Magick, Abandonment, and the Desolate Beauty of Decay

Picture: "Abandoned Factory" by Reddit User 'NotaMethAddict' (C)

Those of you with a taste for the desolate beauty of structures abandoned to nature may find a lot to like at Reddit.com’s AbandonedPorn subreddit. With a subscriber base of almost 80,000 the page is a never-ending virtual gallery dedicated to humanity’s vainglorious efforts to hold back the forces of entropy.

I developed my own taste for this kind of thing as a teenager. We had discovered an abandoned concrete factory in the middle of a plot of land left to nature. The building, with its flooded sub-levels, half-ruined factory floor and warren of abandoned offices, held an irresistible lure for us. Later, we discovered that the very same plot of land had once been a prison camp for captured German military officers during World War II. The factory rising above the scrubby trees and fields of grass cast a long shadow upon a territory long haunted by shadows of its own.

We were occultniks and weirdos as young people, and there were many times that we went on after-midnight excursions to what we started calling “The Castle” to perform various rites and rituals. The sound of our chanting, the smell of candles and incense and the glint of ceremonial knives eventually spawned urban legends of their own. Once, during a performance of the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, we heard a group of terrified teenagers huddled in the woods. They retreated from the perimeter of our “Castle”; their cries – “Satanists! They’re chanting! They’re chanting!” – clearly audible as they hauled ass back to the cars they had parked some miles away.

When we heard rumors about a coven of “Devil Worshippers” performing human sacrifices at the Castle, We took steps to amplify this rumor by spattering the walls of our ritual space with a bucket of fake blood I made from corn syrup and food coloring. After that, we spray-painted half-literate babble about Satan in several of the nearby hallways. For a final touch, we left a knife at the scene – but not before carving nonsensical symbols into its wooden handle. Our efforts did the job: The popular (and probably better-adjusted) kids stayed the hell away. We were even told that the local cops were called out to investigate a possible murder scene, but we were never able to confirm this. For a while, we were happy, but soon our spooky disinformation campaign spawned a new problem: LARPers. I think they call this blowback, now.

The local “vampire” community was drawn like flies to our decrepit little lair. Soon enough, we had dozens of faux nightwalkers playing out their undead dramas among the ruins. The first few were okay, but with them came along the tourists: Bored kids just looking for the next big fad. There was nothing truly of the night about them; the Weird did not flow in their veins. We resented them. (The irony that we were play-acting out our own dramas didn’t occur to me until later.) We tried to establish a treaty with them: Our ritual space was off-bounds. The few committed darklings among them respected this, but the tourists did not. The crowds grew larger, and soon drug dealers came to supply their wares. With them came their own hangers-on, shifty-eyed characters with prison tats who really, truly wanted to be vampires. There were fights among the LARPers, and drug deals gone bad. A ritualist known by, but not associated with our circle, killed himself, and  one of our guys, some kind of self-styled pseudo-Thelemite, claimed responsibility via “curse”. It was nonsense, but the very notion of it was vile enough for us all to disband and formally denounce him.

In the aftermath of the suicide, we deserted our Castle, leaving it to the Vampires – metaphorical and literal – and whatever Nazi shadows still stalked its halls. I also deserted my own Castle, abandoning or reconsidering many of my beliefs. Both the Castle Actual, and the Castle of my youth, were eventually demolished. Nothing now is left of either but memories and tales of perfidy and misdirection – like the one I leave you with today.

 

, , , , , , , , ,

  • http://shalilayo.net/ Justin Mitchell

    I remember the big satanist scare back in the 70’s and 80’s. It was cool for heavy metal bands to worship the devil, and goat heads seemed to be a regular furnishing at gathering places for ‘Satanists’. It’s actually kind of funny how intertwined pagan and christian beliefs are. The right-wing christian groups loved having something so obvious to denounce. I guess worshiping the devil got boring after a while, because it just sort of disappeared, lol.

    • Matt Staggs

      Yeah. Good times.

  • http://wildernessvagabonds.com/ Mike Lewinski

    The Japanese have a word that is related wabi-sabi:

    Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. It’s simple, slow, and uncluttered-and it reveres authenticity above all. Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.

    The poet Pablo Neruda also held a similar ethic:

    It is good, at certain hours of the day and night, to look closely at the world of objects at rest. Wheels that have crossed long, dusty distances with their mineral and vegetable burdens, sacks from the coal bins, barrels, and baskets, handles and hafts for the carpenter’s tool chest. From them flow the contacts of man with the earth, like a text for all troubled lyricists. The used surfaces of things, the wear that the hands give to things, the air, tragic at times, pathetic at others, of such things – all lend a curious attractiveness to the reality of the world that should not be underprized.

    When I was in high school we heard rumors of catacombs under a local cemetery. We went out one afternoon and found them in the woods around the mausoleum. We didn’t have a flashlight to explore, so we came back later at night better equipped. Before we got far, security guards noticed us and we all had to run our separate ways to evade capture. I remember hauling ass in a field, headed a couple hundred yards north to the Michigan border. I saw the lights coming around the corner behind me and hit the ground, hoping the tall grass would conceal me and hoping they didn’t have dogs. I got away, regrouped with another friends, and we couldn’t find the third. I walked home. In the morning I found out the third had spent the entire night in the woods lying still hoping not to be caught. When daylight broke he saw he was just feet away from the fence he needed to scale to escape.

