Paranormalizing the Popular through the Tibetan Tulpa: Or what the next Dalai Lama, the X Files and Affect Theory (might) have in common

What’s the newest and weirdest sub-culture on the Internet, you ask? If you’re Vice Magazine, it’s apparently tulpamancers.

Tulpamancers are people who, through extended bouts of concentration and visualization, produce a special kind of imaginary friend that they call a tulpa. Tulpas are understood to be distinct sentient beings with their own personalities, inclinations and (relative) autonomy. Through various active and passive processes known as ‘forcing’ tulpamancers spend hours solidifying their impressions of their creations as something more than just an ordinary inner voice. (Active forcing means concentrating single-pointedly on the tulpa’s form and features, passive forcing is when the tulpamancer finds ways to bring tulpas into more regular routines, such as through ‘narrating’, where tulpamancers chat with or read stories to their creations). Tulpamancers meet tulpas in imagined environments called ‘wonderlands’, dream or mind-scapes that more fully contextualize interactions and provide a place for tulpas to ‘hang out’ when idle. They also work to perfect ‘imposition’ -seeing, hearing, or feeling tulpas in the ‘real world’ – and may practice tulpa-possession or even ‘switching’, where the tulpa takes over the host’s body and the host temporarily occupies the tulpa’s form in the wonderland.

A tulpamancer’s portrait of his creation from Nathan Thompson’s 2014 Vice article (left). Many have noted the tulpamancer community’s overlap with Brony, anime, furry, and otherkin sub-cultures and have stereotyped tulpamancers as obsessive and socially-awkward nerds. While sub-cultural overlaps do exist, they are partial and shifting, and many tulpamancers object to being type-cast or being lumped with these other groups. Most of the tulpamancers that anthropologist Samuel Veissiere investigated were white, middle to upper-middle class, urban, and between the ages of 19 and 23. Men outnumbered women three-to-one, although roughly ten percent of the tulpamancers Veissiere surveyed identified as gender-fluid.

If this is news for you, you might be wondering where this all comes from. The deceptively simple answer is: Tibet. Tulpa (sprul pa, སྤྲུལ་པ) is a Tibetan word meaning ’emanation’, ‘apparition’ or ‘magical illusion’, and the practices of contemporary tulpamancers are supposedly modeled on the esoteric procedures of Tibetan mystics, who we are often told, have been producing sentient mental-entities through meditation for centuries. Except they haven’t. Well, sort of.

Before the advent of online tulpamancer communities, and notwithstanding its Tibetan name, the concept of the tulpa as a semi-autonomous entity created by one or more individuals’ focused thought or belief was primarily a mainstay in Western esoteric and parapsychological circles. Western occultists inherited their version of tulpas from early non-Tibetan interpreters of Tibetan Buddhism like French explorer Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969) and American Walter Evans-Wentz (1878-1965). David-Neel’s description of how she experimented with making a tulpa in the form of a ‘jolly monk’ while in Tibet – and her account of how this ‘mind-creature’ was subsequently seen by others who mistook it for an actual person, and how it became more and more sinister, self-motivated and unruly which obliged her to dissolve it – helped set the tone and terms of subsequent representations of tulpas. Further, as Natasha Mikles and Joseph Laycock have laid out nicely in a recent article, both David-Neel and Evan-Wentz’s understanding of Tibetan tulpas was in turn strongly influenced by Theosophical teachings related to the possibilities and dangers of ‘thought-forms’ and ‘elementals’. These ideas were already in circulation in Europe and America long before either David-Neel or Evan-Wentz ever went to the Himalayas to study with Tibetans. Thus, as Mikles and Laycock put it (paralleling my own earlier arguments here on Savage Minds about both Tibetan aliens and Tibetan singing bowls, popular ideas about tulpas today are a product of complex dialogues or cross-fertilizations between ‘East and West’, and, to be fair, probably owe more to Theosophy than to Tibetan Buddhism.

Explorer Alexandra David-Neel, here pictured, not with a tulpa, but with her Sikkimese assistant (and later adopted son) reincarnate lama Aphur Yongden (1899-1955).

The tulpa concept has evolved and circulated to the point where it has escaped far beyond any specifically Tibetan cultural, social or linguistic moorings. During the last two decades or so, the idea of tulpas has migrated from Western esotericism and parapsychology to enter online forums and global pop culture. Tulpas have featured in episodes of hit shows like the X-files and Supernatural over the last seven years or so. In October of 2013, anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann wrote about tulpamancers in an op-ed for the New York Times. She compared tulpamancers to evangelical Christians who put in serious cognitive-emotional elbow grease to experience God as a sensory reality in their everyday lives, and argued that tulpamancers’ experiences with tulpas supports anthropologists’ and evolutionary psychologists’ claims that “the idea of an invisible agent is basic to our psyche”. I started writing this piece a week or few ago after I discovered that Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time had, as recently as a month ago, devoted a whole episode to the tulpa concept. As someone who has studied and practiced Western magical traditions for many years, I was familiar with talk about tulpas, and had been tracking with interest how representations of the entities periodically surfaced in popular culture. Watching the Adventure Time episode though, the fact that an occult concept like tulpas was now receiving treatment in one of the biggest ‘kid’s’ cartoons on TV today (even after the advent of online tulpamancers), was just too much for my feverish little anthropologist brain.

