As the editor-in-chief of Tarcher—the mind/body/spirit publisher of the Penguin Group—and author of Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation, Mitch Horowitz knows a thing or two about the mystical realms. He also leads "Occult New York Walking Tours," which visits sites of the spiritual avant-garde movement that ultimately swept the nation in the early 19th century.

Tonight Horowitz will be speaking and giving a visual presentation at Observatory in Brooklyn, focusing on Manly P. Hall and his underground book The Secret Teachings of All Ages, which details everything from Egyptian geometry to the origin of Tarot. While on deadline for an upcoming book, Mitch still had some time to talk with us about the history of the occult, New York City's role in the advancement of western mysticism, and how the Bush family gave direct validation to the spiritualist movement.

So we hear the term "occult" bandied about frequently but maybe don't know exactly what that means. Is there a definition that you use, or a way to describe what "the occult" actually is? It came into use in the English language during the Renaissance. It basically means "hidden knowledge" or "hidden wisdom." During the Renaissance, a lot of religious scholars were fascinated with the spirituality of the ancient world—Greece, Rome, Egypt—and many of those traditions had vanished in the West during the dark ages and were coming to be rediscovered in the Renaissance in the 1400s and the 1500s. Religious figures and religious scholars were casting about looking for a term, a way to refer to these traditions, which had vanished and were basically being rediscovered.

One figure named Cornelius Agrippa used a word in Latin, occultum, which meant hidden or secret, to refer to those ancient traditions. Later, about 12 years after Agrippa started using it in the early 1500s, it entered the English language as our word: occult. So as it was originally used during the Renaissance, it didn't have any dark or sinister connotations. It simply referred to a pre-Christian spirituality that had vanished and was being rediscovered. So to Renaissance thinkers, it really was a cult, it really was secret, hidden or unknown and they were very earnestly trying to find a word to describe it. I continue to use the word today because I think it has historical integrity and there's also a certain romance about it that I like. I don't want to give up that word because it's been weighted down with some sinister connotations.

So people might lend, like you said, a more sinister connotation to that word. How did that come about? Well, there was a backlash against some of the religious liberalism that characterized the Renaissance and church authorities, certain legal authorities, were hostile to the idea of scholars and religious figures studying astrology, Kabbalah, channeling. Church authorities wanted to maintain a very firm and limiting grip on the parameters of intellectual exploration. So they begin to accuse people who were interested in some of the ancient ways as being involved in demon worship or black magic or satanism or something like that. The truth is, there's never really been a historical tradition of Satanism in the West, it's just something that has gotten thrown around as a kind of historical accusation whenever one center of religious power wanted to discredit another, in a sense.

The same thing happened in late antiquity as the early Christian church began to dominate the late ancient world. The people who still followed the old ways—nature-based religions and some of the old pagan traditions—were accused of demon worship even though those people had never conceived of themselves that way because the early church was in a battle—a kind of ideological battle with the pagan powers for dominance and supremacy—and it won, as it happens. As always happens in these kinds of things, the victor describes the loser in terms of his own choosing. In late antiquity, and again in the Renaissance, people who were involved with minority religious movements got mis-characterized.

smbookint1011.jpgYou've said that New York was responsible for igniting the occult revival across the country. What is it about this area that is special? What made this revival possible? Well there were two factors. It's hard to believe, but in the early 19th century, central New York State was a hotbed of avant-garde, religious and social thought and activities. Central New York State had been home to the Iroquois Nation prior to the War of Independence. The Iroquois sided with the British during the War of Independence and after the war was over the new American government used that as a pretext to push the Iroquois out of central New York State. It opened up central New York to settlement and land speculation and kind of an interesting thing happened. This vast wave of relatively liberal New Englanders began to flow into central New York and as often happens when people migrate from one area to another, they left behind a lot of their traditions, their community ties, their churches, their religions.

Anybody who had a new religious idea and was looking for an audience flocked into central New York in the early decades of the 1800s. So it became home to all these new social and religious movements. It was the birthplace of Mormonism, it was the birthplace of Seventh Day Adventism, it was the birthplace of spiritualism or talking with the dead. It was home to America's Utopian movements and settlements and just an incredible array of avant-garde ideas cropping up. That influence eventually trickled down to New York City and New York was historically always a very liberal and welcoming place to people with alternative religious ideas.

