My favourite televisual junk food recently has been Hellier, produced by the gang at the Planet Weird website and available on Amazon Prime, the Planet Weird YouTube channel, and the show’s dedicated website. It’s centred on Greg and Dana Newkirk, the co-founders of Planet Weird, and their team of fellow researchers as they delve into a paranormal mystery centred on the small Kentucky town of Hellier… or at least, they try to find a mystery.
The narrative begins simply enough: back in 2012, Greg had been contacted by an individual called David Christie, who e-mailed him about small alien creatures allegedly besieging his rural home. The initial e-mails sound a lot like a riff on the letters in The Whisperer In Darkness to me; to Greg, they seemed to be riffing on the decades-old case of the Kentucky Goblins. (Though the term “goblin” wasn’t used in the e-mails, the description of the creatures matched the earlier incident uncannily well.)
At around the same time Greg also got some e-mails from someone calling himself “Terry Wriste”, who seemed to know something about the situation, which made Greg think that there was probably enough to it to be worth looking into – but David didn’t respond to followup e-mails (much as you wouldn’t follow up, say, if you’d just written the original e-mail as a pisstake and were wrong-footed by being taken seriously), and Greg let the matter lie.
Years later, filmmaker Karl Pfieffer found himself drawn into the case through a series of curious synchronicities, prompting the Newkirks to take a second look at the case. Filling out the party with a few other trusted colleagues, the Newkirks would lead the group on an expedition to Hellier itself, where depending on your point of view they find absolutely nothing or absolutely everything.
Let’s be clear: at no point in Hellier does the team actually find a goblin, or actually capture anything undeniably paranormal in their footage. As with the myriad cheap, shitty ghost-hunting shows that have clogged up the television airways over the past decade or two (which Pfeiffer has some background in), Hellier is largely an exercise in investigators trying to build supernatural mountains out of decidedly mundane-looking molehills. Sometimes they hear noises. Occasionally those noises will actually be audible in the footage. Rarely will those noises seem like anything other than the natural noises of a rural area after dark.
The first thing that sets Hellier apart from all those ghost-hunting shows is that whilst that sort of fodder is recorded on the cheap to produce the sort of inexpensive time-filler it’s intended to be, Pfeiffer has clearly invested a certain amount of effort in the aesthetic of Hellier; it’s probably the most professional-looking paranormal-themed documentary series for some time.
The second thing is that, rather than simply doing the same-old same-old ghost investigation techniques by rote, the investigative party here go way the fuck off the rails.
Specifically, they buy wholly into the idea of embracing synchronicity, scrutinising synchronicities and coincidences as being meaningful, and using astonishingly subjective methods of obtaining evidence. (Several times they end up using a “ghost box” which seems to be basically a convoluted technique to get a human being spouting random sentence-scraps which you can read a bunch into – and which will doubtless be shaped by their own biases and expectations.)
Making logical leaps which would make Dirk Gently, Douglas Adams’ holistic detective, say “Hmmmm, that seems to be a bit tenuous”, the party spend the two seasons (so far) of the show getting into increasingly weird and unconventional investigative techniques, and fairly consistently discover absolutely nothing concrete whilst insisting they have actually gathered a lot of information. By the end of the first season, they are convinced that everything that’s been happening is a grand attempt by Indrid Cold, a Man In Black who was supposedly a significant player in the infamous Mothman case, to communicate with them by manifesting as a tin can in a cave. By the end of the second season, they are worshipping the Great God Pan.
It’s essentially the whole psychic questing thing, as I’ve discussed previously here, resurrected and put on television. It is also, I believe, either a conscious or inadvertent attempt to teach basic occult techniques to a mass audience, and more specifically an eccentric grab-bag of fairly basic Thelemic techniques as advocated by Aleister Crowley.