Since the appearance of Nathan Thompson’s 2014 Vice article, scholars, Tibetan Buddhist practitioners, Western occultists, and tulpamancers have debated the extent to which tulpas are and aren’t Tibetan. I decided I should gather my thoughts and say something at least vaguely meaningful about the popularization of the tulpa concept. That I should give an overview, a back-and-forth for readers about the ‘East-West tulpa dialogue’, and try to say something new and interesting on the topic, at least as far as my unique expertise might allow.

And then, just on Monday, February 8th, the latest episode of the X-Files Season 10 re-boot aired, and scooped me, kind of.


In many ways, the episode referenced the very material I was working on in this piece. With discussions about the relative (in)accessibility of academic writing and the unbearable slowness of publishing ongoing, anthropologists certainly appreciate whatever chance they can get to feel topical and up-to-the-minute. Monday’s X Files episode gave me all that and more. Not only could I pat myself on the head about being on the money, but the episode’s treatment of the subject seemed to validate many of the points I had already written down. For not only has the tulpa gone viral, but as I’ll try to show and argue, it has come to embody both fantasies and fears about virality itself, about mass cultural production and consumption in the digital age, in a manner very different to when a tulpa first trended in an X Files ‘monster of the week’ episode in 1999.

As an anthropologist doing research on both contemporary Tibetan societies and contemporary Western esotericism it’s naturally tempting for me to jump in and offer my own two cents about what a tulpa ‘really’ is. Rather than only focus on what distinguishes different kinds of tulpa though, I also want to pause and reflect on what they might have in common. In Monday’s new X Files episode FBI agent Fox Mulder offers a rejoinder to his own previous take on Tibetan tulpas from the earlier episode in the franchise. This recent episode’s presentation (which I discuss more fully below) confirms my suspicions that Tibetan and non-Tibetan tulpas alike can offer equally rich material for thinking about topics like the popularizing and secularizing of esoteric knowledge, mass mediation and collective affect, and the policing of the imagination and the ‘imaginary’.


So if tulpas aren’t exactly Tibetan, what are Tibetan tulpas? To her credit, even if her presentation of tulpas was idiosyncratic, hybrid or misleading, in addition to describing her own experiments, David-Neel did discuss many of the broader connotations of tulpa in Tibetan contexts. While there are no explicit instructions in Tibetan tantric Buddhism for ‘manifesting a tulpa’, various advanced meditative practices do exist which involve intensive concentration on and visualization of imagined entities. The ‘dream yoga’ practices that fall under the umbrella of the ‘Six Dharmas of Naropa’ in particular involve training in the intentional production of mental forms while in a lucid dream-state, and the the so-called ‘generation’ or ‘creation’ stage (bsked rim) of Tibetan tantric yogas requires the meditator to imagine, call upon and then ‘animate’ various yidams (yid dam) or ‘mind-bound’ meditational deities so as to draw near to them, experience them and attain their blessings. Accordingly, both Tibetan Buddhists and Western occultists have argued that yid dam represent a better analog for Western esotericists’ and tulpamancers’ ideas about sentient mental entities than the actual Tibetan word sprul pa.

One commentator on a Reddit tulpa feed who identified themself as a longstanding practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism celebrates what tulpamancers are doing, and points out that their practices are “all very much in line with the spiritual ‘development’ stages in Tibetan Buddhism’. “Tulpa is an accurate description of these daemons” (i.e. Yidams) the poster says. Yet another practitioner of both Western ceremonial magic and Tibetan Buddhism called Kalagni, taking a more exasperated tone and reiterating Mikles and Laycock’s misgivings about David-Neel’s presentation of tulpa, explains in a blog post entitled “Tulpa: Not What You Think” that “a tulpa is something used all the time in Vajrayana (i.e. Tibetan tantric) Buddhism, though the word is almost never used.” This poster equates tulpas with the dam tshig sems dpa’ or ‘tantric vow/commitment being’, an imagined, inner form of the tantric meditational deity into which the ye shes sems dpa’ (or gnosis-being), the actual deity itself, is invited.

An example of a Tibetan tantric Buddhist yid dam. This is Vajrakilaya or Vajrakumara (rdo rje phur pa in Tibetan, ‘the Adamantine Thunderbolt Exorcism Stake’), a meditational-deity of particular importance to the tantric meditation traditions of the most ancient school of Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingma.

