Like many fans of the original show, I was delighted to see Mulder and Scully back at work again in the new X-Files. The first three installments were entertaining, especially the third, a wonderful spoof of the “monster-of-the-week” episodes of old, and a parody of late 1950s early 1960s “guy-in-a-suit” monster flicks.
Did you feel just a bit of a chill near the end of that third episode? The sociopathic serial killer, who was the real villain in the story, is disappointed upon capture when he cannot give his prepared statement to the press. It was a reminder that even our cold blooded killers need celebrity and media attention to feel that they actually exist and have purpose in life. (Interested readers may want to look at Mark Seltzer’s disturbing 1998 study, Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture.)
But the fourth episode of the new X-Files, (“Home Again”) was especially intriguing to this viewer, because it contained an instance of an egregore, a subject of growing academic interest, at least to me. This concept has been discussed in several previous posts. An egregore is a kind of undifferentiated energy that takes the form given it by the preconceived notions of those sensitive enough to detect it, interact with it, and perhaps worship or invoke it. At some point in its development, an egregore can take on a life and a will of its own, and is not easily eradicated as long as its believers continue to exist. (Readers may know of alternate terms for the same phenomenon.)
Some of the early twentieth century horror literature that demonstrates this idea of the egregore includes Clark Ashton Smith’s Genius Loci (1933), H.P. Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark (1936) Manly Wade Wellman’s Up Under the Roof (1938), and Theodore Sturgeon’s Shadow, Shadow On the Wall, (1950). This is hardly an exhaustive list.
In Genius Loci, an artist and two of his friends are drawn inexorably to their doom in a desolate marsh by an entity they have brought into being through the obsessive attention they give it. Smith implies that the manifestation and activation of this malign presence is an artistic process—requiring an artist. (This is also the assumption underlying the horror in the recent X-Files episode.) In Wellman’s story, a young boy must face an amorphous, amoeba like creature that his imagination has created in the attic above his bedroom. In Sturgeon’s story, an abused child embodies his rage in a shadow on the wall, which grows large and aggressive enough over time to devour his awful stepmother.
Though not a precise fit, H.P. Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark arguably falls into this category, insofar as the doomed Robert Blake brings about a manifestation of Nyarlathotep by focusing his attention through the use of the Shining Trapezohedron. He eventually becomes psychically possessed and later destroyed by the entity. It seems a commonplace among those who would invoke an egregore—either willfully or inadvertently—that they soon lose control of the monstrosity and are overpowered by it.
More contemporary treatments of the phenomena can be found in two stories by Thomas Ligotti, Nethescurial (1991) and Purity (2003). Readers can probably think of numerous additional examples of egregores in horror entertainment. It is a very powerful idea, probably ancient and archetypal.
The fourth episode of the new X-Files contained a textbook example of an egregore and what it is capable of doing. Mulder and Scully investigate a series of gruesome murders involving brute decapitation and dismemberment. The victims are various city officials or members of the upper class, who have been evicting homeless people from sections of wildly misnamed Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love.”
The source of the carnage is an entity called “Band-Aid Nose Man”, who looks out for the interests of the address-less poor, materializing whenever self-serving bureaucrats and hypocritical property owners threaten to evict them from their pathetic impromptu shelters. In one memorable scene, Petula Clark’s 1965 hit Downtown is the background music to the ghastly demise of an annoying upper class suburbanite. It was a perfect juxtaposition of pop banality and gruesome rough justice.
It turns out that an urban artist named Trashman has brought this baleful entity into existence. Trashman has fashioned a larger than life-sized clay figure and imagined it as a vengeful agent of justice for his fellow poor people. The artist’s explanation of how “Band-Aid Nose Man” came into existence, as told to Mulder and Scully in barely comprehensible street language, is nearly verbatim the traditional explanation of the egregore phenomenon.
Once empowered by Trashman’s fervent imagination and angst about the plight of his friends, Band-Aid Nose Man inhabits a form and will of his own. He literally takes matters into his own hands, drawing and quartering those who would oppress the poor of Philadelphia. One can easily imagine a being like Band-Aid Nose Man being transmuted into the avenging anti-hero of a new graphic novel series.
The idea of the egregore is interesting for reasons other than its frequent appearance, or perhaps materialization, in horror and fantasy literature. In a more general sense it may be the base material for the creation—through imagination, visualization, dream imagery and worshipful attention—of gods, ghosts, demons and other supernatural phenomena. Is it the prima materia for idolatry? For the evil we cannot resist?
Or is the egregore merely a kind of psychic screen for the projection of human fears and desires, a building block for delusional thinking? Is the relationship between human consciousness and the egregore symbiotic or parasitic? Does the concept have application beyond the occult field to literature, religion, political movements, popular culture, or celebrity?
With respect to horror and fantasy literature, the process that engenders the egregore may be the troublesome link between nightmare, religion and fantastic art. This will become a recurring topic of investigation for The R’lyeh Tribune over the coming year.
Previous discussions of egregore-like phenomena include the following:
When Your Genius Loci is a Spiritus Malus (Genius Loci by Clark Ashton Smith)
The Amoeba in the Attic (Up Under the Roof, by Manly Wade Wellman)
At Least Three Pestilences (The Haunter of the Dark, by H.P. Lovecraft, and other stories)
Howard and Frank vs. the Brain Eaters (The Space-Eaters, by Frank Belknap Long)
Nethescurial as an Egregore (Nethescurial, by Thomas Ligotti)