Getting Rid of Egregores–Some Options

Dealing with troublesome or competitive egregores, on both a personal and societal level, has been challenging for millennia.  Ancient examples of this struggle can be found in the Bible and in many other sources, since the problem is universal.  Strategies used by individuals and groups eager to preserve their preferred thought forms are frequently violent.  Here is an example from the Book of Deuteronomy:  

“If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying ‘Let us go and worship other gods, (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far…), do not yield to him or listen to him.  Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him.  You must certainly put him to death.  Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, then the hands of all the people.”1  

This approach is frowned upon in multicultural societies like our own.  

However it’s not hard to find examples of similar sentiment, even today.  Those defending their favorite egregores are often willing to vent their wrath on close friends and family—a measure of the intensity of devotion, the power of the egregoric force.2 Even less restraint is shown towards those clearly identified as “the other”, who follow different or contrary thought forms.  Readers can readily identify numerous examples from current events, and from around the world.    

Occult scholars offer more humane approaches, which may not always be effective, given the tenacity of egregoric phenomena.  Mark Stavish3 offers a number of tips for reducing or eliminating the influence of unwanted egregores.  These include developing a strong sense of one’s personal goals, (in contradistinction to those of the negative egregore), reducing or eliminating contact with devotees, rituals, symbols and activities of a negative egregore, and replacing the original need for the egregore with an alternative and more positive focus.  These strategies are similar to those used in cult deprogramming.

For Stavish, the emphasis is on helping the individual seeker to become free of encumbering and distracting egregores, in order to follow a more legitimate spiritual path.  This is not easy to do, and requires considerable self-awareness, concentration and discipline.  He notes that various media are often a source of unwanted egregores.  Those who desire greater spiritual freedom may wish to curtail their consumption of news and advertising.  Because egregores are unavoidable in human organizations, one antidote to their effects may be some kind of monastic or ascetic practice, a way to “detox” in silence or in solitary contemplation of nature.

The issue becomes more problematic at a societal level, when there are two or more egregores in competition and conflict with each other, and attract the allegiance of large numbers of followers. Here more “Deuteronomist” strategies may prevail, with mixed results.  Cancel culture can be seen as a means of combatting unwanted, competing egregores—starving them of “energy” by limiting access to advertising, media, and expression of heretical thought forms.  Advocates of cancel culture appear untroubled by restricting freedom of speech or a vibrant “marketplace of ideas” in their quest for purity.

Historically, the default approach to managing troublesome or competitive egregores has been to put their followers to the sword and their property and paraphernalia to the flame.  “You must purge the evil from among you” as it says repeatedly in Deuteronomy.   Aren’t many of our cities on fire, even now?

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1Deuteronomy 13: 6-9, New International Version.

2I am grateful to one reader who suggested that an egregoric manifestation be considered a quantifiable force with magnitude and direction, that is, a vector—insofar as physics is “super-natural”.   

3Egregores, The Occult Entities that Watch Over Human Destiny (2018), by Mark Stavish.

Pragmatically Speaking

In the last post I consolidated material from two Facebook debates I participated in, one in 2016, and the other this year.  Both occurred on the eve of a presidential election, and so were spirited—sometimes mean-spirited—and partisan.  My intent was to sift the material for useful ideas about reality and “truthiness”.  It may be possible to apply these ideas to egregoric phenomena.

Because I lean strongly towards pragmatism and skepticism—“the truth is only what is useful to believe”—I am cynical about claims to accuracy or objectivity, especially in the media, but elsewhere, too.  It seems that such claims underlie a desire for authority, and hence power, in social, political and economic interactions.  Is it too much to hope that a wooden stake might be driven into the heart of “expert opinion”, of the notion that someone might presume to have the authoritative last word on any question?  The People should think for themselves, and come up with their own answers.

Readers may or may not agree.  But I think I am not alone in being critical of institutions, “expertise”, or news reports.

A pragmatic view of knowledge and experience, combined with our growing loss of shared reality, may create ideal conditions for the development of various types of egregores:  new religions, conspiracy theories, celebrity cults, political movements, idolatries.  (Hence, “Egricgoric Times”.)  In the absence of an acknowledged and revered orthodoxy, all kinds of heresies can germinate.  “Do what thou wilt,” as Aleister Crowley once exhorted his followers, back in the early 1900s.1 “You are the news now!” Q has exclaimed more recently. 

