The Epicenter of Silly: Light Looks at Modern Magic and Magical Thinking

Book review: Not in Kansas Anymore, by Christine Wicker (Book Depository)

Forty years ago, when the current occult revival was beginning to gain strength, the wisest thinkers in the land predicted that faith in the supernatural was shriveling and would soon die back to insignificance. The scientific worldview demanded such a shift. Who could possibly withstand it? Organized religion, mystical meanderings, and magical ideas could not hold up against scientific ideas that were so self-evidently true, or so they reasoned.

Religion reporter Christine Wicker is open about having long lost her faith. What may seem like a bit of a problem for a journalist on the religion beat really isn’t one though, she promises. She’d come to consider religion a type of magical belief, or at least operating along the same principles magic does. That is, its value and power lies in the belief the practitioner ascribes to it.

With this thinking, she realized how surprisingly deeply pervasive “magic” and forms of magical thinking actually are in modern, scientific times – it’s why many read horoscopes, cling to superstitions, attribute meaning to good luck charms and talismans, and ask angels for good parking spaces. And many thousands more in America belong to subsets of religions or magical communities that practice magic, dark or otherwise, of a more serious nature.

Wicker sets off to explore these various magical communities, learn about their belief systems, and throws in some examples of historical precedence and how beliefs have changed over time. She visits with those who identify as vampires, witches, hoodoo practitioners, chaos magicians, “otherkins” – people calling themselves werewolves, fairies, and miscellaneous otherworldly creatures.

[Some] greeted my enterprise with derision. You’ll be on a journey, they said, but don’t expect to arrive at the heart of darkness. The epicenter of silly will be more like it. And they were right too. All the warnings proved true, and yet … I was soon to find that magic is not only of ancient and illustrious pedigree, not merely an astonishingly alive and widespread way of thinking, but also a valuable, even irreplaceable, part of human experience.

She attends a “vampires and victims” party and witnesses a vampire mistress drinking (willing) human blood, visits now-gimmicky but historically important Salem, has her energy manipulated both successfully and less so by otherkin energy workers, palls around with a hoodoo practitioner who runs a successful shop purveying magical goods in northern California, and accompanies another hoodoo conjurer through the Deep South to purchase, for a dime, some of Zora Neale Hurston’s grave dirt for use in hoodoo spells.

Some of the historical tidbits woven in were fascinating, although I get the impression they may be less so to someone better versed in this subject area than me. I was delighted to learned that: “Another early magical tool was the chain letter, which became popular among the Pennsylvania Dutch and by 1725 had an English version. This letter, which was supposedly written by Jesus, promised that those who carried it could not be damaged by guns or swords, but anyone who did not copy and pass it on would be cursed by the Christian church.”

That’s right, Jesus is the demanding originator of the chain letters that your great aunt flooded your inbox with. Wicker also relates that when Nazi Rudolf Hess parachuted into Scotland, hoping for peace talks with the Allies, he’d decked himself out in occult symbols – a detail of that story I never knew.

The most interesting parts to me were her glimpses into how the success of certain spells is confirmed by their conjurers, and the haziness between outcomes as a direct result of magical intervention and coincidence. It’s a topic I’ve wondered about often in some form, like in these situations:

A plane crashes, and the guy who missed the plane because his car had a flat tells reporters that God saw fit to save him. If you put a God-tagline on it, it’s more acceptable, but it’s still magic. The reporters are thinking, What did God have against all those other schmucks? but they don’t ask that question. They would be insulting God, ruining a nice story, and disillusioning thousands of readers who think there’s a good chance God or intuition or whatever might do the same for them.

This firm belief that we can control more than we do has dangerous consequences:

Some of the best reasons not to do magic are the people who have done it. The promise of power can lead to paranoia and delusions of grandeur. It can also cause people to dwell on avenging slights when they would be better off forgetting them. It can cause people to imagine that others are responsible for bad fortune or illness when in fact they are responsible themselves or no one is responsible.

 She cites a believer who said he did a spell to bring him a storyteller; two years later, Wicker was interviewing him. It’s a complicated crossroads between magical thinking/religion and what others call coincidence or nothing special at all. “Religion and magical thinking are so intertwined that scholars still argue over where the dividing line is,” Wicker writes.

