A long while back I talked about Welcome to Night Vale’s Strex Corp and the Smiling God, and how the Smiling God could potentially be a critique of Christianity, Prosperity Gospel doctrine, and religious colonialism. But now I am venturing into very different territory. Is Night Vale, with all its darker rituals, beliefs, and morality, representative of left-handed paths?
When the Strex Corp storyline started in Welcome to Night Vale, I was struck by what I saw as criticism of Christianity. The Smiling God was seemingly all about light and love, but was actually something powerful that could potentially destroy everyone. On top of this, Strex Corp was using the beliefs of the Smiling God to take over and practically enslave everyone, while claiming that the people of Night Vale would be happy if they just listened to them and fell in line with their beliefs. Night Vale, on the other hand, often seemed to follow a religious path that was darker and would be viewed as taboo in our culture. While Desert Bluffs and Strex Corp emphasized light, Night Vale emphasizes darkness. And I started to wonder if Night Vale could represent left-handed paths.
(Brief disclaimer: I was raised Christian, so my knowledge of left-handed paths largely comes from the research I have done on the topic. If I have said anything that is incorrect, especially if you follow a left-handed path, please let me know. I am always excited to learn new things.)
Spoilers up to Episode 49 of Welcome to Night Vale.
Left-handed and right-handed paths describe two different approaches in Western Occultism. Right-handed paths tend to adopt ethical codes and social conventions—Abrahamic religions tend to be associated with right-handed paths—while left-handed paths believe in breaking taboo and abandoning a set morality. Left-handed paths are about the individual; it is a faith that is about self-development and empowerment. Left-handed paths are always personal, not universal. They reject moralism, and emphasize free thought and not dogma. Left-handed paths mostly included various forms of Satanism, and occasionally some forms of Wicca and Paganism. Joyce and River Higginbotham describe left-handed paths in the book Paganism: An Introduction to Earth Centered Religions:
A left-handed path is one of spiritual dissent and one that tends to look to the seeker’s own efforts rather than for help or “salvation” from Deities and other authority figures.
Again, left-handed paths focus mainly on the self, breaking taboos, and abandoning a set morality. Anton LaVey, who wrote the Satanic Bible, explains:
Satanism is not a white light religion; it is a religion of the flesh, the mundane, the carnal – all of which are ruled by Satan, the personification of the Left Hand Path.
What is the biggest difference between left-handed paths and right-handed paths? The website The Description, Philosophies and Justification of Satanism describes it as:
Left-hand-path religions are concentrated on individualism, freethought, intelligence and outstanding abilities and gifts. The term “left hand path” may have entered the West’s vocabulary from the East via either the teachings of Helena Blavatsky and the Theosophists or from the shamanist Tatar invasions. Conversely, “Right-hand path” religions concentrate on the symbols of goodness, of the sun, of herd mentality and submission to god(s) and religious authority. Satanism is one of the few left-hand-path religions, and proudly so.
While I may object to the herd mentality description being associated with right-handed paths, it is true that many right-handed paths involve some sort of submission to a good godly figure and sometimes a religious authority figure. Left-handed paths also differ from right-handed ones in that they don’t shun our darker or more base natures. Religions like Christianity may say “turn the other cheek” if someone wrongs you, but a left-handed path totally supports an individual’s choice to seek revenge if they choose to. So now that we know more about left-handed paths, is it possible that many citizens of Night Vale actually follow them?
There are definitely certain aspects of Welcome to Night Vale that seem to fit with left-handed paths, while others do not mesh well at all. Night Vale never specifically mentions any particular religion, as I wrote in a previous article:
The actual beliefs of the citizens of Night Vale are left largely unclear in the podcast. Angels are mentioned as living in Night Vale, people are somewhat controlled into worshiping a giant glow cloud, and it’s said that some of the religious founders of Night Vale wore crowns of meat. Then there is the giant brown stone spire that the citizens of Night Vale are expected to supplicate themselves before and after their traditional Thanksgiving feasts. The citizens crawl on their knees to the brown stone spire, thanking it for what it has done and not done. So while the religion or various religions of Night Vale are never clearly defined, it is clear that they certainly exist at least in some form.
