Bots and Familiars: An Interview with Heather D. Freeman

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Familiar Shapes, a documentary in production, explores surprising similarities between bots and familiars. “Both the malicious social bot and the witch’s familiar are seemingly uncanny entities: non-physical, shape-shifting, and under the direction of hidden and malevolent individuals,” director Heather Freeman explains. 
Fear of surreptitious fakes spreading malicious influence isn’t just a 21st century phenomenon. Familiars, or belief in them, spread fear through communities that seemed to lose all reason; the same can be said of bots. Back in the day, people feared that grandmama might fall victim to a familiar masquerading as a cat or fly. Now, we fear that grandma will fall prey to fake news or a scam spread by a bot. It’s Heather’s genius that she noticed this striking similarity which reveals something strange about the human psyche.
Another of Heather’s projects, Denisovan, is an interactive artist’s book originally available for iPhone and iPad but now only for Android mobile devices at Also a softcover book, Denisovan imagines a girl 40,000 years ago. It is inspired by an NPR report on the genome mapping of the Denisovan hominid, from the pinkie bone of a fourteen year old girl who died forty thousand years ago.
These are just two of the fascinating artistic projects created by Heather D. Freeman, Professor of Art (Digital Media) at the College of Arts and Architecture at UNC Charlotte. Her Carolinian Herbal, including a series of gorgeous banners, depicts local flora and fauna in illuminating ways. Folklore and science combine. Science comes naturally for this daughter of two scientists, but Heather’s work is also informed by indigenous and folk witchcraft and occult traditions from Granny Magic to the work of Ithell Colquin.
Screening all over the world, Heather’s animations and films have won nineteen awards thus far. She has shown her prints and mixed media creations at dozens of solo and group shows all over the southeastern United States. Co author of the textbook The Moving Image Workshop: Introducing animation, motion graphics and visual effects in 45 practical projects Heather is as formidable an educator as she is an artist. I’m honored to interview her for Reality Sandwich.
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What are some of the surprising similarities between social bots and the early medieval witch’s familiar you explore in Familiar Shapes

One thing many of my interview subjects mentioned is that the familiars and bots both transgress boundaries. They are literally ‘familiar’, that is, every day, common things. Because of these, we don’t notice as readily when they interrupt our private spaces, not until the damage is done. The early modern witch’s familiar was often a mouse, dog, cat, or fly, common enough to be found in or near many early modern homesteads.  Similarly, bots are everywhere online.  Many are quite helpful (banking bots, weather bots) and they make it clear to you that they are, in fact, a bot.  But as the recent Twitter purges demonstrate, there are many that are masquerading as people when, in fact, they are algorithms.  In the case of the bot pretending it’s a SAHM, and the familiar curled up by the fire in the guise of a cat, they lull us with their familiarity and we invite them into private spaces, be they networks of friends, or hearths. The other thing I’ve observed, is that they both inspire paranoia. Yes, bots are real, and bots designed to trick systems into making certain news items or posts appear more popular are a real danger. They capitalize on our weak media literacy, and sheer mass of new information we’re bombarded with every day in online spaces.  And odds are, the early modern witch’s familiar was, in fact, a common pet.  But it’s our anxiety about them doesn’t help us tackle the problems, it makes it worse in some ways.  

What have you learned in your interviews with experts on bots about the power of their influence? What can be expected next from their creators?

Well, first, let’s define terms.  A social bot is simply an automated piece of code designed to perform some (usually) simple task on an online social space. These can be really helpful, or even funny, or creative.  Not all bots are ‘bad bots’. When talking specificially about ‘malicious bots’, I learned very quickly that there are many, many different kinds and they range widely in complexity and application. Some of the simplest malicious bots simply like or retweet posts.  So if you want to make yourself look popular online, you can rent a thousand bots (they’re pennies each) and this have them all follow you and like and retweet what you say. But they can get much more complex from there, including hybrid bots (sometimes also called cyborgs) where a bot initiates an interaction with a user, and then the human bot master can jump in and deepen the interaction if it looks like the hook has caught a fish, so to speak.  And making a bot is really really easy. There’s ton of free code on GitHub to make your own bot.  But making a really sophisticated, complex bot is pretty hard still.  Nevertheless, with malicious bots, there’s really an arms race happening between the developers and the researchers trying to detect them.  Everybody can read the same research journals, after all, whether you’re working create bot detection systems, or you’re designing bots to avoid those systems.

