The late, great David Bowie was no stranger to the occult. The legend interacted with ghosts, UFOs, maybe even the devil himself. An artist in constant flux throughout a remarkable career of five decades, Bowie also helped make sci-fi concrete and beguiling for an entire generation beginning with his very first hit single, “Space Oddity,” in 1969.
DAVID BOWIE, SCI-FI HERO
As Major Tom floats off helplessly into space on a mission gone wrong, we are reminded of the poignant fragility of human life and the cost of adventure and exploration: “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.” “Life On Mars” from 1971’s Hunky Dory looks hopefully out into the solar system for a place where misfits are treated better than on Earth.
Indelible albums and personas for The Man Who Sold the World, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Diamond Dogs, Heroes, Low, Scary Monsters, and the literally just released Blackstar, all delve into cosmic and otherworldly themes of alienation, dystopia, time and space dislocation, and the mutable nature of the self. In addition, David Bowie starred as the titular alien in Nicolas Roeg’s classic sci-fi film, The Man Who Fell to Earth, in 1976.
Bowie’s interest in the reality of aliens and UFOs was profound and personal. As a youngster, he helped publish a UFO newsletter with friends, and had encounters as well. “They would come on a regular basis,” Bowie told Timothy Beckley, “to the point where we could time them. Sometimes they just stood still, while other times they moved about oh so fast that it was hard to keep a steady eye on them,” referring to a period around 1967. Bowie friends Jeff Dexter and Wayne Bardell have corroborated these sightings.
Bowie elaborated further to author Peter Koening, “A friend and I were traveling in the English countryside when we both noticed a strange object hovering above a field. From then on I have come to take this phenomena seriously. I believe that what I saw was not the actual object, but a projection of my own mind trying to make sense of this quantum topological doorway into dimensions beyond our own. It’s as if our dimension is but one among an infinite number of others,” said Bowie sounding very Ziggy-like.
COCAINE and the DEVIL in the POOL
Having moved on from his Ziggy stardust persona and into the Thin White Duke era, in 1974 Bowie gravitated to the U.S., stopping first in New York where he met Walli Elmlark, the “White Witch of New York.” She was well connected to the music industry as a columnist for Circus magazine and provided “spiritual guidance” and the occasional good luck or love spell to many, including Bowie. Scenester, author, proprietor of New York School Of Occult Arts and Science, Timothy Beckley describes Elmlark as “lively, imaginative, energetic, well spoken, and quite attractive in her flowing white garments complete with fashionable silver moon adornments.”
Bowie moved on to L.A. in 1975 where he first stayed at the house of Deep Purple bassist Glenn Hughes in the Los Feliz hills and dove headfirst into a miasma of cocaine, paranoia, and the occult. Hughes, incidentally, was a few doors away from the house where Manson family members had murdered Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in 1969. Hughes told author Wim Hendrikse, “David never slept. He was in a coke storm. We would be up three or four days at a time. Bowie felt inclined to go on very bizarre tangents about Aleister Crowley or the Nazis or numerals a lot. He was completely wired. He was on the edge of paranoia all the time… Bowie traveled straight into the heart of psychic darkness, lost in his own world.”
The addled Bowie then moved in with his new manager Michael Lippman and his wife, freaking them out by saving his urine, toenail and hair clippings to prevent them from being used in dark rituals. He drew protective pentagrams on the walls by the light of black candles and mumbled about Tibetan black magic. He was obsessed with the book Psychic Self-Defense by Dion Fortune.
Bowie recalled the period in an interview, “My other fascination was with the Nazis and their search for the Holy Grail. … I paid with the worst manic depression of my life. … My psyche went through the roof, it just fractured into pieces. I was hallucinating twenty- four hours a day. … I felt like I’d fallen into the bowels of the earth.”
