The UnexplainedJef Costello
I have been fascinated by the unexplained for, literally, as long as I can remember. Now, by “the unexplained” I do not mean such matters as what happened to Jimmy Hoffa, or Amelia Earhart, or the shot that may have come from the grassy knoll. I mean the really out-there, woo woo stuff that makes people look at you funny.
As a child I was fascinated by anything witchy, and one of my fondest early memories is seeing the film Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Only later did I come to realize that this was actually a rather inept attempt by Disney to recapture the magic of Mary Poppins. At the time I was fascinated by this tale of a woman (played by Angela Lansbury) who trains to be a witch by subscribing to a mail order course. How I longed for my mother to buy me that!
Fortunately, this was the Age of Aquarius – the early seventies. And books on witchcraft and magic were plentiful, and so were occult supply stores. At first my mother wouldn’t let me anywhere near them, but it was so much in the air that there was even a little grimoire for the “modern witch” sold at the checkout aisle at the local grocery store. After considerable begging, my mother bought it for me. I believe it was in this book that I first encountered the famous SATOR square.
Then there was that dodgy store run by the dusky foreign woman that opened up in one of the local strip malls, just down the block from Rose’s department store. This was a combined head shop and occult bookstore. Thankfully, my mother was rather naïve about the former, and took me inside. I believe it was on the second visit that she figured out what those pipes behind the counter were for, and I was never allowed inside again. (No matter; the store and its dusky, dodgy proprietor disappeared before long.) But I did come away with two treasures: Wade Baskin’s The Sorcerer’s Handbook and Emile Grillot de Givry’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Sorcery, Magic, and Alchemy. How I pored over these, for years to come.
The public library was also a treasure trove. I remember that there was more than one series of illustrated books about psychic phenomena and the occult, all of which I checked out. When I was ten or eleven I acquired a paperback copy of Stephen Skinner and Francis King’s Techniques of High Magic, which was based on the Golden Dawn system. I remember performing the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram in the spare bedroom, which my parents had given me as a playroom. I didn’t get much further than that, as the instructions for making the magician’s tools (the wand, sword, chalice, etc.) were dauntingly complicated.
Around the same time I wrote to the Society for Psychical Research in Great Britain and acquired their mail order catalogue, full of crystal balls and whale bones for dowsing and every occult book under the sun – all far too expensive for me to order (the postage alone was breathtaking). I brought the catalogue to school and my gym coach took an interest in it. “This stuff’ll rot your brain,” he drawled, after thumbing through it for a good five minutes. Not true! I am all right.
Witches. Warlocks. Vampires (especially vampires – how I longed to be a creature of the night). Werewolves (never that much of an interest; too shabbily dressed). Demons. The Old Ones (in high school I devoured Lovecraft). Ghosts. Ghouls. Phantom ships. UFOs. The black hole that hit Siberia. How I thrilled to the monster of the week on The Night Stalker, a show that seems really crappy today. And ancient astronauts. My parents took me to see the film of Chariots of the Gods and I was completely convinced. Only many years later did I come to see how ridiculous von Däniken was. (The film is a camp classic – I promise that you will howl with laughter.)
On Saturday afternoons, I think it was, I would catch Leonard Nimoy’s half-hour documentary series In Search Of…, another show that just seems painfully bad today. The Bermuda Triangle. Killer bees. Bigfoot. The Mummy’s Curse. Atlantis. The Loch Ness Monster. Reincarnation. The Abominable Snowman. They were all there, complete with cheap “re-enactment” scenes, gross hyperbole, and breathtaking non sequiturs. (The music, however, was chilling.) Oh, and there too were Jimmy Hoffa, Amelia Earhart, and the shot that may have come from the grassy knoll.
As I matured, I never lost my interest in the unexplained, though I became more discerning. And skeptical. Though I did not become a “committed skeptic.” This is essentially someone who refuses to believe in anything that seems inconsistent with a rigid materialism and empiricism – standpoints long ago abandoned by the most rigorous and sophisticated of the sciences, physics. Skeptics are generally also nihilists, who simply cannot bear the thought that somewhere out there some meaning might be lurking. So they gleefully “debunk” any human experiences that seem to rise above the grindingly ordinary. They are the hollow men, and carbuncular. And they are afraid; they do not want their neat, flat system of ordinariness to be blown apart by anomalies, particularly of the woo woo kind.
This brings me to why my interest in the unexplained is so important to me, and why I am sharing it with you. I have written about my own philosophy hither and thither, in numerous essays published on this Website over the past six years or so. My own “system” could hardly be accused of being neat, flat, or ordinary. Nor am I am a materialist or an empiricist. And I could never be mistaken for a nihilist. Yet I confess that, for the most part, I do not know what to do with the unexplained.
