The Occult Experience & Pagan Documentaries

I was somewhat shocked to discover that the 1985 Australian documentary about Pagan and occult religions, “The Occult Experience,” had been posted to Vimeo (Last year!) by one of the co-producers. Up till now, if you wanted a copy, you either had to track down the out-of-print VHS, watch it in low-quality VHS-ripped pirate copy excerpts on Youtube, or obtain it (illegally) through torrent sites. But now, here it is, a very nice (legal) digital rip from a VHS copy of the master print.

[iframe http://player.vimeo.com/video/21956578 500 381]

In it you’ll see vintage clips of still-active Pagan elders like Selena Fox, Margot Adler, and Janet Farrar, in addition to some classic footage of now-passed figures within our community. Because it’s not an American documentary, Skyclad ritual, a Satanic human “altar,” and Alex Sanders accidentally lighting his crotch on fire are on unembarrassed display (though it may not be safe for work, depending on where you work). This being the 1980s, Satanists and Pagans are included together, as is a sequence featuring the surrealistic world of “Aliens” concept artist HR Giger.

While Chas Clifton is rightfully peeved at the film’s many flaws, it is an important historical document. Not necessarily for the footage of our elders when they were young, though that’s interesting, but to transmit how people viewed “the occult” back in the 1980s. The work veers between the sensationalistic and lurid, to more prosaic hands-off documentation. The narration is somewhat diabolical, constantly hinting that we’re entering forbidden, hidden, worlds. Despite its many flaws, it does give a rather international picture of the Pagan and esoteric underground during that era, and should be essential viewing for any scholar or student of modern Paganism’s past.

If the atmosphere in “The Occult Experience” was slightly sinister, and sometimes voyeuristic, a counter-point would be the “Women and Spirituality” series directed by Donna Read. Here we had a woman-directed film series that encapsulated the Goddess/feminine spirituality movement of that era. The first volume, 1989′s “Goddess Remembered,” followed by “The Burning Times,” and 1993′s “Full Circle,” featured several notable movement figures like Starhawk, Carol Christ, and Merlin Stone.

[iframe http://www.nfb.ca/film/burning_times/embed/player 500 345]

That trilogy of films were highly sympathetic to modern Goddess worshipers, and avoided the sins of more exploitational works from that period, but also encapsulated some of the disputed and debunked history that arose from that culture. These films are an important landmark in documenting Pagan voices, and are an important historical record of how we thought about issues of history and identity during that era.

Today, we might be entering into a truly exciting period for documentaries made by, about, and for, modern Pagans. There’s the upcoming television documentary about Gerald Gardner, which features Ronald Hutton, author of “The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft,”and Philip Heselton, author of “Gerald Gardner And the Cauldron of Inspiration: An Investigation into the Sources of Gardnerian Witchcraft,” in addition to the excellent 2011 documentary “American Mystic” (Facebook page), directed Alex Mar (read my interview with Alex Mar here), which featured Morpheus Ravenna along with members of Stone City Pagan Sanctuary. As a whole, Pagans today are more media-savvy, willing to get behind the camera (Jo Carson’s “Dancing With Gaia,” for example), and more proactive in making sure the finished product isn’t a mere side-show for curious onlookers.

Pagan and esoteric practitioners are also creating feature films, and that mini-movement may also greatly influence how future documentaries are made and approached. Taken together, you can see how far we’ve come since 1985, how Pagans have moved from being a curiosity (or figure of fear) to a movement that has far more agency and direction over how we are portrayed.

About Jason Pitzl-Waters
  • http://www.facebook.com/EdAHubbard Ed Hubbard

    Agreed…..even we got a small documentary called The Young Witches of Salem. Honest and made on a budget, but yes, and I am hearing of at least five or six more being attempted. 

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Ah, Read’s trilogy — came along just in time for me, as I became Pagan in 1987. The second tape nettled the Catholic Church of Canada, which filed a hate-speech action against it. That failed, but it scared off Film Canada, so Reed went on a fund-raising tour for the third one. Mine, I am proud to say, is one of the hands that went up when she asked CUUPS for backing, and you’ll see a call-out to CUUPS in the final credits.

    • Crystal Kendrick

      I really enjoyed the soundtracks to these documentaries, too.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        That’s a real art. Of couse it’s largely an invention; there was no orchestra in the woods as that youngster went through the Farrars’ initiation. But a picture is just a picture, and a well done soundtrack can make you feel you are there.

  • Anonymous

    The paused-video image happens to be Isaac Bonewits at age 16, during his brief foray with the Church of Satan, documented here: http://www.neopagan.net/SatanicAdventure.html

    • Crystal Kendrick

       I thought that was a young Bonewits.  Thanks for pointing that out.

    • Mark Luskin

      For a good counter-look at some of Bonewits comments see http://xeper.org/maquino/nm/Bonewits.pdf

  • Lyradora

    I remember seeing “Goddess Remembered” on PBS in my very early twenties. I was totally enthralled. It definitely had an influence on me. :)

  • http://www.paganawareness.net.au Gavin Andrew

    That is an exciting find, Jason.

    In addition to this gem, another bit of Australian TV footage is well worth tracking down: ‘The Devil made me do it.’ IIRC, it aired in 1987 or 1988. It was a complete beat up, of course, but featured interviews with a number of elders (Michael Aquino of the Temple of Set not least) and an audience-based forum including local Pagans and their Christian opponents. I think it is another really important bit of our history, not least to see first-hand the effect of the ‘Satanists in the suburbs’ paranoia prevalent at the time.

