The Occult Roars Back: Its Modern Resurgence

from In 1967 Hair exploded like a bomb on the American cultural scene. This hit musical production revealed to the “straight” world that a new world was coming. The Age of Pisces—the era of Christianity, rationalism, and science—would soon be replaced by the Age of Aquarius. This new golden age was to be one of peace, brotherhood, progress, mysticism, and occult knowledge.

Occult and metaphysical movements met a deep spiritual thirst, and this is a major part of their attraction today.

Tame as Hair may seem by today’s standards, this playfully perverse celebration of an often-debased social situation marked the return of occultism to the public scene. This movement had been well under way with the reproductions of old horror films in the fifties, the publication of Rosemary’s Baby, and with the syndicated predictions of Jeanne Dixon. But in the late sixties and seventies, the occult became a passion for some and a fad for many. Time’s cover story of March 21, 1969, “Cult of the Occult,” gave an indication of the large number of people involved in the occult phenomenon. During 1969 and 1970, Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, and McCall’s had special issues on the occult revival. Many institutions of higher learning, including prestigious universities, began to offer courses on aspects of the occult. Universities and institutes sponsored research on parapsychological phenomena. 

Interest in the psychic sciences and in matters weird and sensational became widespread. Psychic healers made extravagant claims. People were fascinated with spiritualism. Many witches came out of the closet. But the greatest barometer of the occult explosion was the mushrooming {92} interest in divination—that is, discerning the future. Tarot, I Ching, palmistry, and Ouija boards were in vogue, along with astrology.

The reappearance of the occult in the seventies was not limited to North America. It was a worldwide phenomenon. It never declined in much of the Third World, and Europe also witnessed an increased interest in the occult. 3 Moreover, the occult did not decline after the seventies. Rather, it traveled down a different path, one more in tune with the therapeutic world of the late twentieth century. It often found a home in the New Age movement, some self-improvement groups, and the various worldviews found in the postmodern world.


What is the occult? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term occult was first used in 1545, meaning that which is “not apprehended, or not apprehensible, by the mind; beyond the range of understanding or of ordinary knowledge.” In 1633, the word received an additional meaning, denoting the subject of “those ancient and medieval reputed sciences, held to involve the knowledge or use of agencies of a secret and mysterious nature (as magic, alchemy, astrology, and theology).” 4 Modern definitions contain similar ideas. One, the occult is mysterious, beyond the range of ordinary knowledge. Two, it is secret and disclosed or communicated only to the initiated. Three, the occult pertains to magic, astrology, and other alleged sciences claiming use or knowledge of the secret, mysterious or supernatural. 5

Still, in defining the occult, problems arise in its relationship to science and religion. Prior to the seventeenth century, science and the occult maintained a close relationship. However, with the rise of modern science the occult was perceived as having more magical and supernatural qualities. In the last half of the twentieth century, another change took place. While scientists still viewed the occult negatively, occultists tended to secularize the term. Increasingly, the occult has concerned itself with things paranormal or supernormal (not scientifically explainable or beyond the normal) rather than supernatural. Claims are made of techniques and knowledge that science has yet to investigate or validate. In fact, some aspects of the occult—such as hypnosis and parapsychology—have achieved a degree of scientific legitimacy. 6

How does the occult relate to religion? It is best seen as a quasi-religious development. The occult comes in two related forms. It includes certain occult practices—that is, the occult arts such as divination, fortune-telling, spiritism, magic, and so forth. There is also an occult/mystical worldview. Though the practice of the occult arts presuppose an {93} occult/mystical worldview, this aspect of the occult tends to be more magical. It is a more mechanical expression of the occult. Yet even the occult arts have religious aspects; they attempt to provide meaning, contacts with the “sacred,” and, at times, a basis for community. 7

However, the occult’s clearest religious expression is in its worldview. An occult/mystical worldview undergirds many cults that are presently active in America, especially those associated with Eastern religions, the New Age and human potential movements, and the many psychospiritual groups. Such expressions of the occult have taken the strongest hold during the last quarter of the twentieth century.


