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The Occult

What makes us so fascinated with the hidden and the unknown? An opinion piece.

What does the word occult even mean?

Definition of occult (Merriam-Webster):

  • Adjective oc·cult \ə-ˈkəlt, ä-; ˈä-ˌkəlt\: not revealed: secret deep subterranean occult jealousy—J. C. Powys
  • Not easily apprehended or understood: abstruse, mysterious occult matters like nuclear physics, radiation effects and the designing of rockets—Robert Bendiner
  • Hidden from view: concealed occult underground passages
  • Of or relating to the occult… the occult arts—astrology, palmistry, card reading …—Amy Fine Collins
  • Occult practices: not manifest or detectable by clinical methods alone occult carcinoma; also: not present in macroscopic amounts occult blood in a stool

Okay, so TL;DR it means the hidden, the mysterious, the supernatural. Sorta cool, eh? So, why are we so dang fascinated by it?

Well, psychologically, humans just don't like it when we don't understand things. We hate hidden secrets because we crave knowledge! Or, at the very least, we want to know what the heck is going on, who the heck that is, and why the heck it's all happening. The what and the where are in there somewhere, too. So the idea of hidden things, especially in literature and movies, fascinates us to no end.

This brings me to the idea of the grotesque* and the carnivalesque** in relation to the occult. Sometimes, we want the occult to be seen as something disgusting, something to be fearful of (get your heart pumping!). Sometimes, we mock it, turning it into something of comedy; over the top (wow, that was ridiculous!). Either way, we use it to explain things, for whatever reason. Why am I unlucky in love? Maybe it was a spell gone horribly wrong! Maybe it's a curse. Maybe, if we read your palms or check the tarot cards, we can find out—and to throw in some comedy, that'll be two hundred dollars! *cue the I-can't-believe-I'm-gonna-do-this face*

We like to either laugh in the face of the occult, or to immerse ourselves in fear over it, because it gives us a reason to keep coming back. Heck, sometimes, we mix the grotesque and the carnivalesque together and there are glorious outcomes! Think about it. 

Exhibit A: Suspiria, directed by Dario Argento

This movie is a perfect use of the grotesque and just a tad of the carnivalesque to keep viewers glued to the screen. (From Rotten Tomatoes) "A candy-colored nightmare from Italian terror maestro Dario Argento, Suspiria weaves a menacing tale of witchcraft as a fairy tale gone horribly awry. From the moment she arrives in Freiberg, Germany, to attend the prestigious Tans Academy, American ballet-dancer Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) senses that something horribly evil lurks within the walls of the age-old institution. Ill at ease as the result of her fellow student's peculiar behavior and increasingly terrified following a series of gruesome and spectacular murders, Suzy slowly begins to unravel the dark history of the academy. Convinced that the occult roots of the school and the horrific tale of its founding mother may hold an unthinkable secret, she begins a hallucinatory journey into the black heart of one of the most powerful witches ever known to exist. As Suzy edges ever closer to a secret that may hold the answers to all of her nightmares, the coven's grip on her soul begins to tighten until there is seemingly no escape. Will Suzy solve the mystery of the cursed academy before the fearsome Black Queen consumes her, or will she finally reveal the secret that has forever haunted the lavish corridors of the academy and bring an end to the Black Queen's terrifying reign?"

The execution is fantastic, and uses gory imagery to keep us wondering, "What the hell were they on when the made this film??" The effects are ridiculously over the top, the colours are vibrant, the plot is weird as hell... and yet, oh my God! The score is memorizing, and fits the theme perfectly (creepy!), and the whole thing is done with a sincerity that can't be beat. You want to laugh at how bad it is, but you want to know what the ending is regardless! You want to know, ladies, gentleman, and fellow NB human beings, what the hell this hidden secret is, and what the MC Suzy is going to do about it! Not only is it a hidden secret, BUT IT'S EVIL WITCHES!!! AND THERE ARE CREEPY AND SLIGHTLY RIDICULOUS DEATH SCENES! I mean, whoa.

So, yeah. There's my take on why the heck we're so obsessed with the occult.

*Definition of grotesque according to Merriam-Webster:

  • A style of decorative art characterized by fanciful or fantastic human and animal forms often interwoven with foliage or similar figures that may distort the natural into absurdity, ugliness, or caricature
  • A piece of work in this style an ornate structure, embellished with grotesques
  • One that is grotesque
  • Of, relating to, or having the characteristics of the grotesque such as: 
    - fanciful, bizarre, a grotesque Halloween costume
    - absurdly incongruous
    - departing markedly from the natural, the expected, or the typical animals with grotesque deformities

**"Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian linguist and literary critic writing in the first half of the 20th century, used this term to characterize writing that depicts the de-stabilization or reversal of power structures, albeit temporarily, as happens in traditional forms of carnival. Although this may take the form of writing about, or otherwise representing (in film, painting, sculpture, etc.), actual or imagined carnivals, for Bakhtin it was important that the work itself should come to embody the spirit of carnival too. It can do this, as Bakhtin shows in Rabelais and his World (1968), by mobilizing humour, satire, and grotesquery in all its forms, but especially if it has to do with the body and bodily functions." Source