The Appeal of the Impossible

Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 9, Number 2, 1992, pages 190-205

The Appeal of the Impossible and the Efflorescence of the Unbelievable: A Psychoanalytic Perspective on Cults and Occultism

David A. Halperin, M.D., F.A.P.A.

Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry

Mount Sinai School of Medicine

New York, New York


There has been a tremendous efflorescence of interest in the occult, the supernatural, and the satanic. On the level of popular culture, widespread popularity has been earned by books that embody themes of magic, the magical, and the afterlife. In vulnerable individuals, this interest has encouraged an affiliation with groups that propound magic(k) and occult rituals as serious solutions to severe personal problems. This article presents brief descriptions of the more significant writers whose work has led to the formation of occult groups and to an increased interest in satanism. Relevant aspects of their work and its appeal to adolescents are examined from a psychoanalytic perspective. Finally, case histories are presented to illustrate these issues.

Our society has witnessed the unprecedented expansion of its scientific horizons into the realms of the infinitely great and the infinitely minute. It has seen an extraordinary growth in the knowledge of neuropsychology and neurophysiology, where human intervention into the very structures of heredity has become so routinized that the procedures of genetic engineering are of as great an interest to the stockbrokers as the scientist. This same society has witnessed a paradoxical efflorescence of interest in the occult. Moreover, the very adolescents whose parents form the avant garde of this scientific elite are avid consumers of a new obscurantism with its systematized argot of “magick“ and the satanic.

The increased interest in the occult and the nonrational among adolescents parallels the growth of New Age paradigms in society as a whole. New Age boutiques spring up like mushrooms, hawking ordinary crystals at truly extraordinary prices because of their “healing powers.“ New Age channelers, such as J. Z. Knight and Penny Torres, “communicate” with “entities” named Ramtha and Mafu, who inhabit locales as diverse as Atlantis and Pompeii. On a more malignant level, individuals desert their homes and families in fear of an impending Armageddon, seeking shelter in Montana or joining organizations that promise temporal power in the “new age of enlightenment.” Even in the Confederation of Independent States, observers have noted an explosive growth of interest in the occult and the magical. This article uses psychoanalytic insights to clarify the appeal of the incomprehensible and the unbelievable (Halperin, 1983).

Historical Perspectives

Interest in “magick” is a persistent current in our technologically preoccupied civilization. In the Renaissance, Pico della Mirandola introduced the study of Cabala to Christian intellectuals. Paracelsus and Giordano Bruno, seminal figures in the creation of the scientific attitude, also expressed an interest in the occult (Wills, 1992). In the 17th century, Rosicrucianism and comparable systems played in the organization of science, including such groups as The Royal Society. Later, within the political sphere, Freemasonry played an important cultural role during the Enlightenment, influencing figures as diverse as Benjamin Franklin (the obverse of the Great Seal of the United States is Masonic in origin) and Mozart (The Magic Flute is an allegory grounded in Masonic ritual).

The advance of scientific thought during the 19th century was paralleled by increased interest in cabalistic thought and ritual magic. Elephas Levy in his Histoire de la Haute Magie, Les Clefs des Grands Mystère, and Dogma et Rituel de la Haute Magie capitalized on this interest in the exotic and sensational. His work was influential, attracting literary figures such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Rimbaud, himself, with his juxtaposition of fevered creativity, drug use, and quasimanic search for decadence and depravity is the prototype of the modern adolescent whose search for transcendence is the counterpoint of his fears of evanescence, transience, and alienation (Halperin, 1987). And, in modern adolescents one sees the attraction to marginal and destructive groups who lure vulnerable adolescents who may feel Rimbaud's rage but lack his creativity.

