauded. I mean, if someone else did what he did, they’d be incarcerated. You have to act when such wrongdoing occurs. To know and to deceive people, that is inexcusable. I was doing research on it at the time, and the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Anthony Bevilaqua, was accused of covering things up in his area, and the district attorney for Philly put sixty cases online, cases of different priests and what they did. I read fifteen of them and could not read any more. I was so sick from reading it, I thought, how could this be?

Bevilaqua had everyone under a code of deception, and he manipulated anyone who came forward with any kind of complaint. He had them all lying to cover his own ass, but I thought “Screw you, if you’re not going to do anything I’m going to the press.” Again, I think if Pope John Paul II hadn’t been so sick, it would have been different. When I went to Rome, I spent time with people who worked in the Vatican. Once the jubilee year in 2000 was over, they told me he weakened considerably, and could not get out of bed. The Archbishop of Krakow (StanisÅ‚aw Dziwisz) was the gatekeeper and the pope’s secretary, and the truth about the Pope’s health and incapacity wasn’t revealed to many people for a long time. Every bishop has to submit his resignation at age seventy-five, why should he be any different?

PA: I appreciate your being so candid about this topic. But I also wanted to ask a bit more about film. There have been some notable films dealing with exorcism and the Catholic Church. Have you seen any of them and what did you think?

FGT: I‘ve seen the original of course, The Exorcist. And then a few months ago I saw The Last Exorcism.

PA: Did you like it?

FGT: Actually I thought it was a pretty well done movie. It’s a movie about satanic cults, but you don’t know that until the last scene. Another priest went with me and he didn’t get it.

PA: I actually liked that film, although it has some flaws, and I thought the ending was really interesting, I wasn’t expecting it.

FGT: I don’t tend to go to moves about those kinds of things as a rule. I sometimes use current movies as bylines for my homilies. Like Hereafter, which I liked, and 127 Hours, which is a movie about realizing you can’t live a human life all by yourself, out of the nature that God has made us, we are meant to be in relationships, and you can’t say “I don’t need anyone.”

PA: So you don’t like horror films?

FGT: Those two I mentioned are the only two demonic movies I’ve seen I can remember. But it does seem like there are more of them coming out. Like that film a few months ago, Devil. I emailed the producer of The Rite and asked him if he had noticed all these other films coming out that had a similar theme.

PA: What implications do you think this trend holds for our culture? From a religious perspective, what does this mean?

FGT: I can’t give you an opinion other than to say, I think in general humans by nature have a spiritual component. And I don’t think it’s even about denominations or religious institutions, I think by nature we are very spiritual. I also think there is a great hunger for spiritual involvement and for some people traditional religion just doesn’t work out, and hasn’t for a while now. I have a homily all about how the institutions in our society have failed us: the government, the car companies, the banks, the Church. And not just the Catholic Church in terms of what we were talking about earlier, but the Church in general. The Catholics are just the biggest moving target right now, and it will take us at least twenty years, an entire generation, to recover from it.

People want to trust, but who do you believe? What news network even tells you the truth? I have to say the closest thing to the truth I have found in the news is watching Jim Lehrer. He knows how to ask questions. I’ve never understood why people like Larry King so much, I think he’s one of the worst interviewers out there, and yet he’s been so successful. What I like about Jim Lehrer is he seems to be apolitical. All these guys on Fox and CNN, I already know where they sit on the issues, I don’t care what Hannity and all these guys have to say. I don’t really want to listen to their editorial stuff, let me decide. News should not be about just opinions.

When this movie comes out, I’ve been interviewed by loads of people, but I keep wondering, are the things I’ve said going to really appear in the way I said them? Everything is just sound bytes now. Who do you believe? I think especially with a subject like this there could easily be a perfect storm of hype around it, and what I say can be misinterpreted, so who do you trust to give an accurate picture? The reputation of the Church is already in trouble. I’m not saying we’re going to hell in a hand basket, but there are days when I just want to retreat from it all. All you can do is reward and encourage good behavior; I learned that long ago and I have never forgotten it. That is the only way you can build trust is to keep repeating the same behavior over and over again and encourage people to do the right thing.

PA: Do you think the film will be received well?

FGT: I hope so. I think they did a good job. But it went through seven rewrites before I signed on.

PA: Really? What were your objections?