Also, bots generally do not create false information, but they do affect how it trends.  In on-line spaces, we equate ‘popular’ with ‘true’. Simple bots can very easily look at what’s trending and then repost it, artificially boosting it’s social value.  Bots aren’t just created and disseminated by the Russian Internet Research Agency, they’re also made my every day people.  And because they’re so cheap (and there’s nothing illegal about creating, using, or disseminating them) individuals, groups, and companies all can and do use them.

Familiar Shapes documentary teaser.

Our best defense right now is to be skeptical AF of pretty much everything we see on-line and to do our own information vetting.  It’s also helpful to do whatever you can to break out of your own echo chamber.  This is, of course, SUPER uncomfortable.  It, frankly, our democracy will depend on it.  One somewhat-less-painful way to do this is subscribe to ‘competing’ news feeds.  So my news feed gives me BBC, NPR, CNN FOX, MSNBC, Al Jazeera, Drudge Report (I try to avoid far left and right like Buzzfeed and Breitbart just because there’s too much click bait to sort through.) 

And on that topic, I’d recommend everyone treat this next think like brushing your teeth: do it for your whole health, and make it a habit.  Always, *always*, read the entire article before liking it or sharing it.  See a headline that says, “Teachers Now Required to Carry Guns in Springfield” or “Kids Learn About Homosexuality in Math Class”? Depending on your vantage, either of those headlines might trigger you. DON’T share it, DON’T like it, don’t do a THING with it until you read, actually read, the entire article.  Don’t have time? No worries, just ignore it and move on to the kittens in tea cups. Is it haunting you all day? Cool. Read the article, vet it carefully, and be suspicious.  Look for other articles from other news sources that follow up on that topic. If you realize the headline is actually click bait, or totally lying, you’ll be glad you didn’t share it. 

In your interviews with experts on the era did you find out any surprising things about early medieval witchcraft and familiars, or, for that matter, egregores?

First, it’s important to realize that early modern witches and contemporary Pagan Witches are not the same thing.  I could be wrong on this, but my understanding is that the term ‘egregore’ as contemporary Pagans use it is a relatively modern concept, popularized by Eliphas Lévi. I read somewhere that it’s used in the Book of Enoch, but I imagine the use of it is very different. Quoting Inoga Montoya: “I do not think it means what you think it means.”  But this is outside my realm of research, so take all that with a giant grain of salt!

What I did find surprising was that pretty much everything I learned in high school back in the 90s about the early modern witch trials was wrong.  I always thought the witch trials happened because of moldy bread and modern physicians kicking midwives out.  No doubt there’s cases of that, but the role of the Reformation, and layers of really profound stressors (wars, inquisitions, plague, the mini ice-age, migrations of people, etc.) on European societies created a situation where people were really at the end of their tethers, a fear of witchcraft already existed, and local and regional regimes were more than happy to (often tenuously) hold onto power by letting people accuse their neighbors of witchcraft.  

Another thing that surprised me is that the witch’s familiar really didn’t exist in much of Europe, you really only find records of it in England and the Basque Country of Spain.  You do see records of witch’s interactive with fairies or the Devil, but the idea of the familiar as a diabolic servitor is very specific to those regions, and it’s unclear where the idea of the familiar comes from and why those specific areas.  


What inspired your gorgeous Carolinian Herbal?

