As he drops me off at the boat and gives me a copy of his new book, I’m left with the impression of a nice guy with an adoring family who left a BBC he despised in the hope of giving people a different information flow. As I open the book on my way to the mainland, I wonder what else in here is going to be mainstream headlines 20 years down the line.
It was interesting to see this posted on Bleeding Cool, probably the most influential comics and related media news outlet on the web. Strieber had a huge public profile in the late 1980s/early 1990s following the publication of Communion, but his public profile nosedived, perhaps because the novelty of the abduction narrative wore off, or the commercial failure of his novels and the Communion movie during the 1990s. Given the success of these kinds of serial television shows nowadays (and this one is produced by an alumnus of the Walking Dead), this could well mean that Strieber’s work moves back into the public consciousness again…
For the next four or five days, you can listen to Whitley Strieber interviewing JZ Knight, a figure well-known in the New Age milieu for channelling the extraterrestrial intelligence, Ramtha. Knight may be attempting some damage limitation here, after allegations that she had made racist remarks during a drunken channelling session went viral earlier this year. The recording is available to stream or download at the link.
It’s been a pretty busy time for me of late. I’m just back (and recovering) from the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL)’s annual conference, which this year was held in Durham. As well as a few recordings for the Religious Studies Project, I presented a paper entitled Body Bags and Seed Banks: A Material Approach to ConspiracistApocalypticism as part of the panel Materiality, Secrecy and the End of the World with Joseph Webster and Timothy Jenkins of Cambridge University. Great fun and very interesting; Joe I’ve known for a while, and I consider him a very talented anthropologist, and Tim I met for the first time, but hope to talk more with him in future. I may work the paper up for publication later.
The conference also gave me the opportunity to see my latest publication “in the wild” – “(Always) Living in the End-Times: The Rolling Prophecy of the Conspiracist Milieu” in the INFORM/Ashgate volume Prophecy in the New Millennium.
Conference and RSP aside, publications have been the major reason why I’ve been so busy in the last couple of months. A paper on David Icke will be coming out in the next issue of the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, and I’ve also been preparing a long paper on Whitley Strieber for Nova Religio. I have one more conference in May, but from now until September, I’ll be concentrating on my PhD. The next chapter – on David Icke – needs to be finished this month.
Last weekend I had a whistle-stop research trip to Nashville, Tennessee, to Whitley Strieber‘s Dreamland Festival. (Whistle-stop is no exaggeration – I was travelling longer than I was actually there.) This annual event – now in its fifth year – brings together 120 paid guests and a line-up of speakers drawn primarily from the Dreamland podcast team. Dreamland started life as a sister radio show to the massively popular Coast to Coast AM, and both were originally hosted by Art Bell. Dreamland covered the same supernatural/conspiratorial/extraterrestrial material as C2C, but without the phone-ins and with a more spiritual bent. Art Bell handed Dreamland to Whitley Strieber around 1990, and it now broadcasts weekly through Whitley’s website, unknowncountry.com.
This year’s speakers were Whitley and his wife, Anne; Raven Dana, one of those who had a Visitor experience at Whitley’s cabin as described in Communion; earthfiles.com‘s Linda Moulton Howe; author of classic JFK assassination Jim Marrs; Stargate proponent William Henry; psychic Marla Frees; and former UK Ministry of Defense advisor Nick Pope. The line-up demonstrates exactly the field I’m describing, with a mixture of New Age elements (channeling, holism, health, critique of “religion”, a coming “ascension” of humanity, crop circles, environmental concerns) and conspiracist elements (hidden histories, suppression of technologies, secret societies, New World Order) with UFOs/extraterrestrials as the common ground. As it was the 25th anniversary of the publication of Communion, and with the recent publication of his fifth book in the series, Solving the Communion Enigma, and therefore the presence of Raven Dana, it was perfect for me given that I’ll be writing a chapter that covers Whitley’s career from the Communion era to the present.
Whitley was very gracious, introducing me to the guests and telling them I was to be trusted, which no doubt gave me a certain validation I wouldn’t otherwise have had. Many came up to me to ask about my research, give me opinions or sources to follow up, or to tell me about their ET/UFO experiences. Everyone was warm and open, and I can only hope that all the fieldwork I do can be as much fun. Also American beer is much better than I had been led to expect.
In the end, the research became more about the people there than the speakers, though. The degree of awareness of the ambiguity of their experiences was perhaps surprising, as was the healthy degree of good humour (one – you know who you are! – referred to the group as “the nutters”). By and large, they were educated people, too, with a lot of engineers, computer people, healthcare workers, as well as good amount of former military personnel. Mostly 50 plus, which might be expected, but gender was evenly balanced, which is interesting as New Age/spiritual groups tend to be predominantly female and conspiracist groups tend to be predominantly male. Almost all rejected “religious” in favour of “spiritual”; almost all refused to identify with either political party; and almost all said that at least some UFOs came from other dimensions, rather than just other planets. I’m still crunching the data from the 60+ questionnaires, so I should have more interesting patterns soon.
I’ve put in a proposal to do a presentation on this at the British Association for the Study of Religion conference in Winchester in September this year. Next research trip is David Icke at Wembley Arena in October.