Damien Echols is best known for the worst years of his life. On March 19, 1994, Echols was sentenced to death for the gruesome murder of three grade-school boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. He was 19. (His two purported accomplices, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr.—also teenagers—were both sentenced to life in prison.) The trial, which relied heavily on “evidence” of Echols’ love of witchcraft, Satanism, and Metallica, became a national sensation and came to define the era’s so-called Satanic Panic.
Echols spent nearly 18 years on death row. Due largely to the publicity of the HBO documentary Paradise Lost and its two sequels, the cause to free the “West Memphis Three” (as the boys became known) gathered steam and high-profile advocates like Eddie Vedder, Peter Jackson, and Johnny Depp. New DNA evidence only piled onto the growing consensus that the original trial was a botch job (and an actual witch hunt), and in August 2011 the three convicted men were released from prison by entering an Alford plea, a strange legal loophole that allows freedom in exchange for a formal admission of guilt.
It was Echols’ interest in Aleister Crowley and “ceremonial magick” that inflamed the Bible-thumping, Satanic-Panicked southerners who threw him in prison to die…but it was that same magick (Echols spells it with a ‘k’ to distinguish it from “low” magic of performers like Criss Angel) that he claims, in a new book, saved his life. High Magick is a beginner’s guide to the spiritual practices and philosophy to which Echols, now 43, has devoted himself since those dark days. He’s currently on a book tour, and will be at the Regent on November 15, in conversation with the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines (another famous supporter while he was in prison). On November 16, he’ll be signing books at Amoeba Records in Hollywood.
Can you pinpoint when your interest in magick began?
I was no older than probably 7. I didn’t even comprehend what magick really was back then, but I came across the word the very first time when I was a child, living with my grandmother. She used to read these old, horrible tabloids—the really old-school ones, not the ones about celebrities getting divorces, but the ones that every week there was something on the cover like “Half Alligator, Half Man Found Along the Banks of the Mississippi.” I remember seeing in the back of one this ad that said something like, “Want to learn magick or the secrets of the universe? Send $5.95 off to this address and we’ll rush you this book.” I remember going to my grandmother and being like, “Can we please get this?” I don’t know what it was, but as soon as I saw it it was like it lit something in me like a fuse. I thought: if you could dedicate your life to this—even though at that time I still didn’t know exactly what “this” was—why would anything else matter?
I didn’t really come in contact with actual practices, rituals, meditations until I was in my teenage years. This would have been around the time that Wicca and paganism started to make a comeback, and you started being able to walk into stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble and see the really classic books on witchcraft, like Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft and Scott Cunningham’s work. I started to read through those and do some of the stuff, but it still didn’t scratch an itch. I kept having this feeling, like there’s got to be something more. Time and time again, whether it was Wicca in the late ’80s and early ’90s, or The Secret in the early 2000s, whatever it is, they focus on manifestation, manifestation, manifestation. It’s all about materialism in a certain way, whether it’s focusing on teaching you how to manifest the life you want to have or a parking spot when you need one. What I eventually discovered was that these things are all just really, really watered-down versions of ceremonial magick, or high magick. They’re just a tiny sliver of that world.
What is “high magick,” in your definition?
Magick is, for all intents and purposes, the western path to enlightenment. I always compare it to eastern traditions like Buddhism and Hinduism and Daoism, because they sort of have the same goal. Magick, in its highest forms, is very, very similar to Dzogchen in Tibetan Buddhism. It was a native form of magick that they did there, and then whenever Buddhism came into Tibet the two mingled together. In Dzogchen they say that enlightenment, what we think of as enlightenment, is not the end of the path. That’s a mark along the path. It is in ceremonial magick what we call achieving solar consciousness, where you live constantly in the present moment. You don’t dwell in the past, you don’t dwell in the future. You are here, you are experiencing life—which is what we’re here to do. If the only reason that we were existing in this world was to reunite with a spirit, or become one with the universe, then we never would have come here in the first place, because we were all those things before we were born. Part of the path that goes along after enlightenment is, what they call in Dzogchen “building the rainbow body.” In ceremonial magick, we call it the light body.
