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Was Freud Afraid of the Occult?

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

Was Freud afraid of the occult? That the father of psychoanalysis took a no-nonsense, scientific approach to the mysteries of the human mind is a common view, and it suggests that while Freud dismissed the occult as a load of superstitious rubbish, he wasn’t particularly afraid of it. Yet an episode in his relationship with his erstwhile successor Carl Jung may suggest otherwise. We can call it “the curious incident of the poltergeist in Freud’s bookcase.”

During a visit to Vienna in 1909, Jung had a conversation with Freud about the new study of parapsychology. Freud dismissed the whole subject as nonsense, something Jung, who had had ample experience of it, could not accept. As the conversation grew heated, Jung, who wanted to keep relations with Freud cordial, found it difficult to hold back his feelings. After all, he had been chosen by Freud to inherit his throne, and he had great respect, even love for his mentor. But Jung also had his own genius and ambitions and found it difficult to toe the party line. Now, as he looked at Freud he felt his diaphragm glow, as if it was becoming red-hot. Suddenly a loud bang exploded in Freud’s bookcase, and both men jumped up, afraid it would fall on them. Jung said to Freud “There, that is an example of a so-called catalytic exteriorisation phenomenon,” Jung’s long-winded circumlocution for a poltergeist or “noisy spirit.” Freud retorted “Bosh!” Jung shook his head and predicted that another bang would soon follow. When it did, Freud looked at Jung “aghast,” and from that moment on was mistrustful of him. Jung said the way Freud looked at him it was “as if I had done something against him.”

Not long after this, again in Vienna, Jung again visited Freud, and he later recalled a peculiar conversation they had, during which Freud asked Jung to promise that he would never abandon the sexual theory of the origin of neurosis. Freud told Jung that they must make “a dogma of it, an unshakeable bulwark.” Jung said that Freud spoke in the tones in which a father would ask his son to promise that he would go to church every Sunday. When Jung asked Freud why they had to affirm the sexual theory so vigorously, and against what they had to make it a bulwark, Freud replied “against the black tide of mud of occultism.” By this time Jung knew that he could never assert the sexual theory with the same finality as Freud did. He already had reservations about it but had kept them to himself. This request to collaborate with him on erecting a dogma was a sign that these reservations would soon have to come out. As we know, they did.

Jung had grown up with the occult. As his autobiography Memories, Dreams, and Reflections shows, his family was steeped in it. His mother, grandmother, and other relatives attended séances regularly. Jung himself attended many, drawing from them the material for his doctoral dissertation On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena. Jung’s mother spoke in voices and his cousin frequently “channelled” departed relatives. Jung himself experienced a period of “split personality,” in which as an adolescent he would find his psyche being taken over by what he called Personality No. 2, an austere masterful older gentleman of the eighteenth century.

Throughout much of his career Jung played his occult cards close to his chest and minimised his public appreciation of it. It was only in his last decades that he came out of the occult closet, as it were, and spoke openly about astrology, alchemy, spirits, synchronicity, and other occult or mystical subjects now associated with him. Yet those who knew him also knew that occult phenomena happened around him. Visitors to his hideaway at Bollingen remarked that when Jung was deep in thought, the pots and pans would rattle, and at his home in Küsnacht, the furniture and woodwork would creak, evidence of what one guest called his “exteriorized libido.” There is every reason to believe that when Jung tells us his diaphragm got red-hot, with the inference that it then somehow caused the bang in Freud’s bookcase, he is telling the truth.

Freud at least thought so. At the time of the poltergeist in his bookcase, Freud admitted to being strangely moved by the experience and there is reason to believe that he felt that Jung had somehow made it happen. This was perhaps why he looked at Jung “aghast” and took the “catalytic exteriorization phenomenon” personally. Yet after Jung returned to Switzerland, Freud soon reverted to type. He quickly reduced Jung’s “exteriorized libido” to simple imagination. In a letter to Jung Freud explained that “the phenomenon was soon deprived of all significance for me” and his “readiness to believe vanished along with the spell of your personal presence [my italics].” While Jung was there, the sceptical, hard-nosed Freud was somehow moved enough to accept that Jung could have been right. But with Jung gone, Freud snapped out of it, and got to work explaining the incident in purely rational terms.

Freud’s emotional investment in Jung as his chosen successor may have accounted for the mistrust he began to feel toward Jung after the incident. It may also explain why Freud asked Jung to, in effect, take a loyalty oath. But was there more than this? Did Freud mistrust Jung because he recognized that he somehow possessed the kinds of powers that Freud so easily dismissed? Without his presence, Jung’s “mana” faded, and Freud could easily convince himself that nothing had happened. But with Jung around this was not so easy.

