Damien Echols, once on death row, says deepening his study of Western mysticism helped him survive and transcend prison.
Photo Credit: Scott M Lacey
“Our ability to shape energy is like breathing,” begins Damien Echols, the former death row inmate whose quest for exoneration became a two-decade cause célèbre. His audience of around 20 mostly middle-class New Englanders sits, rapt, in a circle of chairs in the center of a large sunlit yoga studio. “We do it all the time without even realizing it. Now we can begin to do it consciously."
Two years after winning his freedom, Echols is in Boston leading a workshop on energetic healing. Echols has dubbed his technique “Hermetic Reiki”—a blend of Eastern modalities with an ancient European mysticism known as magick by modern-day practitioners.
“I used to do this exercise on myself after being beaten by the guards in prison,” he says, his gentle voice a jarring contrast to the harshness of his story. But that’s Echols—dressed all in black as he teaches people how to work with light—a study in contradictions.
Now he plants his feet, draws a breath, and reaches out with tattooed arms to clasp hands with the students on either side of him. “I had nerve damage to my teeth,” he continues, “but this really helped with the pain. Now if everybody is ready, let’s close our eyes.”
Echols was 18 when he and two friends were convicted of murdering three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1994. The case drew national attention after articles, books, and films documented the badly bungled police investigation and prosecution of the “West Memphis Three,” who had been singled out as suspects in part because Echols’s penchant for black clothing and his teenage interest in the occult resonated with the “satanic panic” of the early 1990s. The three spent 18 years in prison—Echols on death row, with a decade in solitary confinement—until they were freed in 2011 under a special deal with prosecutors that came about after new forensic evidence and claims of jury misconduct were brought to light.
These days, Echols talks with detached calm about the brutality he endured in his “small corner of hell,” where he and other prisoners were regularly beaten by guards and forced to live in squalid conditions. Worse yet was his time in “the hole,” a filthy, dark isolation cell where prisoners were sent for punishment for 30 days at a time.
Now a sought-after speaker who finds himself recounting his ordeal again and again on the lecture circuit, Echols longs to leave his past behind and focus on his new life as a practitioner and teacher in the occult and pagan community. Yet he acknowledges that his past and future may be inexorably intertwined.
“Suffering is my story,” he says. “The things I learned came from pain.”
In many ways Echols seems to have pulled his life together—he’s made a home for himself in Salem, Massachusetts, with his wife, Lorri Davis, whom he met and married while in prison. But after a decade of living in near total isolation, he still struggles with simple activities. Crossing a busy street can send him into a panic; driving a car is out of the question. Human interaction drains him (“I can only talk for so long before I have to recuperate,” he confides). But standing before the two dozen participants in his Hermetic Reiki workshop, Echols seems energized and in his element—and his audience is enthralled.
“When you inhale pure energy from the universe in the form of white light, you carry healing energy to every part of your body,” Echols explains. His eyelids flutter and his chest shakes as he draws a deep breath, holds it for a few seconds, then exhales in a whoosh. “Do this until you fill your entire body with brilliant white glowing light.” He lifts his face and takes another breath.
Echols has recounted the story of his ordeal in the best-selling memoir Life after Death and the documentary West of Memphis. Now is his moment to write the next chapter, to tell the story of how he achieved spiritual growth out of struggle: how he used mantras and visualizations to channel white light into his darkness; how he met his wife; how he shed his anger and learned gratitude; and, perhaps most important, how he came to magick.
The term refers to an ancient European practice of using rituals and intention to gather energy, focus it, and release it toward a desired outcome. Practitioners spell it with a k to distinguish it from the art of popular illusion and stagecraft.
“Magick is the Taoism of the West,” says Echols. “People in the United States tend to think that the only traditions of value are Eastern traditions. They don’t realize we have these spiritual riches in our own heritage.
“Take the tarot, which has been lowered to a divination tool,” he says in the hushed voice of someone sharing a secret. “This is a deep and incredibly vast Western spiritual tradition that is very connected to energy work.”
While Echols’s youthful fascination with alternative spiritualities and the occult helped convince police and the public of his guilt in the West Memphis murders, he believes that those same practices also helped him not only to survive death row but to transcend it.
"We shape our own reality,” Echols tells his audience. “Stay focused on what you want and not on what you fear. You can transform your life.” He uses the analogy of a race car driver who is trained to look at his instrument panel or the finish line, but never at the wall. “Your energy is going to move toward wherever you focus it. If you look at the wall long enough, sooner or later you will drive into it.” In Echols’s case, he had to train himself to look beyond the cinderblock walls of his cell and visualize freedom.
“Damien is a true healer,” said the internationally known yoga teacher Seane Corn, who invited Echols to lead a meditation for 350 yogis at the Wanderlust festival in Austin, Texas, this past November. “He teaches us that we can use our experiences—no matter how challenging—as a pathway to spiritual transcendence.”
Ree Coleman, a holistic practitioner based in the Boston area, said Echols’s energy workshop gave her a sense of inner strength and clarity.
“He teaches from a deep, internal still point where all is quiet.”
A Spiritual Search
Echols’s spiritual life behind bars began with a “CARE package” of simple necessities like writing paper and shaving cream from William Frank Parker, a fellow inmate at Arkansas’s maximum security Tucker Unit who had converted to Zen Buddhism. Two years later, on the day Parker was executed, Echols met with Parker’s mentor and priest, Kobutsu Malone, and the two began a correspondence. Already a voracious reader, Echols put aside Stephen King novels for The Heart Sutra and other Buddhist texts. Within a few years he had become a devoted practitioner, sitting zazen for up to five hours a day. In 1999, with his head shaved and hands shackled, Echols stood in the prison chapel for a ceremony of formal commitment to the Buddhist path; a year later, he received his jukai, or lay ordination.
