The word ‘occult’ often brings to mind horror films or stories of black magic and a murky underworld of evil powers and frightening phenomena. So it’s important to step back from the sensationalist ideas of the media and look at what occult groups and practices are really about, how people can be attracted by them or lured into them, and what the dangers really are. It’s also important to know what we are talking about and where to get help if needed.
What do we mean by the Occult?
The word ‘occult’ just means ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’. So doctors might talk about ‘occult’ blood in samples where the blood can’t be seen but it still there. A lot of new (and old) religious groups have secret aspects to them, often only revealed to insiders and sometimes only after those insiders have worked to gain spiritual advancement. The idea of hidden or secret knowledge is often very attractive to people and they may join groups to obtain it, whether that’s a religion that promises knowledge about God or gods, aliens, transcendent experiences transporting people to other worlds or planes of existence, or the secret to god-like powers, release from emotions and fears, or access to immortality in this world or eternal life in the next.
The idea of hidden or secret knowledge is often very attractive to people and they may join groups to obtain it
Some groups with secrets or secret levels promise access to special powers, or leverage over other human beings to get wealth, success or love. Occult groups sometimes promise techniques to get you want in this life, or offer you ways to get revenge or hurt others who have hurt you. This can attract people who feel they have been wronged or are vulnerable or powerless in some way. Other occult groups sometimes require people to keep secrets, sometimes threatening penalties if the secrets are revealed. Others require people to go through initiations, tests or rituals to prove their worthiness to join or to advance within the groups themselves. Some of those rituals can be deliberately frightening or arduous.
The word ‘occult’ often makes people think of Satanism. In fact, there are several kinds of Satanism and satanic groups, and not all are what you might expect. Some groups follow what is called ‘philosophical Satanism’ where the idea of ‘Satan’ is used to promote resistance against government and control, just as Satan in some Christian traditions, is supposed to have rebelled against God. So some forms of Satanism are about a political agenda and personal rights and freedoms. Other kinds of Satanism are about rejection of Christian morality concerning love of neighbour as oneself and putting self first at all times in order to protect oneself from exploitation.
There are, however, yet other kinds of occult or Satanist groups which actively encourage immorality and criminal acts against others and may set ‘tests’ for members which involve deliberate transgression to break down ‘Christian’ standards or morality and decency. This is usually about getting a person out of their comfort zone and may include requiring people to do things which they would typically find repugnant. Such groups are known to the police, since criminality, including serious crime, can be an outcome of this kind of organisation.
The Occult has also been associated with ’black magic’ and with particular individuals pursuing a path of evil actions and behaviour. Again, we have to be careful what we are talking about. Some individuals and groups practice rituals and what is called ‘magick’. Magick (with a k) is a way of interacting with the world in order to combine human will or desire with particular outcomes. Sometimes these rituals are called ‘spells’. The people who practice these rituals sometimes identify themselves as left-hand path or right-hand path practitioners. Very simplistically (it is much more complicated than this), right hand path practitioners look to bring benefit and good change to the world, such as more peace, kindness, or generosity and seek to be a part of that by their actions and intentions. Left hand Path practitioners use rituals to understand more about their powers and motives and their ability to bring their will to bear on the world and conditions around them. Such practice requires a long process of self-knowledge and self-interrogation and some people find it deeply psychologically stressful and even frightening.
Some forms of occult (and other) practice seek to contact the spirits of the dead to ask them for wisdom, information, reassurance, help or power. This can range from groups which actively offer to contact the dead through mediumship or psychic gifts, or individuals who will go on a ‘soul-journey’ or trance state to contact dead people, souls or spirits, or guides.
Popular games which purport to contact spirits include Ouija Boards (easily available in shops) and Hallowe’en games like Charlie Charlie. Sometimes people taking part in these games or using Ouija boards for fun end up being seriously frightened and upset by the experience.
Contacting demonic powers
There are other groups and individuals who offer ways to contact actual demons or evil spirits as a way of gaining power or influence in the world. One form of this is called Chaos Magick in which people can use pictures (called sigils) or rituals to engage with a named demon or collection of demons. Some people understand the ‘demons’ to stand for untapped mental powers, which can be unleashed by intense concentration, offerings or sacrifices such as drops of one’s own blood. Other people believe in, and actively want to contact the demons which are supposed to reside in hell, believing their power and strength can be controlled to help people get what they want: especially sex, power, influence and wealth. Sex magick often also includes invoking powerful demons. Some occult groups have levels of attainment in relation to mastering demons and some people believe that doing this will make them god-like or grant them supernatural powers.