Despite these comparisons, tulpamancers’ use of tulpas as friends, companions, confidants and psycho-therapeutic tools has next to nothing in common with the specifics of yid dam and their complex role in Tibetan culture and tantric Buddhist soteriology. For the most part, online tulpamancers are not Tibetan, are not converts to Tibetan religions, and are not necessarily particularly informed about or even interested in Tibet and its cultural practices either. Yet despite this, and non-Tibetan blogger Kalagni’s claim that the Tibetan word sprul pa is not widely used or known by Tibetans, the term sprul pa in fact plays a key role in one of the most important and controversial issues facing Tibetans both inside and outside of Tibet today, namely the question of the current Dalai Lama’s succession.

The Tibetan word sprul pa is generally used to refer to an emanation or magical projection that is sent forth by a Buddha, a Bodhisattva, a god, demi-god, demon, or accomplished yogi to serve some particular mediating function. As a concept, sprul pa is strongly linked to if not synonymous with the term tulku (sprul sku). Sprul sku (a typical Tibetan contraction for sprul pa’i sku gzugs, or ’emanational body’) is the name commonly given to a reincarnate lama, such as the Dalai Lama. High lamas and accomplished yogis like the Dalai Lama are understood to be able to consciously decide when they will die, as well as how (and whether) they will take rebirth in order to help beings. (The current Dalai Lama is not only the re-incarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama, he is also a sprul pa of Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, the Buddha being who according to scripture helped father the Tibetan people via another of his emanational bodies, that of a mild-mannered monkey – see this previous post for more on that story).

‘Sprul sku’ was initially coined as the Tibetan translation for nirmanakaya, a Sanskrit word connected to the Buddhist doctrine of the sku gsum, the three bodies of the Buddha, or three dimensions of existence. This Buddhist ‘Trinity’ provided a way to account for the Buddha’s manifestation within a (seemingly) perishable body, ‘within’ history. It served to explain the relationship between the person of the historical Buddha, the timeless ultimate nature of reality and enlightened mind, and a plethora of a- or trans-historical ‘celestial’ Buddhas and Bodhisattvas which came to feature so strongly in Mahayana Buddhism. Emanation and emanational bodies in Tibetan Buddhism are thus associated with the compassionate agency of higher beings. Emanation is a process of mediation whereby transcendent powers secure beneficial channels for communicating with and acting for the benefit of beings orientated differently in consciousness. Although most strongly associated with enlightened beings, worldly, unrealized beings like mountain gods or even influential human political figures can either send out their own sprul pa or be seen as sprul pa themselves. (A list of political figures recognized as tulpas of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas includes, depending on who you ask, the early Tibetan kings, Bill Clinton and Queen Victoria).

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A portrait of the 14th and current Dalai Lama, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, as the emanation of Chenrezig by American visionary artist Alex Grey (1953 -)
In his piece for Vice, Nathan Thompson offers this picture of "the form a tulpa might take in traditional Tibetan mysticism". The image doesn't really resemble Tibetan artwork or anything that Tibetans would probably recognize as typical of Tibetan 'mysticism', however. While it often comes up in internet searches as a Tibetan tulpa, it is in fact a drawing by Hungarian illustrator Willy Pogany (1882-1955) taken from a children's book of Irish folktales called the 'King of Ireland's Son' that was written by Padraic Colum (1881-1972) and published in 1916. It depicts the legendary King of Ireland's son in the clutches of an Irish water spirit that Colum describes as a 'Fua'. Thompson's choice is strange, but illustrates nicely enough in its own strange way just how little the phenomenon of tulpas is tethered to the specificities of a Tibetan cultural context.
In his piece for Vice, Nathan Thompson offers this picture of “the form a tulpa might take in traditional Tibetan mysticism”. The image doesn’t really resemble Tibetan artwork or anything that Tibetans would probably recognize as typical of Tibetan ‘mysticism’, however. While it often comes up in internet searches as a Tibetan tulpa, it is in fact a drawing by Hungarian illustrator Willy Pogany (1882-1955) taken from a children’s book of Irish folktales called the ‘King of Ireland’s Son’ that was written by Padraic Colum (1881-1972) and published in 1916. It depicts the legendary King of Ireland’s son in the clutches of an Irish water spirit that Colum describes as a ‘Fua’. Thompson’s choice is strange, but illustrates nicely enough in its own weird way just how little the phenomenon of tulpas is tethered to the specificities of a Tibetan cultural context.

