Category Archives: Mania

Art in the right place: Cosey Fanni Tutti’s ‘Art Sex Music’

Five years ago I wrote a blog about one of my favourite bands, Throbbing Gristle (TG; Yorkshire slang for a penile erection). In that article, I noted that TG were arguably one of “the most extreme bands of all time” and “highly confrontational”. They were also the pioneers of ‘industrial music’ and in terms of their ‘songs’, no topic was seen as taboo or off-limits. In short, they explored the dark and obsessive side of the human condition. Their ‘music’ featured highly provocative and disturbing imagery including hard-core pornography, sexual manipulation, school bullying, ultra-violence, sado-masochism, masturbation, ejaculation, castration, cannibalism, Nazism, burns victims, suicide, and serial killers (Myra Hindley and Ian Brady).

I mention all this because I have just spent the last few days reading the autobiography (‘Art Sex Music‘) of Cosey Fanni Tutti (born Christine Newbie), one of the four founding members of TG. It was a fascinating (and in places a harrowing) read. As someone who is a record-collecting completist and having amassed almost everything that TG ever recorded, I found Cosey’s book gripping and read the last 350 pages (out of 500) in a single eight-hour sitting into the small hours of Sunday morning earlier today.

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TG grew out of the ‘performance art’ group COUM Transmissions in the mid-1970s comprising Genesis P-Orridge (‘Gen’, born Neil Megson in 1950) and Cosey. At the time, Cosey and Gen were a ‘couple’ (although after reading Cosey’s book, it was an unconventional relationship to say the least). TG officially formed in 1975 when Chris Carter (born 1953) and Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson (1955-2010). Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Fairburn famously called the group “wreckers of civilisation” (which eventually became the title of their 1999 biography by Simon Ford).

As I noted in my previous article, TG are – psychologically – one of the most interesting groups I have ever come across and Cosey’s book pulled no punches. To some extent, Cosey’s book attempted to put the record straight in response to Simon Ford’s book which was arguably a more Gen-oriented account of TG. Anyone reading Cosey’s book will know within a few pages who she sees as the villain of the TG story. Gen is portrayed as an egomaniacal tyrant who manipulated her. Furthermore, she was psychologically and physically abused by Gen throughout their long relationship in the 1970s. Thankfully, Cosey fell in love with fellow band member Chris Carter and he is still the “heartbeat” of the relationship and to who her book is dedicated.

Like many of my favourite groups (The Beatles, The Smiths, The Velvet Underground, Depeche Mode), TG were (in Gestaltian terms) more than the sum of their parts and all four members were critical in them becoming a cult phenomenon. The story of their break up in the early 1980s and their reformation years later had many parallels with that of the Velvet Underground’s split and reformation – particularly the similarities between Gen and Lou Reed who both believed they were leaders of “their” band and who both walked out during their second incarnations.

Cosey is clearly a woman of many talents and after reading her book I would describe her as an artist (and not just a ‘performance artist’), musician (or maybe ‘anti-musician in the Brian Eno sense of the word), writer, and lecturer, as well as former pornographic actress, model, and stripper. It is perhaps her vivid descriptions of her life in the porn industry and as a stripper that (in addition to her accounts of physical and psychological abuse by Gen) were the most difficult to read. For someone as intelligent as Cosey (after leaving school with few academic qualifications but eventually gaining a first-class degree via the Open University), I wasn’t overly convinced by her arguments that her time working in the porn industry both as a model and actress was little more than an art project that she engaged in on her own terms. But that was Cosey’s justification and I have no right to challenge her on it.

What I found even more interesting was how she little connection between her ‘pornographic’ acting and modelling work and her time as a stripper (the latter she did purely for money and to help make ends meet during the 1980s). Her work as a porn model and actress was covert, private, seemingly enjoyable, and done behind closed doors without knowing who the paying end-users were seeing her naked. Her work as a stripper was overt, public, not so enjoyable, and played out on stage directly in front of those paying to see her naked. Two very different types of work and two very different psychologies (at least in the way that Cosey described it).

Obviously both jobs involved getting naked but for Cosey, that appeared to be the only similarity. She never ever had sex for money with any of the clientele that paid to see her strip yet she willingly made money for sex within the porn industry. For Cosey, there was a moral sexual code that she worked within, and that sex as a stripper was a complete no-no. The relationship with Gen was (as I said above) ‘unconventional’ and Gen often urged her and wanted her to have sex with other men (and although she never mentioned it in her book, I could speculate that Gen had some kind of ‘cuckold fetish’ that I examined in a previous blog as well as some kind of voyeur). There were a number of times in the book when Cosey appeared to see herself as some kind of magnet for unwanted attention (particularly exhibitionists – so-called ‘flashers’ – who would non-consensually expose their genitalia in front of Cosey from a young age through to adulthood). Other parts of the book describe emotionally painful experiences (and not just those caused by Gen) including both her parents disowning her and a heartfelt account of a miscarriage (and the hospital that kept her foetus without her knowledge or consent). There are other sections in the book that some readers may find troubling including her menstruation art projects (something that I perhaps should have mentioned in my blog  on artists who use their bodily fluids for artistic purposes).

Cosey’s book is a real ‘warts and all’ account of her life including her many health problems, many of which surprisingly matched my own (arrhythmic heart condition, herniated spinal discs, repeated breaking of feet across the lifespan). Another unexpected connection was that her son with Chris Carter (Nick) studied (and almost died of peritonitis) as an undergraduate studying at art at Nottingham University or Nottingham Trent University. I say ‘or’ because at one stage in the book it says that Nick studied at Nottingham University and in another extract it says they were proud parents attending his final degree art show at Nottingham Trent University. I hope it was the latter.

Anyone reading the book would be interested in many of the psychological topics that make an appearance in the book including alcoholism, depression, claustrophobia, egomania, and suicide to name just a few. In previous blogs I’ve looked at whether celebrities are more prone to some psychological conditions including addictions and egomania and the book provides some interesting case study evidence. As a psychologist and a TG fan I loved reading the book.

 Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addictions, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Cooper, D. (2012). Sypha presents … Music from the Death Factory: A Throbbing Gristle primer. Located at: http://denniscooper-theweaklings.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/sypha-presents-music-from-death-factory.html?zx=c19a3a826c3170a7

Fanni Tutti, C. (2017). Art Sex Music. Faber & Faber: London.

Ford, S. (1999). Wreckers of Civilization: The Story of Coum Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle. London: Black Dog Publishing.

Kirby, D. (2011). Transgressive representations: Satanic ritual abuse, Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, and First Transmission. Literature and Aesthetics, 21, 134-149.

Kromhout, M. (2007). ‘The Impossible Real Transpires’ – The Concept of Noise in the Twentieth Century: a Kittlerian Analysis. Located at: http://www.mellekromhout.nl/wp-content/uploads/The-Impossible-Real-Transpires.pdf

Reynolds, S. (2006). Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk, 1978–1984. New York: Penguin.

Sarig, R. (1998). The Secret History of Rock: The Most Influential Bands You’ve Never Heard Of. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications.

Walker, J.A. (2009). Cosey Fanni Tutti & Genesis P-Orridge in 1976: Media frenzy, Prostitution-style, Art Design Café, August 10. Located at: http://www.artdesigncafe.com/cosey-fanni-tutti-genesis-p-orridge-1-2009

Wells, S. (2007). A Throbbing Gristle primer. The Guardian, May 27. Located at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2007/may/29/athrobbinggristleprimer

Under the influence: Ten things I’ve learned from David Bowie

It’s now been a year since the tragic death of David Bowie and this is my fourth blog on him in that period (my others being my personal reflections on the psychology of Bowie, Bowie and the Beatles, and Bowie and the occult). Outside of my own friends and family, it’s still Bowie’s death that has affected me the most psychologically but at least I still have his music to listen to. Bowie inspired millions of people in many different ways. This blog looks at the things that I have learned from Bowie and how he influenced my career.

Persevere with your life goals – Most people are aware that it took years for Bowie to have has first hit single (‘Space Oddity’, 1969), five years after his first single (‘Liza Jane’, 1964). Even after the success of ‘Space Oddity’, it took another three years before he had his second hit single (‘Starman’, 1972) and in the early 1970s there were many who thought he would be a ‘one-hit wonder’ and a small footnote in music history. Bowie never gave up his quest for musical stardom and is arguably one of the best examples of the proverb If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. I’ve often told others that they key to success is being able to learn from your mistakes and being able to handle rejection (which for academics is having papers rejected, grant bids rejected, and attempts at promotion rejected, etc.). Bowie personified perseverance and for this quality alone I am very grateful as it has been the bedrock of my career to date.

Encourage teamwork and collaboration – Despite being a solo artist for the vast majority of his post-1969 career (Tin Machine being the most high-profile notable exception), Bowie was (like me) a ‘promiscuous collaborator’ and much of his success would not have been possible without a gifted team around him whether it be his inner circle of musicians (Mick Ronson, Carlos Alomar, Robert Fripp, Mike Garson, etc.), his producers (Tony Visconti, Nile Rogers, Ken Scott, etc.), co-writers and inspirators (Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, John Lennon, etc.), or those he jointly released music with (Mott The Hoople, Queen, Arcade Fire, Pet Shop Boys, Placebo, to name just a few). I have carried out and published research with hundreds of people during my 30-year academic career, and like Bowie, some are one-off collaborations and others are lifelong collaborations. Bowie taught me that although I can do some things by myself, it is the working with others that brings out the best in me.

Experiment to the end – Bowie was never afraid to experiment and try new things whether it was musical, pharmacological, spiritual, or sexual. Mistakes were part of the learning process and he pursued this – especially musically – until the very end of his life (for instance, on his ★ [Blackstar] album where he employed a local New York jazz combo led by saxophonist Donny McCaslin). Failure is success if we learn from it and this is one of the maxims that I live my life by. Bowie taught me that you can have lots of other interests that can be rewarding even if you are not as successful as your day job. Bowie liked to act (and obviously had some success in this area) and also liked to paint (but had much less success here than his other artistic endeavours). By any set of criteria, I am a successful academic but I also like to write journalistically and engage in a wide variety of consultancy (areas that I have had some success) and I like writing poetry (something that I have not been successful financially – although I did win a national Poetry Today competition back in 1997 and have published a number of my poems). Bowie taught me that success in one area of your life can lead to doing other more experimental and rewarding activities even if they are not as financially lucrative.

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Push yourself (even in the bad times) – One of the things I love about Bowie was his ability to carry on working and being productive even when he was not at his physical best. Nowhere is this more exemplified than working on the ★ LP while undergoing chemotherapy for his liver cancer. There are also other times in his life such as when he was at the height of his cocaine addiction in 1975 where he produced some of the best music of his career (most notably the Young Americans and Station to Station LPs, the latter of which is one of my all-time favourite records). I have had a few low periods in my life due to various health, relationship and/or personal issues but I have learned through experience that work is a great analgesic and that even when you are at your lowest ebb you can still be highly productive.