Basically, about ten years ago I was walking in the woods behind our house one day and realized I was surrounded by all these amazing living things, the plants around me, and I didn’t know jack about them. It was pretty mortifying actually, because my mom and grandma were both big gardeners and know a ton about botany, both native and naturalized species.  So I started walking around in the woods with a camera, later a cell phone, photographing the plants I found, and then going back to my mom’s old plant books and trying to ID them.  I started with small flowering plants, easy to identify things, and I’m still going.  I’ve got most of our trees down, although I’m still stumped by the different hickory trees a lot of the time. I’ll get there. And if I venture outside our immediate woods, I’ll often find lots of trees and shrubs I just don’t know yet.  Anyway, that’s a long story to say that it started with a desire to educate myself about the natural world around me.  I highly recommend it for anyone it’s great fun, actually, and my kid is pretty good at it too now.  Some of my mom’s plant books were these kooky things from the 70s about medicinal herbalism, and I sort of laughed at them at first, but then I got pretty into it.  I eventually found a used copy of A Modern Herbal by Mrs. M. Grieve, and got sucked into the world of plant lore. Because this part of North Carolina is home to the Catawba and Cherokee, I eventually got my hands on a copy of Daniel Moerman’s Native American Medicinal Plants, and things just kept exploding out from there.  I started to really appreciate individual plants like some people appreciate seeing a deer… it’s a unique, living thing, a fellow traveler on this planet, fundamentally different, and fundamentally the same.  So I started pairing up regional plants and animals, both native and naturalized, invasive and extinct in the region.  A lot of this investigation followed my readings in folklore, myths, and fairytales, and how these stories track, evolve, merge, converge and separate along with the travels and migrations of people. 

In combining plants and animals in a single image, I realized I was adding to that folklore, potentially creating new ones. For example, there are many rich collections of stories about Coyote from across the western half of the continent.  But coyote, the species, has only been in the Carolinas since about the 1980s, so does He bring his stories with Him, or are they unique?  I’d argue a little bit of both.  My personal impression is that Coyote of the Carolinas is still, well, Coyote, but he’s also a force of justice and rebalance, even if its painful or violent. In killing off the native wolf populations of the Southeast, we set up an ecological void.  And while carefully regulated hunting help keep deer populations mostly stable, they’re clever in their own right: the bulk of North Carolina’s deer populations cluster around our most urban centers where hunters can’t safety cull herds. Enter coyote.  There’s not a ton of research into how or if they are controlling urban deer populations, but my fingers are crossed. 

Anyway, I’ve also talked a lot about these works in this interview here:

Your Automatic Evo-divinations are inspired by the art and writings of surrealist mystic Ithell Colquhoun. What art or books by her have influenced you most? Has she influenced your technique?

I love Decad of Intelligence recently published by Fulgur.  I don’t know that it’s a particular work of hers, however, so much as the openness of her process, how she used creative ‘accident’ to inform a deeply intuitive creative process.  I really admire the works of Austin Osman Spare as well, but I think physicality of Colquhoun’s process really resonates with me.  I admire the creative honesty of both of them, I guess I can put it that way.

Coyote (Spirit Photography)


Artemis your starkly beautiful animated short was shown at around forty festivals, what kind of reactions did it inspire?

Ah, unfortunately, I don’t get to travel to many of the film festivals I screen at, but I have been able to attend a few.  There’s the reasonable gasping when the deer gets hit by the car. (Are there spoilers for 4-minute films? Sorry.) I love the sort of confused, nervous laughter when the ghosts of Elvis and Apollo pull up and throw the deer in the pick up.  Honestly, I’m not sure people can tell who they’re supposed to be (well, I think Elvis makes himself obvious). Oh, and there’s the laughter when the deer flies off after Artemis.  When I storyboarded the scene, I envisioned it totally sad and beautiful and mystical.  But there is just no f*cking way to make a stop motion deer fly off into the sky without everybody thinking about Rudolph.  I struggled with that scene and finally just decided to own it.  I don’t typically do ‘beautiful and mysterious’, and every time I try, it just comes out comedic.  Guess I should learn something from that at some point!

What inspires you about photogrammetry of objects as art?

Part of it is very practical.  The world is full of these amazing collections of historic objects, but unless you live nearby, most of us will only ever experience them in a book.  While there’s obviously a lot of the world that isn’t ‘wired’ yet, photogrammetry is an amazing way for people to experience a physical artifact, even to get up ‘close’ in a way you wouldn’t be able to do in many museum settings.  

What inspired your experimental short film and video spell Spell to Draw Bees Back to an Empty Hive?