In 2011, in tandem with his devolving of political power to a democratically elected exile prime minister, the Dalai Lama released a public statement where he stressed that the Chinese government had no jurisdiction to interfere in the matter of his succession. In statements over the years, the leader has suggested that given the current political climate in Communist Chinese occupied Tibet, as well as China’s track record of attempting to co-opt identified reincarnate lamas or to install their own substitute candidates, he would most probably reincarnate outside of Chinese territory. In the 2011 statement he also noted that it was completely feasible that his successor could appear via emanation (i.e. sprul pa) and thus be identified before his own death. To clarify this distinction the Dalai Lama quoted the great 19th century Tibetan scholar Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo:

“As Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo stated: “[The reincarnation of a lama] is said to be when they take their rebirth after the bodily display/arrangement of the previous life has dissolved; emanation is the manifesting of other emanations without the (current) emanation-basis having dissolved.””
འཇམ་དབྱངས་མཁྱེན་བརྩེ་དབང་པོས། སྐུ་ཡི་བཀོད་པ་སྔ་མ་བསྡུས་ནས་ཕྱི་མ་བཟུང་བར་སྐྱེ་བ་དང། སྤྲུལ་གཞི་མ་བསྡུས་པར་སྤྲུལ་པ་གཞན་དག་སྟོན་པ་སྤྲུལ་པ་ཞེས་བཞེད། ཅེས་གསུངས།

What this would mean is that the next Dalai Lama would probably be recognized before the current one passes away, and could well be identified as an adult and not a child. This move would strategically cut out the typically unstable interregnum period that normally precedes the successor’s coming of age, and would further exclude Chinese authorities from the succession process. The Dalai Lama also stated that he has decided that when he reaches about 90 years old, he will re-open the question of the future of his lineage (and whether or how he should reincarnate) ‘for discussion by the great lamas of the (various) dharma lineages and the Tibetan people’. The Dalai Lama has thus not only used the creative tension and complexity implicit in the rather recondite relationship between emanations and emanation bodies to his strategic and political advantage, he has also allowed for the possibility that the typically esoteric and private workings of the trained yogi skilled in the practice of conscious transference from one body to the next (‘pho ba) might be submitted for consideration to a wider, vaguely more democratic audience.

To call this a secularization of reincarnation/emanation processes would be wrong-headed. The Dalai Lama himself has stressed that reincarnation is above all else a religious matter. His future referendum is a far cry from the secularizing of reincarnation politics that has taken place in China, where the CCP has required lamas to get bureaucratic permission to reincarnate since 2007 and has just recently set up an online data-base of authentic (state-approved, of course) ‘Living Buddhas’ as part of its regulation and ‘protection’ of the integrity of the faith. The matter of finding the Dalai Lama’s successor will still primarily involve a select group of spiritual detectives – of uniquely qualified Tibetan lamas, deities, and diviners. Still, the Dalai Lama’s statements are at the very least a gesture towards the de-privatizing and democratizing of esoteric emanation procedures typically associated with the inner psychic workings of an individual yogi-transmigrator.

An illustration of the inner, subtle channels as imagined in some Tibetan Buddhist and Bonpo yogic systems.
An illustration of the inner, subtle channels as imagined in some Tibetan Buddhist and Bonpo yogic systems.

With tulpamancers we see a somewhat different popularizing and secularizing of the esoteric at work. Although tulpamancers acknowledge a split between ‘metaphysical’ and psychological/neurological explanations for tulpas, much of tulpamancer discourse has a decidedly secular flavor. The approaches of today’s tulpamancers undoubtedly owe a lot to earlier developments in Western esotericism, and chaos magic(k) in particular (see here, for example) (In contrast to a lot of tulpamancer methodology, Western magical approaches for making ‘artificial spirits’ have often, although not always, involved the use of sexual fluids and orgasm as part of sex magic practices). An agnostic-experimental orientation to supernatural entities, more ‘science-y’ frameworks for magic, the online dissemination of esoterica, and working with ‘fabricated’ gods and spirits permitted chaos magicians to go beyond the methodologies and religious-moral baggage of more traditional magical systems. Still, despite the precedent set by such ‘post-modern’ occultists, tulpamancers rarely seem to claim that what they are doing is based on particularly specialized esoteric knowledge or access. Just as David-Neel did with her trial-and-error Friar-Tuck-Frankenstein, tulpamancers use whatever concentration and visualization techniques they may have learned in experimental and idiosyncratic ways. No one method works, tulpamancers often say, and firm effort, as well as trusting that producing sentience is possible, are ultimately more important factors than cleaving to any specific approach. Tulpamancers thus present a case of individuals who, though they are not practitioners of spiritual disciplines or members of initiated esoteric lineages, choose to engage in degrees of mental ‘asceticism’ usually associated with these other contexts. More than this, where ritual magicians typically make tulpas (or what are called servitors, thought-forms, bud-wills, psychogones and so on) to fulfill specific magical tasks (and while Tibetan Buddhists visualize yidam as part of specific religious practices), tulpamancers actively distinguish their tulpa companions from what they see as dumb, de-individualized servitor ‘slaves’. Instead, for the most part, tulpamancers describe making tulpas out of curiosity and loneliness, or to bring fictional characters they’d previously imagined as part of personal creative projects to greater life.

