Arts, Culture & Humanities

Boo! Americans and the occult

Claude Fischer

One of the motifs in writings about modern life is that its central features – commerce, education, secularism, and especially science – have “disenchanted” the world. Once, goes the argument, the rising of the sun, the awakening of plants, people’s illnesses and recoveries, and even odd rock formations were all infused with spirits and mystery; now we see all of them as mechanical, mundane, and manipulable. The magic is gone.

Maybe. As we approach Halloween, note that most American adults in the 21st Century say that they believe in life after death and in the devil; over one-third say that they believe in the spirits of the dead coming back; about that many also say they believe in haunted houses. In the 1980s and ’90s, about 4 in 10 said that at least once they had “felt as though [they] were really in touch with someone who had died.”

Lest you think this is all just a vestige of an older, passing, superstitious age: Belief in ghosts has soared in recent decades, from one in ten Americans to one in three. Moreover, young Americans are about twice as likely as old Americans to say they have consulted psychics, believe in ghosts, and believe in haunted houses. (Oh, and political liberals are more likely than conservatives to endorse these beliefs.) [1]

It’s a magical nation. And that goes back a long time.

Witches and such

We have no polls, of course, to track occult beliefs before the mid-20th century, but, as I pointed out in a prior post, early Americans were deeply immersed in an enchanted world of spirits, incantations, and witches. Puritan ministers in colonial New England struggled to point out the contradiction between, on one side of salvation, pleading with God to shed His grace on an ill loved one and, on the doomed side, casting a spell to drive out an evil spirit that one believes caused the illness.

Many lay folk made no such distinctions, Richard Godbeer points out in The Devil’s Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England. It was hard to keep clear the difference between the devil’s handiwork and that of witches. Fortune-telling, divination, astrology, and “counter-magic” to cancel the spells of others was common. Mechal Sobel, in Teach Me Dreams, describes popularity of “dream books” that offered readers interpretations of their disturbed sleep. Indeed, pro-revolutionary magazines published descriptions of dreams “to establish the bona fides of the revolution as a God-sent event . . .”

We all know, of course, the story of the Salem witches, an episode that has stirred considerable academic scholarship and many literary works. However dramatic that crisis was, accusations of witchcraft were common in the day. In a dangerous, unpredictable life, witches and spirits help —  as they do in many insecure places around the world today — to explain misfortune.

Godbeer writes (pdf) that people “believed that they could harness occult forces to … control their world. Experts in these techniques – often called ‘cunning folk’ by contemporaries – told fortunes, claimed to heal the sick, offered protection against witchcraft, and could apparently use their powers to harm or destroy their enemies…. Accusing someone of witchcraft involved accounting for an otherwise inexplicable illness or misfortune in personal terms …”

Over the centuries since, increasing security and predictability seemingly have reduced “enchantment.” But as the polls show, the magic has not totally gone, nor perhaps the motivation for it.
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[1] Data from the General Social Survey [items “postlife” and “spirits”]; the Gallup Poll (herehere, and here); a Baylor University survey (pdf); and CBS News poll, 2011 (via the Roper Center iPoll). Soared: 1978 Gallup poll compared to a 1999 poll (source: Roper Center iPoll.)

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American Life from American History.

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Comment to "Boo! Americans and the occult":
    • Basil Venitis

      Paranormal hallucinations are due to a variation in a fold at the front of the brain called the paracingulate sulcus (PCS). This brain variation, which is present in roughly half of the normal population, is one of the last structural folds to develop before birth and for this reason varies greatly in size between individuals in the healthy population. People with an absence of the PCS are significantly less accurate on memory tasks than people with a prominent PCS.

      [Report abuse]

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