Caught up in the craft

Bergen Record/May 13, 1999
By David Gibson

It used to be that when girls watched "The Wizard of Oz," they wanted to be Dorothy. Now they want to be the witch.

But in a turn that may surprise many parents, they're not imitating bent crones such as Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West. And Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, with her froufrou get-up and trilling good cheer, would never cut ice with these kids.

Instead, their role models are more likely to be the spellbinding Nineties versions: silky actresses Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock, stars of the latest cinematic witch caper, "Practical Magic," or Alyssa Milano and Melissa Joan Hart, headliners of the hot TV sitcoms "Charmed" and "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch."

The Salem witch trials are ancient history. The hags of "Macbeth" are a caricature. Even perky Samantha Stephens and her wiggly nose are passe. Witchcraft, or, more properly, Wicca, is out of the broom closet and capturing the imagination of teenage girls.

"It's not a fad. It's a social movement," said Phyllis Curott, a 44-year-old Manhattanite and nationally known high priestess of Wicca. An Ivy League-educated lawyer, Curott is a lecturer and author whose 1998 memoir of her journey to Wicca, "Book of Shadows," is already in its fifth printing.

Other omens of Wicca's popularity among girls abound. Sales of witchcraft books and paraphernalia have skyrocketed. Llewellyn International, a St. Paul-based publishing house that specializes in titles on topics such as astrology and neo-paganism, has seen sales of a book called "Teen Witch" take flight.

"In places where witchcraft had not been hot, suddenly it's hot," said Von Braschler, Llewellyn's director of trade sales. The chief market for the book, which may sell 125,000 copies by year's end, are 12- to 15-year-old girls, he said. "They found us. We didn't go looking for them."

In fact, a poll of the top 60 interests of teenage girls showed witchcraft at No. 1. ABC's "Sabrina" is the second-rated show on television among youngsters 12 to 17, with young girls making up the bulk of the audience.

The teen witch craze really took off with the 1996 release of "The Craft," about a group of teens who engage in hexes and high jinks at school. That lured Hollywood into fast-tracking remakes of both "Bell, Book, and Candle" and "I Married a Witch," the latter starring Tom Cruise and his real-life wife, Kidman, who will reprise her witch gig.

Perhaps the proof positive that Wicca has come of age: a growing genre of jokes. (An old favorite in Wicca circles: "How many witches does it take to change a light bulb?" Answer: "It depends what you want to change it into.")

For all of this mainstreaming, however, girls who follow Wicca can face tough times.

Last year in Lincoln Park, Mich., school officials ordered a 17-year-old honor student and self-proclaimed witch to stop wearing her five-pointed pentagram. They said the symbol, whose points represent the spirit and the elements -- earth, air, fire, and water -- violated a policy against wearing gang symbols. The student went to court and in March forced the district to recognize the symbol as a religious one, akin to a cross or a Star of David.

Similarly, when Melissa Reedy, a quiet, intelligent 16-year-old with short red hair and a pentagram ring, moved to North Jersey last year from Virginia, she was happy to be out of the Bible Belt and its frowning attitudes toward the witchcraft that she adopted three years ago. But Reedy remained cautious.

For example, she said, in her art class at Butler High School, the teacher kindly but firmly prohibited her from making a ceramic pentagram, also known as a pentacle, even though another student was making a crucifix.

Reedy smiled when she recounted how she got around the prohibition by surreptitiously fashioning two ceramic pieces that make a pentagram when put together. The symbol now sits on a dresser-top altar in her bedroom, which is cluttered with books on witchcraft as well as stuffed animals such as Tigger.

"I don't really tell anyone except close friends," said Reedy, whose mother has been a practicing witch for six years. "If anyone else knew, they could use it against me."

Apart from the social stigma, Wicca practitioners say the churches remain their biggest foes.

When 17-year-old Cassie Bernall was gunned down in Littleton, Colo., last month, many of her evangelical Christian friends thought her tragedy all the more poignant because two years earlier she had been dabbling in witchcraft. There was a sense that hers was a providential turn away from "the dark side of things," as one church friend put it.