Aleister Crowley: Magister Ludi

The most influential figure in the modern satanist and occult movements was Aleister Crowley. Crowley was a self-styled practitioner of “magick.” A product of a family adhering to a fundamentalist dissenter group, the Plymouth Brethren, Crowley served as an organizing nidus against the complacency of Edwardian England. His occult lodge, The Order of the Golden Dawn, was a quasi-Masonic group that trafficked in pretentious ritualized “magick” and adopted as its motto: “Do As Thou Wilt.” Literary figures such as William Butler Yeats were briefly attracted to Crowley. But they were rapidly repelled by his authoritarianism and his reliance on quasimystical cant in a ceaseless effort to outrage the establishment.

Crowley's activities appear to reflect his rage at having spent his childhood under the governance of the Plymouth Brethren. It may be apocryphal but nonetheless plausible that his mother identified him with the Beast of Revelations during his childhood, and that Crowley adopted this projection as his adult identity. In any event, during his life he signed his letters “666” (or “FFF”). While Crowley may have seen himself as an occult confidence man, his books ”The Book of the Law, The Lesser Key of Solomon, and Magick: Theory and Practice” form the basis for the modern “scriptures” of Satanism such as the Necronomicon (1977) and the Satanic Bible (LaVey, 1969).

The organizations that Crowley founded are not currently extant, and the members of groups founded by his latter-day disciples, such as the Temple of Set and the Church of Satan, are not numerous. The importance of these organizations lies in their providing the vulnerable adolescent with support and an alternate object for identification and/or idealization.

For these adolescents, these “scriptures” reaffirm their sense of alienation and undermine the influence of conventional morality. These groups and their literature may provide an intellectual framework for vulnerable adolescents in search of an intellectual reinforcement for their rage at an adult world whose morality they regard as hypocritical. The simplified Machiavellianism of the Temple of Set may appeal to adolescents who see the world around them as being dominated by force, immorality, and unreason. Moreover, Crowley's disciples appeal to those adolescents whose fear of their environment has reached such frightening proportions that they must resort to “magick” to feel that survival is possible. Indeed, in literary works dealing with occultism and in clinical cases in which occultism has played a significant role, an evident leitmotif is the need for “magick,” the need to utilize symbolic rituals to control an otherwise ominous world.

Modern Literary Perspective

Arthur Machen was one of Crowley's most prominent literary disciples. Machen was briefly a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn. Subsequently, he became a member of the “Inklings,” a literary group of Christian apologists which formed around Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis. During his early period Machen was fascinated by the aestheticism of evil. In his The White People, he propounds a Crowleyesque doctrine redolent of Huysmans and fin-de-siècle Paris:

“Sorcery and sanctity,” said Ambrose, “these are the only realities. Each is an ecstasy, a withdrawal from the common life....

“I think you are falling into the very general error of confining the spiritual world to the supremely good; but the supremely wicked necessarily have their portion in it....

“Great people of all kinds forsake the imperfect copies and go to the perfect originals. I have no doubt but that many of the highest among the saints have never done a “good action” (using the words in their ordinary sense). And on the other hand, there have been those who have sounded the very depths of sin, who all their lives have never done an “ill deed.” (Machen, 1973, p.79)

Machen's novels reflected his preoccupation with “directing man's supernatural dread towards Pan, the satyrs, and other strange races and divinities who symbolized for him the Darwinian-Freudian ‘beast in man’” (Machen, 1973). His aestheticism of evil is, however, exceedingly seductive to the confused adolescent who intensely experiences the conflict between the real world of feelings and the idealized (and for that reason hypocritical) world of adult standards and morality. For the adolescent, Machen's antimodernist preoccupation is less important than the sense of impotence that acutely informs a novella such as The White People. The examination of this novel will illustrate these issues in a surprisingly direct fashion.

The primary story of The White People is contained in a diary written by a nameless adolescent. Detailing her initiation into the occult and satanism, the diary's presentation is framed by a fin-de-siècle discussion of the aestheticism of evil. Evil is presented as a force coexistent and coequal with goodness, having its elite practitioners and adepts. The discussion itself as presented above is apropos of the recent film, The Silence of the Lambs, in which Dr. Hannibal Lecter is seen as less a monster than a fallen angel. The crabbed antiquarian world in which the diary is read parallels the claustrophobic world into which the protagonist enters. And the equal appropriateness granted good and evil, life and death, reflects the frequent confusion in the mind of the protagonist and in the mind of the modern adolescent.

