Spiritual Aliens, DJ Shamans, and Us: Experiences of liminality and communitas within the psytrance rave

Izzy Davies
BSc Anthropology

Coming from the Latin limen, meaning ‘threshold’, the anthropological concept of liminality is taken to refer to ambiguous moments or spaces both inside and outside of time, where individuals are situated ‘betwixt and between’ various identities and ways of being (Turner [1967] 2002: 93). Researching rites of passage, anthropologist Victor Turner argued that within these ambiguous and uncertain moments individuals can experience a “flash of mutual understanding on the existential level, and a ‘gut’ understanding of synchronicity” and the group of participants become bonded by a common experience, something he terms ‘communitas’ (Turner 1982: 48)

Like Turner’s rites of passage, the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) rave – as both a metaphorical and physical representation of a liminal, uncertain space – is often thought to facilitate a shared experience of communitas. Within this, the psytrance (psychedelic trance) rave is particularly notable, as it fosters a religio-spiritual set of values stemming from the counterculture movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, encouraging a pursuit of “ecstatic states, expanded minds, and evolved consciousness” (St John 2013: 2), aligning with values and aims often cited in traditional rites of passage. 

In this article I explore the psytrance rave as a religio-spiritual ritualistic space where liminality is both inherently present and deliberately encouraged through a borrowing and reworking of various figures, motifs, and concepts. Within this, I will focus on the often-seen figure of the alien, discussing how it acts as a neo-folkloric figure that fosters an experience of shared human identity, love, and personal growth in line with many of the ideals of the psytrance rave subculture.

Within cultural anthropology and EDM studies, the rave has long been understood as an inherently liminal space. It has been described as a “unique ritual process” and area of transformation (Gerard 2003: 10), where ravers negotiate personal and shared identities and experiences. The rave space is separated from the everyday world through intense lighting, music, and rave-goers use of psychedelic drugs, creating a distinct space where normal codes of behaviour are upturned, and participants engage in a process of de-individualisation and ‘spectacular disappearance’ (Rietvel 1998: 163) into one mass, raving organism. Sociologist Michael Maffesoli theorises this process of ‘de-individualisation’ as part of a shared desire to form into communal ‘neo-tribes’ in the face of the collapsing of traditional institutions in the modern world, such as the church and nuclear family (1996). The psytrance community ‘neo-tribe’ then, is characterised by shared utopian ideals of childlike playfulness, love for all, and egalitarianism. When this experience is achieved, it is characterised as ‘the vibe’ – an ‘overwhelming wave of positive energy’ (Rill 2006: 648), an idea which has much in common with Turner’s notions of egalitarian, shared communitas experiences.

Boom Festival, 2018. Photo by Aurélien Adoue from Wikimedia Commons.

Further to the rave space’s inherent liminal qualities, psytrance rave organisers and participants actively encourage an experience of spiritual and personal growth and transformation. Like in traditional rites of passage, individuals at raves often seek to gain self-discovery, personal empowerment, and divine or spiritual experiences. To achieve this, the rave space’s liminal qualities are accentuated through combining technologically advanced music and light shows with open-air, natural locations, and references to celestial events and seasonal transition. Combined with psytrance’s utopian ideals, this creates the rave space as simultaneously hypermodern, and nostalgically harking back to notions of a natural, ancestral, tribalistic way of living. Cultural historian Christopher Partridge argues that these techno-spiritual characteristics form part of a broader process of the ‘re-enchantment of the West’ (2006), countering popular arguments that technological and scientific advances make magical explanations and experiences unnecessary in modern society. Through the site of the psytrance rave, we can see how enchantment and modernity are not only compatible but often mutually enhancing in their ability to reinforce liminal spaces and create an experience of communitas.

