One of the weirdest historical confluences you can imagine took place in Pasadena, California, in the 1940s. There, a darkly handsome young man and chemistry autodidact named Jack Parsons had just made a bundle of money by inventing solid rocket fuel and selling it to the military. He was part of a group of explosion-obsessed researchers at CalTech who founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where recently the Martian Rovers were made. He was also a goddess-obsessed acolyte and generous financial supporter of the infamous Pagan leader, Aleister Crowley.
Parsons used his defense contract money to convert an old mansion into a group house whose residents included other Pagans, artists, scientists, and writers. One of his boarders was a charismatic science fiction author named L. Ron Hubbard, who became Parsons’ greatest frenemy, participating in rituals of sex magic with the rocket scientist, sleeping with his girlfriend, and finally absconding with all his money. Here is the true story of how Scientology and JPL were both conceived by men under the sorcerer Crowley’s mystical influence.
Like many high-tech entrepreneurs today, Parsons never attended college. He spent most of his teenage years doing backyard experiments with rocket fuel, aided by a childhood friend who later worked with him at CalTech. Parsons’ brilliance with chemical compounds — and fearlessness in the face of explosions — helped him make friends at CalTech, where he became a researcher in the 1930s. By the late 1930s, he’d helped found JPL, invented solid rocket fuel, and was well on his way to becoming an international science superstar. He was also deep into a new project: reaching the highest level in Aleister Crowley’s mystical organization, the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO).
In a fascinating account of Parson’s life called Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons, John Carter recounts how Parsons claimed to have summoned Satan when he was 13 years old, in the late 1920s. This experience, which the scientist described as terrifying, was the beginning of a lifelong interest in the occult — an interest that became a fiery passion when he discovered the work of Crowley (pictured). Though both Parsons and Crowley mention Satan in their work, neither was a “Satan worshipper.” They were Pagans with a deeply libertarian streak (Crowley’s mystical slogan was “do what thou wilt”), who took hallucinogenic drugs and believed in free love long before the hippies discovered did. Crowley had followers all over the world, like Parsons, who corresponded with him, sent him money, and asked for spiritual guidance. Parsons was a Crowley favorite, however, and the young man rocketed through the ranks of the OTO.
By day, Parsons helped to create one of the greatest scientific institutions of our time, JPL, which has created and maintained dozens of space vessels over the past half-century. But by night, he and his housemates drove his neighbors nuts (several filed police reports) by lighting great bonfires in his backyard, and dancing in a state of near-nakedness. They were worshiping Crowley’s favorite entities. Parsons, for his part, preferred goddesses.
Parsons and his young girlfriend Betty — whom he’d been dating since she was 15 — were both smitten immediately by L. Ron Hubbard when the writer moved in with them. A war veteran who told crazy stories and eagerly lapped up Crowley’s spiritualism, Hubbard became Parson’s great ally in the scientist’s quest to incarnate the goddess Babalon on Earth. Babalon would be a bewitching redhead, who would eventually give birth to the Antichrist. In his book about Parsons, Carson describes Hubbard and Parsons’s joint rituals in great detail. Since Babalon was a sensual entity, raising her required Parsons to masturbate repeatedly, releasing his seed on a parchment while Hubbard chanted rituals and took notes. Often, Parson’s own notes on these rituals make mention of “invoking” with a “wand.”
It was magick, yes, but it was also the future founder of Scientology jerking off with the founder of JPL, in order to indirectly spawn the Antichrist. I think we can take this incredibly deranged situation as further evidence that Los Angeles has always been a weird place.