The occult explosion of the late twentieth century should not be exaggerated. Prior to the seventeenth century, most people in society embraced aspects of the occult. Then the Age of Reason dealt a blow to the occult worldview. However, a vital tradition of occultism and metaphysical movements developed in the nineteenth century and continued into the twentieth. As with any religious movement, the occult has its peaks and valleys. Apparently, what surfaced in the 1970s was a peak of popular interest in the occult. 8

This so-called occult explosion entails two tendencies, one focusing on specific phenomena and the other on a worldview. These two emphases are not mutually exclusive; they entail considerable overlap. First is the renewed interest in certain occult practices (the occult “arts”). Most popular are astrology and the many forms of divination (cartomancy, crystal-gazing, palmistry, Ouija boards, prophetic dreams and visions, psychometry, numerology, I Ching, and others). Other familiar occult practices and focuses that one might encounter include witchcraft, Satanism, spiritualism (necromancy), magic, paranormal experiences, unidentifiable flying objects, and perhaps an occasional monster.

Ron Enroth says that collectively these occult phenomena have laid claim to the following distinctive characteristics. One, they disclose and communicate information unavailable to humans through normal means, that is, the five senses. Two, they place persons in contact with untapped powers and paranormal energies. Three, “they facilitate the acquisition and mastery of power in order to manipulate or influence other people into certain actions.” 9

Occult activities are practiced by both individuals and groups. The occult lends itself to private activity, and this may be where most of the action takes place. In general, many of the new religions resemble Thomas Luckmann’s “invisible religions,” but the occult carries this {94} trend even further. Though there exist metaphysical churches—opportunities to worship with swamis, and even occult organizations—fellowship and community are not central. The occult is an invisible religion because it is private, personal, and not regularly institutionalized or monitored by priests or contained in organizations. Thus, it cannot be mapped. And if community is not central, symbols and sacramental objects are. 10 Performing the correct procedures is vital to obtaining results in the occult.

But not all occult activities are without an organizational structure. There exist groups in which occult practices are so central that scholars have classified them as occult bodies. Some examples include witch covens, Satanist groups, Theosophical societies, Rosicrucian orders, Swedenborgianism, and a vast array of Spiritualist bodies. 11 Many Eastern cults, some metaphysical bodies, and the human potential and New Age movements utilize occult and quasi-occult practices, but not enough that scholars would label them “occult.” 12


Of perhaps greater significance for the last third of the twentieth century is the second tendency in the occult revival: the widespread acceptance of the occult worldview in the West. The occult-metaphysical worldview has many expressions, especially in the Eastern cults, the human potential and New Age movements, and many psychotherapies. This alternative to the Judeo-Christian view of reality has several general components, which are described by Ron Enroth. First is “the promise of godhood” and the divinity of humanity. Nearly all forms of occult philosophy insist that the true or real human self is synonymous with God. Next, occult philosophy generally says that “all is one, God is everything (pantheism).” There exists only one reality (monism), and thus “everyone and everything in the material world is part of the Divine.” Consequently, there is no difference between the natural and supernatural, good and evil, God and Satan. 13

A third component is that “life’s purpose is to achieve awareness of the Divine within”: self-realization. The way to salvation—enlightenment, illumination, or union—comes by experience, not by rational knowledge. It is the “path to gnosis, the seeking of experiential knowledge through metaphysical insight.” Fourth is the notion that “humankind is basically good.” Evil is only an imperfection or illusion. The root of the human dilemma is ignorance, not sin. An enlightened person will rise above moral distinctions. Thus, individuals do not need redemption or forgiveness as the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches. Only self-realization that comes via spiritual techniques leads to power. It puts the {95} divine-human in charge. By utilizing spiritual techniques such as chanting, yoga, and meditation, and by applying universal laws, the “realized being” becomes master of his or her own reality and can influence the lives of other people. 14

By the mid- to late-seventies, a shift in the direction of the occult could be detected. The early occult explosion—from the late sixties to the mid-seventies—was closely related to the counterculture and the use of psychedelic drugs, and was largely a youth phenomenon. The most prominent tendency in this part of the occult explosion was a dabbling in occult practices, especially astrology and divination. In fact, to many the occult was something of a pop religion, a fad of the youth culture, a means to proclaim the new Aquarian Age. However, as the more radical counter cultural context disappeared, the occult arts mostly receded from public view, while many occult groups lived on as isolated cults or attained a respectable presence in society. 15

Closely related to this acceptable social position was the second occult tendency: the widespread acceptance of the occult worldview. The occult worldview and some of the more subtle occult arts penetrated the respectable ranks of society and became the foundation for the human potential and New Age movements. The preoccupation with self-awareness and self-actualization presupposes the acceptance of many occult principles. Many corporations and therapy centers have had their employees and clients engage in self-awareness exercises. In its higher forms, the modern occult is unquestionably a quasi-religious movement, an attempt to find substantiation of the abilities that traditional occultism has always insisted were hidden within the human mind. 16