In contrast to this picture of individual, focused psychic and affective labor, popular representations often frame tulpas as both unintentional and uncontrollable. Popular media tulpas are powered primarily by collective thought and belief. Appearing unexpectedly and almost too easily, they bring terror and/or murder in their wake. In the 1999 ‘monster of the week’ X-Files episode (“Arcadia”, Season 6, Episode 15) FBI agents Mulder and Scully discover that the president of a plush planned community in California has used Tibetan magic to create a tulpa with which to menace and ultimately murder any resident who fails to abide by his exhaustive list of rules. In an apt embodiment of Kathleen Stewart’s ‘failed miracle’ of American suburbia, the tulpa, taking temporary corporeal form as a vaguely humanoid, living embodiment of the mud and lawns around the gated community, murders its creator, following which it too expires. In an episode of CW’s Supernatural (“Hell House”, Season 1, episode 17), internet users who read stories on a website about a haunted house in Texas, will a ghost from fabricated legend into existence, and this spirit begins to actually murder people in the house in question. In another episode (“Thinman”, Season 9, Episode 15), the show’s protagonists, demon-hunting brothers Dean and Sam, investigate a series of murders that appear to have been perpetrated by the ‘Thinman’, another figure from online urban legend, who the brothers suspect may have been brought to life through focused belief. In the end, they discover that human killers are impersonating the Thinman to perpetuate belief in him.

Agents Mulder and Scully in the X Files 1999 episode "Arcadia", above the mud monster tulpa.
Agents Mulder and Scully in the X Files 1999 episode “Arcadia”, above the mud monster tulpa.
A comparison of the Slender Man and Supernatural's Thinman (top), along with mugshots of Slender Man acolytes and attempted murderers Anissa Weier (left) and Morgan Geyser (right), (bottom).
A comparison of the Slender Man and Supernatural’s Thinman (top), along with mugshots of Slender Man acolytes and attempted murderers Anissa Weier (left) and Morgan Geyser (right), (bottom).

Supernatural’s Thinman character and his online fans were inspired by the Slender Man, a ‘real-world’ internet bogieman and meme whose mythos has been elaborated extensively via fanfiction, web serials, online games, and other media ever since its first dramatic appearance on a Something Awful forum thread in 2009. Digital folklore relating to the Slender Man includes theories that this tall, faceless entity is in fact a tulpa, created by collective belief. Disturbingly, Supernatural’s Thinman episode weirdly foreshadowed actual events relating to Slender Man that took place in Waukesha, Wisconsin two and a half months after the show aired. On March 31, 2014, two 12 year old girls in Waukesha attempted to stab a 12 year old schoolmate to death as a sacrifice to Slender Man. The two girls, who had read about Slender Man on the horror short-story site, said they hoped that this act would not only impress Slender Man and allow them to serve as his ‘proxies’, but would also convince skeptics that the being was real. The attempted murder saw a spate of commentary on the influence of the internet and popular culture on child psychology. Retired FBI agent John Egelhof, for example, opined that the internet had become a ‘blackhole’ of sinister influences and urged parents to better surveil and control their children’s browsing habits.

Contemporary descriptions of tulpas draw on a wide-ranging archive of ideas and images relating to human consciousness, creativity, and the paranormal. They hover in the grey areas between fantasy and reality, legend and fact, juvenile and adult affinities, and individual, ‘inner’ experience and mass-mediated culture. In being popularized, tulpas have come to embody the mysteries and dangers of popularism itself, of collective belief, mass-attention and virtual mediation. To put a twist on the old anthropological chestnut, ‘the tulpa is good to think with – and not good to think too much about’. As Mikles and Laycock note, tulpa-theory ‘para-normalizes’ cultural explanations for paranormal trends. Rather than explaining away the persistance of particular paranormal phenomena, consensual belief becomes the magic itself. Tulpas both provide an ‘answer’ to the recursivity of reality and representation, to the circularity of cultural influence (culture-produces-thought-produces-culture?) and float like an uneasy question mark over ever-fidgety boundaries between inside and out, self and other.