See, whenever the group are otherwise stumped for a direction, they start playing about with the ideas in The Secret Cipher of the UFOnauts by eccentric occultist Allen Greenfield. This is a brief tome – the edition I own is The Complete Secret Cipher of the UFOnauts, which combines the material from Secret Cipher with the stuff from its companion volume The Secret Rituals of the Men In Black, and even that doesn’t break 200 pages – which came onto the Hellier team’s radar in part because a certain “Terry Wriste” gets interviewed at one point in it and they assume that this was the same Terry Wriste who’d e-mailed about the goblins earlier. (Because, of course, two separate people couldn’t think up the same pun…)
Greenfield, a long-time occultist and UFOlogist who spent a long time in one of the branches of the OTO – one of Crowley’s magical orders – put about the idea that the strange names that come up in abductee and contactee accounts of visitations from UFOs and MIBs and whatnot are, in fact, encrypted using a cipher based on the Qabalah (this being the variant on Jewish Kabbalah that was adopted by various Hermetic occult societies, including the Order of the Golden Dawn from which Crowley would have learned it).
More specifically, Greenfield tries to convince the reader of the following story:
- The powers behind the UFO phenomena are Ultraterrestrials, aliens from other dimensions.
- They use codes transmitted via Masonic societies and similar to mark incidents as being of special significance.
- Crowley’s Book of the Law includes a code which Crowley himself claimed not to understand. (Crowley believed that a Secret Master called Aiwass dictated the book.)
- Charles Stansfield Jones, AKA Frater Achad, successfully cracked the code – and was acknowledged by Crowley as having done so.
- Achad’s solution yields a particular attribution of numbers to letters of the alphabet, which can then be used to perform a particular variant of Gematria, the Qabalistic techniques of analysing words by adding up the values of their letters. (Naturally, when you change the number values of the letters, you change the values of all the words you look at, and so you create a whole new system of esoteric linkages since concepts which sum to a common total are held to have an occult connection.)
- If you apply Achad’s variant Gematria to the weird names given to aliens in contactee and abductee accounts, you get some wild results.
Note that points 3, 4, and 5 above are uncontentious – Crowley really did claim there was a code, Achad really did claim to have cracked it, Crowley really did say “Yeah, checks out”, Achad’s solution really does suggest a particular Gematria which gives some interesting results when you apply it to the explicitly flagged codes in the Book of the Law. Wild, huh? Greenfield’s main leap of logic is in using the comparatively solid beams of 3, 4, and 5 to try and construct a bridge between the shaky ground of 1 and 2 to the wild assertion of 6. (6 also seems to be a truism: apply any random set of values to letters of the alphabet, then derive values from words, and you’ll find other words you can link those to and draw conclusions from.)
Now, Greenfield has a certain angle he’s pushing here; emphasising the importance of Achad’s exegesis of the Book of the Law would naturally prompt people to want to look at Achad’s Liber 31 in which much of his analysis (including his work on the cipher) is presented, and what would you know: the published version of it is edited and bears a commentary from Greenfield himself. (He put it out after the original 1994 release of Secret Cipher, a book which surely laid the groundwork in some quarters to boost sales of Liber 31…) It is not impossible that Greenfield’s working an agenda, and in particular not impossible that Greenfield’s presentation of Achad’s work massages it a little to fit Greenfield’s theories better.
Beyond that, Greenfield’s entire angle may be eccentric, unorthodox, and highly individual, but arguably the idea of “orthodox Thelema” is an affront to the movement’s founder. Moreover, the approach here is arguably much more consistent with Crowley’s actual beliefs than more sober Thelemites might want to admit.
For starters, over the course of The Complete Secret Cipher it becomes quite evident that Greenfield’s “Ultraterrestrials” are basically another label for the Gods or Secret Masters of Crowley’s belief system. When Greenfield is arguing for Crowley’s belief in contact with otherworldly intelligences, he isn’t twisting or distorting some minor, out-of-the-way aspect of Crowley’s writing, but is citing core texts which explicitly say precisely that.
As well as The Book of the Law itself, which Crowley insisted was the work of an entity called Aiwass, Greenfield extensively cites Magick Without Tears. There is a lot of absolute nonsense talked about what Crowley did or did not believe, but if you wanted an objective look for yourself, Magick Without Tears is the text you should probably look to first. Written late in Crowley’s life, it consists of a compilation of letters sent from Crowley to several magical apprentices of his, in which he explained various aspects of his occult worldview in as simple-to-understand terms as he could.