Jung replied to Freud’s letter, apologizing for his “spookery,” yet at the same time he affirmed it as an expression of what he called a “special complex” associated with the “prospective tendencies in man;” he spoke about this in a way that seems to presage his later ideas about synchronicity, or “meaningful coincidence.” Jung also told Freud that his “spookery” helped him get rid of a father complex he had toward Freud. He then goes on to talk about the “objective effect of the prospective tendency,” by which he means its ability to arrange events in the outside world. If for “objective effect of the prospective tendency” we read “the mind” – which in plain English is what Jung means – we are talking about something occult indeed. Jung is saying that somehow, the human mind can arrange events in the outside world. Next to precognition, this has to be one of the strangest of all occult phenomena. Freud himself had an experience of this. And it was precisely about this that he felt the strongest resistance.

Freud had an upbringing very different from Jung’s and his attitude toward the supernatural was also very different. Although, as mentioned, Jung was circumspect about his occult interests throughout much of his career, he finally did speak openly about it, and in his last decades he became a very vocal advocate of various occult ideas. More than anyone else Jung, I think, is responsible for the widespread popular acceptance of occult, mystical, and paranormal ideas that has been with us since the 1960s. Jung even agreed with the hippies about the coming age of Aquarius, and the Beatles were his fans, as they were Aleister Crowley’s.

Freud was never so forthright about his own occult interests, which he certainly had, all public dismissal of it notwithstanding. Even more than Jung, Freud kept the few occult interests he had very much to himself and shared them only with a small band of followers. He allowed himself only a few, very muted and unsatisfying expressions of his fascination with the “black tide of mud” that he wanted his crown prince to help him keep at bay.

Freud’s writing on occultism make up a few papers and some remarks scattered here and there in other works. The best known of these writings is “Psychoanalysis and Telepathy.” This paper was not published in Freud’s lifetime – although the material did appear in some other places - and was first read at an informal gathering of Freud’s closest followers in the Harz mountains in August 1921. Freud’s other papers on the occult include “Dreams and Telepathy” (1922), “The Occult Significance of Dreams” (1925), and “Dreams and Occultism” (1937).

“Psychoanalysis and Telepathy” was originally supposed to report on three cases, but Freud told his select audience that in classic Freudian style his resistance to talking about the occult made him leave behind the material for one case – the most interesting one, in fact, which we will get to further on. So he was forced to work with other material. The paper begins with a note of paranoia. “We are not destined, so it seems,” Freud told the faithful few, “to devote ourselves quietly to the extension of our science.” Here Freud is referring to recent attacks on him by the apostates Jung and Adler. But they are not the only threat. It has come to Freud’s attention of late that an association between psychoanalysis and occultism is being made in some quarters. He would rather not speak about this but it was no longer possible to avoid it.

There are, he admits, some superficial similarities between psychoanalysis and occultism. Yet while he recognizes that a study of occultism may be unavoidable – if only to clarify its differences from psychoanalysis – it can also have a damaging effect. Psychoanalysis should avoid being tarred with occultism’s brush, and in order to do this Freud tells the faithful that he has even had to decline several offers to write for various magazines and journals specialising in the occult.

Freud then refers to Einstein’s theory of relativity and the discovery of radium, remarking darkly that these developments in some way undermine “the objective trustworthiness of science.” What Freud means is that these new developments were undermining the kind of science that Freud was comfortable with, namely the nineteenth century mechanistic kind which Einstein, radium, and quantum physics had by this time already made obsolete. Freud seems to be hinting that in some way, occultism is in league with Einstein and Madame Curie in a plot to overthrow the kind of cause and effect universe in which he felt at home.

Freud recognized that in the popular mind, psychoanalysis and occultism shared a certain opprobrium from conventional ways of thinking, and that both can be seen as aiming to widen and broaden this in the face of fierce resistance. They could in this sense be seen as fellow travellers. Yet while this is true there is an absolute fundamental difference between the two. Occultists, Freud says, place much trust in faith – although which occultists he had in mind and how they would respond to this remark we don’t know. However, psychoanalysis, Freud continues, is motivated by “an extreme distrust of the power of human wishes and the temptation of the pleasure principle.” Here we can say that Freud is advocating a “hermeneutic of suspicion” well in advance of the philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s coining of that phrase. And indeed Freud is one the modern thinkers, along with Marx and Nietzsche, on whom Ricoeur based the idea.

Unlike faith-besotted occultists, analysts, Freud told his own faithful, are fundamentally “incorrigible mechanists and materialists.” They study the occult so to “finally exclude the wishes of mankind from material reality.” If they attended to occult phenomena, rather than ignoring or denying them, it “would mean surrendering the impartiality, lack of prejudice and prepossessions” that make up their “analytical armour.”

