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Monday, 18 June 2018

Why It’s So Damn Difficult to Discuss Occult Topics In the Media?

Mitch Horowitz

I am a historian of alternative religions - I document, and deeply care about, outsider spiritual views, particularly with regard to the esoteric, supernatural, and occult.

I've managed to write about these things seriously in mainstream news outlets, from The New York Times to The Washington Post, and discuss them on CBS Sunday Morning, Dateline NBC, and NPR's All Things Considered. But it is a struggle. I find that the bar is raised much higher for writing about outside-the-fold topics than it is for things that editors and producers already believe (e.g., "Positive thinking is for dupes and dumbbells.")

Here are some of the reasons it's tough to find a mainstream mic for these issues - and some different ways to think about how we communicate: 

1) Disavowal is the price of admission to the mainstream culture.

I love journalist Jon Ronson. But he plays this game all too well. He studies a fringe topic - like ESP in the military - depicting it as hooey. But then he says ingenuously in an interview: "The psychic spies do have some successes that you can't explain. There are stories of 'remote viewers' divining map coordinates or sketching something that does, in fact, lead to something. Maybe." That, to me, is where to start digging. But Ronson quickly slams shut the door. Critic Janet Maslin in the New York Times admiringly quotes him calling his foray into ESP "frivolous."

I have no particular solution to this, as I refuse to disavow my sympathies - any more than historians such as Robert Peel, Gershom Sholem, or Richard Lyman Bushman should be expected to, respectively, disavow their dedication to Christian Science, mystical Judaism, or Mormonism. 

2) Cable producers often deem fraud and fudging more saleable than fact.

This is a source of constant frustration - and it's why I do fewer cable documentaries than I used to. Producers want you to juice up stuff. If you don't comply, they may do it for you. For example, a certain show on the Travel Channel wanted me to do a piece based on my tours of occult imagery in New York's Grand Central Terminal. I made it clear that I didn't deal with conspiracy theories, fantasies about the Illuminati, or any such stuff, and wouldn't discuss these things other than to voice my disavowal. You can witness the (sneaky) result right here. (But y'all come back now - it gets better). 

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