Colin Dickey, in his fascinating survey of fringe beliefs and conspiracy theories2, notes that there has been a significant uptick in the number of people who believe in aliens, cryptids, lost civilizations and other fantastic notions.  The percentage of people who ascribe to the first three has increased approximately 10 to 20 percent since 2015. 

This resurgence is part of an historical pattern that Dickey believes has two 19th century causes.  One of these is “the divorce of science and religion”.  The other was the increasing industrialization and rationalization of society, which led to the “disenchantment” of the world described in Max Weber’s work.  During rapid social and cultural change, when traditional orthodoxies falter, people may seek to order and harmonize their experience through idiosyncratic and pseudoscientific belief systems.  Depending on the fervency of their devotion, these ideas may take on a life of their own, becoming egregores.

The internet serves as an effective cultivator of new thought forms like these that clamor for our attention, worship and emulation.  The web’s decentralization and ease of access creates a fertile soil.  But there is a dark side to this development, a garden of horrors depending on your point of view.  Readers can probably cite numerous examples of how this wondrous communications technology has allowed the dissemination of hateful and violent content, or sown seeds of harmful disinformation, or been used to “cancel” or suppress free speech.  The last line of Psalm 12 seems to apply:  “The wicked freely strut about [online] when what is vile is honored by the human race.”   

It may be that this chaotic, anarchic state—a churn of competing egregores—must occur before a new consensus, a new homeostasis can be formed in society. A catalyst for this may be, as Dickey suggests, the unfortunate separation of science and religion, and the steady “disenchantment” of our world.

1The Book of the Law, (1909) by Aleister Crowley

2See The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained (2020) by Colin Dickey

The Truth About Truth

So far we’ve looked at several examples of egregores in culture and society.  They can be found in religious experience, social deviancy, conspiracy theories, literature, and politics—among other places.  Egregoric phenomena bring to mind philosophical questions about the nature of reality, belief, knowledge, and what constitutes “truth”.  

Last week, the election gave me an opportunity to reprise a Facebook debate I had with some old high school friends back in 2016.  Then, as now, we echoed the political talking points of our preferred media sources.  This time our comments seemed less snarky and overtly partisan, but nothing about them suggested much accrued wisdom after four years—if anything, a growing mental and emotional fatigue.  I was struck with the stability of our respective world views.  Nothing much has changed, though everything around us has.

A focus of both discussions was the nature of reality and truth—unavoidable in the context of a presidential election.  Who is really telling the truth?  Is anybody?  Both the 2016 and 2020 debates were similar in content, so I culled and consolidated key points.  Some of the ideas have broader application than politics, and are relevant to the study of egregoric phenomena.  After clarifying some thoughts on the nature of reality and truth, I will try to apply these notions to egregores in later posts.   

What follows is a summary of this dialogue. I will only present my responses. Readers can use their imagination to reconstruct the comments of my opponents—what provoked my reactions.

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●Thank you KG!  All of us need reminders that we are still good people and fellow citizens, despite our differences of opinion, perspective and news media brand. Whatever the election result in November, the challenge for leadership (and the rest of us) will be to develop unity and a shared sense of reality and purpose, sadly lacking right now.

●Many of us—millions—will likely vote for candidates and policies that differ from the ones others might recommend. For me, it’s not an issue of good vs. evil so much as competing versions of reality, along with different political, social and economic goals. I agree with BN that “this election is fraught with fear”, and with GV that understanding of the other side is in short supply. What makes the whole business fearful is that, absent compromise, a shared reality seems less and less possible.

●BN feels that “compromise is impossible’ and this pretty much sums up the situation, leaving only a binary choice: win or lose. Very limiting, very sad, not likely to end well.

●Not sure that any political party, big or small, would put the needs of the country before its need to seek power for itself. There has to be a common interest, or at least a common threat. What I think could unite the country would be some grand goal that looks to our glorious future. What I would propose: get us off this planet! (The president gets my vote simply for establishing the U.S. Space Force.) Our nation has the means to become the first interplanetary empire, with economically prosperous colonies on the moon, Mars and perhaps further out. Let’s make the Red Planet the Red, White and Blue planet!

●Any unity we can achieve at this point would depend on a shared reality and good old fashioned trust. All of the issues you list above are hopelessly politicized, and with virtually no objective sources of information, no one “expert” is credible outside their particular partisan group. (That magazine story is suspicious given its reliance on unnamed sources, and the fact that the owner is a major contributor to the other campaign.)

