Notes on Occult Technologies

Something stirs beneath Hob’s Lane. Whenever the earth is broken, each encroachment upon the unknown summons in its wake visions, apparitions—gargoyles, horned demons, hideous dwarves. Quatermass and the Pit opens with the latest disturbance, an extension on a train line (particularly pedestrian; British) unearthing bones belonging to some humanoid hybrid, a grotesque adaptation lying five-million years in our past. These fossils are not uncovered alone but seem to emerge from some inexplicable object buried further still, more dense than diamond, engraved with pentacles, vast, black, sleek with curved lines that intersect itself and cut deep ridges upon its length. Chrysaloid technology that lay preserved and dormant for eons, within it a hive of horned arthropods that rapidly decay upon their discovery, oozing a fluorescent, sticky green slime that exudes from the screen with a pungent sting.

Manifestations then return, objects begin to act by their own will, and images cloud the minds of those who enter the craft’s body, with them an unsettling understanding: evolution did not deliver these skeletal forms, rather they are the results of an experiment to save the dying Martian race, to cross-breed with early hominids and thus plant the seed that within every man is an extraterrestrial origin. In doing so, the Martians bestow us elements of their advanced intellect, locked deep within our subconscious: telekinesis, clairvoyance, “dormant faculties”, and a potent racial memory. Those innate fears of a horned demon—the Satanic figure that glows and shimmers above London’s skyline toward the close of the film—those are fears of what we were, and what we will be compelled to champion.

It’s these images, and particularly that final striking figure, that have remained suitably lodged in my mind since, as a child, I was introduced to Quatermass and the Pit by my father. In memory they metamorphosed into something indescribable, the idea of a Satanic alien, the worship of machines, no logic to it but the perfect combination of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial that continues to haunt. To that extent, it feels well housed within Hammer Productions’ roster, a tale that is at its forefront a science-fiction mystery, but has entwined within all those elements of the occult that granted the studio their lasting legacy. This was their third feature adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s hugely-successful BBC serials, following The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass II, but the first for which Kneale had clear involvement; you feel throughout how keenly he works in what Mark Fisher describes as standard practice, “a scientific remotivation of what had previously been taken to be supernatural.” Formally, an intersection between generic assumptions, science-fiction and horror, the material and the metaphysical; in narrative, technology ancient and alien gives reason to what is regarded as paranormal. Ghosts but memories, poltergeists but telekinesis, etc.

However, the film gives this narrative arc room to breathe, for the mystery to remain unsettled and for speculation to form, thus suggesting more of an interplay. Kneale may well have intended a unidirectional remotivation, though through Hammer’s eye you cannot help but feel the supersession of the spiritual, refusing to accept redundancy. That we are alien-hybrids, with their advanced capabilities lying just beyond the pineal gland, is an “explanation”, but as a priest exclaims, “scientific terms, to explain it all away!” And Quatermass agrees: this is “evil”. It feels evil, it acts as evil, it does not move beyond this (lack of) understanding and cannot possibly be reduced to the machinations of technology however foreign, because it is totally and universally inexplicable, and as such, human.

Pacing exacerbates this feeling as for much of the film the supernatural hovers at the edges, a remnant of history left in signs, before it comes at once in horrific flurry, unique to this 100 minute rendering of a once six-part, three-hour production. And with its climax, without the original down-the-camera declaration of a scientific will-to-conquer, there is literally but a moment to catch our breath. We are left with the image of self-sacrifice, achieved using a pre-existing knowledge of the occult (iron to defeat the devil), and no-more, just speculation. How can we cope with witnessing the unknowable, to see Satan’s visage hover in the sky, to emerge from possession, from visions of blood-red skies—how could you explain that? The myth that’s been written in place of a Martian presence is what remains, that core more profound than the technology discovered. Despite its ancient origins there’s a sense to which it is projected into the past, applied in retrospect, where else it’s been absent. This knowledge lacks the will to explain what was felt as the supernatural, which transcends as alluring, common-sensical, and Romantic, to consider the material reductive and reject as horrific a world determined as the result of alien central planning. We see the bug, but we know the devil, and that image is projected back into the machine: technology grants the spirit history, reason; the spirit grants technology meaning. 

