Archives For Laura Wildman-Hanlon

As we reported Friday, October is a popular time for interview Witches. The season also brings a flurry of Halloween-inspired television programming. From the holiday specials to the classic horror films, the entertainment industry capitalizes on our cultural love for all things related to the secular holiday.

[Credit: MANSOUR DE TOTH via CC lic. Wikimedia]

[Credit: MANSOUR DE TOTH via CC lic. Wikimedia]

This phenomenon is nothing new. In the 1930s, Betty Boop appeared in a short called Hall’ween Party (1933). In 1948, Mighty Mouse saved the world in The Witch’s Cat. Many readers will remember looking forward to the yearly October airing of The Wizard of Oz (1939) or, more recently, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). One of the newest Halloween-inspired offerings,Book of Life (2014), capitalizes on the growing popularity of the Mexican Dia de los Muertos aesthetic and tradition.

As we get closer to the actual Oct. 31 date, producers begin offering Halloween-themed episodes of TV series. In its lineup this year, CBS aired a Witch-themed episode of its popular, long-running show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. While the secular Halloween holiday was never mentioned, the show’s title “Book of Shadows” and its subject matter were not arbitrarily chosen to appear in a late October episode.

Sunday’s CSI episode has set off some intense discussion within the Wiccan community. While many believe the show demonstrates a step forward in the depiction of Witches and Wiccans within mainstream entertainment, others were not easily convinced. Massachusetts Priestess Laura Wildman-Hanlon remarked:

I’m annoyed my religion was again dragged out and used as a means to scare people on Halloween. I’m angry at the disrespect paid to my beliefs and my God & Goddess. I’m furious at the writers who could have used the opportunity to debunk these untruths instead of playing to them. 

Was the show a simply a means to “scare people” as Wildman-Hanlon suggests? Was it yet another serving of insulting television fare perpetuating the historically-ingrained, sensationalistic construction of Witchcraft? Or was it positive? Did the writers demonstrate any cultural sensitivity?

Before looking at the specifics of the episode, it is important to be aware the CSI program is very formulaic like most TV dramas. “The Book of Shadows” episode was no exception.The aesthetics and narrative structure fell well-within the CSI storytelling boundaries, including the sensationalism, campy humor and graphic displays of internal anatomy.They didn’t stretch the show’s artistic reach to tell this story.

csi_crime_scene_investigation_logo__140218204850

“Book of Shadows” opens with a teenager filming a video while walking through school hallways. This scene is important because it establishes the main characters of the “who done it?” plot. After we are introduced to the players, a burning body comes running down the hall and then falls dead. Interestingly, this dead teacher is labeled “the Burning Man” and, although not known at the time, is a practicing Witch. While just a minor point, this detail, death by burning, becomes the second reference to Witchcraft. The first, of course, is the title.

Although the show is filled with subtle phrases and imagery maintaining its connection to the theme, it isn’t until the second segment that the narrative really delves into subject of Witchcraft. The coroner discovers a “Life Rune” symbol, which he links to Nazism, gangs and crime and which eventually leads investigators to the coven’s temple space.

The temple scene, itself, was filmed in the classic CSI aesthetic while also recalling elements of the horror film. As CSI Nick Stokes enters the dark room, everything is visually obscured by shadow and a tight camera angle. The limited lighting is blood red and, as the slow-moving camera pans across the space, the only recognizable images are a skull and a pentacle.

In typical CSI fashion, the horror-style scene is followed by scientific explanation and visual clarity. In this case, there is a brief dramatic reenactment that parallels the horror-scene.  Then the director abruptly cuts to a non-engaging, medium shot of the temple room in nearly full light. Everything is visible. CSI D.B. Russell has joined Stokes in exploring the space.

As they investigate, Russell educates Stokes and the audience on what they are seeing in the room. When referring to the pentacle, Stokes says, “I always thought it was the sign of the devil.” Russell replied, “Well you were wrong.”

Along with other similar type comments, Russell says, “[Wicca] is a Pagan religion.” Putting these two temple scenes together, the show plays first with what the viewer expects and then says, “well you were wrong.” This juxtaposition demonstrates a clear step forward in the representation of Witchcraft and Wicca within a modern context of its own making.