This chapter in religious history took another turn by the 1870s when New York became home to a Russian migrant named Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, or typically known as Madame Blavatsky. Blavatsky was a Russian spiritual adventurer, she was in search of hidden and esoteric knowledge. She came to America, she said, because she wanted to visit the birthplace of spiritualism. She settled in New York City and in 1875, she and some over her colleagues founded the Theosophical Society in the neighborhood of what is now Hell's Kitchen. That organization became hugely influential—it actually reintroduced the word occult into common use as the word had fallen into disuse—and Blavatsky very convincingly spoke of her search for an occult or hidden philosophy from which all the modern religious sprang. She called it a "Secret Doctrine." She spoke of traditions emanating out of Buddhism and Hinduism and said that she was under the guidance of hidden spiritual masters who were helping her bring this liberalizing religious revolution to the West. People were enchanted with her, enthralled with her, and it was probably the figure of Blavatsky, more than anybody else, who helped ignite this revolution in alternative spirituality that began to sweep through the West, the effects of which we're still feeling today. New York played a very special role as a springboard for alternative spiritual ideas. We tend to think of California as the birthplace of the "new age," and that's certainly true in terms of recent decades, but in the 19th century New York was this avant-garde religious capital.

Is there still an occult movement happening today and if so, is it different from what the occult was considered to be a century ago? Yeah, it's more widely dispersed. It's funny, in America we tend to adopt ideas and then discard the movements or the terminology that they were tied to in the past. For example, in the mid-19th century in this country, people were interested in mesmerism or hypnotism and began to probe these different questions about the hidden powers of the mind and the mind's ability to heal the body and so forth. By the 1950s, some of these ideas became the basis of probably the most important self-help book written in the 20th century, which was The Power of Positive Thinking by the Reverend Normal Vincent Peale who had a pulpit at Marble Collegiate Church on 5th Avenue and 28th Street. Peale, like many American self-help figures, took a set of mystical and esoteric ideas, stripped it of magical language and recast it in terms that the church-going public would be comfortable with. In that sense, what we call the "positive thinking movement" or the "motivational psychology movement" has roots in earlier occult and mystical traditions. That happens again and again in our country. Ideas get introduced that are considered part of a fringe or alternative movement, and yet, people remake and recast these things so they become very mainstream and very familiar. We see that with meditation and yoga, mind-body medicine and nutritional healing. All of these things are fairly ordinary today but they used to be considered very far out.

America sort of has become this laboratory for different religious ideas but it becomes this kind of a gestation tank where these ideas get remade in very popular ways. In a sense, our entire scene today in self-help and alternative spirituality has a family tree that goes directly back to occult movements. One just has to trace the ideas and trace the people involved. In a sense, this stuff has entered the ground water of the country. We don't speak in terms of occult very frequently—and there are very few people who would want to call themselves "New Age" or are comfortable with terms like that—but really these things have seeped into the ground water of our religious culture.

Let's talk about your tours. You've mentioned some New York City establishments. What should people expect to see and learn when they're on one of your walking tours? Well the remarkable thing is that we go through some of the most ordinary neighborhoods in the city. A lot of what we do traces a beeline through the Flatiron district, Murray Hill, the Grand Central neighborhood, Midtown and the West Side. The truth is, those were areas of Manhattan that didn't really get developed until the mid-to-late 19th century. When you had some sort of metaphysical church or mystical lodge or organization that was looking to buy land—or somebody who was willing to give them land—very frequently it was not downtown in Greenwich Village, which was very well-developed early on. It was in Midtown Manhattan, which was considered "Nowheres Ville." In the 1850s there were patches of Midtown that were garbage dumps and cow pastures. In fact, the gate around Norman Vincent Peale's church is the original one, which was put up to keep cows from wandering around and pooping in the church yard! So people tended to think of Midtown as the boondocks.

