This past Tuesday saw the Blu-ray/DVD release of the 5-episode documentary series CURSED FILMS which explores the myths and legends behind some of Hollywood’s notorious “cursed” horror films. In preparation for its release, I had the opportunity to speak with author/lecturer Mitch Horowitz, who is not only prominently featured in the documentary, but is considered to be one of today’s most literate voices on the subject of esotericism, mysticism, and the occult.
During our 1:1 chat, Mitch and I discussed everything from how he got involved in this project, why The Exorcist affected him so deeply, and why he believes CURSED FILMS is an important documentary to immerse oneself in.
Hi Mitch, thank you so much for speaking with me today. To start things off, can you tell us a little bit about what it is you do?
Mitch Horowitz: I’m a historian of alternative spirituality and I write about metaphysical practice in history and in people’s experiences. I take seriously the question of an extra physical dimension. I take seriously questions of belief. I try to approach those questions from a perspective of critical sympathy. I think that was a voice that [director] Jay Cheel wanted to include with the series because when you’re titling a series CURSED FILMS you’re obviously raising and probing the question as to whether there’s something beyond just ordinary forensic going on on the set of some of these films. The series, of course, comes down in the negative on that question and very understandably so. These were accidents, tragedies at human hands – some of them foreseeable. I think by the time Jay approached me he already had a couple of people attached to the series who would be considered skeptics, who would explain the mechanics behind so-called magical thinking. I think he also wanted a voice that was willing to take seriously, to at least sustain the question, of whether there’s something in our world that goes beyond flesh, bone, and motor skills and so he asked me to be a part of it.
How did you and Jay link up for this project? Did you know him prior to the making of the documentary?
Mitch Horowitz: We had no relationship prior to this, actually. In fact, I never asked Jay the question of precisely how he found his way to me. It might have been through my book Occult America or something else. I was actually in Chicago on the campus of the Theosophical Society, which is an old 19th-Century occult organization, and they have a campus that is impossible not to compare to Hogwarts, located in Wheaton, Illinois. He called me while I was there and he explained to me, in a very straight-forward way, that he had folks involved in the film who were hardcore skeptics and he wanted somebody who was not necessarily a believer or coming from a perspective of credulity, but who took seriously the dimensions of belief and who wasn’t willing to rule out the question that there may be more to life than cognition and motor skills. That’s what he wanted to bring to the series which I really appreciated.
Out of the episodes that you are featured in (The Omen, Poltergeist, and The Exorcist), did one affect you more than the others in terms of the curses surrounding them?
Mitch Horowitz: I was most definitely affected by The Exorcist. That’s true in terms of the series as much as in terms of my own life. I find that one of the most fascinating things about horror as a genre is that it is probably the one genre within film that closely coincides with people’s beliefs. My contention is that if The Exorcist had never been written or released, most of us today wouldn’t even know what an exorcism was, it would be a crossword puzzle term. We wouldn’t know what demonic possession is and if you asked people, “Do you believe in this stuff, do you take this stuff seriously?” they’re almost always drawing upon themes and images from The Exorcist. We’re all walking around with that as a mind’s eye image in the same way that Bela Lugosi will forever be our mind’s eye image of Dracula, no matter who else comes along. It’s fascinating because if you ask somebody, “Do you believe that William Shatner was Captain Kirk?” they’ll say, “No, of course not!”. But, if you ask them, “What did you think about The Exorcist?” a very large number of people in this country will say, “Oh yeah, that shit is real and that’s really scary.”. They feel that the movie is a dramatization of actual events, it validates their beliefs, but more than validates their beliefs, in many ways, it shapes their beliefs. It is an actual fact that over the past several years the number of church sanction exorcists here in the United States has quintupled, has literally quintupled, and people have all different reasons for that: religious interpretation, psychological interpretations. What’s incredible is that even people who haven’t seen The Exorcist, or maybe saw it when they were kids, are impacted by its themes. When we talk about demonic possession, whether from a cultural perspective or a perspective of belief, we’re really referencing that movie.
Why do you think a documentary such as CURSED FILMS is important?
Mitch Horowitz: I think it’s important because there is a mythology around these films that have made them into a subject of fascination that doesn’t replicate with other films. If there are tragic events on the set of a romance or a comedy, it’s unlikely that people will say, “Well that must be cursed.” But these films, because of the subject matter, develop this mythology and people come to feel that these are not just artifices, there’s something supernatural in the making and the makeup of these films themselves. Not dissimilar, for example, to how people bring conspiracy theories to The Shining. It’s this extraordinary, penetrating work of psychological horror and it’s so deeply affecting that some portion of the culture comes around to feeling like this is not just entertainment, this is not just a story, there’s something in the DNA of the project that’s unnatural. I admired the way Jay approached it because he had a burden on his shoulders going into this series. When a series is already called CURSED FILMS there’s immediately some number of people, particular people who were involved with productions for whom these events, the deaths, the tragedies, the accidents, were traumatic and they want to be reassured that this all isn’t going to be sensationalized or retold in some way that’s just going to cause them to relive these events in light of misunderstanding. I thought the success of the series grew out of its sensitivity in dealing with that theme and acknowledging the mythology and then getting down to business in terms of the forensic. That’s what I personally, in the end, found most fascinating. We hear about Brandon Lee’s death on the set of The Crow, we hear about the tragedies on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie, the death of Vic Morrow and the two child actors. It’s such a gut punch to realize that this stuff was actually avoidable, it grew out of hubris, and had better precautions been taken, if people had just been more sober, including directors or weapons experts, about people’s lives being put in their hands, obviously the outcome could have been very different.
This conversation has been incredibly enlightening and I appreciate you taking the time to educate us more about the work it is you do. What can we expect from you next?
Mitch Horowitz: I am completing a documentary that was shot in Egypt and that we are wrapping here in New York next week. It’s called Kybalion, which was an occult book that was published here in the United States in 1908 and it was purported to be this book of secret Egyptian wisdom. The claims and the drama around the book are mostly artifices but what I discovered is that there are some really sturdy, decent iterations of ancient Egyptian ideas in the book that I think has helped it endure even though the drama around it is more of less make-believe. The book itself has a philosophical heart that’s actually quite impressive. A lot of times in our culture we need novelty to enter into ideas and the Kybalion, in that sense, is really a novelty. I’m making a documentary about the book and its development and the director is Ronni Thomas, who just did a mini-series for AMC called The Broken and the Bad. It’s gonna be a real trip because it’s an opportunity to take a book that is kind of mythological but also has a serious core and do the forensic behind it.