Anthropologists have further noted how DJs at psytrance raves act as ‘technoshamans’ (Takahashi 2005), borrowing and combining concepts and figures from mystical, folkloric, and popular culture sources. This ‘remixticism’ relies on the cutting up and patchworking of various sources to achieve a communitas-like experience of unity and connectedness (St John 2013). Psytrance raves are full to the brim with reworked and recombined imagery from endless sources such as motifs from Eastern mysticism, Afrofuturistic imagery, and the psychedelic colours and shapes from the 1960s hippy movements. Psytrance raves also heavily feature sound and imagery referencing space travel and the figure of the alien. St John notes how outer space is symbolically “suffused with cosmic liminality” (ibid.: 1) and the use of space travel imagery within psytrance raves acts as a metaphor for the experiential travel through the ritual-like process of the rave itself, from uncertain liminality to shared, positive vibes and the communitas experience. The aliens themselves, he argues, represent the potential for the ravers’ own self-discovery and transcendence.

In his 2021 online lecture ‘Aliens, Androids, Animals and Ghosts’, anthropologist Tok Thompson considers how the alien acts as a modern folkloric figure, playing a key role in understanding our own identity in the uncertain, modern world (Thompson 2021). Thompson suggests that through understanding the alien as ‘not-of-our-world’, we create an opposition to a collective, global community of ‘earthlings’. I suggest here that the symbolism of this narrative is utilised by psytrance DJs to aid to create the positive communitas-like ‘vibe’ and personal growth that psytrance ravers seek. The alien’s cosmic liminality meets and enhances the rave’s already liminal characteristics as he unites the psytrance ravers together in their collective humanness by providing a contrasting and oppositional ‘alien’ figure. As a contemporary, liminal, and ambiguous folkloric character imbued with cosmic potentiality, the alien acts as a spiritual guide for psytrance ravers to pass through their ritualised dance into their shared experience of communitas and personal transcendence.

Turner’s work on rites of passage provides an illuminating lens to consider the psytrance rave experience with. We can see how the rave space is inherently liminal due to its physical, spatial, auditory, and visual characteristics that separate it from routine life, an experience which is emphasised by the spirito-religious culture and values of the psytrance community. Further to this, psytrance DJs participate in a process of weaving and remixing motifs and figures with the aim of creating a shared experience of a loving, egalitarian ‘vibe’ aligned with Turner’s notion of communitas. To achieve this, the figure of the alien is often used, as an ambiguous neo-folkloric figure who cements the shared collective identity of the ravers, whilst offering the potential for transcendent, otherworldly knowledge and personal growth, guiding the psytrance ravers through the uncertain liminal rave space.

Title Image by Ella Marshall

  1. Gerard, Morgan. (2009) DJs, Dancers, and Liminality in Underground Dance Music. In Rave Culture and Religion, edited by Graham St John. London: Routledge.
  2. Maffesoli, Michel (1996) The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society. London: Sage.
  3. Partridge, Christopher (2006) The Re-Enchantment of the West: Volume 1. Alternative Spiritualities, Sacralization, Popular Culture and Occulture. Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 10(1):126–27. 
  4. Rietvel, Hillegonda C. (1998) This Is Our House: House Music, Cultural Spaces and Technologies. Ashgate Publishing.
  5. St John, Graham (2013) Aliens Are Us: Cosmic Liminality, Remixticism, and Alienation in Psytrance. The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 25(2):186–204.
  6. Takahashi, Melanie (2005) Spirituality through the Science of Sound: The DJ as Technoshaman in Rave Culture. In Call Me the Seeker: Listening to Religion in Popular Music, edited by Michael J. Gilmour. New York: Continuum.
  7. Thompson, Tok (2021) Aliens, Androids, Animals, and Ghosts: Belief Narratives of Human Ontology during the Anthropocene. YouTube. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FEVcN3K_WLo.
  8. Turner, Victor W. (1997 [1969]) The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York: Aldine Transaction.
  9. Turner, Victor. (1967) 2002. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  10. Turner, Victor W. (1982) From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York: Paj.

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