The protagonist of The White People is hardly described. She is 16 years old, living with her father in the “country.” Her mother died when she was eight. Her closest friend/mentor/confidante is her nanny. The nanny, a member of the peasantry, repeatedly refers to her grandmother's sayings or stories. Indeed, the protagonist's father dismisses the protagonist's questions and interest in the occult as much on class grounds as on the grounds of rationalism:

I once told my father one of her little tales, which was about a ghost, and asked him if it was true, and he told me it was not true at all, and that only common, ignorant people believed in such rubbish. He was very angry with nurse for telling me the story, and scolded her, and after that I promised her I would never whisper a world of what she had told me. (Machen, 1973, p. 98)

Her father's primary involvement is in trusts and estates, perhaps he is an attorney. The adolescent female forms a bond with a female nurturing figure in opposition to a patriarchal authority. The actual activity within The White People takes place in a remote and ominously confined countryside.

The story conveys the importance of the private mythologies that all adolescents create in order to cope with the mundane physical world in which they live. But in this novel of alienation, the adolescent's initiation into the occult occurs in a hallucinatory experience in which she watches her nanny's “transformation” into one of the “white people,” a woodland demon. The diary details her increasing involvement in and preoccupation with a Druidic past (see, for example, the recent film, The Wicker Man, depicting the survival of Druidic sacrifice). In the novel's epilogue, the narrator informs us that the writer of the diary has committed suicide in front of a curiously well-preserved statue of some ancient and nameless deity.

This novel presents a classic portrayal of the potentially suicidal adolescent. Her father is detached and emotionally uninvolved. His primary concern is his business. He reproves her interest in the occult as being beneath the social dignity of a genteel woman. He does not recognize that her interest in the “beyond” reflects her inner emptiness, an emptiness that is the product of her isolation and/or the loss of her mother. Moreover, he does not appreciate that the populist character of occultism and of occult rituals could be very seductive to a young woman who is otherwise unengaged in social activities.

Potential recruits involve themselves in occultism/satanism (as did the protagonist in The White People) because of the opportunity it promises its adepts to understand and manipulate the arcana of the physical world. To the depressed adolescent, the promise of empowerment ”to become a member of a gnostic elite” is extraordinarily seductive, particularly when the alternative is severe depression. In this novel and in real life, it is not surprising that the vulnerable adolescent chooses to identify with the witches/demonic elite who “control” powers beyond the limited imagination of adults.

In The White People, the adolescent is ultimately able to reexperience the closeness which she enjoyed with her mother, only now her mother is transformed and transmuted into an immortal and mythic white princess. Her ultimate suicide represents her regression from the world of adult sexuality toward a position of childlike dependence in which she is nurtured by the “white person/goddess,” whom she has regained and hopes to revive. Thus, the girl's suicide represents both the ultimate regression and an act of empowerment in which she is transmuted into a “goddess.”

Suicide and Films of the Occult

The adolescent's suicide in The White People is presented as the outcome of adult detachment, self-involvement, and smug adult rationalism. The events leading to the suicide are rationalized as part of the adolescent's desire to possess a “gnosis,” which will grant her the power to undo her isolation and restore her mother to her. These issues are presented within a social context that views the “old gods” as part of an enduring but persecuted society. Comparable issues have been raised in recent films. An examination of these films can heighten our appreciation of the adolescent's pursuit of self-destructive practices as part of a quest for empowerment.

Beetlejuice is a particularly cogent recent example. This “comedy” with its special effects and witty commentary on the primary narcissism of its artistic “trendoids,” portrays a situation not dissimilar to The White People. Lydia is a 16-year-old girl dressed entirely in black whose preoccupation is taking pictures of her trendoid parents and their manic poseur interior decorator, Otho. The girl's parents have recently purchased a charming Victorian house, which they are determined to transform into a postmodern object. Characteristically, when told by her parents that they will build a darkroom, Lydia remarks, “My whole life is a dark room--one big dark room.”

