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As More Women Embrace Witchcraft, Is Another Satanic Panic Looming?

Three girls standing in dresses with lace collars

I worry that the many years of effort modern witches have spent offering disclaimers about their spiritual practices, ensuring our friends, lovers, neighbors and the mass media that we don’t worship the devil, may have all been for naught.

Perhaps you heard the scuttlebutt about a dubious product on offer from Sephora: a “witchcraft starter kit” that included fragrance oils, tarot cards, a white sage bundle and a quartz crystal. Responding to widespread criticism across social media, mostly from millennial/Gen Z witches who found the box distasteful for a variety of reasons, Sephora and Pinrose (the kit’s creator) decided to cancel the release.

The outrage ran the gamut from ecological concern (white sage is very trendy and there is concern it is being over harvested) to spiritual dismay (with real witches annoyed at the shallow commercialism that co-opts their religion), from consumer activism (why buy a $42 kit from Sephora when so many artisans and small shops sell ritual supplies on Etsy or in brick and mortar shops?) to cultural appropriation (didn’t we learn that using white sage is basically a practice stolen from Native American traditions back in the 1980s New Age days?), and also had a tinge of eye-rolling ennui (this Instagram witchcraft craze is getting out of hand). And of course, there are real problems in the world that real witches could be focusing their magic on, instead of getting incensed about, well, incense.

The current rebirth of witchcraft has made its beliefs and practices more socially acceptable, even desirable, as a facet of one’s feminist identity (and has allowed for its commercialization). Almost twenty years ago, a similar product made it into the marketplace, the “Teen Witch Starter Kit” (created by the author of the book Teen Witch, Silver Ravenwolf, whose earlier book To Ride a Silver Broomstick had been a bestseller among newbie Wiccans in the late 1990s). At that time, the main objection from the witchcraft community was also the product’s crass commercial vibe. However, instead of Instagram-driven enthusiasm, it was met with objection, bordering on insurrection, from the non-witch public.The kit’s being targeted at teens ruffled a lot of feathers, and there was a response from the evangelical Christian community aimed at boycotting the product.

One key reason for the public outrage was that a bonafide Satanic Panic took hold in the United States around this time, mostly driven by the rise of the Moral Majority and the popular notion that secularism was ruining America. The Satanic Panic, which stretched roughly from the mid-1980s through 2000, had all the hallmarks of the witch hunts of Salem Village: hysterical and political in equal measure. The renewed interest in witchcraft appears to have all the ingredients for another Satanic Panic—teenage girls expressing independence, an appreciation for non-Christian ideologies, a slew of occult stories in film and TV, and a right-wing government. Could another Satanic Panic be looming? And this time around, what would it look like?

The occult media that flourished throughout the 1970s almost disappeared in the 1980s, partly due to the growing influence that extreme Christian groups exerted on the media landscape. Instead, the media treatment of occult storylines focused on documentary, not narrative storytelling. Even programing that relied on rumor, hearsay and poor research became associated with news and truth. The primetime specials by Geraldo Rivera (Satan’s Underground and a sequel) were hugely popular, and daytime talk show host Oprah Winfrey also devoted several episodes to the Satanic Panic.

One disturbing outgrowth of the Satanic Panic was the growing belief in the phenomenon of Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA), in which children and adults were physically and sometimes sexually abused in occult ritual contexts. Rumors of SRA were allowed to proliferate due to flawed psychological treatment practices that had become popular but that have since been discredited, such as hypnosis and recovered memory. The descriptions of these crimes were all eerily similar, and all bore a marked resemblance to horror films from the 1960s and 1970s, in particular Rosemary’s Baby. Details like candles, knives, people standing in a circle (either nude or wearing ritual robes), chanting or singing, consumption of wine or blood: all these could be traced to various occult movies or books. Young children who could possibly have seen such media were fed suggestive questions or stories from a therapist or other authority figure, and become convinced they had suffered abuse. One famous, sensational book about one such SRA victim, Michelle Remembers, was instrumental in spreading awareness of SRA, but years later was thoroughly debunked.

The current rebirth of witchcraft has made its beliefs and practices more socially acceptable, even desirable, as a facet of one’s feminist identity (and has allowed for its commercialization). Click To Tweet

In 1985, the FBI convened a task force to instruct law enforcement on investigating occult crimes. In 1987, the notorious McMartin pre-school case in California produced disturbing media stories about children being ritually abused by daycare workers. But overall, there was a hyper-awareness of the behavior of teenagers. Typical teenage behavior such as listening to heavy metal music (which was full of occult imagery), recreational drug use, rebelling against authority, and wearing black clothing were all considered possible signs of occult involvement. This led ultimately to a great many bogus “occult experts” with mail order degrees and virtually no academic or professional training offering their “services” to law enforcement.

