Encountering the Super Natural — An experiential review
“The correspondences started with a painting and a book cover. Like so many of the hundreds of thousands of readers Whitley and Anne (Strieber) heard from after Communion hit the bookstores, I recognized the face on the cover. It was those eyes, I had seen them before.”
— Jeffrey Kripal in The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained (Tarcher/Penguin, 2016)
When I was seven years old my father was transferred to a job in Arizona. Our move from Chicago coincided with the 1987 release of Whitley Strieber’s Communion: A True Story and the subsequent promotional campaign — in airports, on hotel televisions, in grocery store book racks and in each book store we visited — at every turn we were faced with displays, posters and references to the book’s iconic cover. What I did not appreciate until nearly two decades later was the extent to which this saturation had affected me.
“…the human Hermes encounters a code and reads it out with the ‘clicks’ of a particular key. Unsurprisingly, but importantly, one of Whitley’s most beautiful books is called The Key.”
— Jeffrey Kripal in The Supernatural: A New View of the Unexplained, p. 113
Around 2012 I was at a book store and saw Whitley Strieber’s book The Key: A True Encounter — noticing that it was published by Tarcher/Penguin set me wondering if Mitch Horowitz, author of Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation and at the time lead editor-in-chief for Tarcher/Penguin, had been a part of its publication and picked it up to see what it was about. Although I’d briefly skimmed Communion, I wasn’t very familiar with Strieber’s work beyond the popular media narrative of his experiences so it came as a shock to see a foreword written by Jeffrey Kripal, an innovative scholar in the field of religious studies!
Kripal’s research has given a fresh and exciting depth to the interdisciplinary study of anomalous experience. In 2011 I wrote a blog post about a few key figures that were helping to solidify a more mature voice for this area of research in the popular domain — Mitch Horowitz with his work Occult America, Joanna Ebenstein through her development of Morbid Anatomy Library, Erik Davis with his work exploring the interstice of technology and mysticism, and Jeffery Kripal. In mentioning Kripal I noted that not only did his work offer a poignant rethinking of this area — but his role in facilitating conferences and seminars with select scholars and researchers has been a powerful driver in bringing cohesion to a truly interdisciplinary focus.
To see that he was interested in Strieber, who I only knew as a well publicized abductee, didn’t fit with my preconceived ideas of his work. I knew that Kripal had included him in some of his recent work, but I had yet to read any of that and this was my first introduction to a thoughtful look at Strieber’s experiences.
Of course, I immediately bought the book and went home to figure out what the hell a serious scholar was doing with a popular author that talked about abductions. Reading the introduction I was even more confused — the Strieber that Kripal was describing was not the Strieber of my assumed familiarity, the two were in stark contrast. And the book itself was more like what I was used to reading in 19th century trance channeled texts, not at all what I’d expected from an author I only knew in relation to his popular novels and the media’s coverage of his reported experiences with abduction phenomena.
The Trickster and the Paranormal
When struck with this kind of contradiction I often call George Hansen, author of Trickster and the Paranormal, to reset the contextual framework and deconstruct whatever illusory mental structures have emerged around a topic. This time around our conversation added to my surprise — George didn’t dismiss Strieber — in fact he confirmed Strieber as an experiencer and mentioned that most researchers had long kept their distance, almost out of a fear for the reality of what he was recounting in his work — he also reminded me that Strieber was a perfect example of the marginalization and liminality that is explored in Trickster and the Paranormal.
This didn’t help my confusion. Aware that I was completely wrong in my assumptions I picked up a copy of Communion and dove in. More surprises — what came from the reading was not the same book that existed in my memory.
Without having fully read it and having only seen it in the context of the media’s coverage of it, the Communion that was a part of my life up to that point was not the same Communion that I was now reading. This wasn’t a book about alien abductions — this was a book about an ineffable experience and an attempt to understand it in light of a complex comparative methodology that blends scholarship, experiment and experience into a seamless whole.
Strieber was now even more confounding and without enough information to usefully think through my questions I decided to put it down and forget about it until something new came to light. 2012 was also the year that Dr. Andrew Chesnut published his book on Santa Muerte, which lead to a panel presentation at the Morbid Anatomy Library and our collaboration on a long term digital research project to track the development of Santa Muerte’s devotional tradition. This collaboration determined the main focus of my research for the next few years and assured that my questions about Strieber would remain unanswered for the time being.