Her stepmother, Delia, is a sculptor who creates ominous, organic shapes in bronze, commenting that “this is my art and it's dangerous.” Lydia's father, Charles, appears to be more accessible, but he too is manipulated by his wife's outbursts (“I'll go insane and I'll take you with me”). His primary passion is his real-estate deals (Lydia archly suggests that her father will never sell the house even if it were haunted because “father never walks away from equity”).

Lydia befriends and is befriended by the previous owners of the house, Barbara and Adam, a couple who were drowned when, while crossing a bridge, their car swerved to avoid hitting a dog. Lydia alone of the new residents is able to see the former owners because “I'm strange and unusual,” which in this context means that she is an empathetic individual who shares the former owners' taste for conventional furniture and despises her stepmother's sculptured grotesqueries. Indeed, she is so attracted to Barbara and Adam that she plans to kill herself to be with them; however, at the last moment she is dissuaded (despite the efforts of the poltergeist, Beetlejuice). Ultimately, the living and the dead are reconciled, but the films ends with Lydia being nurtured by the dead couple.

Film and novel travel parallel paths. In both, the protagonist is an isolated, friendless adolescent whose only nurturing figures are participants in the afterlife (Barbara and Adam) or participants in the occult (the nanny). Their sense of isolation is intensified by the absence of a conventional maternal figure. In The White People, the protagonist's mother is absent; in Beetlejuice, Delia, the stepmother, is in a frenzy to exorcise the house's cozy conventional environment, substituting for it a palette of postmodern excess. In response, Lydia attempts to empower herself through the occult and by committing parasuicidal acts. Her counterpart, Beetlejuice the poltergeist, is the destructive adolescent who deals with his depression through manic and rebellious activity. His persona of a “macho” nonconforming ghost is very seductive to Lydia. In The White People, the nameless protagonist dreams of spells that will transform her into a fairy princess who can revive her mother. In both works of art, there is a conviction that the dead/departed are more alive than the living.

Other Perceptions of the Afterlife and Its Vicissitudes

Beetlejuice is just one of the many recent films in which the dead/death is portrayed as offering more viable alternatives than life/living. All of the dead in Beetlejuice--the dead couple's caseworker, Juno, and Beetlejuice himself--are played with a verve and manic energy usually absent from the living. The question of whether or not an isolated and vulnerable adolescent might draw a fatal lesson from these films is a cogent one. And, despite the dead couple's disclaimers and Otho's remark that “those who commit suicide become civil servants in the afterlife,” the reality of life after death as portrayed in these films might disarm the fears of the vulnerable.

The “viability” of the afterlife was raised with particular charm in the recent film Ghosts. Through the intervention of a medium, the departed is able to intervene in every aspect of his living fiancée's life. In this film, as in the afterlife of the ancient Egyptians, there is a denial of the very reality of death because it portrays an afterlife that is like life--only more so (and without the problems inherent in living).

A grimmer world informs the players in Flatliners. While the goal of the “medical students” is never explicitly defined, they appear to be searching for power in a quest for the ultimate near-death experience. While this film employs a great deal of pseudoscientific verbiage, the ganglike activities of the participants resemble a gang of body snatchers. The gang leader and group processes encourage the gang members to pursue longer comas, leading them to almost perpetrate a murder as part of their “scientific” quest. The gang members are involved in a Faustian exercise whose goal is fame (and fortune). Ironically, the powers beyond the pale introduce morality at the end, forcing the “students” to reconsider their narcissism by film's end.

