Mainstream culture adopts esoteric ideas only in ways that reflect its assumptions. From the gnostic idea that reality is a prison constructed by a malevolent demiurge, for example, we get a film like The Matrix (Wachowski, 1999). The film falls short of its apparent gnosticism because, on closer inspection, reality and the matrix are pretty much identical. Neo, the hero, looks and acts pretty much like himself in both, illustrating how popular culture simply can’t do without the notion of a stable ego. Indeed, having discovered that he himself is happily a fixed feature of two realities, the matrix ultimately becomes a playground for Neo’s ego, the reason why the film degenerates into the usual chase and fight scenes.
The consensus view of reality inflicts similar damage upon paranormal themes. In the paranormal field, there is a threshold. Stepping over it, we leave behind the realm of the socially acceptable. Things get serious over there. This moment is dramatised in another Hollywood film, The Mothman Prophecies (Pellington, 2002). The hero John Klein receives a message that his dead wife will call. When the phone rings (even after he has disconnected the handset from the wall) he must decide whether to walk away and resume a rational, everyday life; or pick up the receiver, and allow himself to be drawn in by bizarre phenomena. Hollywood represents the first option as wiser.
In Nick Redfern’s recent book, The Real Men in Black (2011), I was intrigued by how there is a species of paranormal phenomena that specifically enacts this moment in the lives of its witnesses. According to the folklore that surrounds them, the Men in Black (MIB) visit, warn and sometimes threaten people who are digging around in paranormal topics. Most frequently, MIB arrive after sightings of UFOs, but Redfern’s book shows this isn’t always so: spotting the Loch Ness monster, searching for King Arthur’s burial site, or just general dabbling with ouija boards and the occult have proved sufficient cause for a MIB encounter in certain cases.
Redfern considers a range of possible explanations for the MIB: hallucinations and hoaxes; tulpas; the Trickster archetype; actual government agents and civilian imposters; time travellers; and demons. His conclusion is that MIB are a heterogeneous phenomenon, produced by possibly any combination of these.
At the end of the book, I felt that although Redfern’s conclusion holds good for the MIB’s means of manifestation, nevertheless there does seem to be a unifying reason for the phenomenon: the position of the witnesses on that threshold I mentioned, between consensus reality and – something else.
As I read through Redfern’s stories, I found myself in each case tending towards a probable cause: one sounded like a lucid dream; another sounded like paranoia; one seemed a hallucination or screen memory; yet another seemed most likely just some guy mucking around. Nevertheless, the significance of the incident in the witnesses’ lives was pretty uniform. It brought them to a turning-point, from which most fearfully turned away, whereas a few chose to forge ahead.
The MIB reminded me of an entity that appeared one day as I sat meditating. ‘Hello,’ it said. ‘I’m the root of your being. I’m here to tell you that you’ve reached as far as it’s possible to go, so there’s no need to continue. You can stop meditating now.’ Although I was suffering at the time, and the invitation to cease was attractive, nevertheless I pressed on.
My colleague Alan had a similar experience (whilst on a bus). He named what we’d experienced as ‘The Vision of the Double’ (Chapman & Barford 2009: 22-24), a last-ditch attempt of the ego to prevent its being seen through, by producing a replica of itself and then trying to persuade us that this replica is something ‘real’ or ‘other’.
This tactic accounts for some of the weirder aspects of the MIB, for instance: the way they often appear to struggle to maintain a human appearance. Some commentators have pointed out how MIB seem particularly prone to fail in this if the witness reacts to the encounter with strong emotions (other than fear) or humour, in response to which MIB will often seem to lose their authority, or will even sometimes flee the scene. Indeed, Gray Barker has suggested that a joke is the best defence of all against them (Redfern 2011: 178). We all know from experience how nothing overwhelms our ego more than strong feelings, or silences its demands more effectively than a sharp dose of humour. Under these conditions it’s difficult for our ego to maintain its semblance of integrity.
However, I don’t mean by this that MIB are a purely interior, psychological event, or even necessarily a hallucination. MIB are not purely psychological but also partly magickal, an aspect of the magickal process that guides us toward truth. If magick is the art of experiencing truth, then we can arrive at this on the back of anything: dreams, waking hallucinations, chance events, or even some random guy hoaxing us rotten with a cheap black suit and make-up. Any of these can lead us magickally to the experience of truth; not the truth of how the MIB happen to manifest, but the truth of what the encounter with them means.
