Psi-Fi: Popular Culture and the Paranormal

by Jeffrey Kripal

We grossly underestimate the weird powers of reading and writing. Take the Library Angel, so named by the Hungarian writer Arthur Koestler. These are not subtle beings with wings, but magical moments in which one picks up a book or turns to a page, seemingly at random, and—Whammo!—there is a precise answer to one's own mental state. Such Library Angels can be very humble (the right page at the right time) or very dramatic (a book literally falling off the shelf to be noticed).

I met a humble one last week in BoingBoing's reposting of Brent Lambert's "Buddhist Temple Design Inspired by Superman, Spiderman, Batman, and Keanu Reeves." The piece features the Wat Rong Khun Buddhist temple in Chiang Rain, Thailand, which sports on its interior walls paintings of various pop-cultural and astronomical scenes: Superman (with the end of his cape subtly imitating the "fiery" style of Thai architectural art), one of those psychedelic pterodactyls from Avatar, Neo of The Matrix, an exploding nuclear bomb (or is that a meteor strike?) somewhere in the north Atlantic, and—not to be missed—NASA's international space station.

I live just a few miles from the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center and am a big fan of NASA, but it was the superheroes that really got to me, mostly because I immediately recognized in the Buddhist Superman a most striking confirmation of a book I have just finished on some of the extraordinary ways that the paranormal experiences of artists and authors have helped inspire pulp fiction, science fiction, and superhero comics. These paranormal patterns were so strong in the 1950s and 60s that sci-fi fans began speaking of Psi-Fi. Think pulp editor Ray Palmer's use of his colorful clairvoyant dreams to write short stories. Think sci-fi master Philip K. Dick's mind-blowing experience of "Valis," that Vast Active Living Intelligence System that zapped him with its bright pink light in the winter of 1974 and led him to believe that his earlier novels were predicting, intuiting, leading up to this. Think legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby absorbed in the ancient astronaut theory and playfully predicting a Spider-Man cult in 2450 in the editorial pages of The Eternals. Or think the famous comic strip writer Alvin Schwartz writing two metaphysical memoirs that draw on Tibetan Buddhism to understand the synchronistic ways that Superman and Batman functioned in his life and work—like Tibetan tulpas, it turns out. With the Wat Rong Kuhn temple, we don't quite have Kirby's Spider-Man cult (but, hey, it's only 2011) or Schwartz's Buddhist Superman and Batman in Tibet, but we do have Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man in a Thai Buddhist temple.

Close enough.

I'm reading a Marvel graphic novel at the moment entitled Ultimate Galactus Trilogy. Long story, but it features things like a discussion of the Brazilian psychedelic tea ayahuasca as a kind of plant machine that our bodies, as biotechnologies themselves, can click into and "ride," or an image of an invading alien presence whose twisting, multidimensional form looks exactly like a photo of, of, well, something that appeared over Stephenville, Texas, a few years ago. Indeed, the graphic novel image is that something. I remember well the Stephensville flap, just a few hundred miles north of here, which extended from early 2008 well into 2009. Some witnesses described a floating ship "as big as a Wal-Mart." Deliciously, the newspaper that did most of the reporting on the flap was the Stephenville Empire-Tribune, in short, the Stephenville E.T.

A Buddhist temple featuring Superman and a Marvel comic reproducing an actual UFO photo? A pulp fiction editor using his own precognitive dreams to write short stories and a sci-fi master getting zapped by an alien space machine? What is going on here? It would be easy to fall into an either-or mentality, as in "This happened, and that didn't." or "This is true, and that is false." That, I want to suggest, is precisely what is wrong with much of our thinking about popular culture and the paranormal. Much better to pay attention to all the back-and-forth loops, that is, the incredibly messy, "loopy" ways in which popular culture informs paranormal events, which in turn informs popular culture, which in turn informs ... well, you get my point. I mean, where exactly are we supposed to draw a line between the real and the unreal in, say, a graphic novel and an actual UFO sighting? It would be easy to suggest that the graphic novel is pure fiction and the UFO—whatever it was—non-fiction, except for the uncomfortable fact that the UFO encounters of the second half of the twentieth century often followed, down to precise details, the pulp fiction fantasies of the first half (for more on this, see my discussion of Bertrand Méheust in Authors of the Impossible). It would also be easy to call it all fiction, except for the uncomfortable fact that people really experience such things, all the time. There were F-16s chasing that floating Wal-Mart. Not your typical piece of fiction.

