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Why We're Fascinated by the Paranormal, Masonic Myths and Secret Societies

By making paranoia part of pop culture, writers like Dan Brown have made a fortune. Then again, maybe he belongs to a secret cabal.

The paranormal pops up everywhere these days. In the last week, two different people have warned me against Ouija boards. In a video posted on YouTube, Richard Heene—who pretended a few weeks ago that his son was trapped in a runaway weather balloon—ponders the question of whether Hillary Clinton is one of those bloodthirsty, shape-shifting, humanoid alien "reptilians" that conspiracy theorists believe are planning a global takeover. At least three different ghost-hunting reality shows are currently airing on cable, all of them featuring muscular dudes storming down hallways in deserted schools and jails clasping electronic recording devices and howling, "Did you hear that?!"

This is hardly the first time in history that people have suddenly started spouting prophecies and speaking with the dead. These fads come in waves, usually fostered in the wake of unbearable tragedy. What else to do about earthquakes, floods, epidemics, dictators and wars than wonder which demon or deity devised this living hell and why, and what sacrifice or sorcery might make it stop? It is always fear and despair that sets us on this train of thought. During a gold rush or when we've just been given a clean bill of health, we need not believe in magic.

In the Black Death-ridden Middle Ages, chilled and starved by a climate shift now known as the Little Ice Age, Europe became obsessed with the body parts of saints. Crystal-encased, gem-bedecked bones and hanks of hair and half-mummified fingers, heads and hearts were credited with curative powers. Pilgrims packed cathedrals housing so-called holy relics, sometimes trampling the sick and weak during stampedes. Centuries later, the occult became the next big thing again as World War I and the 1918 flu epidemic found seances filling entire auditoriums around the world. Yet another paranormal paroxysm crested in the early 1970s: Think Watergate, Vietnam and the post-'60s awareness—a tragedy for some—that nothing would ever be the same again. 

And now: Twin Towers. Financial collapse. War. Flood. The H1N1 virus is our plague.

Or is it? "In recognition of the continuing progression of the pandemic, and in further preparation as a nation," as he put it, Barack Obama declared a national state of emergency on October 23. This declaration allows the federal government to waive certain requirements regarding prevention and treatment procedures because "the potential exists for the pandemic to overburden health care resources in some localities," Obama said.

But the folks at AntichristIdentity.com would probably say this is just his latest step in "progressing the Antichrist system that is gathering pace after the recent world economic upheaval"—a system that "implicates not only Barack Obama but also Javier Solana of the European Union, Prince Charles of Wales, Queen Beatrix of Netherlands and Prince Hassan of Jordan," a "power bloc" that "will drive the Antichrist world government." The folks at BeastObama.com call it "amazing stuff going on here, right before our eyes ... and it fits the pattern set out in Revelation 13."

Every paranormal paroxysm involves politics. That's only natural. We cannot help but brood about whomever rules the world. Is their might the result of keen diplomacy—or sigils chiseled into halls-of-power floors? Who's really in that entourage? We cannot help but wonder as, joking-but-not-quite-joking, we doodle cartoons of George W. Bush with devil horns.

It's all about control, as that's what wizards, angels, demons, gods and elected officials wield. Is it such a long  leap from superpower to supernatural?

Rumors of a secret cabal plotting to create a New World Order have been swirling almost ever since the Old World Order began. The nature of these shady puppeteers depends on who's doing the worrying. Jews have been evergreen suspects, whether it's the Elders of Zion or my penniless ancestors slogging through the Polish mud. Secret societies such as the Knights Templar and Freemasons stoke automatic fear:What are they doing in there?

As initiated members of a nondenominational, multiracial, all-male society whose origins are veiled in mystery but was probably founded in the late 16th century, Freemasons base their symbology on the tools of traditional stonemasons and allude, in their top-secret, tell-no-tales rituals, to the building of the Temple of Solomon. They wear lambskin aprons and do things with compasses, and they've been blamed for darn near everything. The Vatican officially condemned the brotherhood in 1738 for being "as political as they were religious," writes Jay Kinney inThe Masonic Myth: Unlocking the Truth About the Symbols, the Secret Rites, and the History of Freemasonry(HarperOne, 2009). And even though George Washington, Paul Revere and Benjamin Franklin were all Masons (lending support to rumors that the Boston Tea Party was a Masonic plot), America's first third party was the Anti-Masonic Party. It was founded in 1826 and four years later, Kinney tells us, 124 different anti-Masonic newspapers were thriving.

Like others before and after him, Adolf Hitler believed that Freemasonry was a Zionist front. Railing against "the international world Jew" in Mein Kampf, he conjectured that "to strengthen his political position ... the governing circles and the higher strata of the political and economic bourgeoisie are brought into his nets by the strings of Freemasonry. ... The prohibition of Masonic secret societies," Hitler predicted, would silence "the hissing of the Jewish world hydra."

Article 22 of the Hamas Covenant repeats the Jewish/Mason claim, and then some: "With their money, they formed secret societies, such as Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, the Lions and others in different parts of the world for the purpose of sabotaging societies." Other conspiracy theorists charge the Masons with faking the moon landing, worshiping Satan and assassinating JFK.