After a few years, and many hours of investigation, Kenneth Lanning, the head of the task force, concluded that there was no evidentiary basis for the stories of children being kidnapped for ritual sacrifice by devil worshipping cults. But many people believed these nefarious crimes were real, and widespread, and talk-show media did its best to fan the flames. Criminal cases like the so-called Matomoros Cult Murders in Mexico in 1989 (where an American college student was murdered during spring break), and the 1993 murder of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, said to be orchestrated by a satan-worshipping teenage “ringleader”and his two friends (later to become known as the West Memphis Three) are only two examples of occurrences that allowed fear-mongering talk show media to spread rumors, panic and suspicion.

And in the midst of this maelstrom of rumor and fear, The Craft, a movie about teenage girls whose lives are amplified and emboldened by witchcraft stormed the zeitgeist and led to an explosion of interest in Wicca, not to mention a revival of Goth fashion. The pagan internet was in its infancy but grew quickly once the networking site The Witches’ Voice was introduced in 1997. Silver Ravenwolf’s book Teen Witch came out in 1998 (as did the movie Practical Magic), the Teen Witch Kit in 1999 (as did The Blair Witch Project). Parents were still concerned about their daughters’ interest in witchcraft, but the internet allowed increasingly independent teens to order books and supplies discreetly, and join chatrooms and newsgroups to discuss witchcraft. And then, the first Harry Potter book came out in 1997, with the next three being released a year apart. Even though Evangelical Christian groups raised concerns about the books’ subject matter, and some communities banned and even burned the books, fearing indoctrination into witchcraft, the series became so popular that millions of kids were tossing aside their video games for books. Kids reading for pleasure. So evil.

Of course, if you’ve ever tried to stop a teenage girl from doing something she’s forbidden to do, you know it’s a fool’s errand. As the main consumers of popular media, young people command the marketplace of ideas in undeniably powerful ways. The 1990s wave of girl power witchcraft, however, seems downright quaint next to today’s surge of social media-fuelled witchcraft, pulling celebrity influencers, witchy podcasters and reboots of witchy TV and movies along with it, like bright spots of silk thread caught in a tumbleweed, ribbons in Baba Yaga’s spiky hair.

I’m old enough to recall the witchcraft waves of previous generations: the explosion of neo-pagan witchcraft among young adults in the 1980s, following a mostly woman-led interest in goddess worship and feminist witchcraft. Men entered the movement in droves in the 1980s, and the Dianic covens of the 1970s seemed to dissipate slowly (these days, holding public rituals for “women only” is controversial, to say the least). In graduate school and beyond, I studied the modern occult revival and the first wave of popular-culture fueled witchcraft in America in the 1960s via Great Britain (which was more widespread than earlier waves of occultism after WWI, which also originated in the UK), and, specifically, the teen witchcraft craze of the late 1990s. But more recently, we saw a flurry of teen witches seeking their “Supreme” after watching the decadent, gruesome season of American Horror Story: Coven which debuted on FX in 2013.

Witchy media is on fire right now. The current season of American Horror Story: Apocalypse, features a Coven crossover with most of the original witches returning to do battle with some very well-dressed warlocks (this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a witch war). 2016’s arthouse smash The Love Witch portrays a 1970s-era sexy witch in a modern day setting, who uses spells to seduce men. The remake of Dario Argento’s 1987 cult classic Suspiria is a glossy, bloody, gorgeously-designed tale of a secret witch society within a posh dance academy run by devil-worshipping matriarchs. The reboot of Charmed cast three Latinx actresses in the roles previously played by Shannen Doherty, Alyssa Milano and Holly Marie Combs (the series was itself inspired by The Craft). The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (which premiered October 26 on Netflix), about a sixteen year old girl who is half witch, half mortal, will surely attract more young adherents to witchcraft, which the show portrays as a lifestyle full of romance, social intrigue, evil and ever-present danger. (You know, kind of like living in America right now, minus the romance.) And a new film entitled Satanic Panic, forthcoming from recently-revived horror mag Fangoria’s production company, portrays a Satanic cult that tries to sacrifice a young (and presumably virginal) pizza delivery gal in a not-so-subtle twist on a common gonzo porn trope, and a weird reference to the recent Pizzagate conspiracy.

What all of these current films and shows have in common is a shift towards a kind of “dark” witchcraft, one that does not shy away from linking witchcraft with demons, the occult, or even bold expressions of Satan worship. And while that may be great for box office receipts and streaming services, it’s very likely that the proliferation of portrayals of evil witches will once again lead extreme Christian groups to react in predictable (and perhaps unpredictable) ways. The Pizzagate debacle shows what can happen when unchecked rumor, misogyny and violent extremism are allowed to run wild. There is no doubt that the portrayals of Hillary Clinton as a witch during the presidential campaign (even Bernie Sanders supporters tried to hold a “Bern the Witch” event) helped to foment the crazy rumors of a satanic child sex ring based in the basement of a pizza parlor in Washington, DC. The fact that the building had no basement did not stop a man from entering the business with an assault weapon, seeking, apparently, to rescue kidnapped children and mete out vigilante justice. Recent events bear out the very real threat of violence to people of many ethnic and religious groups, and to journalists, and the domestic terrorism resulting from the self-radicalization taking place among Trump supporters.

