Supernatural and Me, Part Three – None Dare Call It Conspiracy
The conscious manipulation of these psychological complexes is nothing new. As Lt. Col. Grossman points out, it is the fundamental basis of all military training. It is also the basis of less well-known government and military programs, part of which has come to be known as “psychological warfare,” as well as more subversive acts of mind control as undertaken during the height of the Cold War under CIA-sponsored projects[i] such as MK-ULTRA.
In his seminal work Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, Professor Ioan Couliano detailed the purpose and means of manipulation of the imagination in not only Renaissance magical practices, but also by modern advertising and the police state. An outspoken critic of the regime of President Nicolae Ceausescu of his native Romania, Couliano was murdered in 1991 by a single gunshot to the back of his head in the men’s room of a building teeming with visitors. His murder has never been solved, although it is often attributed to the Romanian secret police. In addition to being an academic scholar holding no less than three doctoral degrees, Couliano was an active practitioner of magic.
What is important here is that the temporary suspension of belief[ii] is what is essential to hypnotic suggestion, operative magic (at least according to magicians), and even modern advertising. The belief being suspended is nothing more than our sense of having a permanent, concrete, unchanging sense of self and connection to the world and those in it. When this suspension is temporary it allows for tremendous insights, breakthroughs, and revelations. If, however, the suspension becomes too frequent (or even permanent) we enter into the realm of neurotic and even psychotic behaviors.
Movies, music, television, and video games are all a highly developed “on demand” means of inducing this suspension of belief, just as are drugs, alcohol, and compulsive behaviors such as sex or even shopping. In this way, not only are television shows such as Supernatural an “entertaining escape from daily reality,” but they are also a tool that re-organizes our worldview and sense of self to varying degrees. In fact, this is the purpose of all media: to affect our self-perceptions and actions in the world through both direct and (more often) indirect messages. These indirect messages are suggestions, innuendo, of words and images meant to stimulate our imagination and, with it, our emotions and actions, through the process of direct identification. If this were not so, then automobile ads during Superbowl half-time shows—the most expensive advertising time of the year—would all be wasted.
Horror shows are in fact an induction of temporary insanity on the part of the viewer. This “insanity” at times mimics, but does not fulfill, the role of initiation in classical shamanism and esoteric societies. Consider the words of George H. Estabrooks, a psychiatrist who headed CIA experiments with hypnosis, from his 1943 book Hypnotism:
“…all of the phenomena we see in hypnosis can also be found in everyday life, among people who verge every way from the normal to the actual insane. This is one reason why the study of hypnosis is so very important. We are able to duplicate the symptoms of neuroses and psychoses in our laboratory and to study them at our leisure.
We find many curious traditions about hypnotism which are either wholly or partly false. Literally anyone, even a Victrola record, can hypnotise [emphasis added]. There is no need of will power, the hypnotic eye, or transference. It is a matter of training and technique…
Nor has will power anything to do with the subject. The persistent myth that only the weak-willed can be hypnotized is wholly a myth. As a matter of fact it is impossible to hypnotize the feeble-minded or certain groups of the insane because they do not have the necessary “will-power” to co-operate… We do find that children between the ages of say eight and twelve are decidedly more suggestible than adults. [Regarding the political and economic use of hypnosis, it] would be well for us to center our attention on this form of hypnotism, for it is nothing else. Never before was it more dangerous. Radio and the controlled press are literally made to order for this type of leadership, and when we talk of “making the world safe for democracy” we must realize that, psychologically speaking, the world was never more unsafe for democracy. Group hypnotism, mob leadership, call it what you will, was never more easy than in this day of syndicated press and national hookup.” (237)
In fact, these points are not limited to Supernatural and its twelve-year story arc; most or all can be found in every long-running (five years or more) television series whose primary focus is around paranormal, occult, or supernatural themes. Part of this is essential to actually having a story arc so one can have long-running shows. Each week there must be something for our heroes to encounter and overcome. However, the degree of “fandom” that has grown up around these shows, with many surviving into additional “seasons” in comic book and graphic novel form—such as Angel (Spike even gets his own comic), Buffy, and Charmed—is a testament to the degree of “reality” these fictional worlds and their characters have taken on. They are, from an esoteric point of view, archetypes of a sort that have found a powerful home in a significant part of the psyche of their fans. One could also say “of their followers”—or even “devotees”—for devotion is the key to all spiritual practices. There is a genuine love, or more specifically intoxicating and magnetizing (as the Tibetans would say) eros generated by the viewer for the viewed. By definition, be it that of Couliano or Vajrayana, a magical act is taking place and the audience is for a time being enchanted. This would not be surprising if it were not for the sheer volume of existing comic book and graphic novel characters focused around the occult that already exist, many of which have or will be turned into movies or television shows of their own, such as Constantine, The Shadow, or The Dresden Files. Nor does this include the various novelizations that have occurred during the life-cycle of the characters and their fictional world…all of which is done to keep the enchantment alive and ongoing.