This, along with explorations of areas like chaos magic, which entails “charging” certain symbols (sigils) with your mind’s power then letting go and waiting for the magic to work, were highlights. Wicker’s own experimentation with some practices shows how open-ended certain beliefs are. It all involves a lot of patience and willingness to be flexible in how the magic happens.

The book is highly entertaining, if it does ultimately feel a bit unsatisfying or underwhelming. It has ups and downs – fascinating stories followed by ones that seem purposely extreme or fringey, engaging writing alongside some that’s chipper and chatty without much substance.

But the biggest drawback is the conclusion (spoiler alert): it ends with Wicker attending a church service at Westminster Abbey, where she realizes what she was seeking all along in this journey through magic’s modern incantations was the light of faith that she’d lost after a youth spent in the church. After receiving communion in the Catholic ceremony, she’d found her way back to that faith – that’s her preferred magic. Oh blergh.

To be fair, this wasn’t a book-length bait and switch, meant to show all the weird, crazy elements of alternative faiths and beliefs, then settling the reader back comfortably in the confines of Big Religion. And Wicker filters her travels and experiences through her own perspective and preconditioned ideas, so fair enough to end up where the journey eventually led her – but still. A crashing disappointment.

And it can feel scattered, with interesting points raised but not thoroughly researched or always followed through, and a bit too much time spent with the white hoodoo lady dispensing sex candles and relationship advice than on other potentially interesting and researchable topics. And as these subsets, even considered as a whole, still only number in the thousands by Wicker’s estimates, I don’t think it qualifies as “transforming America”, although throwing religion into that equation certainly tells a different story.

In the chapter detailing Hurston’s work and hoodoo practices, Wicker writes: “Unlike other anthropologists of her time, she didn’t merely study conjurers, she became one, according to her books. White folks scoff at hoodoo and say it’s superstition, but “white folks are very stupid about some things. They can think mightily but cannot feel,” she observed. I wasn’t born when Zora wrote those words, but she could have been describing me. Anytime I start to feel, I try to stop and think. It’s so much safer.”

I do the same, but unlike Wicker, I remain comfortably unconvinced of any belief system that needs clinging to for protection, prosperity, comfort, etc. It’s a mostly amusing, fun journey to accompany her on, with some great historical segues. Read it and find out what Zora Neale Hurston’s grave dirt can do for you.

Not in Kansas Anymore:
A Curious Tale of How Magic is Transforming America
by Christine Wicker
published October 4, 2005 by HarperOne
Book Depository
Amazon

23 thoughts on “The Epicenter of Silly: Light Looks at Modern Magic and Magical Thinking

  1. Another fine review of a great topic (if maybe not so great book)! A subject of great interest to me. I rather prefer those books which explore the mysteries of the unknown and don’t provide pat answers – after all, the whole point is the mystery. 💕💕😊

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    1. Thanks so much, Jan! I think you’d like this one, the topics are definitely up your alley! It’s not a perfect book but very entertaining and it made me think a lot, especially that intersections between what’s a magical belief and what’s religion.

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      1. And, there are many magical thinking things believers often do, for example, bargaining with God – “If you answer my prayer/entreaty, I will start going to church.” Or attributing magical powers to objects, from holy relics to crucifixes to you name it. 🙂

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  2. It’s a shame that this seems dragged out to book length as it seems like a great premise. Having been taken to a faith healer as a child I find historical magical belief really fascinating particularly here in Catholic Ireland!

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  3. Jungian psychology has a lot of interesting insights into magical thinking and religion, which are ways of dealing with the powerful unconscious layers of our being that are not readily accessible to our ordinary thinking. Marie Louise von Franz’s books on fairy tales were especially interesting to me on this topic.

    I would just like to point out that while lots of people do turn to religion for a kind of childish comfort and reassurance, there is a more mature religious life that involves passing through great trials and suffering in order to find a greater wholeness. The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu gives some insight into that topic – bringing religion out of a narrow sectarian view and into relation with scientific research on health and well-being. Might give you a different perspective.