Have a Protestant work ethic – Bowie was arguably one of the most hard-working musicians of all time and had what can only be described as a Protestant work ethic from the early 1960s right up until his heart attack in 2004. I am a great believer in the philosophy that “you get out what you put in” and Bowie exemplified this. Andy Warhol told Lou Reed while he was in the Velvet Underground that he should work hard, because work is all that really matters (and was the subject of the song ‘Work’ on the seminal Songs For Drella LP by Reed and John Cale). Bowie also appeared to live by this mantra and is something that I adhere to myself (and is why I am often described as being a workaholic). While Bowie isn’t my only role model in this regard, he’s certainly the most high-profile.

Lead by example but acknowledge your influences – Bowie had a unique gift in being able to borrow from his own heroes but turn it into something of his own (without ever forgetting his own heroes and influences – his Pin Ups LP probably being the best example of this). One of my favourite phrases is Don’t jump on the bandwagon, create it”, and this has as underpinned a lot of the research areas that I have initiated and is something that I learned from Bowie. Maybe Bowie is a case of the quote often attributed to Oscar Wilde that “talent borrows, genius steals”.

Promote yourself – If there is one thing that Bowie was gifted in as much as his songwriting, it was his own art of self-promotion. Bowie always had the knack to generate news stories about himself and his work without seemingly trying. By the end of his career, it was the act of not saying anything or doing any personal publicity that was just as newsworthy. Bowie intuitively knew how to garner media publicity on his own terms in a way that very few others can. (I also argued that another one of my heroes – Salvador Dali – did the same thing in one of my articles on him in The Psychologist back in 1994). I’d like to think I am good at promoting my work and Bowie is one of my role models in this regard.

Be opportunistic and flexible – If there is one thing besides working hard that sums up my career to date, it is being opportunistic and flexible. As a voracious reader of all things Bowie since my early teens, I always loved Bowie’s sense of adventure and just following paths because they might lead you to something unexpected. Whether it was his use of the ‘cut up’ technique for writing lyrics (developed by Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs), his use of Brian Eno’s ‘oblique strategy’ cards, or his love of studio improvisation (such as on the Berlin trilogy albums and the Outside LP), Bowie showed that inspiration for his musical and lyrical ideas could come from anywhere – from a person, from a fleeting observation, from something he read, from something he heard or saw in film or TV programme, and from his own life experiences. I too have taken this approach to my work and believe I am a much better person for it.

Be a mentor to others – Whatever career path you follow, mentors are key in developing talent and Bowie was a mentor to many people that he personally worked with (including many of the artists I named in the section on encouraging teamwork and collaboration above) as well as being an inspirational influence to those he never met (including myself).

Learn from those younger and less experienced than yourself – Paradoxically, despite being an influence on millions of people across many walks of life, Bowie was never afraid to learn from those much younger than himself and exemplified the maxim that you’re never too old to learn new things. He loved innovation and ideas and would soak it up from whoever was around him. As I have got older, this is something that I value more and am never afraid to learn from those much younger or seemingly less experienced than myself – particularly my PhD students.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Buckley, D. (2005). Strange Fascination: David Bowie – The Definitive Story. London: Virgin Books.

Cann, K. (2010). Any Day Now: David Bowie The London Years (1947-1974). Adelita.

Goddard, S. (2015). Ziggyology. London: Ebury Press.

Griffiths, M.D. (1994). Heroes: Salvador Dali. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 7, 240.

Hewitt, P. (2013). David Bowie Album By Album. London: Carlton Books Ltd.

Leigh, W. (2014). Bowie: The Biography. London: Gallery.

Pegg, N. (2011). The Complete David Bowie. London: Titan Books.

Seabrook, T.J. (2008). Bowie In Berlin: A New Career In A New Town. London: Jawbone.

Spitz, M. (2009). Bowie: A Biography. Crown Archetype.

Trynka, P. (2011). Starman: David Bowie – The Definitive Biography. London: Little Brown & Company.

Betting kicks in flicks: A brief look at gambling on film

As a researcher in the gambling studies field and an avid watcher of films, it comes as little surprise that I love watching films where gambling is key to the plot. Occasionally, I write academic papers about gambling portrayals in film (most notably an in-depth look at my favourite gambling film, The Gambler – the original 1974 film starring James Caan in the title role and not the more recent 2014 remake starring Mark Wahlberg – which I published in a 2004 issue of the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction). I wrote about this paper in a previous blog and I have also written a few blogs where gambling films are central to the articles such as my blog on Philip Seymour Hoffman and his film Owning Mahowny, my blog on the psychology of Columbo (where I argued that gambling and gamblers are central to many of the plot lines), and my blog on the psychopathology of Star Wars (where problem gambling is one of the many disorders that features in the film’s franchise).

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The world of gambling and gamblers has been portrayed in many films and in many different ways throughout the years (e.g., The Sting, The Cincinnati Kid, Casino, Owning Mahoney, Rain Man). However, I argued (way back) in a 1989 issue of the Journal of Gambling Behavior that many of these film representations tend to cast gambling in an innocuous light, and often portray gamblers, largely male, as hero figures. I made this observation without doing any systematic review of films containing gambling and my thoughts were purely impressionistic.

A decade ago, Dr. Nigel Turner and his colleagues published a lovely study in the Journal of Gambling Issues examining ‘images of gambling’ in films. They built on Jeffrey Dement’s 1999 book Going for broke: The depiction of compulsive gambling in film. They noted that:

“Dement’s (1999) book, Going for Broke is a thorough examination of movies that depict pathological gambling. He examined a number of films in terms of the extent to which the portrayals delivered accurate and appropriate messages about problem gambling. Although some movies accurately portray the nature of pathological gambling at least during some segments, Dement found that many movies about pathological gambling had irresponsibly happy endings. Film images in some cases reflected societal views on gambling. However, images in films may also alter societal views of gambling (Dement, 1999)…Dement focused only on movies that were about problem and pathological gambling. Many films that depict gambling or have images of gambling that are not about pathological gambling per se. In [our] article we will extend Dement’s work by looking more broadly at films about gambling”.

In their study, Turner and colleagues content analysed 65 films (from an initial list of “several hundred films”) mainly from the two decades prior to the publication of the study. The authors recounted that:

Many of the films we discuss are personal favourites that we have watched several times (e.g., Rounders, The Hustler, Vegas Vacation, The Godfather). Some of the films reviewed in this article have been also discussed by [other scholars]. Some films were included because they were found listed as gambling films in film catalogues or by Web searches for ‘gambling movies’ (e.g., Get Shorty). Other films were suggested to us by recovering pathological gamblers, counsellors specializing in problem gambling, recreational gamblers, video rental store employees, and postings to the bulletin board of Gambling Issues International (a listserve for gambling treatment professionals). Our examination of movies was restricted to movies released in cinemas (i.e., not television), and filmed in English (with one exception, Pig’s Law)…In all cases, either the first or second author viewed each film. In some cases both authors viewed the same film separately. The authors then discussed the themes that they thought were depicted in the film. The authors then collected the descriptions of movies and organized them into general themes”. 

After viewing (and re-viewing) the films, the authors found eight themes (often overlapping) represented in the movies watched. More specifically these were the themes of: (1) pathological gambling (films such as Fever Pitch, The Gambler, Owning Mahowny, Pig’s Law, etc.), (2) the magical skill of the professional gambler (Rain Man, Two For The Money, The Cincinatti Kid, Maverick, etc.), (3) miraculous wins as happy endings (The Cooler, The Good Thief, Two For The Money, etc.), (4) gamblers are suckers (Casino, Croupier, Two For The Money, etc., (5) gamblers cheat (Rounders, The Sting, House of Games, The Grifters, etc.), (6) gambling is run by organized crime (The Godfather, Casino, Get Shorty, etc.), (7) the casino heist (Ocean’s Eleven, The Good Thief, Croupier, etc.), and (8) gambling as a symbolic backdrop to the story (Leaving Las Vegas, Pay It Forward, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, etc.).

After this initial content analysis, Dr. Turner and his colleagues organized these eight themes into a general taxonomy of films. They reported that:

“First these films can be divided into two categories: films in which gambling is a central focus of the film, and others where gambling is a relatively minor topic but serves a symbolic role in the film. The films that are about gambling can be further divided into those that present generally negative views of gambling (e.g., pathology, crime, cheating) and those that present a generally positive image of gambling (e.g., magical skills and miraculous wins). The positive image is mainly related to the ability of the player to win (by skill or by miracle), but some of these films also add additional positive images by hinting at a glamorous and exciting lifestyle (The Good Thief, James Bond films, Rounders). Negative images of gambling are more common than positive images of gambling. Negative images were further divided into pathological gambling, suckers, cheaters, organized crime, and robbing casinos”.

They also go on to note that: very few films show ordinary people gambling non-problematically:

“Throughout the history of movies, gambling-related stories have been present. Movies about gambling are most often inhabited by problem gamblers (e.g., The Gambler), cheats (e.g., Shade), criminals (e.g., The Godfather, Ocean’s Eleven), spies (e.g., Diamonds are Forever), people with incredible luck (e.g., Stealing Harvard), and professional gamblers (e.g., Rounders, The Hustler). With the exception of The Odd Couple (1968), we have come across few movies that show ordinary people gambling in a non-problematic manner”.

With regards to problem and pathological gambling they conclude that:

“Some movies provide important insights into the nature of pathological gambling (e.g., The Gambler, Owning Mahowny, The Hustler). However, others make light of the disorder or indulge in the wishful thinking common with pathological gamblers (e.g., Let It Ride, The Cooler, Fever Pitch, The Good Thief). In some movies people develop a problem too quickly (Viva Rock Vegas, Lost in America). Some films take the view that all gamblers are addicted (Croupier, Two for the Money)…Most films about pathological gambling depict a narrow segment of the problem gambling population focusing on the male “action” gambler (see also Griffiths, 2004). Most pathological gamblers simply do not embezzle millions of dollars as in Owning Mahowny or take stupid risks just for the thrill of it as in The Gambler. Films rarely show gamblers hooked on slot machines or other electronic gambling machines even though such machines, where they are available, now account for a majority of problem gamblers in treatment”.

Obviously the sample of films chosen was selective and there were over a hundred films that weren’t analysed. However, even though the study was published ten years ago I don’t think the results (if repeated on more contemporary films) would be particularly different.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Dement, J.W. (1999) Going for broke: The depiction of compulsive gambling in film. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Griffiths, M.D. (1989). Gambling in children and adolescents. Journal of Gambling Behavior, 5, 66-83.

Griffiths, M. (2004). An empirical analysis of the film ‘The Gambler’. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 1(2), 39-43.

Gluss, H.M. & Smith, S.E., (2002). Reel people: Finding ourselves in the movies. Keylight: Los Angeles.

Turner, N. E., Fritz, B., & Zangeneh, M. (2007). Images of gambling in film. Journal of Gambling Issues, 20, 117-143.