Even worse, if they attend to occult phenomena, analysts would soon see they actually did happen. Psychoanalysis would then be involved in a practice that proved the reality of the occult. We must take note here. Freud is saying to his closest confederates that occult phenomena are real. They do occur. But knowing this, psychoanalysis must not in any way assist in this truth being revealed. It must even ignore what it knows to be true and do its best to maintain the opposite. It must do this because if occult phenomena were revealed to be true, this would have a damaging effect on the populace. It would, in effect, make them weak-minded – something, we should note, that some critics of psychoanalysis accused it of doing itself.

For Freud, admitting the reality of occult phenomena would “extend belief in whatever explanation and to those easiest and most to their [the public’s] taste.” If we accept that telepathy or clairvoyance are true, what’s next? Angels and devils? Relativity and radium are already breaking windows in Newton’s universe. Do we really want to break more? No, we must remain steadfast, and form a bulwark of nineteenth century rationalism. Occultism is bad because it panders to our credulity. It is “joyfully acclaimed by all the credulity lying ready to hand since the infancy of the human race and the childhood of the individual.” As far as Freud’s concerned, credulity is something to avoid. But if occultism is true, as Freud suggests, how can it be credulous to believe in it?

But never mind such quibbles. They pale in comparison to the threat waiting in the wings, namely the “fearful collapse of critical thought, of determinist standards and of mechanistic science,” that would result if the truth about the occult were to be told. For Freud, accepting the reality of the occult, would mean the end of the world as he knew it, and he was not giving up without a fight.

In many ways Freud’s fear in the face of the occult is similar to the reaction to it of other severe rationalists, such as the neo-Marxist philosopher Theodore Adorno and, oddly enough, the horror fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft. Freud would agree with Adorno’s characterization of occultism as the “metaphysics of dunces” and that its embrace signalled a “flight from reason” in the historian of the occult James Webb’s famous phrase. For Adorno it marked a regression in critical thinking and kept the populace happy with astral bread and circuses.

Although he was the author of several classic horror tales, many of which employ various occult devices, H. P. Lovecraft maintained a ferocious materialist view of the world, denying in fact the metaphysical terrors that he created in fiction. Like Freud he believed that too much knowledge about the occult can be a bad thing, as the protagonists of many of his tales discover to their woe. As his letters show, Lovecraft preferred Adler to Freud, but he agreed with him that too much knowledge is dangerous and knowledge of the occult is the most dangerous of all. They both would agree with T. S. Eliot’s dour dictum that “humankind cannot bear too much reality.”

Yet while Freud warned against a public affirmation of the occult, in private he hit a different note, saying his interest, though genuine, was “personal,” like his cigars and his Jewishness, and had nothing to do with psychoanalysis. It was a kind of hobby. This double think clearly indicates a profound ambivalence, one he feared and sought to resolve through sheer force of dogma. We can see this ambivalence in his writings. As his daughter Anna remarked, “the subject fascinated, as well as repelled him.” His biographer Ernst Jones said that Freud enjoyed telling stories of strange coincidences and mysterious voices, and that these things had a hold on him. Freud once even “propitiated the gods” by sacrificing one of his cherished antiques, when his daughter Mathilde was ill. If Freud’s own “credulity” was enough for him to make an offering to supernatural powers in order to secure his daughter’s health, we must agree that between his public and private relation to the occult there was a profound dissonance, even more than in the case of Jung.

This ambivalence can be found in Freud’s other occult writings. In “Dreams and Telepathy,” Freud tells us that we will not learn anything about telepathy in the paper, not even whether he believes in it or not. He had, in fact, no opinion on it, one way or another, which might suggest to an unsympathetic reader that he should not have bothered to write it. Yet in 1925, a few years after announcing his diffidence toward telepathy in this paper, Freud and Anna conducted “informal” telepathic experiments. According to Peter Gay, another biographer of Freud, their exact nature is unknown but they had something to do with hunting for mushrooms. Yet, even after this Freud advised Sandor Ferenczi not to read a paper on these experiments to an upcoming psychoanalytical congress.

Freud, it seems, could not let the occult go, but neither could he embrace it seriously, in the way that Jung did. He did a neurotic two step with it, indulging his interest, but then declaring that it was fundamentally unimportant and not necessary for psychoanalysis. Unlike Freud, Jung brought the occult into his work, or rather, his work grew out of it. Where Freud wanted to plug a hole in the psyche’s dam, so that the muddy tide of the occult would not leak through, Jung not only pulled his finger out, he positively knocked down the dyke. The Oedipal agon doesn’t get more serious than this.

