Hex Marks the Spot

Public versus private has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Partially it’s because I’ve been reading about magical beliefs and their persistence. It always amazes me how publicly we declare ourselves rational and uninfluenced by the supernatural. Once we get behind the closed doors of our domiciles, however, a transformation takes place. Our insecurities and uncertainties surface. Given the right circumstances we might even confess that we believe in magic. I know I’m generalizing here, but private space does allow for private thoughts and getting out with others can bring a much-needed relief. I was reading about Hex Hollow in an article a friend sent me from Roadtrippers. Hex Hollow is a small town in my native Pennsylvania where a murder took place over witchcraft. I won’t go into the details here—the Roadtripper story is quite brief and tells the tale—but it turns out a man was killed for being a witch. His murderer was also a witch who’d been sent to him by yet a third witch. The crime took place in 1928.

Think about the timeframe for a second. It was between the World Wars. Technology was fairly advanced. Witch trials had ended centuries ago. Still, some people believed enough in witches to kill for their conviction. Historians of religion have pointed out that Americans have never really outgrown the belief in magic that we deny so assiduously. I’m not trying to single out one nation here—there is widespread evidence that magical thinking is endemic to the human thought process. We aren’t so quick to let something go that, according to reason, has served us well. Had magical thinking been purely detrimental it should’ve died out long ago. We need our magic.

As yesterday, so today.

I’m not suggesting witchcraft is real. At the same time I know that it’s natural enough for thoughts to move into familiar terrain when stressed out. In Hex Hollow the man who did the murdering was convinced he’d been hexed by his victim. Perhaps he’d climbed the ladder of inference (what we tend to call confirmation bias) to a rung where the only way down was a criminal act of desperation. That’s no excuse to kill someone, of course, but it fits with what we know of an all-too-human form of stress relief. Nor is it rustic rubes to blame. Psychics in New York City are abundant and even US presidents have been known to consult the stars a time or two. Of course, once I step outside that door I’ll say it’s all nonsense.

Psychics Anonymous

New York is a city that is fascinated with itself. To me it’s kind of like rooting for a professional sports team. The members of the team come from all over the place. As Jerry Seinfeld once said, “You’re rooting for the jerseys,” or something to that effect. So it was that I found a piece in News Watch so interesting. “New York City: Psychic Capital of the World?” the headline ran. New York has to be first in this too? I’ve noticed on my daily walks through Midtown Manhattan that many psychics hang out the shingle proffering their wares. In my half decade of commuting into the city, I’ve only ever seen one person take up such an offer by pushing through the door. Nevertheless, I have been impressed by the sheer number of psychics that advertise in New York.

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I’m not one to rule out psi without giving it a fair hearing. Much knowledge is lost, I fear, by the ridicule factor. How many times have you thought about someone for the first time in years and then they called you? We all experience significant coincidences from time to time. Princeton and Duke Universities even set up, once upon a time, laboratories to test such things. What really interests me here, though, is that those who advertise are doing it as a business venture. Something of value changes hands for a chance at some insider knowledge. For legal purposes the psychics have to declare their wares for entertainment only—they go where no empirical evidence dares follow. Lawyers live for such ambiguity. Even so, some of the most influential people in the world of politics have relied on psychics. Some police departments do as well, very quietly.

News Watch says that psychic consultation is the closest some New Yorkers get to spiritual. If so, I’m glad they exist in such profusion. Our world has many shortages: fresh water, adequate food, and, for the tastes of some, fossil fuels. Perhaps the most dangerous shortage of all is the recognition that we are spiritual beings. Call it emotion, call it irrationality, call it feeling—our non-physical selves are what we care most deeply about. When we greet someone after an illness or surgery, we don’t ask “How do you think,” but rather “How do you feel?” We can give it many names, but the existence of our psyches is what keeps us sane and healthy. New York City is just like anywhere else, in that regard. It is a very human city.

Sidekick

I have moved from the territory of Sharon to that of Laura. New York City is a conglomeration of smaller neighborhoods, and even Midtown Manhattan hosts hundreds of smaller sub-divisions. Although I’ve never intentionally consulted a psychic, I do tend to notice them. Once while on a visit to Galena, Illinois during the summer, we stumbled on a psychic booth where the proprietor was giving free readings. With some trepidation, we let her give our daughter a reading, just for fun. I don’t recall what she said, or even what her name might have been. There’s just enough fear of the unknown left in me to compel me ever want to visit a psychic, even if it is for entertainment purposes only. Clearly, however, there is a market. Where the market makes a hole someone will fill it. So I pondered Laura the psychic.

