Sunday, 15 February 2015

Dr Moreau, witchcraft and Hollywood

Although Hollywood is regularly described as a land of magic, the wizardry is usually borne of wondrous inventive talent rather than anything occult. Indeed the godfather of the effects film, Méliès, was a practicing magician turned film-maker. However, there are famous directors who dabble in the dark arts.  Maya Deren was Haitian Vodou priestess, while Alejandro Jodorowsky is a magician and Kenneth Anger a disciple of Crowley. I was recently pleased to learn that Richard Stanley can be added to this list.

Stanley rose to fame with his breakthrough hit Hardware in 1990. The pressure-cooker tale of a woman trapped in a dystopian apartment with a maniacal robot caught the zeigeist of the MTV generation (helped in no small part by cameos from Iggy Pop, Carl McCoy and Lemmy). In 1993 Stanley followed it up with the excellent but underrated Dust Devil set in a violent, primitive psychotropic vision of Namibia. He returned to features a couple of years later but this time things took a turn for the worse...

He helmed, but was fired from, the ill-fated The Island of Dr. Moreau starring the (nightmare) combination of Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando. What could possibly go wrong? Well, a lot it seems. Over the years various stories have emerged of Stanley going into meltdown and refusing to leave a tree he had climbed, then breaking back into the production and trying to sabotage things. A  documentary about his experience has now been released, and it looks to be a corker. Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau has an amazing trailer in which Stanley freely admits to using witchcraft to further his plans.

I have been itching to see a new documentary but seem to have missed the UK showings. Hopefully it'll be available on DVD soon.


Saturday, 7 February 2015

Operation: Cone of Power

The pulp-ey sub-genre of Weird War II has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance lately with various comics, films and games all featuring increasingly bizarre scenarios. As my previous post served to show, in reality there was no small amount of weird activity during the war. Things never seemed to get so crazy that a small, horned hell-babies were ever summoned by Russian magicians, but there is some evidence to suggest that occult attacks were directed at Germany.

Operation: Cone of Power is one purported instance. Allegedly a coven witches based in the New Forest conducted a ritual to send a message to the Third Reich command to convince them that they would never be able to cross the English Channel. A number of the group are said to have died shortly afterwards from exhaustion and exposure (as they were all naked during the ritual).  The main source of this story is Gerald Gardner, who went on to found the tradition of Gardnerian Wicca. Detractors say that his claims are fraudulent and that he invented the New Forrest Coven to bolster his credentials. Beyond a couple of local deaths shortly after the ritual was said to have been performed, there seems little evidence beyond Garner's account to indicate the ritual occurred.

From the scant evidence we have it seems that any ritual might have been a grass-roots activity rather than a government-sactioned operation. MI9 was the department which looked after intelligence during WWII. It supposedly employed magician Jasper Maskelyne during the war to 'hide' strategic assets with unusual techniques. However it seems unlikely that the government would have gone so far as to contract 'real' witches, not least of which because of the risk of bad press were it to become public. It wasn't until the 1970s until the West was able to even contemplate harnessing esoteric powers for military purposes, with the US Army's funding of Jim Channon's First Earth Battalion research and development.

We're never likely to find out if the Cone of Power ritual took place, but it is interesting to wonder about what occult of mystical practices the British might have resorted to on a local or personal level in the face of a German invasion.

I have no idea what this image is - it came up when I did a Google search for 'cone of power'. I like to think it's from a technical manual on psychic resonance. It's probably just a photocopy of an 80s Richer Sounds instruction manual. Oh well...

Monday, 2 February 2015

Who put Bella in the witch elm?

One of the more bizarre unsolved killings of the twentieth century happened in my newly adopted region of the Midlands. During the second world war, a quartet of boys discovered the corpse of a women stuffed into a thicket of branches of an elm tree. Wikipedia has a good synopsis of the case, and surmises that the general wartime confusion of the country lead to the victim never being identified nor anyone being convicted of the crime. Graffiti reading "Who put Bella in the witch elm" (or words to that effect) appeared near the scene right up until 1999 suggesting that this gruesome killing still weighs heavy on the psyche of locals.

The scenario immediately reminds me of the MR James story The Ash Tree where a tree plays host to some particularly nasty denizens which plague the local lord of the manor. Indeed, trees and death have a long association. The wold over they are used as improvised gibbets, and in certain cultures "Burial Trees" support corpses or coffins. The idea that trees can grow from seeds nourished by corpses links them to re-birth and the cycle of life. Jesus was, of course, nailed to one, albeit dismembered into the constituent parts of a crucifix.

The comedian Steve Punt recorded an investigative radio programme on the Bella case and it is well worth a listen. Though light-hearted, he uncovers some interesting facts about the case and potential links to local covens, war time spies and even conspiracies. It is now unlikely that we'll ever know the full facts surrounding this mysterious corpse, but I am sure it will continue to shape the psychogeography of the region.




Props to the excellent Hedge Row Devil tumblr for putting me onto this horrible bit of folk history, and for being the source of the images above.