“Great revelations of nature, of course, never fail to impress in one way or another, and I was no stranger to moods of the kind. Mountains overawe and oceans terrify, while the mystery of great forests exercises a spell peculiarly its own. But all these, at one point or another, somewhere link on intimately with human life and human experience. They stir comprehensible, even if alarming, emotions. They tend on the whole to exalt.”
― Algernon Blackwood, The Willows
Foreign countries, landscapes and places can change us: ‘Nobody wanders under palm trees with impunity,’ wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his Elective Affinities. At first sight it seems that entering a territory which is different or unknown to us must have some sort of impact because it confronts our ways of thinking. We travel far away to get away from our daily routines.
There is more. The strong aura of some places can make you feeling dizzy or drunk.
Some places even seriously messes with your mind. We remember stories of people who ended up in madness on long journeys into exotic countries as in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart Of Darkness”.
Places can work on a much deeper level in the human soul and trigger inner developments we don’t expect.
If this is the case it raises fundamental questions not only about the human condition but about the distinct “reality” of different places, countries, landscapes.
We know that the same laws of nature apply around the planet and in the universe we know (most of the time).
Apart from that our world and the landscapes on Earth are an incredible place with an endless variety of shapes, climates, vegetations, cultures of different nations. One way this variety is expressed is in the many different languages and dialects we hear when we travel around. It’s an interesting question where dialects come from. It seems sometimes that every place on earth, every valley in the mountains any island or even every city has its own air and keeps an influence on every living being. When I was in St. Ives some years ago I saw the unique and bold behavior of seagulls, which is different like they behave elsewhere and which inspired originally Daphe Du Maurier’s The Birds”.
Sometimes we say we feel a certain air. “There are good/bad vibes here”. We could also say there is an aura or an atmosphere. Atomsphere has a second meaning here aside from the mix of gas which surrounds our planet. It’s something which can be felt, we can also describe a certain air or atmosphere but it’s nearly impossible to understand what it is. There is something mysterious about the certain air of a place.
In the first place we have many “normal” conditions which can make a difference; any area has its own climate and weather patterns. Weather is also a good metaphor. Temperature, humidity, pressure, wind let us feel in a certain way about the location where we are. Recently BBC future wrote about “The mysterious ways the weather changes the body and mind” and revealed stunning research. Falling air pressure is a pain in the head is one example. It’s still very difficult to find proof but subtle changes in the atmosphere can have deep impacts.
Certainly thunderstorms have a direct influence on the body through electromagnetic impulses, and there is also a relation between weather and the crime rate.
Weather and climate is useful also as a metaphor because we can feel a drop in air-pressure but we don’t see it. It’s the same with many other influences: in any place there is a certain atmosphere and we can feel it but there are many things which also can’t be measured or seen. Particularly haunted places or haunted forests work in a specific way. Sensible people sense an uncanny atmosphere more like a smell, something which is there for some moments and then vanishes.
There are people which are convinced that there are also thought atmospheres at certain places. Dion Fortune describes some impressive experiences: a friend of her – usually an experienced teacher and not afraid of stage fright – became nervous when she had to speak at the same place where before her some girls had to to perform and exhibited terrible stage-fright. Fortune herself remembers herself of having felt an atmosphere of depression in a hostel room where a drunkyard had lived before.
These cases suggest that there is something like “fields”, something like electromagnetic charged fields. Rupert Sheldrake developed the theory of “morphogenetic fields”, which offers interesting explanations but is difficult to prove.
It’s interesting if these mental atmospheres exist on a much larger scale. Sometimes its surprising how a village or even a city breathes a certain air. There are cities where people seem to be under constant pressure and appear shy or afraid and there are cities where you feel free and welcomed. It’s not explained why that doesn’t change with people coming and going and between different generations. It’s like any place has its own soul. It influences our behaviour and what we think. The “genius loci” exists.
Dion Fortune’s examples suggest that there are man-made-mental-atmospheres. Later Fortune also says that tragic events can create an uncanny atmosphere or a tangible tension which is really there. Apparitions and ghosts are sometimes described like video-recordings, like a memory which is stored up at a certain place. Many stories reveal an old story responsible for the haunting.
But there is more about atmospheres and places. The “certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces”, which Lovecraft describes seems to be created by powerful cosmic energies. There are places where he have incredible reports how people seemed to be under some sort of spell and changed profoundly.
And we have places which have a reputation for being connected with the supernatural as the famous Bermuda-triangle or Area51.
There are twilight zones on this planet, which haven’t neither be explored or explained. We don’t know why there are haunted forests or even streets which have a reputation for people vanishing. In the original sense a twilight zone is “an area of ambiguity between two distinct states or conditions”. Perhaps these zones are places are still rooted somehow in the otherworld.
But what can happen to us when we cross such a place or even live there for a longer time? Under certain conditions we tend to make different decisions and our attitude changes. We might do things which we would be normally afraid of. Me might do bad things but also better things. Leaving certain places can be a big improvement.
“‘Nobody wanders under palm trees with impunity” – we get close to that quote from Goethe now. Can visiting a place put you on a mission or even decide your destiny? My movie project deals with these experiences.
Visiting a location or a place can definitely be inspiring. Sometimes we can’t describe exactly our experience at a certain place but we can put it in a story revealing the deeper truth which is deep in the mountain, the forest or the impenetrable darkness of a lake we once had been visited.
Nevertheless another very interesting question remains: if we got changed by visiting a place can we also change the equilibrium of the same place? Maybe something wouldn’t have happened if we never arrived there.
We might also end up in a trap, because we are already under the spell of a place we cannot stop to become part of a larger game.
There are enough stories where the hero somehow couldn’t any longer leave the place or the city even it would be wise to leave immediately. The reason usually is that it’s not physically impossible to leave but the hero doesn’t want any longer to leave. He has become part of the special atmosphere like Jack Torrance who understood it was his job to look after the Overlook hotel.