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The other day I passed her sign. Like most psychic ads I see, Laura’s sign makes use of religious symbols; the cross, bird, crescent and star, all thrown together amid an interfaith openness from which most religions might learn a lesson. Are psychics religious? I suppose that’s a personal question. The phenomenon of psi, if it does exist, and if it does involve spooky influence at a distance, tends to be classed with the supernatural. A few brave universities have from time to time explored the phenomenon, whether or not commercial psychics have it, scientifically. They set up controlled experiments and have even obtained statistically significant results. I’m more inclined to doubt statistics than the outcomes. Statistics are the tools of markets, and markets, well, make me shiver.

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Then I passed another sign. This one, just a block or two from Laura, seemed to suggest that witchcraft might unleash my potential and power. That sounds like a good thing. But then I noticed the FOX logo at the bottom. Another quality program, it seems, has fallen to the spell of witchcraft. It did confirm, however, that it is all about money. One size does not fit all. Religion adapts to fit a free market economy. Totalitarian states either attempt to disband religion completely and/or build up a national mythology that supplements traditional teachings. It doesn’t take a psychic to see that coming. As long as there’s money to be made, who’s complaining?

Back to the Future

When I leave work, I’m in a rush. It would seem that Third Avenue and Eighth Avenue shouldn’t be that far apart, but you can’t see from one to the other. I’m a pretty fast walker, and I’ve negotiated city crowds since my graduate student days. If you get caught at a light on one of Midtown’s avenues, you get into a cascading series of minute-long delays and you could miss your bus. Since I do this nearly every day, I know the lights are on timers, and getting through one light may make all the difference in having to wait another half-hour in the Port Authority Terminal for a missed bus. So when the woman held out her hand in front of me, I was ready to pull a dodge, but then I saw the tarot card printed on the slip of paper she held toward me. I took it at nearly a run with an acknowledging nod of thanks. New York has any number of psychic readers, and I’ve noticed that different ones advertise in different street corners in town. Unlike the competition, this psychic doesn’t announce who s/he is (I always assume “she” but the chit doesn’t say). “Clairvoyant Consultant” is the only identity, along with a street address. “Gifted European Spiritual Psychic” also occurs. I will get a five dollar discount if I go in. Tempting.

Clairvoyant

On the bus I noticed something about the colorful print of the tarot card. I’ve never in my life touched a real tarot card. I’m not really superstitious, but why take chances? The Bible can be pretty harsh about such things. This card says, “Wheel of Fortune.” The wheel, with its runic (and Hebraic) symbols, is surrounded by clouds. On each of the clouds in the four corners is—and this caught me off guard—an iconic symbol of each of the evangelists. Matthew’s winged man is in the upper left, and Luke’s winged ox in the lower left. Mark’s winged lion is in the lower right and John’s eagle claims the upper right. On the wheel itself rest a sphinx, a la Oedipus, a serpent (a la Eden?), and what appears to be a recumbent devil. Clearly clairvoyants see some value in traditional religious symbols.

New York is quite a religious city, for all its secular trappings. Not all of the religions are traditional—many, in fact, would start a literalist’s blood on its way to a low simmer. It is a city of seekers. The wheel of fortune may be a more apt symbol than I realized. The earlier bus gets caught in traffic today, and at one of the common stops I see the later bus whizzing by, and I know that it will arrive at my home stop long before I will. Of course, I had no way of foreseeing that. Each day as a commuter is another spin of that wheel of fortune. It is not a surprise New York is such a religious city. Your fate is never really in your own hands. But this flyer is, and it entitles me to five dollars off a peek into the great unknown. I think maybe I got this card about two decades too late.