In contrast to the alienated and isolated adolescents of The White People and Beetlejuice, who, in order to treat their depression, seek and pursue empowerment through an involvement with the occult, the participants in Flatliners seek power as part of a “satanic Faustian” agenda characterized by the absence of internalized objects and the diminished sense of self that is present within the pathologically narcissistic. In both cases, even though the underlying pathology is quite different, an interest in the occult leads to the exploration of realms characterized by a lack of boundaries or rational limitation.

The Case of George S.

In literature and film, suicide or parasuicidal behavior is often linked with an interest in the occult. The tragic case of George S. illustrates this linkage in reality:

George S. was a 16-year-old male who appeared to be a normal adolescent and was asymptomatic until age 14. During that year, he informed his parents that he felt suicidal. They were appropriately alarmed and sought outpatient consultation in early May. This initial consultation was nonproductive and the family postponed their search for treatment until after the summer recess. They hoped that the absence of school pressure (and the presumed impact of this pressure) on an overly conforming and rigid young man would help. The summer went well. But in October, George's suicidal ideation returned. He superficially scratched his wrist. After psychiatric consultation, he was placed on antidepressants. The medication, however, was stopped because of presumed side-effects. Another consultation and treatment setting was sought. A variety of treatment modalities, including individual and group psychotherapy, were used. New medications were tried. Each approach was nonproductive. George continued to be depressed, conforming and anhedonic. Ultimately, in April, George went upstairs and shot himself with his father's pistol.

This case is presented in the context of this article because the entire wall of George's bedroom was covered with runes, satanic graffiti, and bizarre androgynous figures. None of this had been reported to his therapists.

Suicide is ultimately an unanswerable question. However, certain aspects of George's life strikingly parallel the fictional portrayals in The White People and Beetlejuice. George's relationship with his father was characterized by detachment (the father never attended any family session, spoke to his therapists, or was even discussed at any length within the sessions). George's suicide was apparently precipitated by his mother's departure on a visit.

The question remains, what was the basis of George's underlying angst/depression? His inability to tell his parents about a lengthy and apparently platonic correspondence he carried on with a female classmate suggests something of the lack of emotional intimacy within this household, where parents and child passed each other like ships in the night. His closest relationships appear to have been with the pets he lovingly raised.

And there is the wall: why the wall with its graffiti? Runes are more commonly utilized as a form of divination than as a script or alphabet. They have been used as an aid in divination and incantation. In a very real sense, their presence on the wall indicated that having failed to communicate his intense depression to his parents, he attempted to transcend his sense of isolation and alienation in the hope that by contacting different forces, his anguish could be lightened. A book of Tarot was found by his bedside.

The Outsider and Other Literary Perspectives

The work of Machen represents a traditional tale of the occult. His most celebrated American literary disciple, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, represents a transmutation to another supernatural dimension. H. P. Lovecraft's work appeared primarily in Weird Tales and other pulp magazines, which flourished in the 1920s and 1930s. Despite the appearance of his work in the pulps, Lovecraft's ambitions and abilities extended beyond this.

In his crabbed, convoluted, and excessively literary style (for example, he doted on using archaisms such as eldritch), Lovecraft began to detail the Cthulhu mythos in a series of short stories. While Lovecraft's original literary focus was on the more conventional tale of the demonic or supernatural, in the Cthulhu mythos he created something rather different. The mythos relates the efforts of an “Old Race” which had ruled the Earth and which sought to return from the nondimensional space to which it had been banished. The “Old Race” (in part the creation of Madame Blavatsky) can be kept at bay by spells and rituals. But malign adepts and magicians can summon The Color from Outer Space or the Shadow out of Time. The spells to summon these unthinkable eldritch beings are contained in the Necronomicon (1977), compiled by the “mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred. Far from being relegated to the history of fantasy and science fiction, H. P. Lovecraft's novellas and the Necronomicon are current staples in stores catering to those with an interest in the occult.

Initially, the paperback Necronomicon may have been meant as a tongue-in-cheek compilation, but it has been adopted by vulnerable adolescents. To a 20th-century adolescent in a technologically sophisticated world, what can be the appeal of the obscure rituals detailed by an author who self-consciously regarded himself as an avatar and who is an 18th-century writer displaced into modern America?

