Sunday, April 15, 2012

In the Madness of Initiation

Though he has little name recognition outside of horror circles filmmaker John Carpenter has left his mark on conspiracy culture, most notably via his cult classic They Live. The film stars 'profesional' wrestler Roddy Piper as an aimless drifter that stumbles upon a pair of sunglasses that reveals the world for what it really is. When wearing the glasses, Piper sees a black and white world enslaved by mass consumerism, Reaganomics and alien beings with heads like those of rotting corpses --In other words, our world with a zombie/alien race as a stand-in(?) for the Cryptocracy. Countless conspiracy gurus have gotten a lot of mileage out of They Live over the years and for good reason: Its probably the finest examination of 1980s America and the rise of the neo-cons ever released all the while playing out like a B-grade horror opus with a wicked sense of humor. Think Videodrome meets Lucio Fulci and you're on the right path.

Images from They Live

The more casual movie watcher is probably familiar with Carpenter from his more well known horror and sci-fi pictures, which include the original versions of Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13, the 1982 version of The Thing, Escape From New York, Starman, and Big Trouble in Little China. The astute watcher will note that Carpenter's work has been riddled with subversive elements and anti-authoritarian elements since at least the late 1970s. But it was in the late 80s that Carpenter's work seemingly became more overt in the themes he was exploring, peaking with They Live. Coincidentally (or not), his career began to take a permanent nose dive at this point as well. After creating many of his films from the ground up he would increasingly become a director-for-hire, helming several modestly budgeted flops like the Chevy Chase vehicle Memoirs of an Invisible Man and the ill-advised remake of Village of the Damned. Even projects Carpenter spearheaded seemed tame compared to his earlier work, such as Escape from L.A. Mercifully, Carpenter would drop one more film on his fan base riddled with subversion before he was totally neutered. Five years after the release of They Live Carpenter would unleash one of his finest, if least watched, films known as In the Mouth of Madness.


Carpenter has described Madness as the third part of his 'Apocolypse Trilogy,' the first part being The Thing, the second Prince of Darkness'Apocolypse' is surely a fitting description for this film. Regular readers of this blog may be familiar with Madness from the brief reference I made to it in part one of my series on legendary horror author/director Clive Barker and his grossly underrated film Lord of Illusions.

Illusions is an occult-ridden merger of supernatural horror and film noir, centering around a private detective investigating the death of a famous magician. I think of this film as a kind of 'gnostic detective noir,' a description I would also apply to this film as well as the few select others that have tread along similar paths. Some may object to me applying such a label to Madness as it is not overtly a noir film, nor does it feature a private detective as do other such films (e.g. Angel Heart, Cast A Deadly Spell, etc.)

That being said, the profession of the lead character, one John Trent (Sam Neill), is fraud investigator, a job with more than a few overlaps with a traditional private investigator. What's more, the Trent character is endowed with the same kind of world-weary cynicism of the classic private eye in addition to a plot line encompassing most of the first 40 or so minutes of the film that could have been taken from a classic detective novel. I can't help but feel that the film was originally meant as more of an overt noir/horror crossover, but was 'simplified' for mass appeal at some stage in the process.

Trent (Sam Neill) goes through quite a change during the course of Madness...

Trent is hired by an insurance outfit to investigate the disappearance of the world famous horror author, Sutter Cane (played by the great Jurgen Prochnow). This plays out in one of the film's most striking sequences, in which Trent and his employer are discussing the Cane case in a diner, seated by the window. As they are glancing down at some files a man in a trenchcoat brandishing an axe approaches the restaurant from the outside. Eventually he brings the axe down through the window, spraying glass all over Trent. He climbs onto the fraud investigator's table and asks Trent if he reads Sutter Cane before raising his axe to swing at Trent. Seconds later the axe man is killed by the police. Shortly thereafter Trent learns that the axe man was Cane's agent.

