BY George Pendle in Profiles | 04 MAR 02
Featured in
Issue 65

Strange Angels

Black science and Jack Parsons

BY George Pendle in Profiles | 04 MAR 02

'There is nothing to match flying over LA by night', said the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard; 'only Hieronymous Bosch's Hell can match the inferno effect.'

Yet such is LA's fallen angel charm that it has exercised a narcotic fascination on those seeking to transform themselves. In the first half of the 20th century the city acted as a doctrinal battleground: mystic cults sought to transfigure souls, scientists strove to liberate man from earth's atmosphere, attaining a new, literally higher state of being, while in the verdant arena of Hollywood the studios were also seeking to displace human frailty with a mythical order of demi-gods - 'the stars'. It was in this Babel of variegated virtue that a strange, Pynchonian network was formed, linking the Edwardian occultist Aleister Crowley, the brilliant young rocket scientist John Whiteside Parsons and the maverick genius of America's cinematic avant-garde, Kenneth Anger.

If anyone could make himself feel comfortable in hell, you imagine it would be Crowley, aka 'The Great Beast', aka 'The Wickedest Man on Earth', aka '666'. Born in 1875, he was a poet, mountaineer, orientalist and experimenter with drugs. A consummate showman and avid self-promoter (he faked his own death to drum up interest in his first painting exhibition), he was most famous as a practitioner of the occult. Although Crowley travelled to Los Angeles only once, he exerted a considerable influence on the city's inhabitants through his religion of Thelema (Greek for 'will'), the central creed of which was: 'Do what thou wilt'. In Los Angeles this sensual doctrine was adopted and promulgated by the Agape Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), originally a German occult order related to the Freemasons, which came under Crowley's spell.

The intention behind Thelema was to raise man's consciousness to a higher level, specifically through the use of sex and drugs. Indeed hedonistic pleasures were all-important factors in Crowley's 'magick' rituals, allowing the magus to reach the recesses, or rather the outer limits, of his being. His 'sex-magick' was intended as the fuel to power man to a new state of being, out of the cage of his socially conditioned ego.

That such a radical creed of excess and chemically altered perception should have caught on in Los Angeles is not surprising; this was, after all, the city in which Aldous Huxley chose to open 'the doors of perception' to internal exploration. Crowley's teachings accordingly attracted some of the most unusual admirers. Dr Alfred Kinsey, the sexual historian and author of the landmark Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (1948), was obsessed with both Crowley's erotic writings and his 'sex-magick' practices. In 1955 he visited Crowley's occult abbey on Sicily, where many rituals were enacted. (He took with him on this pilgrimage his admirer, and one of his many subjects, Kenneth Anger). And in the 1960s Dr Timothy Leary, conscious of his debt to Crowley, talked of a similar need to 're-imprint our reality tunnel' through the use of hallucinogens.

Among those whom Crowley's teachings had entranced, none was so thoroughly converted as John Whiteside Parsons, a brilliant young scientist dubbed the 'James Dean of Cal Tech'. Parsons' work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena had seen him heavily involved in the invention of solid rocket fuel, a breakthrough that would ultimately make space travel possible. Yet while his scientific work made him one of the most respected scientists in his field, his fascination with the occult was the presiding belief in his life.

Parsons joined the OTO lodge in Pasadena in 1939 and swiftly rose up the hierarchy. He was soon in constant communication with Crowley in Britain and eventually moved the lodge's activities to his own house on Pasadena's Millionaires' Row, where he threw the doors open to 'bohemians, artists, musicians, atheists, anarchists or other exotic types'. Stories of blasphemous and debauched rituals began to fill the neighbourhood.

With rocket travel still very much in the realm of science fiction at the time (Parsons was a huge sci-fi fan), one can see why a belief in occultism might not have been such a radical step for a scientist to take. Both the occult and Parsons' rocket work placed the imagination, as well as ritualistic technical skills, at the forefront of their modus operandi. The will to believe that sees quantum physics stress the unseen and seemingly illogical physical realities of the universe can also be found in occultism's talk of concealed and inconsistent psychic realities.