Lovecraft believed with real conviction in the presence and importance of the occult and the supernatural. Like the modern adolescent, Lovecraft was obsessed with the presence and passage of time and, above all, with the sense of having been displaced from a more congenial era. Lovecraft's world is one of startling discontinuities: a conventional cellar door opens onto a staircase which descends to sites of madness and ritual sacrifice as in The Rats in the Walls. Or, as in The Outsider, an adolescent awakens to his sense of alienation and separation from humanity. In the Shadow out of Time, the protagonist suddenly loses consciousness and his mind is transported back to the prehistoric world of the Old Race, a creation illustrating his debt to the godmother of modern occultism--Madame Blavatsky.

The Great Race is a relatively benign race except for its practice of mindnapping from all place and time for research. The Great Race is ultimately destroyed by a successor race of nameless, violent entities, the Old Race. The Lovecraftian perspective is one of constant renewal and destruction, of cycles in which the individual who is unarmed, that is, without ritual and spells, cannot survive. Within the Cthulhu mythos, the powers of destruction and renewal are condensed and concretized into entities such as Shub Niggurath (“The Goat with a Thousand Young”), comparable to Pan; and Nyarlathotep, the messenger of “crawling chaos,” who is comparable to Hermes but, since he is the messenger of bad news, he must be kept at bay by rituals performed at the “gates.”

This pantheon, with its concretizations of fertility and destruction, of chaos warded off by obsessive rituals, is an assortment that is appealing to the angry adolescent whose heroes in the here and now include such figures as Judas Priest, Motley Crue, and Ozzy Osborne. They are particularly seductive to the adolescent from a broken home dominated by violence, sexual abuse, and substance use. Within such an environment, the appeal of a pantheon that provides a structural framework unattached and in opposition to adult hypocrisy is obvious.

White Magic and Wicca

Not all magick is black, nor are all writers of fantasy preoccupied with vengeance, sacrifice, and anthropophagy. Marion Zimmer Bradley in her Darkover series presents a more positive view of nature, and embodies within her novels a more empathic sense of the magic inherent in the natural world. Her novels exemplify and form a gloss on neo-Paganism. Both neo-Paganism and Wicca (the craft of the Mother Goddess) represent a protest against the mainstream Divinity that is perceived as patriarchal. And, if the patriarchal God has given man dominion over the Earth and its creatures, then the Goddess (named Gea) is perceived as endorsing a more compassionate, less exploitative relationship between humanity and its surroundings. Practitioners of the craft of Wicca distance themselves at great length from the practitioners of the “dark arts,” as the following illustrates:

Jody was a 19-year-old woman referred for psychiatric evaluation because of her increasing scholastic difficulties and alienation from her family. Jody had attended a number of colleges and was currently enrolled at a university in the New York area. She had enrolled in courses primarily in Irish studies and had announced to her parents that she was planning to take a sabbatical in Ireland to study Druidic religion and culture more intensively. She planned to become a priestess.

Unlike adolescents who dabble in Satanism, Jody (and others interested in Wicca) came from an intact family. Her family had none of the overtones of abuse (physical or sexual) or substance abuse and none of the lack of continuity that often appears to pervade the family background of the dabbler/devotee of Satanism. However, her father was described as distant and detached; and Jody and her mother appeared to have formed an intense alliance directed against the father.

Indeed, for Jody as for other practitioners of Wicca, identity issues appeared to be particularly important. Many of her early sessions were devoted to her expressing her anger and resentment toward male authorities/father, whom she perceived as being idealized as an aspect of the patriarchal bias of mainstream religion. Jody appeared to derive a sense of support from attendance at covens and a sense of potency from participation in ritual celebrations often organized around the Druidic/Celtic calendar.