For our purposes, it is most interesting that this crucial scene (for it introduces Trent to the world of Cane) features an appearance of a checker floor board, which graces the diner. As regular readers of this blog know, checkered floor boards are very important to Freemasonry.
"In addition, the floor of the temple may be constructed or decorated in a checkerboard pattern of black and white squares, a motif that is found on many Masonic documents, tracing boards, and other illustrations. The checkerboard pattern has a long and illustrious pedigree, calling to mind instantly the game of chess and its origins as a sacred game between the forces of light and darkness. Today, it might be interpreted as a grid, a group of cells called a matrix -from the Latin mater for mother, from which we get the words matter, material, and even Demeter, the goddess of corn (which is also an important Masonic symbol). The prima materia is an alchemical term indicating the base material of the Philosopher's Stone. All of these meanings would be relevant to the Temple's design, since -as a replica of KST -the temple represents the universe, not the universe in a chaotic state but as an ordered cosmos, created and designed by the Great Architect."
(The Secret Temple, Peter Levenda, pg. 11)  

Despite such an auspicious beginning, Trent still elects to take the case and soon meets with Cane's publisher, played by Mr. NRA himself, Charlton Heston. After some nifty detective work in which Trent discovers that the specially-designed covers of Cane's books form a map of New Hampshire he, along with the obligatory female lead (Cane's editor, Linda Stiles, played by Julie Carmen), head off on a road trip to a town that's not supposed to exist. The town in question, Hobb's End, is a fictional New England village where the bulk of Cane's stories are set.

Avid readers may be picking up on more than a few nods to the legendary horror author Stephen King. Madness's writer is named Sutter Cane (an obvious play on King's name), while the bulk of his writing is set in a fictionalized New England town. Several of King's most well known novels take place in fictional New England towns, such as Castle Rock. Hell, Madness even features a kid with a deck of playing cards stuck in his bicycle wheels, a King staple.


While references and allusions to King's work are liberally sprinkled throughout Madness, it is another New England-based horror author whose work would serve as the principal basis for this film. As horror buffs may well have already guessed, that author is the legendary H.P. Lovecraft, a writer virtually unknown in his own era (1920s-1930s) whose work has had an enormous influence on a broad spectrum of fields.
"Lovecraft was writing in the 1920s, when most of his more famous stories were published. He was writing of a New England that, in his imagination, had ancient roots in unknown cultures; where Druidic circles and pagan chants would infest the countryside; where a kind of subterranean culture existed, parallel to the world of our own reality. He peppered his stories with references to works of archaeologists and anthropologists (some real, some fictitious), and connected the American Indian culture to the worship of strange, perhaps extraplanetary or extradimensional beings who viewed humans as little more than undercooked hors d'ouvres. His work has attracted a great deal of attention in the past 30 years or so... He has attracted serious, albeit fringe, attention from academics and historians of both literature and mysticism, and has even been graced with an anthology of his work prefaced by no less a literary light than Joyce Carol Oates. The blind Argentine author of many essays and stories on the macabre --Jorge Luis Borges --has written in the Lovecraftian mode in homage to the cranky Yankee master. In addition, there are several hardcore occult organizations in Europe and America that owe allegiance to the bizarre principals outlined in his works. They have taken their names and identities straight from his published works, with cults like Dagan and Cthulhu, and occultist emeritus Kenneth Grant has written extensively on the relation between the works of Lovecraft --an author of gothic horror fiction --and the rituals of modern ceremonial magic and communication with extraterrestrial intelligence.

"Part of the reason for Lovecraft's popularity among serious occultists is due to the fact that many of the ideas he put forward in his stories have found some basis in reality: in historical, archaeological, anthropological reality. While there is no evidence at this time for the existence of the beings of which he wrote --Cthulhu chief among them, but let's not forget Yog Sothot or Shub Niggurath -there is evidence that America was visited, and possibly inhabited for some time, by people who are not racially (or, at least culturally) identical to the Native American 'Indian' tribes that exist today."
(Sinister Forces Book One, Peter Levenda, pgs. 3-4)


This is only scratching the surface. One of the most remarkable things occultists found about Lovecraft's writings was the incredible overlap they had with various belief systems (e.g. Aleister Crowley's) despite the fact that Lovecraft himself had read very few grimoires until the final years of his life. In fact, Lovecraft claimed much of the inspiration for his stories came from his dreams, in the form of horrifying night terrors. This has led to much speculation over the years that Lovecraft's writings were inspired by a nonhuman intelligence.

