“The Occult Experience” of 1985

A friend pointed me to the Vimeo page where you can see The Occult Experience (95 min.), an Australian television documentary from 1985, researched and co-produced by Nevill Drury, on witchcraftandprimitivepeopleandsatanismandexorcismandallkindsofspookystuff.

Watching it was hard, because I kept turning away after encountering such portentous statements as “The search for supernatural powers continues in spite of science and technology” or that people practice “ancient Celtic traditions of nature worship.”

No one unpacks these assertions at all. Rather, they are just delivered as though they were the Final Word.

At one point, the narrator intones, “How does it feel to be a witch in the computer age?” (At the time the documentary was made, I thought my KayPro II portable personal computer was cutting-edge.)

It has its historical interest. Hey, there’s Herman Slater doing ritual in a Manhattan street. Why? You won’t learn from the film!

And at about the 20-minute mark, Alex Sanders delivers version number 1,045 of the original “I was initiated by my grandmother” story, which has been imitated so many times.

Back then, boys and girls, to be a Craft leader you had to have some special story to tell about your magical heritage or you were nobody.

And look, there is Janet Farrar taking her clothes off while chatting with her late husband, Stewart. And the paintings of Rosaleen Norton—can’t have an Australian production without those. Drury would build his later academic career on them.

Margot Adler, Olivia Robertson  . . .  so many names. But no context.

The whole film is thunderingly pretentious and yet basically content-free. You would not learn anything systematic here about the development of contemporary Paganism—which might be Satanic and which might be “primitive” and might involve “altered states of consciousness” (quick clip of Esalen), and is certainly spooky spooky or silly silly, depending on your perspective.

It make me wish that I could take those clips and arrange them into a meaningful narrative. Maybe some day someone will.

9 thoughts on ““The Occult Experience” of 1985

  1. Rummah

    Well do I remember watching this oddity when it first hit VHS. I spent the whole time thinking “Oh,look! There’s that significant person!” and “WTF?”.

  2. I never saw this, although I did hear about it. Is it worth the 95 mins of sitting still? Or, would it be something that would be better viewed (heard) soap-opera style while a kitchen is cleaned or a bathtub scrubbed?

  3. Alyssa

    “Back then, boys and girls, to be a Craft leader you had to have some special story to tell about your magical heritage or you were nobody.”

    Heh… that’s exactly why I was using it today. We’re actually on Ch. 1 of Her Hidden Children, and I thought the Sanders clip fit nicely. 🙂

  4. Pitch313

    Historical resources are…historical. (UFOlogists comment on decades old documentaries as quaint and datedly misleading. And how we do learn more about stuff.)

    As I have aged and mellowed (or whatever it amounts to), I have begun to wonder about these narratives of initiation by grandparent. On one hand, they seem like precursors of internetz fan fic/slash fic. On the other, they seem like forced conversions. (Let me add that I learned from my own grandparents very little that relates to Paganism, and most of that bits of folklore from the British Isles. But there were devout little old Catholic ladies in my family who would have sold me as a child to the seminary. Resistance was required.)

    I am tempted to say–with all due respect and enthusiasm–that some photos of Janet Farrar and a few other lively Witches probably did more for early Craft than most “my grandparent did it!” stories. Hail to all proto-Page Three goddesses and priestesses!

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  6. Jonathan Carfax

    Hi Chas

    you are right, context is everything and on that point you probably needed to be in Australia in the mid-eighties to understand the significance of this documentary – UK and the US were probably a good decade ahead in ‘maturity’ to the occult and esotericism, and this documentary was no small catalyst to things opening up in Australia. Yes, it is all sensationalism and imagery but that is the sort of stuff that rolled in our very limited media landscape (note: we only had 4-5 tv stations in those days, one of which is government run and no such thing as cable tv).

    I think the Australian public in those days couldn’t have handled nor understood anything more “serious” – nor would the media moguls have been necessarily interested. Janets tits equal ratings.

    It may be hokey in retrospect – but it is a hokeyness and a landmark production many antipodeans hold great affection for.

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