Ha, I was just goofing around, actually. I mentioned Coyote above, and I made that image to try and ‘entice’ Coyote into rebalancing our beehive. My husband tried his hand at beekeeping, but after losing two hives to CCD, we decided to give up and bow down to successful beekeepers. After cleaning it out, we put the hive back out and hoped maybe a random colony would decide to occupy it.  So the film is a screen-based spell casting in which I try to encourage Coyote to take on his sun-like qualities and draw the bees back.  Well, no luck.  But we have lots of coyotes in the woods now, so maybe it worked in a way I hadn’t expected. He’s a trickster, for sure.

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 Your work has won dozens of awards, you’ve contributed to dozens of conference publications and presentations, including pieces for books and journals. Your films have screened in over 100 festivals, you art’s been shown in even more exhibits, not to mention your creative public service, participation in editorial boards and panels, creative community service, your work as a journal, competition and conference reviewer and a Professor of Digital Media at UNC, plus you’re an attentive mom whose experiences with your son help inspire your research and art. Girl, how do you do it? 

Well, first, I don’t do it all at once!  All that’s happened over nearly two decades, it’s do-able. But I’ve struggled with balance a lot.  My mom was of the generation of super-moms: they kept house 1950s-style for their husbands, worked full time, went to school at night, did the PTA, the whole thing.  And she was burned out and depressed most of the time. She wasn’t fundamentally happy, although she loved ever single thing she did.  When I got out of school (before I went back into school, ha) I always said, “No kids, no husband, and then I can do it all and be happy and sane.” I love working on creative projects, I love getting passionate about totally new things, throwing myself into them, and learning the hell out of some topic or other. That’s all I wanted to do.

But what I’ve found is that I ended up with a remarkably supportive partner in my husband.  When our son was a baby and my mom was dying and I was trying to get tenure and juggle everything, he did it all to keep shit together. He is, hands down, a much better mom and dad that I will ever be. Things are a lot more balanced now, but I know we’ll face other challenges and crises: that’s just part of life.  We’ve learned to support each other, to encourage each other to go off and do the things we love.   To this day I’m totally amazed by him as a father, husband, and human being.  So I got lucky, but also made a pretty damn good choice proposing to him!  All that to say, I’ve never done anything alone, I’ve always leaned on the support of friends and family.  I just hope I’m consistently doing the same for them in turn.

Familiar Shapes

A documentary about social bots, misinformation, early modern witches, and how human behavior shapes them.

The Moving Image Workshop: Introducing animation, motion graphics and visual effects in 45 practical projects.

Heather D. Freeman art.


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Sitaramaya Sita is a spiritual herbalist, pusangera, and plant wisdom practitioner formally trained in the Shipibo ayahuasca tradition.


The Therapeutic Value of Ayahuasca
My best description of the impact of ayahuasca is that it’s a rocket boost to psychospiritual growth and unfolding, my professional specialty during my thirty-five years of private practice.


Microdosing Ayahuasca: Common Dosage Explained
What is ayahuasca made of and what is considered a microdose? Explore insights with an experienced Peruvian brewmaster and learn more about this practice.


Ayahuasca Makes Neuron Babies in Your Brain
Researchers from Beckley/Sant Pau Research Program have shared the latest findings in their study on the effects of ayahuasca on neurogenesis.


The Fatimiya Sufi Order and Ayahuasca
In this interview, the founder of the Fatimiya Sufi Order,  N. Wahid Azal, discusses the history and uses of plant medicines in Islamic and pre-Islamic mystery schools.


Consideration Ayahuasca for Treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Research indicates that ayahuasca mimics mechanisms of currently accepted treatments for PTSD. In order to understand the implications of ayahuasca treatment, we need to understand how PTSD develops.


Brainwaves on Ayahuasca: A Waking Dream State
In a study researchers shared discoveries showing ingredients found in Ayahuasca impact the brainwaves causing a “waking dream” state.


Cannabis and Ayahuasca: Mixing Entheogenic Plants
Cannabis and Ayahuasca: most people believe they shouldn’t be mixed. Read this personal experience peppered with thoughts from a pro cannabis Peruvian Shaman.


