Skip to content


On Cult and Culture

cult and cultureCult is sacred, secret and always the same. Culture is public, irreverent, and strives for originality and innovation. Yet the two are intimately connected. Culture feeds on cult, and cult feeds off culture. Our society today lacks a cult, and as a result our culture wearies itself in empty innovation. 

In ancient Athens, in the fifth century BC, you had two main festivals. In March-April, you had the Dionysia, where playwrights like Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus and Aristophanes competed for the prize of best tragedy and best comedy. For about 30 years, Athenians were treated to new performances of some of the greatest plays that would ever be written. In 431 BC, for example, Euripides’ Medea only came third, behind tragedies by Sophocles and Euphorion. The plays were mirrors held up to Athenian society, reflecting and exploring its deepest fears, desires and foibles.

Then, in September-October, people from all over Greece made a pilgrimage to Eleusis, outside Athens, to take part in the Eleusinian Mysteries, an ancient fertility rite in which participants apparently took some kind of hallucinogenic, and felt they journeyed to the underworld and were reborn as immortal children of Demeter. Cicero considerd the Mysteries the greatest of all the gifts bestowed by Greek culture. They were practiced for over 2000 years, until they were banned by the Christian emperor Theodosius in 392 AD, who thereby banished psychedelics from western culture for the next 1500 years, the spoil-sport.

The Eleusinian Mysteries were the central cult of Greek society. And the Dionysia was the central cultural or artistic event. Cult and culture were intimately connected. Both the Mysteries and the Dionysiac festival of theatre performed an important therapeutic role for Athenian culture. According to Aristotle, both were cathartic – they helped to ‘cure’ Athenians of emotional problems and make them whole. Both cult and culture helped people to remove their social masks, forget external reality and enter trance states, and there explore and heal the emotions, tensions and conflicts within their psyches, ultimately connecting them with the deepest part of their nature – the divine. At their best, both cult and culture cultivate the god within us.

So both cult and culture performed a similar therapeutic role. And culture also fed off cult for ideas, symbols and characters. The great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides often ‘riffed’ on the sacred (and secret) rites of the Mysteries. The final scene of Aeschylus’ Eumenides, for example, is soaked in the symbolism and ritual of the Eleusinian Mysteries. So is the final scene of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. Euripides’ Bacchae, meanwhile, explores and reflects on the rites of the maenads, the female worshippers of Dionysus.

But culture, while it draws on the ideas, characters and symbols of cult, is very different to it. The nature of cult is that it is secret, sacred, and ritualized – the ritual must stay the same for centuries and millennia. Any sudden innovation is fervently resisted. Culture, by contrast, is a public performance. It strives for originality and innovation. It mixes the grand and solemn with the humorous and irreverent. It is created by an artist, who seeks fame and success and is not bound by the same moral taboos as a priest. Culture draws from cult, but in a way that is somewhat risky and transgressive – Aeschylus supposedly died in a freak accident as a punishment from the gods for revealing the secrets of the Mysteries in his Eumenides.

Cult, then, is sacred, secret and always the same. Culture is public, irreverent, and strives for originality and innovation. Yet the two are intimately connected. Culture feeds off cult.

Consider how much rock & roll feeds off religion, from band names (The Cult, Jesus And Mary Chain, Nirvana, Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Reverend Black Grape, Young Disciples, Judas Priest) to song names (I am the Resurrection, The Cross, Jesus Walks, Take Me To The River, Great Balls of Fire, Hallelujah, Congregation, Take Me To Church etc etc). Rock tunes also rip off church tunes – the first great R&B song, Ray Charles’ ‘I gotta woman’ was a riff on the church anthem ‘It must be Jesus’ , starting a trend for secular gospel that continued through Elvis, U2 and Pharrell Williams. Think how often house music has sampled revivalist preachers, ever since Brian Eno and David Byrne started the craze in 1981 with their pioneering sampler album, My Time In the Bush of Ghosts (have a listen).

But cult also feeds off culture – it slowly incorporates some of the cultural innovations introduced by culture. Look, for example, at how western churches in the 1950s and 1960s began by condemning rock & roll as the Devil’s music, and then began to incorporate it, until now many of the biggest churches have in-house rock bands.