“In that night, the owl, bringer of death and wisdom, will potentially reign as silent mistress of our souls. Like the old song, but perhaps with a somewhat different tone, she will have the whole world in her hands…so the owl, flying through the mystery of the experience, brings with the danger of her talons and her tearing beak also the revelatory reflection in her fearsome eyes…If this owl should ever take flight in our general night, we will find ourselves face-to-face with a truly remarkable predator, who will educate us if we face her, but steal us away if we run.”
— Whitley Strieber in The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained
Move forward to 2016 — I’m living in rural Georgia, it’s a windy night and I’m sitting in a 200-year-old barn doing some research on the computer.
Since moving to this area access to the web has been a constant challenge, for awhile leading me to become disconnected with much of what I had been doing before arriving on the property. Even brief opportunities to access the web were a precious gift.
The exact sequence of events eludes my memory, but within a matter of minutes I encountered an article from Mike Clelland about his new book The Messengers, detailing owl synchronicities; I emailed a colleague of mine about the book; a banner ad pops up for The Super Natural, an upcoming collaboration between Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey Kripal which features an owl eye on the cover; and the forest outside erupts with a loud chorus of screech owls calling to each other in the darkness.
Laughter and chills wash over me — that was a good one! The atmospherics of that eerie coincidental series couldn’t have been better suited to the subject matter and I was delighted sitting there in the matrix of these experiential elements while considering Clelland’s work. What better tool for accessing the subject matter than an experience which mirrors it?
Working in digital communications I’ve grown used to targeted banner ads and the odd chains of coincidence that can accumulate around our digital selves as we’re presented with algorithmically enhanced marketing and as our search habits begin to formulate associations that build conceptual connections which can seem like synchronicities. What was so wonderful in this situation was the added atmosphere of the owls outside connecting with the potential artificial elements of the experience and bringing in that slight moment of doubt as to the reason for the coinciding events.
Shortly after this I posted something about the upcoming publication of The Super Natural, tagging Mitch Horowitz with appreciation for his role in facilitating the book’s release — leaving unrecognized that by doing so, like any hypnotic subject that acquiesces to the hypnotist’s first request, I’d placed myself squarely within the book’s circle of enchantment.
In the weeks that followed I found myself wondering what this collaboration was going to be about. What topics will they cover? What pathways of inquiry are going to be opened? Why am I again faced with a desire to reassess my assumptions about Whitley Strieber? And what’s the deal with the owls?
“Once the thread is in hand, our own mythology will tell us where it leads, for it will be the same thread that the maiden Ariadne handed to Theseus when he stood before the maze of the Minotaur, young and strong and mad with courage.
And we will all go down the labyrinth, to meet whatever awaits us there.”
— Whitley Strieber, Communion: A True Story (Avon Books, 1987)
With the book still in pre-publication I went about reading whatever I could in preparation for its release — grabbing thrift store copies of Strieber’s work as I found them, watching interviews, revisiting Kripal’s work, and listening to podcasts. Normally this would be overkill, however Kripal’s methodology in these areas offers surprising results and it was expedient to have some background in order to fully follow where this was all going to lead. When I saw that there was a recent episode of Strieber’s Dreamland podcast featuring Mike Clelland I was thrilled to have an opportunity to follow up on the previous evening’s coincidental experience — and then things got stranger.
Once I was able to download the podcast I put it on in the background and settled in for an evening of listening and painting. I don’t remember what lead to me getting up, but I was walking through the room to refill my coffee or something when Clelland started discussing the anomaly researcher Mac Tonnies and Tonnies’ influence on his own research. Suddenly an odd feeling came over me, the room began to feel less solid as I became more focused on the podcast and the voices seemed to surround my mind. Clelland and Strieber began talking about Tonnies early death in 2009 and how Clelland had started his blog in 2009, suddenly…I don’t even know how to describe what happened in my awareness, but it was as if time folded in on itself.
2009 was when I also started a blog, called The Eyeless Owl. Mac Tonnies was one of my inspirations for this through a few conversations that we had via Twitter over our mutual love of asemic scripts. His multifaceted interests and careful approach to high strangeness lead me to feel more comfortable in dealing with these topics publicly and our brief conversations introduced me to some resources I’d missed. After his passing I contributed a short essay and a few drawings to a memorial blog site for him, and the drawings were later incorporated by documentary film maker Siok Siok Tan in her crowd-sourced film, Twittamentary, which was an early look at the impact Twitter was having on our concept of friendship and interaction.