He turns out to be quite an engaging writer when he’s not trying to sound all scriptural or otherwise formal, and you get quite a good picture of the man. Some of that picture is not all that appealing – he’s clearly elitist, occasionally outright racist, is hostile to the idea that marginalised groups may need to act collectively in defence of their rights, says some alarming things about how Hitler could have done much better had be properly accepted the Law of Thelema when one of Crowley’s devotees in Germany had tried to present it to the Nazis, and glibly talks about individual strength or weakness without giving much consideration of how it’s easier to be a rugged individualist when one’s born to privilege and wealth.
At the same time, he is clearly lucid in writing these letters, and is able to string together a rigorous argument, apply actual standards of evidence (though more materialistic or sceptical sorts might question his standards of admissibility of evidence), and isn’t one to be fooled by muddled thinking or platitudes. There’s a common caricature of Crowley at this point in his life as being heroin-addled and in his dotage, but it’s pretty evident that this isn’t true; people with dementia or who have otherwise lost their faculties are not able to string together a chain of thought and present an argument with the clarity Crowley manages here.
You might disagree with some or all of his conclusions, but you can’t call him stupid or blindly dogmatic on the basis of the material in Magick Without Tears. Nor can you trust the opinion of someone who makes bold statements about what Crowley taught or believed without at least having read Magick Without Tears (or the various Crowley writings which go deeper into the relevant subjects).
And one thing which Crowley is extremely adamant about in the book is that he genuinely believes in otherworldly intelligences, that he believes that the central point of magical practice is to establish communication with such, and that concepts in Thelema like the Holy Guardian Angel should be regarded as wholly distinct and fully-formed individuals, not as mere allegories for the higher self or personifications of abstract concepts. Crowley believes that personifications of abstract concepts who don’t have actual independent personhood also exist – but he is adamant that there is a class of higher spiritual being, including the Secret Masters of the occult underground and the gods themselves, to whom full-fledged personhood in their own right should be ascribed, rather than regarding them as existing only as illustrations of human philosophical concepts.
Now, of course, Crowley loved himself a good secret society and all the initiatory goodness that comes along with that. Crowley doesn’t explain everything in Magick Without Tears by any means – he dances around the topic of sex magick, for instance, and that is most likely because a lot of his sex magick concepts were reserved for upper regions of the OTO and subject to attendant vows of secrecy.
That being the case, one could almost ponder whether Crowley is either outright lying about believing in what Greenfield calls Ultraterrestrials, or at the very least leaving out facts which would put his insistence on their objective reality and independent personhood in such a radically different light as to invert the meaning. In this instance, I don’t think that’s the case. Crowley’s biographers tend to have a consensus that he genuinely believed in Aiwass, for instance – despite at least claiming not to want to believe for a long time – and the idea of the Holy Guardian Angel as a distinct entity that you should try and make contact with is riddled throughout Crowley’s wider body of work, and throughout Magick Without Tears specifically.
Moreover, for Crowley to be lying about it would be to defeat the entire purpose of Magick Without Tears, which was to, as much as possible, apply a zero-bullshit approach to things. Crowley intended that book to teach prospective magical practitioners the key ideas they need to know and engage with in; outright lies would sabotage that. In particular, Crowley directly states that contact with nonhuman intelligences is the Great Work that the esoteric orders have been attempting since time immemorial, and outright mischaracterisation of the Great Work itself would seem to sabotage it more than advancing it.
Not only is Greenfield’s concept of the Ultraterrestrials essentially a new label for what has to be seen as an orthodox Thelemic concept (unless one is willing to argue that Crowley himself had departed from Thelemite teaching in Magick Without Tears), but Greenfield’s methodology is at least using the tools which Crowley placed most importance on – though Crowley would not necessarily come to the same conclusions. Qabalah, and Gematria specifically, is put front and centre in Magick Without Tears; Crowley repeatedly and forcefully endorses its use, to the point where one anticipates that Crowley would turn to the Qabalah first when investigating any situation from a magical perspective. So Greenfield is exploring an orthodox Thelemite concept, using an orthodox tool.
