I discovered Occult America by Mitch Horowitz a few years ago and the book forever changed the way I write dark fantasy and horror. His eloquent and insightful approach to the study of the occult is fascinating. Mitch Horowitz is a nationally known writer, speaker, and publisher in alternative spirituality as well as vice-president and editor-in-chief at Tarcher/Penguin, the division of Penguin books dedicated to metaphysical literature. Deepak Chopra called his work “brilliant” and I would agree. Mitch and I talked about his new book as well as some of his other studies. We also discussed the impact of the Salem Witch Hysteria of 1692, a personal interest of mine. Let me introduce you to Mitch Horowitz.
You have a new book out, One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life, and I was wondering if you could elaborate on your childhood and upbringing? You open the book with that story and I’m curious how that’s brought you to where you are today.
I grew up in a traditionally Jewish household and I had an Orthodox Bar Mitzvah. Judaism was a major commitment for me throughout much of my adolescence and into my twenties; but I later came to feel that my search was impelling me toward a variety of ideas and traditions, and diffuse psychological and spiritual methods.
From very early on in childhood I felt strongly that spirituality could be—should be—practical. That’s something that many people wrestle with. Some people have well-formed and sensitive objections to the idea that the spiritual experience should be in any way driven by practicality or cause and effect, or by some kind of transactional prayer. But I’ve felt that spirituality, like any system of self-development, should produce evident changes in the quality and experience of the individual’s life.
I’ve always been attracted to ideas that the individual could pursue in private—experiments in inner-development that any person, in any circumstance or any walk of life, could enact on his or her own. So, the challenge of positive thinking was always very interesting to me both as a child and today because it seemed to hold out the promise that there existed exercises, both of a psychological and mystical nature, that could make a concrete difference in the day-to-day experience of life. I was always enamored of spiritual systems that were willing to make a bold claim, and the only cost required was the individual’s own private experimentation, which was another element I liked in the positive thinking culture and in the culture of people who worked with mind-power mysticism. I found that appealing.
The metaphysics of mind power doesn’t require you to do anything other than to try it. There’s nothing to join. There’s no one to pay. You don’t have to place a label on yourself. You don’t have to change anything overtly about your outer identity or daily commitments. It’s just a question of whether the directed uses of the mind can produce actual changes in our experiences. I found it too tempting an experiment not to embark upon. I continue that experimentation today.
I believe that there’s truth in the challenge of positive thinking. There’s truth in the principle that our thoughts are causative, although that truth can be very elusive and can be very uneven. And just when we think we’ve figured it out, the complexities of life can send its possibilities spiraling away from us. Yet I have always believed that there’s a very fuzzy and thin dividing line between the mental and spiritual. Seeking ways to work along that dividing line hold very tantalizing possibilities both for self-development and for deepening our questions about the nature of human existence.
Is it as simple as stripping the institution out of religion?
I think it’s more than that. You know, I appreciate religious institutions, insofar as that they provide a vessel for practices and ideas. They provide a vessel for me. If we didn’t have religious institutions there is so much material that would be neglected or undeveloped. There are mystics and saints whose lives and whose life stories grew within the institutional religions, and I tend to be a person—and this is true of many Americans—who weaves in and out of institutions. I ultimately walk my own path but that path will sometimes travel into institutions. I’m deeply, deeply respectful of the mysticism within the Catholic Church. There are aspects of Jewish culture to which I remain drawn. There are elements of established religious structures in Protestantism, Buddhism, and Hinduism that I find deeply appealing. So, sometimes the institution will serve as a vessel that can be greatly valuable, and if a person can find his or her home in that vessel, I’d be the first to wish them well. Personally my life is spent both on and off the institutional path.
Would you consider yourself a Spiritualist?
If you mean “Spiritualist” in the sense that the word was used in the 19th century among people who participated in séances and tried to find means of contacting an invisible world or unseen forces, I would say I’m very sympathetic to their values. I’m sympathetic to their search. But I’d be hard-pressed to place any kind of label on myself. I do see myself as part of the New Age culture. People disparage New Age because they think it’s superficial or shallow, fuzzy or unrealistic in nature. But to me, New Age is simply therapeutic spirituality, and the New Age culture, as it’s developed since the early 1970s, has given a lot of people opportunities to engage in very wide-ranging experiments. Its very lack of definition, its very porousness, is something that I find helpful and refreshing and reflective of the spiritual experience of many Americans. I willingly associate myself with the New Age culture.
I discovered you through your first book, Occult America, and I would guess that the average American would see that word “occult” and they would automatically have a negative or a visceral reaction to it.
What was your intention using that word given your background, and what you were trying to accomplish with the book?
It’s very interesting you would ask that. I became very determined to use the term “occult” just as I use the term “New Age” because I don’t want us to lose our vocabulary, or the historical integrity that some of these terms possess, because they are misunderstood.