We need to be more sophisticated about this. Perhaps, as a humble start, we need to let go of our hyper-rational either-or mentalities and embrace the both-and of the imagination and the fundamentally paradoxical structures of consciousness. Perhaps we will then begin to understand that we are both being written by the stories we tell ourselves (as in "religion"), and that we are also writing these stories ourselves (as in "popular culture"). We also, I think, would do well to leave the door open to the possibility of entirely outside influences on our stories. Humanity has traditionally understood these latter forces in religious terms. Today more and more people are reading, and experiencing, them in sci-fi or pop-cultural terms. That is, we are beginning to author ourselves, even as something else continues to author us. Hence a Stephenville UFO sighting appears in a Marvel comic and Superman flies on the wall of a Thai Buddhist temple.

It's a loop and a both-and, not a dividing line and an either-or.

Jeffrey J. Kripal is the J. Newton Rayzor Professor in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He has just finished a two-volume study of the paranormal in theory and culture. The first volume, Authors of the Impossible, appeared in 2010 and received a Choice Outstanding Academic Title Award. It treats four of the most sophisticated writers on anomalous phenomena: Frederic Myers, Charles Fort, Jacques Vallee, and Bertrand Méheust. The second volume, Mutants and Mystics, treats the intersections of science fiction, superhero comics, and the paranormal. It is due out from the University of Chicago Press this coming October. He is also presently working with XL Films of Richmond, Texas, on a feature documentary on Authors of the Impossible. For summaries and discussions of these and Jeff's other books, see http://kripal.rice.edu/

Words: Jeffrey J. Kripal • Illustration and design: Rob Beschizza

24 Responses to “Psi-Fi: Popular Culture and the Paranormal”

  1. David Pescovitz says:

    Jeff Kripal just told me that his next book starts with a discussion of Grant Morrisson and Alan Moore, both of whom practice “magick.” This is going to be so good.

    Also, just look at that illustration by our own Rob Beschizza. Just look at it.

    • Avram / Moderator says:

      Oh, man, I was just about to bring up Grant Morrison, who’s like the friggin’ patron saint of exactly this kind of thing.

      • David Pescovitz says:

        Totally. The comment from Jeff was in response to me asking in email if he was familiar with Grant Morrison. ; )

  2. Owen says:

    I’m fine with changing the way I view the world if a gap in my current view can be shown, but I’m not seeing one demonstrated here.

    Religion, sci-fi in our culture, and our personal experiences inform and shape one another. That’s how culture has always worked – every part of it feeds on every other part of it.

    But culture’s loopiness does not mean that reality is similarly loopy. I understand that culture is driven by imagination and desire more than fact, but reality is not. Reality doesn’t give a damn what we think about it.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The Ayahuasca is a Sacred plant from the Jungle of Peru.
    Indigenous people have been using it for Thousands of years.

  4. Beelzebuddy says:

    Perhaps, as a humble start, we need to let go of our hyper-rational either-or mentalities and embrace the both-and of the imagination and the fundamentally paradoxical structures of consciousness.

    Son, I am annoy.

  5. Anonymous says:

    It would also be easy to call it all fiction, except for the uncomfortable fact that people really experience such things, all the time.

    This seems like its own strange either-or. Why can’t people really experience fiction?