Stairing at the rude boys: A brief look at climacophilia

In a number of my previous blogs, I have mentioned sexual paraphilias that appear to have been derived from the opposite phobic behaviours. Some examples include defecaloesiophilia (sexual arousal from painful bowel movements), lockiophilia (sexual arousal from childbirth), categelophilia (sexual arousal from being ridiculed), and rupophilia (sexual arousal from dirt). Another one that I could add to this list is climacophilia (sexual arousal from falling down stairs). This particular paraphilia got a lot of media publicity a few years ago when Dr. Jesse Baring was plugging his 2013 book Perv: The Sexual Deviant In All Of Us. (which I will return to below; I ought to confess that I love reading Baring’s populist articles and Professor Paul Bloom [of Yale University] went as far as to describe him as the Hunter S. Thompson of science writing.”). Climacophilia appears to be the opposite of climacophobia. The Wikipedia entry notes that:

“Climacophobia is the fear of climbing, especially using stairs. It is a type of specific phobia. Climacophobia is distinct from bathmophobia the fear of stairs themselves. Climacophobia is usually traced back to a negative experience, like falling down the stairs or having difficult time to climb stairs. The fear is also triggered by others, like witnessing somebody falling down stairs (either in real visualization or through media) or the other people he/she knows is suffering from climacophobia. Sufferers of climacophobia, if left untreated, end up limiting their activities and avoiding occupations that require the use of stairs or ladders. Sufferers tend to rely on elevators or disability-access ramps rather than stairs…Climacophobes tend to suffer from dizziness resembling vertigo when looking down stairs…Climacophobia can be treated using cognitive behavioural therapy [CBT], either independently or in tandem with other techniques. CBT can help sufferers stop negative thoughts about climbing while changing behaviors. Other treatment options include relaxation techniques, talk therapy, and medication for people who suffer severely from climacophobia”.

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In Dr. Anil Aggrawal’s 2009 book Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices, climacophilia makes a seven-word entry between ‘clinical vampirism’ (arousal by drinking human or animal blood) and ‘coitobalnism’ (having sex in the bath), and is simply defined as deriving pleasure from falling down stairs. There was no mention of it all in Dr. Brenda Love’s Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. Various websites provide definitions including the Pro Boner website (Climacophilia is an intriguing paraphilia characterised by sexual arousal to falling down the stairs. Climacophiles have their best orgasms when they’re falling down the stairs”) and the Buzz IO website (“Climacophilia is being sexually stimulated by seeing someone fall down a flight of stairs”). When reviewing Baring’s book, the New York Times defined it as the erotic compulsion to tumble down stairs”. Wikipedia also has a short entry and simply states:

“Climacophilia is a rare sexual paraphilia, or fetish in which the subject experiences erotic gratification when falling down the stairs. There hasn’t been a wide body of research conducted on people affected with this particular sexual preference and/or fetish”.

All of these definitions and snippets imply slightly different things relating to the same alleged behaviour. While all involve some kind of sexual arousal from falling down stairs, the New York Times says the behaviour is an “erotic compulsion whereas most others describe the behaviour as arousing, stimulating, and pleasurable (without being compulsive). One definition involves ‘orgasm’ being involved while the rest do not. The Wikipedia entry seems to imply that the paraphilia exists (it says “rare” rather than non-existent). The entry also says there “hasn’t been a wide body of research” suggesting there is some (perhaps a narrow body of research) – but that clearly isn’t the case. There’s none.

The journalist David DiSalvo interviewed Dr. Baring for Forbes magazine in relation to his book Perv, which covers 46 different paraphilias (all of which are listed in an article in the Huffington Post) – with paraphilias being defined by Baring as being primary attraction to a target or activity outside of the statistical norm”. Although I agree that paraphilias tend to be non-normative, I’m not whether I’d ever use the phrase “outside of the statistical norm” as there are some paraphilic behaviours that the majority of sexually active individuals are likely to have engaged in at least peripherally (such as bondage and other milder forms of sadomasochistic behaviour). In relation to the paraphilias outlined in his book, baring told DiSalvo that:

“These included both exceptionally rare paraphilias (such as ‘climacophilia’ in which a person can only get off while tumbling down a flight of stairs) and the more run-of-the-mill ones that are detailed in the DSM-V, such as voyeurism, sadism, and frotteurism (which is gratification by touching people in crowded public places, such as subways). But that’s just a small sampling. The most authoritative list, cobbled together by an Indian psychiatrist named Anil Aggrawal, includes a total of 547 distinct paraphilias”.

If you type in Baring’s name and his book into Google, many articles appear which mention ‘climacophilia’. For instance, in an interview with Vice magazine, the journalist (Nadja Sayej) began her article by saying:

“You may have recently seen the soft-spoken Jesse Baring on Conan recalling the strangest of sexual fetishes. Be it arousal from falling down the stairs (Climacophilia) or feeling steamy from rolling around in stones and gravel (Lithophilia), nothing surprises the Western New York author and psychologist”.

Baring was asked by Sayej what the weirdest fetish he had come across but there was no mention of climacophilia (probably because no-one has ever come across it):

“According to a recent forensic resource by the psychiatrist Anil Aggrawal, there are 547 documented paraphilias. Some of them – actually, most of them – are quite carnival-like. But it’s important to remember that these more exotic manifestations of sexuality might be represented by just one lone figure in the universe: a single, sad, lascivious soul who can only, just to give two random examples, have an orgasm while fondling a mouse (“musophilia”) or while rolling around in ferns (“pteridomania”). It’s virtually impossible for me to pick the weirdest, since so many of them would fit the bill for truly bizarre. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes in this literature, from a sex research pioneer named Wilhelm Stekel – who, incidentally, coined the word ‘paraphilia‘ in the 1920s. “Variatio delectat! How innumerable are the variations which Eros creates in order to make the monotonous simplicity of the natural sex organ interesting to the sexologist”.

I have spent hours online trying to track down any evidence that climacophilia exists and I have drawn a complete blank. Yes, there are lots of mentions of it (particularly in the articles on Baring’s book) but no dedicated articles (except a satirical one that I came across on the Dumb Buzz Feed website which you can read here). There are no online forums where like-minded climacophiles congregate and there are no climacophiles that have written so much as a one-sentence confession of being sexually aroused either by falling down stairs or watching others fall down stairs. In an academic review of Baring’s book, in the journal Sexual and Relationship Therapy, Dr. David Ribner made a specific reference about Baring’s inclusion of climacophilia and said it was “incredulous…is there really someone out there who can only achieve orgasm by falling down a flight of stairs?”

Based on my own research I think I can answer that question in two letters. No.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Baring, J. (2013). Perv: The Sexual Deviant In All Of Us. New York: Scientific American/Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Bergner, D. (2013). Acquired tastes. ‘Perv’, by Jesse Baring. New York Times, October 4. Located at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/books/review/perv-by-jesse-bering.html

DiSalvo, D. (2013). Getting in touch with your inner sexual deviant. Forbes, October 24. Located at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2013/10/24/getting-in-touch-with-your-inner-sexual-deviant/#6f0f5548568e

Dumb Buzz Feed (2015). 7 problems only people with climacophilia will understand. May 3. Located at: https://dumbuzzfeed.wordpress.com/2015/03/05/7-problems-only-people-with-climacophilia-will-understand/

Huffington Post (2013). 46 sexual fetishes you’ve never heard of. October 23. Located at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/23/sexual-fetish_n_4144418.html

Love, B. (2001). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. London: Greenwich Editions.

Ribner, D.S. (2013). A review of ‘Perv: The sexual deviant in all of us’, by Jesse Baring. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 30, 297-300.

No laughing matter: A brief look at scary clowns and coulrophobia

A few days ago, the Nottingham Trent University Press Office asked if I would be interested in speaking to BBC Online News about coulrophobia (i.e., a fear of clowns). Obviously this is not my specialist area and the only article I’ve ever written about clown psychology was a previous blog on coulrophilia (i.e., sexual arousal from clowns) and an article on the psychology of fancy dress. It turned out that the BBC were writing a story about the British police being inundated with clowns scaring people by jumping out and chasing them. More specifically, the story claimed:

“Police across England have been called to dozens of incidents in which pranksters dress as ‘creepy clowns’ to deliberately scare people. The culprits are said to be following a trend that started in the US [and has spread to other countries, including Canada, Australia and France]. A 30-year-old man was arrested in Norwich after someone dressed as a clown jumped out from behind a tree and “terrified” a woman in a public park. On Sunday Thames Valley Police said it had been called to 14 incidents in 24 hours. In County Durham on Friday, four children were followed to school by a man in a clown outfit who was armed with what turned out to be a plastic machete. In a separate clowning caper in County Durham on Friday, police in Peterlee posted a photo on their Facebook page of items including two masks confiscated from two 12-year-olds who officers said had gone to a primary school to scare children. Meanwhile, in Kidlington, Oxfordshire, a man dressed as a clown and carrying a baseball bat was reported to have chased a 10-year-old child through a park. Gloucestershire Police said it had received six reports of ‘clowns’ behaving suspiciously or carrying knives. In one instance a child was followed. A cyclist in Eastbourne, Sussex, was left ‘shaken’ after someone dressed as a clown jumped out from a bush brandishing what he believed was an offensive weapon. And in Sudbury, Suffolk, a boy was chased by “several people dressed as clowns”.

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As there was little academic research in coulrophobia, I felt I was as qualified as anyone to speculate on the roots of coulrophobia. I told the BBC that clowns tend to be scary because of their exaggerated looks and evil representation in films. Obviously, the vast majority of individuals are not scared of clowns in a day-to-day context but a clown’s face has become part of a scare culture. I noted that there is a stereotype of the nasty, evil, eerie clown. If you look at clowns facially what you tend to find is part of their face or feet are exaggerated, they have huge noses, scary mouths, huge elongated shoes, and wildfire hair. I also made reference to the cinematic trope of the evil clown. If you look at everything from Heath Ledger as The Joker in Batman to the clown in Stephen King‘s It. These clowns or characters with clown faces are either killers or they are doing really nasty things. Even if you have not come into contact with clowns, you’re likely to be influenced by what you see in television and films. According to the Wikipedia entry on coulrophobia:

“Clown costumes tend to exaggerate the facial features and some body parts, such as hands and feet and noses. This can be read as monstrous or deformed as easily as it can be read as comical. The significant aberrations in a clown’s face may alter a person’s appearance so much that it enters the so-called ‘uncanny valley’ in which a figure is lifelike enough to be disturbing, but not realistic enough to be pleasant—and thus frightens a child so much that they carry this phobia throughout their adult life. According to psychology professor Joseph Durwin at California State University, Northridge, young children are ‘very reactive to a familiar body type with an unfamiliar face. Researchers who have studied the phobia believe there is some correlation to the uncanny valley effect. Additionally, the fact that much clown behavior is ‘transgressive’ (anti-social behavior) can create feelings of unease”.

A couple of weeks ago after the spate of US clown attacks, Professor Frank McAndrew wrote an article for The Conversation on the psychology of what creeps us out about clowns. He compared his own thinking to that of the Canadian psychologist Dr. Rami Nader. More specifically, Professor McAndrew noted:

“[Dr. Nader] believes that clown phobias are fueled by the fact that clowns wear makeup and disguises that hide their true identities and feelings. This is perfectly consistent with my hypothesis that it is the inherent ambiguity surrounding clowns that make them creepy. They seem to be happy, but are they really? And they’re mischievous, which puts people constantly on guard. People interacting with a clown during one of his routines never know if they are about to get a pie in the face or be the victim of some other humiliating prank. The highly unusual physical characteristics of the clown (the wig, the big red nose, the makeup, the odd clothing) only magnify the uncertainty of what the clown might do next”.