Why did this so-called occult revival occur in the late twentieth century? The occult emerged for most of the same reasons that other new religions did. As Jeffrey Russell has demonstrated, from a broad historical view “interest in the occult has grown significantly in periods of rapid social breakdown, when establishments cease to provide readily accepted answers and people turn elsewhere for assurance.” Periods for which this generalization seems accurate are the third century A.D., which witnessed the decline of Roman society; the late Middle Ages and Reformation era, when the medieval synthesis was collapsing; and the late twentieth century. 17

But for the roots of the current occult revival, one must turn to the nineteenth century. As noted, this century was congenial to occult-metaphysical developments, including Transcendentalism, Spiritualism, the Shakers, Theosophy, New Thought, Christian Science, and many {96} Eastern faiths. Moreover, the first half of the twentieth century witnessed the rise of many prominent occultists, including George I. Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky, and Edgar Cayce. 18 Hence, by the last third of the twentieth century there existed a vital tradition from which the occult and metaphysical movements could draw.

Catherine Albanese points out that many people were “prepared by American culture to turn toward self” and the universe in their pursuit for religious certainty. The Protestant tradition had generally supported the importance of knowledge or belief in religion. Then the liberal wing of Protestantism modified this approach. It “stressed the presence of God everywhere” and underscored American optimism concerning the innate goodness of human nature. Liberalism’s “diffusiveness and lack of strong boundaries” helped people to adjust to the idea of living comfortably without rigid religious guidelines. The holiness tradition, also, had fostered a perfectionism that “could easily be linked to metaphysical views.” At the same time, the urban and corporate organization of society weighed against the development of strong community life. Of necessity, in their everyday lives individuals began to depend more on internal resources. Thus, the occult and metaphysical movements blended into the cultural mainstream. 19

American culture had paved the way for the occult-metaphysical movements. Yet as Albanese also tells us, these movements still had to deal with ordinary life. Occult practices had to be perceived as having the capacity to satisfy daily needs. “Astrology gave people a sense of identity” and assisted them in establishing secure relationships with others. Self-help literature helped people to take steps toward improved prosperity, health, and happiness in their daily situations. “Psychics offered physical healing and spiritual advice” on how to deal with everyday problems. People thought that by knowing the future they could change it, “take the steps necessary to avoid harm,” or restore balance to life. Communicating with a dead mother could assist a person with a current problem. “Abiding by Theosophical rules could enable someone to gain confidence in self and the universe.” Renewed health and good fortune could come from the practice of New Thought. To Americans, the practicability of the occult was important. People believed that engaging in occult and metaphysical activities was a way to stimulate images that would bring useful results. 20


The occult-metaphysical movements have been described as countercultural. However, it is more accurate to say that they exaggerated {97} certain existing tendencies within American religion and culture so that they seemed strange and unusual. 21 The passion for divination in the sixties and early seventies had its parallel in evangelical Christianity. Many Evangelicals—spurred on by Hal Lindsay’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth—engaged in a flood of predictions concerning the Second Coming of Christ and events of the last times. This preoccupation with “Christian tea leaves” became a fad among many conservative Christians. The apocalyptic mood brought on by anticipation of the Age of Aquarius had its counterpart in the secular community as well. In the seventies and eighties, environmentalists and many nuclear pacifists envisioned the destruction of the planet. The AIDS epidemic furthered this apocalypticism, conjuring up visions of a plague akin to the Black Death. 22

The occult’s insistence that experience is the path to knowledge and enlightenment also had its parallel in the larger society. A major epistemological shift—particularly in religion—had taken place. The cognitive processes had been dethroned, and experience was the new king. The many religious therapies associated with the human potential and New Age movements closely resembled their secular counterparts. Indeed, many developments in psychology rested on occult-metaphysical assumptions. Furthermore, the emphasis that certain groups with an Eastern-occult worldview place on health and wholeness has been a widespread fad. 23

By the late-twentieth century, scientific and secular forces had drastically diminished a sense of the supernatural, the transcendent, the sacred, and the immortal in American life. Because of their worldview and desire to validate their activities, many occultists reject a concept of the supernatural. 24 Nevertheless, they engage in a quest for other aspects of the transcendent, whether they be the forces of nature or of the hidden depths of the mind. Occultism, with its long history of unorthodox beliefs and practices, is above all a declaration of the existence of powers emanating from beyond. Thus it can be seen as a counterreligion in quest of aspects of transcendence that lie outside the Judeo-Christian tradition. 25 Occult and metaphysical movements met a deep spiritual thirst, and this is a major part of their attraction today.