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Saturday, January 20, 2024

The Spooky Side of Disclosure

 The word "spook", and by extension, "spooky", has a handful of meanings. For most people, the words would conjure mental images of the Halloween season and horror movies. It derives from a Dutch word meaning specter, apparition, or ghost, and has further cognates in Old German meaning ghost or hobgoblin. It has racial connotations as well, although its use as a derogatory term is rare these days. More commonly, in addition to the aforementioned paranormal association, the term can be applied to those working in espionage. Finally, in the world of quantum physics, the term again appears in common usage after Albert Einstein's description of entangled particles as "spooky action at a distance". These multiple definitions can all be borne in mind as we discuss the modern conception of Disclosure- a loaded term in itself, which can mean various things to different groups of people. Tangled and locked within the chains and padlocks of language and the cages of psychological association, the Truth, as it were, is obscured from our view. So it is, without further ado, we look to the King of Escape Artists himself as a historical example and avatar through which we might gain some perspective.

Harry Houdini is a legendary figure in the popular imagination. The name Houdini is nearly synonymous with magic and stage magicians, although he was many things in his life- and, for that matter, after his death. The name "Houdini" was one he adopted as a way of honoring the great French conjuror Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, when he made a claim for himself as the Handcuff King. His stage shows were characterized by elaborate death-defying feats, and were sensationalized by his audacious publicity stunts. He would challenge policemen around the world to try and hold him in a cell, and none of them could. He would dive into icy rivers bound in chains in front of a gasping crowd and emerge before their unbelieving eyes. He was said to be able to walk through walls, and famously made an elephant disappear on stage. He even managed to survive inside of a coffin that was submerged in a pool for over an hour and half. He demonstrated he could survive a punch to the gut from the strongest of men.

These aspects to Houdini are widely known, while others are more obscure. He was one of the earliest pilots, for instance, with only 24 men holding the distinction of being an aviator before him. He also made a series of films, and started his own motion picture company. One of them, The Master Mystery, is notable for containing one of the earliest depictions of a robot in a movie. In his films, he played characters such as Haldane, a Secret Service man. They were loaded with action and feats of derring-do, and some Houdini biographers have suggested there may have been a reflection of truth in them. William Kalush and Larry Sloman, authors of The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero suggest that he may have been involved in spying operations all over the world, using his cover as a performer to justify his travels and connections with important figures. At a time before intelligence agencies as we know them now existed, he may well have been a valuable spook.

In addition to all of that, he was also hailed (or hated, depending on your beliefs) as an arch debunker of mediums and paranormal phenomena. He traveled the country and challenged mediums in an effort to contact his dead mother, and found them all to be frauds. So dedicated was he to revealing the cheats and trickery of the séance room, he developed a small spy ring of his own- employing his niece Julia Sawyer and investigator Rose Mackenberg to infiltrate and expose congregations of Spiritualists. Mackenberg was particularly adept, and thumbed her nose by adopting pseudonyms such as Frances Raud or Alicia Bunk when attaining credentials within these organizations- one name slyly reading F. Raud, or FRAUD, and the other a slant version of "all is a bunk". 

  These activities culminated in Houdini appearing before a select committee of Congress, in attempt to pass an anti-fortune telling bill in Washington, D.C. The idea wasn't very popular because, as he revealed publicly, many of those seated within the Senate and House of Representatives regularly consulted mediums. Spiritualists even performed séances within the Coolidge White House, he claimed. In some ways, this raucous four-day hearing was the closest thing we've had to a Disclosure of the Spirit World- but the ghosts were not the spooks on trial. Houdini's argument had as its foundation that contact with the dead was impossible, necessarily implying fraud or delusion from those claiming to offer such services. The jeering mediums in attendance thought otherwise, as did many of the seated politicians- and the sitting President at the time was not happy with being dragged into it all. Houdini even offered up $10,000 to anyone who could prove their psychic abilities right there. Madame Marcia Champney attempted to claim the money, as she had been an adviser to Warren Harding's wife and made accurate predictions about the election and his death in office- and when this was declined, she predicted Houdini himself would be dead by November. This, of course, did come to pass- Houdini died on October 31st, 1926.

