Why Does Your Aunt Own Dumb Healing Crystals? (The Answer: Uh, Libido-Enhancing Cubicles)
You probably have someone in your life who swears by the health benefits of crystals, or who takes their horoscope as seriously as their doctor. 50 years from now people will think these trends were ridiculous, because to their advanced rational minds it will obviously be canine pubic hair that has the health benefits and the scrying of antique Pogs that can foresee the future. One generation's health trend is the next generation's forgotten madness, and today that brings us to the Himalayan salt lamps of the '40s and '50s, orgone accumulators.
Orgone sprung from the mind of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, whose life was so fascinating we once interviewed his son about it. Reich was Freud's wunderkind disciple, a bold therapist who resisted fascism, and orgone was his most popular, mocked, and misunderstood idea. In short, omnipresent but weightless orgone energy supposedly fuels the formation of everything from our cells to entire galaxies. Vesicles dubbed bions, which Reich claimed to spot while observing rotting grass under a microscope, attract orgone energy and serve as a bridge between creation and decay.
It gets much, much more complicated, but orgone, in serving as the building block of the universe, defied everything we know about entropy, which is always a tricky sell. But to Reich, flaws or deficiencies with a body's bions could create health problems, be they physical, mental or (cue outraged 1940s gasps) sexual. To fight back Reich built orgone accumulators, which were boxes patients would sit in. Made with layers of metal (which repelled orgone) and non-metals like wool and cotton (which attracted orgone), the orgone would supposedly oscillate, accumulate, and heal the occupant.
Reich was aware that he was hardly the first to suggest the existence of some omnipresent life energy (see also Odic, vital impetus, and the Force), but he thought he could channel it for the greater good. But extraordinary claims about the very foundations of reality require extraordinary evidence, and Reich was always lacking in that department. Like most pseudoscientific fads, a lack of evidence was not an obstacle to the curious, not when Reich's celebrity was so much more compelling. Who put concerns about proof aside? Just some rubes like J.D. Salinger, Norman Mailer, William S. Burroughs, Orson Bean, and Sean Connery, to name a few.
Burroughs, noted writer and marksman, was especially curious about Reich. His writing was influenced by Reich's psychoanalysis (Reich had some credibility as a serious if controversial and divisive intellectual before the orgone madness overshadowed it all), and Burroughs built his own accumulator. He also said he built a dong-sized model that served as a "potent sexual tool" with which he achieved hand-free orgasms, but Burroughs was also a staunch believer in magic who spent decades treating heroin as a food group, so take that as you will.
Critics loved to latch onto Reich's beliefs that humanity's collective sex drive was linked to orgone, and that more and better orgasms led to a healthier society (a claim he had been making since the late '20s when, while living in Berlin, he argued that a sex-positive culture could better resist fascism). Reich himself was more interested in orgone's potential curative properties, but sex was a factor in orgone theory and the unflattering result was mocking newspaper headlines about magical cancer fighting sex boxes.
For all the criticism, the association of accumulators with better orgasms was also a big draw to his supporters. Reich was at the height of his fame in post-World War 2 America, when artists and intellectuals were looking for revolutionary ideas but had become disillusioned with the whole Communism fad thanks to Stalin committing atrocities as if there was a body count leaderboard he could conquer. And if communal work wasn't going to power an American social revolution, Reich's argument that loose sex would sure sounded worth a try.
While the sexual revolution is associated with the '60s, the idea first began to engorge after World War II, to the point where it was Reich himself that coined the term. It turns out that over a decade of depression and war make people horny for change; single motherhood rates tripled, Playboy launched, books discussed healthy adolescent sexuality, newspapers opined on the dangers of sexual repression, couples worried about their sex lives and sometimes opened their marriages up in response. The sexy drama of the '60s was partially the changes of the '50s going public... and also just a rehash of the sexual revolution of the 1920s, because America's attitude towards sex goes through cycles. Or refractory periods, if you will.
So that's why acclaimed intellectual and noted knife enthusiast Norman Mailer would sit naked in a box he built for himself. Mailer was a staunch believer in Reich's argument that in "the case of orgastic impotence, from which a vast majority of humans are suffering, biological energy is dammed up, thus becoming a source of all kinds of irrational behavior." To Reich, the demands of society make us form "body armour," tension and stress that weaken our sex lives. Which is kind of true, if you squint at it, but jumping from there to accumulator therapy is like saying you can only crank one out if you wear a Power Glove.
Like most health fads orgone eventually fell by the wayside, but Reich's downfall was strange and sad. First he began thinking that orgone was needed to fight off extraterrestrial interlopers. Then he developed a drinking problem. Then, to combat mounting quackery, the FDA decided to make an example of him and forced him to destroy his books and accumulators. Then he went to jail, where he died. It wasn't a great denouement.
The government crackdown, the increasing public mockery, and the shift towards a society where elaborate theories weren't needed to justify sex talk killed most of the interest in Reich's work. Sean Connery continued to swear by his orgone accumulator, and books and articles on the subject trickled out into the seventies, but otherwise that was the end of that.
Oh, except multiple societies dedicated to studying orgone still exist today, as does a website that will sell you a brand new 2020 orgone accumulator if you can navigate its 1995 site design. Potential buyers are warned not to use them near microwaves, fluorescent lights, CRT monitors, or within 50 miles of nuclear power plants, although you shouldn't be near "these sources of energetic pollution" anyway. The most basic model can be yours for just $2,200 dollars! If that's too pricey, YouTube will teach you how to build a miniature one with a can. Whether you then apply it to your genitalia is up to you.
Pseudoscience never goes away, it just keeps evolving. Jaden Smith and Kylie Jenner made scandalous tabloid headlines a few years back thanks to their participation in the Orgonite Society, whose Instagram page helpfully tells us "We Are A Secret Society Of Individuals Who Create And Place Orgonite To Balance Gaia's Energies." Panicking bozos wrote about how they must have become entangled in a sex cult -- which is exactly what Reich was once accused of running -- even though all they really did was futz around with crystals and maybe troll the internet a bit.
Orgonites, if you're wondering, are a specific kind of pyramid or egg shaped crystal that supposedly cure headaches and other maladies by yadda yadda lifeforce channeling yadda yadda new age crap. First made in 1992 by an Austrian man inspired by Reich, then "perfected" in the early 2000s by a married couple, the magic rocks are basically ripped from Reich's work without even bothering to maintain what few claims to objective scientific study that he upheld. At their darkest they influenced the Rajneeshpuram cult and can be found in the possession of YouTubers rambling about illuminati mind control, but mostly orgonites are just overpriced knickknacks sold to moms worried that Wi-Fi is poisoning their children.
So that's how a controversial psychoanalyst born in the 1890s is linked to the magic pyramids endorsed on Alanis Morrissette's website as being capable of improving your sleep, aiding your work habits, and making your pets happy, provided you keep them routinely charged with sunlight and classical music. Ironically, Etsy is now flooded with crap inspired by the very work the FDA smacked down so hard that it basically killed a man, and their claims are even more spurious. Maybe a century from now people will be shocked to discover that the latest health trend has distant links to President Jaden Smith.
Top image: Stefan Malloch/Shutterstock