No-one knows why the spate of clown attacks have occurred in the UK (or elsewhere). My own take on it is that the flurry of media stories about the phenomenon has probably contributed to some copycat cases (which then led one news story to the headline based on my radio interview with Talk Radio: Killer clown attacks: Leading professor says sensationalist media has fuelled ‘Clownpocalypse’”) although there are likely to be other reasons (given that Halloween is coming up). As a psychologist I am far more interested in why someone would attack others dressed as a clown in the first place.

Here, I see a lot of similarities with online behaviour in that dressing up as a character is like the taking on of another persona when people are online carrying out anti-social acts such as trolling. While the psychological core and personality of an individual online or dressed up in an outfit with a mask (or thick hideous make-up) is still that same person, the anonymity provided by the nature of online interactions and the anonymity provided by wearing a different face or mask both lead to the person becoming more disinhibited and doing things that they would never do in a normal face-to-face situation. In essence, such people are taking on other identities – at least momentarily – and carrying out anti-social acts that they would normally not do. However, there will also be those who carry out such attacks because they get crazed and/or sadistic pleasure from doing so. Their motives may be as simple as boredom, revenge and/ or just wanting to ‘have a laugh’ – the main motives that have been found in my own research among people who troll online.

The current spate of clown attacks may well die down as quickly as they have come about and I’m sure as the media reporting decreases there will be less of such attacks (at least I am hoping so).

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

BBC News (2016). ‘Creepy clown’ police warnings as craze spreads. October 10, Located at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-37605841

Dolan, L. (2016). Killer clown attacks: Leading professor says sensationalist media has fuelled ‘Clownpocalypse’. Talk Radio, October 11. Located at: http://talkradio.co.uk/news/killer-clown-attacks-leading-professor-says-sensationalist-media-has-fuelled-clownpocalypse#eO77SQMbGBWXECHO.99

Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Adolescent trolling in online environments: A brief overview. Education and Health, 32, 85-87.

Hayden, D. (2016). ‘Creepy clowns’ craze: Professionals hit out at pranksters. BBC News, October 11. Located at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-37611993

McAndrew, F.T. (2016). The psychology behind why clowns creep us out. The Conversation, September 29. Located at: https://theconversation.com/the-psychology-behind-why-clowns-creep-us-out-65936

Thacker, S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An exploratory study of trolling in online video gaming. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 2(4), 17-33.

Wikipedia (2016). Coulrophobia. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coulrophobia

Wikipedia (2016). Uncanny valley. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley

Zidbits (2011). Why are some people afraid of clowns? October 20. Located at: http://zidbits.com/2011/10/why-are-some-people-afraid-of-clowns/

“Every breath you take”: A brief look at love obsessions in popular music

“You are an obsession/I cannot sleep/I am your possession/Unopened at your feet
/There’s no balance/No equality/Be still I will not accept defeat/I will have you/Yes, I will have you/I will find a way and I will have you/Like a butterfly/A wild butterfly/I will collect you and capture you” (Lyrics to the song ‘Obsession’ by Animotion)

Like the word ‘addiction’, one thing we can say about the word ‘obsession’ that there is no absolute agreed definition. Dictionary definitions of obsession refer to an obsession as:

  • “…an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind” or “a state in which someone thinks about someone or something constantly or frequently especially in a way that is not normal” (Oxford Dictionary).
  • “…unable to stop thinking about something; too interested in or worried about something” (Cambridge Dictionary)
  • http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/obsessed
  • “…a state in which someone thinks about someone or something constantly or frequently especially in a way that is not normal” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
  • “…an emotional state in which someone or something is so important to you that you are always thinking about them, in a way that seems extreme to other people” (Macmillan Dictionary).

More medical definitions (such as Dorland’s Medical Dictionary) describe obsession as a recurrent, persistent thought, image, or impulse that is unwanted and distressing (ego-dystonic) and comes involuntarily to mind despite attempts to ignore or suppress it”. Given all these overlapping but differing definitions, it can be concluded that obsession means slightly different things to different people. In the latest (fifth) edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), an obsession must be distressing to be classed as a disorder. (And that’s why my obsession with music is not problematic).

I deliberately mentioned my self-confessed obsession with music because this article is a (somewhat self-admittedly) frivolous look at obsession in song lyrics. The first song I remember listening to called ‘Obsession’ was in 1981 by Scottish band Scars (from one of my all-time favourite LPs Author! Author!), quickly followed by Siouxsie and the Banshees’ song ‘Obsession’ on their 1982 LP A Kiss In The Dreamhouse (which reached No.11 in the UK albums chart). Arguably the most famous song entitled ‘Obsession’ was 1984’s top five hit by the US band Animotion (which was actually a cover version as the original was released by Holly Knight and Michael Des Barres) and later covered by The Sugababes and Karen O (lead singer of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the theme song to the US TV mini-series Flesh and Bone). Many artists have recorded songs simply called ‘Obsession’ including Tich, Tinie Tempah, Future Cut, The Subways, Jake Quickenden, Jesus Culture, and Blue Eyed Christ (amongst others).

Almost all songs with the title of ‘Obsession’ have been about being obsessed (or obsessively in love) with another person and are probably not that far removed from songs about love addiction (such as Roxy Music’s ‘Love Is The Drug’, Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’, and Nine Inch Nail’s ‘The Perfect Drug’). Not all obsessional songs have the word ‘obsession’ in their title and probably the most famous songs about being obsessed with someone are ‘Every Breath You Take’ (The Police) and ‘Stan’ (Eminem; in fact the word ‘Stan’ is now sometimes used as a term for overly-obsessive fans of someone or something). As the Wikipedia entry on ‘Every Breath You Take’ notes:

Sting wrote the song in 1982 in the aftermath of his separation from [actress] Frances Tomelty and the beginning of his relationship with [actress, film producer and director] Trudy Styler. The split was controversial…The lyrics are the words of a possessive lover who is watching ‘every breath you take; every move you make’. [Sting said he] ‘woke up in the middle of the night with that line in my head, sat down at the piano and had written it in half an hour…It sounds like a comforting love song. I didn’t realize at the time how sinister it is. I think I was thinking of Big Brother surveillance and control…[Sting] insists [the song is] about the obsession with a lost lover, and the jealousy and surveillance that follow”.

Sting’s experience of writing from what you know and feel is a staple motivation for many songwriters (and probably no different from academics like myself – I tend to write about what I know about). An article in the New York Post by Kirsten Fleming (‘When rockers are stalkers: ‘Love songs’ that cross into obsession‘) features a top ten list of ‘obsessional love’ songs (although I think very few of them are. Much better is the list of ‘greatest stalking songs’ put together by The Scientist on the Rate Your Music website). However, I do think the song-writing process can border on the obsessional and I think the Canadian-American singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette has a realistic (and perhaps representative) take on her song-writing as she noted in an online article:

“For me, what writes songs is passion. So if I’m passionately angry about something or if I’m passionately in love with something or if I’m passionately addicted to something or if I’m passionately curious or scared, this is what creates worlds in art. I think love and anger are two of the most gorgeous life forces, with love being the only one that is bottomless. All of these different feelings that I’ve been running away from my whole life, the only one that has remained bottomless and endless is love. All other emotions seem to ebb and flow and move through once they get my attention long enough to really feel, but love is the one that remains limitless”.

In this interview extract, Morissette uses the word “addicted” in an arguably positive way and echoes a quote I used in a previous blog from Dr. Isaac Marks who said that “life is a series of addictions and without them we die”. Morissette (in a different interview) was also quoted as saying:

“My top addictions are really recovering from love addictions, which is a tough withdrawal that I’ve also written records in the midst of. Probably the worst withdrawal I’ve experienced. Food addiction, which I’ve been struggling with since I was 14, and work addiction it’s the respectable addiction in the west, but it’s actually an addiction to busy-ness and the fear of stopping and being still, and all that would come up from that. Those three are my top ones, and I’ve dabbled in all the other ones but none of them have grasped hold of me like the first one did”.

The band that I think have lyrically explored obsessive love more than any other is Depeche Mode. I’ve followed them from before their first hit right up until the present day. I’ve included their songs on almost every mix tape I’ve made for any girlfriend I’ve had over the last 35 years. Their main songwriter, Martin Gore, explores the dark side of love better than any lyricist I can think of. Whereas Adam Ant wins the prize for the most songs about different types of fetishes and paraphilias, Martin Gore is the lyrical king of obsessive love (although he does occasionally wander into more paraphilic kinds of love such as the sado-masochisticMaster and Servant’. Here are just a few selected lyrics that I hope help argue my case:

  • Extract 1: “Dark obsession in the name of love/This addiction that we’re both part of/
Leads us deeper into mystery/
Keeps us craving endlessly/Strange compulsions/That I can’t control/Pure possession of my heart and soul
/I must live with this reality/I am you and you are me” (‘I Am You’ from Exciter, 2001)
  • Extract 2: I want somebody who cares for me passionately/With every thought and with every breath/Someone who’ll help me see things in a different light/All the things I detest I will almost like” (‘Somebody’ from Some Great Reward, 1984)
  • Extract 3: “Well I’m down on my knees again/And I pray to the only one/Who has the strength to bear the pain/To forgive all the things that I’ve done/Oh girl, lead me into your darkness/When this world is trying it’s hardest
/To leave me unimpressed/
Just one caress from you and I’m blessed” (‘One Caress’ from Songs Of Faith And Devotion, 1993).
  • Extract 4: “Taking hold of the hem of your dress/
Cleanliness only comes in small doses/
Bodily whole but my head’s in a mess/Do you know obsession that borders psychosis?/It’s a sad disease/Creeping through my mind/Causing disabilities/Of the strangest kind/Getting lost in the folds of your skirt/There’s a price that I pay for my mission/Body in heaven and a mind full of dirt/How I suffer the sweetest condition” (‘The Sweetest Condition’ from Exciter, 2001)
  • Extract 5: “It’s only when I lose myself with someone else/That I find myself/I find myself/Something beautiful is happening inside for me/Something sensual, it’s full of fire and mystery/I feel hypnotized, I feel paralized/I have found heaven/Did I need to sell my soul/For pleasure like this?/Did I have to lose control/To treasure your kiss?/Did I need to place my heart/In the palm of your hand?/Before I could even start/To understand” (‘Only When I Lose Myself’ from The Singles, 86-98)
  • Extract 6: “I want you now/
Tomorrow won’t do/
There’s a yearning inside/And it’s showing through/Reach out your hands/And accept my love/We’ve waited for too long/Enough is enough/I want you now” (‘I Want You Now’ from Music For The Masses, 1987)
  • Extract 7: “Don’t say you’re happy/Out there without me/I know you can’t be
/’Because it’s no good/I’m going to take my time/I have all the time in the world
/To make you mine/It is written in the stars above” (‘It’s No Good’ from Ultra, 1997)
  • Extract 8: “Wisdom of ages/Rush over me/Heighten my senses/Enlighten me/Lead me on, eternally/And the spirit of love/Is rising within me/Talking to you now/Telling you clearly/The fire still burns” (‘Insight’ from Ultra, 1997).