FGT: There were a lot of factors, like Ted Turner’s public antipathy towards Christianity. The writer’s strike was coming. I said to Beau (Flynn, one of the producers), I like him a lot, but I said “You know what your industry is like, and I’m not signing anything until I read it.” I basically said, you know, I don’t mean to be disrespectful but I don’t even know you, and your industry basically hates everything I stand for. But in the end they wanted to make an accurate movie, not a horror movie. I would not normally go see it, because it looks like a horror film. But I do think it’s well done. You see a human side of the priest. I think it’s a good story.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Troll Hunter: new fake docu from Norway

This new film just premiered at Sundance. The now-popular "fake documentary" conceit has been raising the stakes recently, with low-budget minimalism giving way to imaginative special effects that still try to capture the "found footage" mystique that is a cornerstone of this genre. Cloverfield may have started it all (though I personally thought the "monsters" were somewhat overdone); then this year brought us the subversive horror hybrid The Last Exorcism (by Daniel Samm whose previous false docu A Necessary Death was little seen but highly praised), and the clever not-too-distant-future military allegory Monsters by newcomer Gareth Edwards.

Andrew Ovredal's film The Troll Hunter is the first Scandinavian entry to this exciting genre, and if the trailer is any indication, it looks like a wild ride:

Combining horror, folklore and a cheeky take on religious prejudice, The Troll Hunter looks like it will stir things up considerably. Hail, Norway!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Interview with Jane Hash, subject of a new documentary film

Jane Hash is a feisty three feet tall. She can be seen at pagan festivals at the Brushwood Folklore Center, in her motorized chair, wearing a sarong and some sparkly eye shadow, giving workshops on nutrition, ear candling and other subjects. Despite her physical limitations, Jane is full of life. She is smart, funny, wise, resourceful, kind, and just a bit naughty.

Jane is making a documentary film about her life which will surely prove to be an inspiration to pagans and non-pagans alike. She is seeking to raise matching funds via Kickstarter Pagans often complain there are not enough documentary films about us, wel here is your chance to support such a venture!

Won't you please support this brave woman's creative project that will benefit a widely diverse audience? Even $10 will help. Use the link below.

I've personally known Jane for years and am completely in awe of her. Whenever I am tempted to complain about my cushy life I think of what this woman has had to overcome, and it tends to nip my whining in the bud.

UPDATE: Jane's Kickstarter campaign fell short of her goal, but she is still hoping for donations to help complete this project. You can donate and get updates via her Facebook page.

Jane offered to do a brief interview with me so people can get to know her. I plan to continue to help promote this film project as it progresses.

Peg: When and how did you first realize you were pagan?

Jane: Realizing I am Pagan was a very slow process. I was raised Catholic, went to Sunday school, and followed all the rules. I still felt ‘spiritually empty’ but I thought if I just tried harder then God would just fix everything. “Give it to God” seemed to be the popular solution.

Then when I was seventeen, I taught Sunday school. I was really excited when they handed me these huge teaching manuals that weighed more than me (keeping in mind I weighed about 30lbs at the time.) I had this preconceived idea that by teaching these nine-year-olds how to be good Catholics, it would bring me a sense of spiritual fulfillment. WRONG! In reading these teaching materials I realized I was not Catholic and I could not bring myself to push that information on my students. So, I kept my mouth shut because I wasn’t skilled in making waves yet. I taught my class every week…but we never used ‘their’ books and I never confessed! Instead, I would engage the kids in conversation. We talked about feelings, spirituality, and did art projects. After that experience, my spiritual quest began. It wasn’t until I went to college that I realized that I am Pagan but I spent a few years in the broom-closet until I moved out on my own.

Peg: What was your first experience with the pagan community?

Jane: If this isn’t proof that the Universe has a sense of humor, I don’t know what is!

I was about twenty-two years old and I befriended a young Pagan woman who lived up the road. During the same time period, I befriended a Pagan guy on campus. Both of them talked of these Pagan festivals all the time (still not connecting the dots that they knew each other because I’m smart like that.) Then one spring they both invited me to go to a “May Party” at the same address. At this point I suspect they might know each other. I’m not one to turn down a party invitation so I went…and my friends indeed knew each other. It was a great time and I felt really comfortable because I didn’t really know anyone there. Nobody could ‘out me.’ Then I nearly peed my pants because I thought my cover was blown! Walking towards me from across the field was my teacher from when I was a kid!! I totally started to freak out, saying “She’s gonna tell my mom!” “What is she doing here?!”…and everyone around me was laughing like fools! Then I was irritated and asked what was so funny. Finally someone said “She’s our High Priestess.”