It is as if my mind moves along parallel tracks (an uncharitable person would accuse me of schizophrenia). I have developed a worldview that I think offers an account of the Big Picture; that answers the ultimate questions: why is there anything at all rather than nothing? And: why are we here? I’ve even figured out how to tie in White Nationalism. (In brief: I am a William Piercean, neo-Hegelian cosmotheist.) Yet now and then something comes along to remind me of my lifelong interest in the unexplained, and I confess I have no idea what to do with most of it.
I have friends who don’t see the problem. For them, philosophy is sort of like sticking Legos together. If you want to account for ghosts, for example, why then just say in your philosophy that some people’s souls linger on among us, creating cold spots and scaring widows in seaside cottages. But it’s not that simple. I am perfectly willing to acknowledge that there are ghosts – the evidence really is abundant, O skeptical reader. (Far, far too many credible witnesses to be dismissed.) The trouble is that I can’t find a way, in terms of my philosophy, to account for why there are ghosts. To put it a different way, to fit ghosts into my worldview, I need to find some way to show that we should expect ghosts to exist.
Now, I am fully aware that I will be accused of being a “rationalist,” because I freely admit that what I am aiming for is some rational account of ghosts – and other unexplained phenomena. Some way to show how it makes sense that there should be such things, in terms of the big picture. It’s no use telling me something like, “Maybe not everything makes sense. Maybe you can’t explain everything. Maybe the unexplained must remain just that.” I’ve always had contempt for such a position, and the people who hold it. Too pious, too humble, too meek. Conjures up images of people kneeling in church and pulling at their forelocks. I want to know. And I’ll not give up easily.
I’m not looking for any particular kind of explanation, or “rationalization,” as people like to say today (misusing the term). As should be clear by now, I’m not looking for some sort of physicalist account, and I’m certainly not looking to debunk anything. As the doctor told Jerri Blank in Strangers with Candy, “I’ve taken a lot of brains apart, and when I put ’em back together again, there’s always a few parts left lying around.” This is my problem. As a philosopher I’ve tried to take the universe apart. When I put it together again, I’ve got these extra pieces lying around – pieces like ESP, ghosts, crop circles, and reincarnation.
At this point some of you will be wondering just how big a problem this is. So, let me make some distinctions. As I have said, my approach to the unexplained is discerning: I am open-minded, but I also have a bullshit detector (in other words, a healthy – non-dogmatic – skepticism). If you push me on the subjects I’ve mentioned already, I would say that I think that vampires and werewolves are very likely myth. I think that the Bermuda Triangle and the Mummy’s Curse are nonsense. I also think the Loch Ness Monster is myth (every square inch of Loch Ness has been mapped with sonar and no large beastie was found).
On the other hand, as I’ve said, I think that there probably are ghosts. I have friends who strongly believe in reincarnation, but I just don’t think there’s enough evidence (particularly not to support the claim that everyone reincarnates.) Also, it’s awfully hard to distinguish between cases of reincarnation and possession. And, yes, I do think that there’s something to possession. Is there demonic, Exorcist-style possession? Probably, given that demons almost certainly exist. Typically, I think that if a belief is attested throughout all time and in multiple cultures, then there’s probably something to it.
I do believe in ESP: remote viewing, precognition, telepathy, telekinesis, all of it. I’ve had experiences of my own that support such belief, and many of my friends have. Indeed, one of the interesting things about the topic of this essay is that if you get people comfortable enough to talk about it, you will find that a lot of very reasonable people have had some awfully creepy experiences. What about magic and witchcraft? Well, I think that they’re mainly a form of “intentional” ESP or telekinesis, using means that activate the imagination, in turn using the imagination to tap into some unconscious part of ourselves that has never been persuaded of conventional spatio-temporal limitations. In short, yes: I think magic works. For some people.
Dowsing? Yes, absolutely. UFOs? I mean, the ones from outer space? Yes and no. I believe that some credible people have seen some kind of “craft,” and sometimes seen their “operators,” and I believe that some of these have no conventional “earthly” explanation. But do they have to come from outer space? No. They could be from “another dimension,” or from the Hollow Earth, or something. I’m open to different possibilities. What about OBEs (Out of Body Experiences)? Absolutely. People have made verifiable observations in extreme states that could only have been possible if their consciousness had somehow extended beyond their physical bodies. (And this in turn suggests that the physicalist insistence on mind-brain identity is false.) What about the Golden Dawn magical system I tried as a child, do I believe in that? No, of course not. None of that Hebrew shit could possibly work.
What about crop circles? Ah, here we come to one of my favorite topics. In fact, it’s a topic my mind returns to again and again, whenever I think of this issue of explaining, or accounting for, the unexplained. Why? Because in case you haven’t seen the photographs, amazing, complex designs keep appearing in farmer’s fields (for some reason, usually in the U.K.) with no readily apparent, conventional explanations. Yes, I know: a few years ago a couple of blokes came forward and showed how they could make crop circles. But very many of the ones I’ve seen (take a look at the pictures of some of them, below) could not possibly have been made using the crude process these guys demonstrated. And many of these fields are being carefully watched. The “circles” appear overnight in fields where no sign of human activity has been observed.