These are just a few of the ‘obsessional’ lyrics from Depeche Mode’s back catalogue (and there are plenty of other songs I could have featured). I often think that the lyrics in songs or poetry say far more about the human condition than any paper I have published on the topic, and that is why I am (and will continue to be) a music obsessive.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Dorrell, P. (2005). Is music a drug? 1729.com, July 3. Located at: http://www.1729.com/blog/IsMusicADrug.html

Fleming, K. (2014). When rockers are stalkers: ‘Love songs’ that cross into obsession. New York Post, July 2. Located at: http://nypost.com/2014/07/02/the-10-creepiest-musical-stalkers/

Griffiths, M.D (1999). Adam Ant: Sex and perversion for teenyboppers. Headpress: The Journal of Sex, Death and Religion, 19, 116-119.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Music addiction. Record Collector, 406 (October), p.20.

Morrison, E. (2011). Researchers show why music is so addictive. Medhill Reports, January 21. Located at: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=176870

Salimpoor, V.N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K. Dagher, A. & Zatorre, R.J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience 14, 257–262.

Smith, J. (1989). Senses and Sensibilities. New York: Wiley.

Mack, the life: The psychology of Billy Mackenzie and The Associates

For the past month, the only music I have listened to on my iPod is all the albums by The Associates (along with the solo albums by their lead singer Billy Mackenzie), and have just finished reading Tom Doyle’s excellent biography of Mackenzie The Glamour Chasealso the title of their 1988 LP but remained unreleased until 2002). Mackenzie committed suicide in 1997, a few months before his 40th birthday. Following the death of his mother in the summer of 1996 (who he was very close to), Mackenzie became clinically depressed and took his on January 22nd, 1997 (following a previous suicide attempt on New Year’s Eve 1996).

I have loved The Associates since the early 1980s and became hooked on their music following the 1981 singles ‘White Car in Germany’ and ‘Message Oblique Speech’ (two of the great six singles they released that year and all available on their second LP, Fourth Drawer Down). Even if people don’t like Mackenzie’s recorded outputs, I doubt many people who have heard him sing would dispute how good his multi-octave voice was.

the-associates-billy-mackenzie-by-gilbert-blecken-1994-1images

Most people will know The Associates for their classic 1982 top ten album Sulk and the three British hit singles that year – ‘Party Fears Two’ (No.9), ‘Club Country’ (No.13), and ’18 Carat Love Affair’ (No. 21) but I’ve followed their whole career through thick and thin and have every one of their six albums (seven if you include the partial re-recording/remixing of their first album The Affectionate Punch) as well as the three BBC Radio 1 session LPs, the three compilation ‘greatest hits’ collections (Popera, Singles, and The Very Best of Associates), the rarities LP Double Hipness, and their only live album (Billy Mackenzie and The Associates In Concert).

Hailing from Dundee (Scotland), The Associates (Billy Mackenzie and Alan Rankine the two lynch-pin members) formed as punk exploded in 1976. Before changing their name to The Associates in 1979 they used the moniker Mental Torture (a name that biographer Doyle described as “biographically embarrassing”) but as a psychologist a choice of name that I find interesting. The ‘classic’ line-up of The Associates ended at the height of their commercial success in 1982 when Rankine left the band. Following that, many view the next three Associates’ LPs as Billy Mackenzie solo albums in all but name and that he never reached such critical acclaim ever again. That’s a viewpoint I share (despite there being many other great songs in his post-1982 catalogue). The creative and artistic chemistry he shared with Rankine was never bettered in the last 15 years of his life, and even the handful of demos he recorded with Rankine in a short-lived reunion in 1993 (available on the Double Hipness album and on the latest The Very Best of Associates compilation) clearly demonstrated Gestalt psychology’s underlying maxim that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

So what was it in Mackenzie’s psyche that killed the goose that laid the golden egg? Rankine didn’t leave the band because of clichéd “creative differences” but left after Mackenzie refused to go on a lucrative US tour (and Rankine knew that touring to promote their music was the only viable option to maintain a successful national and international profile). There appeared to be a combination of factors that led to Mackenzie’s decision including stage fright (i.e., performance anxiety which surfaced throughout his career) and the fact Mackenzie didn’t want to do the usual cycles of making an album, doing the obligatory media circuit, followed by the big tour. In short he didn’t want to play by the accepted rules and conventions – something the underpinned his whole persona. He wanted to be a ‘studio band’ – something that Rankine thought would never work.

My blog had always focused on life’s extremities and much of what Mackenzie did was about living life at the extreme. The liner notes of The Associates most recent CD compilation by Martin Aston neatly sums it up:

“In some ways, The Associates music mirrored their behavioural excess, pioneered by the naughty boy that was Billy Mackenzie, music both lush and visceral, abrasive and ravishing, pure pop and reckless adventurism, devoured and sprayed over an unsuspecting audience”.

(The “sprayed over an unsuspecting audience” was more in reference to the fact that Mackenzie had an unusual ‘gift’ of being able to projective vomit and something he demonstrated on fans in the front row in an early gig where The Associates supported Siouxsie and the Banshees). When it came to music, most of Mackenzie’s collaborators (musicians, singers, producers) describe him as obsessive and a perfectionist. Michael Dempsey, a founding member of The Cure and bass guitarist with The Associates in the early 1980s said: “He was obsessive, always on top of every detail. It was even down to whether you were wearing the right shoes because that was part of the composition and the production to him”. Tom Doyle’s biography is full of stories about Mackenzie taking hours in the studio to get the sound of one right or taking 40 takes to do one song (almost the opposite of David Bowie – one of Mackenzie’s musical heroes – who often recorded songs in one or two takes). Musical collaborators also talk about Mackenzie’s ability to “see” music in his head (which is perhaps not as strange as it sounds as there are countless reports in the psychological and neurological literature of synaesthesia (a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway” – for example, some people can see specific colours when they hear a particular piece of music). His obsessiveness was not just restricted to music. His flatmates described his “mildly obsessive hygiene and beauty routines: using an entire tube of toothpaste in one single brushing, spending an eternity rubbing lotions into his skin before he would shave”.

Mackenzie arguably had only three passions in his life – his music, his family, and his love of dogs (and more specifically whippets). He never had any significant romantic relationship in his life (although had a very brief marriage in his teens to American Chloe Dummar when he briefly lived in California). Like Morrissey, Mackenzie was fiercely private about his sexuality and rarely talked about his personal life to the press. It was only in a 1994 interview in Time Out magazine that he first spoke publicly of his bisexuality. I mention Morrissey because it was rumoured that Mackenzie had a brief relationship with him and that Mackenzie was the subject of The Smiths‘ British (No.17) hit single ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’. This appeared to have some legitimacy when during the Associates brief 1993 re-union, Mackenzie wrote a song called ‘Stephen, You’re Really Something’ (Stephen, of course, being Morrissey’s first name).

In both Doyle’s biography (and in a profile piece on The Associates in the latest issue of Mojo magazine by Tom Sheehan), it is noted that Mackenzie had a “particular idea of his own sexuality” and that it was “beyond male and female, beyond sexuality”. Martha Ladly (of one-hit wonders Martha and the Muffins, and backing singer in The Associates in the 1980s) describes him as being “omnisexual…he didn’t see sexuality in people, he saw it in situations and in all things”. The online Urban Dictionary says that omnisexual is “generally interchangeable with pansexual, one whose romantic, emotional, or sexual attractions are geared towards others regardless of sex and/or gender expression” – check out my previous blog on pandrogyny in relation to Throbbing Gristle’s lead ‘singer’ Genesis P. Orridge). In the Mojo article, Rankine said Mackenzie was “very compartmentalised. All the way through [The Associates] it never occurred to me that Bill was having affairs. Everyone he came across he was shagging”. He was arguably a little vain (and overly conscious of his receding hairline in the last decade of his life) and always sought reassuring compliments from those around him about his looks. His obsessive grooming habits appear to provide a good indication of how important his look was to him but I’ve read nothing to suggest that he was narcissistic (although perfectionism is known to be a trait associated with narcissism).

The other personal characteristic that Mackenkie was infamous for was spending money and loved life’s luxuries. One of my research areas is shopping addiction and compulsive buying but on reading Doyle’s biography I don’t think Mackenzie would be classed as a shopaholic or compulsive spender by my own criteria (but did end up bankrupt so was a problematic spender at the very least). Like many people, Mackenzie believed that money was for spending and he spent loads of other people’s money (usually the record company’s) on everything from clothes and daily taxis (including many a black cab ride from London to Dundee), to the best hotel rooms. My view is that he was much more of an impulsive (rather than compulsive) spender.

Many people were surprised (including me) that he was clinically depressed during the last few months of his life because up to the point of his mother’s death, he appeared was always outgoing and extraverted. In his earlier life he was hedonistic and engaged in heavy alcohol drinking and recreational drug use but as he matured the use of psychoactive substances all but disappeared from his life. No-one around him thought he would be the type of person to commit suicide (although it’s worth noting there appears to be an association between perfectionism and depression, and depression is one of the major risk factors for suicide along with stress caused by severe financial difficulties).

One of Mackenzie’s best known songs in The Associates back catalogue is Rezső Seress’ Hungarian suicide song ‘Gloomy Sunday’ (from their 1982 masterpiece Sulk). The Wikipedia entry about the song has a dedicated sub-section on urban legends connected to the song and Doyle’s biography also discussed it:

“While Mackenzie had first encountered ‘Gloomy Sunday’ through the version recorded by Billie Holiday in 1941 that – along with ‘Strange Fruit‘ – remained one of the dark show-stoppers forming a significant element of her repertoire, the song has a morbid history that stretches back to pre-war Hungary. Rezro [sic] Seress composed the mournful song in 1933, the lyric expressing a feeling of futility and helplessness following the death of a loved one, unusual in that it is directed at the person, the narrator detailing numberless shadows and conveying thoughts of suicide”.

Doyle goes on to tell some of the stories that came to be associated with the song being cursed:

“The first reported death associated with ‘Gloomy Sunday’ was that of Joseph Keller, a Budapest shoemaker whose suicide note in 1936 quoted the lyric. In the Hungarian capital alone, seventeen other similar deaths apparently followed, bearing some connection with the song: a couple were said to have shot themselves while a gypsy band performed ‘Gloomy Sunday’; there was talk that a fourteen-year-old girl had thrown herself into a river clutching the sheet music. The song was eventually banned in Hungary, although even these days the occasional piano rendition is performed in the Kis Papa restaurant in Budapest where Seres first aired the song. The legend of ‘Gloomy Sunday’ grew as its apparent effects became further reaching. In New York in the [1940s], there were reports that a typist gassed herself, leaving instructions for the song to be played at her funeral. In London, a policeman was alerted to the fact that a recorded instrumental of the song was being repeatedly played by an unseen female neighbour who, when her flat was entered, was discovered to have overdosed on barbiturates while an automatic phonograph played the song over and over again. Doubtful these tales have been embellished over the years in an effort to emphasize the myth surrounding ‘Gloomy Sunday’, but certain facts remain: the BBC ban imposed on the song in the [1940s] has not been lifted to this day: Holiday suffered a tragic premature death at forty-three form heroin-related liver cirrhosis in 1959; Seress, the song’s composer, himself committed suicide in 1968”.