"Within the thriving subculture of present-day born-again Christianity," writes Kinney, a longtime Gnosis magazine editor and 32nd-degree Knight Commander Court of Honor in Freemasonry's Scottish Rite, "anti-Masonic books are a mainstay," thanks to evangelists such as Pat Robertson, who has called the brotherhood "a mystery religion designed to replace the old Christian world order of Europe and America." Kinney mocks those "legions of anti-Masons, most of them superstitious believers in the occult as a demon-infested quagmire," who "shiver dramatically as they hawk their books and videos." He also notes that British conspiracy theorist David Icke, the most famous proponent of the reptilian concept, posts material at his Web site alleging that "there are secret tunnels beneath every Masonic lodge to facilitate reptilian rendezvous." Yet Kinney insists that Freemasonry's origins were neither alien nor occult: "Rather, it seems to have been an attempt to create a nucleus of men of goodwill, over and above fractious religious conflicts, using the motifs and symbols of temple building as working tools both for the deepening of the individual soul and for building an archetypal temple to the Most High in the collective imagination of humanity."

Okay, but what are they doing in there? And are they or are they not intertwined with the Illuminati, a soooopersecret club founded in Germany in 1776 and modeled on the Masons but which Kinney claims disbanded in the 1780s but which conspiracy theorists insist still thrives, boasting such members as Barack Obama and both Bushes. "All this chaos, genocide, ethnic cleansing and the overall disasters have a genuine purpose," we read at Illuminati-News.com:

"It is all very carefully planned by a few people, mostly men, behind the scenes, high up in the society. ... These people on top, who basically are of Royal Bloodlines, is currently working on reducing the world population in order to easier maintain their control. ... So who are those people I am talking about? They are basically 13 super wealthy families and their off-shoots, with the European Nobility on top, and their fellow travelers are the International Bankers. Their bloodlines go back in time—way back to old Babylon and further."

As for UFOs: "The sightings, abductions and encounters are so numerous that we can't ignore them and say that the whole thing is just imagination. That would be stupid. The phenomenon does exist, but the questions are: what is it and what is the agenda?"

Such questions are now bingo-night and soccer-mom staples, thanks mainly to The X-Files and Dan Brown, whose record-breaking thrillers feature history's most prominent Western artists, scientists, religious figures and rulers enacting sinister global plots as ancient brotherhoods guard mysteries that might just end or save the world. Brown's book Angels and Demons dangled the notion that the eye-in-the-pyramid on the U.S. dollar was the work of the Illuminati. The Da Vinci Code featured a royal line sired by Jesus Christ. Subterranean Masonic structures beneath Washington D.C. figure in this fall's The Lost Symbol. By making paranoia part of pop culture, Brown has earned a fortune. Then again, maybe he belongs to a secret cabal.

It all comes down to: Who knows what, how do they know it and what will they do with what they know? In this information age, it's not such a stretch from Patriot Act surveillance to the possibility of government programs testing and using telepathy, clairvoyance and hypnosis. Now a major motion picture starring George Clooney, The Men Who Stare at Goats is based on British journalist Jon Ronson's allegedly nonfiction 2005 book of the same name, which explores exactly such a program. Instituted in the U.S. military in 1979, the First Earth Battalion comprised psychic soldiers trained to read minds, make themselves invisible, kill living things just by gazing at them, and walk through walls: "General Stubblebine is confounded by his continual failure to walk through his wall," Ronson writes, describing a scene that he claims took place in Fort Bragg, North Carolina during the Cold War summer of 1983. "What's wrong with him that he can't do it? Maybe there is simply too much in his in-tray for him to give it the requisite level of concentration. There is no doubt in his mind that the ability to pass through objects will one day be a common tool in the intelligence-gathering arsenal. And, when that happens ... who would want to screw around with an army that could do that?"

But by 1983, the psychic cold war was already at least two decades old. Created by the CIA and the Defense Department in a desperate struggle to keep pace with mind-control advances in the USSR, the U.S. government's secret psychic-spy program went by many different names throughout the second half of the 20th century, including Scanate, Sun Streak, Grill Flame, Center Lane and Stargate. According to recently declassified documents, it was employed in searches for terrorists, Soviet missile-storage facilities, and moles but was ended by then-CIA director John Deutch in 1995.

Think of all the money and lives governments could save if they just hired psychics to find stuff. That's what happens in C.S. Graham's new psychic-cold-war thriller The Solomon Effect, whose heroine is a hot, honey-haired young Iraq War veteran whose telepathic talents help the CIA hunt for a hidden weapon that unidentified terrorists plan to use in an imminent attack. Although by closing her eyes and entering her "remote-viewing zone" Naval Ensign October Guinness can see wherethe weapon is but not what it is or who plans to use it, we learn rather quickly that the terrorists are a wildly rich Miami pharmaceutical magnate and a fundamentalist Christian U.S. Army general who share a loathing for Arabs and Jews and have devised a diabolical scheme for eliminating both: "In the end, the world would be a better place. No more endless Middle East crises. No more suicide bombers. No more money-grubbing Jews, siphoning off billions in foreign aid, competing with American arms manufacturers, and wreaking havoc on the world financial scene ... The country was flushing itself down the toilet, wasting billions and billions of dollars every month for -- what? To wipe the noses of a bunch of ungrateful ragheads in Afghanistan and Iraq? To prop up Israel? Why?"

