Blair Project Stirs Interest in Wiccans -- Stereotypes Frustrate Locals

The Oklahoman, August 4, 1999
By Jessica Carter

At the AMC Quail Springs theater, more than 1,500 people packed the seats after midnight to catch the first showings of "The Blair Witch Project." Meanwhile, Sabrina, America's favorite teen-age witch, is perched high above sitcoms aimed at younger audiences in the Nielsen TV ratings. And last year's hit movie "Practical Magic," a story of two witchy sisters who cast spells to find love, grossed over $46.6 million at the box office. Judging by the images eminating from Hollywood in recent years, it's now cool to be a witch.

But Wiccans -- the real-life practitioners of magick -- in the metro area say the attention being drawn to their religion isn't entirely good -- and is often completely false.

"We get frustrated by the stereotypes that Hollywood puts on us," said Craig Corbin, a Wiccan who lives in Norman. "We are loving, spiritual people. Hollywood often misconstrues religious genres for the sake of making a buck."

And the films and movies that happen to cast witches in a friendly light are seen by the general public as "too normal" to be real, says Amy Johnston, a 29- year-old Wiccan from Del City.

"That's the perfect way to describe it," Johnston said. "I think people just dismiss the positive (images) as, 'Oh, that's just Hollywood. It can't be real.' I wish a few more people would wonder if it is.

"Even if they could just wonder, at least that would mean their minds are open enough to think about it. As it is, they still think we all worship Satan."

The idea that witches worship the devil is probably the most common misconception about Wicca, says the Rev. Riche Bright, president of the Norman chapter of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS).

"There's such a stigma attached to (Wicca) because in Oklahoma 'witch' tends to equal 'Satanist'," Bright said.

But, Bright says, the perception of witches as satanic or devil-worshipping doesn't even make sense, given that they don't even believe in a devil. Wicca is like most other nature-based religions in that its group of devotees is as complex as its practices. But despite the many twisting, gnarled branches of the religion that have sprouted over centuries, Johnston says some basic beliefs unite all Wiccans at its core.

"It's nature-based and follows the seasons. We believe in the god and goddess rather than just one God. We believe there's good and evil in everybody and everything," she says. "But I think we all tend to do something different with our rituals."

There are two universal rules to which true Wiccans ascribe. The first, known as the Witches' Rede, is simple, but essential: "And it harm none, do as ye will."

Much like the golden rule in Christianity, Wiccans believe that people should be kind to themselves and each other. Wicca also teaches that people should enjoy their time on earth to the fullest and relish in the opportunities nature offers.

"Rather than a separation of life and spirit, it's a life- affirming religion," says Laura Smith, a Wiccan priestess who lives in Norman. "Birth is natural and beautiful, sex is natural and sacred." "It celebrates life. It considers life in the flesh as a great blessing," agrees her husband, Tony. "They believe that this (life on earth) is the place that really counts."

The second principle, known as the Three-Fold Law, states that whatever energy -- good or bad -- a person sends out will come back to them times three.

"We believe that if you're bad, bad things will happen to you," Tony Smith says. "But that's just a common sense approach to human relations." Johnston says the laws also stipulate that energy a witch sends out for someone without their permission -- even if it's positive energy -- will come back in a negative way.

She says that when she found out her mother had ovarian cancer, she and her husband each cast a healing spell on her mother without asking first. Within a week, Johnston says, both she and her husband had lost their jobs. "And when you lose your jobs it brings on all kinds of other bad things," she said. "Later we found out she would've been more than happy to say yes." After this point, Wicca becomes more intricate. Wiccans can study alone as solitaires or in groups called covens. They can perform rituals or simply communicate with a goddess through meditation. They can perform "magick" or refrain from those practices.

While Wicca grants witches freedom because of its fluid, dynamic nature, with these variations and differences also comes the potential for misunderstanding among non-practitioners. "We're the same as everybody else," says Dennis Berry, 25, of Edmond. "We may not have the same religious views as other people, but we're not evil." Bright says the most common link between witches and Satanists is the symbolic pentacle, a five-point star that points up, that some Wiccans wear. The pentacle represents the four elements -- earth, air, fire and water -- in addition to the all- encompassing spirit each person possesses. The circle that rings the star represents the sacred space in which Wiccans worship.

"It's like wearing a cross to us," Laura Smith says. She adds that Wiccan pentacles are easy to distinguish from satanic pentagrams because Wiccans point up and Satanists point down.

Laura and Tony Smith co-founded the Norman chapter of CUUPS, a national group designed to unite pagans and educate people about earth-centered spirituality. The group is based at Norman's Unitarian- Universalist Fellowship, 1309 W Boyd. Laura, who has been studying Wicca since 1983, says they started the group to meet and network with other pagans in the area. They say the group has grown rapidly since its inception in 1990. "Instead of having to hide in the broom closet, these (meetings) were out in the open and in public," she says. "People started coming and it grew. It has thrived."

Bright says CUUPS is open to anyone whose interested in paganism and Wicca in particular. He says they encourage families to attend and even have a babysitter to watch the children who are too young to participate.

"It's a very open, family-oriented thing," he says. "There's nothing that goes on here that isn't appropriate for children." The rituals are often perceived to be shrouded in darkness and mystery. But, says CUUPS member Robyn Lydick, the ceremonies and holiday festivities are just a chance for pagans to worship in a nurturing environment.

"There's no smoke and mirrors in this at all. These are people united in thought," she says. "There's so much acceptance, and there's a lot of support."

Amy Johnston and her husband, William, have begun to involve their daughters, ages 8 and 7, in their rituals to help acclimate them to the religion.

"Our children are just getting old enough to where they understand our religion," she says. "It helps us to be a little more open with them to keep them from being prejudiced against any religion or nationality." And to give their kids equal opportunity to explore Christian traditions, Johnston says the family spends Christmas and Easter with her in- laws. The children sometimes attend a Christian daycare program in their apartment complex.

"We're trying to let our kids see we don't think our way is the only way," she says. "We want to be able to tell if (Wicca is) what they want to do or if they're doing it because we want them to."

The girls say they like having both traditions in their family.

"I have Yule and Christmas. We get more presents," Jessica, 7, says. "We have a lot of presents and stuff. I just feel like I'm a regular person," says Rebecca, 8.

Johnston says that while she's mostly open about her religion, she's sometimes concerned about the way people will react to her children when they find out she's a witch.

She says she knows people who have lost jobs or been persecuted in other ways because of their beliefs. Like most Wiccans, Johnston feels that downplaying her beliefs is sometimes the only way to avoid the problems that her opinion can cause.

"I just wish (opponents) could take some time to get to know people," she says. "A mind's like a parachute -- it only functions when open."


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