●It would take at least two people to politicize anything—by having different perspectives on the same issue. Partisans on both sides have politicized the virus and many other issues in an effort to “control the narrative”, and this will likely intensify as the election gets nearer. But I can appreciate the cleverness and creativity that goes into these efforts—on both sides!

●But who needs facts? History is all about interpretation anyway, a job best left to the victorious.  If morality, ethics and entire cultures can be “relative”, why not the facts as well? “What is truth?” as Pilate asks.  For your sake you had better hope that our party does not win, as we will need a steady supply of your kind to throw into the gaping maw of Him Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken, (HWNMNBS).  And by the way, those of us on this side do take our country seriously, indeed that’s why we want to “take it back”.

●Facts and data serve political beliefs, but aren’t inherently true or useful. It depends on who is collecting them and for what purpose. I don’t expect a politician to be truthful, nor would I fault them for only mentioning the “truths” that support their election. In my view, the obsession with facts and accuracy is preposterous. As pragmatists might say, what is true is only what is useful to believe—or to have others believe, (a little Machiavelli here).  And to be fair I would not expect Breitbart or Fox or MSNBC or CNN to be absolutely honest, only effective at what they do.

●As for reality, well exactly what is that? We create it by what we attend to and how we interpret what we observe—facts certainly don’t determine reality by themselves. We pick the facts that are useful and discard the rest. Both political parties know this and are very skillful at it. My hunch is that reality, like history, is determined by the victors—political, economic, military, religious. I’m excited about the possibility of changing reality in this election, aren’t you?

●Do we believe in anything at all? Are we as fervent and willing as our enemies are to defend our way of life, our core beliefs—with our own lives and treasure? Or better, do we have the will—in a Nietzschean sense—to increase our power and extend the reach of our world view, our nationhood, our culture? This has nothing to do with reason, curiosity or a desire to understand. Combatants perceive the world in very different ways—as do political conservatives and progressives on a smaller, and for the moment, less violent scale. Mutual understanding is unlikely. It may not be possible or even desirable. Three options remain: victory, defeat, and relentless, unending struggle. The victorious get to determine “the facts” and what they might mean—get to say what reality is. (Plan B of course is “relentless and unending struggle”, and is the more likely outcome.)

●Not sure that I am easily conned. Being a Calvinist-sympathizer, I tend to view the entire human race as totally depraved and deserving of damnation, were it not for the occasional and unpredictable grace of God. Certainly we are incapable of saving ourselves through science, technology, socialism, positive thinking or whatever. (I’ll leave art alone—you may be on to something there.)

●Your memory is still sound; I was indeed raised a Catholic, but later defected to a denomination in the Calvinist tradition. Honestly, I miss the idolatry, mysticism and sacramental traditions for which horror and fantasy are only a partial substitute. On the other hand, absolute truth, omnipotence and predestination are attractive concepts. But they aren’t for everybody. (In fact, they are only for The Elect.)

●Aren’t all political parties based on “greed, lies, evil, oppression, racism, and so much that is dark”? Without fear and deceit, who would encourage any of these jokers by voting for them or paying attention to them or supporting them with money?

●I definitely support “acts of love and kindness, empathy and compassion”, since these are evidence of our connection to the divine, but they don’t come naturally in a fallen world. I also agree that “people can do great things and great things indeed happen that make the world a better place.” But it doesn’t take much—a few invocations, a few blood sacrifices—to bring the Old Ones back, whether you conceive of them as monstrous entities from another dimension or perennial social evils like political oppression, racism, or war.

●I agree with you that cynicism may be incapable of creating a better world, but it certainly prevents the creation of a worse one. Brick by brick, cynicism undoes that road to hell that the good intentions of others are hell-bent on paving. Certainly “there are truths, there is reality…”, but yours are not the same as mine, and those of our enemies are even more different. You labor under the delusion that humanity can perfect itself with just the right amount of social engineering and thought control. But we have already had aeons to accomplish this!

●Certainly I appreciate irony—driven by how far short our actions fall before our ideals, a function of our original sin, our depravity. “Horrid, evil people and ideas” inhabit both parties and all human endeavor to some degree—how could it be otherwise? I don’t expect a candidate to be perfect, only effective. As for good and evil, don’t they seem almost inextricably mixed together in this election?