Peg: How do you think the pagan community in general deals with disabled persons? Has your experience been a positive one in that regard? What about your festival experiences?

The Pagan community in my experience is very accepting of everyone, including people with disabilities. There is a refreshing lack of ignorance. Not even once at a Pagan event has someone gotten nose-to-nose with me and spoken really loud and slow, as if I’m deaf or cognitively impaired.

I also love that if someone wants to know something about my disability, they ask me. I don’t know why asking people about their differences is commonly deemed a bad thing. Asking questions is how we learn.

Festivals present a lot of physical challenges and provide me many opportunities to test my limits. Honestly, technology is my biggest challenge while at a festival though. I need a wheelchair that can keep up with me. It stinks when I have to stop dancing around the fire to go charge my wheelchair batteries.

Peg: Where do you see your involvement with paganism going in the next few years?

Jane: I’m really not sure at this point. I am out of the broom-closet and ready for whatever new adventure the Universe has in store for me though!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Salvia Divinorum: Smoked by Miley Cyrus and Jared Loughner

Here's an example of how blatantly the media tries to sway us into believing things that common sense might otherwise tell us aren't necessarily true. The New York Times reports today that Jared Loughner, the shooter in the Tucson massacre, was known to smoke salvia divinorum, as well as marijuana, according to his friends.

There are several points of interest here. First, off, New York Times, I have a question for you: Really? You're considered the finest newspaper in the world and you jump on board this story?

Second, note the conflation of salvia divinorum (also known as diviner's sage, diviner's mint, and, according to Terence McKenna in a lecture I attended at Starwood some years ago, "Eyes of the Shepherdess") with marijuana. The former is said to cause symptoms of psychosis and hallucinations, the latter, well, can create any number of responses, ranging from dry mouth, bloodshot eyes, craving for snacks, loss of inhibition, a propensity to philosophize, and a desire to play video games, read Ayn Rand, or listen to Pink Floyd.

Salvia divinorum has grown in popularity in recent years, with use among teenagers growing. McKenna never mentioned smoking it; instead he described chewing the fresh leaves. Of course dried herbs are far easier to obtain and distribute, so smoking is the preferred method of ingestion these days, and some day smoking causes a very different effect than using the herbs in the traditional way (the herb has a long history of being chewed by indigenous peoples in South America, according to McKenna).

My third point of interest is this: is this revelation about Loughner's personal habits meant to suggest that smoking salvia was somehow a factor in his own psychosis? In recent days we've learned he may or may not have had an interest in the occult (let's go with "may not have had" since the evidence for this speculation was a makeshift "altar"--or what some of us might call "a pile of junk"--consisting of a couple of half-used novena candles, a plastic skull in a flower plot, some shriveled oranges, and a half-used bag of potting soil), that he was disruptive in his college classes, and that he smoked pot.

Is salvia divinorum any more instrumental in Jared Loughner's psychosis than it is in Miley Cyrus' cuteness? Young Miley was videotaped using a bong and confessed it was salvia divinorum (yes, I keep writing that entire term out because it bothers me when people just refer to it as "salvia" when that word refers to thousands of plant varieties); personally I think she was smoking pot and didn't want to admit using an illegal substance (remember all the tsk-tsking when the Olympic golden boy Michael Phelps was photographed smoking a bong? Oh no! Young athletes with lots of money who go to parties and undergo lots of stress from competition would never do such things!

I'm not sure what is more troubling: the fact that salvia divinorum (admittedly, a drug that may have harmful or detrimental effects on some teens, who seem to want to smoke it for its entertainment value and not its potential for consciousness expansion, which is why McKenna recommended it) is being linked to this senseless, violent shooting, or the fact that the media seems to be looking for something, anything, to blame for this tragedy instead of focusing on finding ways to prevent it from happening again.

