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My Occult Boyhood

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For me Halloween has always been more than just a holiday for costumes, parties, and trick-or-treating. It is a time of year that summons up occult interests that grew deep in me in childhood -- that stage of life when mysteries could appear wherever you looked. Especially when you weren't sure what you were looking for.

My earliest brush with the occult began on a quiet Sunday morning in the mid-1970s at a diner in the Queens neighborhood where I grew up, a place of bungalow-sized houses and cracked sidewalks that straddles the invisible boundary between the farthest reaches of New York City and the suburbs of Long Island.

As a restless nine-year-old, I fidgeted at a table crowded with parents, aunts, and older cousins. Bored with the grown-up conversation, I wandered toward the front of the restaurant -- the place where the real wonders were: cigarette machines; rows of exotic-looking liquor bottles above the cashier counter; brochure racks with dating-service questionnaires; a boxy machine that could print out your "biorhythm." It was a carnival of the slightly forbidden.

One vending machine especially caught my eye: a dime horoscope dispenser. Drop in a coin, pull a lever, and out would slide a little pink scroll wound in a clear plastic sleeve. Unroll it and there appeared a brief analysis for each day of the month. I was a ripe customer. I had just borrowed a book of American folklore from our local library. It contained an eerie pentagram-like chart over which, eyes closed, you could hover a pin and bring it down on a prophecy: A NEW LOVE; LOSS; GOOD HEALTH, and so on. My prophecy read: A LETTER. At nine, letters rarely found me. But the very next day one arrived -- from the library. My hands shook when I opened it, only to remove a carbon-copied overdue slip. But still.

In the 1970s, the supernatural was in the air: I overheard my big sister on the phone considering whether ex-Beatle Ringo Starr had shaved his head in solidarity with the youth culture's Prince of Darkness, Charles Manson. Books on ESP, Bigfoot, and "true" hauntings appeared in the Arrow Book Club catalogues at my elementary school. Friends huddled in basements for séances and Ouija sessions. The Exorcist was the movie that no one on the block was allowed to see. On TV, Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas chatted with clairvoyants, astrologers, and robed gurus. Everything seemed to hint at a strange otherworld not so far away from our own.

Or so it seemed that Sunday morning as I bounded back to the table to show off my star scroll. "Look what it says!" I announced, reading out predictions that were always just reasonable enough to come true. "Does it also say you're a sucker?" asked my grandfather, the perpetually exhausted manager of a flower shop. His lack of even the slightest curiosity in the mysteries of the world was as impossible for me to understand as my boyish enthusiasm was for him. While I didn't yet know the lines from Hamlet - There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy - I felt their meaning in my guts. Peering down at my star scroll, I wondered: Where did this stuff come from? The zodiac signs, their symbols, the meanings -- all this came from somewhere, somewhere old. But where -- and how did it reach Queens?

Although I wouldn't know it until many years later, my dime scroll contained a surprising likeness to the ideas of Claudius Ptolemy, the Greco-Egyptian astrologer-astronomer of the second century A.D. who had codified the basic principles of heavenly lore in his Tetrabiblos. In Ptolemy's pages stood concepts that had already stretched across millennia and followed a jagged path -- sometimes broken by adaptations and bastardizations -- from the philosophy of primeval Babylon to classical Egypt to Ptolemy's late Hellenic era to the Renaissance courts of Europe to popularizations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and, finally, down to the star scroll bought by a nine-year-old one morning in a local diner (a place aptly named "The Silver Moon").

In Ptolemy's day, astrology remained a mainstay of royal courts and academies, but by the fourth century A.D. it would fall into disfavor under the influence of early Church fathers, who warned that divinatory practices were an easy portal for demonic powers. In the Church's zeal to erase the old practices -- practices that endured throughout the late ancient world (even Rome's first Christian emperor, Constantine, personally combined Christianity with sun worship) -- bishops branded pantheists and nature-worshipers, astrologers and cosmologists, cultists and soothsayers, in ways that such believers had never conceived of themselves: as practitioners of Satanism and black magic. It was a new classification of villainy, entirely of the Church's invention. Once so characterized, the religious minority could be outlawed and persecuted, just as pagan powers had once done to early Christians.

The fall of Rome meant the almost total collapse of esoteric and pre-Christian belief systems in Europe, as ancient books and ideas were scattered to the chaos of the Dark Ages. Only fortress-like monasteries, where old libraries could be hidden, protected the mystery traditions from complete destruction. By the time Greco-Egyptian texts and philosophies started to reemerge in the medieval and Renaissance ages, astrology and other and divinatory methods began to be referred to under the name "occultism."

And what of the coin machine where I bought my horoscope that morning? It had its own story, one perhaps less august than that of ancient scholars or Renaissance courts, but, to a young boy, no less fascinating: It was invented in 1934 by a clothing and securities salesman named Bruce King -- or, as he was better known by his nom de mystique, Zolar. ("It comes from 'zodiac' and 'solar system'," he explained. "Registered U.S. trademark.") His initiation was not in the temples of Egypt, but on the boardwalks of Atlantic City, New Jersey. There he witnessed a goateed Professor A.F. Seward thrusting a pointer at a huge zodiac chart while lecturing beachgoers on the destiny of the stars. Professor Seward sold one-dollar horoscopes to countless vacationers -- so many, rumor went, that he retired to Florida a millionaire. (The rumor, as it happens, was true.)

Bursting forth from the boardwalks, Bruce King knew he had what it took to sell mysticism to the masses. "I felt the competition wasn't great," he told John Updike in The New Yorker in 1959, "and I could become the biggest man in the field." Zolar immersed himself in astrology, Tarot, palmistry and all the "magical arts," on which he could expound with surprising erudition. "Everything I've ever known I've taught myself," he said. "I've studied psychiatry, sociology, and every field of human relations as well as the occult." For all his have-I-got-a-deal-for-you pitch, Zolar knew his material. His biggest breakout came in 1935, when the dime-store empire Woolworths agreed to sell his pocket-sized daily horoscopes, the first generation of mass-marketed horoscope booklets that now adorn the racks at supermarket checkout lines.

The secret to Zolar's success was that he spoke in a language everyone could understand. "I'm like the old $2 country doctor -- a general practitioner," he once said. "If you want a specialist, you go somewhere else." Zolar could even sound like my grandfather when giving a reporter the lowdown on the resurgence of astrology in 1970: "It sounds kind of crazy -- but you know that screwy play 'Hair' that has that Aquarian thing?" -- Zolar was speaking, of course, of the rock musical's rousing opener "Age of Aquarius" -- "I think that's sold five million horoscopes."

So it had -- and the practicality of Zolar combined with the wonders of the ancient world ignited my lifelong passion for the arcane. Similar stories played out in the lives of countless people, and in contemporary America the old mysteries were on the rise.

This article is adapted from the author's book, Occult America (Bantam, 2009/2010)