Suddenly as I stood there in 2016 listening to Clelland and Strieber’s conversation strings of memory started to become entangled, coalescing into a mass with its own ideational gravity — the beginning of my public writing/researching/multi-media’ing, this new strange obsession with Strieber’s work, the odd coincidence from days before with Clelland’s book, the banner ad for The Super Natural, incidents and encounters throughout my life, and of course…the owls — all of it aligned and opened to further revelation — suddenly I was in a book store in Arizona in 1987 staring at a display for Communion — I was sitting on the couch watching television and Strieber was on a talk show — I was out in the desert as a kid collecting bones from owl pellets — a string of associations stretching from the present moment through all of these past memories and it was threaded through this book and this author who I had never had any interest in!
A Mental Gateway
“Look in into my eyes,” says the hypnotist. One of the most obvious features of Communion is its astonishing cover, carefully designed by Whitley himself with the artist Ted Jacobs. The central features of that original painted cover, of course a, are the alien beings immense black eyes, at once subtly mirroring the viewer and pulling him or her in, like a two-way mirror. No iconic feature of the book played a more important role int is reception history and in the hundreds of thousands of letter that the Striebers received. Readers were hypnotized. Entranced.”
— Jeffrey Kripal, The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained, p. 222 (Tarcher/Penguin, 2016)
And that cover! It was like a gateway in my mind that I could step through and re-experience a forgotten stream of influence in my life. A perfect symbol to apply Salvador Dali’s paranoid critical methods to gain a more holistic vision of myself and the areas of research I’m involved in. Dali recommended that the artist embrace these moments without critical thought, if only for a moment, long enough to provide an opportunity to embrace a misperception in such a way that it becomes a creative inspiration or experiential landscape.
However, this was a very odd misperception — I was left reeling and unable to speak. Nothing in my description captures the feeling and mental state associated with this encounter. Up to this point I had credited my interest in the stranger areas of culture to receiving those Time Life Mysteries of the Unknown books as a kid and having been saturated with Discovery Channel documentaries and Sci-Fi/Fantasy movies in the 80’s. At no point did Communion ever come into my mind as an influence. The sudden connection of disparate memories with this book seemed to offer a key that I didn’t realize I’d been searching for — but the door it opened only offered entrance to more questions.
“When we look at the owl through the medium of the close encounter experience, it turns out that something is being explained to us. Like the owl, our mysterious visitors come by night. Like the owl, they silent and all-seeing. And like the owl, they can reach right into our little burrows and carry us off into a transformative experience. For the awful ecstasy that the predator delivers to its prey, causing it to die to this world and be freed into the next, is very much like what the visitor does to her captive, leaving him devastated, at once killed inside and renewed inside, and living in two worlds at the same time, that of physical reality and that of a new kind of reality, the living reality of the soul, not quite physical, but also no longer theoretical.”
— Whitley Strieber, in the foreword to Mike Clelland’s Stories from the Messengers: Owls, UFOs and a Deeper Reality (Richard Dolan Press, 2018)
While the extremity of that mental flash was an isolated incident in relation to the book, the coincidences surrounding my anticipation of its publication continued. The strength of the coincidental themes were such that they stood out against a backdrop of regular coincidences. Which is to say my natural synchronistic themes, the ones that I’ve grown used to as part of my identity.
As if to match in the outer world the inner intensity of having my memories suddenly spinning into orbit around the publication of Communion, one day I walked out to my car to find a very large owl sitting in the middle of the dirt road blocking my exit.
I got into the car and waited for a bit to see if it would move on its own. It didn’t. So I got out of the car and walked up to it, figuring an owl wasn’t going to let me get too close. It didn’t move.
As I got closer I started to map the trajectory of flight it would need to launch from the ground to my face and I began to wonder if letting it sit there and foregoing my journey wasn’t the best plan. Before I could decide it flew up into a tree nearby and turned to watch me.
A few days later the radiator on my car blew out for the final time, leaving me stranded until another series of coincidences lead to me getting another car. In a life already filled with strange alignments, this was starting to seem over the top.