In the Mouth of Madness is overflowing with allusions to Lovecraft's works. The title itself is a reference to one of Lovecraft's few novellas, At the Mountain of Madness. Readers of Sutter Cane's fiction are driven literally mad in the film. Some readers of Lovecraft's legendary Necronomicon are said to be driven made by the tome in his stories. The name 'Pickman' is used for both a character and a hotel in Madness. Lovecraft named several of his most noted characters Pickman and occasionally wrote under the name. The entrance to both Madness's Hobb's End and the town of Dunwich from Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror are reached via a decrepit covered bridge. The demonic beings guiding Sutter Cane are referred to as the 'Old Ones' just as they are in Lovecraft's fiction (in Crowley's system they are called 'the Great Old Ones of the Night of Time'). What's more, the massive, slimy, tendril-laced appearance of Madness's monsters are taken directly from countless artists' representations of Lovecraft's pantheon. At several points when various characters are reading from Cane's books entire passages of Lovecraft's work are recited almost verbatim.

Possibly the most curious reference (albeit, a very vague one in deed) to Lovecraft is Madness's 'black church,' a massive Byzantine-esque cathedral (the real life Cathedral of Transfiguration was used for this location). It was while reading through Levenda's Sinister Forces Book One looking for references to Lovecraft that I stumbled upon this possible allusion:
"In an interesting side note to all of this, H.P. Lovecraft in his short story "The Horror at Red Hook" (1925) mentions a church in Brooklyn that had been turned into a dance hall. This church actually existed; to the author's best recollection it was on Amity Street, but that may be a confabulation. In any event, it was only a few blocks south of Atlantic Avenue; south, that is, of Brooklyn Heights, where Lovecraft lived for a short time during his equally short marriage. Briefly, in the 1970s, that church had been taken over by another Propheta's renegade churches, this one practicing a kind of Roman Ritual under an Eastern Orthodox aegis. The church was also --and at the same time --believed to be a place where satanic or occult ceremonies were performed. It was only a few blocks away from the infamous Warlock Shop, a location that figures prominently --though never by name --in Maury Terry's study of the Son of Sam cult, Ultimate Evil."
(pg. 288)

Madness's church

As far fetched as this connection may seem, Madness screenwriter is none other than famed producer Michael De Luca (Blade, the first Austin Powers film, American History X, Magnolia, The Social Network), a self-proclaimed sci-fi/horror/comic geek who originally hailed from Brooklyn and came of age in the 1970s there. Is it possible that De Luca, who became chief of production for New Line Cinema at the age of 27, heard the same reports that Levenda did and slyly worked them into Madness? Interestingly, De Luca's only other significant writing credit is on Freddy's Dead, the sixth and supposedly final Nightmare on Elm Street film (obviously reports of Freddy's demise were greatly premature). Regular readers of this blog will remember that I've already chronicled some the significant occult allusions in the Elm Street films here. In general, De Luca comes off as a fascinating character with a curious and swift rise to prominence. An interesting piece can be read on him here.

De Luca

As with any occult-centric film worth watching, the obligatory references to Sirius abound in Madness. As regular readers of this blog know, Sirius, the Dog Star, is highly important in the occult. I've chronicled its importance before here and here, among other places. The first notable reference to Sirius occurs at the same time as the black church is introduced. A group of possessed children are seen blindly following a dog about throughout the film. Later on, when a group of armed parents approach the church to retrieve their children, a pack of doberman are seemingly summoned by Cane (who has taken up residence in the black church) and chase off the mob. The dog is of course symbolic of Sirius, which makes the fact that a dog is leading the town's children about all the more curious.
"In the Arcane Tradition, the vast star, Sirius, symbolizes the sun behind the sun; i.e. the true father of our Universe. Sirius was the primordial star of all time, as the duplicator or renewer (of time cycles). He was known in Egypt as the Doubling One, a Creator or reflector of the Image. Sirius, or Set, was the original 'headless one' --the light of the lower region (the South) who was known (in Egypt) as An (the dog), hence Set-an (Satan), Lord of the infernal regions, the place of heat, later interpreted in a moral sense as 'hell.'"
(The Magical Revival, Kenneth Grant, pg. 226)