Dinnage (1989) has noted that Wicca is particularly seductive because it provides its initiates with a sense of order in a world of chance: all actions can now be perceived as aspects of an underlying order. Moreover, because magic involves the concrete manipulation of objects represented in symbolic terms, the individual's sense of control is enhanced. As Jody was encouraged to examine her sense of resentment toward her father, and her sense of powerlessness to affect her relationship with him, she seemed to require participation in Wicca less and less. She retained an interest in a nonmainstream form of religion, but she was able to accept remaining at college and pursuing her studies in a less remote environment.

In a very real sense, in a world in which computers have relegated objects to being symbolic representations, operations that magically and concretely deal with these representations in other contexts have gained a certain plausibility. While a reliance on “magic(k)” may represent a regression to a state of infantile omnipotence, as the case of Jody illustrates, it does not always have these dire psychopathological implications. As Dinnage (1989) has noted, many “witches” do not operate on this level in many significant aspects of their lives. Rather their use of magic creates a sense of ordering and continuity which enables them to function, as do indeed all paradigms that enable individuals to order otherwise disparate events into meaningful patterns.

The Horror, the Horror

Stephen King is the most popular author utilizing the occult in his work. His popularity marks the presence of the paradox which has already been noted: a technologically driven world seeking refuge within the ordered world of the occult. King's prodigious and varied output defies easy analysis. Its very quantity has necessarily ensured that it is of uneven artistic consistency. Certain themes, however, are particularly relevant.

For King's protagonists, things are not what they seem to be; like a Magritte, the material world is a facade. Thus, even the most reassuring icons, such as the St. Bernard dog in Cujo, as well as icons redolent of nostalgia, such as the 1957 Chevrolet in Christine, undergo a malignant degeneration. As critics have noted, King's work reflects an obsessive attempt to undo childhood terrors in which objects possessed their own mysterious lives and independent character. Even in his most ambitious novels, such as The Stand, his adolescent protagonists are forced to confront an adult world that has lost all sense of compassion and constancy. Characteristically, the adolescents resort to spiritualism and occultism in order to deal with existing in an America that has been depopulated by a virus that escaped from a laboratory for bacteriological warfare.

For King's protagonists, the occult exists as a means of ordering an environment in which the reigning principle remains Nyarlathotep, the messenger of crawling chaos.

The Stand's casual description of Armageddon illustrates the extent to which the popular culture of our society has become inured to the sense that we are living in “End Time.” Indeed, with his description of a depopulated world and an almost Edenic portrayal of a “natural” antiparadise, King confronts us with the extent to which so much of the literature directed toward adolescents views the adult world as the enemy. This literature summons up the occult as the modus operandi for creating a clean slate--a tabula rasa--on which the adolescent will write a new world compounded of simplicities and magic(k).


Dinnage, R. (1989, October 12). White magic. New York Review of Books, pp. 3B6.

Halperin, D.A. (1983). Gnosticism in high tech: Science fiction and cult formation. In D. Halperin (Ed.), Psychodynamic perspectives on religion, sect, and cult. Boston: John Wright PSG.

Halperin, D.A. (1987). Arthur Rimbaud: The poet as adolescent. In S. C. Feinstein (Ed.), Adolescent Psychiatry, 14:63B82. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

LaVey, A. (1969). Satanic Bible. New York: Avon Books.

Machen, A. (1973). The white people. In D. Knight (Ed.), The golden road (pp. 79B118). New York: Simon & Schuster.

Necronomicon. (1977). New York: Avon Books.

Wills, G. (1992, December 17). Athena's magic. New York Review of Books, 47B52.


An earlier version of this article was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Suicidology in April 1991.


David A. Halperin, M.D., Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, is a fellow of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and the American Group Psychotherapy Association. He maintains a private practice in Manhattan, is a Consulting Psychiatrist to the Custody Panel of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, and is Director of Group Psychotherapy at Roosevelt Hospital. Dr. Halperin has lectured extensively and his publications include Psychodynamic Perspectives on Religion, Sect, and Cult.