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How Magick Helped Damien Echols Survive Death Row

Picture of Ryan Kristobak
Music Editor
Updated: 12 July 2017
This article serves as one piece of a four-part video series focused on the 2016 Day For Night festival hosted in an abandoned post office on the edge of downtown Houston, Texas in mid-December. A previously unseen combination of headlining musicians with gigantic, immersive art installations by world-renowned visual artists, Culture Trip investigates how Day For Night is establishing the festival of the future, and the works of those involved.

Speaking with Damien Echols, you might never guess he was once entangled in a triple homicide, falsely convicted of murdering three boys as part of a Satanic ritual, and sentenced to death. Echols spent over 18 years on death row in Arkansas, locked-down 23 hours per day, before advancements in DNA testing proved him, and the two other men convicted, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., innocent.

The case of the West Memphis Three has been well documented since they were tried and convicted in 1994. From the three Paradise Lost documentaries to Mara Leveritt’s Devil’s Knot (and its eventual film adaptation), many came to the defense of Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley prior to their release in 2011. Metallica allowed a film to use their music for the first time in Paradise Lost, and punk legend Henry Rollins organized a tribute album, Rise Above, covering 24 tracks of his old band Black Flag with guest vocalists that included Iggy Pop, Ice-T, and Ryan Adams, with all of the album’s profits being donated to the legal funds of the West Memphis Three. Even Johnny Depp has been a longtime friend and supporter of Echols’ innocence.

A little over five years later, Echols is now a New York Times bestselling artist and acclaimed visual artist, although both endeavors started behind bars. According to Echols, his foray into art began somewhere between eight and 10 years before his release, and he even had three shows while he was still on death row.

His most recent performance, Crimson Lotus, was at Day For Night’s 2016 festival, where he discussed and displayed his process of chaos Magick, a combination of traditional ceremonial Magick techniques combined with his own alphabet/code.

“When we hear the word magic in the West, we tend to have our ideas and concepts shaped by really cheesy horror movies and really inaccurate information, so I wanted people to understand that this is a tradition and a spiritual practice that is as rich as anything you would find in the East,” Echols said. “Ceremonial Magick to the West is sort of like the Western version of tai chi or yoga.”

As one can imagine, the facilities of those on death row are not greatly concerned with spending their time, money, and energy on keeping those in line alive when the ultimate destination is execution. It was Echols’ Magick practices that helped maintain his sanity and helped him deal with the little medical care he received long enough to get out.

The point of Magick, like most other religious practices, Echols points out, is self-actualization. While evolution of one’s being and the pursuit of a more fulfilling life are common threads, Echols notes a key difference between Magick and Eastern traditions of energy work lies in their varying assessment of the physical and spiritual realms.

“A lot of Eastern traditions tend to view the material world as somehow less sacred than higher layers of reality, whereas in Magick it’s all looked at as integrated,” Echols said. “We don’t seek to escape the material world as some of the Eastern traditions do, we seek to bring it more in alignment with the energy levels in reality in order to make it easier to manifest here and make our lives better.”

Damien Echols pull quote
Damien Echols pull quote

In his Day For Night installation, Echols aligned several sigils, or “archangels,” that would light up in turn along three walls that form an open box. While he admits that referring to them as archangels projects a loaded tone, it’s meant to help listeners understand that by surrounding themselves with these symbols, a sacred space is created in any environment — even at a music festival.

“The point of sigils and what they are, you take an abstract concept, you can do it for things like love or charisma or transformation, any of these things, you take these complicated concepts and you reduce them down to a simple symbol in order to bypass the conscious mind and speak directly to the subconscious mind,” Echols said. “You’re basically shooting packets of information into your subconscious mind, and it will work on it when you’re sleeping, it’ll work on it when you’re not even thinking about it because it’s a much deeper part of our minds and our psyches than our regular functioning mind.”

During his performance speech, Echols stated it isn’t about faith versus a lack of faith, but that the opposite of faith is fear. For him, the most applicable metaphor is in the training of race drivers, who are told to never look at the wall when driving because if they do they will gravitate towards it until collision.

“Our lives tend to move in the direction that we focus our attention on, our energy on,” Echols said. “Therefore, it’s always important to keep your energy on what you want, where you want to be, what you want to have in your life, instead of the things you fear are going to happen.”

Echols won’t deny that this topic is a little overwhelming, especially in when digested in one sitting, so he worked to present a simplified version more appropriate for a festival audience. And, most importantly, he wanted to make it fun.

“When we think of spiritual practice, we think of things that are aesthetic, things that are hard, discipline, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case,” Echols said. “You know, a spiritual practice, there’s the path of pleasure just as much as much as a path of pain. Venus, sensuality, all these different things, which go along with a festival environment.”

One of Day For Night’s leaders, Randall Jamail, has long been a friend of Echols’ and played a pivotal role during his incarceration, organizing events like benefit concerts and albums that raised money to help pay for legal fees that Echols, a self-described “poor white trash kid growing up in a trailer park in Arkansas,” otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford. So when Jamail asked Echols if he wanted to be involved in the festival’s second year, there was only ever one answer.

“My rule in life is, even if I have no idea what the hell I’m doing, to always say yes and figure it out as I go along,” Echols said. “So that’s what I did here.”

Watch the video above to view Echols’ installation and more of our interview with him.

Check out the other parts of this four-part video series on the 2016 Day For Night festival:

Day For Night Isn’t the Music Festival of the Future, It’s an Evolutionary Jump

AV&C + Houzé Explore the Boundaries Between Projection and the Physical in ‘Phases’

Michael Fullman’s ‘Bardo’ Probes the Physicality of Light