There is a very physical aspect to all of this stuff, and it’s connected to your nervous system. If you’ve ever looked at pictures of the Dzogchen lamas, after they die they continue this practice, and you will see the body start to shrink over a period of about seven days. They’ll get so small that some of them are basically just a head and a few bones left—and they’ll put them on a shrine, and they stay there as a religious artifact. If you carry this process to its absolute fulfillment, its absolute end, there would be nothing left within seven days after you die except hair and nails—the only parts of you that are not connected to your nervous system. All of this stuff does have a very real, vital, physical component. I didn’t get into the in-depth aspects of it, the really hardcore spiritual alchemy parts of it, until I was in prison. And that would have started slowly, when I was in my early 20s.
What led to that?
At first, in prison, I would practice it for three weeks, and then I wouldn’t do it again for six months. I wasted a lot of time. After I’d been there for several years, I received ordination in the Rinzai tradition of Japanese Buddhism, and I sat zazen meditation for several years. I felt like I really wasn’t getting a lot of out it, and I kind of think, when I look back on it now, it’s because it’s geared towards the Eastern psyche—it’s part of their culture from the time they’re born, and it’s not to us. Whereas ceremonial magick is uniquely western. The form that I practice originated in Europe, so it is part and parcel of our psyche. Even if you want nothing to do with Christianity—say you’re a complete atheist, say you don’t believe in it at all—it is still part of your psyche. Especially if you grew up in a part of the country like I did, where there are literally places you can come to a four-way stop and there are churches on all four corners.
While I was in prison, maybe four years before I got out, I decided: I am going to dedicate every single waking moment to these practices. By the time I got out, I was doing it for up to eight hours a day. One day I bent over to tie my shoe and I had this epiphany that was like a bomb going off in my head. I realized, Oh my God, I am actually in the present moment. Everything that I tried to accomplish with all those years of zen, I just experienced after three or four months of ceremonial magick. That first taste of it showed me this works. Aleister Crowley said, “Let success be thy proof.” And that’s exactly what that was.
What are some of the most common misconceptions about high magick?
Number one: people don’t realize what high magick even is. The reason I call it “high magick” is to differentiate it from low magic. Low magic is the stuff which deals only with manifesting things in some way. Practical magic. High magick is all about spiritualism. The other misconception would be that it’s something dark or scary. I think that comes from two different places. One is just the smear campaign from the Catholic church that started all the way back with the Knights Templar, and goes up until now, because they didn’t want competition. And the other thing is, sadly enough, people themselves who claim to be magicians or witches or whatever. You have all the “Instagram witches” now that are more concerned with if their jewelry looks dark and spooky than they are with actually doing these practices.
Why do you believe it saved your life?
I always tell people, if you’re only going to do one single practice, the one you should do is the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram. One of the reasons it’s so important is because it establishes emotional equilibrium. What you’re doing is sort of clearing yourself out. Think about it like a cup of water. If you leave a cup of water sitting long enough, it starts to develop stagnation, debris—it starts to get gunk in it. Now, if you turn a faucet on in the sink and just hold that cup under that running faucet until the water’s flowing over, for hours or days or however long it takes, eventually you’re going to end up with a cup of clean water again, without ever washing it out or anything. Doing the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram does kind of the exact same thing. You’re focusing on pushing old energy out, and bringing new energy in, which is symbolized by four different archangels: we use Raphael the Archangel of Air, Gabriel the Archangel of Water, Michael the Archangel of Fire, and Uriel the Archangel of Earth. You are then taking that new energy directly into your energy system—it gets absorbed.
I was in a situation where I was in tremendous psychological stress, anxiety—not even to mention the physical aspects like sleep deprivation, solitary confinement for almost a decade, almost no human touch, stuff like that. Physical aspects aside, the emotional aspects were devastating. Anything that fucks you up emotionally is eventually going to manifest physically. When I get really, really stressed out and anxious, I’ll start getting things like sores inside my mouth.