Like, f'rinstance, banning extended ammo magazines for 9mm glocks, or banning these weapons altogether (since they're really only designed fro hurting people at close range). Or, let's say, having background checks on weapons and ammunition purchases include a look at the buyer's employment, medical and school records. And maybe, oh, just going out on a limb here, not glorifying violence in everything from video games to hip hop music? How many more times does this have to happen before we realize we all bear some of the responsibility?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

2010's Best Films (of interest to Pagans, Witches, Occultists, et al)

In 2010 there were a number of new films that I think would be of interest to readers of this blog. Some of them played the dodeca-plexes, some came to your neighborhood art house, and some of them may have flown completely under your radar. But let's hope all of them will at least be available on DVD at some point.

I enjoyed CENTURION a great deal. This historical thriller was about the ancient Picts and their unlikely alliance with a Roman soldier. Written and directed by Neil Marshall (who also wrote and directed Doomsday), this ambitious film combines both large-scale action sequences with intimate, character-driven dialogue to tell the story of Centurion Quintas Dias (Michael Fassbender), the sole survivor of a Pictish raid, bound by oath to a dying Roman commander General Virilus (Dominic West) to help further the Roman goal of destroying the Picts. But along the way, Dias gains respect for these nature-loving mercenaries, including a cool-headed ruthless tracker named Etain (Olga Kurylenko), and a beautiful banished witch named Arianne (Imogen Poots). Unlike most of the historical films that come out of Hollywood, this one is not full of fancy special effects, nor overburdened with long, complicated battle scenes. The onscreen violence feels appropriate to the story, and the story manages to convey a sense of the characters lives and homelands; there is a powerful sense of place at work here.

ROBIN HOOD was somewhat disappointing, being far too full of gratuitous battle scenes for my liking. I mean, since when was Robin Wood a sword-wielding warrior? The story line took liberties with most versions of the legend, too, having Robin (Russell Crowe) play a jaded knight who fulfills a promise to a dying man (there is a lot of this lately; a commentary on the nobility of war, perhaps?), and in the process meets Marian (Cate Blanchett), a noblewoman fallen on hard times, whose husband has been killed in battle. The relationship between them does develop fairly convincingly, and Blanchett is terrific as always. The battles appear to be necessary to protest the corruption and taxation of the local lords. There was nowhere near enough greenwood merriment for me. But the film had some interesting content from a pagan perspective, as when Robin and his merry men plant grain by moonlight to replenish Maid Marian's farm, and the decision to have Marian have a real connection to the earth, and not be a mere noblewoman who falls for an outlaw, is also a welcome choice.

I did not get to see AGORA, unfortunately (it only played here for a week), but having heard good things I am including it in this list. Set in Alexandria in the 4th century AD, it's the story of a Roman Egyptian slave (Max Minghella) who falls in love with the philosopher, scholar and atheist Hypatia (Rachel Weisz). Directed by Alejandro Amenabar (The Sea Inside and The Others), the film explores the theme of religious tyranny, via Hypatia's efforts to lead a protest against the morally-domineering Christians who try to rule the city. Hypatia is more interested in astronomy and peace than in God, and naturally runs into resistance even as the citizens rally behind her.

THE LAST EXORCISM by German director Daniel Stamm was an intriguing fake documentary that unfortunately decided to become a hybrid horror film. A young minister named Cotton (Patrick Fabian), obviously a reference to Cotton Mather of Colonial witch trial fame, who specializes in exorcisms is followed by a camera crew, and decides to expose the exorcism "industry" for the sham he knows it to be. He visits a rural farmhouse where a teenage girl (Ashley Bell) is allegedly possessed by a demon, and prepares to employ all his clever parlor tricks to show how victims are also scam artists. But things go, as they say, horribly wrong. And the promising fake docu adds an eerie score and contrived camera shots, no longer retaining the wonder crude realism it had established. Shifting form and genre midstream isn't a good idea, and the film suffers. But stick around for the end: a completely over-the-top, no-holds-barred Bacchanalian travesty of demonic evil and excess, complete with chanting "satanists" (who are not what they seem), bonfires in the woods, and human sacrifice.

Coming up in Part Two: Survival of the Dead, Let Me In, Devil, and the documentaries Sweetgrass and American Mystic.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Is Jared Lee Loughner an Occultist? Does that Make Him Evil? Or Does the Fact that He's a Cold-Blooded Killer Make Him Evil?

