Like Magic, Witchcraft Charms Teenagers

You Are Loved Teenager
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New York Times, February 13, 2000 | By Ruth La Ferla

NEW YORK -- Occupying a place of honor in Emn Haddad-Friedman's bedroom in Brooklyn is a trunk. "Just a box really," Haddad-Friedman said, one that doubles as an altar, providing a perch for such items as a pair of candlesticks, an incense burner, a cast-iron cauldron and, she said wryly, sometimes her cats.

A solitary practitioner of Wicca -- a name for modern witchcraft -- Haddad-Friedman has, in the parlance of the craft, lately "come out of the broom closet." She displays the symbols of her beliefs in full view of friends and family members, who have come to regard them, she said, with mild bemusement.

Haddad-Friedman, a senior honor student at an alternative high school in Manhattan, practices witchcraft as time permits. "My best rituals are spontaneous," she said. "I'm 17, I'll be going to college; I've got a life to live." She never fails, however, to acknowledge a full moon with a skyward glance and a wave.

Falynn Trayer, also 17, is similarly breezy about her witchcraft. "I have no set rituals," she said. Trayer is the daughter of a Wiccan author, who uses the pen name Silver RavenWolf. "If I want a better grade at school, I may ask the god and goddess for their help, burn a candle -- something like that," she said.

She is utterly diligent, however, about wearing her pentacle, the five-pointed star enclosed within a circle that is the symbol of Wicca, displaying it outside her clothes. There was a time, she said, when her icon alarmed classmates and teachers at her high school in south-central Pennsylvania, who thought that they detected about it a faint whiff of sulfur. "They used to look at my pentacle and call me names," Trayer said. "Now, they see it and want to know more." She usually obliges with a brief explanation, but stops short of describing the subtler mysteries of her faith. "Every religion has its secrets," she said.

Trayer and Haddad-Friedman are members of a movement gaining an ardent following among teen-agers, mostly girls, who are in part captivated by the glossy new image of witches portrayed on television shows and in the movies. No longer the hideous, wart-covered crone of folklore and fairy tale, witches in hit television shows like "Charmed," starring Shannen Doherty, and the 1996 movie "The Craft," a favorite with teen-agers at video stores, are avatars of glamour, power and style.

Other youthful adherents of Wicca, seeking an alternative path to spirituality, are attracted by the craft's lack of structure and dogma. Wiccans, as they have been known since Gerald Gardner, an English high Wiccan priest, popularized the faith in the 1950s and '60s, have no codified beliefs or essential texts. Practitioners are unified primarily by their belief in a dual divinity: a god and goddess. They also share a reverence for the natural world, which they see as permeated with powerful energy that may be tapped through rituals or magic for healing or success in work or love.

Generally meeting in covens, which anoint their own priests and priestesses, Wiccans chant and cast or draw circles to invoke their deities, mainly during festivals like Samhain and Yule, which coincide with Halloween and Christmas, and when the moon is full. Few are willing to discuss what they call their faith openly with strangers, for fear of being stigmatized. Fewer still seek converts, perhaps because there is no need. In recent years, this once largely underground practice has come out in the open, its numbers climbing strongly since 1986, when a federal appeals court ruled that Wicca was a legal religion protected by the Constitution.

Estimates of the movement's size in the United States vary from 100,000 to about 1 million, the latter figure cited by Fritz Jung, who with his wife, Wren Walker, created the Witches' Voice, a Web site at Teen-age Wiccans, who tend to worship alone or to meet in small, informal groups, are the hardest to track. While there is no definitive count, 35 percent of the total visitors to the Witches' Voice -- or close to 5,000 of them -- are under 18, said Jung, who tracks their ages. "So Ya Wanna Be a Witch?" the company's Web page for teen-agers, has drawn 175,000 visitors in the last two years, he said.

Judging by the popularity of Web sites aimed at teen-agers (some 320 are listed on Witchvox alone), and by the small army of television producers, movie makers, magazine editors and booksellers now promoting the Wiccan lifestyle, the craft has cast a powerful enchantment on the high-school and college-age population.

"The contemporary witch is the beautiful 25 year old that you see on TV," said Jami Shoemaker, the publicist for Lllewellyn Worldwide, the St. Paul-based publisher of RavenWolf's books "Teen Witch" and "To Ride a Silver Broomstick."

The pert, comely and often sultry Wiccans of recent movies, including "Practical Magic," and of television hits like "Sabrina, the Teen-age Witch," "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" and "Charmed," are cast as slender Circes.

The three fetching Wiccan siblings of "Charmed," broadcast Thursday nights on the WB network, wear skin-baring sweaters and coral-slicked lips as they dispatch demons, exuding a wholesome randiness all the while. Their candid sexuality, played against their otherwise genteel demeanors, has made "Charmed" the No. 2 rated show on the network among viewers 18 to 34. Magazines, too, have heeded the pagan's siren call. A recent issue of Jump, a monthly for teen-age girls, featured a fashion layout on "goddess style" -- an update on hippie exoticism. The magazine refrains from discussing witchcraft directly lest it alienate some readers, said its editor, Lori Berger, but it peppers its pages with features on astrology, herbal cures and color therapy -- witches' stock in trade. "In our reader surveys, those stories just score though the roof," Berger said. "There's a sense of magic that girls get from this that is very empowering."