“Dreams and Telepathy” was read to another gathering of a select few. In it Freud relates two cases of fortune telling – precognition – which did not come true. He tells us his attitude toward the cases is “unenthusiastic and ambivalent,” and that he is “disagreeably affected” by them. He relates the cases “under the pressure of the greatest resistance.” And he concludes that “nothing can be done against such clear resistance.” What was Freud resisting?

I think he was resisting synchronicity. This becomes clear, I think, if we look at the case Freud left out of his paper on “Psychoanalysis and Telepathy,” given to his inner circle in the Harz Mountains, having conveniently left his notes about it behind. In psychoanalysis, resistance is a sign that the patient is unwilling to talk about something. Why was Freud unwilling to talk about this case?

It concerned a patient Freud was seeing during a fallow period following the First World War. Freud had agreed to see Herr P., but only on a limited basis, and it was clear to Herr P. that Freud was not that interested in him and that once Freud’s practice picked up again, he would terminate the analysis. Herr P., we can assume, was not happy with this arrangement, but Freud would not budge and Herr P. was forced to accept what he could get. One day, just before Herr P.’s session, Freud received a message that his British disciple David Forsyth had arrived in Vienna and was eager to catch up. Freud would have seen him immediately, had it not been for Herr P.. But he couldn’t cancel his appointment, and so he told Forsyth that he would see him when Herr P. had left.

At Herr P.’s next session, suddenly out of the blue he started to tell Freud about a woman he knew who used to call him “Herr Vorsicht.” Vorsicht in German means caution or, as it is in English, “foresight.” Freud was struck by the coincidence of his patient telling him that he was once called Herr Vorsicht, or “Mr. Foresight,” when Freud was happy to have renewed his contact with his own Mr. Forsyth. The similarity in sound of “foresight” and Forsyth seemed remarkable, as was the fact that Herr P. had never mentioned his strange nickname before, and had done so only after Freud’s own Mr. Forsyth had turned up. Herr P., of course, did not know of Freud’s British student and the coincidence of Freud’s student arriving and his patient claiming to, in effect, have the same name as him, was, to say the least remarkable. We can say that Herr Vorsicht displayed a strange foresight about Mr. Forsyth.

Freud believed that Herr P. had somehow intuited that Freud was happy about Forsyth’s arrival, which marked the end of the fallow time following the war and the return of his foreign students, and was impatient with having to continue treating him. Herr P. already knew that he was, in Freud’s eyes, really only “second best,” and in order to secure Freud’s attention, he transformed himself into his own Mr. Forsyth, in effect saying to Freud, “Don’t neglect me. I am a Forsyth too.” Strangely, Herr P. had earlier introduced Freud to the work of the novelist John Galsworthy, specifically the novels of his Forsyte Saga.

In Jung’s case, this would have counted as a classic example of synchronicity, that is, the “acausal connecting principle” at work in “meaningful coincidence,” accounts of which can be found in many places in Jung’s work. Freud too believed that something more than coincidence was at work in this case, but he preferred to rationalize this as an effect of the transference going on between he and the unfortunate Herr. P. Freud indulges in some word juggling, but in the end he accepted that some kind of “thought transference” between himself and Herr P. must have taken place. But Freud was so troubled by this that he terminated the analysis shortly after Herr P.’s “Forsyth” episode – no doubt something that Herr Vorsicht himself must have foreseen.

That Freud mislaid the notes for this story suggests, as Freud said himself, a profound resistance to it. Its subsequent history adds to this. The original notes were missing for some time. In 1933 a definitive text was finally put together, but it would not be published until 1941, two years after Freud’s death. The original copy of this version also went missing until 2010. That Freud mislaid material for what seems a remarkable case, and then for the text of the talk to also go missing for decades, suggests that something very powerful was at work here, repressing what for Freud must have been a very uncomfortable thought. I suggest that the poltergeist in Freud’s bookcase, revealed or introduced by his one-time heir apparent Carl Jung, so shook the revered master that for the rest of his life, he was always a little frightened of the occult.


Theodore Adorno “Theses Against Occultism”

Sigmund Freud Collected Works Vol. XVIII (London: Hogarth Press, 1975)

Peter Gay Freud: A Life For Our Time (London: Little Books, 2006)

Marsha Aileen Hewitt Freud on Religion (New York: Routledge, 2014)

Carl Jung Memories, Dreams, Reflections (London: Flamingo Paperbacks, 1989)

Gary Lachman Jung the Mystic (New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2010)

H. P. Lovecraft Selected Letters I (Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1965)

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