Thursday, March 26, 2009
40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty
One of the things that I remember from my childhood in the early 1970s was the resurgence of the occult and interest in weird belief systems, a side effect of the youth movement. Everything was open for experimentation: economic systems, living arrangements, politics, and gender roles, so why not religion? Being raised Catholic, anything occult was seen as threatening. I imagined it all as Satan in disguise, like the wolf in grandma's clothing in Little Red Riding Hood, lying in wait to trick the unsuspecting, or even worse, the non-traditional.
It probably reached cultural critical mass with the release of The Exorcist in 1973, but one of the reasons that movie was so successful (lines around the block in major cities almost from the first day it opened) was that the public had been prepared by several years of living through a rich, creepy time when Ouija boards were sold in toy stores, Dark Shadows was a popular soap opera, and witchcraft manuals could be found among the paperbacks in drugstores. Despite the current popularity of book series about vampires and wizards, the difference between now and then is that now, relatively few people believe in an occult system (despite the New Age and old superstitions). Back then, people really believed. Or so it seemed to my eight year old mind.
Believed enough to join cults, and it wasn't all peace and free love. A book from that time, Mindfuckers: The Rise of Acid Fascism, gathers together articles about cults from Rolling Stone magazine. The Manson Family is the most (in)famous group covered, but there are also articles about the Lyman Family and The Process Church of The Final Judgment. The book's subtitle makes plain that drugs were a major factor once people discovered just how useful drugs, particularly hallucinogens, were in controlling others.
In my hometown, I remember there was a group called The Forever Family, and I was warned that, if anyone from The Forever Family tried to make contact with me, get away from them. I don't know if they truly were any kind of threat or if they were just silly hippies. Watching a documentary about the 1960s recently, I was struck by the fact that, what we think of as the 60s - the social upheaval, the protests, groovy outfits and nightlife - was an urban phenomena. City life. In small-town and rural America, any deviance from the norm was feared and suppressed. There's a reason why Easy Rider ends the way it does. A group calling itself "The Forever Family" in Wilkes-Barre at that time was a threat, in not to way of life, then at least to peace of mind.
When I first began working at WaldenBooks after college, my manager said the smartest thing she ever did was expand the occult section. This was in the early 1980s, and while Wilkes-Barre often seemed about seven or eight years behind the times, the popularity of occult books had more to do with such beliefs becoming private and personal, individual superstitions rather than part of the culture at large. The time for large-scale experimentation in religion had passed.