‘The Vision of the Double’ is a perspective on an important turning-point, but with a negative slant. A more positive view is provided within the literature of western occultism, however, in the guise of ‘The Guardian of the Threshold’. According to Rudolf Steiner, this is an astral being who appears when our faculties of thinking, feeling and willing become detached from the personality – in other words, when we have reached the understanding that our thoughts, feelings and intentions are not the isolated private property of a metaphysical ego, but also themselves a part of reality, and as such fully amenable to our further exploration and development.
According to Steiner, the Guardian, in effect, is saying to us:
Hitherto … [karmic powers] were interwoven with thine own being; they were in thee and thou couldst not see them, even as thou canst not behold thine own brain with physical eyes. But now they become released from thee; they detach themselves from thy personality. They assume an independent form which thou canst see even as thou beholdest the stones and plants of the outer world. (Steiner 1947: chapter X)
Consider how a UFO encounter – or some other paranormal experience – might disrupt a person’s sense of reality sufficiently to cause them to investigate seriously, perhaps for the first time, the nature of their perception and of what, until then, they had considered ‘real’. The boundary between self and other can become tenuously thin at such times, resulting in all kinds of synchronicites or chains of paranormal happenings, of such intensity that the witness may question their sanity. It is often against such a background that MIB pay their visit and issue their warnings or threats.
Whereas ‘The Vision of the Double’ emphasises the ego’s attempt to deceive, ‘The Guardian of the Threshold’ stresses the possibility of re-owning the deception and moving past it. In Steiner’s paraphrase, again:
I am thine own creation. Formerly I drew my life from thine; but now thou hast awakened me to a separate existence so that I stand before thee as the visible gauge of thy future deeds – perhaps, too, as thy constant reproach. Thou hast formed me, but by so doing thou hast undertaken, as thy duty, to transform me. (Steiner 1947: chapter X)
In some of Redfern’s cases, ignoring MIB warnings appears to have led to mysterious ‘accidents’ and premature death. But where this occurs, of course, we do not have the witness’s own full account, but instead a narrative told by others, which is perhaps more prone to the effects of telling a good story. The occult scene is littered with psychological casualties. Probably no one is immune. But the individual must decide whether harm arises from venturing into the unknown, or from the tension caused when we try to keep one foot in what we refuse to regard as anything other than rock-solid reality.
There may be disparate causes of the manifestation of MIB, but the reason for their appearance has to be a unifying factor, present in each instance. It seems no accident that, although not exclusively, MIB appear mostly in connection with UFOs, because in ufology more than any other paranormal field (ghosts or psi, for example) its dominant theories lie within consensus views.
The idea of life on other planets is easier to swallow for most people than the notion of survival after death, and whereas no one suspects their government of capturing and dissecting poltergeists, people have far less problem supposing their government has done so with respect to UFOs. Of course, there are ufological researchers who take a far more sophisticated approach, but their theories are often too subtle for consensus tastes. Ufology, more than any paranormal field, has fallen to the stranglehold of a single theory (the extraterrestrial hypothesis) whose physical basis has marked it with a materialistic taint.
The idea that MIB are agents from the government intent on silencing UFO witnesses is widely accepted – with good reason, because as Redfern shows, in some cases it is demonstrably true! Yet the fallout from the materialism of ufology is that even in cases where governmental agents are not involved, suchlike will nonetheless appear, whether in the form of dreams, hallucinations, misperceptions, or maybe even supernatural entities. They are the product of an imagination tainted by a materialist, consensus mindset; yet also, at the same time, they are an opportunity offered by that same imagination to transcend itself.
Alan Chapman & Duncan Barford (2009). The Blood of the Saints. Brighton: Heptarchia.
Mark Pellington (Director). (2002). The Mothman Prophecies [Motion picture]. United States: Lakeshore Entertainment.
Nick Redfern (2011). The Real Men in Black. Pompton Plains, NJ: The Career Press.
Rudolf Steiner (1947). Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment. Translated by George Metaxa. http://wn.rsarchive.org/Books/GA010/English/AP1947/GA010_index.html
Andy & Lana Wachowski (Directors). (1999). The Matrix [Motion picture]. United States: Warner Bros.