Arthur Machen (1863-1947) once wrote this amazing novella called The Great God Pan. Stephen King has lauded it as one of the greatest horror stories ever written in the English language. I don’t know if I’d go that far (it holds up reasonably well, considering it was originally published in 1894, but even by that standard, it’s still pretty clunky), but it influenced several major horror authors of the 20th century and, along with The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers, published a year later, does a stupendous job of capping off the 19th century of horror and ushering in the 20th.
Both were massive inspirations for a guy who, himself, has influenced probably more 20th and 21st century horror than anyone else: H.P. Lovecraft. While that’s fascinating, it’s not what I want to talk about today because everyone and their grandmother has talked about Lovecraft’s forgotten influences who don’t get enough credit for creating Eldritch horror. Those are fair points, just not what I’m looking at in this particular post.
No, what I want to talk about is how Arthur Machen was maybe accidentally psychic. But before I get into that, let me give you a brief synopsis of the first section of The Great God Pan. There are spoilers, but only for that section. There’s still plenty more if you want to read the whole thing. (NB: It’s in the public domain in the U.S., so it shouldn’t be hard to find free copies of the text.)
In Pan’s opening section, we’re introduced to Dr. Raymond, a scientist who is attempting to open up the human mind to be able to perceive a world beyond our own, one to which ours is merely a substratum. He calls this “seeing the great god Pan.” It’s almost like that’s the same as the title of the story! I bet it must be important!
Now, keep in mind that in a historical context, the god Pan was associated with ferocity, lust, the id, the baser human nature. Pan was our animal side, truly the Satyr. Think of him more as the co-opted medieval Satan figure than the actual Greek deity.
So, Dr. Raymond figures it out. All that’s necessary to unlock the human brain’s ability to see the world beyond/beside ours is a minor (unexplained) bit of brain surgery. And he’s got a subject, Mary, who’s totally up for doing it. (Why? Who…? Never mind.) He performs the surgery on Mary, she briefly sees the other world… and then instantly goes insane. Whoops.
Now, from there, Dr. Raymond’s associate, Clarke (and a few other stodgy British gents that Clarke is acquainted with), slowly pieces together what actually happened to Mary. Sort of. That’s all stuff you can read in the novella if you like. Or if you just want to spoil the rest, I guess e-mail me or check Wikipedia or something. Fuck it, I’m not your dad.
Now, here’s what’s fascinating about Dr. Raymond’s experiment and The Great God Pan. It turns out, there is totally a real life corollary in science: The God Helmet. I’m a big fan of the God Helmet and I’ll tell you why: It’s one of the most fascinating ways, not to discover what lies beyond our world, but what happens to our brains when you mess with our sense of self.
The God Helmet, developed by inventor Stanley Koren and neuroscientist Dr. Michael Persinger, essentially short-circuits a part of the brain called the temporo-parietal junction. Why would anyone do that? To see the great god Pan, of course. The temporo-parietal junction controls the parts of the brain associated with identity of the self and identifying outsiders. When you mess with the TPJ, subjects frequently experience visual hallucinations of someone else in the room. Someone who’s not actually there.
Damage or shock to the TPJ is believed to explain a number of vaguely paranormal phenomena, like the third man phenomenon (where people in dire survival situations will hallucinate a non-existent companion who helps them), out-of-body experiences, and even shadow people. Oh, I’m going to bust out one of my all-time favorite images here. Hold on.
This is a diagram from a study where researchers took an epileptic patient and applied an electric shock to her TPJ (fig. a). While it didn’t do much for her seizures, it did do a lot for scaring the shit out of everybody (fig. b-d).
What they discovered was that as long as the current continued to be applied, their patient sensed another presence in the room. That’s what that shadowy thing caressing her from behind is. She thought another person (specifically, she identified the presence as a man) was in the room, touching her, standing behind her, even telling her what to do. At one point, the researchers asked her to read a card. She told them, “He doesn’t want me to read.” Jesus Christ, right?
And that’s where The God Helmet comes in. Jesus Christ. Koren invented his helmet to intentionally cause these sorts of events in people who wore it, so they could experience a sort of religious experience. To create an ephemeral presence. Supposedly, anyway. Apparently the helmet is kind of spotty.
But it’s fascinating that, in a fashion, Arthur Machen accidentally predicted these things. This human desire to see the other. To experience an inhuman presence, whether menacing or beneficial. To see the great god Pan.
PS – What got me thinking about all this was a short film called The Brain Hack, so if you don’t have time for all this other shit, just watch and enjoy this similarly-themed and entertaining film.