●The skeptic in me questions all authority and any media or so-called experts—scientific or otherwise—who would presume to have the last word on any subject. The post-fact world is the real world, (it always has been). Pragmatically, it makes more sense to evaluate the intent, rather than the factuality of some group’s message, especially if politically or economically motivated. Consider the source. Follow the money. Science and perceptions of reality are inextricably linked to politics. (The decision to fund or promulgate scientific research is ultimately a political decision.) What then is truth in a post-fact world? Truth is only what is useful to believe.

●I can see that you believe sincerely and passionately in your particular world view, and in the implications that flow from that world view. Beliefs, values, ethics, and a sense of reality—what little we can actually perceive of it—are connected to this world view. But my perspective is different from yours, and understanding is limited without a shared reality. Trying to explain, much less debate, will likely not be fruitful. But understanding and agreement are not necessary to move forward. Eventually deals will be made all over to heal our fractured society, so that our country can get back to business. I’m optimistic.

Egregoric Monsters in Early 20th Century Horror Fiction

But enough about politics, at least for the moment.  Suffice it to say that an egregoric process may be present in the emergence of game-changing political, religious and social movements.  Indeed, such movements appear guided and empowered by an egregore with a life and agency of its own, sustained by the devotion of its followers, able to effect change.  That an egregore can become monstrous under certain conditions, (e.g. socially constructed serial killers) is easy to demonstrate in reality and in literature.

Some examples of early twentieth century horror fiction1 that illustrate the concept of the egregore include Clark Ashton Smith’s Genius Loci (1933), Manly Wade Wellman’s Up Under the Roof (1938), Theodore Sturgeon’s Shadow, Shadow On the Wall, (1950) and H.P. Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark (1936).  (All of these should be considered required reading for horror aficionados.) 

In Genius Loci, an artist and two of his friends are drawn inexorably to their doom in a desolate marsh by an entity they have brought into being through the obsessive attention they give it.  Smith implies that the manifestation and activation of this malign presence is an artistic process. That is, it requires an artist or someone of artistic temperament. In Wellman’s story, a young boy must face an amorphous, amoeba like creature that his imagination has conjured in the attic above his bedroom.  In Sturgeon’s story, an abused child embodies his rage in a shadow on the wall, which grows large and aggressive enough over time to devour his awful stepmother. 

Though not a precise fit, H.P. Lovecraft’s story arguably falls into this category.  The doomed Robert Blake accidentally invokes a manifestation of Nyarlathotep by focusing his attention using the Shining Trapezohedron.  He eventually becomes psychically possessed and later destroyed by the entity.  It seems a commonplace among those who would conjure an egregore—either willfully or inadvertently—that they may lose control of the monstrosity and are overpowered by it.

Lovecraft has several stories that describe egregoric horrors.  His protagonists tend to be lonely, scholarly dabblers who blunder into some nebulous, undifferentiated evil.  His heroes, if they can be called that, struggle ineffectively against some entity, growing weaker and overwhelmed as the other comes into focus.

Lovecraft’s early story, “The Tomb” (1922), depicts the gradual, relentless possession of a young man who makes ritual-like visits to an ancient family crypt.  In “The Rats in the Walls” (1924), the descendant of a notorious clan succumbs to the manifestation of a cannibalistic ancestor.  Delapore, the narrator, naively rebuilds the family homestead—a shrine to a dark, eldritch history.  In “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1933), the mere proximity of Walter Gilman to the desiccated remains of Keziah Mason and her familiar, Brown Jenkin—tucked into the hidden attic above his bedroom—is sufficient to alter his dreams and understanding of reality, and draw him against his will into unspeakable ritual acts.  Here is an egregoric explanation of “Brown Jenkin” from that story:

“That object—no larger than a good-sized rat and quaintly called by the townspeople ‘Brown Jenkin’—seemed to have been the fruit of a remarkable case of sympathetic herd-delusion, for in 1692 no less than eleven persons had testified to glimpsing it.”

“Sympathetic herd-delusion” seems an apt descriptor of what we are calling an egregore.

Probably the most elaborate depiction of a malevolent egregor in Lovecraft’s fiction is found in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” (1941).  The evil necromancer Joseph Curwin is able to reconstitute himself through the naïve scholarship and occult dabbling of his doomed descendent, Charles Ward.

In all of these examples, the Lovecraftian protagonist does not actively summon the horror, but is a passive victim, swayed by supernatural forces he barely understands, terrified of them, and subject to their will.  Conjuration involves antiquarian scholarship, obsession, and relentless, irresistible attention, which brings the dreaded entity into focus and gives it power.