Today's blogosphere is exploding with coverage of the Arizona shootings on Saturday that left a number of people dead and wounded. One intended target was Gabrielle Giffords (still in critical condition), a congressional representative, and federal judge John Roll (deceased). Other victims include one of Giffords' aides, and a nine-year old girl born on September 11, 2001 who had recently been elected to her student council. As rarely happens with such events, the alleged shooter is actually still alive and in custody (though some information indicates he had planned his own endgame as so many mass murdering shooters do these days).

Naturally, there is rife speculation regarding the suspect's motives. Jared Lee Loughner is twenty-two years old, and recent postings on Youtube include ramblings on the worthlessness of U. S. currency (Loughner supports a return to the Gold standard, apparently) and the pervasiveness of poor grammar (though his own spelling isn't always perfect). Some right-wing bloggers are referring to him as a "liberal lunatic" while others think he is just an angry nutjob with no political motivations whatsoever.

But today, the New York Daily News posted an "exclusive" photo reportedly taken in Loughner's backyard, and the accompanying article says the photo depicts a "chilling shrine" linked to the occult. The alleged shrine includes a plastic skull atop a terra cotta pot full of shriveled oranges, a few used seven-day candles, an old ceramic plate, and a half-full bag of potting soil.

Some responses to this story have already appeared on the internet: one USA Today blogger asks if this is a shrine or merely "leftover Hallowe'en decor," and quotes Pagan blogger Star Foster's thoughtful piece detailing the many ways in which this is not an occult-themed group of objects.

Despite no other evidence appearing which links Loughner to any interest or activity in "the occult," the NYDN article claims it has confirmed with "experts" that these objects "are featured in the ceremonies of a number of occult groups." (Other news websites are covering it, most of them using the word "occult" in their headlines, like The UK's Telegraph, and the Canadian version of the article claims the suspect is "obsessed" with the occult even though the article says this possibility is only being investigated.

Foster offers a reasonable summary of these objects, found within a makeshift room with a camouflage nylon scrim: "Well, the four elements (earth, air, water and fire) are featured in occult ceremonies, but then occult ceremonies are mindful things. The nook is dirty and unkempt. The candles are shoved to one side, there's debris and dirt clinging to items (indicating they haven't been used or handled recently or regularly), and there are utilitarian items like plastic pots and potting soil on the "shrine". The so-called "ceremonial" candles are plain white novenas that they sell at the dollar store and are used for both religious and utilitarian purposes. I've both used them on my altar and as emergency lighting in bad weather. The skull and oranges likely have mundane origins as well. It appears to me that someone set a bowl of oranges with decorative skull here from Halloween and forgot about it, just like they set the utilitarian white candles here and potting soil and never gave them a second thought. I don't see a shrine. I see the remnants of summer forgotten in deep winter, like you might see in any backyard."

I've placed oranges (and apples, pomegranates and other fruits) on my altars. And seven-day candles. And probably even a skull or two. And I have a backyard altar that may look mundane by some standards. Here it is:

But despite being an avid and professional gardener, I've never put a bag of potting soil on (or anywhere near) my altar. So let's assume this grouping of objects is mundane and not occult-related, for the moment.

But what if it was?

Would Loughner's interest in any aspect of the occult automatically mark him as violent, unbalanced, or evil? Because surely he is all of those things. Piling oranges into a planting pot and topping it with a skull (if in fact he was the one who did this) is simply not a significant enough act to equate it with the desire to kill as many people as possible at a peaceful gathering intended to allow a local public servant to socialize with her constituents.

And yet I have no doubt that many people will try to find some clue to explain Loughner's murderous actions, contained in this random assortment of objects on his patio.

The word "occult" literally means "hidden." It has come to refer generally to the trappings of the Western mystery and magical traditions, encompassing a wide array of beliefs, objects and practices, from astrology and alchemy, to tarot and tea leaf reading, to Wicca and Satanism. In this chapter I wrote for the Contemporary Handbook of Contemporary Paganism, I try to uncover the uncomfortable associations the word has taken on in recent years, and essentially conclude (on page 549) that the similarity of the words "cult" and "occult" became inexorably linked in the cultural mindscape around 1969, after the runaway success of Rosemary's Baby and the tragic murder of director Roman Polanski's pregnant wife Sharon Tate by the Manson Family.

For whatever reason, the word "occult" frightens people, despite its very vague associations and multiple layers of meaning. I'm fairly certain this particular bit of "news" will be debunked and Loughner will not be found to have any significant interest in "the occult." But if he does, will such interests or involvement necessarily be linked to his actions? Will interest in "the occult" be taken as evidence of his guilt?