Moreover, the writers also note the important distinction that Wicca is a “Pagan religion.” This statement is critical because it moves popular discourse away from the simple point that “Witchcraft is real” or “Wicca is Witchcraft” to “Wicca is one of many religions.” Although encapsulated in a bucket of typical CSI sensationalism, the show’s narrative does demonstrate that the writers did some real homework.

CSI:  The Book of Shadows  [Courtesy: CBS Television]

CSI: The Book of Shadows [Courtesy: CBS Television]

The next important detail to examine is the lab scenes, in which tech David Hodges is dressed in a “relic Druid robe.” To Wildman-Hanlon, these scenes were extremely off-putting. She said, “I was furious to see one of the main characters wearing a silly robe, waving a wand over a cauldron bubbling with fake smoke and obviously making fun of my beliefs.”

David Hodges is largely present for comic relief within the more serious CSI drama schematic. He always takes a campy and comical attitude toward any subject. However, in this case, he was mocking a religious practice, which proves problematic. Along with his robe, Hodges called his lab a “Wiccan Altar” and mentioned a past Wiccan girlfriend who was “a little too earthy” and didn’t have a “bathing spell.” In addition, Pagan viewers may have been offended by the God and Goddess statuettes on his table. Although meant as harmless comedy, the writers went too far for many Pagan viewers as demonstrated by Wildman-Hanlon’s comment.

While the show’s middle portion largely diverts its attention from Witchcraft and Wicca, the narrative returns to the theme by the end. It is at this point the writers’ attempts at sensitivity fall completely apart. We find out that the killer is a Wiccan mother and teacher; the dead coven member was a teacher and drug dealer; the Wiccan principal was sleeping with a student and the High Priest and school janitor had once been a criminal. While the show doesn’t posit any of these characters as purely evil, they are all framed as damaged goods.

However, more problematic than any of that is the “who done it?”conclusion and various subtle details used to intensify and color the story. First, both murders were done by a Wiccan woman, who had been attempting a healing spell. She apparently needed the blood of a “sacrificed youth.” In once scene, the coroner notes that the dead boy’s blood was removed after his murder, which “suggests a Wiccan ritual.” Considering this line alone, it appears as if the writers fell face first into a vat of cultural stereotyping.

All the earlier positive elements and demonstrations of sensitivity become buried by the failings of the conclusion and other narrative details, such as the janitor brandishing his athame in a threatening manor. Through lines such as “Druid spell” to gain “more power” or “May the blackest of darkness smite you down,” a viewer’s preconceived notion of Witchcraft and Wicca are confirmed.

Why pay attention to shows like this one? CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is a fictional drama that posits its universe as real. For viewers, the CSI environment could be their world. There is no fantasy or mythology here. That is the nature of the genre. As such, it presents Witchcraft and Wicca as something real; something the viewers might witness in their daily lives.

This attempt to bring Witchcraft and Wicca out of a fantasy world and into reality is exemplified by the following exchange. Stokes says, “What happened next? No, let me guess, lightening bolts.” Russell replies, “No. a coven meeting.” This is notable change for the construction of Witches and Wiccans within American entertainment. Where most shows, even live-action, posit Witches and magic as elements of fantasy, this shows says “No they are real. They are parents, principals, janitors and science teachers.”

At the same time, CSI‘s realistic nature makes the mistakes all the more difficult to digest. Wildman-Hanlon remarks:

A couple of sentences muttered by a character that ‘Wiccans are peaceful people who work with the energies of nature,’ is lovely but not when the plot heads immediately back into the fiction line saying beneath our practices of harmony actually lies a darker stance where murder/human sacrifice is, according to our beliefs…our Book of Shadows…an acceptable practice if we deem it warranted. 

“The Book of Shadows” was a notable effort with some very positive forward steps in the representation of Witches and Wicca. Unfortunately the writers didn’t go far enough and wound up relying too heavily on good old fashion Halloween entertainment lore for the sake of a scream.