But practitioners of the Craft, as it is called, say nothing could be further from the truth. The animus toward witches, they say, is the result of age-old stereotypes perpetrated by Christianity and propagated by the media.

Wicca, they say, is an ancient, earth-based religion, one of the neo-pagan religions based on the natural cycles of life. ("What's the best thing about having Wicca friends?" Answer: "They worship the ground you walk on.")

Witches celebrate the solstices, including the Yule on Dec. 21, and the Wicca New Year of Samhain (pronounced "Sow-en,") is observed on Halloween.

In truth, contemporary witchcraft is an amalgam of many pre-Christian practices, a modern-day reinterpretation of older myths, beliefs, and rituals that today takes many different forms.

There are Dianic witches, ultra-feminists who worship the goddess Diana; Alexandrian witches, who follow Norse and Egyptian gods; Druid-loving Celtic witches; and Gardnerian witches, followers of the teachings of Gerald Gardner, who helped repopularize Wicca in the 1950s. (Gardnerians are distinguished by their "sky-clad" rituals -- practiced in the buff.)

But all mainstream witches share certain basic beliefs. One is the Rede, the Wicca version of the Golden Rule, which says "Do What Thou Wilt An' Harm None." And there is the Three-Fold Law, which holds that any evil you do comes back to you three times over. Casting spells or hexes to make people do things against their will is wrong, and witches do not worship the Devil.

"Wicca has nothing to do with Satanism," said Sandi Liss, owner of Soul Journey, a Butler bookstore that does a brisk business in witch-related items. "There is no black magic." Liss said the good thing about the many shows and movies, silly as they seem to many older witches, is that people "see Wicca is good.

These are good witches doing good deeds."

How many witches are out there is hard to say. Witches put the figure at 3 million to 5 million; experts say the figure is closer to 400,000. Whatever the number, Wicca is probably one of the fastest-growing spiritual practices in the United States, with young girls leading the wave, for many reasons.

One is the exaltation of women, as opposed to the patriarchal orientation many feminists see in traditional religions.

"These young women see very quickly that behind the mask of the hideous hag is actually the beautiful face of the goddess," Curott said. "When a young woman looks into the mirror and sees the face of the goddess, it is very empowering, very liberating. That's it in a nutshell."

Although estimates say that up to 40 percent of witches are men -- warlocks are a fabrication of popular culture -- the focus of Wicca remains on women.

Moreover, Wicca is decentralized and not hierarchical. Covens abound, but most witches are considered "solo practitioners," who observe in private.

"Wicca is very eclectic," said Jaime Anderson, a bright-faced 15-year-old Butler High School junior who wears black clothes and a pentagram around her neck along with braces on her teeth. "You can really incorporate yourself into the religion. You don't have to follow a lot of rules. You basically do what you feel is right."

Anderson, a follower of Celtic Wicca, often says a prayer to the god and goddess, asking to bring love into her life, and for good health.

For many girls, witchcraft is alluring simply as a way to get attention or to be rebellious.

But whether for good reasons or bad, if a daughter does get into witchcraft, practitioners and child psychologists say it is better for the parents to be open with the child rather than harsh and critical. A negative attitude would only drive her underground, perhaps to the type of unscrupulous practitioners who can be found in any religion, but especially in a tradition like Wicca, which has little in the way of organization or oversight.

"It's a field people should be very cautious about," said Jean Munzer of Oakland, director of the Metaphysical Center of New Jersey, a non-profit organization that educates people about psychic phenomena and alternative spiritual traditions. "You should ask a lot of questions about what a group does before you join. Look at the people -- are they socially active, concerned about the earth?"

Clearly, Wicca may be nothing more than a passing fancy for many of the girls now caught up in adolescence. If girls are just looking to cast a spell on the cute boy in class, they will not only be disappointed in the results; they also won't be engaging the Craft in any profound way, experts say.

"The kids have to know that they can't believe just what the media tells them about the Craft," said Ellie, a North Jersey witch who leads Wicca study groups and asked that her last name not be used. "We have our rules and regulations." She gave a chuckle. "Actually, it could be very boring for them once they find out what it really entails."

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