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TWH – We have reached the end of October. Halloween is fast approaching. The veil is thin and the ancestors walk among us. The crops, whether from ground or pot, have been harvested. The oaks rain acorns on rooftops and earth begins its illustrious display of magnified color: one last dance before the slumber.
[Photo Credit: Cindy / Flickr]
Another marker of the season is the mounting media interest in Witchcraft. Decades ago, this interest was purely in fictional representations and Halloween traditions. But today, we have mainstream journalists around the world eager to interview modern Witches, or in other cases, discuss Witchcraft in whatever form is appropriate for the outlet.
As the leading daily news agency covering modern Witchcraft in its entirety, The Wild Hunt should follow suit. Why shouldn’t TWH report heavily on Witchcraft during October? The answer is we do, as we do all year long.
Instead of “interviewing a Witch,” I decided to turn the tables around and look at recent mainstream media reporting. What are the standard questions asked? How does the October media circus reflect the reality of our collective communities? Beyond any articles specifically on pop culture witches, what else is being shared?
Salem and the Trials
Some outlets go right to the heart of American Witch lore by focusing on Salem, stationed proudly on the Massachusetts coastline. The Washington Post shares “Five myths about the Salem witch trials.” In an Oct. 26 article, The Guardian asked, “Is Salem losing its spookiness?” Author J.W. Ocker reports that Witch tourism is on the decline due to the city’s trendy gentrification and the declining interest in witch trial attractions, some of which are reportedly in need of upgrades. Ocker recently published a book titled, Season with the Witch: The Myth and Mayhem of Salem Massachusetts.
But for the many modern Witches practicing in America’s Witch City, the tourism industry is only a tiny fraction of their experience. While there are Witches who rely on tourism dollars for their livelihood, the city’s lucrative industry doesn’t change one’s personal practice. Regardless of history and outside of the witchy kitsch, there is in fact genuine Witchcraft being practiced in Salem. Additionally, for the past two years, the Pagan organization CUUPS has held its annual convention there. In 2013, Covenant of the Goddess did the same. Whether or not tourism is on the decline, Salem has not lost the love of its thriving Pagan community.
Witchcraft “is the new black”
Another trend in mainstream reporting focuses on the visual appearance of the Witch. This is not surprising because the mythology of Witchcraft, from Goya’s paintings to modern horror films, is heavily invested in the physicality of the Witch, most notably the female body (e.g., warts, elongated nose, exposed breasts, long fingernails).
This carries over into modern reports, which rely on visual signifiers to define who is a Witch. On Oct. 26, the A.V. Club reports, “Unlike the crunchy new age types who made Wicca into a (loosely) organized religion in the 1970s, these witches are more likely to be urban than rural, to be heavily tattooed than clad in a Ren Faire-style peasant skirt.” As suggested by the article, being a Witch has a definite look, and the most contemporary Witch look is “heavily tattooed.” This juxtaposition pits the The Craft against Stevie Nicks who, according to the article’s photo caption, is wearing a “Witchy fashion.”
This entire discussion recalls a sketch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975): “How do you know she’s a witch?” asks the scientist. “Because she looks like one,” responds a man in the crowd.
But Vogue, as one might expect, takes the concept of a “witch look” even further by offering facial treatments, makeup, and accessories based on the appearances of a number of pop-culture witches. Vogue concludes: “So whether you go the traditional route—a green face, complete with warts and rotting teeth—or prefer a more au natural look to cast spells on unsuspecting passersby, there’s inspiration for everyone.”
It is not uncommon for fashion designers to herald “witch looks.” In fact, this summer Vogue invited its readers to “be a witch.” The article essentially gives permission to dress in ways that might, under other circumstances, be considered risqué, taboo, or counter-culture. Fortunately, Vogue‘s definition of “witch wear” is a bit less limited in scope than that presented by A.V. Club.