Readers can probably think of additional examples of egregores in horror fiction, both past and present. It is a very powerful idea, probably ancient and archetypal.  But the idea of the egregore is interesting for reasons other than its frequent appearance, or perhaps materialization, in horror and fantasy.  It may also serve as the base material for the creation—through imagination, visualization, dream imagery and worshipful attention—of gods, ghosts, demons and other supernatural phenomena.  It also seems to be the prima materia for all kinds of idolatry.  The process that engenders the egregore may be the troublesome link between nightmare, religion and culture, an underlying theme of this blog.

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1This was the focus of an earlier blog of mine, The R’lyeh Tribune, at blog-sothoth.blogspot.com. 

Watching a New Egregore Coming to Life

Where should one look for evidence of an emerging egregore?  Of various criteria indicating extraterrestrial or super-natural life—growth may be the easiest to demonstrate.  Besides obvious markers like increasing size and number, an investigator might also look for anxiety and resistance in the social environment, a response to the newcomer’s expanding presence. 

We read in the media warnings about the growing strength—in numbers and political influence—of the movement called QAnon.1  Twitter recently pulled more than 150,000 QAnon related accounts, and Facebook identified thousands of active QAnon groups and pages at its site.  Since 2017 QAnon has developed a strong presence on Facebook, YouTube and Discord.   Progressives have begun a jeremiad to discredit QAnon by exaggerating its more extremist conspiracy ideas, including the president’s fight against a secret organization of Satanic pedophiles in media and government, the suspicion that Covid-19 was created by the “deep state”, birtherism, U.F.Os, and so forth.  But one person’s conspiracy may be another’s evangelism.

Go to recent political developments and one can see other aspects of a viable egregore, namely reproduction and irritability.  QAnon now supports dozens of candidates in state and national primaries, one of whom—Marjorie Taylor Green of Georgia—is favored to win in the general election.2 Cross-pollination of QAnon memes with established political and social organizations has helped the movement to multiply rapidly.  QAnon slogans appear in Texas Republican Party materials, and the president has reportedly retweeted QAnon followers at least 201 times.  Political leaders who criticize the movement or warn of its growing clout are beginning to receive some pushback on line.

One example of irritability—how the life form behaves in the presence of noxious environmental stimuli—may be the movement’s online response to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.  Deemed to be insufficiently supportive of the president’s approach to the pandemic, and possibly compromised by previous interactions with the Obama administration, Fauci has been accused by QAnon of being a member of the aforementioned cabal of Satanic child abusers, and even a creator of the coronavirus.  These and other extremist communications have led the Justice Department to provide heightened security measures for him.3    

We don’t yet know if QAnon will last beyond 2020, since it seems inextricably mixed with current politics.  Its focus is clearly tied to the outcome of the presidential election, often cast in apocalyptic imagery by QAnon’s followers.  Yet the message—and there may be more than one—is broader than politics.  Some of the content suggests a religious sensibility.  Followers await “The Great Awakening”, an idea with religious and historical significance in America.  The worshipful attention given its leader’s pronouncements approaches idolatry. 

Go back to the beginning of QAnon, and one sees elements comparable to traditional egregoric phenomena.  QAnon’s genesis is obscure, but may have come about in October 2017 when the mysterious “Q”, its prophet and progenitor, began making “Q drops”.  These were veiled messages to followers on 4chan4, given scriptural authority by a source with supposed access to high level government intelligence.  Harassed by the establishment, Q migrated to various platforms, limiting detection using a secret passcode known only to the enlightened.  QAnon has a litany of acronyms, slogans, and themes to be chanted, even digital oath-taking to catechize neophytes.  It has its own merchandise.  Is this not a religion with its own object of worship?

All that is needed for an egregore like QAnon to manifest is a polarized society bereft of a shared reality.  A mysterious prophet can then articulate the nature of the movement and direct its worshipful attention towards growth and materialization. Skillful use of the internet can expedite this evangelism, quickened by the apocalyptic unfolding of a pandemic.  Most of all, the new egregore needs attention.  As I write this, another horrified editorial in this morning’s New York Times exhorts us to pay attention to this movement—which is exactly what it needs to survive and grow.

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1See for examples “From Far Right to Election Night: QAnon Gaining at Ballot Box”, NYT, 8/14/20 and “More in G.O.P. Speak the Language of QAnon”, NYT, 8/21/20.

2QAnon’s early political successes have been compared to the start of the Tea Party circa 2009.  