    • http://twitter.com/TedHeistman Ted Heistman

      I like to employ that phrase whenever I do anything cock eyed. “Hey, Yo Its “wabi sabi” Its supposed to look that way”

  • emperorreagan

    I hate when they turn beautiful decaying industrial sites into overpriced condos. I used to frequent an Irish pub with a huge decaying grain silo on the lot immediately behind it.

    The silo was turned into ugly $500,000+ condos and the Irish pub began its slow death as the character of the neighborhood changed from working class to rich shit bags.

    • Anarchy Pony

      Ahh, gentrification.

  • Anarchy Pony

    Deep down, we all want it to burn and crumble into ruins.

    • Matt Staggs

      Just wrote an essay about exactly that. Good point.

  • http://twitter.com/TedHeistman Ted Heistman

    That was so funny that you attracted LARPers with fake blood and and props, like attracting birds with bread crumbs!

    Its weird how real places remain, after their gone.

  • lifobryan

    Hey Matt, I really enjoyed your post! I’ve been exploring, filming, and making art-stuffs in abandoned buildings for years.

    I explored my first old, boarded-up house when I was ten years old, and have been breaking & entering derelict places all over the country ever since. Abandoned hospitals, asylums, churches, factories, farms, hotels, theaters, schools … there are just so many amazing places all around us, hidden in plain sight.

    Ruins (particularly American ruins) resonate with me for all kinds of reasons. I suppose one reason is that unlike other “empires,” the US generally did not emphasize monumental permanence in it’s architectural structures. This is a society that values progress over permanence, and function over form … and so when progress moved on, it left behind a reliquary of rapidly decaying industrial skeletons. America’s ruins are not static and stately … they deteriorate relatively quickly into abstract, impressionistic piles of drop-ceiling, drywall and rebar. I find institutional walls particularly fascinating, because you can see generations of competing color-therapy theories peeling off of lead-painted walls in sagging, stratified sheets.

    Of course, I also enjoy the adrenaline rush of exploring … of being somewhere you are not supposed to be. The crusty intrigue of climbing through a broken window, a tunnel, a vent, or a roof hatch. You get a very different sense of a place when you forsake the intentional, public, proscenium entrance.

    I love the poetic poignance that is nature’s abhorrence of a vacuum. Whenever an “official” culture abandons a place, another culture quickly moves in. Ruins are variously claimed by beasts, birds, squatters, vandals, vines, vagrants (and of course, vampires). The earth reclaims the structures that were built to contain or escape it – and for me, each moldy hospital hallway crawling with vines becomes a pagan temple or labyrinth.

    While I am somewhat interested in the history of abandoned places, that’s not what draws me to them. I prefer the mystery … in the truest occult sense of the word. And, as that ‘spiritual’ connotation suggests, I think a mystery is better celebrated than solved. The implied story, the echo, the characters that might have been, the dramas that lurk not so much in truth – but the ones that are glimpsed in the shadows, or are barely visible under layers of dust. Once you shine a light or blow off the dust, things often become less interesting.

    To me, an abandoned place can be a portal … or something not unlike an initiatory, shamanic journey. You enter a place of darkness and danger, your narrow field of view distorted by active deterioration, and a path is visible only as far as flashlight or headlamp can reveal. Each and every step is meaningful. (And usually noisy, because of the crunch of broken glass and debris). The gloom is pregnant with mystery and with possibility and with secrets. And you eventually emerge with an altered point of view and a story to share.

    Everyone asks about ghosts … and yes, I’ve definitely had some bizarre experiences & encounters that I’d probably list in the paranormal column. But usually, the denizens one chances upon are not so much ethereal as they are other explorers, (or homeless, or meth-ed, or of curious or spurious intent, or are grumpy security guard-types).

    All that said … what really draws me into abandoned places, and keeps me coming back to them over & over, is something else. It’s what the ancients (and the venerable Austin Gandy) call the “genius loci.” The spirit of a space. Every place has one … or more than one. Some of the ancients considered the genius loci to be a guardian. Some moderns believe that spirit is merely atmosphere.

    But for me, when a place is quiet and deserted, with its history leaking through crumbled walls … and when I’m quiet & still enough to listen …. that’s when I encounter it’s spirit. And it is invariably weird, enchanting, frightening, or wonderful. And is always magic.

    (Or maybe it’s just a hallucination induced by inhaling too much mold and asbestos ……)

  • BuzzCoastin

    > Later, we discovered that the very same plot of land had once been a prison camp for captured German military officers during World War II.

    small whirled
    my Uncle Charlie worked there as a translator during WW2

    • Matt Staggs

      Mississippi has its weird little corners. One day, I’ll have to tell you about a local coffee shop that became a hotbed for weirdos in the nineties. An oasis – rubbing shoulders with Thelemites, Discordians, anarchists, hippies, punkers, buddhists, artists. It too died an ignoble death, but for a while it was a little speck of something completely alien in my town.

21