June 13th, 2008 | Interviews

Cultural historian Erik Davis can speak with authority on Philip K. Dick, Led Zeppelin’s IV, Aleister Crowley and every facet of the mystical experience which pretty much makes him the most interesting person you might ever meet. His writing on technology, music, spirituality and the occult can be seen on his website, He speaks to L.A. RECORD about the hidden history of magick in Los Angeles cinema.

Could you give us a history of how you got into studying the occult?
I’ve always been interested in religion, spirituality and the occult since I was in high school. I grew up in California at the tail end of the counter-culture and there was always a lot of that stuff around and I was always interested in it. All of my books have touched on it a little bit, but the last book I wrote, which is called The Visionary State, is a history of alternative spirituality in California. It always struck me: Why did all this stuff happen here? So many weird groups and sects and cults and movements; the hippies and psychedelics and Crowley…all this kind of stuff happened in California, so I really set out to find out why and map out all the places where it all happened, to really start doing research into the hidden history of this state. That became one of my abiding interests and I continued to work on it and this Silent Movie Theater screening came out of that. The back story for the movie show is the weekend before on Saturday the 7th, I’m going to do a bus tour called the Visionary Hollywood with an alternative bus crew called Esotouric and they do crime movie sites and Raymond Chandler tours…you know, like where you drive around and look at cool buildings. And there are some amazing, bizarre and marvelous architecture at some of these spiritual sites in California.
What do you think it is about California that allowed some of those movements to flourish here?
There are a lot of reasons. One is that it’s the end of the West, so a lot of seekers, a lot of searchers, a lot of innovators, people wanting to experiment wound up here. That’s been true since the Gold Rush. More specifically with Los Angeles, in some ways the beginnings of L.A. are indistinguishable from the beginnings of spiritual L.A. A lot of people came out to Los Angeles, particularly before the boom in the ’20s, but also in the ’20s for their health. But it wasn’t just because the weather was warm. It was the whole idea of a renewed life and the renewed life involves the body, but it also involves spirituality, it involves organic eating, it involves holistic breathing practices, so a lot of what we think of as the New Age, particularly alternative health, was incredibly wide-spread in Los Angeles. Early Los Angeles was a carnival of gurus and astrologers…I mean, it was really an extraordinary flowering of this stuff. People were already complaining about it in 1913. You could find people talking about all of these groups and movements. So, it was a new space, it was a space of innovation and a frontier, and it’s also been a very creative and even kind of hedonistic place. People are interested in living a good life or pushing the boundaries of experience, of the body, of the altered states of consciousness. There’s always been that probing, exploratory and celebratory kind of quality. A culture of the spirit as well as of the body.
Who are some of the major figures in Los Angeles occult history?
We start off our evening with the most important early figure, Manly P. Hall, who founded the Philosophical Research Society. With our screening night, I’m really focusing on the occult, not just general spirituality. It’s really more about the Western mystery traditions, about majick, to some degree about psychedelics, so we start off with Hall, who is certainly the most important early figure. There’s a marvelous new biography coming out about Hall called Master of the Mysteries and the author of that, Louis Sahagun, writes for the L.A. Times. Hall acquired the largest mystical/occult library west of the Mississippi with tons and tons of very rare, very expensive alchemical manuscripts and he really began a whole culture of the occult, bringing it out of the backrooms of palm readers and astrologers and into a more historically informed but still very mystical approach to all the traditions of the world, east as well as west. So he did a lot of lectures and influenced a lot of people and helped create the culture of the Los Angeles occult. It’s really great that this bio is coming out because he’s sort of an unknown figure despite being extremely significant in the spiritual life of California. He’s best known for a beautifully illustrated book called The Secret Teachings of All Ages. It’s great for people who get interested in the occult because of the powerful images and don’t really even care what they mean. One of the ways the occult works is through images that are kind of enchanted so a lot of times people will find themselves becoming fascinated with alchemical images or symbols or sygils and Manly P. Hall was very much interested in this as well which is why his book is full of these beautiful paintings and images.
Another person from a later generation who is particularly important for our film night is Kenneth Anger. Grows up in Los Angeles, kind of on the fringe of the film industry, begins to make films in the 1940s, he was gay and at the time it was particularly hard to be gay,and he had a lot of struggles. He was also fascinated with the occult and particularly Aleister Crowley, the notorious British magician and self-promoting mystagogue of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. So Anger was fascinated by Crowley and his religion Thelema. A lot of the films he was making became very heavily influenced by his occult studies as well. In fact, some of the films are really explicitly majickal in the full sense of the word. They’re like rituals or spells or incantations that are done with celluloid. The film that we’re going to show, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, is probably one of his most important works and the one that is most Los Angeles. It’s basically a ritual, a very proto-psychedelic beautiful crazy ritual made in the 1950s and a lot of the people who are playing roles in the film are important figures in the occult underground. Many of them were also involved with Crowley. People know about Crowley, especially if you grew up listening to heavy metal or were interested in majick, he was a very influential figure in the modern occult tradition. Right around the time of Crowley’s death, the most significant flowering of Crowley style majick was in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles occult tradition has always been very inflected with Crowley and his particular brand of majick which stresses hedonism, going beyond good and evil, kind of a Nietzschean sometimes rather dark approach and it really had a major impact on the Southland and the kind of occult culture that came up there. So that will be represented in a lot of the films that we’ll be showing as well. The major screenings we will be doing that night are Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, a screening of Craig Baldwin’s new film Mock Up On Mu which partly turns on some important figures in California mysticism—Jack Parsons (who was also very influenced by Crowley), a magician who worked in the ’40s and ’50s and who was a rocket scientist at JPL. The film kind of weaves in stories of Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard who was also an early practitioner of this kind of majickal tradition before he founded his own pseudo-scientific religion. We’ll be showing a film by Curtis Harrington called The Wormwood Star, which is a pretty rare film about a woman named Cameron who kind of connects all of these figures. It’s a very incestuous scene. She was a lover of Jack Parsons, a practitioner of Crowleyian majick, and she also appears in Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. She’s a very striking, very spooky woman and this film shows a lot of her really marvelous and enchanting artwork, much of which she destroyed later in her life. She was kind of a psychologically unstable person. Bill Butler, an expert on Cameron’s life, will be introducing that film. There will also be some shorter films, some abstract animation films that were made in Los Angeles with very much of an occult or alchemical intent.