For Parsons the idea of science and the occult co-existing can hardly have seemed incongruous. Crowley himself had studied organic chemistry at Cambridge University, and even the presiding genius at Cal Tech at the time of Parsons' tenure there, Theodore von Karman, often boasted of how one of his descendants had reputedly created a 'golem', an artificial human being with a special significance in Hebrew folklore. Nevertheless rumour soon spread that Parsons was the leader of a 'black magic cult' (the changing of his name to Belarion Armiluss All Dajjal Antichrist probably did not help). His security access to the appropriately named Devil's Gate rocket test range was removed and, frustrated in his scientific career, he sank deeper into his occultist beliefs.

By the mid-1940s the success of the OTO lodge was spreading, and its members now included bankers, lawyers and the odd Hollywood actor. It had never seemed so normal to have naked virgins leaping through rings of fire in your backyard. Unfortunately this idyllic coven life was about to take a change for the worse through the appearance of one of the stranger Crowley devotees, a young naval officer and pulp sci-fi writer named L. Ron Hubbard. Having dazzled Parsons with his charisma, Hubbard moved into the mansion and aided in many of the sex-magick rituals that took place there (he is referred to in Parsons' letters to Crowley as the comical 'seer Ron'). However, Ron had other plans than simply playing with his magick wand. After a few months of working his way up the order's hierarchy he quit the lodge, taking with him not only Parsons' girlfriend but also $10,000 of Parsons' money. Eventually Hubbard put the occult dramaturgy and incantatory skills he learned in Pasadena to more lucrative uses by founding the Church of Scientology, an unholy alliance of the West Coast's favoured vices - psychotherapy, mysticism and science fiction.

Distraught at this betrayal, Parsons now took up with Marjorie Cameron, an artist and actress who shared lodgings with the up-and-coming actors Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell. (Cameron later became affiliated with many of the luminaries of the LA art scene, including George Herms, Bruce Connor and Wallace Berman, and also appeared in one film with Hopper: Curtis Harrington's peculiar Night Tide (1961). Cameron wanders through this curio swathed in black, terrorizing the heroine, speaking her lines in an incomprehensible language.) Parsons, struck by Cameron's red hair, green eyes and decidedly masculine features, excitedly believed her to be the 'Whore of Babylon'. Indeed she became Parsons' most intimate muse for the rest of his life, and provided a link with another devout follower of Crowley - the filmmaker Kenneth Anger.

Like Crowley, Anger was a supreme artificer of his own myth. As a child actor, he had played the role of the Changeling Prince in Max Reinhardt's film of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), and the themes of transformation and of other worlds lurking just out of sight would stay with him his entire life. Already famed for his homo-erotic dream vision Fireworks (1947), which had led him to be branded a new Cocteau, Anger discovered in Crowley's writings the physicality of pagan religions and the aesthetic decadence of occultism. His first foray into the opulence and ritual of the occult was the Technicolor masquerade Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), in which Cameron appeared alongside Anaïs Nin.

Inauguration is, in the words of Bill Landis, 'Anger's version of a glittering MGM musical'. Ostensibly based on one of Crowley's dramatic rituals, where people in the cult would assume the identity of a god or a goddess, the effect of Inauguration is more that of a visual elaboration of J.-K. Huysmans' A rebours (Against Nature, 1884). Anger's film begins as a sensuous, sometimes camp, cauldron of Kabbalistic gods and costume jewellery. Slow, sumptuous dissolves lead the film lazily along as hands are bedecked with ornate rings and bodies adorned with robes. This indolent stasis is abruptly broken as elixirs are drunk and joints smoked. The slow dissolves are replaced by slicing Eisensteinian montage as the ritual spins wildly out of control and colour drenches the screen. Many layers of superimposed images become visible on the film - occult symbols, talismans, a silent film version of Dante's Inferno, pictures of Crowley himself. By the end hallucinogenic images slam into the viewer relentlessly, and whatever threads of narrative coherence there might have been are long gone; the vision has become overwhelming.