From just some of the rituals and spiritual elements mentioned, we can already see that certain things do not fit left-handed paths. Old Woman Josie, in particular, works with angels and often relies on them for help and protection. In the third episode of Welcome to Night Vale, Josie is protected from a “creeping fear” that enters the town because of her angelic connections. While angels don’t necessarily belong to Abrahamic faiths, they are largely associated with them, making Josie, at least, unlikely to be part of a left-handed path. Furthermore, while Josie doesn’t seem to worship the angels, she does rely on them for help, which would go against the beliefs of reliance on deities (though angels are not, strictly speaking, deities, they are still spiritual entities upon which Josie relies) and seeking help through one’s own efforts.
We could ignore the Glow Cloud here because people do not choose to worship it; rather, the Glow Cloud seems to almost possess anyone who is near it or thinks about it. However, it’s still an important character which is referenced a lot in the show. The Glow Cloud could be argued as symbolizing being critical of those who submit to authority, viewing them as mindless drones. But people in Night Vale also seem unconcerned with the Glow Cloud and being forced to submit to it, so it could also be another point against Night Vale being associated with left-handed paths. The stone spire, however, is a different story; while the Glow Cloud may control people against their will, people in Night Vale seem to actively subjugate themselves to the stone spire. A herd-like mentality is definitely present in the form of people crawling on their knees and thanking the stone spire. Submitting to it and thanking it for all it did and did not do seems to be the exact opposite of a more individually focused path.
Left-handed paths are all about individualism, free thought, breaking taboo, and refusing to follow moral authorities. The whole town of Night Vale is subjected to a government that regulates reading and you can actually be punished for a thought crime, but despite this, the citizens of Night Vale actively rebel against those rules. Citizens read books banned by the government and even keep illegal writing utensils hidden in their homes. While these things are not religious in nature, it certainly shows belief in the values associated with left-handed paths. Furthermore, Night Vale citizens seem even more willing to go against authority when it comes to religious issues. The Night Vale City Council, for example, speaks out against the sale and use of discount bloodstones. The people of Night Vale actively and openly rebel against this, claiming the city council is only saying such a thing because they own the certified bloodstone market.
The bloodstones in particular show a breaking of taboo common in left-handed paths. Taboo forms of magic (for those who use magic in their left-handed path), such as blood magic or sex magic, are viewed as particularly powerful. The mass use of bloodstones in Night Vale seem to suggest that the more taboo blood magic is a common practice in the town. Furthermore, it’s one of the main targets of Strex Corp when they take over Night Vale. They attempt to ban this taboo form of magic and spiritual practice, because it doesn’t fit with their beliefs. In some regard, all the forms of worship in Night Vale, even ones like the stone spire, would be viewed as taboo and strange to many people following right-handed paths, so all these forms of spiritual practices could be viewed as breaking taboos and denying authority (with the exception of maybe Josie and her angels).
Night Vale’s association with left-handed paths is more obvious when it’s juxtaposed against Desert Bluffs and Strex Corp’s Smiling God. Strex Corp and the Smiling God are definite critiques of Christianity, and while Welcome to Night Vale doesn’t demonize right-handed paths because we still have characters like Josie and the angels, it does appear that the ideals of left-handed paths are what really saves the day. This is particularly shown by Tamika Flynn, the main warrior fighting Strex Corp and the Smiling God. Tamika works against Strex Corp immediately when they invade the town. She actively pronounces “our god is not a smiling god”, directly rejecting the moralism of Strex Corp. She further denies Strex Corp’s authority by erecting a bloodstone after they had been banned. Finally, she espouses individualism and encourages the citizens of Night Vale to fight for themselves and follow their own paths when the town rebels against Strex Corp. During the final fight against Strex Corp and the Smiling God, Dana, an intern at Night Vale radio and future mayor of Night Vale, returns from a desert otherworld she had been trapped in. She brings with her giant masked warriors and the angels to battle Strex Corp and the Smiling God, thought we are told that even these powerful forces are struggling to win against Strex Corp. Despite this, Dana warns the people of Night Vale to stay in their homes and hide, to let the more powerful angels and masked warriors defend them, but she is interrupted by Tamika, who has a different message.