Pagan Voices is a spotlight on recent quotations from figures within the Pagan community. These voices may appear in the burgeoning Pagan media, or from a mainstream outlet, but all showcase our wisdom, thought processes, and evolution in the public eye. Is there a Pagan voice you’d like to see highlighted? Drop me a line with a link to the story, post, or audio.

Laura Wildman-Hanlon

Laura Wildman-Hanlon

“Attention adult children of Pagans! Regardless of your current beliefs, we want to hear from you! We are conducting a study of those who were raised to adulthood within the Pagan Community or had a form of Paganism practiced within their homes during their formative years. The survey asks question of religious and spiritual self-identity and how these world views are expressed as an adult. It also considers the importance and differences between spiritual beliefs, religious practices and organized religious structures in association with social identity. Please either follow or copy and past the link below to the information page where you can take, or see more details on, the study. And please forward the link or post to wherever is appropriate. Thank You!” – Laura Wildman-Hanlon, announcing the “Spiritual Beliefs and Social Identity” survey for adult children of modern Pagans. Here’s a bit more on the survey from the explanation page: “Prior research has found the vast majority of this target group self-identifies as being spiritually Pagan but hold no religious allegiance. This survey investigates how this group manifests their beliefs in the greater world and the degree spirituality, without the encouragement of religious structure, can act as a motivating force for their participation in societal or global change.”

Christian Day

Christian Day

“I’ve always been a little peeved at the devil-hunting legacy of Ed and Lorraine Warren, but this movie took their bigoted beliefs to an entirely new level. It’s bad enough they’re always looking for Satan in every child and demons under every bed, but now their great big bad was, as it is in so many other misguided stories throughout history, the Witch [...] Like the Amityville Horror, another story that originally involved the Warrens before it made it to Hollywood, this film has the potential to have a real legacy. That famous film was about a house that, many years after it was first shown, still inspires terror, while the legacy of this film could be worse because it’s about people. The last thing I want to see is for this film to inspire fear about Witches in the way that the Amityville Horror did for the house on Ocean Avenue for so many years. The film even ends with a wink and a nod to Amityville. That it purports to be a true story and that everyone portrayed in the film are real people gives this story, and its antagonist, a gravitas that takes it out of the realm of b-movie horror flick. The Conjuring was especially upsetting to me as a resident of Salem because it desecrates the memory of the Towne sisters, Mary Esty, Rebecca Nurse, and Sarah Cloyce, two of whom were hanged as so-called “Witches” in 1692 Salem. By claiming that the big bad Witch was descended from Mary Esty, they’re making quite an obvious implication one doesn’t have to reach far for. The Towne sisters were almost certainly not Witches. They would have had no idea what a real Witch was, beyond what the hateful Reverend Paris told them, but it crushed these ladies to be cast out of the Christian faith they held so dear. To cast them as devil worshippers was the final insult. Perhaps my greatest concern about this film is that the paranormal is really popular these days. This movie could lead many of today’s paranormal investigators, particularly those new to the field, to develop terrible views of our ways. I truly hope that the paranormal community does not embrace this film and see it as a factual way to view Witches.”Christian Day, co-owner of The Salem Witch Walk, writing a critique of the new horror film “The Conjuring.”

Carl Neal

Carl Neal

“Our community benefits from all kinds of people. Our diversity is possibly our greatest strength yet we so often take steps to squash that diversity rather than benefit from it. Those who work well in groups are crucial to the future of the Pagan community in America. One or two individuals simply can’t create the large, organized events that we occasionally get to enjoy. We NEED those who can work with and effectively lead groups of Pagans. They are a huge part of how we can draw closer and bring our energies together. I just hope that if you’ve read all the way to the end of this article that you can now see that YOU as an individual can do a great deal to build and improve our community. Solitaries, Traditional Pagans, and those in-between or beyond those limits can all contribute to making ours a stronger, better-connected community. Solitary individuals have far more ability to positively impact the Greater Pagan Community than most of us have thought in the past. We Solitaries owe a big debt to those organizations that have worked so hard to create events over the decades. Now we Solitaries need to step up and do our part to help this community connect and grow. The great news is that we can do this while remaining true to our Solitaries paths. We need not try to work within organizations that run counter to how we function in order to be part of the community and to positively contribute to its growth.” – Carl Neal, host of The Pent O’Clock News, exploring how solitary Pagans and Witches can help build community at The Witches’ Voice.