One of the concepts explored in The Super Natural is the central role of trance states in the process of reading and writing. As Kripal says,
“…the reading self is also a trance-induced story. If you are absorbed in this book at this moment, you are in a mild trance state answering to the trance states that Whitley Strieber and Jeff Kripal entered in order to write these pages. You are a slightly different person reading this book, just as we were slightly different people writing it.” — p. 221
And true to that observation when I finally received the book the coincidences did not stop. I read that paragraph while sitting in a fancy waiting room next to an owl statue encased in glass. The strange thing is — in my case the trance induction started with my preparatory reading — it began with my reading the pop up ad for the publication of the book!
In an experience akin to mental hypertext the trance state encompassed the very moment I set eyes on that provocative Visitor adorning the cover of Communion — the subsequent inspirations and coincidences were merely reinforcement of that trance. Yet this trance state is no sinister mental manipulation — it is an experiential tool that provides additional access to the text itself.
As I was thinking through these experiences prior to writing this piece I drew a simple diagram — a dotted line, representing a certain expression of time; a dot above the line, representing the Dreamland episode with Mike Clelland in conversation with Whitley Strieber; and a two dots on the line representing when I saw the cover of Communion in my childhood and the present moment in time. These three dots form a triangle — the necessary geometry for positioning something in space.
This triangulation helped me conceptualize the strange memory cascade and its effects with some distance from my own experience. It also formed the basis for yet another coincidence as I write this piece. Revisiting The Super Natural as I write, I read:
“What set’s Whitley’s model apart is how interactive it is, how it relies on us to manifest the other species. This interactive model is advanced through multiple frames, including that of the triad or triangle in the history of mythology and the bizarre implications of quantum physics…Whitley takes this interactive model very far, suggesting, in effect, that the visitors may rely on our beliefs to appear: “Thus the corridor into our world could in a very true sense be through our own minds.” — p. 94
Add to this the moment when I was doing my preparatory reading and opened Strieber’s book The Secret School: Preparation for Contact (Walker & Collier, 1997) at random to:
“A time machine would not be a mechanism of gears and wheels, nor even one of circuits and processors. In a sense, it might be easier to create one than we realized.
Could the mind somehow enable time travel? If it is nonlocal in nature — that is to say, not confined to ordinary space-time — there might be a way as yet not understood for it to address time through the medium of faster-than-light energies.” — p. 52
And lest we loose our tripartite theme — I see that Mike Clelland has posted on Facebook while I am composing this piece, he’ll be on Coast to Coast tonight for an episode hosted by George Knapp. The topic will be the companion book to The Messengers, titled Stories From The Messengers: Accounts of Owls, UFOs and a Deeper Reality — with an introduction by…Whitley Strieber.
A New Vision of the Unexplained
Having now had a chance to explore both The Super Natural and Whitley Strieber’s wider oeuvre these experiences no longer seem so unmooring — rather they’ve become tools in themselves for exploring memory structures, identity, and perception. This thanks to the careful approach that he himself has taken with his own experiences, further enhanced by the perspectives offered by Jeff Kripal’s analysis.
What truly excites me is that these areas of exploration are still unknown — the frontier of our own experience is a vast, uncharted territory. There is a beautiful conversation happening, but it is not happening in the stultified sub-cultures spinning out of digital enhanced identity politics — it’s happening between explorers like Whitley Strieber, Mike Clelland, Jeffrey Kripal and many others who are stepping forward to offer their experience and insight and an invitation to begin our own explorations.
To do this we must all realize, as I was forced to do, that the mediated narratives we are fed will never offer us any clue into our own natures. Any trance state offered by the advertisers and marketers is a poison best left untried.
If I relied on my mediated memories, Whitley Strieber would still be rudely relegated to a cartoonish parody. Instead I’ve found a fellow traveler whose purpose and fortitude have carried him through the pain of public humiliation and into the new dimensions of experience that his contact with the unknown has opened for him.
The real question is, are you ready to take the first step on the journey?
“We so want this precious ‘us’ to be more than sparks in flesh doomed to die with the inevitable implosion of the body. I have had a lifetime of experience that suggests that we may be more — indeed, that we have hardly even begun to touch on the complexity and enormity of what it is to be human. But I cannot give you that lifetime. I cannot give the richness of my experience to others, only describe them as best I can…”
— Whitley Strieber, The Super Natural: An New Vision of the Unexplained, p. 336
Special thanks to George Hansen for taking my impromptu phone calls on obscure subjects, Mitch Horowitz for arranging a review copy of The Super Natural for me and to Diana Pasulka for furthering my appreciation of Whitley Strieber’s work.