It’s an almost universal truism that coverage of Witches, witchcraft, the occult, and anything else vaguely magical in nature skyrockets during October. It’s a no-brainer content filler in a media landscape that is constantly hungry for more content, no matter how re-hashed, derivative, or lacking in an actual story-hook. This year has almost been too easy, what with (at least) three new television shows that focus on witchcraft in some form or another. If one were to look at a theme, it would be that witchcraft, and the occult more broadly, has become widely normalized within (pop) culture. To underline this, a recent CNN article runs through the many witch-themed tourist travel spots around the world (including Salem).
“Today, Salem’s witchlore has resulted in a booming tourist trade. Over 100,000 visitors pour into town during the month-long Haunted Happenings festival, which takes place every October. ‘About 85% of visitors we asked say they’re interested in the witch trials, and 80% say they’re interested in modern witches,’ explains Kate Fox, the executive director of Destination Salem. The town also boasts a strong Wiccan community, with many setting up spell shops and psychic stalls where visitors can get their palms read. While witch costumes are encouraged, green face paint is not smiled upon.”
Like it or not, Halloween has established itself as the dark mirror of Christmas in the Western holiday calendar. Anything vaguely related to death, magic, or the otherworld gets pulled into its wake, sometimes in spite of objections from the cultures being pulled in. Vodou/Voodoo is quickly becoming associated with the witchcraft-drenched autumnal season, urged on by popular shows like American Horror Story: Coven, while the pre-Columbian Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos grows in popularity every year.
“The tradition, initially a summer holiday, began hundreds of years ago in Mexico’s Aztec cultures, explains Louis Alvarez, one of Orale’s owners. European settlers moved the pagan ritual to coincide with the Catholic holidays of All Souls’ and All Saints’ days and helped to spread the idea to other countries. Alvarez, 46, who was born in Ecuador and came to New Jersey at age 13, did not experience the holiday in his native land, but has seen its popularity spread during many years working in Latin restaurants. ‘It just keeps elevating every year,’ he says.”
For those of us who lay claim to the title of “Witch,” this holiday has always been a double-edged gift. On one hand it has allowed Pagan faiths increased access to popular media, on the other, much of that media has been sensationalist in nature, and often warps our message in the service of ratings. However, the bright lining in all of this attention is that the figure of the witch is changing dramatically before our very eyes. It is now deeply embedded in our culture that witchcraft is no longer solely malefic, and for every evil magic-using character, there are a growing number of sympathetic, and at times heroic, individuals who cast spells, and lay claim to the title of Witch. Some even believe this development could bring empowerment to women, changing the way we see their power.
“While not all movies and shows about witches are necessarily good, the concept of a woman being a witch and deriving her power from within presents us with the novel idea that a female-specific concept doesn’t have to be a double-edged sword.”
On a secular level, Halloween is a multi-billion dollar business, which means that the attention, and all that comes with it, will most likely not be ending any time soon. For those dismayed at what Halloween has done to sacred holidays and customs, associating them with free candy, terrible costumes, and bacchanals of excess, there’s little to be done to reverse this commercial juggernaut. However, within the fake cob-webs, horror movies, and capitalist striving, there is an opportunity to slowly change culture by merely existing within it in an uncompromising manner. By weathering the trends, by staying true to our beliefs and traditions, we become still points of reference in a maelstrom of commerce, ultimately bending the season to something more fitting our tastes. We’ve seen this slowly happen over the last 30 years, and it’s a process we can continue as this new occult obsession accelerates.