    • http://www.paganawareness.net.au Gavin Andrew

      An acquaintance found part of the program I am talking about – the interview that pre-framed the Donahue-style forum that followed. Many might find the footage distasteful (none of the allegations were ever supported with evidence.) As I said, a beat-up.
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRJ9gwHkrPk&feature=youtu.be

      It is very easy to forget in these comparatively relaxed
      times the cultural landscape of Australia in the 1980s, and the ‘othering’ of religious minorities that took place then. I think this kind of footage
      is important to have as part of our history – so many pagans today are
      unaware of the relatively recent past and what it involved for those who
      were active at the time.

  • Ellen Evert Hopman

    I am sorry that our beautiful nature religion is depicted this way, to deliberately cause fear. It was partly to counter this kind of sensationalism that I made a documentary in the 1990′s called PAGANS THE WHEEL OF THE SACRED YEAR that shows us as we really are and what we really do. The DVD covers Druidism, Wicca, traditional English Witchcraft, Norse tradition and other paths. You can see a Vimeo clip here; http://vimeo.com/8412120  The whole thing is about 70 minutes, filmed in the New England countryside, available from http://www.elleneverthopman.com

    • Obsidia

       I have a copy of PAGANS THE WHEEL OF THE SACRED YEAR and it is beautifully done, and very clearly shown.  The simple celebrations are true and heartfelt and I love it!  THANK YOU for making it, Ms. Hopman.  I will show it to many others, I hope!

      • Ellen Evert Hopman

        Pagans – The Wheel of the Sacred Year is suitable for schools and libraries and Pagan shops and groups have used it as a teaching tool. I hoped that the Unitarians would pick up on it for education purposes but could not get them interested. Its perfect for a High School or College class on comparative religion.

  • Crystal Kendrick

    I was thrilled to see this.  The insensitivity of the producers, the injected controversy, the cheesy melodramatic narration are all products of that time- it is what it is. But even so, the interviews are priceless.

  • Patrick Barry

    Am I the only one, who when they see Anton Lavey or Michael Aquino on screen thinks of the “Woodland Critter Christmas” episode of South Park? And then of the Ultimate Pit of Darkness  sketches from Kids in the Hall? 

    Just wondering…

  • Mrs.Prat

    I have a copy of the documentary the “Occult Experience” as well as the set “Women in Spirituality” on VHS, classics! I am looking forward to the new ones that are coming out. 

  • Kilmrnock

    I find Levay sorta laughable , seems to me he was just trying to piss off our Catholoc friends and was a publisity hound . Now if the temple of set is following the ancient god set , then that is different . I sat down last night and watched both videos . The  first one was interesting , had an odd seventies feel to it . i did enjoy watching earlier shots of now pagan elders , then pioneers . I must admit some of it was quite odd , but those were the times .The secound one was more interesting to me if not for anything else the factual mistakes in the material . As Jason said alot of the factual streches made by dianics of that time were stated there. The film also had a quite fem slant as expected. In the entire thing i think i saw maybe 2 men . interesting films tho , was a close look at paganism of the seventies , our imediate past . Well worth the watch .   Kilm

    • Anonymous

      What does “a fem slant” mean to you? And gosh, I know that when *I* watch something about Goddess Spirituality, my first thought is always “where are all the men?”

      Also, a Satanist is a publicity hound, but a publicity hound following an Egyptian god instead of Satan is more acceptable? I’m just asking. IMO both LaVey and Aquino had a good time messing with the media, even though they were both serious about what they were doing (Aquino much more so).

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=685041384 Fanny Fae

         Having been on the Aquino’s private email list for a time, and knowing how Michael and Lilith both seem to be rather fond of the publicity, I would say you are spot-on, with your assessment.

  • Mark Luskin

    I enjoy both the moment of brilliance and the absurdities of “The Occult Experience.” Nevill Drury has done some really good work on preserving and contextualizing Rosaleen Norton’s Works. 

    It would have been amusing to have had a bit more on the scene around Magickal Childe at the time of filming, which was still in the “Witch Wars”/”Necronomicon” phase so well captured by Alan Cabal’s “The Doom that Came to Chelsea.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=685041384 Fanny Fae

    Thank you for these links, Jason.  It’s good to see these hard to find gems!  I remember seeing the Burning Times video some years ago. Maybe a special edition of the Wild Hunt focusing on Pagan film and transmedia could be a future topic?

    As a Pagan and a filmmaker, I really think we should make sure we get and keep our voices out there.  I will avoid the shameless plug of my own projects and just say, the more people we have making quality films, with high production values (even with the limited budgets we tend to have!) the better.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Wade-MacMorrighan/738152218 Wade MacMorrighan

    A very close acquaintance bought me a copy of the VHS some years ago, and I have cherished it ever since.  (I have been a fan of occult documentaries of the 80s and early 90s, rare as they are, ever since.)  It was nice to see Janet & Stewart Farrar with my own eyes and ears, though if anyone might know where I might acquire a reproduction or intimation of their chalice, I am ALL EARS!  :o)  I also found a documentary involving Herman Slater on YouTube some years ago, which appeared to have been self-produced: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9ZO0NGSpR0  I have also heard that Slater had his own public access TV show in NYC, and I would love to see those old eps. made available on-line if any should survive ., if anyone should know the fate of a documentary about and titled “Potions” featuring Lexa Rosean, please clue a brother in!  I’d love to see it if I can, as a Witch who adores to brew potions!

  • RivaWitch

    I remember seeing a copy of this vhs in a video store years ago……In the Horror section! I kid you not.

  • Beatrizalbano

     So I watched the whole The Occult Experience. All right, it’s not perfect, but lets not loose ourselfs in our ego… it is quite alright for a 80′s movie, and show just about what would take to a person of my age (on that time) to get curious and seach for more. I really like it!


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