3 “The Prophecies of Q” by Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic June 2020.  A helpful analysis from the perspective of the liberal media.

4This may constitute a “naming event”, a kind of conjuration that brought it into being, and provided an object of focus.

But Are They Alive?

Railing against what he saw as the stupidity of making and worshipping idols, the unknown author of Psalm 135 describes how “They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, nor is their breath in their mouths.”1 And the prophet Jeremiah—from whom the pejorative term jeremiad2 is derived—has this to say: 

“For the customs of the people are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.  They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter.  Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk.  Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good.”3

An image fashioned of raw materials—or digital media for that matter—is demonstrably lifeless, but is this the complete reality?  As any pious heathen or pagan knows, an idol isn’t the object of worship itself.  It’s a tangible symbol, a reminder, a marker of sacred space with which to focus the believer’s attention, similar to statues in a Catholic church or those adorning a national monument.

Jeremiah and others over the centuries may underestimate the power of supposedly lifeless, impotent statues.  Then as now, why must so many be defaced and torn down, their followers “put to the sword”, if indeed idols and statues are lifeless?  It’s because a viable faith, combined with disciplined, concentrated worship, sacrifice and dedication of material resources is still effective:  it can invoke and sustain an entity, giving it a seemingly independent existence.

If the statues are not alive, what about the entities or egregores that they represent? 

Scientists, in particular, exobiologists have developed a set of criteria for determining whether extraterrestrial phenomena can be considered indicative of a life form.4 The basic requirements are a capacity for growth, movement, irritability, reproduction and metabolism.  Yet because extraterrestrial—and conceivably, supernatural—life forms may not resemble familiar terrestrial biology, criteria have been broadened to capture phenomena that may not exhibit what is easily perceived as life

Another requirement recently proposed is that the life form be able to store and transfer information—typically, but not necessarily, in the form of macromolecules that convey genetic and metabolic coding.

Do egregores exhibit any or all the attributes of a living organism?  It seems that they do, and in ways that are quantifiable.  In an earlier post it was suggested that energy consumption could be measured indirectly, through diversion of material resources, money, labor, time and space as sustenance—a kind of socially mediated metabolism.  Other examples of lifelike attributes will be discussed in future posts.

1Psalm 135, NIV.

2 “…a prolonged lamentation or complaint; also: a cautionary or angry harangue” according to Webster’s.  It may also be a typical establishment response to an emerging or competitive egregoric phenomenon.

3Jeremiah 10: 3-5, NIV.

4An Analysis of the Extraterrestrial Life Detection Problem, by Richard S. Young, Robert B. Painter, and Richard D. Johnson.

The Uncanniness of Online Meeting Platforms

Like millions of other people, I have been conducting much of my life “remotely” these days, using online meeting platforms like Zoom, GoToMeeting and the like.  At first the experience reminded me of that TV show from the 60s and 70s, The Hollywood Squares1a human Tic Tac Toe game enlivened by amusing repartee among celebrity contestants.

Family gatherings, our local science fiction/fantasy book group, my job, and even church now depend on these video conferencing technologies.  As with many changes in society, this development was accelerated by the pandemic, and since March has become commonplace for many.  If you step back from it though, there is something odd about the experience.

The visual aspect of a Zoom or GoToMeeting session is strange.  Depending on the size of your gathering, fellow guests are confined to boxes that range in size from that of postcards to matchbooks or smaller.  I’ve attended large business meetings where the participants were reduced to the size of postage stamps—an animated organizational chart. 

With the reduction in size is also a diminishment of other parts of normal human communication: gesture, eye contact, nonverbal vocalizations, (“Please put yourselves on mute.”).  These are the signals we give each other to manage conversational turn-taking, and which often carry the whale of our communicative intent.

The weirdest part of the experience is seeing yourself in one of those boxes, another “you” paying attention—or not—while the other crated personalities try to get a word in edgewise.  Could this other “you” be a double, a doppelgänger?  Or perhaps you become an avatar, as the new technology transforms your 3d form into something recognizable, but not quite the same.  (Isn’t it jarring to see real versions of friends after interacting with them virtually for so long?)

Author Margot Harrison touches on this uncanniness in a recent essay in the New York Times Book Review.2 She describes how she found it challenging to write psychological horror about technology.  Typical horror stories evoke the terror of being alone and isolated, while communication technologies emphasize connectedness with others. However, she feels that the anxiety and uncanniness inherent in “…the liminal space between presence and absence, reality and unreality…” can be a source of inspiration for such literature. 

