"Mysteries" Magical Tour

Ed Note: Boingboing's current guest blogger Gareth Branwyn writes on technology, pop and fringe culture. He is currently a Contributing Editor at Maker Media. Recent projects have included co-creating The Maker's Notebook and editing The Best of MAKE and The Best of Instructables collections.

Manly Palmer Hall has been called the America Madame Blavatsky, which probably isn't far from the truth. Like the controversial Russian-born founder of Theosophy, Hall seemed dedicated to quantity over quality in his writing (authoring more than 50 books on esoterica and self-help), and like Helena, the troubling smell of snake oil swirled in his rotund wake. Manly P Hall is one of the people principally responsible for the birth of the New Age religious movement in the United States, first in LA, starting in the '20s, and then beyond, through his writings and endless lecturing. While some of his lesser works, like Questions Answered on the Problems of Life by Manly P Hall, Philosopher, may have proven less than influential, his occult encyclopedia The Secret Teachings of All Ages was a bedrock influence on New Age thought then, and to some extent, remains so today (Secret Teachings still sells well, as is now in its 16th edition). LA Times staff writer Louis Sahagun's biography, Master of the Mysteries: The Life of Manly Palmer Hall (Process Media) is an engrossing look inside, not only the life of this self-taught philosopher and spiritual teacher, but the growth of the often bizarre alternative religious movements that were busting out all over Southern California in the first half of the 20th century. This is Hollywood Babylon in Egyptian ankhs and yoga pants. Actors, artists, musicians, politicians, and scientists of the time flocked to hear Hall lecture on the mysteries of East, self-help psychology, and secret societies. Allegedly blessed with photographic memory, Hall was capable of absorbing huge amounts of information and then reformatting it into his own books, frequently under suspicions of plagiarism and playing fast and loose with facts and legitimate sources (another dubious distinction he shared with Blavatsky). Through Sahagun's engaging text and lots of photos and bits of ephemera (lecture ticket stubs, news clippings, plans for Mayan temples in downtown Hollywood, hand-written death threats), we're taken on an amazing LSDisney trip through the most surreal spiritual theme park imaginable. We get lots of juicy gossip along the way about the Hollywood of the times, a creative-community as hungry as it will ever be for deeper levels of meaning, rejuvenation, and fulfillment. As if to cap off this bizarre tale with a scene cut straight from gas-lit celluloid, Hall died under gruesome and mystery circumstances. Foul play was suspected when he was found dead on top of an unslept-in bed with traces of dirt around his face and thousands of black ants streaming from his nose, mouth, and ears. The LA Coroner's Office subsequently botched the autopsy, the investigation was poorly handled, and the case was never solved. Even when I was a teen seeker and into a lot of fluffy New Age beliefs and practices, I got a bad odor from a lot of Manly P. Hall's work and tended to steer clear of it. (Color me an unimaginative skeptic, but I found the whole Mayan temple in downtown Hollywood to be a tad on the flamboyant side.) So, I went into this book without a lot of respect for its subject. I can't say that opinion was significantly changed, but I do think I understand "Dr" Hall a lot better now. This was obviously an extraordinarily smart man who fervently believed in what he was talking about. You gotta give the guy props for passion. He remains the most prolific writer of mysticism and the occult and he continued lecturing until his likely-murder at 89. What I found most interesting in this story was the parallels between Hall and another Southern California occult resident of the time, Jack Parsons (covered in another recommended Feral House book Sex and Rockets -- Process is an imprint of Feral House). Parsons was also self-educated, began his occult career at an early age, had matinee-idol good looks and an impressive ability to learn things quickly, hobnobbed with bohemian Hollywood, saw himself as birthing a new religion, and died under mysterious circumstances (though Parsons' death was likely an accident). They also each had their own court "confidence men," Hall, the mysterious colonic-loving "Dr. Fritz" (suspected in Hall's death), and Parsons, the reality-barnstorming L. Ron Hubbard. Ultimately, the most fascinating character in Master of the Mysteries is the City of Angels herself. Through the tale of one of her more extraordinary residents, we can almost feel a new city emerging, one with an identity like no other. And with her naive sense of wonder and an openness to new ideas, new beliefs, and novel experiences comes a lot of seriously weird shit. Previously: L.A.’s occult roots: Master of the Mysteries


  1. I’m starting to gain a greater appreciation for those that would even try to begin new religions and philosophical paths. What could be a greater challenge than to change the thought patterns of the communities in which they live(d)?