Sam Webster (with Herm), photo by Tony Mierzwicki.

Sam Webster

“So far we have discussed the intellectual and pastoral training of a minister. In Protestant religious space, the intellectual work feeds directly into liturgy, meaning sermons, and while Protestants are very good at public speaking, there is not much ritual knowledge there. Pagans would have to supplement. The intellectual education also enables the minister to provide thought leadership and institutional guidance. The Pastoral role is clear: caring for the emotional and spiritual needs of the population. Together, the knowledge of religious thought and history along with other-centered care leads to the last major role of the minister, the Prophetic. Once meaning “speaking-for” the Deity and ultimately derived from that authority, although not usually meaning channeling these days, it is the task of critique and persuasive correction of the people. It is the often unpleasant and rarely thanked job of telling people where they are wrong. It is easy to lead when everyone wants to follow you and they agree with you. But when they don’t, when in your judgement they are making some kind of error, it is the duty of the minister to get up and use persuasion to change the people’s hearts and minds, their words and deeds—even at the risk of losing your job, which may be supporting your family. This requires courage and conviction, and is best backed up by education and compassion. I believe we need more Pagans trained in this way. We need to be as good at this, even better than Christian and other ministers because we are fighting an uphill battle for acceptance. Like Ginger Rogers, we need to be able to do this “backwards and in heels”. We need to know the world’s range of theological positions, as well as the entire western lexicon of spiritual thought.” – Sam Webster, discussing Pagan ministry, and the importance of prophetic ministry within modern Paganism.

Julian Betkowski

Julian Betkowski

“Many Pagans’ primary access to community is through the internet, and I have been concerned for a while about how that shapes the way that we relate to community. It has been noted before by various people that the internet allows for a wall of anonymity, and that people will behave online in ways that they never would in the outside world. I have to wonder, then, how that affects people whose faith community is largely virtual: what is appropriate behavior, and how do we relate to the idea of community when we do not have to worry about the repercussions of our actions or the effect that we have on those around us? When we can simply insulate ourselves in groups of like-minded people, when we can build up little virtual echo chambers, how do we know that we are actually engaging with the community, and not just forming high school cliques? Indeed, it is this clique mentality that I find so unsettling. The internet, combined with insularity, allows us to artificially inflate the members of any given community. We can feel as though we are speaking for the whole of Paganism, make broad claims about the definition and usage of that term, because our little corner of the internet all agrees with us. But then, we really do not have any way of actually knowing just how many people we are speaking for, or who they really are. On top of that, if we are unwilling to tolerate critique, then we are even further slicing ourselves off from true community experience.” – Julian Betkowski, on how social media and the Internet build “echo chambers” instead of communities.

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried

“On Thursday, “The World” aired a short follow-up story. Between the two of us, Josh and I had spent nearly three hours on the phone with [producer Nina] Porzucki. In multiple emails, we had sent her background information, contacts, sources and images. The final piece was two-and-a-half minutes, with a few seconds from each of us. There was no apology given on-air or on the website. The online story has been “updated,” but still features the chubby guy in the movie costume – and no apology for the disrespectful original story. Porzucki specifically asked me to talk on the recording about the symbolism of Thor’s hammer, which was the crux of what the original PRI item purported to be about. I didn’t expect that there would be an extended feature on “The World” about this, but she only used one sentence of a twenty-minute discussion. She didn’t use any of the images or source material that she asked me to send her for the website. I’m not surprised by any of this. I’ve written before about public radio’s poor coverage of minority religions (as part of an article on “Obama and Ostara”). What did surprise me was the amazing response to my call for a letter-writing campaign. There a lot more HOPI (heathens of positive intent) out there than even I thought, and they are ready to call out the media when their religion is misrepresented. This is a wonderful thing.” – Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried, author of The Norse Mythology Blog, about a follow-up interview/story PRI’s The World did with him and Josh Heath after many Heathens took issue with the frivolous and poorly sourced nature of the original segment.