Anger's later films became ever more drenched in occult symbols, flashed subliminally at the audience in manic montages. The iconic Scorpio Rising (1962), as well as firmly establishing the homo-erotic cult of the biker and revelling in the crass pop ritual of Americana, also incorporates themes direct from Crowley's writings. For Anger the crashing motorcyclist seen at the end of the film is not just an individual speeding to an inexorable hedonistic fate ('Thanatos in chrome, black leather, and bursting jeans'), but acts as the symbol for the death of the age of Christendom, a sacrifice, an epoch-changing vision direct from Crowley's philosophy. In his most blatantly Crowleyian work, Invocation to My Demon Brother (1969), a manic, speeded-up Anger is seen performing one of Crowley's magick rites on film.

Yet Anger did not just use the occult's imagery and rituals for depictions of an internal state. He intended his films to be more than just treats for the delectation of the passive viewer; for him the aesthetic endeavour was a category of magick. As Simon Dwyer suggests in his essay The Plague Yard (1990), Anger's later films are themselves rituals 'and quite literally cast a spell on his audience'. Theme and style became irrevocably fused as one, pushing the viewer through a magical catharsis. Anger had transmuted himself into a self-confessed 'filmmaker-magician', a magus-director.

Crowley died in 1947, his last words reputedly being the less than assured 'I am perplexed'. John Parsons died in 1952, at the age of 37, when a mysterious explosion ripped through his home laboratory. Clumsiness and assassination have both been posited as reasons for the blast (Anger suggests the tycoon Howard Hughes had Parsons murdered), but the most intriguing, and Lovecraftian, suggestion proposes that he was vaporized while trying to summon a demonic homunculus from the ether. Kenneth Anger has continued to make his Crowley-inspired films, culminating in the grim pageant of Lucifer Rising (1980). His next project, long in the preparation, is said to be about Crowley himself.

As for the alchemical ley lines that once ran through LA, they are now a pale reflection of what they once were. Crowley's teachings have become diluted into a thousand self-help mantras and New Age cults. The Hollywood system of creating demi-gods was destroyed, partly by Anger, whose gaudy books Hollywood Babylon I and II (1958 and 1984) viciously portrayed a phenomenology of broken gods addicted to morphine, booze and sex. But while the space race has long been relegated to history, its promise of new worlds refuses to die.

One of Parsons' pulp sci-fi friends, Robert Anson Heinlein, wrote in his novel Waldo and Magic, Inc. (1942) of a time when all the arts of magic will have gained scientific acceptance and become technologies used in daily life. In fact, the reverse has come true. Science, or rather pseudo-science, has become the new occultism.

The more we know of science the more it seems to transcend us, disappearing into a maelstrom of quarks, superstring theory and uncertainty. Such imponderables have allowed the hereticism of science fiction to fill the void with readily understandable dogma. If we are seeking forbidden knowledge, we are now told to look to the skies, not to the pentagram. 'Extra-terrestrial' rather than 'other-dimensional' is the watchword. Witness the Heaven's Gate cult and their fatal Flash Gordon longing for redemption on the tail of a comet. Captain Kirk's mission statement, 'To boldly go where no man has gone before', has begun to take on sinister connotations; indeed it could well be mistaken for a Crowleyian proclamation of debauched intent. Did Anger embrace this link when in Lucifer Rising (1980) a glorious flying saucer is seen appearing over the sphinx in the film's last scenes?

With the recent news of the first cloning of a human embryo, such an interbreeding between the disciplines of science, art and magic takes on a terrible resonance. From Sir Isaac Newton's lifelong devotion to alchemical studies through to Thomas Edison spending his final years designing an apparatus for contacting the dead, science and the occult have been anything but mutually exclusive.

'Any sufficiently advanced technology', said Arthur C. Clarke in his Profiles of the Future (1962), 'is indistinguishable from magic'. Indeed one wonders whether Parsons would have had better luck if he had tried to conjure up his demon in a Petri dish rather than a chalk circle. Such a thought has been eerily foreshadowed by works ranging from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), which first used the scientist as occultist theme, to The Boys from Brazil (1978), which envisioned the consequences if Hitler had been cloned. A generation raised on Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Omen (1976) can all too easily imagine the possibilities.

George Pendle is a writer based in Washington D.C., USA.