Remember the Columbine massacre: the teenage killers' interests in video games, and their penchant for wearing black trench coats, led "experts" to speculate their "Goth" dabbling was in part responsible for their actions.

Remember The West Memphis Three: Suspect Damien Echols' interest in Wicca led "experts" (charlatans with mail order degrees) to conclude the horrible murders of three eight year old boys must be "satanic" in origin and the resulting trial was a ludicrous three ring circus of superstitious speculation which, nevertheless, ended with three inocent young men in prison, and one on Death Row.

Remember the McMartin day care center accusations: where innocent, child-loving people were accused of unspeakable acts related to a "satanic cult."

Remember Salem Village, people.

Many people have many strong feelings about the political implications of this event. And whether we like it or not, politics has become inextricable from religion in this country. And whether we consider what we believe and do in the name of our spirituality to be a "religion" or not, there is still a natural human tendency to want to divide things into categories, to make connections. We want to understand why this happened.

But in the end the answers to "why" may not satisfy us; may even make us sadder and angrier and more confused than we are now. But we must let events unfold and keep our heads. Let's not get all hopped up on speculation and finger-pointing at this or that possible motivation, and instead be thankful that there will be an opportunity to bring this killer to justice and to understand why he felt compelled to do what he did, and to learn how to prevent it from happening again.

I welcome comments to this, but please, try to keep your discussion civil and relevant.

Friday, January 7, 2011

SEASON OF THE WITCH: A Medieval Muddle

You’d think it was the 1970s all over again, what with so many occult-themed stories in film recently. 2010 brought us The Last Exorcism (a clever, subversive premise that unfortunately dissolves into precious chaos), Devil (a kinda spooky but mostly lame story of random folks trapped in an elevator who just start dying), last year gave us The House of the Devil (a cool cinema verite story of a cult leader), and in just a few weeks The Rite opens (a contemporary story of exorcists-in-training in Rome, based on true events). Later this year: Black Death, about plague victims who won’t stay dead, and from Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola (of last year’s Dead Snow, about Nazi zombies), a comedy-horror mash-up called Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

Historical thrillers are often framed as commentary on modern problems; the last time a medieval film did this, we had The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988), which linked the black plague in medieval Britain to AIDS in contemporary Australia. A tiny Scottish village believed it could remain immune from the plague if they climbed the tallest steeple they could find and hung a metal cross on it. The central event and climax is as simple and as thrilling as it could possibly be: but alas, it doesn’t prevent the plague from striking the film’s young hero.

In Season of the Witch, similarly superstitious beliefs surround the plague’s decimation of humanity. But, since we don’t currently have a “plague” that parallels those of ancient times, I’m going to have to conclude that the film’s main sub-commentary has to do with mindless religion-based superstition. Given this last week’s reports of massive deaths of birds and fish all over the globe and the resultant apocalyptic panic-mongering…yeah, I’m gonna go with that.

In the film’s prologue, in 1235, three witches are hung and drowned after confessing to consorting with the devil. The attending priest, troubled when the executioner won’t help him redeem the women’s souls, hauls their bodies from the water and reads incantations over them. But one of them won’t stay dead. Fast forward 100 years, and two Crusade knights, Behmen (Nicolas Cage, whose best work lately is in quirky comedies like Kickass or Bad Lieutenant, Port of Call: New Orleans, is a bit wooden here) and Felson (Ron Perlman, so wonderful in Sons of Anarchy, who seems uncomfortable here), hack and maim their way across the Middle East and Asia Minor. Disillusioned and haunted by their unwitting murder of women and children, they desert their holy army, only to be recognized in a remote village that has been ravaged by the plague. They’re captured and thrown in a dungeon.

A priest named Debelzaq (Stephen Campbell Moore) recognizes Behmen’s crest on his sword hilt and brings the two knights to the bishop (Christopher Lee, in a nice little cameo). Disfigured and dying, the cleric insists Behmen and Felson escort an accused witch to a remote abbey, where the monks possess an ancient book containing rituals that will purge the witch of evil and, presumably, remove the plague from the land. (How one woman could cause a disease that killed millions of people is not explained.)