There is no doubt that occult practice can do serious harm, especially to people’s mental health and spiritual well-being. This harm usually comes about in a number of ways. First, people can start with something like a Ouija Board as a bit of fun, but what happens with the game can get out of hand and people become afraid of what they have encountered and come away with fear, nightmares and a sense of being deeply troubled, oppressed and anxious. In severe cases this can progress to mental illness and a deep sense of spiritual dis-ease. This can result from even the most light-hearted of games. ‘Dabbling’ can push people into practices they really don’t want to get into and they find themselves out of their depth and very afraid.
Many of the people who seek out those who claim to be able to talk to the dead are bereaved or otherwise vulnerable. Sometimes people feel initially comforted by messages, but very often then report that they are confused or upset by the limited communication and find that the processes don’t allow them to mourn properly or to move on and are literally ‘haunted’ by a sense of unfinished business or unsatisfactory relationship.
In May 2021, one Christian denomination specifically issued a ‘warning against occult spirituality following the rise in people trying to communicate with the dead’, after a rise in people trying to do this when they had lost people to Covid. The same commission remarked that, ‘Becoming involved in activities [like these] can open up a doorway to great spiritual oppression which requires a Christian rite to set that person free’.
Other people who seek more serious engagement in occult magick practice, some Satanist groups or Chaos Magick have found themselves overwhelmed, terrified or believe themselves possessed by evil or powers they cannot control. Some report a sense of their will being overtaken so that they are not sure what they might do or have done. In some cases this results in significant mental trauma and mental illness.
The Christian Perspective
The Bible has an account in the Old Testament (1 Samuel 28. 3-25) of a person who asks a medium to raise a spirit to give him advice. This account makes it clear that the dead are not to be called back to help the living. The spirit (Samuel) demands to know why he has been disturbed and admonishes the enquirer (Saul) for not trusting God. Those who have died have their own destiny and this is not to be interrupted just because we want to be in contact with them. The Bible is also concerned about rituals and practices which take people away from God and distract them from finding out what God wants for them and talks about avoiding those ‘sorcerers’ who deliberately tell people lies (eg Revelation 22.15).
The figure whose name is translated ‘Satan’ in the Bible is not straightforward. Sometimes Satan is like a secret agent, an accuser, a tester or tempter, or ‘the enemy’ or ‘adversary’. In fact, common ideas about Satan and the rebel angels who are cast down to hell are later traditions building on Revelation 12.9. The idea of Satan as an absolute embodiment of evil is also a later tradition.
Jesus promises that no one needs to be afraid, and the Lord’s Prayer which Jesus gave his followers, asks God to deliver us from evil.
In some Christian traditions, the idea of an evil entity (the Devil or Satan, powers or demons) is very real to people and Christian faith includes a spiritual warfare in which the saving power of Jesus is pitted against the evil powers which are continually wrangling for control of the world through tempting and pressing human beings to sin and thereby become further from God’s goodness and mercy. Prayer, self-examination, worship and service are ways in which Christians can push back against evil and defeat it.
In other Christian traditions, ideas of evil are more nuanced and less dualistic. Nonetheless, the New Testament advises all Christians to turn away from sin and follow Jesus in order to bring about the peace, stability, mutual care and resting in God’s love that are features of what is called God’s Kingdom. Jesus promises that no one needs to be afraid, and the Lord’s Prayer which Jesus gave his followers, asks God to deliver us from evil.
If you want to find out about occult groups or individuals and their practices before getting involved in any way, you can contact INFORM www.inform.ac at King’s College, London.
If you have been involved in any occult group or practice and have been worried or frightened about it, you can talk to any Christian minister and ask for help. If you have suffered a bereavement, it makes sense to talk to a Christian minister if you are tempted to try and contact the spirit of your loved one. In most Christian denominations there will be specialist ministers, called deliverance ministers, who will understand what you are feeling and can help you to get spiritual help, comfort and peace and will also work with any mental health professionals you might need as support.