How did you come across these films?
Most of them are reasonably well known if you’re interested in experimental animation. California has a strong and very interesting tradition of experimental film as well as Hollywood film, so my own interest in California cultural history and the occult has brought me to them. A lot of this experimental film in California has an occult or at least mystical or psychedelic element to it.
Have you found examples of overt occult symbolism in mainstream Hollywood cinema?
Absolutely. There’s tons of interesting stuff going on. I think The Matrix is an obvious example of a film that is not only infused with pop mythology, specifically Christian, Gnostic and Buddhist ideas, it actually has a California spiritual character to it. If you look at the Wachowski brothers, look at their lives, where they live, how they think about the world, what they say in their interviews, it’s clear that they’re not just making films, they’re making them with a very California aesthetic. Of course, even in mainstream Hollywood, these alternative religions were very popular among actors certainly, but also among directors who were interested in picking up certain kinds of images, particularly in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s when there was New Age and psychedelic elements in films. You can find it in What Dreams May Come. There is an undercurrent of these ideas that you can find in Hollywood, partly because Hollywood is in California and these mystical ideas, particularly Buddhist ideas, are in the air. Certain ideas about reality being an illusion. All the Buddhism in I Heart Huckabees is so weirdly spliced in, for example. So I think it’s there, though not as dominant obviously as in the films that we’re going to be showing.
What does “occult” mean to you?
Some people who would say that they practice majick would not necessarily like the world “occult” which tends to have a darker connotation. It really just means esoteric, behind the scenes, or secret—not necessarily in the sense of a secret society but in the sense that it’s not the obvious level of reality. It’s the hidden level of reality. Astrology, for example, is an aspect of the occult that is as powerful today as it’s ever been. There are aspects of yoga mysticism that are very occult. When you start imagining different chakras and different rays of light, taking these lights and energies into your body and intoning majickal formulas, mantras . . . all those, though not from the West, partake of the basic ideas of the occult: that you can use your imagination, you can use desire, that you can use energy and the body in order to create different kinds of energies and even transform yourself and to some degree (and some people believe to a great degree) transform the world. So you’re going to find some of that majickal thinking throughout the New Age, you’ll find it in certain aspects of the environmental movement. A lot of ideas of ascendent masters are in the UFO fringe. These kinds of things come and go and are at times more powerful than others. Right now, obviously, yoga is extremely strong, certain kinds of environmental thinking is really strong, shamanism is really important. Shamanism is just occult from other parts of the world. There are the basic tricks and powers of the shaman come from that magical world of vision, that same world that Kenneth Anger is trying to represent and express in his films. It’s just that the shaman draws from a more ancient and primal nature based tradition that a lot of people yearn for now. So a lot of people are turning to shamanic work, turning to Ayahuasca, thinking about the Mayans. It’s always sort of a grab bag, a weird mixture of different things that sometimes forms specific movements, but most of the time it’s kind of a mish-mash that people draw from and recombine in different ways for different groups and different purposes.
What’s your take on the role of psychedelic drugs in majick?
In the modern world, psychedelics have been very important. One of the reasons California has been such a rich spiritual site is because of the profound role that psychedelics have had here in the post-war era. In many, many ways, California is the first psychedelic place in the modern world, the first place in western civilization that to discovers these compounds and starts to actually build a culture out of it, already in the 1950s. Naturally, it attracted creative visionaries, artists, people interested in altered states of consciousness, people interested in Buddhism. It kind of shook people up and sometimes people were just happy with the drugs but a lot of times people felt that the drugs opened their minds to other possibilities, including different religious traditions, majick, yoga, meditation, mysticism. It was often a gateway for a lot of people. L.S.D. was very popular in the 1960s with the acid tests and the early hippie movement and in the 1970s a lot of people got burned out or freaked out about drugs so that’s when you saw a huge upswing of people joining spiritual groups. Gurus were huge and there was a much more focused attention on the occult in the 1970s, partly because it came after the psychedelic awakening of the 1960s. People had the conviction that reality was more than what we think it is in the modern world. It’s composed of energy, imagination…and you want to explore the various levels of reality and bring them into your experience. It affected spirituality and it affected art, particularly experimental art and cinema and we’ll be showing some of the films that were definitely influenced by the psychedelic vision.