It’s very likely that the proliferation of portrayals of evil witches will once again lead extreme Christian groups to react in predictable (and perhaps unpredictable) ways. Click To Tweet

As a long-practicing witch and a scholar who studies media portrayals of witchcraft, I see the current witchy zeitgeist, which often posits witchcraft as an aesthetic, or an interesting approach to self-care, as both helpful and hindering to women’s empowerment right now. I’d love to see a deeper engagement, a better understanding of the history and culture of modern witchcraft, amidst all the witchy fashion, DIY décor, and weekend spellcraft. But even more than that, I worry that the many years of effort modern witches have spent offering disclaimers about their spiritual practices, ensuring our friends, lovers, neighbors and the mass media that we don’t worship the devil, may have all been for naught.

Given the present situation in our country, I feel some trepidation about the current trends towards glamorizing and valorizing any and all things witchy and demonic. It’s not because I don’t absolutely love Suspiria or Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, because I do; it’s because I fear the atmosphere of ignorance, anger, and bigotry that has been emboldened by our president, and the growing number of Americans who see conspiracy theories as facts and journalism as “fake news.” If the imagined world of Harry Potter, with its spellcraft and coming of age angst, could move religious extremists to ban and burn books, what will they have to say about Sabrina’s murder, satanic worship, cannibalism, hot gay sex and infanticide?

As all around us we witness the dismantling of democracy, the proliferation of propaganda, the swell of militia groups, the spread of violent vigilantism, and the unmistakable drumbeat of a burgeoning police state, it’s not all that far-fetched to expect that one day soon some form of mass hysteria might break out. Yeah, I hate that word too: the Greek root hyster means “the womb” and our framing of hysteria presupposes that it’s unique to women. What we once called hysteria has also been called shell shock (a condition affecting men in the first world war), and later known as post-traumatic stress disorder. The symptoms are numerous and vary widely from one individual to the next. It has been suggested by numerous historical scholars that the symptoms displayed by several of the young girls in Salem Village during the time of the witchcraft accusations there were symptoms arising from hysteria. In more recent years, feminist scholars have debated that the hysterical symptoms on display were not signs of witchcraft, or even of witchcraft dabbling, but in fact were signs of trauma, possibly brought on by sexual abuse.

If the imagined world of Harry Potter could move religious extremists to ban and burn books, what will they have to say about Sabrina’s murder, satanic worship, cannibalism, hot gay sex and infanticide? Click To Tweet

No doubt many of us are feeling a little on edge lately. For many months now, in the wake of Trump’s election victory, women across the country have addressed their collective ennui, stress, and rage through increasingly radical forms of self-care, including witchcraft. Okay, in many cases that “witchcraft” was a sort of code for occult-tinged activities like smudging with sage wands, meditating with crystals, reading tarot cards, and setting up personal altars. The recent witchery trend usually stops short of encouraging women to join an actual coven, but popular media has been abuzz with spells and divination. There are determined witches and compatriots of all genders all over the country hexing the president and his sycophants on a monthly basis, drawing on the power of the new moon. Witchcraft as a declaration of identity and power has been a growing cultural wave for several years now.

But the narrative seems to be shifting. The wholesale gaslighting of female survivors, the sight and sound of the POTUS mocking Christine Blasey Ford and calling her accusations a “hoax” perpetrated by Democrats, the characterization of protesters as “an angry mob,” all of this signifies a full-out war on women, perpetrated by people devoid of empathy, logic or even the most basic sense of decorum. Women and people of color were among the targeted Democrats of the “MAGA-Bomber” who tried to make it look like his pipe bombs were all mailed by Debbie Wasserman Schultz: an attempt to make it look like a Jewish woman perpetrated these assassination attempts.  It seems increasingly likely that women who profess any sort of connection to witchcraft or the occult these days (in other words, any woman seeking empowerment) may well find herself the target of right-wing bullies. It seems ridiculous to think that way, but who among us has not felt like we’re losing our grip on sanity lately?

Wicca has as one of its central tenets: “Harm none, and do what ye will.” Despite vaunted claims of power and supernatural ability, witchy women have never been able to escape the gallows, the pyre, or the dunking stools built by men. Our magic is more subtle and secret than that, and it has had to be, for our own protection; whether it means gathering abortifacient herbs by the light of the moon, or crafting profane signs to carry in the streets, or meeting at the crossroads to plan safe houses for vulnerable immigrants. And if the current state of things continues to erode, I think the empowerment many women have sought from witchcraft may take on new, more serious context. We may not be able to sour milk or wither cornfields (or erections) at the wave of our hands: but we have the power of our strident voices, the strength of our hungry bodies, the passion of our weary hearts. Witches know the magic of the change of seasons, the subtle shift in energies of the moon, the ocean, the trees, the radio waves. We seek knowledge to ply our arts, devouring books and podcasts, and we have stamina, fed with righteous anger, our bones bearing centuries of oppressed sisterhoods. We may not be able to control the weather, but we know which way the wind is blowing.