Ayahuasca Retreat 101: Everything You Need to Know to Brave the Brew
Ayahuasca has been known to be a powerful medicinal substance for millennia. However, until recently, it was only found in the jungle. Word of its deeply healing and cleansing properties has begun to spread across the world as many modern, Western individuals are seeking spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical well-being. More ayahuasca retreat centers are emerging in the Amazon and worldwide to meet the demand.


Ayahuasca Helps with Grief
A new study published in psychopharmacology found that ayahuasca helped those suffering from the loss of a loved one up to a year after treatment.


Ayahuasca Benefits: Clinical Improvements for Six Months
Ayahuasca benefits can last six months according to studies. Read here to learn about the clinical improvements from drinking the brew.


Ayahuasca Culture: Indigenous, Western, And The Future
Ayahuasca has been use for generations in the Amazon. With the rise of retreats and the brew leaving the rainforest how is ayahuasca culture changing?


Ayahuasca Guide: Effects, Common Uses, Safety
The Amazonian brew, Ayahuasca has a long history and wide use. Read our guide to learn all about the tea from its beginnings up to modern-day interest.


Ayahuasca and the Godhead: An Interview with Wahid Azal of the Fatimiya Sufi Order
Wahid Azal, a Sufi mystic of The Fatimiya Sufi Order and an Islamic scholar, talks about entheogens, Sufism, mythology, and metaphysics.


Ayahuasca and the Feminine: Women’s Roles, Healing, Retreats, and More
Ayahuasca is lovingly called “grandmother” or “mother” by many. Just how feminine is the brew? Read to learn all about women and ayahuasca.

What Is the Standard of Care for Ketamine Treatments?
Ketamine therapy is on the rise in light of its powerful results for treatment-resistant depression. But, what is the current standard of care for ketamine? Read to find out.

What Is Dissociation and How Does Ketamine Create It?
Dissociation can take on multiple forms. So, what is dissociation like and how does ketamine create it? Read to find out.

Having Sex on Ketamine: Getting Physical on a Dissociative
Curious about what it could feel like to have sex on a dissociate? Find out all the answers in our guide to sex on ketamine.

Special K: The Party Drug
Special K refers to Ketamine when used recreationally. Learn the trends as well as safety information around this substance.

Kitty Flipping: When Ketamine and Molly Meet
What is it, what does it feel like, and how long does it last? Read to explore the mechanics of kitty flipping.

Ketamine vs. Esketamine: 3 Important Differences Explained
Ketamine and esketamine are used to treat depression. But what’s the difference between them? Read to learn which one is right for you: ketamine vs. esketamine.

Guide to Ketamine Treatments: Understanding the New Approach
Ketamine is becoming more popular as more people are seeing its benefits. Is ketamine a fit? Read our guide for all you need to know about ketamine treatments.

Ketamine Treatment for Eating Disorders
Ketamine is becoming a promising treatment for various mental health conditions. Read to learn how individuals can use ketamine treatment for eating disorders.

Ketamine Resources, Studies, and Trusted Information
Curious to learn more about ketamine? This guide includes comprehensive ketamine resources containing books, studies and more.

Ketamine Guide: Effects, Common Uses, Safety
Our ultimate guide to ketamine has everything you need to know about this “dissociative anesthetic” and how it is being studied for depression treatment.

Ketamine for Depression: A Mental Health Breakthrough
While antidepressants work for some, many others find no relief. Read to learn about the therapeutic uses of ketamine for depression.

Ketamine for Addiction: Treatments Offering Hope
New treatments are offering hope to individuals suffering from addiction diseases. Read to learn how ketamine for addiction is providing breakthrough results.

Microdosing Ketamine & Common Dosages Explained
Microdosing, though imperceivable, is showing to have many health benefits–here is everything you want to know about microdosing ketamine.

How to Ease a Ketamine Comedown
Knowing what to expect when you come down from ketamine can help integrate the experience to gain as much value as possible.

How to Store Ketamine: Best Practices
Learn the best ways how to store ketamine, including the proper temperature and conditions to maximize how long ketamine lasts when stored.

How To Buy Ketamine: Is There Legal Ketamine Online?
Learn exactly where it’s legal to buy ketamine, and if it’s possible to purchase legal ketamine on the internet.