Mr Houdini Goes to Washington

The spooks that Houdini was after, however, may not have been of the spectral variety. In his investigations and with intelligence gained through his proxies, the methods employed by fraudulent mediums were concerning enough to constitute a national security issue. In some cases, employees of the "marks" such as maids and chauffeurs were paid off for information that would prove useful as proof of contact from beyond- and members of these psychic circles would share notes with each other. These same tidbits might well also work for blackmail or international intelligence gathering- something Houdini would have been keenly aware of if there's any merit to the speculation that he was a spy. Some, including the aforementioned Kalush and Sloman, would even suggest that Madame Marcia's prophecy was intentionally fulfilled through the arms of this "psychic mafia". The official story, as it were, is that the master magician's appendix was ruptured because of a botched attempt at his well-known punch to the gut feat. Was it intentionally botched? Were there shady figures at the hospital who sealed the deal? We will probably never know for sure, but the point here is that there are multiple dimensions to spookiness; when we oversimplify these narratives, we risk getting sucker-punched.

  Magic and espionage are so intertwined, one might make the argument that they are kindred arts. What may broadly be described as Occultism, to distinguish from the aforementioned stage magic, has overlaps with both in this multi-dimensional Venn diagram we are exploring using the limited bounds of language. Often cited as the first book on magic tricks, The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot is a sort of spiritual forefather to Houdini's testimony before Congress. Scot was seeking to demolish superstition by exposing the conjuring tricks of alleged witches, whose executions he found to be barbaric and un-Christian. Unfortunately for Scot, this didn't sit well with the King James VI of Scotland, who would go on to take the throne of England as James I. The King wrote a response in the form of his Daemonologie which asserted that witches were very real, in consort with the Devil and various demons. The witch persecutions continued under his reign, but not just for superstitious or religious reasons- Witchcraft, and the practice of magic, brought with it the subversive connotations of poisoners, upstarts, and potential political adversaries. In other words, Witchcraft had an espionage angle to it, which makes perfect sense when one considers that James I's predecessor, Elizabeth I, employed John Dee for both purposes. Dee's polymath credentials, which included his mastery of mathematics, astrology, cryptography, various sciences, and alchemy made him an ideal candidate for international travel and intelligence gathering. Signing his letters as "007", he is honored for his place within British spycraft in the James Bond franchise.  

Dee is also remembered for his contact with Enochian Angels through the medium of Edward Kelley. Just as mediums in the early 20th century channeled spirits, and as alleged Starseeds do today, channeling has its own niche within this framework. We see all of these elements converge within the UFO question. While much has been made, justifiably, of the influence of occult traditions such as Theosophy on the culture of UFOs, one might argue that Spiritualism had just as great or a greater effect- and everywhere along the way, spooky agents from intelligence agencies employed magicians of one type or another to misdirect, glamorize, and mystify the audience that is the general public. Houdini's Spook Disclosure may not have achieved the goal of passing any particular law, but what it did accomplish was much more profound and long-lasting. Public opinion began to turn from astrology, channeling, and superstition. The narrative had changed. By the 1980s the Reagan White House was embarrassed to admit to consulting an astrologer; society changed its mind on what it expected of its elected officials... and perhaps opened a portal for Flying Saucers to fill that void. 

To return to the present day, public opinion has turned towards an openness to the UFO, er... UAP mystery. It has also reached an all-time low in its expectations for its public officials, and crazy beliefs are the order of the day. Conspiracy theory runs rampant, and gets dumber all the time. One suspects that its only natural, given just the sparse examples outlined here. One might start a corkboard and draw bits of yarn once further examples are brought in. Venturing down the rabbit hole, all manner of dumb or insightful conclusions might be wrought considering Aleister Crowley's channeled text Liber al Vel Legis and the entity known as Lam, and Crowley's intersection with British intelligence. Further they might look into Jack Parsons, the connection to L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. Going down a different tunnel they might think of Houdini a little differently when they look into Project MK ULTRA, and the declassified C.I.A. Manual of Trickery and Deception, which includes a primer by close-up magic expert John Mulholland on uses of sleight of hand in espionage. Mulholland was also assigned to investigate the Kentucky Goblin case of 1955, though little is known about that. It makes you think, doesn't it?

One might venture down such rabbit holes, but one should also be careful about that crazy turn on the way to Albuquerque- and be mindful not to let that tunnel collapse and smother them. The point here is not to encourage leaps in logic, propinquity-based allegations or simplified conspiracy narratives. Though it has a dirty name now, conspiracy theory at its best is simply an exercise in connecting disparate bits of information as a way of matrixing the known reality, mapping out landscapes of the possible without pinning our beliefs so strongly that we detach from the remotely probable and enter the Wonderland of delusion. As Houdini's impassioned testimony swayed public opinion incrementally towards materialism, logic, and structure, so might others sway it in dangerous directions. An argument could be made that they already have. It behooves us as citizens of the world to employ critical thinking, even as we entertain that which has classically been portrayed as wacky beliefs. Voltaire warned that those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. In a world where QAnon has come to typify the current crop of conspiracy nuts, and patently insane theories like Tartaria and Flat Earth allowed to gain traction, it's really no surprise that at the time of this writing a man facing 91 felony charges in part for inciting an insurrection attempt is allowed, and encouraged, to run for office again. It's so normalized that prominent UFO figures like Whitley Strieber idly opine on social media about whether we'll get Disclosure from a man who openly says he'll be a dictator, and other "leading voices" in the Disclosure movement flock to right wing media outlets to talk UAP with racists.