Dana: People of Night Vale, there is a light drowning out our sun and our minds. But there are angels, and an army of masked warriors fighting back this terrible menace. Night Vale, stay safe! Stay home and do not get caught in the dangerous crossfire. The desert army and the angels, they are here to save us.
Tamika Flynn: People of Night Vale!
Cecil: Oh! Uh, Dana! Uh, I’m sorry, Dana, but I think that’s Tamika Flynn from her secret broadcast site.
Tamika Flynn: People of Night Vale, hear me!
Dana: Tamika? The Tamika Flynn! Oh, hi, I’m Dana! I have heard so much about you! You are an inspiration, you are a hero!
Tamika Flynn: Thank you, Dana, but I am not a hero. Or we all are. Or the word has no meaning.
We must all save our town, and ourselves. People of Night Vale, I’m calling you to arms. There are beings claiming to be angels, and this foreign army of giants fighting. Why can’t we?
Cecil: Well, uh—yes, that’s good, but…
Dana: People of Night Vale!
Dana: Angels are definitely real. They are powerful, and recently very wealthy, and they are tough to kill, unlike humans who die easily and unexpectedly all the time from all sorts of little causes. Just wait and let them save us.
Cecil: Ahh, I see…
Tamika Flynn: People of Night Vale, do not be defined by how you can die, but how you can live! It is like the great writer and orator Booker T. Washington once said, “In all things social, we can be as separate as fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to destroying a Smiling God.”
Dana: Stay safe, Night Vale! Stay indoors and we will broadcast to let you know when it’s all over.
Tamika Flynn: Get out there, Night Vale! Grab anything you can and fight! Grab a slingshot and a book, say an Amy Bender Short Story Collection, or Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars. Or, if not a book, grab a rock. Or the throwing stars that come standard in most issues of McSweeney’s. Grab anything you can, and fight!
Do not believe in heroes, believe in citizens. Be a citizen.
While Dana urges the people to step aside and stay safe, to rely on the help of angels and other powerful beings because fighting themselves is too dangerous, Tamika actively calls on Night Vale to reject the help of otherworldly forces and fight for themselves. After Tamika’s proclamation, the citizens start to fight, each in their own unique and individual way, and it is only then that Night Vale starts to win and beat back Strex Corp and the Smiling God. It is these individualistic and self-determining beliefs, so crucial to left-handed paths, that save Night Vale. While Night Vale works together as citizens and as a community to defeat Strex Corp, they each do it in their own way. They are together but each following their own path.
It’s not entirely clear that Desert Bluffs, Strex Corp, and the Smiling God symbolize right-handed paths, while Night Vale symbolizes left-handed paths. We still have characters like Old Woman Josie and her angels, and rituals where people blindly worship stone spires and Glow Clouds, but there definitely seem to be some hints that many citizens of Night Vale prescribe to a left-handed path. At the end of “Old Oak Doors Part B”, Cecil talks about Night Vale and the light of the Smiling God and says:
The darkness of Night Vale is washing away.
And what are we, Night Vale, without darkness? Without shadows? And without secrets?
Darkness, shadows, and secrets are all symbols that are associated more with evil and deceit in right-handed paths, but in left-handed ones, they are powerful. Cecil describes these things as being essential to Night Vale and its community. Left-handed paths are often viewed as evil and demonic by our society. They are persecuted and hated, but in Night Vale, we have a potential community where the dominate religious beliefs seem to be a part of left-handed paths. I think it’s interesting to see a society that follows more left-handed paths and is still shown as normal. Yes, Night Vale is a weird town, but the goings-on in Night Vale are always portrayed in a mundane way, and the same is true for even its most seemingly taboo religious beliefs.