Reviews / October 30, 2018
Strange Frequencies: The Extraordinary Story of the Technological Quest for the Supernatural
By Peter Bebergal
Penguin Random House, 2018
I remember vividly the rich variety of books that I was surrounded by in childhood that talked about the history of magic, or then-current trends in paranormal research, or how investigators were searching for the signs of the afterlife on magnetic audio tape. If you grew up in the ’70s and ’80s like me, and loved books like these—the Time-Life Mysteries of the Unknown series, Readers Digest’s Into the Unknown, the Usborne Guides, or even the TV series In Search Of…—go out and get yourself a copy of Peter Bebergal’s Strange Frequencies: The Extraordinary Story of the Technological Quest for the Supernatural.
Bebergal’s last book, Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll, examined the threads of magic and the supernatural that flow through the 20th century’s popular music and musicians. Strange Frequencies expands the frame of reference to look at the entire world history of how humans have used technology, tools, and objects made (or imagined) by their own hands to contact, channel, and control the supernatural. In the foreword, modern paranormal researcher and Mirage Men writer and producer Mark Pilkington succinctly explains the complementary threads of tradition and history that interweave between magic and technology: “You will have heard Arthur C. Clarke’s aphorism that any sufficiently advanced technology is equivalent to magic for those who don’t understand it; equally important however, is the awareness that any sufficiently advanced magic is, in itself, a technology, one that, fuelled by the caster, converts magical potential into magical force that can affect the world around us.” Magical practice in Bebergal’s book is a technology: a social, psychological, and spiritual force that often finds manifestation in material ways and in material artifacts.
Bebergal takes in the entirety of human history in his book; a tall order, to be sure, but one that he makes easier for the reader by taking a refreshingly ecumenical approach to his topics, embracing manifestations of the same types of magic in a vivid, almost-narrative prose style. Bebergal’s individual chapters remind me of nothing less than the flow and feel of an old documentary series like Connections or Cosmos, where an episode’s or chapter’s loose organizing principle or topic leads the reader freely backwards and forwards along the timeline, investigating all kinds of individuals and events. Given Bebergal’s confession to a childhood in front of the TV in his Introduction, and his express invocation of series like In Search Of…, I have to imagine this resemblance and inspiration is intentional. For me as a reader in a similar demographic cohort, it was a trip back to a documentary style I cherish and remember with fondness.
The content itself is top-notch: in seven chapters, Bebergal covers a number of broad archetypes of magic combining with technology. As an example, Chapter One begins with the original Jewish mythology and legends surrounding the Golem, and we soon find ourselves looking at created life forms as varied as the monster from the old Universal Frankenstein films, the possibility of the rise of computer artificial intelligence, and of course the original AD&D Monster Manual‘s entry for the Golem: the metaphor of man creating life with his own hands is a powerful and ancient one with staying power into the present day. Bebergal is always sure to interview people with expertise on the original legend or subject; in the case of the Golem, he finds himself on the telephone with an Israeli rabbi who asserts boldly that the Golem is not just a metaphor or piece of folklore that speaks to Jewish history and culture, but an actual creation given to the Jewish people in times of strife or danger. Even in the midst of discussing the reality of the Golem, the rabbi does admit that there is a powerful metaphor at work, as he uses gematria to illustrate the mysteries of human life and consciousness. Bebergal weaves myth, science, and reality together seamlessly to create a profound impact at the end of every chapter that really sticks with the reader.
As Bebergal looks at other fascinating topics in successive chapters—clockwork and other non-Golem automata; the interwoven histories of dramaturgy, stage illusion, the camera obscura, and what we know today as stage magic; spiritualism’s historical use of technologies as varied in complexity as the Ouija Board, scrying stones, and the aforementioned EVP tape recorders—contemporary people who are researching and/or using the magical technologies in question are always present. Bebergal’s honest curiosity and willingness to let these practitioners speak without judging their beliefs, aside from providing historical context, is refreshing. And discovering how many people are out there in the world using these magical arts and sciences today is inspiring.
Perhaps we are living in an era similar in important sociological ways to the Weird 1970s. In the long aftermath of a cultural revolution, alternative spiritual beliefs thrive as people try to process and stabilize the social turbulence such revolutions leave in their wake. In the 1970s, it was the new Aquarian Age, and the paranormal and esoteric were in vogue; this free-form movement met its eventual opposite in the blunt reactionary impulse of Evangelical Christianity and the Reagan era. Today, technology rules our lives so much more intimately and utterly; thus, magic proves itself an imaginative way to work outside the grim, technocratic paradigm. Given how powerless many people feel in the era of Trump, can we honestly be surprised that political fisticuffs are more and more often happening on the metaphysical rather than the physical plane?
Probably my favorite chapter of Strange Frequencies is the final one, wittily titled “Fear and Soldering,” where Bebergal covers electromagnetic receivers like radio and television and how they’ve historically been used to search for alien intelligences, whether spiritual or extraterrestrial. My own love of the mysteries that lurk on the EM spectrum, the mysterious and uncanny intrusions on our regularly-scheduled broadcasts, is well-known, and, as another kid raised on TV, Bebergal’s obsession with the topic shines through clearly. In the chapter, Bebergal bounces back and forth between Nicola Tesla’s late-life belief in messages coming from the distant ether, the archetype of the quasi-spiritual message from alien intelligence, as seen in both real life and in media like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the magical alien machinery seen in comics series like Jack Kirby’s New Gods, and Bebergal’s own techno-magical experiment, soldering his own “Spooky Tesla Spirit Radio,” thanks to a set of online instructions:
It was out of this historical and cultural milieu—psychedelic visions of the future and ghost-haunted televisions—that my own occult imagination was born, and so I drilled, wound wire, soldered—during which I burned the tip of my finger—-and when I was done, I found that I was obsessively fine-tuning the little radio expecting I, too, would hear the message that, for example, drove Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind toward his transcendent fate.
Although Bebergal receives signals from neither Greys nor ghosts, he realizes that the journey, the act of creating, of hacking, of making—has made him a techno-mage just as surely as everyone he’s interviewed thus far for the book. The folk power of being able to construct a simple machine and have that act of creation become something like a ritual is where the true magical power lies. “We live deeply in the midst of a culture of science and innovation that doesn’t leave much room for superstition and belief in magic,” Bebergal says at the end of this chapter, and the book. “The almost divine irony is that technology has actually allowed us to witness the fact that the spiritual world is not completely cut off from the material.” Every one of us who contemplates, who catalogues, who investigates the history and presence of technology in a critical way, every one of us who subverts and blurs the lines between science and the supernatural is, in their own way, a modern-day magus.
Michael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. Follow him on Twitter at @MutantsMichael.