Annoyed to be serving the church yet again, Behmen and Felson agree to the task, but under the condition that the witch be given a fair trial. They set off, accompanied by Debelzaq, Eckhart, a knight named Eckhart (Danish heartthrob Ulrich Thomsen) whose family has been killed by plague, Kay, an altar boy who wants to be a knight (Red Riding’s Robert Sheehan), and an imprisoned swindler who agrees to be their tracker (Stephen Graham, an English actor who nevertheless speaks with a New York accent).

The witch (Claire Foy) is young, pretty, and devious. Behmen sympathizes with her, but as his compatriots begin to fall prey to accidents, he understands she is more dangerous than she looks. I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice it to say, by the time the party reaches the abbey, all hell breaks loose…literally.

And therein lies the worst thing about this movie: the ludicrous special effects and the needless reliance on supernatural silliness. Shot on location in Budapest, Hungary and Salzberg, Austria by cinematographer Amir Mokri (Vantage Point) and with terrific costumes by Carlo Poggioli (whose credits include The Mists of Avalon and The Brothers Grimm), this is not a bad-looking film. But the story is a mess: disjointed, illogical and ultimately a poor exploration of a terrifically momentous time in human history. Millions of people were dying, and didn’t know why, and they looked to the Church to save them, and it didn’t.

Now, THAT’s a movie.

Just once, I’d love to see a film that has as its premise a pervasive cultural belief in occult powers…but that portrays these beliefs as being difficult, if not impossible. to defend when confronted with the facts. In this way, such a film is not about whether magic or witchcraft are "real" or not; but instead is about the fascinating psychological implications of belief in such matters.

I’m not saying paranormal events don’t occur, or that evil doesn’t exist. But in truth, it is the belief in the human capability for evil, the human propensity for evil, and the fear of being victimized by that evil, that propels the main witch hunts of history. How refreshing it would be to see an historical film that confronts this fear and this pervasive delusion in a grounded and plausible manner.

But instead, we want our witches to shoot lightning bolts from their hands. We want wolves skulking in the forest to grow huge lantern jaws and glowing red eyes (hello? Slobbering wolves in the dark aren’t already scary?), and we want winged demons to croak curses from their shriveled walnut heads and break our spines like jackstraws. Gods help us, we want so badly for there to be a zombie apocalypse that there are days when we can think of little else. We want for there to be evil we can’t defeat, horrors we can’t escape.

Why this is, I can’t say. But, I fear our current social climate, cynical and apathetic though it may be, is moving inexorably backward in time to the fearful, superstitious days of our medieval forebears, hiding in the shadows from a perceived punishment, stinking and starving and praying, instead of walking into the sun and meeting their mortality head on with a smile….and maybe a broadsword.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Best Witches Ever?

So, you may be aware, Season of the Witch opens tomorrow. (Yes, I'm going and will post a may have noticed, I'm a trifle obsessed with this film) The website handling much of the film's hype decided to explore the wide world of witches on television and in film, "inspired by the wonderful Claire Foy who conjures up a terrific performance" by offering their whopping huge list of FIVE "memorable" witches; and naturally, one of them is the witch in...yeah, you got it...Season of the Witch!

The actresses listed are, in reverse order, Kelly Preston from Spellbinder, Joan Bennett from Suspiria (a nice obscure choice), Allyson Hannnigan from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Claire Foy from Season of the Witch (seriously? The film hasn't even opened yet!), and, at #1, Elizabeth Montgomery from Bewitched.

It's not a bad list, self-serving elements aside. But...only FIVE?!?

What about Fairuza Balk in The Craft? (Or any of her lovely compatriots?) What about the trio of young ladies in Charmed (the long-running television series loosely based on The Craft)? Nicole Kidman, Sandra Bullock, Dianne Wiest and Stockard Channing in Practical Magic? What about Helen Mirren as Morgana in Excalibur? Miranda Richardson in Sleepy Hollow? Or, gee whiz, Margaret Hamilton or Billie Burke, the bad and good witches in The Wizard of Oz?

Some of my favorite witches are witches very few people may have the witches in an episode of the 1970s TV show Kolchak: The Night Stalker, called "The Trevi Collection." Or the witch in a made for TV film by Wes Craven called Stranger in Our House, starring Linda Blair (no, she wasn't the witch!) Or Kay Lenz and Shelley Winters, the witches portrayed in the terrific made for TV movie The Initiation of Sarah.
What about you? Who are your favorite witches on the big and small screens? Post your thoughts here.