Disclosure "activists" on social media often scoff whenever politics are brought into the conversation. Disclosure isn't political, they say- one assumes that their vision of what will happen when the government just admits that aliens are real, and we have their technology, the world will become a heavenly Utopia overnight. Perhaps they are simply very comfortable, unbothered and not threatened by an increasingly violent and intolerant ideology that masquerades as Christian American values. For anyone to have Disclosure as their biggest concern in the face of theocratic oppression and threats to the existence of marginalized groups seems a selfish and isolated position indeed. How does one entertain an optimism about Non Human Intelligence when the basic safety of actual Humans is at stake? 

On that same note, what makes the United States so special as to be the arbiter of truth on the subject? There's a weird strain of isolationism there as well, padded with a kind of patriotic hero-worship of government figures like Elizondo. Very right-wing politicians involved in the hearings are already conflating the UAP with angels and demons, a trend which has waxed and waned for as long as the Phenomena has been observed. When bible-thumpers align with military fetishists, and the UFO question gets rolled up within a model of the world that only focuses on the U.S. we risk a turn of the tide like that of James I's England with its witch hunts. The skeptical reader may think of this as an exaggeration, or a wild claim to make. It may be speculation, but it's based on historical precedent and doesn't necessitate the machinations of a conspiratorial cabal. It only needs human nature to do what it does when it falls under the spell of the zeitgeist. Mind control for the masses is much simpler to achieve and scarier, albeit slower, than its portrayal in media.  

These aspects, all of them, are connected in ways not visible at first glance. The spooky action entangles covert intelligence operatives to public opinion, the UFOs to stage magicians from long ago, and actual wizards to politicians on the campaign trail. Espionage, Occultism, and what may broadly be referred to as the Phenomena all have one thing in common- they are by definition secret. The spookiest thing about Disclosure is how ephemeral and undefined it is. It relies on phantoms, smoke and mirrors, liars and classified documents. It is itself a spook, some intangible specter which one tries to grab hold of but which always evades capture. So much of what disclosurists seem to pursue is illusory, and perhaps that's by design. Perhaps not. The thing about the greatest magic tricks, even those in mentalism, is that the mechanism behind it is so simple that if it were explained the average person wouldn't believe it could work. But it can, and it does. The presence of so many spooks, especially when it's the same ones over and over again, should be a warning that things are not necessarily what they seem to be...

To conclude on a more upbeat and wacky note- while the question of life after death, or of what UFOs are may ever remain unanswered to us mere mortals, what did Harry Houdini have to say about flying saucers? His death was a good 20 years before the modern UFO era began with Kenneth Arnold's classic sighting, but in the 1950s it is claimed that Houdini reached out From Beyond to answer that very question. A psychic named Henry Roberts claimed in 1952 that Houdini appeared before him to give him a message from the Space Brothers- one that should sound familiar to those who have read contactee reports before. The Saucers were a sign to abandon war, the atom bomb, and "general dissension that exists on the Earth plane". This message was relayed to Joseph Dunninger, a magician and friend of Houdini's, so that he could tell the world- which Roberts claimed was of the utmost importance to the ghostly Harry. Dunninger coincidentally held $10,000 for anyone who could relay the code from the deceased legend, which would prove the contact was real. Failing to relay the code, Roberts didn't get the money; but resulting from this report Dunninger recalled a night in 1950. At the home of the improbably named Miss Banana, a call came from his deceased friend that he should take the book Paper Magic off of the shelf and turn to page 113. On the page were circles, or disks of paper, reminiscent of flying saucers.

Spooky calls to Dunninger at Miss Banana's home and spectral Houdini failing to deliver the code aside, settling things down on the Earth plane sounds like pretty solid advice. We may never know the secrets, and many of them just aren't meant for public consumption. Solving the mysteries doesn't do us any good if we destroy ourselves in the attempt. Whatever your beliefs, political persuasions, or knowledge level, thinking critically, with empathy- and perhaps even humility- seems the only way forward that this writer can offer. With those things and a sense of humor, we can move mountains- and maybe get a little of that Disclosure, whatever that stuff is, along the way. 


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