  6. Anonymous says:

    great article. Brings up lots of memories. When I was 8, I read a DC comic book called “Flash of 2 Worlds”. The basic story was this: DC comics published Flash comics from 1940 to 1949, then discontinued them until the late 1950s (don’t remember the exact year. When this particular issue came out, The Flash was playing a volleyball (or tennis?) game by himself, demonstrating his extraordinary speed for a group of schoolchildren. At one point, this incredibly fast motion caused him to break through into another dimension, another world – where the Flash of the 1940s still existed! Somewhere in the comic, it was explained that Gardner Fox – the author of both the 1940s Flash comics and the newer version of Flash – lived on “Earth I”, and in his dreams, tuned into “Earth II”, where the original Flash lived, and later, into Earth III, where the newer Flash lived. I remember reading and re-reading this comic over and over, for more than a year, all the time having a really weird feeling that there was something “true” about it. Some 10 or so years later, when I first came across Indian teachings of “the three worlds” (correlated with jagrat, swapna and sushupti, or the waking, dream and deep sleep states, and in other places referred to [notably by Sri Aurobindo] as the physical, vital and mental planes or worlds) that it evoked in me very deep feelings similar to those evoked by the “Flash of Two Worlds” story. so perhaps my lifelong interest in Indian spirituality is really only an outgrowth of my childhood love of comic books? :>)))) (someone should look into Marvel Comics’ Dr. Strange, who learned, among other things, how to travel in his ‘ectoplasmic’ body from “Tibetan Masters’!!)

  7. Christopher says:

    “Son, I am annoy.”

    That’s like a palindrome, but it’s not.

  8. RebNachum says:

    #6 Owen: Good point. However, one could argue that a loopy culture more-or-less guarantees a loopy reality. Reality may not be driven by imagination, but that’s where it first exists, at least for those of us sucking our reality in through eyes, ears, nose, etc. and not /only/ making it up as we go along. And how do you know reality doesn’t care what we think about it?

    • Owen says:

      The evidence suggests that reality doesn’t care what we think about it, in that reality does not respond to our beliefs. For example, for centuries people thought that the Earth was the center of the universe, and that the Sun orbited it. This belief, though strongly and consistently held, had no effect on the orbit of the Earth around the Sun.

      Imagination can be demonstrated in the human mind, and we benefit from the new ideas we export from our minds to reality. But imagination doesn’t warp reality by its very existence. Lots of people have imagined perpetual motion machines; they still don’t exist.

      In some ways, our culture affects our reality – things like how people are treated and viewed by others are real in a sense. But whatever our culture does, it’s still playing by the same rules of physics.

      • double_tilly says:

        It can be useful to consider imagination as separate from reality. But it can also be useful to consider imagination as a part of reality.

        Ah, beautiful paradox.

        • Owen says:

          True. Both perspectives get at some aspect of truth.

          What I’m getting at is that it is not useful to treat reality as though it was as flexible as imagination, since it shows every sign of being utterly rigid with regard to its own rules.

  9. enkiv2 says:

    Klint Finley had some notes floating around on a cybernetic model of mass consciousness, which jives nicely with both the excellent book The Art of Memetics and this. In fact, I interpreted Vallee as proposing something similar when reading some of his early ideas about the ultras — though I imagine that Mr. Vallee would argue against this interpretation, it was again the kind of synchronicity wherein interpretation is more important than intent.

  10. Quiche de Resistance says:

    “invading alien presence whose twisting, multidimensional form looks exactly like a photo of, of, well, something that appeared over Stephenville, Texas, a few years ago”

    Pics woulda been nice. Could anybody find a link to either of these images?

  11. awerich says:

    Enjoying the wild and wondrous ride on the infinite loop.

  12. Jesse M. says:

    Mr. Kripal, are you familiar with the Patrick Harpur’s books The Philosophers’ Secret Fire: A History of the Human Imagination and Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld? If not you should check them out sometime, I think they’d be up your alley…

  13. double_tilly says:

    Ah beautiful paradox.

  14. Michaelchr says:

    Very cool!. I’ve been espousing something similar for years. There is so much weirdness in the world that it seems easier to believe in everything than to believe in nothing or to try to be selective about it. There’s no reason that Yahweh can’t exist next to Thor and Apollo and Legba and ghosts and UFOs. Perhaps all of these things are in our heads and can be explained by science. They are still there though. It helps me be a lot less cynical to be willing to accept that everyone else’s version of reality is just as real as my own.

  15. RebNachum says:

    And another brick is laid in the crypt of Aristotelianism. Well done, sir — extra points for mentioning tulpas and PKD in the same literate breath.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Wow, really awesome article and illustration. bb comes correct, as usual. Mr. Kripal just added a few more books to the wobbling tower that began as my “to read” pile.

  17. Felan says:

    Out with Dawkins, in with Kripal (as guest editor).

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