But reality proves that there is no real “Witch look.” As anyone who has ever socialized within a group of modern Pagans would note, there are so-called fashion trends, but there are just as many exceptions. From clothing to makeup or facial hair to tattoos,choices in physical appearance offer fantastic opportunities for the outward expression of individuality – something key to the Witch’s worldview. These choices are rarely superficial attempts to become a fictional character, as one might do on Halloween.
A modern Witch’s visual appearance is often a part of spiritual seeking and magical practice.The choices can also be a function of religious work and devotion, whether in or out of ritual. Real Witch fashion choices, as it were, may be temporary or long-lasting. And, while there are certainly many pop culture expectations on the appearance of a Witch, there is, in reality, no Witch look.
Eat, Pray, Love
Moving beyond appearance and the popular signifiers of Halloween witchcraft (e.g, cats, broomsticks, and Winnifred Sanderson), many news outlets choose to dive into the modern Witchcraft community by interviewing a real Witch, one who is local to the outlet’s area. The New York Post, for example, featured the story of news librarian Liz Pressman.
These “interview a witch” articles typically ask the same questions about modern Witchcraft practice, often relying heavily on pop culture iconography as reference points. Pressman herself, for example, suggests that “millennials who grew up on Harry Potter can’t get enough of the feminist pagan religion that worships Mother Earth.” Later she notes that, as child, she could talk to dead people just like in The Sixth Sense (1999). These pop culture references can either assist in educational attempts, as with Pressman’s article, or serve to trivialize the practice of modern Witchcraft, as is the case in the mentioned Vogue articles.
Regardless, these seasonal interviews primarily serve as myth busters, with the aim of proving what a Witch is not. In a recent NPR piece titled “What The Real Witches of America Eat,” journalist Nina Martyris writes, “If you’re thinking of blood and feathers and cauldrons bubbling with eye of newt and toe of frog, you couldn’t be more off-menu. The correct, and disappointingly dull, answer is pizza, bread, fruit, nuts, granola bars, Cornish hens, Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks coffee, leg of lamb, beer, cheese, Merlot, frozen cheesecake and other supermarket comestibles.” And, Witches don’t eat babies, either.
Addressing another myth, tarot reader and occultist Chris Roberts told the Toronto Star: “(Witches) have nothing to do with demons, darkness or the devil. If we were worshipping the devil that wouldn’t make us pagans, it would make us really bad Christians.”
That quote hits upon the most commonly asked question: “To whom do Witches pray?” or better yet “Do Witches believe in God?”
In an in-depth interview with occult researcher and author Mitch Horowitz, paranormal radio show host George Noory responded to a caller, “at least [Witches] believe in God.” While Noory’s intent was to support modern Witchcraft practice, his comment falls short of describing the scope of prayer, ritual, and deity devotion within modern Witchcraft. However, Noory’s comment does illustrate one of the purposes of the media myth-busting angle: To neutralize or disarm the fearsome aspects of the Witch stereotype. In a society dripping with Abrahamic religious concepts of Witchcraft, it is understandable that the most common question, and concern, would be about God and deity worship, or the lack thereof.
As regular TWH readers know, this question, in reality, is not easily answered. Period.
Do Witches Eat Babies? Do Witches Pray to God? Do Witches Love? As for the question of love, I refer specifically to the practice of compassion, rather than interpersonal relationships. It is important to remember that mainstream myth-busting articles focus on what Witches do and do not, rather than who Witches are privately. The myth-busting mentality, therefore, aims to demonstrate a naturally-embedded compassion within modern Witchcraft practice. For example, these articles often define Witches as nature and animals lovers, healers and community helpers.
Focusing on a Witch’s compassion helps dispel the idea that Witches are dangerous. For example, in a recent Toronto Star article, a number of local Witches responded to the question “What is a Witch?” The answers are all focused on magical practice from tarot reading to healing, but they also highlight the compassionate nature of the interviewees. For example, Helga Jackobson is quoted, as saying, “A witch is likely to have an interest or knowledge in natural remedies, in working with the cycles of earthly experience, in helping those around them.” Laura Gonzalez writes, “We are healers, helpers and wise women…”
Second only to the question “Do Witches believe in God?” is the question: “Do Witches curse people?” And similarly, it is asked in an attempt to neutralize an age-old fear. After mention of hexing and cursing, for example, radio show host George Noory asks author Mitch Horowitz, “Should we be afraid of Witches?” Horowitz, who has been working to end Witchcraft-related violence around the world, responds, “No,” adding “Witches are part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
It is a good answer and one that modern Witches love to hear.