Another reference to Sirius appears in the location of Hobb's End, which is clearly shown to be located before a crossroads when Trent returns to the 'real' world. The crossroads have their own unique connection to the occult, which I've chronicled before here. They also have a connection to Sirius. It comes in the form of the Greco-Roman goddess Hecate, the more sinister from of the huntress, Artemis/Diana.
"In the later poets, Artemis is identified Hecate. She is 'the goddess with three forms,' Selene in the sky, Artemis on earth, Hecate in the lower world and in the world above when it is wrapped in darkness. Hecate was the Goddess of the Dark Side of the Moon, the black nights when the moon is hidden. She was associated with deeds of darkness, the Goddess of the Crossways, which were held to be ghostly places of evil magic."
(Mythology, Edith Hamilton, pg. 32)
As to her association with Sirius, Mr. Sirius himself, Robert K.G. Temple writes:
"The name of the Greek goddess Hekate (Hecate) literally means 'one hundred'. She was involved with the Argo tale and specifically identified by Robert Graves with Isis, and in other ways linked to Sirius as an 'underworld version.' Since both Sirius B and Sirius C may share a fifty-year orbit around Sirius A, we can possibly understand the 'twice-fifty years' as an esoteric reference to that."
(The Sirius Mystery, pg. 159)

Another curious piece of esoterica is the appearance of the number nine in association to Trent's breakdown. His hotel room at Pickman's is number nine as is his cell number at the asylum. The number nine is one of the more significant numbers in the occult, but has a negative association. Of it, Crowley writes in his book Gematria: "Most Evil, because of its stability... witchcraft, the false moon of the sorceress" (pg. 43). The thirty-third degree Freemason Manly P. Hall notes:
"The ennead--9--was the first square of an odd number (3x3). It was associated with failure and shortcoming because it fell short of the perfect number 10 by one. It was called the number of man, because of the nine months of his embryonic life. Among its keywords are ocean and horizon, because to the ancients these were boundless. The ennead is the limitless number there is nothing beyond it but the infinite 10. It was called the sphere of the air, because it surrounded the numbers as air surrounds the earth...

"The 9 was looked upon as evil, because it was an inverted 6. According to the Eleusinian Mysteries, it was the number of the spheres through which the consciousness passed on its way to birth. Because of its close resemblance to the spermstozoon, the 9 has been associated with germinal life."
(The Secret Teachings of All Ages, pg. )
The number nine was especially important to the religion of ancient Egypt, whose supreme pantheon of gods was referred to as the Ennead, or the Nine. This same pantheon of gods, now claiming to be an extraterrestrial intelligence, would allegedly pop up again in the 20th century and mingle in the affairs of the US Intelligence community and various old-money families, as I've outlined before here. In the case of Madness I would imagine the association the number nine has with germinal life is probably the most apt reason for its appearance.

the Ennead, or the Nine

Thus far we've chronicled allusions to Lovecraftian occult schools, Freemasonry, Sirius, and the Nine in Madness. However, the most illuminating aspect of the film has to do with its numerous discussions on the nature of reality. The film is essentially a chronicle of the Trent character's mental breakdown (the film opens with him being admitted to an asylum) as the reality he is accustomed to slowly deteriorates into a nightmare world derived from Cane's fiction. The Linda Stiles character first breaches this subject while discussing Cane's work as she and Trent head towards Hobb's End.
Stiles: Cane's work scares me.
Trent: What's to be scared about? It's not like it's real or anything.
Stiles: It's not real from your point of view and right now reality shares your point of view. What scares me about Cane's work is what might happen if reality shared his point of view.
Trent: Whoa. We're not talking about reality here. We're talking about fiction. It's different, you know.
Stiles: Reality is just what we tell each other it is. Sane and insane could easily switch places if the insane were to become the majority. You would find yourself locked in a padded cell wondering what happened to the world.  
As noted above, Stiles' words prove to be prophetic. At its very heart, the film is about the transformation of reality. The viewer is made aware of this subtly. In the opening moments of the film, shortly after Trent is admitted to the asylum, a psychologists alludes to a mass out break of insanity that official channels have been monitoring. Even before Trent leaves for Hobb's End the world seems to spiraling into chaos as it heads toward some terrible change. Hordes of rabid Cane fans raid book stores in anticipation of his latest novel. Police senselessly assault the homeless while random acts of violence are becoming common place everywhere.

