When you tell people that you write for a TV show about a sex cult run by a rocket scientist, you expect looks of delighted shock. Stories of how the grandfather of the intercontinental ballistic missile summoned angels and demons through the power of orgasm should give one serious cocktail-party cachet. Yet out here, when I drop that I work on CBS All Access’s Strange Angel and that our real-life protagonist, Jet Propulsion Lab co-founder Jack Parsons, believed Sex Magick was the key to Manifesting his Will, I tend to get a blasé grin from my listener: “Yeah, I know all about manifesting.” Welcome to Los Angeles.
Growing up in L.A., you tire quickly of jokes about probiotic cleanses and goat yoga. We native Angelenos expend so much energy rebutting our home’s La-La Land reputation that we’re often tempted to overlook how every corner of this city, from the dingiest strip mall to the most secluded Spanish revival mansion, vibrates with an intense yearning for the divine. It’s not that the L.A. clichés aren’t true: They’re just not true enough. Where New York or Chicago proudly grounds its allegiances in this world, Los Angeles quivers everywhere with whispered aspirations of transcendence to the next.
That didn’t hit home for me until my research for Strange Angel led me to a basement temple of the Thelemites, the cult that Parsons financed and led throughout World War II. The walls were swathed in black with cryptic symbols and Egyptian iconography in gold; above the altar hung a portrait of infamous occultist Aleister Crowley. It was as if I’d wandered past a trans-dimensional gate by accident: I had to remind myself I was beneath a music store in a La Crescenta–Montrose strip mall. I’d passed two Paneras on the way.
The strange can be comfortably mundane in L.A. As a kid, my favorite jaunts were to the Psychic Eye bookshop with my grandmother, searching for crystals with the “right” energy: I never questioned why. Nor do I now when I’m required to proclaim “I am karmic” to order the hummus plate at Café Gratitude. These days brujas advertise via Instagram, and sidewalk fortune-tellers pop up at last call to lure drunks waiting out an Uber surge. The Thelemites, for their part, are prolific podcasters.
The geography of the city is littered with monuments to fallen prophets: Aimee Semple Macpherson’s Angelus Temple, which kicked off the Charismatic megachurch craze back in the Jazz Age, looms large over the families taking Sunday swan boats out on Echo Park Lake. Morbidly curious hikers regularly trek out to the Manson Family Picture Cave at Spahn Ranch; and you can hardly set foot on Hollywood Boulevard without being offered a free E-meter reading. The movies are far from the only indigenous industry selling fantastical dreams, spiritual catharsis, and epic visions—and definitely not the first.
The native Tongva tribes kicked off this lineage smoking Jimsonweed and sacrificing eagles before the Spaniards ever set foot out here. The first book published in L.A. was Reform of the New Testament Church by William Money, a 19th century Anglo-Christian faith healer who set up his cult inside an octagonal church. The 20th century only got weirder, from Ruth Wieland’s Depression-era, mule-sacrificing Divine Order to the alien whisperers of the mid-’50s Aetherius Society and Father Yod’s notorious the Source, a psychedelic cult/rock band that kicked off the Age of Aquarius from its iconic vegetarian restaurant on the Sunset Strip. (Marlon Brando and John Lennon were big fans.)
The retort is usually, “It’s something in the air.” Actually, conventional wisdom attributes it all to the light. In its earliest, pre-smog incarnation, Los Angeles functioned as one big sanatorium, where tuberculosis patients from back east came with hopes of recovery. The same otherworldly luminescence that summoned D. W. Griffith from the East Coast served as a beacon to those in mortal need. Is it any surprise that folks at death’s door might be singularly obsessed with leaving this small, petty world behind? But that was more than a century ago, and the esoteric trail heads have been too well maintained for it to be the whole story: I’m convinced the root cause is something more fundamental to this city and to all who heed its call.
Perhaps Los Angeles is just the logical culmination of the great American imperative: “Go West, young man!” The city is not only filled with the descendants of early pioneers, it continually repopulates itself with endless crops of fresh dreamers. After you’ve run out of wagon trail, or you’ve seen your celluloid dreams go up in smoke, you’re forced to look inside yourself, at whatever buried demons drove you here in the first place. Is this city what happens when desperate seekers end their sojourn, only to be confronted by the great, unfathomable abyss of the Pacific? Perhaps once you can no longer move forward in life, you move inward.
When spirituality goes dark here, it goes dark hard. In a city where the believers need to believe so badly, disillusion easily metastasizes into dementia: Gurus devolve into con men, and a harem of love children becomes a cabal of wide-eyed murderers. Peace-loving hippies are always a hair’s breadth away from Helter Skelter. As for Parsons, he became obsessed with summoning the Whore of Babylon and tried to inaugurate the Apocalypse. He ended up blowing himself and his laundry room sky-high in 1952.
Yet, from all these shipwrecked souls something powerful has emerged, a strain of alternative thinking that recycled the shattered hopes of transcendence into something that the broader culture could accept. As bizarre as sex practices of the Thelemites seemed then, their ethos of supreme tolerance—“Love is the Law”—was ahead of its time: Back when L.A.’s municipal machinery was virulently homophobic, Parsons’s church provided a safe space for the city’s LGBT community. In fact, not only was queer cinema pioneer and Hollywood Babylon author Kenneth Anger a devoted Thelemite, but the organist at Parsons’s Gnostic Masses was none other than Harry Hay, founder of the Mattachine Society and One magazine, the country’s first openly pro-gay publication. Without realizing it, Parsons had helped crack a window in Eisenhower’s America that let in an alternative light.
The distinction between madman and prophet often comes down to a matter of time. It was an early sun worshipper, Philip Lovell, who gave Richard Neutra his big break and put modernism on the map by requesting a house designed for nude sunbathing. Aldous Huxley opened his own doors of perception smoking peyote in the Mohave Desert and inspiring a young Jim Morrison. Yoga, once the practice of the fringe kooks, has been exported nationwide. And America made it to the moon, even if Jack Parsons never did.
As L.A. has become a global metropolis, we natives like to pretend our bohemian motherland long ago moved beyond such adolescent strivings. But when I venture outside California and spot the modern, Lululemon-clad hordes greeting the day with ancient asanas everywhere from Central Park to central Des Moines, I wonder if L.A. hasn’t so much outgrown its past, as we’ve all grown into its future. We are all sun worshippers now.