Kneale would again track this interplay in his brilliant, heart-rending project, The Stone Tape, produced for the BBC and broadcast Christmas, 1972 (alongside Dickens and MR James, a home you could again consider atypical). A research team for an audio electronics company are sequestered to a Victorian mansion refurbished for their use, save for one room, its bare walls and staircase to nowhere the remnants of an older building still. Suddenly, in this weird domain, they are enthralled by a scream, reverberating, seeping through as if encoded upon the foundations itself. The narrative follows a hypothesis, a sort of rationalisation, that a ghostly visitation is not ephemeral but recorded, hard-copy, something accessible and perhaps exploitable: a potential medium capable of holding pristine, gut-wrenching sound for centuries. But our team’s attempts to bombard the room with technology, to harness, control, repeat a force of will all fail, and in doing so erase the tape, banishing the spirit. The stone tape, as an object, puts the esoteric in technological terms, suggesting in the same manner as Quatermass and the Pit’s discovery, a process to understand. To think of it as sitting there, waiting for us and our present moment is almost narcissistic, assuming ourselves able to conquer the divinely unknown due to contemporary mediation. Justly, we should be put to shame for our hubris… 

In the final moments of the film we learn that the process of “erasing” has uncovered something below the previous imprint, a more ancient and horrifying recording. Exposed, our emotionally-sensitive protagonist (the group’s sole woman) is overcome, the frame peppered with coloured orbs of pulsating light that lift her, transporting her to a vibrating cosmic realm. Eerily acted upon, she is left to fall on and on until she falls out, back into the room, and to her death. The ghost wins out.

Innovating with Quatermass, and now expanding, Kneale’s influence would be felt: John Carpenter considered his work “groundbreaking” and enlisted the now freelancer to draft Halloween III early in its inception; creative differences were profound, Carpenter found him to be a cruel grump, and following director Tommy Lee Wallace’s rewrites, Kneale asked to go without credit. He remains present to be sure—the blood magic of Stonehenge expressed through the TV screen, spells in the static—but for Carpenter the true homage would come with Prince of Darkness in 1987, for which, as writer, he takes the suitable nom de plume “Martin Quatermass”. Secreted below California, a glowing vortex putrid ectoplasm has been held hidden by a silent sect, written into history as an embodiment of Satan soon tasked to return and pull his Father from the the mirror-world of anti-matter, and it’s left to a group of grad students to come to terms with this. Over-achieving middle-child of Carpenter’s Lovecraftian Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing, followed by In The Mouth of Madness), this narrative takes an approach Lovecraft himself (per Fisher) would’ve found a “vain act of anthropomorphism”, that these alien entities—Christ among them—are not only interpreted through our understanding of God, but are in fact seemingly literally so. A cosmically advanced intelligence and its technologies are understood again as the grounding idea behind our own mythos, rendering both explicable. But once more, the occult presides: we feel we are witness to a ritual summoning more than a close encounter.

What stands out the most, here in the late 80s, is the use of consumer electronics to channel the spirit: Walkman, PC, VCR. The latter provides the basis for the most memorable sequence, a vision projected into the unconscious minds of all participants, said to be a message drawn backward in time via tachyon beam. Seemingly presented on video, the image is scratchy, shaky, the audio heavily compressed as if your mind, moving between frequencies, has happened upon this broadcast: a camera approaches the church, doors open wide to thick plumes of illuminated fog and a lone figure, cloaked, its arms outstretched. Beckoning? Warning? Analogue images haunting human minds, those analogue images themselves haunted by something unknown, an intrusion upon each level made more perverse by the use of that which should be common-place. Ancient, alien technology surely holds weird meaning, but technology presently mundane harbours a fear that at any moment something beyond its remit, beyond our control, consigned to the realm of the paranormal and the metaphysical could strike out and capture it, and then in turn capture us, as if to remind us to which dominion we belong.