Concentrate, Ensign Guinness. Concentrate.

Deflecting a skeptic, one government official in the novel asserts, "Remote viewing is not woo-woo. It's science."

And science changes everything. A key feature of our current paranormal paroxysm is the fact that science and technology play such a prominent role in it, from YouTube videos allegedly capturing ghosts and guardian angels to music recorded at certain frequencies said to induce instant trance states and miraculously "repair" DNA. Ghosthunters use highly sensitive devices called electronic-voice phenomena—or EVP—machines. Quantum physics is invoked to explain everything from premonitions to astral projection.

In her angry new book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (Metropolitan, 2009), Barbara Ehrenreich describes how she encountered this psychic/science convergence while undergoing chemotherapy, when self-help gurus and fellow cancer patients kept exhorting her to smile. Positive thinking boosts the immune system, went the claim for which Ehrenreich, who holds a Ph.D in cell biology, could find no scientific proof. Visualizing microscopic crusades in which squealing cancer cells are slaughtered follows the same procedure as spells I used to find in paperbacks and perform after school in seventh grade: Burn red candles for love and green for cash, picture kisses and coins and wish.

It's the exact same easy-come thesis that made a worldwide movement out of Rhonda Byrne's 2007 megabestselling book The Secret. Courting what Byrne calls the Law of Attraction—and which she claims, surprise surprise, functions via quantum physics—millions now believe that their mere thoughts affect material reality and that if they want something intensely enough, they'll "attract" it. They post thousands of "mind movies" at YouTube featuring footage of mansions and Corvettes with captions reading "This is my house" and "This is my car." These captions aren't true, but ... wish.

The socially accepted version of this process is called prayer. Bemused and horrified, Ehrenreich observed "pastorpreneurs" preaching the "prosperity gospel," in which God "manifests" goodies if you ask. Centimillionaire televangelist Joyce Meyer, whose private jet and $23,000 marble toilet spurred Republican Senator Chuck Grassley to launch an investigation into her wealth in 2007, explains the gospel thusly: "God wants to give us nice things." Bye-bye, Calvinist ethic, in which God rewards hard work.

The number of megachurches in this country doubled to 1,210 betwen 2001 and 2006, boasting a combined congregation of nearly 4.4 million, Ehrenreich reports. Three of the biggest four tout the prosperity gospel. That's a hefty voting bloc. Its members worship a candy-man God who showers them with riches. A large but almost entirely separate faction at the far end of the spectrum swore allegiance last year to a presidential candidate who more or less promised to shower his voters with riches. At least in the early months, photographers loved to snap Obama with what looks like a halo: a trick of the light sometimes, or his head ringed just so by his campaign logo or the presidential seal. Children sang virtual Obama hymns. These are scenes from an adulation not entirely secular and unlike any ever seen in U.S. politics before.

Adversaries they are, but both blocs harbor the same hilariously obvious spirituality: Our dear leader makes us rich just because we want him to. One faction calls it grace. The other calls it human rights. Each faction mocks and fears the other's form of worship and the other's entity. Liberal children wake screaming from nightmares featuring the Christian Right. Megachurch kids dream fitfully of a fallen angel who steals through taxation what God manifests.

"The dicey subprime and Alt-A categories of mortgages had expanded to 40 percent of total mortgages" in 2006, Ehrenreich notes, "many of them requiring little or no income documentation or down payment." To "buy" a home under such conditions is to believe in magic. We display this belief every day, as even credit cards are wands granting us things we want with money we don't have.

But the susceptible among us trusted mortgage brokers just as the susceptible among our ancestors trusted soothsayers and snake-oil salesmen and voices in their heads they thought belonged to spirits of the dead. The rise of truthiness renders it ever harder to draw lines between science, psychology, spirituality, and lies. We find ourselves despairing as Ehrenreich did at a convention watching "life coaches" make outrageous claims about the transformative power of mental "vibrations" and the Law of Attraction and subatomic particles.

"Maybe I should have been impressed," she muses, "that these positive thinkers bothered to appeal to science at all ... in however degraded a form. To base a belief or worldview on science or what passes for science is to reach out to the nonbelievers and the uninitiated. ... The alternative is to base one's worldview on revelation or mystical insight, and these are things that cannot be reliably shared."

And as we panic over healthcare, job loss and war in this funhouse of the proven and unproven, ascribing otherworldly powers to those who control us lets us off the hook. If they became this strong, this devious, this cruel by paranormal means, then heck: The world's in bad shape not because I voted wrong or didn't vote at all or wasn't a good enough activist. The world's in bad shape because our rulers are aliens or possess divine DNA or intone incantations under the full moon. In other words, it's not my fault.

Anneli Rufus is the author of several books, most recently The Scavenger's Manifesto (Tarcher Press, 2009). Read more of Anneli's writings on scavenging at scavenging.wordpress.com.