Lovecraft and Initiation
What is ironic is that one of the best examples of the problem presented in the media presentation of esoteric ideas can be found in the comic book portrayal of a historical person: the mother of horror writer H. P. Lovecraft in the series Herald: Lovecraft and Tesla (issue number seven). Here, Lovecraft is being scolded by his mother for writing stories involving the great mythos he would become famous for.
“No, not ‘never mind’! Isn’t it bad enough we’re facing a vast international conspiracy of apocalyptic cultists trying to recruit followers? Do you know how dangerous it is to put the mythos in the hands of commoners who’ve done nothing more to earn that information than subscribe to Weird Tales?”
When esoteric views are introduced into the popular culture outside of their traditional context they are often misunderstood. When this occurs, if they are integrated into the psyche, then a false notion has been assimilated. If they are uninitiated, they remain partially separated and are essentially psychologically toxic to some degree or another. The subcultures that mushroom out of fan cultures and the stereotypical member is testimony to this failure to make sense of the fantasy and escapist ideas that many are willfully bombarding themselves with on a daily basis. It has been suggested to me by author, editor, and shaman Paul Bowersox that the reason for this failure to integrate the esoteric ideas in modern media presentations of esotericism—even when they are healthy and worthwhile ideas—is in part because the entire event is done vicariously. There is a tremendous degree of entrainment, suggestion, and even observable hypnotic induction occurring, but there is no active participation. There is no sacrifice, no suffering. As Bowersox pointed out, it is the esoteric equivalent of going to a two-hundred hour yoga instructor’s training class, being given a certificate that says you are a “Master Yoga Instructor,” and then thinking that you actually are a yoga master. While there was effort involved, it is not the kind of effort and sacrifice that was or is required to be a true master of a disciple. It is entertainment, pleasant entertainment, but little more.
If anything, we can see in the modern obsession with supernatural-oriented media not only a desire to answer basic existential questions, but the ever-increasing need for the return of traditional institutions that once provided the tools and mechanisms for their exploration and integration. The use of the word “cult” to categorize these shows is important, as they truly become a form of worship complete with a mythos, creed, pantheon, and faithful supporters. Now, more than ever, when an increasing number of people are seeking a direct spiritual or psychic experience but are radically unprepared for the results that will follow, the impact of media on the spiritual culture and individual psyche cannot be understated.
In closing, perhaps there is nothing left to say except those words I have been told by both a Tibetan Khenpo and an American physicist: “You cannot plant apple seeds and expect peaches to grow. You get what you plant.” However, such a closing is in itself somewhat dismissive of the potential we have been examining. Popular culture can be a powerful tool for introducing spiritual ideas and practices, but is no substitute for tradition. So instead of condemning popular culture for its limitations, let’s utilize and celebrate its possibilities—even if they are limited—as a means of encouraging an undertaking of the spiritual path and recognizing the value of tradition, so that all may come to “a good end.”
[i] One of the more fascinating stories regarding CIA mind-control programs in the 1960s to produce “sleeper agents” can be found in The Control of Candy Jones by Donald Bain (1976). As Ms. Jones was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, I remember hearing stories of her as a child, and only recently understood why this native daughter who had gone on to be a successful model (appearing on eleven magazine covers in one month) was so important. It was Jones who was among the first to speak out about secret government programs whose purpose was to create assassins as well as couriers, just a few years before the story broke and the now famous “Church (D-ID) Committee Hearings” in 1975 resulted in the US government paying restitution to Canadian and US citizens for performing illegal, non-consenting experimentation on them.
[ii] For our purposes, it is easier to explain the notion this way, rather than with an equivalent discussion using the usual terminology supplied by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, i.e., “suspension of dis-belief.” If we define “belief” as essentially “holding something as true,” then “dis-belief” is merely the equivalent hypnotic suggestion that some antithetical notion is “false.” —Ed.