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JAMA Revisited
September 15, 2020

Occultism and Insanity

JAMA. 2020;324(11):1113. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.13620

Originally Published September 18, 1920 | JAMA. 1920;75(12):779- 782.

William House, M.D., Portland, Ore.

The times are out of joint. The world is not crushed or dismembered or otherwise in hopeless condition, and recovery from its injuries may be anticipated with the cheerful assurance that it will in time and in accordance with the laws of evolution be a better place to live in than ever. But it suffers from disarticulations resulting from the World War, and the interference with functioning is painful. Convalescence is even now established, and, though there are occasional symptoms of recrudescence, the ultimate prognosis is excellent.

One of the more troublesome symptoms of an as yet incomplete recovery is the still rising tidal wave of occultism and mysticism, the “psychic wave” of the lay press that appears to be approaching its apogee and will soon recede from the ken of the multitude—a wave that has caused and will leave behind it many intellectual wrecks....

For several years, mankind has been subjected to stresses unparalleled in the annals of history. The emotions and passions have been played on by mighty destructive forces set free by the Madman of Europe. Hatred, anger, fear, cupidity, jealousy, grief, love, courage, devotion, heroism, consecutively or alternately have been roused beyond the limits of the previously imaginable. Millions have died leaving more millions to mourn their loss. To many, support of poignant distress comes through faith in a Supreme Being and belief in a future life. Others, unable to endure the loss of loved ones and the delay in meeting them in the hereafter, seek communication with the departed and have evolved or found means which to them seem sufficient. Metaphysics, occultism, mysticism, telepathy, clairvoyance, mind reading, crystal gazing, fortune telling and miracle healing flourish. The ouija board, after a third of a century relegation to the attic, has returned to the living room, a monument to the longing and grief, credulity and stupidity of mankind. Scientists, pseudoscientists, amateur investigators, paranoiacs, charlatans, and quacks of every kind are busy, each in his own way trying to solve the mystery of a future life and of spirit communication or to take advantage, for mercenary or other reasons, of those who are honestly engaged in the sisyphean task. Multitudes have unmoored their barks and venture to ride the psychic wave. Some will escape harm, while others less fortunate or less capable will be grievously injured by their experiences.…

How We Can Help

It would be useless to discuss occultism and its baneful influences without appending some constructive thought. To quote again, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” How can we help? Primarily by recognizing not only the dangers but the self limitations of occultism, realizing that mind or consciousness is essentially sound and that the tendency toward health is quite as much a part of nature’s scheme of mind as of body....

At the present time there is special need of sane thinking and sane instruction along these lines. The world needs all it can get of the rational. Ridicule of fanatics, no matter what form fanaticism takes, accomplishes little. Sarcasm and heedless wit are reactionary. Victims of spiritualism and the ouija board need none of these. Instead, they are entitled to sympathy and kindly counsel and understanding. The pathologies of the mind are quite as responsive to medical aid as are those of the body. And the reward of him who understands and properly uses his armamentarium against them is equally gratifying.

The wave is but one of the manifestations of troubled thought which is so prevalent in other directions. Let us do what we can to lessen the number of wrecks which it is destined to cause. Let us neither magnify nor minimize its dangers, but rationally do our share to minimize its results.

Section Editor: Jennifer Reiling, Assistant Editor.
Editor’s Note: JAMA Revisited is transcribed verbatim from articles published previously, unless otherwise noted.