How Long Does Ketamine Stay in Your System?
How long does ketamine stay in your system? Are there lasting effects on your body? Read to discover the answers!

How Ketamine is Made: Everything You Need to Know
Ever wonder how to make Ketamine? Read our guide to learn everything you need to know about the procedures of how Ketamine is made.

Colorado on Ketamine: First Responders Waiver Programs
Fallout continues after Elijah McClain. Despite opposing recommendations from some city council, Colorado State Health panel recommends the continued use of ketamine by medics for those demonstrating “excited delirium” or “extreme agitation”.

Types of Ketamine: Learn the Differences & Uses for Each
Learn about the different types of ketamine and what they are used for—and what type might be right for you. Read now to find out!

Kitty Flipping: When Ketamine and Molly Meet
What is it, what does it feel like, and how long does it last? Read to explore the mechanics of kitty flipping.

MDMA & Ecstasy Guide: Effects, Common Uses, Safety
Our ultimate guide to MDMA has everything you want to know about Ecstasy from how it was developed in 1912 to why it’s being studied today.

How To Get the Most out of Taking MDMA as a Couple
Taking MDMA as a couple can lead to exciting experiences. Read here to learn how to get the most of of this love drug in your relationship.

Common MDMA Dosage & Microdosing Explained
Microdosing, though imperceivable, is showing to have many health benefits–here is everything you want to know about microdosing MDMA.

Having Sex on MDMA: What You Need to Know
MDMA is known as the love drug… Read our guide to learn all about sex on MDMA and why it is beginning to makes its way into couple’s therapy.

How MDMA is Made: Common Procedures Explained
Ever wonder how to make MDMA? Read our guide to learn everything you need to know about the procedures of how MDMA is made.

Hippie Flipping: When Shrooms and Molly Meet
What is it, what does it feel like, and how long does it last? Explore the mechanics of hippie flipping and how to safely experiment.

How Cocaine is Made: Common Procedures Explained
Ever wonder how to make cocaine? Read our guide to learn everything you need to know about the procedures of how cocaine is made.

A Christmas Sweater with Santa and Cocaine
This week, Walmart came under fire for a “Let it Snow” Christmas sweater depicting Santa with lines of cocaine. Columbia is not merry about it.

Ultimate Cocaine Guide: Effects, Common Uses, Safety
This guide covers what you need to know about Cocaine, including common effects and uses, legality, safety precautions and top trends today.

NEWS: An FDA-Approved Cocaine Nasal Spray
The FDA approved a cocaine nasal spray called Numbrino, which has raised suspicions that the pharmaceutical company, Lannett Company Inc., paid off the FDA..

The Ultimate Guide to Cannabis Bioavailability
What is bioavailability and how can it affect the overall efficacy of a psychedelic substance? Read to learn more.

Cannabis Research Explains Sociability Behaviors
New research by Dr. Giovanni Marsicano shows social behavioral changes occur as a result of less energy available to the neurons. Read here to learn more.

The Cannabis Shaman
If recreational and medical use of marijuana is becoming accepted, can the spiritual use as well? Experiential journalist Rak Razam interviews Hamilton Souther, founder of the 420 Cannabis Shamanism movement…

Cannabis Guide: Effects, Common Uses, Safety
Our ultimate guide to Cannabis has everything you want to know about this popular substances that has psychedelic properties.

Cannabis and Ayahuasca: Mixing Entheogenic Plants
Cannabis and Ayahuasca: most people believe they shouldn’t be mixed. Read this personal experience peppered with thoughts from a procannabis Peruvian Shaman.

CBD-Rich Cannabis Versus Single-Molecule CBD
A ground-breaking study has documented the superior therapeutic properties of whole plant Cannabis extract as compared to synthetic cannabidiol (CBD), challenging the medical-industrial complex’s notion that “crude” botanical preparations are less effective than single-molecule compounds.

Cannabis Has Always Been a Medicine
Modern science has already confirmed the efficacy of cannabis for most uses described in the ancient medical texts, but prohibitionists still claim that medical cannabis is “just a ruse.”

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