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Marina Antunes [Cathode Ray Mission 08.18.20] horror documentary

Mitch Horowitz has spent the majority of his life fascinated and entrenched in the occult. His fascination started to take shape in his youth and over the years, he has become an expert in alternative spirituality, mysticism, and the occult but rather than taking on a sensationalist approach, Horowitz has provided levity and scholarly eye to the subject. He's a well-respected author and lecturer and most recently, he brought his knowledge to “Cursed Films.”

The documentary series which is being released on digital, DVD, and Blu-ray on August 18, features a wide variety of interview subjects but Horowitz is one of the few "film outsiders" brought on by writer/director Jay Cheel to provide a deeper reading of the films and the tragedy that surrounds them.

I recently had a chance to speak with Horowitz about how he became involved in the project, his experience being a historian of faith and his insight into why we are so fascinated with the concept of "curses."

Quiet Earth: When did your interest in the occult begin?

Mitch Horowitz: I'm sure it began when I was growing up as a kid in the borough of Queens in New York City. It was kind of an exciting time. It was the 1970s and the youth culture was haunted by the Manson family and conspiracies about the Beatles and things like that.

I was very interested in books of folklore and superstition, which I would take out from the local public library or that I borrowed from my sister who was bringing them home from school. Paperbacks by Carlos Castaneda. And I was fascinated with Bigfoot and flying saucers and the world astrologers, who were interviewed on "The Mike Douglas Show." I was really interested in where all this stuff came from and how did it reach us in contemporary life? Maybe you could look at newspaper horoscopes and take them or leave them but the fact is - it struck me that almost everybody walking around and this is true as much true today as it was then - I was aware of his or her sun sign and say something about the traits that are associated with it. And this is material, frankly, that really extends back to ancient Babylon. Why should any of us have any connection to our sun signs today? And so I wanted to peel back the layer and discover our connections to our really primeval ancestors and thought systems.

You have a very scholarly approach to these big ideas that are generally sensationalized. How did you develop your approach?

I think it was probably my temperament. It was the way I probably approached these topics when I was a kid and I had the good fortune to be able to import those interests into adulthood. The fact is I do approach these topics with critical sympathy. In fact, I sometimes describe myself as a believing historian in the sense that I'm a participant in some of the occult and esoteric movements that I write about. And that's true for most historians of religion. They just don't call attention to it because they fear it will compromise their sense of objectivity or scholarly removed. But the truth is most of our religious histories, whether it's the mainstream or sort of more recent faiths like Mormonism or Christian Science, they usually are written by people who emerged from those congregations so I think it's entirely possible to be a participant, but also to be a critical participant.

And my wish is to communicate to people within the new age culture, that most of what we experienced really can be explained according to very mundane causes and methodologies. The point is not to hand yourself over to believing in whatever seems to affirm your ideals and yet, there is, I believe a core of materials that deserves our questioning, deserves our scrutiny, deserves our inquiry. And that's the message I try to bring to mainstream folks that there are certain ideas that may seem worthy of dismissal that actually worth a second look. So that's the tone I've always endeavored to bring to my work.

How did you become involved with "Cursed Films?" This seem like a perfect fit but outside your usual purview.

Well, that's really tribute to the director Jay Cheel. He had a couple of participants in the project who I think could be considered skeptics, who sort of explain the mechanics behind magical thinking and so on. And Jay wanted to sort of dispel the whole notion that these films were cursed in favor of explaining the parenthesis behind the accidents and the tragedies that occurred on the set. But I think he realized, much to his credit, that he also wanted to bring in a voice who was not, at a starting point, dismissive of the idea of there being an extra physical dimension to life, of there being some quality to life that could be called supernatural without that term being an epithet or term of mockery. And so he wanted to sort of expand the retinue of voices and that's why he came to me which I really appreciated.

Were you familiar with any of these stories beforehand or was all of this new?

Some of it was familiar to me but a lot of it was really brand new. You know, there were facts about some of the films of which I had no idea just because I'm not really a cinema file and I've never seen myself as a critic of film. I'm just very aware of the correspondence that occurs between horror movies and people's actual beliefs in our society. And that's one of the ways in which horror is unique as a genre in that it's probably the only genre film that really coincides with people's beliefs.

You know, if you ask people walking around in modern society today, do you know what an exorcism is? Almost everybody would say yes, but the attitudes that they harbor about exorcisms and their potential belief in the validity of the process probably stems from themes that came out of the movie. Even if they've ever seen the movie, those themes have become so popular within our culture that even those of us who have never seen the film, or maybe haven't seen it since we were kids, still form our minds. That perception of exorcism, if it wasn't for The Exorcist, I think that the very term exorcist' would just be a crossword puzzle term today. It wouldn't be one that we would even be using or, or have any knowledge of.

How did you prepare for a project like this?

Well, I prepared first and foremost by watching a long list of films that Jay asked me to be prepared to discuss. But what I did was I watched all of the movies back to back and I did this over one very long Thanksgiving weekend. I also took care not to start going online and seeking out other people's opinions or points of view of this folklore about the movies because I wanted to chase questions with fresh eyes. I'm not a filmmaker. I'm not a film critic. I'm a historian of alternative spirituality, and I want it to be grounded in the films, but I also wanted to be 100% fresh and present for his questions and not just echo things that might be floating around the internet.

One of the things that I find really fascinating is that even people that don't believe or don't buy into this idea of mysticism and outside forces that can affect our everyday lives - you talk about something like The Omen and they're instant response is something like "That movie was cursed." What do you think is the basis for that?

Well, it's interesting question. We're much more likely to classify our horror films as cursed than we would classify a romance as cursed. Even if some tragedy occurred on the set, even if some series of events occur that were not dissimilar from the ones recounted in “Cursed Films.” I think that's because a great many of those approach horror films, whether we admit it or not, from a standpoint of belief.

A lot of people will watch a film like The Omen or The Exorcistand they'll say to themselves "Well, I get it. It's entertainment, but..." and following the “but” is some profession of belief. People will watch Poltergeist for example. And in a sense, there's a moral parable in that film, which is that this suburban development was built on the grounds of an ancient Indian burial site. And of course, most of us wouldn't believe that our home is necessarily going to be populated with ghosts, and that clown dolls will try to strangle us because we've built on top of an Indian burial, but it does have a ballpoint and I think decent people, in varying degrees, would say "Yeah, that's the wrong thing to do." Or maybe that could bring some bad Juju into your home, but whatever the case is, people watch horror films and they have very personal feelings. So sometimes feelings of belief to a greater or lesser degree, around the offense.

I know that you're also producing a documentary on "The Kybalion." Do you have any updates on that project?

Yes. I'm so glad you're aware of it. I am shooting a final round of interviews here in New York City, where I live this week. Last year we shot in ancient Egypt and that was just an extraordinary experience, and we've been shooting different people around the country. With COVID everything is upside down but I'm hoping by the year's end we will be completely wrapped, out of post-production, and ready to roll.

"Cursed Films" is available on digital, DVD, and Blu-ray on August 18.

Recommended Release: Cursed Films

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