Tulpas of whatever variety point primarily to issues of mediation, affect and imagination. The Chinese Communist Party seeking to regulate ‘illusionary’ processes of emanational manifestation – illusory both in the official atheist sense of ‘not really, but culturally true’ and in the ‘impermanent forms as magical display’ Buddhist one; parents and lawmakers fretting over the migration of concepts and images from computer screens, through their children’s minds out into the world – each represent attempts to police the imaginary, to regulate, channel and contain collective affect and its powers. As William Mazzarella has recently shown, classic anthropological thinking about magic lends itself especially well to theorising mass media and censorship (indeed, the sympathies between ’emanations’, new technologies and magic are suggested by sprul itself, whose related form ‘phrul appears in Tibetan in words to do with ‘supernatural’ magic, legerdemain, machines and technology). In lines to make any sorceror proud, Mazzarella defines the ‘mana of mass publicity’ as being about “strategically deployed constitutive resonance via a magnetizer that may or may not be human – and who may or may not become a fetish – that is to say, come to embody the charismatic source of that resonance. The substance is our collective mimetic archive: the residue, embedded not only in the explicity articulated forms commonly recognized as cultural discourses, but also in our built environment and our material forms, in the concrete history of our senses, and in the habits of our shared embodiment.”

Tulpa could be said to partake of these processes. Concerns about the regulating of the ‘imaginary’, about censorship and violence, fears and fantasies about the private becoming public, about being watched and influenced by shadowy others shaped in our own image, about the dark recesses of cyberspace, speak to Mazzarella’s ideas about the mana of mass publicity as something ‘extimate’ in the Lacanian sense. “The other is something strange to me, although it is at the heart of me”, the French psychoanalyst tells us. This tension is as present for Tibetans orientating their sense of individual being-in-the-world in relation to the emanated form of a reincarnate lama-cum-national hero as it is for tulpamancers, whose mental companions are at once intensely intimate and in need of constant investment and care, yet live beyond them in the virtual spaces of the imagination and online and journalistic mediation.

Advertising as Magic. An original Pears Soap Unilever print advertisement from 1900.
Advertising as Magic. An original Pears Soap Unilever print advertisement from 1900.

To say that tulpamancers, the X Files and Adventure Time have ‘secularized’ the esoteric is perhaps somewhat misleading. As Lancaster University sociologist Christopher Partridge has observed, the popularization of magic and occultism is arguably as much about the sacralization or re-enchantment of the contemporary as about the secularizing of time-honoured esoteric traditions. As Patridge has argued recently, since the 1960s we have witnessed a global situation where the occult is no longer truly ‘hidden’, where the meaning of ‘privileged’ or ‘initiated’ knowledge has shifted. As Partridge puts it “(global) society is witnessing a confluence of secularization and sacralization, at the heart of which is the deceptively influential (concept of) ‘occulture'”. For Patridge, occulture refers to the particular environments in which ideas relating to the occult, the esoteric, and the conspiratorial emerge, are disseminated, and become influential. Today, pop culture is both an agent and a site for occultural discourse.

With the turn away from organized religiosity and ‘traditional modes of authority’, spirituality has come to replace religion as a category of choice in post-industrial, affluent, information-rich contexts. It is not so much then, that as Weber predicted, modernity means less religious societies, but that today the sacred is differently positioned and enacted. For the demographics most interested in tulpamancy, reliance on organized religion has been replaced by increased investment in personal experience and authority. The contemporary pursuit of illuminated knowledge, of human self-actualization, transformation, or gnosis, while driven by an interest in transcendence, nonetheless also ties into neo-liberal forms of affect and production. This turn to and sacralization of the self is predicated on post-industrial values, on having the time, money and wherewithal to focus on self-exploration, on the construction of new selves. The popularizing of discourse about tulpas exemplifies Patridge’s argument about occulture being both ordinary and everyday. While the broader public (or tulpamancers for that matter) may not necessarily credit occultists’ claims about tulpas, the dissemination of these can influence new patterns of thought and behavior. Previously, in my discussion of Tibetan singing bowls, I likened the rapid back-and-forth between the popular and the esoteric to ‘resonating feedback loops’. By being turned on through popular dissemination to potentially more initiated esoteric material, occultural consumers can do further research, only to subsequently re-project their new understandings and ideas yet again into the popular domain. In the 1990s Buffy the Vampire Slayer dramatized (and normalized) modern witchcraft. Encouraged by such popular representation, teenagers sought out real-world information on witchcraft, and became witches themselves. They then went on to produce their own expert and emic knowledge, knowledge that continues to inform contemporary popular representations as much as ethnographic ones. Adventure Time’s representations of tulpas may yet lead viewers to read up on or even practice tulpamancy. Popular culture animates occult and esoteric ideas, Partridge says, and here it does so literally.

Adventure Time fan-art referencing the central tenet 'Do What Thou Wilt' from Thelema, the revealed religion of English ritual magician Aleister Crowley (1875-1947)
Adventure Time fan-art referencing the central tenet ‘Do What Thou Wilt’ from Thelema, the revealed religion of English ritual magician Aleister Crowley (1875-1947)

Stories about the Thinman as Slender Man, Slender Man as tulpa, about the made-up ghost called Philip paranormal experimenters imagined into wider circulation in the 70s, capture the allure and alarm of trying to study and categorize the charged spaces of urban legend and conspiracy theory, of dream-made-flesh. They alert us to the difficulties of tracking trajectories of affect and attention in the digital age, of capturing the virtual and imaginary ethnographically . As Kathleen Stewart says so nicely in Ordinary Affects, writing about affect and urban legends, “scenes of public attention routinely drift over the fence of official news into eccentric circulation”. Arguments for my clairvoyant abilities aside, Monday’s episode of the X Files brings her poetic insights to life.