It's so hard to imagine! Yeah, it is so hard to imagine! And when it changed, it changed really, really rapidly. To some extent, it was even the construction of Grand Central Station in 1913 that started the full on building boom in Midtown. It was certainly developed, but it isn't anything like the behemoth we know today. So the weird thing is that in some very, very ordinary neighborhoods—some very quiet streets in Murray Hill and some very commercially oriented districts of Midtown—you find some of our richest occult history.

For example, on East 35th street there is a church called the New York New Church, which was built in 1859. That place was a hotbed of spiritualist and mystical activity when it went up. Its first pastor was a man named the Reverend George Bush, who was an ancestor of the Bush Presidential clan. The Reverend Bush, who was a very well-known guy at the time, was a big defender of spiritualists and mediums and mesmerists and he believed that these people had an authentic vision to offer. Some of the most full-hearted and articulate defense of supernatural spirituality in America in the mid-19th century—which was really the age where spiritualism was growing popular in this country—came from the pulpit of that church from an ancestor of the former Presidents Bush. That place is still standing; the original building is still there, the courtyard is still there. It's beautiful! It's home today to a Swedenborgian congregation and a spiritualist congregation. A place like that is a piece of history that's been preserved, it's still this up and running place.

There are other lodges that are located nearby. There's a cult group called the Mighty I AM movement, which was a very influential new age prosperity sect that came out of Chicago. They have a temple down the block on East 35th between Lexington and 3rd Avenue. One block over, at Lexington and 34th Street, you have the headquarters of the Catholic organization Opus Dei, which was made infamous in The DaVinci Code. So you have this triangle, just on East 35th Street alone, just within jogging distance of each other you have these three different organizations. It's in a neighborhood that people think of as one of the sleepiest parts of Manhattan but history has some interesting thumbprints there.

If I'm not mistaken, seances were part of this movement. Oh yeah, a big part.

In the United States, reports of seances in the White House and sort of influential people holding seances. Is that a practice that people still do? Could I go somewhere in New York City and attend a seance and be part of one? As a matter of fact, each Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. they conduct regular seances at The New York New Church. The Spiritualist Church of New york meets there and I think for $20 you can attend a seance. The New York New Church was founded as a Swedenborgian church—headed by a mystic and scientist Manuel Swedenborg, worked in the 1700s—but it always had a very close partnership to the spiritualist movement. So today, there are American and Korean Swedenbogrian congregations there and also the spiritualist congregation.

So Halloween is right around the corner, and some of the more savory tidbits of the occult movement—seances and that sort of thing—are very popular this time of year. Have you had any mind-altering experiences that you feel have changed you in some way? Probably my altering experiences have been more psychological, I would say, than based in phenomena. Phenomena is a tricky thing, people feel that they get a glimpse of some unseen world. It can kind of be like going to the top of a skyscraper and looking out at a neighborhood and seeing things that you never saw before, that you never knew were there before...but when you come down from the skyscraper, you're still the same person. I think it's really hard for people to deal with that. They chase after these experiences sometimes because they feel that the glimpse of another world, the parting of the veil, to be life altering. And that sadly turns out not to be the case. People witness things sometimes that they feel are authentic and life quickly goes back to normal. I've had experiences here or there which leave you feeling a tingle up your spine but nothing that visual. I think I've probably found richer experiences sometimes in some of the psychological methods that are offered in some of the occult philosophies. There are different occult schools that have their own psychological systems and sometimes I've found them to be very profound and very meaningful.

Some of these things have given me a sense that there really is something there, there really is some richness and something to be found outside of the traditional religions or outside of the more broadly accepted psychological theories. There is some invisible dimension to our lives and I think some of the esoteric and mystical philosophies can bring a person to that. But then one finds, of course, life has a pernicious way of reverting back to a kind of normalcy and routine and people who have a gift for persistence realize that spiritual change is a very, very long process. So I guess phenomena does exist, but I don't place a lot of stock in it personally because I've just seen too many people whose arcane experiences later dissipated to memory and life goes back to a very frustrating routine for them.

For more information about Mitch, check out his website and for upcoming walking tours, go here.