If it is the gods – again, I want to know. And if I cannot know, at least I want to be able to demonstrate this, and at least know why. I have the feeling that my philosophy is going to get a lot more baroque in the coming years. I envision a grand system, delineating multiple dimensions of reality, like the worlds of old myth. A new vision of the soul, unconfined to bodily dimensions, flitting about and poking its nose into things, hopping (sometimes) from body to body and lingering (sometimes) to scare the pants off people. Spirits, gods, demons, possessing little head-swiveling girls, creating complex designs in farmers’ fields, coming from out of the heavens (or out of the Earth) in saucer-shaped crafts, probing the anuses of my enemies. And lots of witchy stuff, and talking dogs, and cats named Pyewacket. All lovingly, carefully, dialectically generated from nothing, and immortalized in a large, pull-out chart suitable for framing.
I can’t wait to get started. First, however, I will have to consult the runes for guidance.
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I too am an addict for pondering what you call the “unexplained.” Couldn’t get enough movies about ghosts and demons, and still can’t. Always firmly believe that Bigfoot, Nessie, and other legends were real and fervently argued (as best as a kid could do) the point with buzzkill skeptics. I’m still a junky for fantasy and horror. In my adult years now I ponder how some of these different things fit into my philosophical framework as well. How can one explain the existence of ghosts using Indo European religious systems? If there are aliens, do they have histories of worshipping the same kinds of deities that humans have, albeit with different names? Or perhaps, is there an entirely alternate dimension populated with godly beings that only service one planet?
So many autistic weird questions in this head.
These corn circle pics could be just photoshopped photographs, no?
They’re not. I don’t know the other two, but the swastika one made a splash last summer:
Just Google “crop circles” and you can see how intricate they’ve become in recent decades.
Crop circles have been attaining this level of complexity for decades now.
Alright… also watched some other related videos embedded in that article. I think I’m suffering major cognititve dissonance now.
Couldn’t even spell correctly, being that mind-boggled about this corn circle thing. Seriously, WTF????????
To quote Obi-Wan, “You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.”
I’m not much of a skeptic, but every curve in the swastika has a visible T-shape in the flattened crop outside of it, providing the maker with a right angle by which to calculate the curves and keep them proportionate. I have to wonder why something supramundane would leave those marks.
Jef, are you/have you ever been into Colin Wilson? Not only did he write several books about these issues (with varying quality), he also expressed sentiments very similar to yours…
I had been planning to ask the same thing. Jason Jorjani also deals with these issues in his recent book.
Yes, one book I loved as a teenager was Wilson’s “Mysteries.”
I have a huge Colin Wilson collection, including the trashier ones. “The Occult” was my favourite. Only years later I discovered “The Outsider”, that one book Wilson basically re-wrote again and again all his life.
Another topic that never tires me is crypto-zoology…
The British magazine Fortean Times is worth a read and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It seems possible that the high level of gullibility present in White people is due in some way to a vivid imagination and a high degree of alertness to subtle changes in the environment. Such characteristics had survival value during the European Ice Ages.
‘Dimensions’ by Jacques Vallee is also interesting for his attempt to explain UFOs, apparitions, and religious experiences as facets of the same phenomenon.
Watch Lloyd Pye’s videos; there is much there. The “Interventionist theory” is very convincing. I was convinced when I viewed the evidence of the second, and third human chromosome fused together; it is impossible to explain that away.
I guess I’m more of a skeptic but I do find much of this kind of stuff entertaining. MegalithomaniaUK have many vids and quality lectures on crop circles and other interesting topics.
You should contact Jason Reza Jorjani, and listen to some of his interviews with Right On, Red Ice, and so forth.
Though I did not become a “committed skeptic.” This is essentially someone who refuses to believe in anything that seems inconsistent with a rigid materialism and empiricism – standpoints long ago abandoned by the most rigorous and sophisticated of the sciences, physics. Skeptics are generally also nihilists, who simply cannot bear the thought that somewhere out there some meaning might be lurking. So they gleefully “debunk” any human experiences that seem to rise above the grindingly ordinary. They are the hollow men, and carbuncular. And they are afraid; they do not want their neat, flat system of ordinariness to be blown apart by anomalies, particularly of the woo woo kind
Lovecraft was a skeptic and materialist too, you know. In my experience many skeptics are people who have plenty of imagination and enjoy magic and weird phenomena in fiction, but who also place an extremely high value on truth, on understanding the system of the world, and don’t want to be led down any seductive but false garden paths. It’s also fairly common to find skeptics who were big believers in their youth, but were let down when they realized some claim that seemed so convincing turns out to be full of holes (like your experience of Von Daniken) or just have plausible conventional explanations.
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