However, it doesn’t respond to the question, “Do Witches curse and hex?” And, the real answer depends entirely on who you ask. Why? As Catland store owner Melissa Madaras told Teen Vogue, “[I] can’t speak for all witches, because every witch is a witch for their own reason, and every witch practices in their own way.” That applies to hexing and cursing. Some Witches do; others don’t. This is a contentious issue even within the modern Witch community itself.
Interestingly, the question of curses has become more relevant over the last year as hex actions against a number of public figures have been the focus of mainstream articles. Along with the now famous hex action launched in conjunction with the California Turner case, there have been other similar actions reportedly taken against political candidates, most recently Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. And, that is the angle Quartz took for its Halloween-inspired witch article, titled “Feminist Witches are casting hexes on Donald Trump” and filed under the sub-heading “Game of Crones.”
1969 WITCH protest in front of Chicago Federal Building [Courtesy WITCH]
The subject of hexing leads us to the final trend in witch-based mainstream articles – one that is highly relevant to current U.S. politics.
As has been the case historically, powerful women are often labeled “witch,” regardless of their actual religious beliefs, reported actions, or lifestyles. The witch is, in mythological or meta terms, a woman who knows too much. As such, the Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has repeatedly earned that title in social media memes, articles, and other sources. The label has been used both as a derogatory slur against her character, and as an empowerment tool to demonstrate her strength and vigor.
Aside from any articles focusing specifically on the election, many recent witch-based reports have examined both the historical and contemporary connections made between feminism and Witchcraft. Broadly published an article about the 1960s feminist group W.I.T.C.H., calling its members the “protestors who hexed the patriarchy.” Similarly, a local Vermont news outlet focused on a recent hex action against Trump reporting that the local group “Feminists Against Trump will answer the call for activist witchcraft in its own way.”
In a New York Times opinion article, writer Anna North begins: “The witching hour is upon us. I’m talking not about Halloween but about Election Day — which, if you believe a vocal subset of conspiracy theorists, is when we’ll all get hexed.” North continues on to explore the intersection of politics and Witchcraft, within a feminist framework. She ends using pop culture signifiers, such as The Witch and the Blair Witch Project, to better illustrate her point, concluding: “For a fuller understanding of what the politics of Witchcraft would look like, though, I recommend The Craft.”
And we come full cycle, back to seeing pop culture used in order to understand what modern Witchcraft is, and what it is not.
While mainstream articles and discussions are limited in their space and scope, they can provide an outreach and educational opportunity to offer nuggets of truth. However, they rarely provide the space to delve into the reality of modern Witchcraft life, beyond the obvious, the visual signifiers, the mythology, and the needs of the myth-busting framework. Most articles fail to move beyond pop culture assumptions and comparisons.They fail to examine lifestyle choices, belief structures, and world views in order to demonstrate how these ideologies are integral not only to a Witch’s magical practice but also to a Witch’s commitment to community and the role played within society as a whole. In fact, it would seem that diving into such beliefs, rather than watching a movie, would be the best route for a “fuller understanding of what the politics of Witchcraft would look like.”
For better or worse, most mainstream seasonal articles are working primarily to disprove myth rather than showcase life. Some are positive and well-done in their intent and results, and some are far from it. Either way, the onslaught of Witch articles in October is as much a part of the season as the falling of the leaves and the arrival of the Great Pumpkin.
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Note: Editor Heather Greene will be hosting a Twitterthon on Witches in American Film and Television tonight at 8pm ET. Join the conversation by following the TWH Twitter feed @thewildhunt. Ask you questions via Twitter messenger.