In her essay she references two key studies of what we might call the egregoric, Sigmund Freud’s famous 1919 essay The Uncanny, and Arthur Koestler’s influential 1967 book, The Ghost in the Machine. Both will likely be part of future discussions here.3 Harrison suggests that what horror lurks in online meetings has more to do with human compulsions and loneliness than the technology itself.     

We shape new technologies which in turn shape us.  There is talk of how working and meeting remotely is ending the need for offices, buildings, commuting, and centralized economic activity.  This may reduce the need for cities, at least as we know them now.  As our physical landscape dramatically changes, how will the uncanniness of social networking impact society and the individual soul? 

1See https://gameshows.fandom.com/wiki/Hollywood_Squares.

2“The Horror of Connection” by Margot Harrison, New York Times Book Review, 7/26/20.

3Along with Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality (1966) and others.

The Social Construction of Serial Killers

The last post discussed a horrific school shooting in Oregon some years back.  In retrospect the event seemed to be mediated in part by an internet subculture, a “fraternity of shooters”.  The eerie invocation of the name of an earlier mass murderer suggested an egregoric process of some sort, and one broadly active in society.

Writing in the mid-1990s, Mark Seltzer, a professor of English at Cornell, attempted to describe the nature of the serial killer.1 He was struck by the banality of Thomas Dillon, a civil servant who murdered five men in Ohio and who wrote letters to a local newspaper about his activities.  Seltzer suggested that the creation of such a being develops from an interplay between the social construction of the idea “serial killer”, and the individual predisposed to become one. 

Seltzer described how the term first came into use in the mid-1970s, the result of a “naming event”, which involved “…the positing of a category or type of person as a sort of point of attraction around which a range of acts, effects, fantasies, and representations then begin to orbit.”  One can see this naming event as laying the groundwork for a socially mediated invocation of a particular kind of being, egregoric in nature.

Following this naming event, individuals who lack a coherent sense of self may emulate the name, and begin to exhibit its powers, habits and characteristics.  Seltzer remarked that attempts to analyze and explain the motives of the typical serial killer have been problematic. He observed that “one sees the uncanny intimation that the killer’s private compulsion is nothing but these public accountings of the subject, turned outside in.”

One of the insights offered by Seltzer is that society and the monstrous individuals it contains engage in symbiotic relationships, creating conditions favorable for a serial killer to emerge, and that sustain his existence.  He calls this engagement “wound culture”. 

Wound culture has emerged through a combination of several developments in society over the past few decades.  One of these is “the emergence of psychology as public culture”.  Wound culture includes the preoccupation with self-help and self-actualization on a personal and societal level—bringing to mind such notions as “future shock”, “the culture of narcissism, “Prozac nation”, “trauma culture” and so forth.

Related to this is the increasing dissolution of boundaries between private and public life, the transformation of life into simulations of life patterned on media imagery, and the confusion of reality and fantasy. Looking back decades later, Seltzer seems to have anticipated the impact of social media on individual identity, and on a socially shared sense of reality. 

In the case of the serial killer, the psychologically empty individual is able to fashion a self—one capable of horrific violence–out of the “acts, effects, fantasies, and representations” supplied by society through various media.  Seltzer notes that serial killers often read books about fictional serial killers—books modelled on events involving real serial killers.  It becomes difficult to distinguish the individual killer from the image—really, an idol—that society creates for him to emulate.  Did one come before the other?

The serial killer is an extreme example of a more general egregoric process—the conjuring and sustaining of social phenomena that seem to have an existence separate from the minds that create them.    

1“The Serial Killer as a Type of Person”, an extract from Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture, by Mark Seltzer, in The Horror Reader (2000), edited by Ken Gelder.

Internetromancy

In his book about Lovecraft’s influence on occult traditions1, John L. Steadman defines an egregore as an entity intentionally created by a black “magickian” for a specific purpose.  This willful creation of the egregore is accomplished either by evocation or invocation.

During an evocation, the practitioner summons the entity. This is done by implanting the image and of the egregore in the subconscious mind, energizing this image through specific rituals, and sending the entity on toward whatever task was planned for it to accomplish.  An invocation is different.  Here the practitioner in some sense becomes the entity.  He or she identifies with its nature, achieves a kind of unity with it, and for a time demonstrates its powers and characteristics.

