Coming from the Latin ‘occultus’, the dictionary defines the occult as something ‘clandestine, hidden, secret.’ However, in modern culture, this definition has been extended to incorporate ‘knowledge of the paranormal’, magic and deeper knowledge of religion and spirituality.
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The concept of the occult has fascinated people and societies for centuries, from the medieval practices of alchemy, astrology and divination all the way through to modern religious sects such as Satanism. There is no denying that the interest and intrigue surrounding the occult has remained strong throughout history – but why?
The answer is, of course, inextricably tied to humanity’s fascination with, and fear of, death. Death is inevitable, unknowable, complex, and, as most people would agree, a terrifying concept. The fact that so many people would admit to an intense fear of death, or, more specifically, oblivion, sheds light on the widespread hunger for knowledge about hidden and unknown concepts.
Ultimately, death is the ‘great unknown’, and the occult is the very embodiment of this idea. From mediums to Ouija boards, from tarot cards to palmistry, the occult is inextricably linked to a desire to know our fates, to predict events in our lives before they happen, and to feel confident in the idea that we will make some kind of meaningful impact upon the world before we depart it.
The evidence of this can be found when examining popular culture: Take Harry Potter, for example, a globally-acclaimed phenomenon and household name which has touched the lives of children and adults alike, and is credited with turning a whole generation of kids onto reading.
It is interesting that the most popular book series and film franchise in history stems from concepts of magic and the paranormal – two concepts which make up the definition of the occult. The idea of knowing things others don’t, delving deeper into the spiritual world than our neighbours, and believing that there is ‘something else’ out there is particularly prevelant amongst children. This poses the question of whether an interest in the occult is deeply engrained from birth. Fascination with our own mortality grips us throughout our lives, and, as Rowling herself admits and few critics seek to argue, death is the predominant theme in Harry Potter.
Nearly all major religions have some form of the Christian Heaven and Hell, and a system of punishment, reward and repentance to determine where the fate of an individual lies. This concept of continuity after death, of an other-worldly higher power, is directly connected with the lure of the occult. However, dabbling with ‘black magic’ to probe into these mysteries, or to change one’s fate, is marked with fear and unease. Should humanity possess the right to know everything? Is it dangerous to probe too deeply into the mysteries of the world? Certain religions such as Satanism provoke violent opposition as a result of a deep-rooted fear of the ‘spiritual world’, indicating that despite our fascination, there is a certain understanding that we cannot ever truly unlock all the mysteries of the world. Something innate will inevitably hold us back. But through literature and film, the occult lives on.
Whether out of fear, intrigue, fascination or simple disbelief, we cannot deny that the human experience would be considerably less exciting were it not for the occult. After all, if we do not suspect the existence of that elusive ‘Other’, whether benevolent or destructive, what reason is there to strive for more in life? Like all small children who read Harry Potter and pray that their letter from Hogwarts would land on their doorstep, everyone wants to believe in something special.