    Creative endeavors, for me, tend to stay on the canvas, to lift that game off of the canvas and throw it directly into the human consciousness seems a near impossible task.

  2. Wasn’t Blavatsky the Blavatsky of America? She founded the Theosophical Society in New York, she became a naturalized citizen and she lived in West Philly BEFORE it was trendy.

  3. Reading this post and not knowing anything about this quack, another snake-oil salesman suddenly came to mind and then there he was, L. Ron…

  4. I picked up a couple of Blavatsky’s books at a flea market once (2 volumes of “The Secret Doctrine”)– they’re a real hoot, the biggest gobbley-gook nonsense I’ve ever heard. Example:

    “This female “Air” is our Ether, or the Kabalistic Astral Light. It is then, the Second World of Simon, born of Fire, the principle of everything. We call it the ONE LIFE, the Intelligent, Divine Flame, omnipresent and infinite. In Simon’s system this Second World was ruled by a Being, or Potency, both male and female. . . (etc.)”

    We used to pick the book up and “freestyle” over jazz vamps or hip hop instrumentals just reading sections at random (it’s all in the delivery).

  5. The Stargate series repackages a lot of this nonsense with their ascendant Masters and what not. It’s what ruined the show for me. Once any TV show or movie or anything else starts going down the “Mysterious Mysteries Of Strange Mystery” route you know the writers are just being lazy and it’s gonna be all crap now.

  6. say what you will, mystic-mastering still beats working for a living. Besides,like professional wrestlers, you are providing a needed service. If you didn’t do it, their weak minds would be snaffled up by the catholics or the mormoms or some other crowd. Cultists actual contribute to world peace. What’s a mass suicide next to a jihad?

  7. “He remains the most prolific writer of mysticism and the occult and he continued lecturing until his likely-murder at 89. ”

    If you mean most prolific writer of mysticism IN AMERICA, well then, perhaps. But if you simply mean most prolific writer of mysticism in general you have completely forgotten Rudolf Steiner.

  8. i read this book last year & i couldnt stop thinking about r. crumb’s mr. natural character …shuffling ouutta the desert to enlightenthe squares, put the touch on the wallets of those ready to but enlightenment & makin it w/ some flower power chicks

  9. @ Gareth

    I’m wondering why you would have gotten such a malodorous scent from MPH? I have not read the Secret Teachings, but from my research it seems that book is widely held in high regard as a compendium of esoteric knowledge. What have you or any other readers gathered that his might not be the tastiest milkshake?

  10. @16
    I don’t own Secret Teachings, and haven’t seen it in… ah… Ages (sorry) but I DO remember being impressed with it. I think that’s an established classic and I give him props for that.

    I lived in a commune at the time and we had an occult study group. We had a budget to buy books and bought a bunch of Manly P Hall and Theosophy/Blavatsky texts. I found Blavatsky utterly unreadable and had the distinct impression that she was just makin’ shit up.

    Besides Secret Teachings, we got 5-6 other Hall titles, a couple were on Freemasonry, as I recall and a couple were more self-help titles that seemed very dated (and like we’d wasted our slim budget on fluff). Honestly, at this point, I don’t remember any specifics, just a generalized sense that there wasn’t much rigor behind the work and that there was a big element of fantasy behind it. At that point, I hadn’t heard any of the accusations of him copying others work or citing questionable sources, but when I later heard such things, it didn’t surprise me.

  11. The Los Angeles Conservancy is organizing a tour of Hall’s Philosophical Research Society and other olde tyme religious and mystic sites on the City of the Seekers tour next month. There is a related lecture, exhibition and film series.

  12. Many people try to label Manly P. Hall as an occultist. Unlike Blavatsky, he was simply a scholar. He never pushed any ideal, simply assembled a Compendium of Knowledge.
    It’s odd that several people says he looks like Houdini’s arch-enemy. In fact, they were both Freemasons and therefore Brothers.
    Hall never “taught” Secret Ways, he merely reported on them as any Historian would do.
    I will pick this new book up because he had a fasc inating life and because I have so much respect for the Institution he establish, UPR and the Society to which it has supported.

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