Though familiar, this view of the evocation or invocation of egregoric phenomena seems incomplete.  Can’t egregores be unintentionally created, manifested by accident?  This occurs often in horror literature and film, a familiar trope.  More broadly, the concept of the egregore is applicable to a variety of phenomena that we experience collectively, in society.

Egregores are probably source material for gods, ghosts, demons and other supernatural beings.  Surely it is the inspiration for idolatry, a recurrent horror of the Old Testament.   But egregores appear in disturbing secular experiences as well:  extremist political movements, xenophobia, and celebrity cults, among others.  Insofar as they influence collective human behavior, egregores are potentially very powerful, even dangerous. 

Several years ago NPR broadcast an interview with Malcom Gladwell, who spoke on the sociology of mass shooters.  He was asked to comment about the mass shooting at Umqua Community College in Oregon, in which ten people were killed, including the murderer, who took his own life.  (The event occurred October 1, 2015.)

Gladwell described a theory related to riot behavior called “the hundredth shooter”.  According to the theory the first shooter is the most radical and charismatic.  However, by the time of the hundredth shooter, the act has become ritualized, and what emerges is a “fraternity of shooters”.  While the first shooter may have been a sociopath with severe mental and emotional problems, the hundredth shooter, while somewhat deviant, is not as extreme or distinguishable. 

Gladwell went on to discuss Eric Harris, who with another student committed the horrible Columbine murders.  Gladwell quoted the young man who shot the people at Umqua as saying “Eric Harris is in my head”.  What could this mean?  Gladwell observed that posts on social media emulating Eric Harris were numerous at the time of the Umqua shootings—perhaps a kind of “internetromancy”.  Another disturbing fact about the Umqua murders is that the perpetrator asked several of the victims to name their respective religions before he shot them to death.

As we know, there have been similar and equally horrific events since the mass in Oregon five years ago—many.  Is this a type of egregore, sustained in the minds of isolated, emotionally unstable young men?  It’s chilling to think that social media inadvertently creates a way for an egregoric version of a mass murderer to be invoked and re-invoked.

1 H.P. Lovecraft and the Black Magickal Tradition (2015)

Egregore “Energy”, Attention and Cost

In the last post I briefly examined competition between egregores, with examples taken from the Hebrew Testament and the New Testament. 

The book of Isaiah records the ongoing struggle of the ancient Israelites to avoid the distraction and assimilation of rival belief systems, a dynamic that continued for millennia.  The situation in Ephesus, where the Apostle Paul’s evangelical efforts threatened the local silversmith business (Acts 19: 23-27), shows what can happen when a competing egregore emerges to threaten the status quo.  A new egregore in the neighborhood is often bad for business.

When established, a local egregore is empowered and sustained by energies derived from the rituals, beliefs, worship and sacrifices of its faithful community.  Joscelyn Godwin—cited in Mark Stavish’s book about egregores1—claims that this entity can appear over time to develop an active and independent existence.  The egregore then requires continuous devotion to maintain itself. 

However, the egregore is vulnerable to the distractibility of its followers.  They may transfer their attentiveness and energy to rival belief systems over time, and so weaken the egregore, making it less able to protect and provide for the society.  The original agreement—in biblical terms, a “covenant”—is broken, and disaster follows.

What exactly is this energy that fuels the existence of egregores?  It is not electromagnetic, thermal, chemical or mechanical in nature.  Since we suspect that egregores exist, how do we observe them, or quantify the energy with which they are fashioned or invoked?   What do we look for? What are their material signs? 

“Energy” in this context is a metaphor, a pseudo-scientific gloss for a phenomena that is difficult to understand, much less measure.  And there are subtle spiritual, psychological and social elements that defy mere counting and analysis.  Nevertheless, it will be helpful to find a less subjective approach to the study of egregores.  It may be that the energy we are talking about is really attention, and this is a process that can be quantified in direct and indirect ways.  

Attention might be measured in the number of adherents, the amount of money and material resources devoted to worship, the amount of time spent worshipping or invoking the entity, and even the physical labor and cost of creating sacred space and the implements for ritual practice. 

The prophet Isaiah might righteously have asked: “How much gold and silver, how much cedar, oak and pine went into this idol?”  (We might ask:  how many of our votes, how much air time, how many clicks, how much of our taxes, how many of our children, how many of our purchases, how much of our day, how much of…)

1Egregores, The Occult Entities that Watch Over Human Destiny, by Mark Stavish (2018).

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