We’re all meant for something slightly different, to fulfill some slightly different role than anyone else. For me, my will, what I was supposed to do, was magick.
If I had not had these practices to keep my emotions equilibrated, I honestly would not have made it. This would have crippled me and devastated me even more than it did already. I would see people in there dying slowly. Guys would come in and they would just sit there, doing nothing, waiting to die, staring at a TV watching a football game to kill a day, whatever it was—slowly stagnating, deteriorating by the day. Because they didn’t have a life. Once they came in there, they didn’t have anything else to focus on to keep them going, keep them alive.
Magick was what I focused on. In there and out here, it is what my life is dedicated to—it’s the lynchpin of my life that everything else revolves around. And as crazy as it sounds, there were times when I would not even think about the fact that I was in prison for days at a time. When I would get ready to go to bed at night, exhausted, I would still feel like I hadn’t gone quite as far as I wanted to, that I want to do this technique one more time, or this ritual for one hour more. I would, honest to God, jump out of bed in the morning excited to start a new day of doing this again.
Do you believe, despite the hellishness of your time in prison, that being there actually pointed you toward magick?
Absolutely. People now think that I had a horrible life. They look back on 20 years in prison for something I didn’t do, facing death—the physical torture, the mental trauma, the emotional destruction. Don’t get me wrong: all those things were there. But the only time that I even think about prison anymore is when somebody asks me about it. That’s it. For me, it’s almost like an insignificant sidebar of my life. My life is magick. It always has been, God willing, always will be.
I come in contact with people who tell me horrendous stories of things they’ve been through, or depression that they’re suffering, despair they’re experiencing, and they’re like: “Well, how did you get through that?” I tell people there are two causes of depression. One is some sort of chemical imbalance, and the only thing that’s going to remedy that is medication, exercise, adjusting your diet, things of that nature. The other cause is not doing in magick what we call your will, or what they call in Buddhism your dharma. That means: what you were put here to do. We say that the universe is not going to waste energy replicating people like cookie-cutter images that are all meant for the same thing. We’re all meant for something slightly different, to fulfill some slightly different role than anyone else.
For me, my will, what I was supposed to do, was magick. Once I dedicated myself to that wholeheartedly, I never really had to think about those things again, despair and all that stuff. They’d come in, they’d do something to me, I’d get right back up and I’d go right back to my practice. Once you know what your will is, and you dedicate yourself to it as much as you possibly can, you’re going to be a hell of a lot happier.
You grew up in what I imagine is deep Trump country now. Do you feel like you understand what fuels that tribe’s outlook?
I think it’s incredibly simple. I think it’s the same thing that inspires most tribes’ outlook. You can live from one of two energy wavelengths—only two. Love or fear. Plain and simple. Even when you look at things that don’t seem like one of those, if you trace them back far enough it’s still fear. When a dog is barking at you, that dog’s not mad—that dog is scared. All these people are scared that somebody’s going to take something from them, whether it’s an immigrant that’s coming in to take their job, or the government’s going to take their gun. It all comes down to fear.
Do you think what’s happening right now, with Trump and this fear-based negativity, is ultimately good for our country, that it’s bringing a rot to the surface that we can then identify and deal with? Or are you worried about our trajectory?
No. To be honest, I don’t watch the news, I don’t keep up with any of it—just because, like I said, the more you focus on that stuff, the more miserable you’re going to be. Especially when it’s stuff that there’s nothing you can do about whatsoever. Like, say, another mass shooting. It doesn’t matter if you sit there for four hours watching this footage over and over and over on the news…there’s nothing you can do about that, other than obsess over it and get depressed and despair and angry, and start talking about it with other people and enraging each other. I honestly would rather focus on something productive. You cannot create a new reality by fighting against what you hate. The only way you can do that is by building up what you love.
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Follow us on Facebook.