The Band-aid nose man and his creator.
The Band-aid nose man and his creator.

In “Home Again” agents Mulder and Scully investigate a series of murders connected to the forcible removal of homeless people and the gentrification of urban neighbourhoods in Philadelphia. We learn that, as IndieWire’s reviewer sums it up “Scully’s mom died. It was sad. A trash Golem murdered a bunch of not-great people. Mulder and Scully hugged some and talked about the baby they gave up for adoption. Again, it was sad.” This ‘trash golem’, a malodorous spirit avenger for the homeless who travels in a garbage truck and tears apart city officials, art thieves, and school board presidents, is called the ‘Band-aid nose man’, and turns out to have been conjured up by the angry creative impulses of a Banksy-esque graffiti artist and activist known by the tag ‘Trashman’. As details about the killings unfold, we are treated to an at times painfully forced overlaying of the Band-aid nose man plot with Scully’s experiences dealing with the death of her mother and her guilt and regret about giving up her and Mulder’s son for adoption.Towards the climax of the episode, the agents discover Trashman’s hide-out. After a brief run in with some ‘glitchy’ tulpas, they break into the Trashman’s dark basement studio, where a clay and trash bag sculpture of the Band-aid nose man is housed. The Trashman, after telling the agents that guns won’t work on the spirits and that “if they don’t see me and I don’t see them they can’t hurt me”, offers the following diatribe:

Trashman: (pontificating, looking Banksy-esque, surrounded by stencils, art supplies and  candles) The streets, the homeless, the street people, they ain’t got no voice, right? They get treated like trash- I mean, actual trash. It’s like this: you throw your grande cup, or your pop barn in the right trash been under the sink, recycling is here, there, you tie it in a bag, you take it out, put it in the right dumpsters, you pat yourself on the head, you are a good person, yeah? You do the good thing, you fuck all the women, you love all the little animals. Friday come, Wednesday maybe, guys will come to take the trash away, it’s not your problem anymore. Magic! But it is your problem-because it piles up in a landfill, and plastic leaks toxins into the water and the sky, but if you don’t see a problem there is no problem. People treat people like trash.

Mulder then asks if the Trashman was responsible for the killings.

Trashman: Nah, I was just trying to give those people voice, the only way I know how. Through art. Not violence. Something I could put around town, so it wouldn’t be forgotten. A stencil that looked over the bad suit building man, looked down on the long nosed suburban lady.

Mulder: Well, why’d you put up the art after the fact, the morning of Cuttler’s murder?

Trashman: I didn’t… That… That wasn’t me.I only thought em up, you know? Those people that got killed, that was only him.

Mulder: Him? Who’s him?

Trashman: You saw those things in the hall…(referring to the glitchy vanishing-and-reappearing monsters that walked blindly past the agents and into a wall)

Mulder: Yeah.

Trashman: I made them. I didn’t mean to, but I made ’em. They’ll go away eventually, they’re fading. But the Band aid nose man (pointing at sculpture, zoom in, ominous music) He’s different. (Cut to Scully). (Glibly now) Tibetan Buddhists call’em a tulpa, a thought form, using mind and energy to will consciousness (now placing hands on bald, tattooed head) into existence.

Mulder: Tulpa is a 1929 Theosophist mis-translation of the Tibetan word Tulku meaning ‘a manifestation body’. There is no idea in Tibetan Buddhism of a ‘thought-form’ or ‘thought-as-form’ and a realized Tulku would never harm anyone let alone kill.

Trashman: Ok. But I’m telling you. I spend a lot of energy in my art. I uh meditated on it. I willed it. (Flashback to Trashman sketching). What I wanted him to look like, what I wanted him to be, and why I wanted him (Scully’s flashback of her own labour) I didn’t bring him here, he came to me! (Scully stares into the distance, hallucinates a baby mobile, Scully’s baby in crib crying) But in the end, he told me what he wanted to be. All we do is hold the pencil, all we do is hold the clay. I think there must be spirits or souls, (Over-the-shoulder shot of Trashman sketching the Band-aid nose man), floating all around us. And if you think real hard, and you want them so bad (Mulder and Scully cradling their crying baby) they come to you, and then they become alive with a life of their own. (Scully’s mother’s death scene, Scully crying, “Our son, I gave him up!”) This, this is what came to me, in my dreams, or some other place, yeah? But now it’s alive, and it’s out there, down to the band-aid I used to hold the clay in place. Who would copy this? And did you smell that? That smells like nothing on this earth. It has its own life, it does what it wants. I just want to scare ’em, scare anyone that took the [indistinct] away from the homeless, that’s when the violent idea popped in my head. It was just an emotion that ran through my head. An idea is dangerous, even a small one, but now it uses that violent idea (close up on Scully, overcome). He thinks that’s what he is supposed to do.

