Mitch Horowitz,
Occult America:
The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation

(Bantam, 2009)

You know that phenomenon where you hear a word or phrase, perhaps for the first time, and suddenly you encounter it everywhere? Doctor Who used the phrase "bad wolf" to good effect in its first season, playing on that phenomenon, and it happened to me recently with upstate New York's Burned-Over District. First came the novel set in the middle of the district. Then it appeared in another book. Finally, I received Mitch Horowitz's Occult America in which he goes into the history of the district in some detail.

Horowitz's contention in Occult America is that the United States was shaped by behind-the-scenes mysticism and other occult ideas as much as by the grand events taking place on the main stage of history. He begins by discussing the "Psychic Highway," the corridor of land stretching across New York state from Albany in the east to Buffalo in the west, as well as the Burned-Over District, so called because the fires of various religious movements traveling along the Psychic Highway had left the area "burned over." Many new religious movments got their start there, including Mormonism (Joseph Smith was from Palmyra, N.Y.) and Spiritualism (Kate and Margaret Fox, the sisters who heard spirits in the rapping on tables, were from outside Rochester).

From there, the author moves into discussions of various historical personages who played roles in his "secret history," from Mary Todd Lincoln, who persuaded her husband to hold seances in the White House, to Edgar Cayce, the famous clairvoyant of the mid-20th century. He even devotes a chapter to the Ouija Board, that horror movie staple that actually originated as a way for Spiritualists to make talking with the dead easier than interpreting table-knocks.

For people interested in what's going on in the wings and in the audience as much as what's happening on history's stage, Horowitz's book will prove fascinating. It will also be a valuable resource for those interested in mystical movements or historical personalities touched by the occult.

book review by
Laurie Thayer

16 October 2010

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