School of the Ages


author interview -- Bestselling Paranormal Expert Mitch Horowitz!

Posted by Matt Posner on September 11, 2014 at 5:50 PM

This one's special, folks -- as a fan of paranormal nonfiction myself, I can't be happier to have secured an interview with the publishing world's most astonishing paranormal polymath. He's a professional dynamo -- you wouldn't believe how many things he is doing at one time. In this interview I ask him what he is working on as well as how on earth he manages to handle such a busy career. I also go in-depth with some issues of society and culture that I think he hasn't been asked before.

Mitch Horowitz is a PEN Award-winning historian and the author of One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life and Occult America. He has written on alternative spirituality for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. Vice-president and editor-in-chief at Tarcher/Penguin, Mitch is the host of “Origins,” a forthcoming web series on the history of superstitions. Visit him at, on Twitter @MitchHorowitz, and on Facebook at Mitch. Horowitz.1

Mitch, it's really an honor to have you do this interview for me. It's challenging to find experts in the occult who don't try to cultivate an air of menace or to bamboozle the gullible. You don't do those things at all, but why do you think so many people do?

Thanks, Matt. I find that many spiritual figures, including very mainstream figures with no attachment to New Age or occult traditions, often adopt an air of theatricality. This can be true of therapists, as well. We all want to be seen as “the man with the plan” – and when someone has an audience or even a single listener, it is tempting play the part of the self-assured visionary (which the speaker himself may not even realize that he is doing). I believe in the outlook of Bill Wilson, the cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous: in essence, he believed that we are all in this together.

You now live in New York City, just as I do, and it's impossible to say enough about this enormous community. But where did you grow up, and how did it influence you?

I grew up in the borough of Queens. Life was difficult for my parents – but I do think, on the whole, that the neighborhood where I was raised reflected something very good about the city and our country at the time: It was a nice, working-class suburb that held out the promise of a good way of life for wage-earning people. My mother was a medical secretary and a member of 1199 hospital workers union and my father was a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society, which provided lawyers for the poorest of the poor. It was a very tough job for him and I don’t think anyone, including me as a kid, realized how difficult it was. We had a kind of Archie Bunker household, where discussions were loud, but I think the values were basically good: a somewhat world-weary Kennedy liberalism, a belief in labor unions, and a faith in the broader possibilities of the individual. I stand by all those things today.

What are some good places to eat in Manhattan that won't break the middle-class budget? We all have our lists, but I'd like to try a few of your recommendations.

MH: I like the Indian restaurants along Lexington Avenue in the East 20s. That’s neighborhood we live in, which is called Murray Hill but locals call that section “Curry Hill.”

Let's talk about your general growth as a writer. I don't want to repeat the familiar questions, but what drew you to writing as a profession? Was it an early ambition or more something that you came to later because of your other interests?

It was an early interest that I didn’t really cultivate until later in life. I had worked as a journalist in my early twenties but soon entered publishing and drifted away from writing. I just couldn’t find an area that I really wanted to write about. I knew that I didn’t want to focus on politics and I wasn’t interested in writing criticism or reviews. So I drifted away from aspirations to be a wrier and I thought I had tucked that part of my life into the past; though I was never really at ease with that decision. In the summer of 2003, when I was thirty-seven, some friends at Science of Mind magazine, which is the positive-thinking magazine founded by Ernest Holmes, told me they had landed an interview with major-league pitcher Barry Zito, who was deeply into Holmes’s ideas. It was a big catch and they they were anxious that the interview go well; they came to me with it, trusting me to handle it reliably. I’m very grateful for trust because the experience made a huge difference in my life. interviewed Barry and wrote a feature piece, “Barry’s Way,” in October 2003. It was an incredible experience for me because in discussing Barry’s spiritual outlook, and how it influenced his training regimen, I discovered the very area that I wanted to write about: metaphysical experience. About two weeks after the article appeared, I received a call, very much about of the blue, from Barry’s father, Joe Zito. Joe said he loved the piece and, in words I’ll never forget, he told me in this very gruff, drill-sergeant tone: “Mitch, you stick with this thing.” He meant stick with writing, in particular about the metaphysical topics that Barry and I discussed. It was exactly what I needed to hear. I told Barry that his father’s call helped set me on my path and that’s the plain truth. I think Joe Zito helped other people find their way, as well.

Within two years I delivered a lecture on occult history in America at Manly P. Hall’s Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles. I began transcribing that lecture with a plan to turn it into an essay; but my wife, Allison, told me: “That’s not an essay, that’s your book.” So that’s how my first book, Occult America, came together.

You're an author, an editor, an audiobook narrator, a public speaker, a frequent guest on TV and radio, and a husband and parent. How do you manage your time and energy given such a complex career and life?