Where I think Greenfield departs from the “best practice” principles laid down in Magick Without Tears is in his insistence that the variant Qabalah he uses is a form of communication from the Ultraterrestrials to us. The problem with Gematria is that it is a technique which inherently destroys information as you go along. You can use the “cipher” to convert “ARTHUR” to “70”, but you cannot begin with the number “70” and say for sure that “ARTHUR” was definitely the intended solution, or that any of the other words in any language was the intended solution, or that a line of 70 “A”s wasn’t in fact the intended message.
Greenfield’s argument is that the variant Qabalah, when applied to names which come up in a UFO case, reveal connections to other cases or other esoteric concepts – like how George Adamski’s “ORTHON” corresponds to “JESUS” and shows Christ-like qualities. The problem is that, like I said above, you could use any Gematria-like attribution of numbers to letters, obtain numbers in that fashion, and then from those numbers obtain words or phrases which seem to have an esoteric connection to the situation at hand. For a system to actually be a proper code or cipher, it can’t destroy information in this way, and the solution must yield the information you originally input directly and unambiguously; without that, it isn’t a workable method. Gematria does not work like that.
(Another problem, of course, is that Greenfield keeps applying the technique to accounts of UFO encounters where the people reporting them only heard the names in question verbally, and therefore can’t really be sure of the spelling. A big reason not to take Gematria too dogmatically is that the spelling of different words has changed and evolved over time, and vary from region to region – so, for instance, an English-language Gematria immediately runs into the problem that “colour” and “color” in British and American English denote exactly the same concept, but have entirely different Gematria values.)
Crowley, in Magick Without Tears, seems to me to be warning against the assumption that everything which reduces to a particular number is necessarily connected in this fashion. In Crowley’s cosmology everything is ultimately connected to everything else anyhow (all matter originated in the Big Bang, after all), so a connection can always be found if you look deeply enough – whether the connection is meaningful is another question. In general, I get the impression from his discussion of the subject that he considered it to be important mainly as a mnemonic tool, a means to allow magical practitioners to establish in their own minds a sense of connection between two disparate concepts (and thus gain the capacity to affect the one concept by affecting the other with this mental connection as leverage).
Nonetheless, Crowley did prescribe Qabalah for everything, and this, via Greenfield’s idiosyncratic filtering of the concept, is largely what Hellier ends up doing. Crowley in his own Qabalistic workings used a traditional set of numerical and conceptual correspondences (derived, most likely, from his Golden Dawn experience) as a sort of aid in constructing magical rituals and practices; so-and-so is governed by such-and-such a number, which corresponds to this Egyptian deity, this colour, this astrological sign, and so on and so forth, (Crowley would publish his own Qabalistic set of cross-references and correspondences as Liber 777, in which context it is much-used by later Thelemites – and cited by Greenfield.)
If Hellier is anything, it is the Planet Weird crew in effect using Greenfield’s variant Gematria to establish their own system of Qabalistic connections and correspondences, which they then work with in order to seek communication with other entities – whether these be the Kentucky Goblins, Indrid Cold, the Archangel Michael, or the Great God Pan – and in seeking that communication they are doing the basic task Crowley sets forth for magical practitioners.
The question remains of conscious they are of this. As in any psychic questing endeavour, the principal players in Hellier seem to spend much of the time being good improvisers, “yes-and”ing each other’s statements to build on them further and go further down a rabbithole which might have no rabbits and might not even be a hole, any more than a mime’s glass wall is actually a wall. It could be they had no idea they would get here.
On the other hand, Dana Newkirk is an active occult practitioner and, whilst she claims not to concentrate on the Thelemic tradition, at the same time almost everyone doing occult shit post-Crowley owes some form of debt to Crowley. (In particular, she identifies as a hedgewitch and seems to at least have some regard for Wiccan practice, and Wicca as originally formulated by Gerald Gardner is essentially cribbed OTO stuff with a more rural/folk tradition aesthetic.) It’s Dana who formulates the ritual in honour of Pan at the end of the second season, and Pan is a big deal in Thelema. I have no idea where Hellier goes next after this, but I can bet on whose footsteps they’ll be following when they go there.