The Wikipedia entry on ‘Gloomy Sunday’ covers similar ground but is a bit more sceptical. It also references an article on the myth-busting website Snopes.com and notes the BBC ban on the song was lifted in 2002:

“Press reports in the 1930s associated at least nineteen suicides, both in Hungary and the United States, with ‘Gloomy Sunday’, but most of the deaths supposedly linked to it are difficult to verify. The urban legend appears to be, for the most part, simply an embellishment of the high number of Hungarian suicides that occurred in the decade when the song was composed due to other factors such as famine and poverty. No studies have drawn a clear link between the song and suicide. In January 1968, some thirty-five years after writing the song, its composer did commit suicide. The BBC banned Billie Holiday’s version of the song from being broadcast, as being detrimental to wartime morale, but allowed performances of instrumental versions. However, there is little evidence of any other radio bans; the BBC’s ban was lifted by 2002”.

Here is Doyle’s take in relation to Mackenzie in the months after Mackenzie’s mother had died where Mackenzie was having a ‘house leaving’ party:

“The personal grief at the time imbues the song’s lyrics an uneasy resonance that could not have escaped [Mackenzie]. As he lay there singing in the early hours of the Sunday morning following the party, Billy alternated the line ‘Let them not weep, let them know that I’m glad to go’ with his own lamenting alternative: ‘Let them not weep, let them know that I’m sad to go’”.

Arguably his life was a paradox personified. It took him years to get noticed but when he finally made the limelight, he appeared to shun the fame. He lived life his own way on his own terms. Thankfully, while Mackenzie is no longer with us, his music – and his legacy – lives on.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Dalton, S. (2016). 18-carat love affair. Electronic Sound, 2.0, 70-75.

Doyle, T. (2011). The Glamour Chase: The Maverick Life of Billy Mackenzie (Revised Edition). Edinburgh: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Mikkelson, D. (2007). Gloomy Sunday: Was the song ‘Gloomy Sunday’ banned because it led to too many suicides? Snopes.com, May 23. Located at: http://www.snopes.com/music/songs/gloomy.asp

Reynolds, S. (2006). Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk, 1978–1984. New York: Penguin.

Sheehan, T. (2016). Beautiful dreamer. Mojo, 272, 50-55.

Vive Le Rock (2016). A rough guide to…The Associates, Vive Le Rock, 35, 84-85.

Wikipedia (2016). Alan Rankine. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Rankine

Wikipedia (2016). Billy Mackenzie. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Mackenzie

Wikipedia (2016). Gloomy Sunday. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gloomy_Sunday

Wikipedia (2016). Martha Ladly. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martha_Ladly

Wikipedia (2016). Michael Dempsey. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Dempsey

Wikipedia (2016). The Associates (band). Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Associates_(band)

The prose and cons: A brief look at ‘poetry addiction’

Back in May 2014, I gave a whole afternoon of talks on behavioural addictions (including gambling and gaming addiction) at Castle Craig, an inpatient addiction treatment centre in Scotland. One of the most interesting people I met there was the psychotherapist Christopher Burn who on the back of his latest book Poetry Changes Lives describes himself as “a history addict, grandfather, recovering alcoholic, and poetry fanatic”. Maybe I’ll write a blog on what it is to be a “history addict” in a future blog, but this article will briefly look at an article just published by Burn on ‘poetry addiction’.

Anyone that knows me will tell you that writing is an important activity in my life. Many of my friends and colleagues describe me as a ‘writaholic’ and that I am addicted to writing because of the number of articles that I have published. Regular readers of my blog will also know that I have written articles on obsessional writing (graphomania), obsessional erotic writing (erotographomania), diary writing, excessive blog writing, and excessive (productive) writing.

Although I wouldn’t describe myself as a ‘poetry fanatic’ I do love writing poetry myself and have had a number of my poems published. In fact, in 1997, I won a national Poetry Today competition for the best (20 lines and under) poem for An Alliteration of Life. Burn’s article on ‘addiction to the act of writing poetry (like his latest book) is an interesting read. Burn has even coined a new term for addiction to poetry – ‘poesegraphilia’. Burn notes that the Irish dramatist George Farquar said that poetry was a “mere drug” and that:

“Many poets, great and not so great, have suffered from addiction to mood altering substances – Coleridge, Rimbaud and Dylan Thomas (‘the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive’) spring to mind. Many great poems have been written about addiction too. It seems however that very little attention has been given to the addictive power generated by the act of writing poetry itself. One thing is for sure – poetry has a power to alter our mood – not normally in the pernicious or directly physical manner of say, a line of cocaine, but in a pervasive and generally enjoyable way that can usually only be helpful. This mood changing effect can come from either reading or writing poetry but of the two, it is poetry writing that is the most dramatic”.

As an amateur poet myself, I know only too well the emotional power of words and that words can have a mood altering effect (both positive and negative). There is even ‘poetry therapy’ and (in the USA) a National Association for Poetry Therapy and an Institute for Poetic Medicine that advocates the intentional use of poetry and other forms of literature for healing and personal growth”. (For a concise overview of ‘poetry therapy’ check out this article on the GoodTherapy website). Burn says that “writing poetry may not affect a person’s life with the degree of powerlessness and unmanageability that say, alcohol does, but it can still have a very marked influence”. He then includes part of an interview transcript from BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs programme with Les Murray, an Australian poet:

“It’s wonderful, there’s nothing else like it, you write in a trance. And the trance is completely addictive, you love it, you want more of it. Once you’ve written the poem and had the trance, polished it and so on, you can go back to the poem and have a trace of that trance, have the shadow of it, but you can’t have it fully again. It seemed to be a knack I discovered as I went along. It’s an integration of the body-mind and the dreaming-mind and the daylight-conscious-mind. All three are firing at once, they’re all in concert. You can be sitting there but inwardly dancing, and the breath and the weight and everything else are involved, you’re fully alive. It takes a while to get into it. You have to have some key, like say a phrase or a few phrases or a subject matter or maybe even a tune to get you started going towards it, and it starts to accumulate. Sometimes it starts without your knowing that you’re getting there, and it builds in your mind like a pressure. I once described it as being like a painless headache, and you know there’s a poem in there, but you have to wait until the words form”.

I’ve always argued that anything can be addictive if it is something that can constantly reinforce and reward behaviour. Theoretically, there is no reason why writing poetry could not be mood modifying and potentially addictive. As Burn observes:

“Many poets talk about the dream-like trance that envelops them during the act of creating poetry and how this can last sometimes for days. This is not a simple cathartic event, which can happen too, but a state that affects mind, body and spirit. Here is poet and author Robert Graves on the subject: ‘No poem is worth anything unless it starts from a poetic trance, out of which you can be wakened by interruption as from a dream. In fact, it is the same thing’. All this trance-like sensation sounds to me a bit like the effect that certain mood altering substances can have, and we know how addictive they can be”.

Burn then goes on to question whether the act of writing poetry can be clinically classed as an addiction. To do this, he uses criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM] and argues that the act of writing poetry could potentially meet some of the criteria for addiction including: (i) persisting with the habit to the detriment of other activities and relationships, (ii) increased tolerance, (iii) unsuccessful attempts to stop, (iv) increase in time spent on the activity, and (v) persisting with the habit despite knowledge of negative consequences. Based on this he then goes on to argue:

“It seems to me that there is enough anecdotal evidence to indicate that for some people, poetry, in particular the act of writing poetry, is a powerful and addictive behaviour that meets at least a few of these [DSM] criteria…Problem gamblers often talk of the trance-like state they get into when for example, playing slot machines; reality and awareness of the world around them disappears and everything is focused on them to and the moment. As in poetry writing. British poet JLS Carter describes poetic creation as ‘An addiction – you can go for days thinking of nothing else, in a kind of trance where all other thoughts and considerations are sidelined. That way madness lies’. By its very nature, poetry puts a special power into words that affects us in a way that most conversation or written narrative does not. Poetry gets under our skin, alters our moods and stays in our head in a special way”.

Much of Burn’s admittedly anecdotal argument that poetry can be addictive all comes down to how addiction is defined in the first place and also takes the implicit view that some activities can be what Dr. Bill Glasser would call ‘positive addictions’ in that there are some behaviours that can have positive as well as negative consequences. However, for me, there is also the question of whether positive addictions are “addictions” at all. Have a quick look at Glasser’s criteria for positive addictions below. For an activity to be classed as a positive addiction, Glasser says the behaviour must be:

  • Non-competitive and needing about an hour a day
  • Easy, so no mental effort is required
  • Easy to be done alone, not dependent on people
  • Believed to be having some value (physical, mental, spiritual)
  • Believed that if persisted in, some improvement will result
  • Involve no self-criticism.

Most of these could apply to ‘poetry addiction’ but to me, these criteria have little resemblance to the core criteria or components of addictions (such as salience, withdrawal, tolerance, mood modification, conflict, relapse, etc.). My own view is that ‘positive addiction’ is an oxymoron and although I am the first to admit that some potential addictions might have benefits that are more than just short-term (as in the case of addictions to work or exercise), addictions will always be negative for the individual in the long run. Although no-one is ever likely to seek treatment for an addiction to writing poetry, it doesn’t mean that we can’t use activities like writing poetry to help us define and refine how we conceptualize behavioural addictions.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Burn, C. (2015). Poetry Changes Lives. Biggar: DHH Publishing.

Burn, C. (2016). Poesegraphilia – Addiction to the act of writing poetry. Poetry Changes Lives, May 27. Located at: http://www.poetrychangeslives.com/addiction-to-the-act-of-writing-poetry/

Glasser, W. (1976), Positive Addictions, Harper & Row, New York, NY.

GoodTherapy.Org (2016). Poetry therapy. Located at: http://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/poetry-therapy

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Behavioural addiction: The case for a biopsychosocial approach. Trangressive Culture, 1, 7-28.

Klein. P. (2006). The therapeutic benefit of poetry. The Therapist. Located at: http://phyllisklein.com/writing-for-healing/the-therapeutic-benefit-of-poetry/

Larkin, M., Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Towards addiction as relationship. Addiction Research and Theory, 14, 207-215.

Occult figure: David Bowie and living life at the extremes

Since David Bowie’s death earlier this year, I’ve already written two articles on the psychology of Bowie (which you can read here and here) but this article takes a look at the more extreme aspects of Bowie’s life (excluding his various addictions which I briefly examined in my previous pieces). As a long-time David Bowie fan I’ve been meaning to write this particular blog for a long time but just never got around to it. I had made lots of notes taken from various Bowie biographies (see ‘Further reading’ below) but Dr. Dean Ballinger (University of Waikato) recently beat me to the punch by publishing a similar article to the one I had planned in the March 2016 issue of the Fortean Times.