Vivianne Crowley

Vivianne Crowley

“Isis has much to offer contemporary Pagans. Isis in the classical Pagan world was a multicultural Goddess, worshipped in Africa, Asia Minor and Europe, and peoples far apart in culture could find meaning in her. Today, as in earlier Pagan societies, Isis can bring together those of different races and faiths. The Goddess as Queen of Heaven is not associated with a particular place, time or culture. The arc of heaven unites all beings – human, animal, plant, and all life forms within the universe. She can also be a bridge to those of other faiths.  Many of Isis’ titles were absorbed into the veneration by Catholics of the Virgin Mary and her image survived into Catholic Europe in the form of Black Madonna statues, with cults of healing that were some of the most powerful pilgrimage sites of medieval Europe.  The worship of Isis has been hidden, but has never truly died. Let us honor Isis in the Dog Days of the year, a  Goddess for the world in which we now live, a global interconnected village united under the vault of the Heaven’s Queen.” – Vivianne Crowley, author, Jungian psychologist, and faculty at Cherry Hill Seminary, on the goddess Isis as a multicultural deity perfect for “a global interconnected village.”

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

Just a few quick news notes to start off your Friday.

The Day the Lights Stayed on at Atlantis: London’s oldest occult bookseller, The Atlantis Bookshop, was apparently the only business unaffected when an explosion caused a blackout on their street. Could it be magic?

The Atlantis Bookshop

The Atlantis Bookshop

Geraldine Beskin, whose family has run the shop for the past 50 years, said: “The lights flickered, and in the streets I could see everyone else’s go out. But we were left intact. It must have been magic!” Staff at the street’s boutiques and cafés turned to Atlantis, a Mecca for mysticists worldwide, for candles to keep their shop-fronts lit.

Atlantis Bookshop is (in)famous for being a place that occultist Aleister Crowley would visit regularly, though the paper points out he died in 1947, precluding any role for Britain’s “wickedest man” in the blackout.

Pendle Witches House Discovered? England’s “Pendle witches,” victims of the most famous witch trials in that country’s history, have long fascinated tourists and historians alike; now some are claiming that an excavated 17th century cottage may have been the legendary Malkin Tower, where the witches were rumored to congregate.

Photograph: Lorne Campbell/United Utilities/PA Wire

Photograph: Lorne Campbell/United Utilities/PA Wire

“Some historians have speculated as to whether the cottage could have been the fabled meeting point of the Pendle witches. “This could well be the famous Malkin Tower — which has been a source of speculation and rumour for centuries,” Pendle witches expert Simon Entwistle told Reuters. He said the find, right in the heart of witch country was incredibly rare, and was made just a few months before the 400th anniversary of the infamous Pendle trials.”

Why the speculation on this particular cottage? Because a mummified cat was found in its walls. Author and Pendle Witch expert Mary Sharratt, author of the novel “Daughters of the Witching Hill,” noted to me that a “mummified cat was a common country charm to ward off evil so it doesn’t necessarily follow that cunning folk lived in the cottage, but it’s still an interesting discovery.” As for the Pendle Witches, they remain strange celebrities in England, with a statue of Pendle witch Alice Nutter to be unveiled in 2012.

Meet the (University of Massachusetts) Wiccan: University of Massachusetts paper The Daily Collegian does a paint-by-numbers “meet the Wiccans” piece on Laura Wildman-Hanlon, office manager for the school’s psychology department and author of “What’s Your Wicca IQ?” While a positive article, I’m not kidding when I say this is textbook “meet the Wiccans” material.

Laura Wildman-Hanlon

Laura Wildman-Hanlon

“Laura Wildman-Hanlon, a practicing Wiccan, is not your Hollywood witch. She doesn’t wear a pointed hat or have green skin, and she certainly doesn’t turn men into frogs. This she says, is not at all what real Wicca and witchcraft are about.”

Still, good on The Daily Collegian for spotlighting a local Witch who is stable, successful, and happy. Here’s hoping a few minds are opened in the process.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!