Open book with Mitch Horowitz
PITTSFIELD — If you've visited Hancock Shaker Village and strolled through its tranquil gardens and fields, it's not a leap to understand why this Shaker community was known as "The City of Peace." What may be hard to believe is that, at one time, the Shakers — a community that valued simplicity, equality, pacifism, sustainability and responsible land stewardship — were seen as a radical sect of the Protestant Christian Faith.
The Shakers, officially The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, were persecuted and incarcerated for practicing their beliefs — which included emphatic dancing. A key expression of the Shaker's spirituality, dancing, they believed, was a way to shake off their sins.
"The Shakers were part of a migration of religious radicals to the American colonies, which reflected the colonies' reputation as a safe harbor for people accused of heresy in the Old World (not that the Shakers didn't have struggles here, too)," said Mitch Horowitz, author of "Occult America: White House S ances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation." "Because they engaged in direct contact with their perceptions of the spirit world, including things we today would call s ances and channeling, they cracked open the door to such experiences in American life, which later emerged as occult practices in the mid-1800s under Spiritualism, mediumship and Mesmerism."
A former journalist and book editor turned author, Horowitz will speak at Hancock Shaker Village at 6 p.m., Friday, June 28, as part of the ongoing Food for Thought series, which includes a seasonal dinner, wine and a copy of "Occult America." Tickets, available online at hancockshakervillage.org, are $100.
Religious groups like the Shakers, as well as other organizations affiliated with spirituality and mysticism, both public and secret, had an impact on modern American culture and politics, he told The Eagle during a recent interview.
The writings of Manly P. Hall (a mystic and occult scholar, as well as the founder of The Philosophical Research Society), Horowitz said, are little-known outside certain circles but have influenced many writers and heads of state, including President Ronald Reagan. Reagan, he said, often peppered his speeches with Hall's ideas and phraseology. A piece written by the president in 1981 for Parade Magazine, "What July Fourth Means to me," is one of the best examples of Reagan's belief that America had a "secret destiny," he said. (Hall wrote prolifically on how the United States was founded by esoteric societies to spread liberty to the rest of the world.)
"I was absolutely awestruck ... I later discovered these references and phrases kept showing up, beginning at the start of his political career, when he was the corporate spokesman for GE through his presidency, including his speech at the Statue of Liberty's centenary, which was seen by millions of people on television," Horowitz said.
While Reagan's belief in certain occult topics is nothing new — it was well known the president and the first lady were believers in positive thinking and astrology — his continued references were both a revelation and a confirmation for Horowitz that Reagan's occult knowledge went deeper than most would think. And documenting the occult's influence on culture, religion and politics is not only important to the author, for historical purposes, but it's also a passion of his.
"My interest in the occult started when I was a little kid. I had a deep interest in folklore; with superstition. I was fascinated by Pennsylvania Dutch folklore. I was fascinated by the things I was seeing on television about Sasquatch, about UFOs. I had a passion that I was fortunate enough to sustain into adulthood," he said.
Q: Do you have any particular reference books you use when writing about the occult?
A: I really make an effort to track down as much in the way of primary resources as possible because there's just so much misinformation and hearsay or misreportage involved that gets mixed up into the record when you're writing about anything esoteric or occult in nature. It's profoundly important to ask yourself questions to corroborate sources, to use primary sources wherever possible. My wish, when I write about a topic, is that I write about it with the highest possible standards of accuracy. So, I'm very, very careful and I'm very selective ... I really try to find some sort of primary documentation in the form of letters or diaries. So, I don't rely too heavily on reference materials. I find, unfortunately there is so much misreportage out there, that [reference materials] are difficult to trust. And that's true for many topics. I used to think the occult, in particular, had a problem in the area of accuracy in reportage, research and references, but I later came to find that to be true in general.
Q: Who is your favorite occult author? Favorite author on positive thinking?
A: My favorite is a figure named Neville Goddard. I've written a fair amount about him in articles online and on Medium. Neville was a British Barbadon mystic. He lived and worked in America for most of his life until his death in 1972. Neville's teaching was that your imagination is God; that everything you see and experience is the product of your own emotionalized thought and pictures. He could argue this very radical proposition in a very elegant, reasonable way. He had a very wonderfully debonair appearance and manner of speaking. He was as handsome as a movie star, but he very rarely permitted himself to be photographed. He was just a wonderfully educated figure, who taught this one simple, yet radical message his entire career. He was very independent, he had no business apparatus at his back. My favorite author on positive thinking? Neville would be the same guy ... If I were to pick a second occult author, it would be Manly P. Hall, who wrote the "Secret Teachings of All Ages." He was the first one who gave me a sense that writing about the occult in a historic way could be a true passion in itself. I never met Stanley, he died before I had gotten into this seriously. But his career, his background, his persona ... have all formed a big influence on me.
Q: What is your favorite book about positive thinking?
A: My favorite book in that area is "Resurrection" by Neville Goddard. "Resurrection" was the first book I bought after I was introduced to Neville by [former Oakland Athletic's pitcher] Barry Zito. It was published in 1966. I was absolutely hooked. It is one of the most formative books in my life.
Q: What is your favorite book on the occult?
A: "The Secret Teachings of All Ages" by Manly P. Hall is a favorite of mine. It is absolutely unparalleled. Manly published it in 1928 when he was only 27 years old. If you look at some of my writing on him, you'll realize this book is so magisterial. It covers topics ranging from Pythagorean mathematics to the architecture of ancient Egypt to Native American theology. It spans huge swaths of time and history and geography, studying different occult and esoteric traditions throughout human history. The fact that he published such and extraordinary epic work at the age of 27 is a mystery in itself. He was a self-educated young man who grew up in Canada and the American Midwest. His ability to produce a book of such quality and such vastness at such a young age was remarkable by itself.
Q: What books are on your nightstand?
A: Currently, I'm reading "Yes I Can" by Sammy Davis Jr. It's his autobiography. It's my second reading because I absolutely love the book. It so starkly honest. I just finished reading the book "We are The Clash." They were huge heroes to me. I'm also reading a translation of "Faust" by a translator named Martin Greenberg and I'm reading a book called "The Sex Pistols Invade America" Punk rock and the occult tend to be the pivot points of my life.
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