The problem with western society since around 1900, I would suggest, is we have lost our central cult – Christianity – and it hasn’t been replaced by any new cult which grips our emotions and imagination. All we have is a culture that has, particularly since Modernism, been gripped by restless innovation and transgression. But, in the absence of cult, this innovation and transgression feels increasingly empty and meaningless.

For culture to regain its vitality, we need to re-establish cult. I don’t know how to do this, but until that happens our culture will be trivial and diminished, distracting itself from its own exhaustion with cars and explosions.

David Lynch and the art of trance

I was obsessed with Twin Peaks when it was first shown in 1990. We all were. Every Sunday after lunch at boarding school, we piled in to the TV room, pushed in the VHS cassette of that week’s episode, waited for the first note of Angelo Badalamenti’s tremolo guitar to sound next to the opening shot of the wren, and that was it, we were in heaven.

We were in love with the actresses, of course, particularly Sherilyn Fenn, but it was more than that. Twin Peaks stretched our teenage sense of reality, introducing us to the idea that there was something beyond ordinary consciousness – a spirit realm, populated by strange and terrifying beings. It was all far weirder, cooler, sexier and scarier than the stiff Victorian religion presented by the school chaplains.

If I had to say, now, why David Lynch’s creations mean so much to me, I’d say it’s because he is a master of trance. He creates out of trance, using Transcendental Meditation to ‘catch the big fish’ from his unconscious. He is peculiarly open and receptive to whatever strange creature comes out of the darkness, be it a giant, a cowboy, a lady in a radiator, even a frozen chicken.  And he is a master at taking the audience into trance states. That’s why we love him. He makes our pupils dilate.

What do I mean by trance states? A good brief definition comes from Dennis Wier, the founder of the Trance Research Foundation and the author of a weird book called The Way of Trance.

51tfjK2nfbL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Wier defines the trance state as an altered state of consciousness in which one’s critical faculties are disabled, one surrenders free will and becomes highly suggestible, one’s mind makes strange associations, and one can feel like one has gone beyond the ordinary self and ordinary reality. He says trance states are usually created by some sort of cognitive loop which works to disable ordinary reasoning, and that the trance is more powerful if it involves some sort of secret or taboo (thus mystic or occult practices are often secret, as one’s mantra is in Transcendental Meditation).

What’s the point of trance states? They feel good, they relax us, they bond us to others and – like dreams – they help us re-connect to aspects of our unconscious that might have become alienated, repressed or cut off. Traditionally, there’s been the idea that trance states connect us to the spirit world and we can draw power and healing from it – the placebo effect is basically healing through trance-suggestion. But trance states are also dangerous, because one’s critical faculties are disabled, one’s free will is surrendered, and violent or repressed parts of one’s unconscious are sometimes let loose.

The art of trance

Our primitive ancestors used to access trance states through magic and psychedelics, then in the West trance states become monopolized by monotheistic religions and priests (‘Thou shalt only trance in church’). Then, around the 17th century, the Enlightenment attempted to wake us up from the trance, to dispel the taboo, to empower our critical faculties. But those of a dreamy disposition – like David Lynch – resented this disenchantment, this loss of trance rituals, and tried to keep them alive in new forms.

Ted Hughes - creativity as self-mesmerism
Ted Hughes fishing the unconscious

Romanticism was one such rearguard action. The Romantic poet portrayed himself or herself as a sort of modern shaman, skillful at controlled dissociation, through meditation, reverie, absorption, drugs and magic. As Robert Graves put it, ‘all true poetry comes from the trance state’. Ted Hughes, like David Lynch, uses the metaphor of fishing for creating from trance: ‘the slightly mesmerized and quite involuntary concentration with which you make out the stirrings of a new poem in your mind’.

And poets were (or are) skilled at creating trance states in the audience, through rhythm, paradox, metaphor, symbolism, incantation, and the magical power of the word. Emily Dickinson said: ‘If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.’

But these days most of us don’t go to poetry to access trance states. Perhaps that’s a symptom of cultural decline – Ted Hughes thought we are losing the capacity for trance, for the intense concentration and absorption it requires.

Maybe. But a more positive way of looking at things is that we have found other, more intense ways of accessing trance states. One way of looking at the 1960s counter-culture , for example, is as a mass exploration of trance states through meditation, psychedelic drugs, and rock & roll. And I think movies in particular have been an important new path to deep trance states. And Twin Peaks also opened the door for mature dream-explorations on TV like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and True Detective.

