I am very pleased to present an interview with occult historian, author, academic, Ouija enthusiast and all around awesome dude, MITCH HOROWITZ.
Mitch was raised in a world of Bigfoot stories, UFO sightings, and Carlos Castaneda books. He grew determined to find the truth behind it all—and today Mitch is a PEN Award-winning historian and the author of Occult America and One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life.
Mitch has written on everything from the war on witches to the secret life of Ronald Reagan for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Salon, and Time.com. The Washington Post says Mitch “treats esoteric ideas and movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness that is too often lost in today’s raised-voice discussions.” He is the voice of audio books including Alcoholics Anonymous, and hosts the web series ORIGINS: SUPERSTITIONS.
Mitch is a vice president and executive editor at Penguin Random House, where he publishes authors, living and dead, including David Lynch and Manly P. Hall. Visit him at www.MitchHorowitz.com and @MitchHorowitz.
Q: When did you first become interested in the occult?
A: I became interested as a kid around age 8 or 9. I used to take out books of folklore from our local library in Queens, NY, and I was fascinated with superstition and myth. One day I took out a book of Pennsylvania Dutch folklore; it had a pentagram-like diagram inside that was supposed to be a tool of divination. The method was to close your eyes, hover a pin over the diagram, and bring it down onto a little prophecy. I brought down the pin on the phrase “a letter.”
I didn’t receive many letters at age 9. The next day a letter arrived: it was an overdue notice from the library. Little things like that piqued by curiosity. Plus I always wanted to know where the philosophy came from behind newspaper horoscopes, Tarot cards, biorhythms, and other things that were popular in the 1970s when I was growing up.
Q: What are the current pros and cons of academia’s relationship to the occult?
A: We’re definitely living through a renaissance of academic interest in the occult and esoterica. You can see that in the work of scholars like Jeffrey Kripal, Catharine Albanese, Ann Braude, and others. The quality of the historical writing has just improved by leaps and bounds. The downside is that a wave of materialism has overtaken so much of academia.
It is difficult to discuss belief in any kind of serious way. The humanities culture has almost wound itself into a knot where the discussion of any topic, from biography to politics to religion, is stifled by a morass of theoretical models that are intended to connote depth but more often are an attempt to create a professional jargon. Ironically, the sciences are more open as an academic field than the humanities to considering “impossible possibilities.”
Q: Do you practice magic?
A: I don’t currently practice ceremonial magic, though I am deeply interested in the African-American tradition of hoodoo, which is a kind of ceremonial or spell-based magic, but it also comports well with saint devotion, which is an interest of mine. My chief practices presently are Transcendental Meditation, Catholic mysteries, Nichiren Buddhism (which involves the chanting of nam myoho renge kyo), and positive-mind metaphysics.
Q: Over the next twenty years, what do you see happening in regards to the acceptance or rejection of the occult by mainstream culture?
A: Well, it has always been accepted in a sense, just under different names. ESP becomes intuition; séances become channeling; Mesmerism becomes hypnotism; variants of mind metaphysics become positive thinking, and so on. One thing I hope to see is the flowering of a conversation between quantum physicists and serious students of metaphysics
Q: What is the relationship (if any) between “self help” books and occultism?
A: In a sense the whole therapeutic culture has its most rudimentary roots in the occult. The 18th-century occult healer Franz Anton Mesmer inadvertently gave modern Western culture its earliest conceptions of the subconscious mind, a concept that was broadened by William James and his colleagues in psychical research before it was adopted by Freud, who himself had been a member of the British Society for Psychical Research.
In the formative stages of his career, Freud took seriously questions of dream telepathy and also used hypnosis as a means of contacting the unconscious mind. And that’s only one small window on how the occult and mysticism have informed therapeutics. Look at the most popular holistic trends in our culture today: yoga, acupuncture, macrobiotics, energy medicine, mind-body stress reduction, and so on. All of these practices have their own circuitous histories; but the common thread is that each entered Western awareness, and were broadcast to mainstream people, through occult channels and subcultures.
Now, certain growth centers today are petrified to be associated with terms like occult, which to me is like damning the ground beneath your own feet. People think they’re aspiring to seriousness by avoiding the term, but their avoidance is a demonstrated ignorance of their own history, or at least their fear of being associated with it.
Q: What parallels do you see between the arts of writing and magic?
A: I suppose that both magic and good writing summon something from within the person, or make the person an open channel for some influence that is greater than the individual might seem capable of. Good writing requires incredible preparation and work; the same is true of sincere ritual or devotion.
Q: You are a Ouija board enthusiast correct? What are some of your most memorable experiences with this form of magical technology?
A: I’m an enthusiast more of its history than its practice. It’s only on occasion that something of lasting value emerges from it. I have used the board—I think getting your hands dirty is very important—and I have had a few interesting experiences. But more than any experience with the board, I’m struck by how similar it is to social media. Twice now that I’ve written or posted about the board, I’ve gotten the most grotesque messages from people who objected to my using it.
And I don’t mean fundamentalists, who I’ve never had any problem with. In fact, I appreciate the faith and ingenuousness of some so-called fundamentalists. They really do believe in an invisible world. They’re not cynics, which I appreciate. I mean that I’ve gotten violent, crude communications from holy rollers within my own alternative spiritual culture; some people object that I shouldn’t be tempting people into the using the board, which I don’t think I’m doing.
But, in any case, I’m struck by how that kind of communication is, in itself, a Ouija experience. When you use the board, you have no idea what you’re going to get: It could be boring—you might receive nothing; or it could be alluring or disturbing and unsettling. Isn’t that like social media? Who is it that you’re reaching? People who flame me about the board are, oddly enough, acting out the very thing that they say the board does. It’s a similar experience.
Q: Do you have any experience with lucid dreaming? If so, what are some of your most profound experiences?
A: Personally, I’ve never had any experiences with lucid dreaming.
Q: How long have you been writing?
A: My writing career “ended” in my twenties and began anew—with real purpose—when I was 38 years old. In summer of 2003 I wrote a profile of MLB pitcher Barry Zito, who used metaphysical methods in his training. That gave rebirth to my writing career. It directed me to what I really wanted to write about, which is metaphysical experience, method, and history.
Q: Of the books you have written, what is your personal favorite?
A: Right now my favorite is One Simple Idea, which is a history and analysis of positive-mind metaphysics. I love it because it gave my the chance to write about my heroes, people like Neville Goddard and Earl Nightingale, and defend their lives and the depth of their ideas. The whole positive-thinking field has been misunderstood and misrepresented. This book pushed back against that. And the paperback edition has personal exercises, which I think are useful because the only authentic measure of a spiritual and ethical philosophy is whether it works.