Thursday, December 27, 2007

Do Careless Magicians Really Go Crazy?

The original version of this article was posted on 9/26/2006 on the old Augoeides. It has been reworked with a new introduction and conclusion.

If you browse magical forums on a regular basis you will often come across somebody eager to point out that failed magicians go "crazy" in some fashion, and that they often wind up in mental institutions. This idea is mentioned in a number of introductory books on ritual magick and also happens to fit nicely with the ending of The Craft, the 1996 film about Wiccans who could kill people, cast illusions, levitate, and summon lightning storms. I found the movie to be fun back when I originally saw it but not very accurate on a number of points - including this one.

As I mentioned in my biography, I have a degree in psychology and in my course of study I reviewed a fair number of case histories of people who actually were institutionalized. I also have been involved in the magical community here in the Twin Cities for many years. I have yet to come across one person who wound up institutionalized because of something that went wrong in their magical practice. I have known practitioners who have run into problems from time to time, but usually the worst thing that happens is that they give up on the magical path. In my own experience, the effect has been the exact opposite - when I have run into problems over the years, my magical practices have helped to keep me sane.

This is not to say that there are no magical practitioners with mental illness of one sort or another. This should be expected - almost a third of the population of the United States has some sort of mental illness with depression (at around 24% of the population) topping the list. The question is whether or not magical practitioners have higher or lower rates than the population as a whole. If the rates are similar, there is unlikely to be any sort of causal relationship. In statistical research, correllation does not imply causality, but causality by definition implies a correllation. If the rates are lower, magick may actually help to mediate the effects of mental illness, and there are some similarities between ritual magick and psychotherapy.

In the 1980's, various religious conservative groups came out with wild claims about the effects of role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragon. They claimed that some large-sounding number of suicides were linked to gaming and therefore it was dangerous, especially for teens. The only problem was that these groups failed to understand their statistics. By taking the large-sounding number of suicides and dividing it by the number of people believed to be gamers, the resulting percentage was less than half the suicide rate for the general population. I don't know that this statistic means gaming can prevent suicide, but it does not constitute evidence for the claim that gaming is dangerous.

I've developed a suspicion over the years that claims of magick having the potential to cause mental illness might be based on a similar misunderstanding of anecdotal information. Schizophrenics often exhibit delusional beliefs and what psychologists call "magical thinking," but this term is not actually related to magical practices. It could better be called "superstitious thinking," the idea that completely unrelated things are somehow connected and influencing each other. In all the case histories of schizophrenics that I have read, none of them include any references to magical practices. Some paranoids claim to be attacked by spirits, but for others the enemies are aliens or government agents and it seems like whoever "they" happen to be the profile of the illness is generally the same. Bipolars in manic phase sometimes claim to have magical powers, but I have never seen a case where the claimed "powers" were based on any sort of disciplined spiritual practice or magical system.

In my opinion magick is more difficult than dangerous. Usually the worst thing that will happen if you cast a spell wrong is nothing, since we don't happen to live a Hollywood reality where one false word or gesture will unleash the power of a spell in some manner that involves most of your temple being engulfed in green fire or at least a bunch of windows breaking. Many people experiment with magick and leave the path when they fail to see results, but most of them wind up as psychologically intact as when they started out. I will say that the overlap between spiritual practices and mental illness could make for some fascinating research that will answer the question once and for all.
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