Hubbard wasn’t content to watch Parsons invoking the wand, so he began sleeping with Betty. Parsons and Betty had always had an open relationship, so this wasn’t particularly shocking to anyone, least of all Parsons. But Betty really fell for Hubbard. The two were inseparable. Luckily, the incarnation of Babalon arrived just in time to soothe any feelings of jealousy Parsons might have had. A red-headed artist named Marjorie Cameron came to visit her friend at Parsons’s house, and both Hubbard and Parsons became convinced she was Babalon. Though Cameron wasn’t interested particularly in Paganism, she was an adventurous woman who liked the idea of free love. Plus, Parsons was hot. So she happily moved in and started participating in Hubbard and Parson’s sex rituals.
Hubbard would chant and invoke the spirits while Parsons and Cameron had sex. The men believed they were summoning spirits and lightning with their incredible potency and sorcery, though Crowley was so disgusted by their antics that he called them “goats” in a letter. Eventually Cameron did become pregnant, but instead of spawning Satan, she decided to have an abortion.
Is There Black Magick in Scientology?
As Cameron’s love affair with Parsons petered out, Hubbard’s relationship with Betty deepened. So did Hubbard’s fascination with the OTO. For those familiar with the basic outlines of Scientology, it will sound quite similar to the OTO. To achieve enlightenment, one ascended through many numerical “steps” on the way, gaining access to more secrets and rituals from Crowley as the apprenticeship went on. Giving money to Crowley was a good way to get more of his secrets, most of which involved achieving mystical power over one’s body and the physical world.
Scientology’s adherents likewise ascend through many steps on the path to cross the Void and become “clear,” which Hubbard promised would make them invulnerable to disease and capable of controlling other people’s actions. To achieve “clear,” however, Scientologists must give money and enact a number of rituals.
In his new book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, Lawrence Wright explains that the influence of Crowley and the OTO has long been a controversy within Scientology. Hubbard wrote Dianetics just a few years after his Pasadena escapades, and founded the Church of Scientology in the mid-1950s. His son Nibs has said that the OTO’s “black magic” was the “inner core” of Scientology, and Hubbard is also on record calling Crowley a “friend.” But Scientologists say there is no relationship between the two spiritual systems.
Still, it’s hard to deny that Crowley had a strong influence over Hubbard, and many of the trappings of the OTO’s system appear in altered form in Scientology. You might say that Scientology is the science fiction version of the supernatural horror that was the OTO. So the religions may be different genres, but they have a lot in common.
The Final Explosion
Once the war was over, Parsons began struggling with money. He tried to launch some businesses, but they sank. His old friends at CalTech had grown distant, but his new companion Hubbard offered a ray of hope. Hubbard suggested that he and Parsons go into business together selling boats. He’d worked on ships during the war, and was a fine captain; Hubbard and Betty would go to Florida, buy some ships, and sail them back to Los Angeles so the two men could sell them. So Parsons gave Hubbard his last $20 thousand, and saw his best friend and girlfriend off.
It seems that Hubbard never intended to make good on his promise, because as soon as he reached Florida he became unreachable. Weeks dragged by, and Parsons began to get angry. So he flew out to Florida, where Hubbard and Betty had bought a boat and were literally pushing off from port when Parsons arrived. The spurned and broke scientist sued Hubbard, and also wrote that he was working deadly spells on his former friend as well. Eventually, a storm grounded Hubbard and Betty and he was able to reach them. Parsons ended up dropping the charges — likely because Betty threatened to expose her unconventional relationship with him — and the couple never gave Parsons his money back.
In 1952, just two years after Hubbard shot to fame with the publication of Dianetics, Parsons died while handling explosives on his front porch. He was survived by the rockets built at JPL that have sent humans to the Moon, and the probes that took us to Jupiter, Saturn, and out beyond the solar system’s envelope. Parsons is also, like his frenemy Hubbard, survived by a snarl of conspiracy theories about his life and death.
The intense connections forged between Hubbard, Parsons and Crowley could be a random happenstance — just one of those odd quirks of history. More likely, it was a side effect of living during a time when rocket science emerged from fiction and became a reality. Briefly, the boundary blurred between physics and the imagination. Perhaps it’s no wonder that magic was involved.
By Annalee Newitz