“Right from the beginning he was eager to talk about Buddhism and other religious traditions,” said Anna Cox, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher who first met Echols in 1996 through her work with Arkansas death row inmates. She recalls being struck by the young man’s openheartedness. “He could see the sacredness and intrinsic benefit of all life,” she says, “even a spider family outside of his prison window.”
Around the same time, Echols had begun exchanging letters with Lorri Davis; a Brooklyn-based landscape architect who first learned about his case in the HBO documentary Paradise Lost and was moved to write to him. After an intense correspondence, Davis moved to Little Rock in 1998 and began devoting herself to Echols’s exoneration; a year later, they were married in a Buddhist ceremony on death row, never having touched.
With Davis working on the outside to raise funds for his court appeals, Echols’s full-time job was to stay alive. He deepened his Buddhist discipline, while circling back to his early interest in magick and the occult. From books he learned about the esoteric rituals of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a Freemasonry society established in 19th-century Britain. “To be a member of the Golden Dawn, you had to learn sacred geometry and tarot,” he says. “You had to memorize the archangels, the god names, spirits, and more.” Echols was hooked.
For the first 10 years of his incarceration, Echols took a mostly scholarly interest in the subject—absorbing magickal texts and theories, while only occasionally dabbling in its practice. Eventually, theory wasn’t enough; Echols was drawn to try the intense ritual work. The discipline was challenging and emotionally draining, but the premise that it could manifest real-life change was too intriguing to let go. “When you want something in your life to be different, more than you want to be lazy, that forces you to develop willpower,” he says.
Echols’s tiny cement cell became his metaphysical laboratory. With no practitioners nearby to learn from, Echols followed his own system of trial and error, experimenting with the process of gathering and directing energy with, at first, only moderate success. Then something happened, something that gave him a glimpse of magick’s potential to affect the real world. “Crazy as it sounds,” he says, “it was my teeth.”
Into the Light
Suffering from severe nerve damage in his teeth as a result of repeated beatings in prison, Echols was unable to eat or sleep without pain. After two years of agony, he finally reached a breaking point and decided to try something new. He filled a glass of water, took it in his hands, and began “charging” it with healing energy—the way a Reiki practitioner might channel energy into a patient’s body. After years of studying the principles of magick, Echols knew the exercise was worth a try. “There’s something about water,” he says. “Water and quartz crystals hold energy.”
After an hour of concentrated focus, Echols drank the water, draining the glass. To his astonishment and exhilaration, the pain disappeared. In that moment, he felt the foundations of his world shift. “It was like, oh my God, I’ve been lied to since birth about what’s possible,” he says in a husky whisper. “It was an epiphany. That’s when I realized I can do anything. There is nothing you have to be scared of.”
Echols began spending hours each day practicing complex magickal rituals. He learned how a pattern of walking, chanting, and performing certain invocations in his cell could create an energetic vacuum in him that would allow him to draw in pure, white energy. Or he might recite incantations invoking the archangels to wrap himself in a healing gauze of light. “It’s like lifting weights,” he says of building up the mental endurance necessary to perform these ancient and demanding rituals. What started as one- or two-hour sessions grew into an eight-hour-a-day spiritual discipline.
Meanwhile, in the outside world, Davis was attempting to work her own brand of magic on Echols’s case, finding powerful allies in celebrities including Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and the actor Johnny Depp, as well as the director Peter Jackson and his wife, producer Fran Walsh. Even when things seemed hopeless, Davis says that she and her husband agreed on a rule: “We couldn’t say or even think that he wouldn’t get out.”
Finally, after two decades of legal challenges, the emergence of new evidence in the case, and a growing public outcry, Echols and the two other members of the West Memphis Three reached a deal with prosecutors that allowed them to receive suspended sentences for the time they had already served, without being officially exonerated for the murders. Echols walked out of prison on August 19, 2011.
Today, Echols says freedom has only deepened his spiritual thirst. “More and more, spirituality becomes the focal point of my life,” he says. “I want to delve deeper into what’s possible.”
Although unsure of the logistics, he also wants to build a community with like-minded practitioners. Just “coming out” as being a devotee of the occult and learning to feel comfortable using the term magick in public has been a first step for him, he says, especially after things he said about his spiritual life in the past were taken out of context and manipulated by critics and the press. “I’ve gotten gun-shy,” he says. “You start talking about magick and you’re in Froot Loop Village. That’s the way much of the world looks at spirituality in general,” he says. “So it’s finding people I can share this with who say, ‘Wow—that is pretty amazing.’”
If spiritual inquiry and discipline allowed Echols to survive prison, now it is helping him to let go of his pain, navigate a sometimes bewildering world, and build a life for himself as a free man. It allows him to speak about his experience not with bitterness but with acceptance and even a kind of gratitude—noting that without his years on death row, he would not have come to the practice that has shaped his life, or met his wife, who has become his spiritual partner and most loyal supporter.
“The past exists only in your memory, and the future exists only in your imagination,” he says. Echols leans across his kitchen table, folding together his tattooed hands. The right one is inked with a crow, a mythological figure believed to possess the power to bring souls from the realm of the dead back to the world of the living. “The only thing that’s actually real is right now: us sitting at this table.”
This article first appeared as "Spellbound" in the March/April 2014 of Spirituality & Health. Sandra A. Miller has written for numerous publications, including the Boston Globe, and teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. Learn about her work at SandraAMiller.com.