The Dream-Factory

Now you might say that if Hollywood is the ‘dream-factory’, most of the time the dreams it gives us are pretty shallow. There are big dreams and little dreams. Little dreams are just wish-fulfillment: you win the race, defeat the terrorists, get laid. Little dreams reflect back your ego-fantasies and never really take you beyond them. That’s what most movies do too, and most computer games too for that matter.

Big dreams, by contrast, take you beyond the domination and control fantasies of the ego, and confront you with what is weak, wounded, dark, destructive, shameful and threatening in your self, and help you to confront it rather than run from it or project it onto others. Big dreams are much more disconcerting, destabilizing. But they can also be healing and transformative, because they create a safe place in which we can see this darkness, not be overwhelmed by it, and perhaps re-integrate it into a more mature and realized whole.

under-the-skin.27563The great directors, I would argue, give us big dreams. They are masters of trance, masters at exploring the dream-world. There is a tradition of them, who have learned from each other about how to access the dream-world: Chaplin, the Surrealists, Fellini, Hitchcock, Herzog, Tarkovsky, Kubrick, Spielberg, the Coen Brothers, Miyazaki, and contemporary directors like Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Glazer.

Lynch is very much in this tradition. I want to look at four directors who particularly influenced his dream-language: the Surrealists (we’ll cover them as a group), Fellini, Hitchcock and Kubrick.

The Surrealists

Back in 1987, the BBC managed to get Lynch to make a mini-history of surrealist film, in which he talked about how cinema “allows the subconscious to speak”, and looked at some of the ways surrealist directors like Man Ray, Cocteau and Hans Richter (Bunuel was noticeably absent) create trance-states in the audience.

The Surrealists were obviously very influenced by Freud’s theory of the unconscious, and their explorations in film are perhaps particularly influenced by his 1919 essay, ‘The Uncanny’, where Freud discusses how Gothic literature creates a dream-like state of unease in the reader, partly through particular devices – phrases that don’t quite make sense, dopplegangers, time-slips, mirrors, inanimate objects like mannequins that seem to become animate, numbers and patterns that seem to have a hidden or occult significance which we can’t quite work out rationally.

These techniques disable our rationality and take us into a waking dream. And Freud thought they have a religious function too – they re-connect us to our animist past, before the spirit-world was disenchanted and expelled to the margins by rationalist modernity.

peaks2Lynch loves how the Surrealists made inanimate objects come eerily to life. Ordinary objects like a mannequin, a curtain, a statue, a telephone, suddenly seem magically animate and capable of transporting us. We see that very much in Lynch’s work too – think of the magical radiators in Eraserhead, or the telephone as occult object in Mulholland Drive, or the curtains and statue of the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks. Even very ordinary objects – coffee, cherry pie – become imbued with a magical significance through the repetition of ritual.

The Surrealists used the grotesque, and sexual violence, as a sort of transgression of the ordinary order, to increase the trance – the famous example is the sliced eyeball at the start of Bunuel and Dali’s Chien Andalou. Lynch is also a master of the grotesque – think of the severed ear in Blue Velvet, or the severed hand in Wild At Heart (this is a pretty full on clip…)

But the Surrealists balance the grotesque violence with humour, often within the same scene, just as Lynch does so skillfully. He says in the BBC documentary: ‘when you work with humour, it’s very tricky because the humour could rip you out of the dream, so this kind of humour is very tender…it really gets in to the subconscious. And because it’s so abstract, it starts triggering things in the unconscious.’

Twin Peaks is full of this type of weird humour – the Log Lady, the decrepit room-service valet, the moment Leland Palmer throws himself on his daughter’s coffin, or the moment when Andy brains himself with a loose plank – and it’s so skillfully done, it usually doesn’t break the spell, it deepens it.


Lynch has said Fellini is one of his favourite directors, he particularly rates 8 1/2 and Roma. In some ways, their worlds are very different – you never feel particularly threatened or uneasy in Fellini’s films – but they are both very skillful at blending the interior / dream-world with the exterior / real-world. There’s never a clunky change of gear. The viewer never feels ‘oh, now we’re in a dream sequence’ – rather, everything is dreamy.

There’s a sort of boyish innocence that both Lynch and Fellini have, an absolute openness to the contents of their unconscious, particularly the sexual contents. Both are, in a way, dirty old men – the same is true of Hitchcock – going over their fantasies, fetishizing certain actresses.

