A very personal investigation into witchcraft in modern America

In a new book, a disillusioned Catholic finds herself drawn to Paganism, eliciting both praise and controversy

Wicca religion practitioners Rev. Don Lewis (L), Rev. Krystal High-Correll (C), and Rev. Virgina Powell HPS, participate in a Lunar ritual at the Witch School in Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

As many as a million people in the United States identify as witches, according to some estimates, and their ranks are growing. Or, as Alex Mar puts it in her empathetic yet provocative new portrait of the Pagan community, Witches of America, “Witches are gathering … witches and their apprentices and little children and polyamorous collection of boyfriends and girlfriends.”

By the time she got to college, Mar had grown disillusioned with the Catholic system she’d grown up in and was particularly frustrated with the limits the Church imposed on women. But she never lost her fascination with religion, and as a journalist and filmmaker, found herself drawn to fringe religious communities — the more unusual, the more demanding, the better.

For one piece, she lived in a convent in Houston, getting to know women her own age who had promised themselves to Jesus. In her 2010 documentary American Mystic, she profiled a Pagan priestess, a Spiritualist medium and a Native American Sioux family. “I wanted to explore this question of how people find meaning in their lives,” Mar told Women in the World. “I was tired of seeing this country portrayed as purely Christian. I saw this as a chance to push that, to complicate that picture.”

In her latest project and first book, Mar traces the history of modern-day witchcraft, introduces readers to shamans and necromancers, and opens up about her own journey into the occult. Women in the World spoke to Mar about black magic, the place of women in the Pagan community, and why a witch might choose to stay “in the broom closet.”

Women in the World: You’ve written about all kinds of unusual religious communities – why did you hone in on witches for your book?

Alex Mar: Based on just a gut feeling, I really wanted one of the people I included in American Mystic to be a woman who identified as a witch. I barely knew what that meant. Over the course of about six months, I spent time with different Pagan priestesses in different states, in Tennessee and New England and on the West Coast.

I finally met this woman, Morpheus, who’s the same age as me, charismatic, a no-bullshit personality. She has a slightly boring government day job, but in her personal time, she’s a Pagan priestess — an initiate of a very secretive witchcraft tradition. She was living with her husband in northern California, way off the grid, on a hundred acres of really wild property. With a number of other Pagan friends, they dragged these massive stones from all around this property to build their very own henge, for witches from all around the Bay Area to come and practice in this stone circle, under the moonlight, during different holidays. That level of commitment completely bowled me over, because it’s so far away from what I was used to — which is much more of a casual, cultural connection to your religious background.

Once I was done shooting the documentary, I realized that I actually wanted to take part in rituals myself. I wanted to know if there was a chance that I would connect as well. My mother raised me Catholic, but as a liberal and a feminist, and that’s a really incompatible cluster of elements. I was raised with a lot of reverence for the ideas in Catholicism, with a certain amount of awe for the high mass, elaborate ceremonies, the stories of the martyrs. But once I was old enough to think for myself, I had a lot of problems with the Church, and its attitude toward women in particular.

Filmmaker and author Alex Mar wanted to take part in rituals herself. (© Beowulf Sheehan)

WITW: Did you find the Pagan community to be more inclusive of women?

AM: There’s a real open attitude towards sexuality, and there’s a very important sense that women have every right to be priests, to be spiritual leaders in their community. Pretty much all Pagan traditions have in common that nature is sacred, that the universe is driven by forces that are equally male and female, that men and women are equal, that god does not have to be masculine. There are many gods and goddesses. People in the mainstream really associate witchcraft with women, but my observation is it’s about 50-50.

WITW: Was it hard for you to convince people to talk to you? Did they tend to be secretive about their beliefs?

AM: I think now, it’s a lot easier for people to be out about being Pagan, or to call themselves a witch. When I started making the documentary, I would tell friends and colleagues what I was working on, and mention that someone in the film was a witch. People would stutter. They didn’t know what to make of that.

But something has kind of tipped. There’s a different level of awareness. Before the book came out, it was preceded by a few months, at least, of positive arts and culture press about Paganism and fashion and music.

Certainly, it depends where you live, what you do. Everyone who’s a major character in the book is very proud of their practice, but I’ve met people who live in very Christian communities in the South who just want to keep their practice to themselves, or people who work with children, or in the government, who worry that it could affect their job. So some people choose to stay “in the broom closet,” as they call it.

WITW: Are you still in touch with many of the people from the community? The Pagan blogosphere hasn’t been totally positive about the book.

AM: I’m still in touch with most of the people in the book. There’s been a whole range of reactions within the Pagan and occult community. I think that was always bound to happen. There have been books written by Pagans for the Pagan community, but I think it’s another proposition to write about witchcraft today for a mainstream audience.

One of the complaints that I think is the most common in online chatrooms has focused on my own self-doubt and the amount of questioning that I do. But I wanted to be as honest as possible, and as messy as possible, in how I represented my own spiritual questions and searching. There’s a very tried-and-true structure for a successful spiritual memoir: someone has a lot of questions and feels like elements of their personal life are a mess, and they go on a journey and come out the other end transformed. I always knew this was not going to be that book. I don’t believe that things are that clear-cut.

“Witches of America” is Alex Mar’s first book.

WITW: I wanted to ask you about the scene toward the end of the book, when you meet a man you call Jonathan. (Jonathan is a necromancer in New Orleans who says he has disinterred a dozen bodies for use in “black magic.”)

AM: In structuring the book, it felt natural to proceed from this more general, broad-strokes portrait of the community. At first, it’s a bit lighter: different kinds of rituals, my first encounters with the Pagan community. As the book progresses, I’m becoming more involved, the rituals are more intimate. In the later chapters, I wanted to address the question of black magic. Some readers are going to want to know: is there a darker side to witchcraft practice, or is that just a myth? In Pagan practice, there’s a strong ethical code: You should be able to realize whatever your goals and ambitions are, as long as you’re not harming others.

Jonathan works with human remains. He’s consumed by the inevitability of death. He believes that he has a way to make use of death, and to channel the energy of people who have died toward his own ends.

As with any religious movement, there are always going to be individual extremists. I thought it was important to include Jonathan for that reason — he represents the dark fringe that is possible within any kind of religious movement.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Witches of America (Sarah Crichton Books) is out now.

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