Buy Their Fruits

A lot of things get thrust at you in Midtown Manhattan. Many of them are religious. As I was out on my lunch break, a Buddhist monk walked up to me on Second Avenue. He thrust out a pretty token that looked like those skinny cards that used to come in with Sugar Daddies. I get a lot of things held out at me, and since I can imagine how dispiriting it must be to have people ignore you all day long, I have taught myself to take their chit as a matter of reflex. The monk looked pleased. We were outside 815, the headquarters of the Episcopal Church in the United States. I reached out my hand and he said “Buddha peace.” That was nicer than most of what I’d heard from the people who worked inside the church to which I’d dedicated years of my life. Without a beat my Buddhist friend continued, “temple donation.” I had to wave him off with a smile. Religions, no matter how placid, are out to earn a buck.

In the neighborhood of my office lurks a psychic named Sharon. I wouldn’t know Sharon if I ran into her, but I suppose the reverse wouldn’t be true. Actually, I have no way of knowing if she’s really psychic or not. She has guys. These guys hang out on the four corners of my block and hand out fliers for Sharon’s psychic readings. The guys with the leaflets aren’t psychic, I take it, because a walk around the block, on which I recognize each and every one of them, always lands me back in the office with a pocket full of psi. I see that Sharon is a third generation psychic and that she is adept at foreseeing negative energy. I would advise her not to walk past 815. If I bring in my slips of paper I get five dollars off a reading. I don’t know how much Sharon charges, but I do know that I don’t need anyone to foresee negativity in my life. I’ve got a hard enough time dealing with it when I don’t see it. And I save five bucks each time.

I sometimes wonder, as I walk past 815 Second Avenue, if anyone in there knows how badly one of their faithful was hurt by priests and bishops who had the blessing of the church. No one from the central office ever consoled or tried to comfort a person whose career had just been lifted off the rails and flung off the cliff by the machinations of some of their own. Even now those who go in and out the doors as I stand there have no idea what was done to a lonely guy on the street. In the name of the church. I think of the hollow sound of coin ringing in the coffers. I think of Judas trying to return his thirty pieces of silver. I think of money lenders’ tables being overturned. I think of Buddha peace. One hand holds out a medallion for me. The other is palm up, waiting for a return on the sacred investment.

you shall know them

you shall know them

Back to Paranormalcy

Belief is a paranormal phenomenon. Or so it would seem. Having just finished the fascinating sociological study of Christopher Bader, F. Carson Mencken, and Joseph Baker, Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture, the implications are thought-provoking. I’ve known the work of Christopher Bader, the lead researcher, for some time. Instead of trying to prove or disprove the phenomena under study, he performs a rare feat in actually addressing something most scholars avoid: what people really believe. As becomes clear throughout the book, a substantial majority of Americans believe in some paranormal phenomena at some level. The official story is that nobody believes this stuff, but the numbers beg to differ.

It is appropriate that such a topic should be undertaken by sociologists of religion. One of the difficulties the authors have is differentiating between religion and paranormal. Both religion and paranormal subjects involve going beyond empirical evidence. There is no “proof” that their objects of interest/devotion exist. The authors ultimately decide that what separates belief from God from belief in aliens is a matter of numbers: is it a generally accepted belief or one that is outside the norm (i.e., paranormal)? Since a vast majority of Americans believe in God, that is religion. Since far fewer believe in ghosts, they are paranormal. As I have suggested before, the main problem is one of definition. Religion stands on a continuum with “paranormal” beliefs. One society validates, the other it castigates.

I sensed a hesitation as I read this study. Grouping psychics alongside ghost hunters may seem reasonable, but how do Bigfoot and UFOs fit in? Those who research these latter topics often claim they are physical phenomena, as real as the keyboard I’m using, only undiscovered. Does an unsubstantiated phenomenon qualify as paranormal? Who decides what is really real? Academic institutions often distance themselves from subjects that might be suspect. (They also distance themselves from fair hiring practices as well, but that is perfectly normal.) It seems to me that the problem with “paranormal” comes in the grouping. Some of the individual subjects may indeed have merit: ghosts are perceived, reported, and some would say even photographed and recorded. They make up one of the earliest facets of religious belief. The psychic down the street has a less sure pedigree.

These fringe subjects, regardless of veracity, have a wide following. Even highly educated people generally believe in some form of “paranormal” phenomenon. Religion, widely accepted and practiced, ventures beyond the empirical as well. The difference is only, it seems, a matter of degree. Where is Fox Mulder when we really need him?