During Bowie’s five decades in music he has been interviewed on almost every conceivable topic but it’s always the interviews about his most extreme and esoteric subjects that have caught my eye whether it concerned his religious and spiritual beliefs, his political views, or his moral philosophy. I’ve always looked for hidden meanings in his lyrics and taken the view that his lyrics provide an insight into his personality as much as anything else that I have seen or read about him in the print and broadcast media. Like most other hardcore Bowie fans, I have been poring over the lyrics of his final studio album Blackstar now knowing that he wrote and recorded it while suffering from an aggressive form of cancer. The album is arguably his most cryptic and mysterious since the classics of the mid- to late-1970s (Station To Station, Low and “Heroes”) – although I also love 1.Outside and Heathen both lyrically and musically.

Looking back, it was probably the Station To Station title track that really made me wonder what was going on in Bowie’s head. Although Bowie says he was “out of his gourd” on cocaine at the time (and has little recollection of recording the album), the lyrics (as a teenager) made no sense to me at all (Here are we/One magical movement/From Kether to Malkuth/There are you/You drive like a demon/From station to station”). I had no idea that Kether (“the crown” – divine will or pure light) and Malkuth (“the kingship” – the nurturing receptacle of the light) originated from Kabbalah (an esoteric school of thought rooted in Judaism) representing two of 10 sephirots (sometimes spelled ‘sefirots’ and meaning ’emanations’ or ‘attributes’) in the Tree of Life.

During his cocaine-fuelled days, Bowie rarely slept and filled his time reading books. Not only books about Kabbalah but also books on the occult (a number of books by Aleister Crowley; Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s The Morning of the Magicians; Israel Regardie’s books on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn), on the symbolic obsessions of Nazism (most notably Trevor Ravenscroft’s The Spear of Destiny), and defensive magic and tarot cards (Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense) as well as more general books on the secret history of Christianity, UFOs, political conspiracies, and numerology. It’s also worth noting that Bowie’s 1976 persona (‘The thin white duke’ in his ‘Station To Station’ lyric) is almost certainly taken from Crowley’s erotic poetry (“The return of the thin white duke making sure white stains” from the 1898 book White Stains).

It’s been claimed by Chris O’Leary (author of the excellent Rebel Rebel and founder of the Pushing Ahead of The Dame website) that “Bowie’s immersion in Kabbalah was part of an overarching spiritual quest that took him from Tibetan Buddhism (he almost joined a monastery in the late 1960s, until his teacher told him that he’d make a better musician than monk) to Christian mysticism, occult worship and a flirtation with neo-Nazi imagery that nearly derailed his career when it was discovered that he collected Nazi memorabilia”. I hadn’t realised that Bowie had made reference to the occult in earlier songs such as ‘Quicksand’ (The Order of the Golden Dawn – a late 19th/early 20th century organisation devoted to the practice of occult, metaphysical, and paranormal phenomena, and the root of more traditional modern day occult practices such as Thelema and Wicca) as well as Tibetan Buddhism (more specifically his use of the word ‘Bardo’ in the song – the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth).

Bowie’s interest in Buddhism and Tibet dates back to the 1960s as evidenced by songs such as ‘Silly Boy Blue’ (first demoed in 1965). In an interview by Bowie with the Melody Maker (24 February, 1966) notes:

I want to go to Tibet. It’s a fascinating place, y’know. I’d like to take a holiday and have a look inside the monasteries. The Tibetan monks, Lamas, bury themselves inside mountains for weeks, and only eat every three days. They’re ridiculous—and it’s said they live for centuries…As far as I’m concerned the whole idea of Western life – that’s the life we live now – is wrong. These are hard convictions to put into songs, though”.

Chris O’Leary also noted that:

“Bowie’s interest in Tibetan Buddhism wasn’t a sudden trendy affectation—he had begun exploring the religion when he was in his mid-teens, first inspired by reading Heinrich Harrer’s 1952 book Seven Years in Tibet, and he eventually met and befriended the Tibetan lama Chimi Youngdong Rimpoche, who was exiled in London. Bowie even fantasized about becoming a Buddhist monk – cropping his hair and dyeing it black, wearing saffron robes and even changing his skin color (he’d have to settle for becoming Ziggy). Buddhism was an early influence in his songs: he had meant for the backing chorus of his single ‘Baby Loves That Way’ to sound like chanting monks.”

Bowie didn’t appear to have strong religious beliefs. In an interview in 1997 he noted that there was an “abiding need in me to vacillate between atheism or a kind of Gnosticism…what I need is to find a balance, spiritually, with 
the way I live and my demise” but in relation to thoughts on his own mortality he said “I believe in a continuation, kind of a dream-state without the dreams. Oh, I don’t know. I’ll come back and tell you”. In addition to his spiritual leanings, Dr. Ballinger in his 2016 Fortean Times article goes as far to say that occult and paranormal themes constituted an “integral dimension” of Bowie’s career. Bowie clearly had an interest in aliens, science fiction, and the paranormal as reflected in many of his singles dating back to ‘Space Oddity’ (1969) through to ‘Loving The Alien’ (1985) and ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ (1996) (as well as many album tracks and his acting breakthrough as an alien in Nic Roeg’s film The Man Who Fell To Earth). Dr. Ballinger also argued that:

“Bowie was also reading upon esoteric subjects and alternative ideas in a relatively in-depth way beyond fashionable name dropping is made clear by the songs 
on his fourth album, Hunky Dory (1971).
 The jaunty pop of ‘Oh You Pretty Things!’ is belied by lyrics that evoke a rather sinister picture of spiritual evolution, in which the listener is asked to ‘make way’ for ‘the coming race’ of ‘homo superior’ Nietszchean super children…The ‘coming race’ is also a probable nod to the Bulwer-Lytton novel of the same name that became a staple of the ‘Vril’ mythos associated with occult-minded Nazis, a subject that would have a rather negative influence on Bowie in the near future. More overt is the ballad ‘Quicksand’, in which Bowie expounds a New Age manifesto – ‘I’m not a prophet or a Stone Age man/Just a mortal with potential of a superman’ – with reference to the Western magical tradition (‘I’m closer to the Golden Dawn/Immersed in Crowley’s uniform/of imagery), [and] The Tibetan Book of the Dead (‘You can tell me all about it on the next Bardo’)”.

Bowie wasn’t the first musician to use The Tibetan Book of the Dead as inspiration for lyrics. More famously, John Lennon used it for The Beatles classic ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, the final track on the 1966 Revolver album (something I forgot to mention in my previous article on Bowie and The Beatles). However, John Lennon based his lyrics after reading The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead written by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert. (And while I’m going off on tangents, I just wanted to mention that Alpert’s most well known book Be Here Now just happens to be the title of (Beatle-loving) Oasisthird album).

Dr. Ballinger also makes the argument that in Bowie’s 1972 breakthrough LP The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars there were “evident resonances between occultism and his musical career” and that he drew inspiration from a wide range of esoteric cultural influences to source “stimulating ideas and imagery to explore in lyrics, costumes and videos”. Ballinger also claims that Bowie’s work at this point of his career had a more integral relationship with the theory and practice of magic and occultism:

“Parsing Crowley’s legacy, one of the key aspects of magic is the transformation of the self (and, possibly, the wider social reality) through acts that focus the imagination/will towards such change, such acts including sex, drug consumption, meditation, and creative performance (i.e., rituals). In this vein Bowie can be considered a distinctly magical musician whose whole career revolved around the transformation of the self and the wider culture through the ‘ritual performances’
of rock music, such as concerts, recordings, and videos. In his most influential period
 of the 1970s, Bowie created personae (such 
as Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, and the Thin White Duke) and undertook musical experiments (the ‘plastic soul’ of Young Americans and the avant-garde/krautrock/funk synthesis of the ‘Berlin trilogy’) that in turn transformed rock culture by inspiring scores of other artists. The gender-bending that was a notable aspect of Bowie’s personae in this period (for example, the androgynous cover photo for The Man Who Sold The World (1970) or the 1979 video for ‘Boys Keep Swinging’), and the cultivation of bisexual overtones in his lyrics and performance (‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ as an account of bisexual angst), are also interesting to consider in relation to Crowley’s emphasis on sexuality as a core component of magical transformation”.

Like some of the best music by The Beatles, some of the best music made by Bowie was while he was using drugs excessively (often described by his biographers as a ‘cocaine-induced psychosis’). Bowie himself claims that in 1975 he was in poor mental and physical health but ironically he was producing some of the best music (and acting) of his career. However, Bowie’s cocaine addiction has also been used as an excuse for his behaviour during the 1976 period where he flirted with Nazi occultism and made the claim that the UK would benefit from a fascist leader (“I think I might have been a bloody good Hitler. I’d be an excellent dictator. Very eccentric and quite mad”). Many musicians have said they are interested in Nazi imagery and fashion (e.g., Bryan Ferry) and others have collected Nazi memorabilia (e.g., Lemmy) but these interests do not mean such people are Nazi-loving or fascists.

Bowie’s esoteric and occultist interests appear to subside as his career progressed and it wasn’t until his final album that Bowie appeared to be using music (and the accompanying promo videos) in a symbolic way for people to re-interpret his music as a cryptic death note to all his hardcore acolytes (of which I would include myself). Unless Bowie left any explanation for his final seven songs, we can only speculate. However, I’ll leave you with the thoughts of Dr. Ballinger who has done a better job than I could ever do:

“The Blackstar album has seen Bowie go out with a distinctly occult bang…As every prior Bowie album cover has featured a portrait, the five-pointed ‘black star’ of 
this one is presumably meant to represent Bowie too – perhaps in his ultimate persona as spirit (the five-pointed star being a classic Hermetic/Gnostic symbol of ‘man as microcosm’, with the contradictory image of a ‘black star’ also evoking a koan or the alchemical union of opposites). The creepy atmosphere conjured up by the lyrics of the title track – “In the villa of Ormen/Stands a solitary candle/On the day of execution/Only women stand and smile” – is successfully evoked in the video for the song. Bowie 
is depicted as preacher of some dark 21st century faith, brandishing a Blackstar bible among acolytes whose spasmodic ‘dancing’ suggests a state of possession. A reading of the imagery here as analogous to Crowley and his Book of the Law is perhaps apt; director Johan Renck, who designed the videos with Bowie, has mentioned Crowley as a reference point. Some kind of Hermetic/Gnostic subtext about eternity, spirit and the flesh is further implied in the imagery of the video’s other ‘storyline’, in which the shade of a dead astronaut – Bowie himself, in his formative Major Tom persona? – floats up into a ‘black star’ of eternity, before, in a possibly Orphic reference, leaving behind his bejewelled skull for ritual veneration by a sect of mutant women. Where the esoteric overtones of the ‘Blackstar’ video are eerie, those of the video for ‘Lazarus’ are poignant. Bowie plays himself as a patient in a hospital bed, whose closet is a portal from which appears a double who is seemingly meant to signify his essential spirit. This figure is not garbed as Ziggy, the Thin White Duke
 or any of Bowie’s most famous personae, but in the striped black jumpsuit in which he undertook the famous occult photo shoot for Station to Station, in which he is depicted drawing Kabbalistic symbols on the wall. That Bowie chose this costume for his valedictory performance suggests he was giving a subtle nod to the deep, lasting metaphysical significance that this period had upon the rest of his life”.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Ballinger, D. (2016). The mage who sold the world. Fortean Times, 338, 28-33.

Buckley, D. (2005). Strange Fascination: David Bowie – The Definitive Story. London: Virgin Books.

