Under the light of a full moon, four teens creep through the crooked iron gates of a long-forgotten cemetery hoping to witness a vampire emerging from his scared crypt. They carry candles, matches, and a package of dime-store incense…
Does this story sound like the beginning of a teenage thrasher film? A Scooby Doo episode? It’s neither. The narrative is actually an example of a very common-place phenomenon: “legend-tripping.” Gail de Vos, storyteller and adjunct professor, defines legend-tripping as:
…an organized journey to an isolated area to test the bravery of the group when faced with supernatural phenomena. The trip experience involves the telling of appropriate legends… Sites include cemeteries, tunnels, deserted and “haunted” houses, and remote lanes and bridges. (From Tales Rumors and Gossip, 1996)
Have you ever gone legend-tripping? Think back.
When I was seventeen, my friends and I heard a story about an old stone tower eight miles north of town. The structure was supposedly an inverted cross built by the Satanist who owned the surrounding land. The blood of his sacrificed victims stained the floors of the locked tower gates. If you drove around the tower backwards, you could hear Satan’s spirits speak.
The call of this legend was absolutely irresistible. We stuffed our teenage-selves into an old VW Scirocco and headed north. After several visits to “Devil’s Tower,” we finally had the nerve to drive around the tower but certainly not backwards. We weren’t going to tempt Satan. What would he do to a bunch of Jewish kids who didn’t believe in him? Needless to say we were scared s**less grossly unprepared. On the very last excursion, one of my friends was drunk brave enough to creep up to the iron gates. After he got back in the car, that beat-up old Scirocco never accelerated so fast.
What does legend-tripping have to do with Paganism? A whole lot. Most trips involve the seeking out of the paranormal or the Occult (e.g. The Blair Witch Project.) In many cases, the teens use what they imagine to be magic in order to intensify the experience. In Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live (2003), Bill Ellis explains that “teens often fabricate evidence of cult sacrifices, even to the extent of killing animals and leaving occult symbols behind at the site.” (Page 162) He includes legend-tripping examples such as this one from Ohio which “focuses [on five] small cemeteries [which] contain the graves of witches and therefore serve as a meeting place for black magic.” (p 223) These cemeteries reportedly form a geographical pentagram.
This teenage rite-of-passage grazes the “outer banks” of Paganism through its connection to the Occult. As such, we need to be aware of its practice. On the one hand, the legend-trip may be the first way a teen, as a genuine seeker, experiences the Craft. On the other hand, the Occult connection may perpetuate negative stereotypes about Witchcraft and associated Pagan religions.
Wild Hunt contributor, Stacey Lawless shared this memory:
I was hanging around with three friends one night and the talk turned to the Occult. We decided to go to “The Thread,” a waterfowl impoundment in Durham. It was a patch of woods and swamp off the highway with an eerie atmosphere. Jim went on ahead and vanished into the dark. He’d only been gone a few minutes when Steve started looking around wildly as though he heard something. Megan staggered and had to catch herself against me and I felt a strange pressure in my head. We bee-lined it back to the car. Jim caught up with us wondering what was wrong. “ Didn’t you feel anything?” Steve asked. “Nope,” said Jim. “There was a big spirit guarding the place, so I challenged it to a duel, but nothing happened. And then you guys freaked out.
Stacey and her friends may have had a genuine supernatural encounter. For most kids, the sensations would be written-off as a product of the “fear” (or “beer”) factor. However, for others, this first “contact” may ignite or be the result of an Occult sensitivity. Inexperienced teens with limited resources may use legend-tripping as a doorway to Witchcraft.
Unfortunately, authorities and media also confuse Satanic-themed teenage fun with honest Pagan religious worship which can result in a dangerous backlash against local Pagan practitioners. Criminologist J Hayward tried to disentagle “Satanic” vandalism from legend tripping in his 1998 article entitled, “Occult Crime: Satanic Evil or Legend Trip?” He wrote:
There is belief among some that the desecration of churches and cemeteries… animal sacrifice and mutilation, and various indignities done to the dead can be attributed to persons committed to and motivated by occult or satanic beliefs. The extent to which this belief is correct is not easy to gauge… only a few are suggestive of anything more sinister than library book dabbling, legend-tripping, intoxication, adolescent misbehavior, and varying degrees of psychological instability.
While reporters and the police attempt to separate Satanic practice from teen pranks, we are attempting to differentiate ourselves from the both. What’s left is a messy tangle of confusion with Occult at its center.
There is yet one last relationship between Paganism and legend-tripping. This teenage activity is part of a broader anthropological concept called “ostention.” Gail de Vos defines ostension as “the process by which people act out themes or events found within folk narratives… The legends are believed and acted upon and then the new stories are told and retold to validate the original legends.”
By that definition, some academics consider all newly emerged Pagan religions to be products of ostension. In Legend-Tripping Online: Supernatural Folklore and the Search for Ong’s Hat, Michael Kinsella writes “Occult texts strive to develop authenticity and authority by claiming, if not outright boasting, direct lineages from ancient cultures…Wicca has quite successfully written its own history.”
Is he right? Are we just trying to relive a legend or myth? Does it honestly matter? Mythology and legends are social texts that have been used to teach cultural ethics and religious beliefs for centuries. What is the Bible but a series of stories from ancient cultures that contain truths for Christians?
Kinsella goes on to say, “By applying the frames of supernatural legends and occult texts, individuals and groups may discover and create… new ways of thinking of themselves and interacting with the world.” As such, ostension contributes to social evolution. It allows us to perpetuate and experience our world – even religiously. Through legend-tripping, teens use ostension, or legend-tripping, to test the boundaries of everyday life. We use ostension to go beyond the boundaries of everyday life.