Well, the professional side of my life is fueled by love for the subjects. If I feel a deep sense of enthusiasm for a topic I can pursue it with this almost total drive. I discovered that you literally have to want to write more than you want to sleep. I mean that very literally. You can broker a deal with yourself where, for limited periods of time, it is actually possible to place writing, or speaking, or performing, or painting, or anything that you love, above other physical needs – though that breaks down after a while so it can only be done for limited periods. In terms of parenting and homemaking, I have to give tremendous credit to my wife Allison Orr, who is also a network news producer. Her energy and drive put me to shame.

Can you identify one or more mentors who have helped form your character or develop your career?

There have been many influences. One of them is my mother-in-law, Theresa Orr, who I write about in the first chapter of my new book. Terri grew up devouring positive-thinking and metaphysical literature, and she went from being the daughter of an Italian immigrant barber in Waltham, Massachusetts, to recently retiring as an associate dean at Harvard Medical School. Along the way she raised two daughters, as a divorced and single parent, and helped care for an elderly mother. She is also a widely loved sponsor in a twelve-step program. And that just scratches the surface. Terri swears by the efficacy of mind-power philosophies, such as A Course In Miracles and The Power of Positive Thinking. She’s dedicated in particular to AA’s Big Book. Anyone who thinks that positive-thinking literature is woo-woo stuff for the starry-eyed just has no idea.

Let's talk about writing techniques and strategies. Your books are the product of complex and meticulous research. What is your research process like? What resources do you favor? Do you research an entire book before you write, or work with an outline and then research parts of it one at a time? What software do you use?

Believe or not, I’m actually very old-fashioned and I probably need to update my methods. I make massive binders of research material – my shelves are groaning under the weight of these things. I carry tote bags, or even suitcases of material, depending on what I’m doing. I need to get a little more digitally up to speed. David Lynch said that when he was working on his first movie, Eraserhead, he lost touch with a lot things in outer life, including advances in technology. But today he is very technically adept. He says to people: Don’t worry about it, you’ll always have time to catch up with technology or other advances, but while you’re cooking away on a project you just have to dedicate yourself completely to it. And that’s what happened to me: The writing of Occult America kind of blended into the writing of One Simple Idea – plus I was doing a lot related things in television and writing articles at the same time, and I threw myself into that while all this digital technology was ramping up. So, I’m playing catch up now.

Your most recent initiative has been to call attention to persecution of witches -- yes, witches in the 21st century. I don't think you mean Wicca practitioners, though. You are talking about shamans, witch doctors, village wise men, that sort of people, right? How are the witches being persecuted, and why? What are you doing to raise awareness of the issue? Who can be most effective in fighting to present witch persecution? What needs to be done?

What we’re seeing is an uptick of violence against people who are accused of witchcraft in traditional societies, particularly in central Africa and the southwestern Pacific. The victims are often women and, increasingly, children, especially in central Africa. This violence is also trickling to the West – the police in London have reported an alarming increase of incidents – because of migration patterns. This violence is also found in India, the Middle East, and Latin America. The surge in violence probably has do to with economic pressures, rapid urbanization, and families buckling under the pressure of dislocation when seeking work, etc. Another contributing factor is the advent of fervent revivalist ministries in some parts of Africa, usually the result of western missionary campaigns; some of these campaigns place an emphasis on demon possession, exorcisms, and accusations of black magic. Then there are societies that judicially protect and promote the persecution of suspected witches. In 2009 Saudi Arabia’s religious police started its first “anti-witchery unit,” which has jailed hundreds of people. One of the most tragic cases involves a Lebanese TV host named Ali Hussain Sibat who was arrested on charges of sorcery while on pilgrimage to the nation and sentenced to death by beheading. His death sentence was commuted in 2010 but he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. It’s an entirely inhumane case, to which I’ve been trying to draw attention. The Saudi monarchy generally seems to use its religious police to placate religious extremists; and targeting accused witches means persecuting a small, defenseless minority of people, while pleasing the nation’s most intensely conservative religious constituencies.

Your most recent book is One Simple Idea, about positive thinking, the idea that "thoughts are causative." You track its presence in the United States to occult subculture and mesmerism, which belief you support very well. But let me posit a few different connections for you to talk about.

* First, let's take a look at a possible connection to Puritan culture and its belief in Providence. This was an alternative religious belief in its own time: the idea that God constantly sent believers signs of how to behave and that prosperity and other blessings came to those who recognized and obeyed the signs. Could this idea -- watch for opportunities, trust in them, and act accordingly -- have helped to prepare the ground for the positive-thinking movement of the 1800s?

*I'll make another question on the subject a little more simply stated. How much of a connection do you see between the spirit of the positive-thinking movement and the concept of the American dream, the sort of can-do attitude which, by whatever name, was observed by Alexis de Tocqueville in the late 1700s and has become fundamental to how Americans and even immigrants think about their futures?

