Occultism is derived from the Latin word occultus, which means secret, or hidden. Since it is a word used to describe secret or hidden things it's only natural that the meaning and usage of the term is rather slippery. Generally, occultism refers to spiritual beliefs and practices associated with mysticism, paganism, and esotericism; but these terms are often used synonymously with the word 'occultism,' so they don't she much light on its meaning, and if anything, might deepen the mystery. Occultism has also been used as a term to describe any unorthodox beliefs in religious tradition (Eastern or Western) and is therefore a vague term that can be stretched by the speaker to encompass almost any unfamiliar or disagreeable spiritual practice. Over the course of English anti-Catholicism, for example, infant baptism, transubstantiation, and the use of the bell, book, and candle to perform exorcisms have been termed 'occult' practices by critics of the church.
The inherent mystery and secrecy of the occult may explain why it is so well-suited to many uses in the Gothic mode. Occultism is by its nature a secret known only to a few, passed among secret societies, promising members access to the secrets of of the natural world that have evaded the truth-seekers of science or religion. The secrecy of these practices allows the Gothic writer yet another mechanism to use in playing upon the paranoia and suspicion around Catholicism and science felt by the reader. A fascination with the occult also resonated with the Gothic appeal of antiquity; since occult practices are ancient, and have left their tracks in literature from the ancient Greeks, through Shakespeare's Tempest and beyond.
Perhaps the earliest use of occultism by a character in a Gothic novel is in Matthew Lewis' The Monk. In this case, Matlida infiltrates a monastery by disguising herself as an initiate, and it seems at first as if she is merely a temptress who seeks only to seduce Ambrosio, or perhaps she is truly motivated by affection for him. Soon enough, however, her much more wicked intentions are revealed. Matilda, it turns out, was raised from infancy by a man who was an occult master. She describes him to Ambrosio thus: "His deep researches into causes and effects, his unwearied application to the study of natural philosophy, his profound and unlimited knowledge of the properties and virtues of every gem which enriches the deep, of every herb which the earth produces, at length procured him the distinction which He had sought so long, so earnestly. His curiosity was fully slaked, his ambition amply gratified. He gave laws to the elements; He could reverse the order of nature; His eye read the mandates of futurity, and the infernal Spirits were submissive to his commands." This is a very useful definition of occultism, and it turns out Matilda herself can use a book to summon demons. By the end of the novel she is also able to convince the monk Ambrosio to do the same, thereby sealing his pact forever with the devil and completing his fall from righteousness.
This early use of occultism in the Gothic was about thirty years in advance of perhaps the most famous example, which is Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, first published in 1818 and a smash success. Although Shelley does not use the word 'occult,' Frankenstein is inspired to create his monster by the words of Professor Waldman, who says, "The ancient teachers of this science," [...] "promised impossibilities and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera but these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows." Shelley brilliantly blurs the boundaries of scientific inquiry, alchemy, and occultism. Her main character, Victor Frankenstein, when encountering the creature he created, treats it as he would a demon:
"Devil," I exclaimed, "do you dare approach me? And do not you fear the fierce vengeance of my arm wreaked on your miserable head? Begone, vile insect! Or rather, stay, that I may trample you to dust! And, oh! That I could, with the extinction of your miserable existence, restore those victims whom you have so diabolically murdered!"
"I expected this reception," said the daemon. "All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends."
"Abhorred monster! Fiend that thou art! The tortures of hell are too mild a vengeance for thy crimes. Wretched devil! You reproach me with your creation, come on, then, that I may extinguish the spark which I so negligently bestowed."
Dr. Frankenstein responds to the monster in much the same way Ambrosio did after summoning Lucifer in The Monk. In this manner, Shelley achieves a fantastic synchronicity: somehow she is able to inspire her reader's fears of modern scientific advancement and the ancient occult and alchemical arts at the same time.
After the phenomenal success of Frankenstein came a Victorian revival of the occult, when it became popular sport for groups of friends to consult their Ouija boards, palmists, and mediums in an attempt to touch the world of the spirits themselves. By the end of the 19th century, occult societies such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn would produce writers such as W.B. Yeats, Algernon Blackwood, and Aleister Crowley.
Courtesy of Wendy Fall, Marquette University
Hughes, William, David Punter, and Andrew Smith. The Encyclopedia of the Gothic. Chichester, West Sussex, UK : Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Print.
Ethelred & Lidania; OR, The Sacrifice to Woden [Transcript], Sarah Scudgell Wilkinson