Shortly after Trent returns from Hobb's End, the change is no longer psychological, but becoming psychical. Human beings are turning into the monsters Cane had previously written about. The viewer had already witnessed this change via Stiles, who does not make it back from Hobb's End with Trent. Rather, she morphs into a kind of human animal on four legs.


Reality, and the manipulation thereof, strikes at the very heart of various occult rituals and orders. Candidates for such organization are put through a process known as 'initiation' which reprograms the way in which they view the world. The great counterculture philosopher Robert Anton Wilson remarks:
"...I have undergone a number of occult initiations and have become aware of the basic similarity of such rituals in all traditions. This is the pattern of death-rebirth which even today appears symbolically in the Roman Catholic Mass and the Masonic 'raising' ceremony. The Investigator is betraying no secret when we say that, in serious occult orders, such performances are not mere rituals but real ordeals. Insofar is possible within the law, the candidate is often brought to a state of terror similar to the emergency condition of the nervous system in near-death crises. What occurs then, and is experienced as rebirth, is a quantum jump in neurological awareness. In Leary's terminology, new circuits are formed and imprinted."
(The Cosmic Trigger Volume I, pg. 139)
In other words, the initiate's perception of reality has been changed. Thus, what we witness in Madness is a kind of mass initiation, but one of the left-hand path. The masses are initiated into a path of violence and barbarism that leaves them as nothing more than food for the Old Ones. How very Lovecraftian indeed.

In the Mouth of Madness presents us with a world that is morphing into something totally alien before our eyes. It is essentially the macrocosm to the microcosm of the personal initiation. The masses have embraced Cane's view of reality on a mass scale and it has materialized in all of its blood-stained glory. Over the years John Carpenter has generally been dismissed by many 'reputable' movie critic types as nothing but a hack horror director, but here he subtly and skillfully addresses themes that have been alluded to even in some fringe views of physics. Discussing the theories of quantum physicist David Bohm and neurosurgeon Karl Pribram researcher Michael Talbot writes:
"At this point we might ask, if consciousness can make such extraordinary alterations under special circumstances, what role does it play in the creation of our day-to-day reality? Opinions are extremely varied. In private conversations Bohm admits to believing that the universe is all 'thought' and reality exists only in what we think, but again he prefers not to speculate about miraculous occurrences. Pribram is similarly reticent to comment on specific events but does believe a number of different potential realities exists and consciousness has a certain  amount of latitude in choosing which one manifests. 'I don't believe anything goes,' he says, but there are a lot of worlds out there that we don't understand.'"
(The Holographic Universe, pg. 138)
The world In the Mouth of Madness inhabits proves to be a most unfriendly place indeed. Inevitably some will think I'm stretching things a bit by bringing physics in, but the second film in Carpenter's 'Apocolypse Trilogy,' The Prince of Darkness, revolved around a group of physicists confronting a curious version of the devil. And thus, Carpenter's 'Apocolypse Trilogy' comes to a fitting end. And so to does this post.

1 comment:

  1. Art is invocation. I'm thinking of Kenneth Anger, a professed Crowleyite, whose body of work includes several films that are without question magickal actions. Lucifer Rising is the obvious one. His work is lauded by many in the mainstream as having heavily influenced the artform of the music video as well as their own films. Here's a Crowley devotee not only influencing the content of the channel, he's changed the channel itself. One wonders what an observer from a century ago, familiar with both Crowley and the contemporary state of cinema, would make of Anger's reality-changing influence.