Next, to the Lippman’s relief, Bowie moved to the house at 637 North Doheny Drive in Beverly Hills. Bowie’s ex-wife Angie Bowie writes in Backstage Passes: Life on the Wild Side with David Bowie, “It was a white cube surrounding an indoor swimming pool. David liked the place, but I thought it was too small to meet our needs for very long, and I wasn’t crazy about the pool. In my experience, indoor pools are always a problem. This one was no exception, albeit not in any of the usual ways. Its drawback was one I hadn’t encountered before and haven’t seen or heard of since: Satan lived in it. With his own eyes, David said, he’d seen HIM rising up out of the water one night.”
Angie called Walli Elmlark back in New York for help. “David wanted an exorcism. A Greek Orthodox Church in LA would have done it for us (there was a priest available for such a service, the people had told me) but David wouldn’t have it. No strangers allowed, he said. So there we stood, with just Walli’s instructions and a few hundred dollars’ worth of books, talismans, and assorted items from Hollywood’s comprehensive selection of fine occult emporia.
“There he [David Bowie] was, then, primed and ready,” she continues. “The proper books and doodads were arranged on a big old-fashioned lectern. The incantation began, and although I had no idea what was being said or what language it was being said in, I couldn’t stop a weird cold feeling rising up in me as David droned on and on. There’s no easy or elegant way to say this, so I’ll just say it straight. At a certain point in the ritual, the pool began to bubble. It bubbled vigorously (perhaps ‘thrashed’ is a better term) in a manner inconsistent with any explanation involving air filters or the like.
“As David watched this happening in absolute terror, I tried to be flippant – ‘Well, dear, aren’t you clever? It seems to be working. Something’s making a move, don’t you think?’ – but I couldn’t keep it up. It was very, very strange… I was having trouble accepting what my eyes were seeing. We both left the pool in a hurry and David told me to check up on the pool from time to time. I kept my eye on it for the next forty minutes of so, and nothing unusual happened, and so with my heart in my mouth, I slid one of the glass doors open and, ignoring David’s panicked screams, went to the edge and looked in.
“I saw what I saw. Nothing can change that. On the bottom of the pool was a large shadow, or stain, which had not been there before the ritual began. It was in the shape of a beast of the underworld; it reminded me of those twisted, tormented gargoyles screaming silently from the spires of medieval cathedrals. It was ugly, shocking, malevolent; it frightened me. I still don’t know what to think about that night. It runs directly counter to my pragmatism and my everyday faith in the integrity of the ‘normal’ world, and it confuses me greatly. What troubles me the most is that if you were to call that stain the mark of Satan, I don’t see how I could argue with you.
“David, of course, insisted that we move from the house as quickly as possible, and we did that, but I’ve heard… that subsequent tenants haven’t been able to remove the shadow. Even though the pool has been painted over a number of times, the shadow has always come back,” she concludes on the topic.
The question, of course, is whether the drug use and resultant psychosis induced these experiences, or if the drugs served as a portal for actual malevolent entities, or some combination of the two.
HAUNTED CHATEAU d’HEROUVILLE
The devil pool was not to be David Bowie’s last encounter with the paranormal.
In a 1999 interview with UNCUT magazine, Bowie producer Tony Visconti discussed reports that Chateau d’Herouville, near Paris, where Low was recorded in 1976, was haunted. “There was certainly some strange energy in that chateau. On the first day David took one look at the master bedroom and said, ‘I’m not sleeping in there!’ He took the room next door. The master bedroom had a very dark corner, right next to the window, ironically, that seem to just suck light into it. It was colder in that corner too. I took the bedroom because I wanted to test my meditation abilities. I never admitted this before.
“I had read that Buddhists in Tibet meditated all night in a graveyard to test their level of fear/no fear. Milarepa, the Tibetan saint, sat on his dead mother’s body all night and meditated. It felt like it was haunted as all fuck, but what could Frederic and George really do to me, scare me in French? I loved the look of the room so I decided to spend one night there. If something happened I planned to shout so loud I’d wake up the village. [Brian] Eno claims he was awakened early every morning with someone shaking his shoulder. When he opened his eyes no one was there.”
David Bowie, my favorite pure rock star, may you forever freak out in a moonage daydream, in a good way.