Even in Salem, Witchcraft Evokes Apprehension

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It’s hard to not acknowledge the fact that the word “witchcraft” still evokes feelings of apprehension, or even fear, from those who hear it. It’s a word that is almost primal, bringing up associations with magic, and the fantastical dark purposes some imagine when hearing that a “witch” might be near. The same reason some feel misgivings, however, is the reason many of us have reclaimed the term. Using that power to recast the folkloric evil crone into a wise woman, a healer, a representative of religions thought destroyed by the rise of Christianity. Since the emergence of Gerald Gardner in the 1950s, practitioners of modern Witchcraft have been hugely successful in changing associations, changing minds, about what a Witch could be, but that childhood figure of fear still lurks with some. Even in modern day Salem, New Hampshire, there are still some who whisper about the dangers of accepting the Witch.

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The Temple of Witchcraft’s new Salem home.

“Some may have thought it was a Halloween joke last week when they were invited to the Temple of Witchcraft for an open house. It was no joke. The Salem-based nonprofit organization is seeking Planning Board approval to relocate from its current home at 2 Main St. to a two-story, 19th-century home at 49 N. Policy St. […] Selectman Everett McBride Jr. said he’s received a few emails from people who are worried about having the Temple of Witchcraft in their neighborhood. He has asked Town Manager Keith Hickey to look into the proposal. “The neighbors are nervous,” McBride said.”

The “neighbors are nervous,” but about what? Are they picturing Rosemary’s Baby, The Wizard of Oz, or are they simply worried that Wiccans will drive the property values down? Whatever the reason, the temple was quick to reassure the unnamed nervous neighbors that there was nothing to fear.

“To help dispell the misconceptions, the temple held an open house at the proposed site on Halloween, distributing fliers to neighbors to give them a chance to learn about the organization and its teachings. Only five people showed up. Some asked if they were handing out Halloween candy, which they did, Kenson said.”

The Temple of Witchcraft, which was co-founded by author Christopher Penczak, probably won’t have any major obstacles in getting their new temple space approved, it’s clear they have the law on their side, and that they’re not afraid of scrutiny from the public. They present a new sort of tension for those who hear the word Witch, the affirmation that we live in a country where even the faiths you might be afraid of have rights. It also presents a challenge for those who’ve reveled in the power of the word, of its ability to shock and unbalance. For if the Witches have a temple down the street, hold open houses, and hand out candy at Halloween, how scary or powerful could they really be? Indeed, whenever the word Witchcraft comes up, chances are good that Wicca will also be invoked. An uneasy co-existence ensues where fantasies like True Blood try to have their folkloric “bad” Witch and their “good” Wiccan-Witch healer at the same time. It doesn’t always work.

Hundreds of thousands of us have chosen to be Witches, to wear the title with pride in hopes of creating a new paradigm of power around it. The Temple of Witchcraft show that this effort has been wildly successful. We are no longer merely subcultural, but a part of the daytime world. We buy property, we have temples, we do PR, we’d like to build a parking lot for our guests. Still, the folkloric witch remains, so there will always be a liminal uneasiness that comes with our name (even in Salem). Perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing, perhaps that uneasiness reminds us that we are part of something far larger and wilder than we could hope to wholly control. We are modern, respectable, Witches, but perhaps those Halloween crones hold lessons for us still.

On a somewhat related note – this weekend I’m off to FaerieCon East in Baltimore, Maryland, where the Temple of Witchcraft’s own Christopher Penczak will be in attendance giving talks and participating in panels. If you’re in the neighborhood, please drop by and say hi! I’m hoping that maybe I can do a nice interview with Christopher for The Wild Hunt while I’m there.

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As for The Wild Hunt this weekend, not to worry! The rest of our wonderful staff will make sure things keep running while I’m away playing with the faeries, and I may even pop in with an update.