During my undergraduate studies I was fortunate to spend a few semesters with Dr. Joann Scurlock, a professional member of University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute and an expert on folk magic practices around the world. She taught two extended classes on magic, one on healing traditions, and the other on traditions of malevolent magic. Before both of them she gave a curious warning, although we’d be dealing with anthropological, sociological and historical source material the mindset of the ‘magical worldview’ carries something of a contagion. As she put it:
“It’s not a matter of whether you believe or disbelieve, nor is it relevant whether magic is real or not, anthropologists and psychologists who have studied these areas have shown that magic works in its own way, and the more you study it the more you can get drawn in to the magical worldview if you are not careful”
The psychological term for the most extreme examples of this is ‘voodoo death’ – the inexplicable (in strictly materialist terms) correlation between a magical action taken to harm someone and their death or illness shortly afterwards. Scurlock had the interesting insight that those raised within a culture that holds a magical worldview are better able to cope with the repercussions of delving into these areas. While they may seem more susceptible to influence, by naturalizing a magical worldview they also have available to them sure ways for combatting negative forces. This is why students or scholars straddling paradigms can face a peculiar form of paranoia that plays on their doubts and insecurities.
Magical practices are primed to manipulate specific symbolic cues; it is part of the magical worldview to work with correspondences in the natural world. Thus every ritual, prayer, incantation or curse is sculpted from powerful sets of images and words that evoke the emotive and psycho-spiritual atmosphere which is thought necessary to trigger correspondences farther along the cosmological chain of cause and effect. Any amount of in depth study in this area requires saturating yourself with what is at the very least incredibly potent psychological priming. As Dr. Ioan Couliano outlines in his work Eros & Magic in the Renaissance, even in terms of mechanism – the manipulation of symbolic bonds is the underlying support for both the magical worldview and the worldview of the successful marketer, sales professional, personal coach or propagandist.
Enter the Occult Expert
In 2013 a statue of Santa Muerte was discovered sitting in a cemetery in the tiny Texas town of San Benito. Attached to the statue was a small picture of a winged skeleton and a heart, the image appeared as if it were cut out of a magazine. What in Brooklyn would have prompted an Instagram post became a bit of a witch panic in San Benito when a local academic stepped in to opine on the diabolical implications of the statue’s presence.
Dr. Antonio N. Zavaleta, co-author of Curandero Conversations: El Niño Fidencio, Shamanism and Healing Traditions of the Borderlands, and professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Brownsville, became an expert on the occult when the local news used him as an authoritative voice to explain the statue. Vetted through an appearance he made on a somewhat sensationalized National Geographic special focusing on Mexican folk magic traditions where he discussed the prevalence of black magic on the border, he brought this same focus to his investigation of the statue. (1)