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    1. I didn’t at all mean to imply that the needs for comfort and reassurance are childish and I’m very disappointed if what I wrote can be read that way. Of course I’m aware that people find much deeper meaning in religion and turn to it in response to things more serious than those considerably smaller needs. None of that was conveyed in this book, however, and although some of her interview subjects had been through significant difficulties in their lives, it also wasn’t implied that they’d been through great suffering to cause them to turn to the beliefs that they did, and it certainly wasn’t a part of her own story in coming back to religion, which was a very sudden and mostly inexplicable shift in this narrative.

      I appreciate your suggestions, I’m sure that incorporating religion into topics of health and well-being with some scientific research would be incredibly helpful for some, and I’m not criticizing anyone’s reason for choosing religion, either embracing or rejecting it is obviously deeply personal in each and every case. I just didn’t appreciate the presentation here, and I wanted to learn something in the context of this book about what alternative magics and magical thinking even were, as I’m not well versed in the topic. So an about face to Christianity at the end gave me a bad taste for the whole thing.

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      1. Thank you for clarifying. Your ending statement did sound dismissive of religion in general, not just how it was portrayed in this book – but I understand now that your reaction was to this specific case. It does sound like a very odd and poorly integrated conclusion. It’s a complicated topic and merits a well-thought-out treatment, for sure.

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      2. Well, I won’t deny that I’m averse to religion after my own lifetime of experiences with it, which perhaps is why it comes across as dismissive. But as with other things I consider preferential and a personal right, like eating olives or keeping birds as pets, although religion is not something I want for myself I do actually understand the appeal to others and respect their right to enjoy those things if they choose, as I would hope my own distaste for them is likewise accepted when I express that opinion.

        But long story short, yes, I was referring to the slapdash way it was handled here, without the intention of turning it into any greater discussion about Christianity’s value, which was ostensibly not the purpose of the book and definitely not of the statements I made in expressing my opinions of it.

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  4. I gotta say, it’s been my experience that when anyone approaches a research topic to prove or disprove an hypothesis or belief, that person cannot avoid tripping on their own biases. I find studies to be much more effective when the researcher is just plain exploring. I didn’t even need to read your spoiler to know how it ended for the author. But, that doesn’t erase the tons of fascinating information she undoubtedly uncovered.

    Thanks for a great review!

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    1. Tripping on their own biases is such a great way to put it!! I must’ve been really blind or naive here because I didn’t actually see her quick turn back to religion coming at all. It came out of nowhere and felt completely unearned after what was a pretty lighthearted and surfacey walk through a bunch of other topics. After looking at some of her other titles, I noticed that she’d actually written a book about finding her way back to God years before publishing this one, so that made me a little suspicious about this whole endeavor and certainly the timeline presented. But absolutely, some of the stories and information were completely fascinating!

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      1. It takes one to see another😏 I have strong faith but a healthy respect for the unexplainable. I know any true research I’d conduct would be filtered through my beliefs no matter how hard I tried at being objective. And I’ve tried. Really tried.

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  5. Like you although i describe myself as Muslim but still i find many things in Islam unbelievable and I can’t convince myself to believe it.
    My mother’s family as Sufi and they have their saints who they believe can heal and bring rain although I find their magical beliefs quite funny but somehow I feel unlike the West division between science and religion didn’t happen in many countries and many people still seek answers from religion.

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    1. That’s such an important point, I think you’re right! And yes, it’s quite funny sometimes, I feel the same about aspects of Christianity and Catholicism that I was raised with – but what’s scary is how serious they can be taken. It’s easier to laugh about some of the the things here but I don’t see that big of a difference between many magical beliefs and aspects of religion, yet it’s more acceptable to scoff at magic whereas pointing out some of the silliness in religious beliefs can get you in a lot of trouble. Some of the practitioners she described here do their “magic” in the name of Jesus too, so it’s very intertwined. Always like hearing your thoughts, Ina!

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      1. Yes my friend sometimes it gets scary I sometimes witness people who give their money usually poor people to saints graveyard in hope they get rain so I just feel sorry for them, but that’s the downside of Sufi Islam that it’s spirituality is full of magical tales and thinking.
        But what I love about Sufis is that they represent the Humane and cultural part of Islam and if I try to resist Sufis fraud Saints the Extremists will fill the void.
        Your reviews and also your remarks are food for thought thank you Ren

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