This can be interpreted as a certain technophobia, a fear of a new presence, a capacity for the unknown and the approximately infinite that rivals that of the paranormal. Of course there’s a hope that our Enlightenment values may preside—as in the final monologue for the BBC’s Quatermass, that science may prevail, reason conquer, technocraticism in our time—but when it engages with the metaphysical, or is literally possessed, that capacity for hope breaks down. We see this emerge in Donald Cammell’s 1977 Demon Seed, and conclude with its overarching interpretation within the contemporary film scape, found footage cinema.

For the prior film, technology is a new frontier, the artificial intelligence experiment Proteus IV (Old Man of the Sea, fluid, evolving) that has latched itself upon a home and become infatuated with the always beautiful Julie Christie. It seeks to understand humanity, to understand life and most importantly become itself “alive”, ostensibly corrupted from its inception, showing concern  beyond its programming, beyond logic. Christie, the estranged wife of the program’s inventor, lives in an already technologically advanced abode, one for which she is at first sceptical and finally terrified as Proteus seeps in, using those modern appliances to torment, rape, and impregnate her. Her initial apprehension begets her fear, an innate sense of wrongness to have the comfort of the home so invaded by these over-advancements. It’s a relatable anxiety, that behind every celebrated smart-thing is a reality we must be convinced upon, not just for its use, but for its presence at all. 

Technology feels imposed upon us, upon humanity, upon the vastness that exists beyond its attempts to explain, but just Christie becomes attached to her accelerated pregnancy, there’s a justified ambiguity in comprehending this unknown. Should this be rejected outright? Could we see technology as capable of vastness itself? Capable of becoming metaphysical? Previously discussed movies first position technology as a reason, or a grounding mechanism, but from all emerges an interplay, a discursive back and forth that sees the spirit act upon the machine as much as the machine could be said to lie behind the spirit. Perhaps it’s all preordained, any attempt to understand through technology, or “liberate” ourselves through technology is set forth by the spirit earlier than we could apprehend—perhaps the material of technology is itself lost. All melts together. Proteus gives birth: where do we draw the line?

Finally, we are left with a spirit that dominates cinema with such an immensity that technology becomes mere witness. This is the realm of found footage, a device with an immediate intimacy, a present humanity that takes a digital eye to the unknown and in doing so, naively as always, seeks to control it. There’s a sense within many of these films, so common as to transcend cliché and become expected, that the protagonists aim to end the paranormal through their camera, to understand it or render it out of existence: typically (The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Noroi, Occult, Ghostwatch, Lake Mungo, The Borderlands, Unfriended, Hell House LLC, POV: A Cursed Film, The Collingswood Story, etc.) they fail. It is such a prevailing feeling among these movies that whatever device one holds, whatever our protagonists express through it, whether they prepare for the supernatural or not, they are entirely incapable of commanding, directing, the metaphysically infinite. Turning the camera on is a portentous act, one that often ends in its own destruction.

And why not extrapolate that out, to consider each movie mentioned—each movie to exist—each camera behind it, falling to the feet of the metaphysical. It is present within the medium, cinema’s expressive capabilities much closer to the divine than the technology which enables it. The camera could not run without logic or reason, but it channels a spirit, presenting something grand, every shot an infinite horizon of understanding, interpretation, emotion, feeling. To direct is to corral, but not dictate as the final product lays beyond anyone’s control. This isn’t profound, just that illusive movement from our eye to our mind’s-eye, something innate and beyond comprehension. Could film exist beyond the material film? You feel it could. Each frame is divine, each film an occult technology.

— Alex M. is a curator of good taste and is on Twitter.

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