Booksellers have been particularly enterprising in trading on witchcraft's appeal to the lovelorn: the Borders bookstore on 57th Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan has dedicated no less than 21 feet of shelf space to Magical Studies, including titles like "The Little Book of Love Spells" (Andrews McNeel, 1997) and "Titania's Wishing Spells: Love" (William Morrow, 2000). In the last year, even cosmetics makers have capitalized on Wicca. MAC, a hip small brand, introduced a collection called Earth Goddess, and recently expanded it to include fragrances it calls "potions."

"These products are not about sorcery," maintained Michelle Feeney, MAC's vice president for global communication. But it is hard to miss the witchy message in the advertisements. Asphalt Flower, a pungent oil, is described as "a harmony of dark blossoms, perversely empowered by dense woody notes." More than a cosmetic for the soul, witchcraft is a lodestone for the defiantly unconventional and the would-be hip, who stream into Manhattan shops like Morgana's Closet on West 10th Street, which sells pendulums for divining, tarot cards and moonstone rings; and into Enchanted Childe on Orchard Street, where tightly laced frocks with bell-shaped sleeves recall the singer Stevie Nicks, a favorite of Wiccans, who took to the stage in the 1970s trailing wispy scarves, her face illuminated by a hundred candles. But to focus on Wicca's trappings is perhaps to miss its impact as a faith on sincere seekers. They burn incense, consecrate candles, chant and draw "magick" circles in the air. Simone Magaletta, 21, a junior at New York University and a self-taught aspiring Wiccan, maintains that learning the craft has influenced her profoundly. "It has made me more determined to make something of myself," she said. "And taught me to live in a more positive way."

The craft is "especially appealing to the young people who want to be active participants in their own spiritual lives," said Wren Walker of the Witches' Voice.

Witchcraft is also a magnet for feminists, who identify with its female deity, and for environmentalists drawn by the reverence for nature. It also exerts a pull on the eccentric, the sensitive and the socially disconnected. Wicca "empowers the marginalized," said John K. Simmons, a professor of religious studies at Western Illinois University, who has studied contemporary witchcraft. "It appeals most of all to the intelligent, poetic young woman who is not necessarily going to go out for cheerleader or date the captain of the football team."

Such pursuits hold little charm for a 15-year-old Wiccan in from Roseville, Calif., a town near Sacramento, who is one of many teen-age witches who list their e-mail addresses on the Witches' Voice. Asking to be identified only as Tuesday, her on-line name, she said in an e-mail message: "I still read these childhood favorites, 'The Young Wizard' series by Diane Duane and so many others I can't begin to list them." Her rituals are mostly spontaneous, she added. "I'll draw the blinds up and sleep in the light of the full moon if I can. I also try to pray daily at my altar. I light the big red candle and kneel before I do math and English homework."

Friends sometimes tease her, she went on, humming snatches of "Black Magic Woman" in her presence and asking her to turn their teachers into frogs. She tries to take their taunts in stride and to cope with her mother's disapproval as well. "My mother thinks that this is weird," Tuesday wrote. "Wiccans to her are not to be trusted. She tells me that this is a temporary thing that she and my father must discuss. They're considering not allowing me to practice in our house."

Wicca appeals most to middle-class kids, mostly girls, who live in rural areas and suburbs, said Andres I. Perez y Mena, an assistant professor of anthropology at Long Island University in Brooklyn. "They have few distractions and even less control over their lives, and they practice sorcery to exert power over their existence." But, he added, "Rituals and cauldrons aren't a substitute for social action."

They are, however, potent symbols of rebellion. "The witch stands outside the notion of acceptable behavior; she challenges the power structure, she's dangerous, she's angry," said Phyllis Curott, a lawyer, Wiccan priestess and the author of "The Book of Shadows" (Broadway Books, 1999), in which she describes her discovery of the craft.

Although Wicca portrays itself as a positive creed, it remains the bane of some parents, educators and clergymen, who are concerned or even alarmed by its associations with black magic and demons. Wiccans are not to be confused with the black-cloaked, hardware-festooned Goths and Satanists, other subcultures popular with teen-agers that are obsessed with death and invoke the devil in their rites. Wiccans reject Satan as a fiction devised by man. "There is no black magic or white magic, there is only magic," maintained Lady Armida, a Wiccan priestess, who is the owner of Enchanted Childe.

Ignoring such disclaimers, some school officials have sought to root out the Wiccans in their midst. At Lincoln Park High School in Lincoln Park, Mich., a Detroit suburb, Crystal Seifferly, a 17-year-old honor student, was told not to wear a pentacle. But in a court case decided just over a year ago, the American Civil Liberties Union successfully argued that the school's prohibition violated her First Amendment rights.

When they emerge from the "broom closet," young Wiccans like Haddad-Friedman of Brooklyn, who dresses primarily in black and paints streaks of color in her long, tar-black hair, still draw comments and quizzical looks from teachers and strangers. Recently, a teacher stopped her in the school hallway, Haddad-Friedman recalled, and asked with concern, "Are you all right?" "Some people -- strangers in the street -- even tried to get me to go to counseling," she added.

To some degree, such anxieties are understandable. There is no overlooking witchcraft's charisma for self-styled rebels.

"I was a big metal head, with the chains, the leather jacket, the whole nine yards, and I wanted to become a Satanist," said Chris, 24, who prefers to be identified by his first name only. Leaning on a counter stocked with rainbow-colored incense powders at Enchanted Childe, where he works, he recalled discovering witchcraft instead, while a teen-ager. He calls it an uplifting path to inward transformation, but he frequently hears from people "who are getting into the craft because they want to be feared," he said. "You know -- they imagine people will take one look at their pentacle and rush to get out of the way."


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