Meeting Myself: Shamanic Healing in the film Rough Magic (1995)

Colleen Szabo
6 min readMay 24, 2019

The term “shaman” is all the rage these days. As likely happens when a word goes mainstream, it generalizes. From OED online: 1690s, “priest of the Ural-Altaic peoples,” probably via German Schamane, from Russian sha’man, from Tungus saman, which is perhaps from Chinese sha men “Buddhist monk,” from Prakrit samaya-, from Sanskrit sramana-s “Buddhist ascetic” [OED]. Related: Shamanic.

A cool little article around photos by Ken Herman, The Shaman Masters of Hohhot Have Returned on FP News site here

The term has morphed in my lifetime from serious esoteric status to almost a household word. When I was young, it was the provenance of the anthropologist, in the U.S.. Now, it has come to mean, basically, multi dimensional. Shamanic experiences, shamanic practices, shamanic healing… Wikipedia says “Shamanism is a practice that involves a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness in order to perceive and interact with a spirit world and channel these transcendental energies into this world.” Easy to see why this is a broad term; for example when we dream, we alter our consciousness, and the “spirit world” is just the nonphysical.

I would like to add a bit to this quick definition. The word ‘transcendental’ smacks of HIGHER consciousness; angels, helpful ancestors, our own higher self energies. Indeed the word does mean “rising above”, basically. And yes, the shamanic tradition as I understand it is often aiming to “raise” a client’s vibrational frequency, through using sound, prayer, fire, water, earth; endless possibilities there. However, the role of interdimensional healer can also involve personally entering any number of dimensions besides the obviously helpful, angelic, or otherwise “higher” energies.

North Pacific shaman or medicine man

Some shamans are/were sometimes, in some cultures, sort of psychic septic tank pumps, which is not so appealing. Just as a surgeon can cut a tumor from the body, or amputate a septic limb, for example, just so do some shamans enter into etheric realms and attempt to eliminate sickness and wounding from this dimension. Some interdimensional shamanic journeying may involve battling demons, maybe helping ghosts or other haunting spirits to pass over, bothering the client no more. Exorcism, basically. Just wanted to make it clear that shamanic work can actually be dangerous; this task of entering the etheric and going to bat for the client. Not a walk in the shamanic park. Never mind what could happen with the folks in the tribe when you’re done. Could be witch hunt time.

Check out the film Constantine for graphic novel exorcism action with super great symbolic content

There are a few psychotropic plants that have recently become fairly well known as shamanic healing plants; ayahuasca probably the most currently famous of these. I can’t witness to the ayahuasca trip; my psychotropic experiences were late 60’s LSD, mescaline, etc. However, I am sure some of the same rules apply. Primarily; you are not necessarily going to just get high. Along the lines of the shamanic healing powers of psychotropic plants, you might get happy- but then again, you might end up being your own shamanic healer. In other words, you may end up facing your inner demons; your fear, your lack of self love, your hatred of… whatever you hate.

Link to this fellow’s ayahuasca tale on Psychedelic Times

Which brings us around to Rough Magic, one of the films I did a symbolic review (symbolic interpretation)of. Starring Bridget Fonda, Russell Crowe, and Jim Broadbent, it’s a complex tale that’s focused on magician Myra Shumway (Fonda). RM begins with professional magic tricks; sleight-of-hand, mechanical devices, etc. However, it quickly moves beyond clever tricks into the realm of strange synchronicities, inexplicable attractions, and the interdimensional healing of psychological wounds.

The pivotal magic falls under the current popular concept of shamanic, surely, as it involves Myra’s ceremonially ingesting a plant-based concoction prepared by a Mayan healer, Tojola (Euva Anderson; no other film credits for her on IMDb). Meantime, Ross Millan (Crowe) and Doc Ansell (Broadbent) are hanging out waiting for her around the campfire, and Doc is explaining to Ross how he knows the medicine Myra’s taking truly has healing properties. For one day, he got a taste of it, and Doc explains to Ross that he experienced “…looking at myself… really very hard to describe. It was as if I was face to face with myself- it was terrifying!”

And that’s exactly what happens to Myra. In a very trippy and emotionally touching scene, Myra and Tojola, hand on each other’s hearts, gaze into each other’s teary eyes with deep love and compassionate understanding. They realize, through the plant’s magic, that they are not separate. They are one. Peploe (director) even spells it out for us, as the images of the women shift, becoming each other. This scene is only one of many wise and shamanic or magical events in the film. For magic, like “shaman”, is that which is interdimensional. Of course there is also practical magic, sleight-of-hand and all that.

Myra and Ross getting friendly

The designation of “rough” in the title describes the hell that breaks loose after Myra’s psychotropic experience, as the main characters’ lives begin to morph into a sort of interdimensional bad trip. For Myra’s on a transformational journey following her entheogenic initiation, and her shadow side emerges to do its dirty work. Through facing her shadow she, and numerous others around her, will give up trying to be something they are not. They will discover the magical life of the heart, of compassion and connection, and decide to follow that path.

Jim Broadbent plays Doc Ansell, an opportunistic herbalist who wants Tojola’s recipe

The film is based on a novel by British writer James Hadley Chase (1906–1985), one of several pseudonyms for Rene Lodge Brabazon Raymond, a super duper famous British thriller writer. I had never read the book when I wrote my symbolic interpretation, but I just found it free on EPDF. It’s pulpy enough to make me skim it, and I would estimate it constitutes about half of the film’s story content. The short novel is titled Miss Shumway Waves a Wand. I do notice Chase’s clothing choices for Myra Shumway were taken to the film, as well as her wise-assing personality. But most people are consummate and compulsive wise-asses in those old detective paperbacks. Maybe even in the new ones. Luckily it’s not poured on so thick in the movie that your eyes start crossing.

The film is very much worth watching, whether you have interest in shamanic goings-on, or not. Crowe and Fonda do a bang up job, and it’s just so much fun. Love and hate, shadow and light, tons of astute social commentary… I know of no drama to touch it in addressing the many meanings of the word ‘magic’. And in the end, everyone wins- even the antagonists! How many dramas can boast that?So whip up some popcorn, that indigenous shamanic grain, and give it a whirl. It might have a healing effect!

Two Women Corn Dancers from Jemez pueblo by Harmon T. Parkurst, 1935?
I guess release title was initially Miss Magic… who knew????
French release. Doesn’t her outfit make her look like a ear of red corn???? Hm. A honky corn maiden.
Hong Kong version