Cann, K. (2010). Any Day Now: David Bowie The London Years (1947-1974). Adelita.

Doggett, P. (2012). The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie and the 1970s. London: Vintage.

Goddard, S. (2015). Ziggyology. London: Ebury Press.

Hewitt, P. (2013). David Bowie Album By Album. London: Carlton Books Ltd.

Leigh, W. (2014). Bowie: The Biography. London: Gallery.

O’Leary, C. (2016). Rebel Rebel. Alresford: Zero Books.

Pegg, N. (2011). The Complete David Bowie. London: Titan Books.

Rogovoy, S. (2013). The secret Jewish history of David Bowie. Forward.com, April 16. Located at: http://forward.com/culture/174551/the-secret-jewish-history-of-david-bowie/

Seabrook, T.J. (2008). Bowie In Berlin: A New Career In A New Town. London: Jawbone.

Spitz, M. (2009). Bowie: A Biography. Crown Archetype.

Trynka, P. (2011). Starman: David Bowie – The Definitive Biography. London: Little Brown & Company.

Can you feel the force? The psychopathology of ‘Star Wars’

A few days ago, my friend and colleague Dr. Andrew Dunn sent all the psychology staff members a paper published in the December 2015 issue of Australasian Psychiatry by Susan Friedman and Ryan Hall entitled ‘Using Star Wars’ supporting characters to teach about psychopathology’. As a fan of Star Wars and science fiction more generally, I immediately read the paper and thought it would be a good topic to write a blog about.

It turns out that Friedman and Ryan have written a series of papers in psychiatric journals over the last year arguing that many of the characters in the Star Wars movies have underlying psychopathologies and that because of the films’ popularity, the films could be used to teach students about various psychiatric disorders. The authors asserted that supporting characters in Star Wars can be used to teach about a wide variety of psychiatric conditions which are not commonly so accessible in one story, including [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] ADHD, anxiety, kleptomania, and paedophilia”. I have to admit that in my own teaching I often use characters and/or storylines from film and television to explain psychological phenomena to my own students (and have also published articles and papers demonstrating the utility of using such sources in both teaching and research contexts – see ‘Further reading’ below). Therefore, I was intrigued to read what psychiatric disorders had been attributed to which Star Wars characters.

In the Australasian Psychiatry paper, it is argued that Jar Jar Binks has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD):

“Jar Jar frequently overlooks details and makes careless mistakes…His difficulty in sustaining his attention is evident…His difficulty in following instructions almost results in him being put to death…trainees can determine whether [the examples provided] are related to inattention, hyperactivity or impulsivity”.

More controversially, Friedman and Ryan make the case for Qui-Gon Jinn showing paedophilic grooming behaviour.

“In Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon engages in many behaviours with young Anakin Skywalker the same way a paedophile would with a child victim. Anakin seems to fit a pattern which Qui-Gon has of cultivating prepubescent, fair-complexioned boys with no strong male family ties…Anakin’s mother has no power or relations with authority, which decreases the likelihood that either she or Anakin would report the paedophile, or potentially be believed by others…Qui-Gon develops a relationship with Anakin, noting his special features and abilities: he often gives compliments to the child…He fosters a relationship where secrets are kept…and the child is slowly isolated from others…After trust is gained, there is a gradual increase in physical intimacy. In the movies this was symbolised by Qui-Gon drawing blood samples from Anakin. A paedophile may incorporate other children or older victims into the grooming process to further lower the child’s inhibitions”.

I’m not overly convinced by the argument but it does at least lead to discussions on the topic of grooming that I could see having a place in the classroom. Friedman and Ryan also examine a whole species (the Jawas) and claim that they are by nature kleptomaniacs:

“Jawas can introduce the concepts of kleptomania and hoarding, since they ‘have a tendency to pick up anything that’s not tied down’. It is important from a diagnostic point of view to recognise that kleptomania is more than just stealing or shoplifting…To meet criteria for kleptomania, one must recurrently fail to resist the impulse to steal unneeded or non-valuable objects. Tension before committing the theft is followed by gratification or release afterwards. These characteristics of kleptomania can be inferred from the Jawas’ capture of R2D2…The gratification of stealing R2D2 is clear from the Jawas’ excited scream…As for the need or value of the stolen items and the repetitive nature of the theft, the Jawas’ sandcrawler is filled with droids in various states of dysfunction…Although on a desert planet almost anything might have value, the Jawas seem to take this to extremes given the number of broken droids in their possession which do not even appear to be in good enough shape to use as spare parts”.

Elsewhere in the paper is a table listing many Star Wars characters along with “potential concept discussions” related to the characters’ behaviours in the films. This includes (amongst others) Darth Vader (borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder), Jabba the Hutt (psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder), Boba Fett (Oedipal issues – Hamlet type), Yoda (dyslexia, malingering), Luke Skywalker (prodromal schizophrenia), Princess Leia (histrionic personality disorder), Padme Amidala (postnatal delirium, postnatal depression), Obi-Wan Kenobi (major depression in old age, pseudo-dementia), and C3PO (obsessive-compulsive personality disorder).

However, given my own research interests, the character that most interested me in Friedman and Ryan’s list was the claim that Lando Calrissian might be a pathological gambler. According to one of the Wiki entries:

“Lando Calrissian was a human male smuggler, gambler, and card player who became Baron Administrator of Cloud City, and, later, a general in the Rebel Alliance. [He] was born on the planet Socorro…During his youth, he became a smuggler and a gambler, playing a card game known as sabbacc. Calrissian was able to make a living by illegally acquiring and redistributing rare or valuable goods. However, due to Calrissian’s penchant for gambling, he and his business partner Lobot were in deep with the wrong people”.

Gambling does make the occasional appearance in Star Wars films – particularly in bar scenes. In describing Calrissian to Han Solo, Princess Leia notes “he’s a card player, gambler, scoundrel. You’d like him“. Qui-Gon Jinn notes in The Phantom Menace that “Whenever you gamble my friend, eventually you’ll lose”. The Star Wars Wiki on gambling notes that it involves the betting of credits or possessions in wagers or games like sabbacc. For example, Lando Calrissian bet the Millennium Falcon in a game of sabacc with Han Solo, and lost. Gambling was rampant on Tatooine [the home planet of Luke Skywalker]”. The Star Wars Wiki on sabacc also notes that there are several variants of the game and that Calrissian lost the Millenium Falcon to Han Solo while playing ‘Corellian Spike’ and that Solo kept the two golden dice that were used while gambling. A profile article on Calrissian in the Washington Post describes him as a “suave gambler” rather than a pathological gambler.

There is no doubt that Calrissian liked to gamble but there is little evidence from the film that it was pathological. However, other articles (as well as older and newer fiction) about him claim that he is. For instance, in an online article by Shane Cowlishaw discussing the personality disorders of Star Wars characters, the following is claimed: 

“He may have ended up leading the final assault on the Death Star, but Lando perhaps was only successful due to being a pathological gambler. Having lost the Millennium Falcon to Han Solo in a bet, conned the Bespin Gas Mine out of somebody and gambling on a deal to betray Han and Chewbacca to the Empire, it is clear he can’t help himself. Lando gambles with the lives of other rebels, albeit successfully, be demanding that the spaceship not abort their mission when Admiral Ackbar orders everyone to retreat from the unexpectedly operational Death Star. A perfect character to debate whether pathological gambling is an addiction or an impulse-control disorder, apparently”

It’s also worth mentioning that Calrissian will also be making an appearance in upcoming Marvel comics. In an interview with writer Charles Soule (who will be scripting the new stories), it is evident that the crux of his character will focus on the gambling part of his personality – but more on the problem side:

“I focused on the whole gambler archetype for Lando; more specifically, the sort of lifelong card player who never really knows when to walk away from the table. He’s always chasing his losses, hoping that if he makes a big enough bet, he can get ahead with just one good hand. It’s tweaked a bit here—the idea is that Lando had something happen to him in his past that put him way behind, and now he’s just trying to get back to even. This isn’t really a financial thing, although that’s part of it – it’s more like a moral thing. Like a life debt. I don’t hit it too hard in this story—it’s all background—but the shading is there…Lando gets into crazy, extreme situations because they’re his version of making big bets at the card table. If he can make it through his next adventure, maybe he can just retire and live a quiet life. It never really works out, though. One step forward, two steps back. That’s Lando Calrissian…It’s a story about a hyper-charismatic, ultra-smooth guy who gets into huge jams constantly, and tends to get out of them through a combination of luck and charm. He’d never punch his way out of a fight; he’d rather buy everyone a few drinks and leave on good terms. Assuming he hasn’t gambled away all his money, that is”.

However, there is also the 2013 novel Scoundrels written by Timothy Zahn featuring Calrissian, Han Solo, and Chewbacca and includes the short story Winner Lose All based on Calrissian’s love of gambling but here, there is nothing to suggest the behaviour is pathological. There is also a fictional online interview with Calrissian that puts forward the idea that he was a professional gambler rather than a pathological gambler:

“Basically I was born to a normal middle class family and found I had a talent for gambling. I traipsed across the universe as a professional gambler, but occasionally need more money so I hired out as mercenary and treasure hunter. Eventually I won the Millennium Falcon, but didn’t know how to fly it. So I paid Han Solo to teach me, he won the ship from me in a game of Sabbac. I won it back but, it like taking your best friend’s girl so I gave it back to him. When I wound up on Cloud City I won my title of Barron Administrator in a card game. The rest is they sat history”.

Finally, on a more academic note, Calrissian also makes an appearance as one of the ‘Gambler’ archetypes the book Archetypes in Branding: A Toolkit for Creatives and Strategists by Margaret Hartwell and Joshua Chen. The book is a novel approach to brand development and includes a deck of 60 archetype cards with the aim of revealing a brand’s motivation and why it attracts certain customers. The authors hope that the book will be used repeatedly to inform and enliven brand strategy. This again suggests that Calrissian’s gambling is not seen as pathological (otherwise he wouldn’t have been included in the book as a brand to be modelled upon).

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Cowlishaw, S. (2015). Star Wars characters and their personality disorders. Stuff, July 8. Located at: http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/film/70017741/Star-Wars-characters-and-their-personality-disorders

Friedman, S. H., & Hall, R. C. (2015). Using Star Wars’ supporting characters to teach about psychopathology. Australasian Psychiatry, 23(4), 432-434.

Friedman, S. H., & Hall, R. C. (2015). Teaching psychopathology in a galaxy far, far away: The light side of the force. Academic Psychiatry, 39(6), 719-725.

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Media literature as a teaching aid for psychology: Some comments. Psychology Teaching Review, 5(2), 90.

Griffiths, M. (2004). An empirical analysis of the film ‘The Gambler’. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 1(2), 39-43.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Media and advertising influences on adolescent risk behaviour. Education and Health, 28(1), 2-5.

Hall, R. C., & Friedman, S. H. (2015). Psychopathology in a galaxy far, far away: The use of Star Wars’ dark side in teaching. Academic Psychiatry, 39(6), 726-732.

Hartwell, M. & Chen, J.C. (2012). Archetypes in Branding: A Toolkit for Creatives and Strategists. How Design Books.