Something feels very natural and honest to me about using terms like “occult” or “mysticism” or “paranormal” or “New Age.” The occult has a literary, intellectual, and religious tradition and history in the West. I don’t want us to lose the use of that term because of some of the sinister connotations that have gotten attached to it. The term grew out of the Latin term occulta or occultus during the Renaissance in the early 1500s when religious scholars and translators of ancient texts were looking for a way to refer to the spirituality of the ancient world, specifically Rome, Greece, and Egypt. As Renaissance scholars were discovering this antique spirituality, they were astounded that there existed this whole world of belief, of ritual and ethics, and of religious rites and methods that pre-dated anything known in the modern world at that time. But the structures, priesthoods, and temples of those ancient religions had mostly vanished. Renaissance scholars were left without a way of defining these beliefs. One figure, Cornelius Agrippa, used the Latin term occulta, meaning hidden or secret, to describe a religious system that had fallen into a kind of secrecy—not because it was concealed but because it had grown obscure and was preserved only in manuscripts and books in monastic libraries that were beyond the reach of most scholars. The striving to conceive of a name for this system brought us to the term “occult,” which dates back in our own western history to this period of Renaissance discovery.
I think “occult” served as a sturdy definition for a spirituality that isn’t bound by any one congregation, dogma, or doctrine, and that promulgates the belief that there exists an invisible world, which coincides with our own and whose influences and effects can be felt on us and through us. When that search is carried beyond the parameters of the institutional religions, it’s generally—and rightly—called occult. I felt the term had historical integrity. It also has a certain romance around it. It communicates something of the radical nature of the individual search, and I think it’s a historical mistake that it has been associated with something sinister. I wanted to rescue the term rather than to give in to that association.
I’ve done some extensive research on the Salem Witch Hysteria of 1692. One of the most enlightening books recently published is Mary Beth Norton’s, In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692. She attempts to dispel the idea that supernatural beings were at the root of the hysteria. Norton argues it was mostly a fear-based reaction to a frontier war with the Native Americans. Do you think unseen, invisible forces could have been at play in Salem or are these manifestations of the Puritan belief system of the 17th century?
I do write as a believing historian. I do take seriously the challenge presented to us by various esoteric and occult mystical systems, as well as by the mainstream religions. And that challenge is that there is a dimension of human existence that goes beyond the physical. At the same time, my suspicion is that the events at Salem were probably human events that had mostly to do with mob psychology, scapegoating, and mob violence.
What’s remarkable about Salem is how exceptional it was in American history. The European witch craze never traveled to America. As tragic as the events of Salem were, and as much as there were other up-croppings of mob violence in America against people with radical religious beliefs—including the Shakers—there never arose this murderous, generations-long, hunting down of people who were perceived to practice the old nature-based religions or Pagan traditions.
It’s quite remarkable that Salem was a relatively isolated, if deeply tragic, incident in American history. I’m working on an article about this right now. One of the things I’m concerned about has been what I detect as an increase in violence against people accused of witchcraft around the world, from the South Pacific to Africa, and even sometimes within the Western nations. In the West it occurs mostly within immigrant communities from Asia, the Pacific, or Africa but it has migrated to the West and I feel that we’re seeing—in terms of news coverage and the few statistical gathering efforts that we have—a new wave of witch hunting. This is going on in the Middle East as well. In 2009, Saudi Arabia’s so-called religious police commenced an “Anti-Witchcraft Unit.” Today there is a Lebanese psychic, Ali Hussain Sibat, in a Saudi Arabian jail, and he is there for no reason other than hosting a show in Lebanon call The Hidden, which was a televised psychic show. He was a TV psychic. Sibat was in Saudi Arabia on a religious pilgrimage and he was framed in a sting operation. He was arrested by the religious police, sentenced to death by beheading, but his sentence was commuted, thank God, in 2010. Tragically, he is still being held in a Saudi jail.
I’m trying to get people interested in cases like Sibat’s because I think that we’d all like to believe that mob violence against witchcraft is something that belongs to the era of Salem, but unfortunately, it’s not only going on in the 21st century, but it is going on across the world in ways that I think are unfortunately increasing. That’s something I’m personally working on right now.
Well said. I agree. Mob violence is rooted in fear and misunderstanding. It’s really unfortunate.
I’d like to thank you for your time.
Note on Ali Hussain Sibat:
Mitch Horowitz has written several times to King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz to ask for Sibat’s release, and is currently writing about the issue. Below is an article from the New York Times about Sibat. Mitch asks that anyone interested in writing to the Saudi King requesting Sibat’s release can use this address:
The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz
c/o Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia
601 New Hampshire Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20037
Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation
One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life