Scully: (At last speaking up, in a revelatory tone) You’re responsible! (Trashman looks quizzically at Mulder) If you made the problem, if it was your idea, then you’re responsible. You put it out of sight so that it wouldn’t be your problem (whether talking to him or herself unclear) but you’re just as bad as the people that you hate.

Here Mulder’s objection is a little over-zealous. As we have seen, there ARE Tibetan tulpas. Even if they aren’t born of angsty art and don’t ride around in trash vans, they are nonetheless manifestations of yogis’, gods’ and lamas’ focused intention. What is interesting however, is how “Home Again”‘s update of its own tulpa discourse speaks to a current occultural moment. Whereas the tulpa of 1999’s ‘Arcadia’ embodied the contradictions and sublimated desires of a suburban elite, 2016’s incarnation is a truly popular tulpa, a champion of the unwashed masses, of the victims of gentrification who live beyond insular, gated worlds of privilege. Made of and for human waste, Band-aid nose man is the hero in a modern-day cautionary tale about commoditized attention, dehumanization and issues of climate and urban change denialism that are global in scope. Moreover, an increase in the circulation and availability of information about both tulpa creation and Tibetan Buddhism has conspired to give us a wiser, more cautious Mulder. Whereas in 1999, Mulder could gloss a tulpa as “a Tibetan thought-form…a living, breathing creature willed into existence by someone who possesses that ability”, now in 2016 he refutes his own earlier claims as simplistic and misinformed. Whereas in 1999 Mulder is required merely to cite exotic esoteric ideas to make sense of the supernatural, in 2016 his paranormal expertise rests on being able to critically evaluate and even refute ’emic’ claims.

It's 2016. Have you even Googled that?
It’s 2016. Have you even Googled that?

Mapping occultural, popular flows is challenging work. As Patridge has noted, by the time we scholars research, write and disseminate our reifications of pop occultural phenomena we are already out of date. Reddit and Facebook users have beat me to discussing and dissecting Monday’s X Files episode. Back-and-forths happen faster than can be tracked, let alone academically digested. And yet I believe that at least attempting to digest such flows is important. Tulpamancers, modern occultists, the representatives of affluent, information rich, self-oriented societies on which Partridge focuses may all be motivated by very different interests and problems to Tibetan refugees. And yet in today’s more informed milieu, dialogues between traditions and the shifting between vocabularies and frameworks is ongoing and complex. Trashman may not be sure or persuasive about the Tibetan-ness of his creations (or that tulpas are even ‘creations’ at all), but he knows what has worked and what he has experienced. Likewise, whether or not Tibetans and Tibetan Buddhists know or care about Western-style tulpas they too can access and contribute to discussions about them. Both occultists and non-occultists watch Adventure Time’s casual invocations of Aleister Crowley’s esoteric religion, both Tibetans and non-Tibetans watch its sneaky references to esoteric Buddhist concepts like the ‘rainbow body’ (‘ja’ lus).

In yet another example of reverberating feed-back loops, professional writer and sorcerer Jason Miller, who is an initiate of both Western and Tibetan Buddhist esoteric lineages, recently discussed with me a chapbook he is preparing on tulpa creation. Jason is well aware that ‘tulpa’ means something very different in Tibetan contexts compared to non-Tibetan ones. Yet as he explained to me, his book is based on the premise: “Tulpas dont work like that…. But what if they did? How WOULD Tibetans do such a thing?” By drawing on his familiarity with multiple ritual-meditative traditions, Jason has developed approaches to making Western magic-style ‘thought forms’ or servitors that draw inspiration from Tibetan Mahayoga bskyed rim structures without claiming to be synonymous with or equivalent to them. This kind of informed syncretism, like 2016’s Mulder, is arguably a product of a different, ‘wiser and more cautious’ moment, a time of greater information and greater discernment than David-Neel’s own period. It remains to be seen how much a new generation of Tibetans may engage with occultural discourses around tulpas. In the end, cultural production itself, like tulpas and magical emanations, appears solid and graspable one minute and mutates the next. And like all magical and phantasmagoric things, it can appear alternatively terrifying, absurd, or beautiful depending on how you look.

Ben Joffe

Ben Joffe is a Cultural Anthropology PhD candidate from South Africa based at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is currently conducting Wenner-Gren funded dissertation fieldwork with Tibetan refugees in India. You can read more about him and his research here:

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