Both Fellini and Lynch are drawn to circuses and burlesques as dream-zones –  they feature in Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet (indeed, Lynch recently launched his own burlesque club in Paris). And at the centre of these burlesque shows is often a slightly grotesque woman dancing in a weird way.  In just about every Fellini film you get a curvaceous dream-woman dancing and writhing –  these figures remind me of the girl in Frank’s crew (in Blue Velvet) who dances on the car bonnet while Jeffrey is being beaten up.

Are these big dancing women just a weird fetish of Fellini’s? Maybe. But I think it also relates to what Freud said about the Uncanny as a reactivation of ancient animist myths. What you get in his films is an archeology, an exploration of layers – he strips off the surface Catholicism of Rome and discovers all these weird cults beneath it. And the big archetypal women are like earth-goddesses from this past – the same is true perhaps of Isabella Rosselini’s character in Blue Velvet.




Hitchcock is another of Lynch’s favourite directors – he particularly likes Rear Window, how it creates a whole world from the little tenement-block. Like Lynch, Hitchcock managed to take the Surrealists’ exploration of the unconscious into the mainstream of mass cinema. He’s much more interested in narrative and suspense that Lynch, who sees narrative really as just a way to keep the conscious mind distracted while the director pulls weird stunts with his other hand.

tumblr_mz2h66y1pU1s5tjego1_1280Hitchcock’s Vertigo (about which I wrote at length here) is particularly skilled at creating a sense of the Uncanny – with its use of dopplegangers, and the way it messes with time to create a sense of repetition, of things ‘happening again’, of ancient curses being repeated over and over ad infinitum. We remember what Wier said – trance is created by loops. Vertigo creates a sense of an infinite loop, as The Shining does, as Twin Peaks does (Laura tells Dale ‘I’ll see you again in 25 years’ – and now, 25 years later, we will have a new series of the show. It is happening again).

And both Hitchcock and Lynch have a sense that, while the outdoors can be scary and threatening, the real darkness, the real evil, exists in the family-home. Hitchcock managed to make the familiar – the 1950s home – utterly unfamiliar, strange and threatening, particularly in Psycho and Shadow of a Doubt, both of which used dream-like shots of the stairs in a family home to unsettle the viewer and give a sense of hidden and incestuous family dynamics – a shot Lynch would repeat in Twin Peaks.




Finally, Lynch has a huge respect for Stanley Kubrick (“most of his films would be in my top ten”), and the respect was mutual – Kubrick showed his crew Eraserhead before making The Shining, to give a sense of the sort of mood he wanted to create. Both of them talked of cinema as a way of going beyond the audience’s rationality and connecting with their pre-rational imagination. Both of them were fascinated by trance states, both their potential for destruction and self-transcendence. Both of them understood the power of music working in combination with moving images to create trance – Kubrick used experimental 20th century classical music (as did Hitchcock, via Bernard Hermann), while Lynch prefers the dreaminess of early 1960s Americana.

mirrors+xThe Shining in particular is a skillful exploration of the Uncanny – it has the weird patterned carpets one finds in Lynch-land (what do the patterns mean?), the mirrors revealing hidden worlds (as mirrors reveal BOB in Twin Peaks), and a father possessed by demons at its centre. It creates a self-contained dream-world, like Twin Peaks or Mulholland Drive, which draws the audience in and, as it were, possesses them. These works possess the audience because they hint at hidden and secret meanings but never explain them. To explain them would dispel the trance. Instead, they create semantic uncertainty which keeps people coming back, over and over, to the Overlook Hotel and the Black Lodge.

Finally, both Kubrick and Lynch have ambivalent imaginations – they are ambivalent about the project of art, and its power to exorcise demons and release us from our destructive trances.

Today, Lynch is a total cheerleader for Transcendental Meditation – it works the first time, it changes everything, all you have to do is say the mantra and you’ll be free of all your demons. But his imagination is much more interesting, ambivalent and pessimistic. Love and goodness do not always win. Dale – the meditating, yoga-practicing bodhisattva – ends up possessed by the demons he tracks down.

Blue Velvet ends with a bird eating an insect –  a symbol of art conquering evil. It’s a symbol referenced at the start of every Twin Peaks episode. But in Blue Velvet, the bird is mechanical, artificial, fake. Is that the only sort of resolution art can offer?