I think positive thinking is at odds with Ayn Rand's objectivism, which seems like a destructive philosophy to me. Any reflection on the relation of these two systems of thought?

For me, anyway, as a writer about magic who has some familiarity with the Hermetic traditions, I tend to see magic as a kind of positive thinking. The magician, witch or wizard needs a quality of belief in order to achieve the desired result of a magical action. If this is so, would I be remiss in stating that the positive-thinking movement is sort of like Hermeticism creeping into American culture?

The Puritan tradition tended to focus on character development and salvation, and not on personal achievement, so I don’t necessarily see that as an antecedent. Some of Benjamin Franklin’s early literature on the conduct of life celebrated the idea of business success as a virtue, which prefigured the tone of certain nineteenth-century motivational literature. In general, the notion of self-betterment has deep roots in America, extending to the colonial period. For various reasons, including colonial settlement and slavery, land and resources were relatively abundant in the new nation. At the same time, there existed a religious liberalism early on in the nation’s life, thanks to figures such as William Penn and Thomas Jefferson, among others. So the joint belief that one could advance through the stations of life, and at the same time fashion one’s own individual sense of meaning, was a prevalent point of view in early American life. This gave rise to a very practical perspective on spirituality and self-development, in which religion could aid the growth of a person. At a certain point this notion of self-determination may intersect with Ayn Rand’s philosophy, though the positive-thinking ideal in America has been tempered by Scriptural ethics. The idea of a “go it alone” approach was foreign to early positive-thinking literature. For example, Wallace D. Wattles’ popular “Science of Getting Rich” emphasized the individual’s obligations to others, and that was a common theme. The positive-thinking ideal in America saw both spiritual and material development as part of the same whole. And, yes, there is some intersection with magic, at least in the early Hermetic sense, insofar as the mind is seen as seen as an instrument that can channel higher influences and creative powers.

It seems to me that since 9/11 and the recent depression, this country seems to have lost a lot of its positive energy. I watch politicians savaging each other with lies and dubious claims; citizens openly voicing deeply-held prejudices that in prior times would have been a community disgrace to speak; public statements of ludicrous, hateful nonsense; intense media focus on violence, brutality, and death. Is it possible for a new positive thinking movement to be part of a change in this negative era in American history?

I do think there has been a real coarsening of communication in our nation. I attribute it less to 9/11 and the Great Recession than to the advent of digital technologies which allow people to engage in what they perceive as anonymous and cost-free aggression; we are airing the kinds of hostilities that have always been part of human nature but we suddenly find ourselves able to vent them in front of screens and through mobile devices, creating a remove from real-time human responses or consequences. The positive-thinking pioneers, and particularly of Dale Carnegie and his classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People, emphasized the need for balanced and steadied communication; that is a lesson we should never be too sophisticated for. Comity cannot be the endgame of human contact – it is not a substitute for sincerity and substance; but without basic diplomacy we rupture our workplaces, friendships, and political environment. What’s more, with every caustic email, tweet, or social posting the bar of personal conduct drops lower. The present generation not only speaks and writes in tones of irony and mild cynicism but increasingly thinks in these ways, too. As I have written in several places, including the New York Times, we must recommit to civility in communication. We can afford to relearn the lessons of Dale Carnegie.

You're the editor of the Penguin/Tarcher line of books on world religion and alternative spirituality. Tell us about a few books you have edited or otherwise brought to market which would appeal to readers of your books.

In 2003 I published a “reader’s edition” of The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly P. Hall, a massive encyclopedia of occult subjects that was previously available only in expensive and massively unwieldy editions. I reset the full text and made it into a very readable trade paperback edition. That was one of my most satisfying projects. I also just published a new “deluxe” hardback edition of the original 1939 Alcoholics Anonymous. I’ve narrated an audio edition of that profoundly important book, which is available in digital and CD form.

Mitch, what's next for you as an author? And are there some public appearances we should look out for?

I haven’t decided on a new book topic yet – I choose my subjects based on a very deeply felt passion. One of the things I’m considering right now is a book on why positive thinking works; we need an actual theory of the metaphysics behind the causative nature of thoughts. On a different tack, I am writing a new introduction to the biography of the mystic Edgar Cayce, There Is A River. I’ll also be narrating a new audio edition of that book. I’m hosting an upcoming web series, “Origins,” which explores the history of superstitions. I’m doing a lot of work in television, which reawakens a passion I had as a kid, and I feel fortunate for that.

What would you like to say to readers to finish this interview?

Make use of the religious and intellectual freedom and experimentation that’s available to you. I also believe that our religious freedom is incomplete unless we are try to extend it to others. We cannot function in isolation. That is one of the reasons why it is important to raise our voices over the spate of violence against accused witches and other religiously or socially targeted people. If anyone would like to write to the king of Saudi Arabia to appeal for the release of Ali Hussain Sibat they can write to me via my website and I’ll send them the address.


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